Shangri-La of legend, novel and classic film is a real place, the Kathmandu Valley in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. This tiny country next to Tibet is home to Mount Everest and much more. From arts and handicrafts tours to trekking and mountaineering, the Himalayan kingdom has something for every traveler.
All Nepal adventures start with the flight into Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu. Spectacular mountain views give way to green, terraced hillsides and small villages of thatched homes as the plane makes it’s rapid descent. Immigration and customs clearance are easy for tourists; visas are issued automatically on arrival for $30.
Expeditions and tours start from Kathmandu, so you’ll need a base and a chance to recover from the long flight. The Yak and Yeti hotel, next to the Royal Palace, is close to shopping and the old city. If the Yak and Yeti’s $200 rates leave you wooly-headed, there are many options, from $2 per night guest houses to comfortable hotels for less than $100. Even if you don’t stay at the Yak and Yeti, stop for an exotic drink in their lovely garden or a roll of the dice at the Casino Royale. The Raj lives on too at high tea every afternoon in the lobby.
Walk into the old city of Kathmandu along a street that was the ancient trade route from India to Tibet. The city grew up around traders’ stalls lining that route, and the market is still in full swing. Fruit, flowers, spices, medicines, metal wares, silk and pashmina, incense, jewelry and more – the 2,000 year old bazaar churns with activity.
The bazaar opens into a complex of palace buildings, enormous temples, and interconnected open plazas. The old Palace Square rivals the best Venice can offer for elegance of design, baroque complexity, and majesty. But here the materials are simple brick and plaster, with elaborately carved wood. Every exposed wooden surface is carved with animals both mythical and real, flowers, religious symbols and gods and goddesses.
The house of the Kumari, Nepal’s virgin goddess, faces the palace. A small girl is chosen by elaborate rituals, and Nepalis believe the king’s personal goddess enters into the girl. From then until she reaches puberty she is treated as a deity. Each fall she confers on the king the right to rule for another year. In 1955 the then-Kumari dozed off during the ceremony, then blessed the crown prince by mistake when she awoke. Later that year the king died and the crown prince ascended to the throne.
North of the Palace Square, 15 minutes walk or a one-dollar rickshaw ride away, is Thamel, the trekkers and tourist neighborhood. Thamel resembles Harvard Square or The Haight, but on a dizzyingly vast scale. There are literally thousands of small shops selling handicrafts, clothing, expedition gear, music and much more. Mixed among the shops are hundreds of restaurants catering to every taste from Korean to Kosher, and scores of budget hotels and guesthouses. Darbar Marg, two blocks west is Kathmandu’s High Street, a neighborhood of expensive, classy shops and hotels, including the Yak and Yeti.
In medieval times there were three great cities in the Kathmandu Valley. One of them, Bhaktapur, was mercifully spared from being “developed”. It is a few miles from Kathmandu, but centuries away. Bhaktapur moves to the same rhythm it has for a thousand years. The craftsmen and farmers you will meet are doing as their families have for dozens of generations. In Bhaktapur the festivals and traditions are so old that people say the gods created them.
Pashupatinath temple complex is the holy-of-holies to Nepal’s Hindus, and the destination for many Indian pilgrims. The dead are cremated here, and their ashes are cast into the holy river. Here too pilgrims cleanse their sins by bathing in the same river. The central shrine, off-limits to those who are not Hindu, has a spectacular temple with a giant golden bull kneeling in worship. The riverbanks and surrounding hills are littered with sculptures rivaling any museum’s Asian art gallery.
Most visitors head out of Kathmandu for other adventures. Jungle safaris from two to four days feature elephant-back expeditions to watch wildlife, and jungle walks with naturalists. Accommodations are rustic but pleasant, with attached baths, all meals and a well-stocked bar. Older children are welcome for all activities, and one lodge has a separate facility for families with younger children, with a pool, ponies, and special activities.
Nepal is the most vertical country in the world, and the whitewater rafting is superb. There are one and two day trips and longer expeditions. Rafting companies provide all equipment and training, and professional guides. You can combine a short rafting trip with mountain biking, a bungy jump, or the new sport of canyonning, a combination of rock climbing and tubing through river gorges and pools.
Today even an armchair lover of the mountains can see them up close. Every morning the Mountain Flight takes people up for an hour of Mount Everest and the entire central Himalaya from 17,000 feet. For many it is the highlight of their trip.
Trekkers visit Nepal’s countryside, a timeless world where the rhythms of life and of walking bring peace. There are dozens of routes, and programs to fit anything from a couple of days to several weeks. Trekking agencies will arrange your trek in advance; most offer group programs, but the better outfitters can make individual arrangements, even for one or two people. Trekking costs vary from $40 per day to more than $100 per day.
For those brave few who climb mountains, the Himalayas are the ultimate. But even beginners can climb a “small” 20,000 foot peak here. The great mountains are a different matter. Even though purists now scoff at the “tourist trail” to the top of Everest, it is still difficult, dangerous and all too often deadly. But with eight of the ten highest mountains in Nepal – and hundreds of peaks taller than the Rockies – there is no shortage of alternatives.
Visitors to Nepal should make arrangements in advance with a good agency, either international or Nepali, and stay informed. The US Government Department of State has information sheets for all countries, and many Nepali newspapers are available on the internet.
Kathmandu’s temperature is mild, 35-60 degrees in Winter, 60-85 degrees during the long Summer. Short-term visitors need to pack only the essentials and clothing appropriate to the season. Trekkers will need warmer clothing; it is always cold at high altitudes. All clothing and supplies are available in Kathmandu.
Nepal’s culture, history and the world’s greatest mountains are amazing and one of the best tourism values on the planet. And Nepal’s warm, hospitable people truly make it Shangri-La, the timeless land of tranquility, wisdom, and peace.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.