Escaping To Kathmandu, Nepal
And it seemed like we were making such good progress...
Two hours of assorted paths and part-made roads with panoramic scenery our backdrop, the cable car had vanished from view.
A brief ‘conversation’ attempted with a passing local, along with a lot of pointing, the decision was made: return the way we had just come. And that meant up a couple of thousand feet back to the summit of Chandragiri Hills.
This attraction on the edge of Kathmandu valley is stunning. But while the cable car ride to the top charges robust western prices, they failed to invest in signage ensuring walkers take the right route to the bottom of what is more mountain than hills.
Hearts seemingly busting out of chests thanks to altitude and effort, we made it back to the viewing level as haze cleared to reveal the full extent of the city spread below, although not quite enough to yield the outline of the region’s most famous peak – Everest.
Minutes later, the ride down revealed the correct, if testing, descent path that follows the cables.
Lungs still relishing clean mountain air, it wasn’t long before our driver had us back in the thick of the capital’s traffic.
Erratic, noisy, gritty, the streets are a barely shifting collage of people, machines, cows and dogs somehow getting along with little supervision.
A TOUCH OF CLASS
Thankfully, there’s respite from this barely shifting urban lava. Set back from a major route – and just 20 minutes from the airport – Hotel Shanker is a striking contrast to the apparent mayhem beyond its boundary.
Majestic white pillars front a neo-classical 19th-century facade that recounts a long bygone era when the property was a palace to Nepal’s rulers.
Up wide steps and past a uniformed doorman, this old world charm persists in a beautifully restored lobby featuring more pillars, plush furniture, crystal chandeliers and eye-catching objects.
At one end, an intricately carved wooden door accesses a snug watering hole with a variety of refreshments and a quaint feel consolidated by 200-year-old carved windows.
While further restoration is underway in other parts of the hotel – Nepal’s first four-star property on opening in 1964 – you rarely hear it.
It noticeably warrants TLC in places, but elsewhere, historic aspects draw attention, such as the function room and adjacent restaurant where a varied breakfast is served.
Entry is via the hotel’s Cosy Kailash restaurant, which boasts a multi-cuisine menu and an intimate setting.
Some of these features extend to selected rooms, notably suites. While our standard room was more practical and comfortable than indicative of the noble nature of the building’s exterior, some boast ornate ceilings hinting at regal past inhabitants.
Hotel Shanker sits a 15-minute walk from the Thamel district; a teeming, hectic, at times ramshackle, tourist-thronged area where much of the nightlife unfolds.
By day it bristles with traders offering everything from carved wooden masks to convincing copies of branded rucksacks and outdoor wear for those aspiring Base Camp or less ambitious hikes and climbs.
SOME LOCAL FLAVOUR
At night, a myriad of bars and restaurants offer good value eats and western-priced adult refreshments, some smoke-clogged dens of YouTube dance tracks and dusty neon, others – such as New Orleans Cafe an historic courtyard with chilled music and authentic Nepalese dishes, belying its name.
Chanced upon crumbling streets and buildings are reminders of the earthquake that devastated parts of this economically challenged state just three years ago.
At Manang restaurant, traditional Gandharba musicians play music for cash and CD sales to fund education and accommodation in their still recovering villages; 150km from Kathmandu, at what was the epicentre.
Trips out of the city reveal recovery efforts first hand, broken communities still undoing consequences of nature’s colossal tantrum, such as the historic town of Bungamati.
Following online traveller recommendations, we booked four trips in the Kathmandu valley for just Dh450 (for two people) with Thamel travel agents Rainbow Mountain Treks.
This included major historic areas, such as Boudhanath with its picturesque shops and restaurants surrounding a huge, revered stupa – a significant place of Buddhist pilgrimage.
Other UNESCO heritage sites include bustling Patan, Nepal’s attractive third city, rightly referred to by some locals as Lalitpur, or City of Beauty. It is home to Durbar Square, a spectacular area even as it undergoes earthquake repairs.
The same applies to even larger cultural enclave Bhaktapur, meaning ‘place of devotees’. Stunning ornate buildings and temple structures are surprisingly open to clambering teenagers in this ancient Newa city filled with Buddhist and Hindu art.
THE PATHS TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Tight, steep roads lead to the Tibetan Kopan monastery, near Budhanilkantha, and stunning, peaceful views.
Pashupatinath Temple, meanwhile, isn’t for the faint-hearted. A sacred Hindu complex on the banks of the Bagmati River, it operates 24-hour outdoor cremations accompanied by scenes of genuine grief.
With a hefty entry charge for foreigners, you may wish to reconsider should you censor your visit and, instead, climb the many steps to Swayambhunath Stupa, aka the Monkey Temple – because of its mischievous residents.
It proved good preparation for our final day highlight – a 30km walk with affable Rainbow employee Hari. Following a 4am hotel pick-up, he guided us from sunrise at the questionably named Nagakot Paradise Hotel through rural communities with incredible vistas at every other turn.
Life here is basic and harsh, many faces etched by circumstance, yet somehow idyllic compared with the dystopian road 'etiquette' acting out on the craggy tarmac of the city below.
Back within the pleasant garden of Hotel Shanker, the rural simplicity and the rush hour cacophony that followed are swiftly put into context.
Extending out front of the property, the pretty area provides a buffer from the fidgeting urban canvas, and an attractive pool area offers an opportunity to lane swim, unwind and review your photos and Fitbit footfall.
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