Want to go to Nepal? Here, we discover Kathmandu’s great escape
On the outskirts of Nepal’s Kathmandu, forested ridges rise in sweeping arcs, wrapping protective arms around Nepal’s enduring historical centre. Carved with verdant rice terraces and studded with ancient gilded stupas and thriving monasteries, they elevate mountain dreamers to grand Himalayan viewpoints and promise respite far from the riot and chaos of the city.
After too long submerged in Kathmandu’s intoxicating mayhem, I head for the hills, escaping for a weekend of bliss at Shivapuri Heights Cottage just 12km out of the city. Soothed by home-cooked food and rejuvenated by good conversation and long walks, I teeter at dusk on the valley’s rim, shadowed by monsoon clouds that cling to the peaks of Shivapuri National Park at my back, gazing spellbound at the city’s luminous nightscape where street and starlight fuse in one dazzling, shimmering vista.
Transfixed, I make a plan. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, kindled by an oversized glass of Indian Chenin Blanc and the heady scent of Ayurvedic massage oil that lingers on my skin. Sticking to foot trails and forested tracks as much as I can, I join the dots, linking the Kathmandu Valley’s most beguiling sacred sites and old walled cities, its high-altitude villages and little-visited temples.
A thief has already tried to pickpocket our mobile phone (and failed) and now, standing by a shop with bottles of chilled drinking water, a monkey drops onto my head.
While the city sleeps, I dream, and at first light the adventure begins. It’s a family affair when we set out early for Swayambhunath Stupa, our little trio plus my sister, strolling hand-in-hand, immersed in Kathmandu’s waking rituals. Ahead of us, fluttering on a distant hilltop, prayer flags stream from a golden spire and Buddha’s all-seeing eyes beckon us onwards up tremendous staircases to the top of the city’s favourite temple.
We are sweating and panting in the stifling monsoonal heat by the time we join the daily procession of locals completing their koras, spinning prayer wheels and circling the stupa in slow anticlockwise loops. A thief has already tried to pickpocket our mobile phone (and failed) and now, standing by a shop with bottles of chilled drinking water, a monkey drops onto my head, creating panic (I didn’t fork out for rabies shots) and hilarity (my sister has fallen off her chair with laughter) in equal measure.
I should have anticipated this moment: it’s not nicknamed the Monkey Temple for nothing! Eventually we leave the rhesus macaques to terrorise some other tourists and plunge back into a sea of hawkers, our eyes set on another, more remote adventure. Shouldering our backpacks, we negotiate a ride to the very outskirts of Kathmandu, bouncing and bumping along dusty, potholed tracks until we reach Sankhu where we continue on foot.
Swinging our five-year-old between us over wet-season puddles, we chat and sing our way uphill towards Nagarkot, a lofty hill station with a reputation for the best Himalayan views in the Kathmandu Valley. The mountains are reputedly so close that you can see them from your bed — and that’s all the motivation we need.
Four hours and four packets of sugary Nepali biscuits later, we reach Nagarkot and set out in search of a room big enough (and clean enough) to house three adults and a now far less bouncy child.
But our timing is out: in the midst of the monsoon season when just about every hotel closes its doors through lack of interest, the available rooms are musty and uncared for and we wander from door to door in search of hot water and a cook with enough food on hand to sate our vegetarian tastebuds.
When we finally get lucky, we downsize our expectations and do our best to overlook the dubious smell wafting from our saggy beds and that we have to shower by candlelight (in the room next door), but mostly that the hotel boy keeps sniggering at my sister and me because, in Nepali culture, we are the two white “wives”. We take our woes to the terrace to find that our uncrushable photographer Dave has tracked down some chilly Gorkha beers and turn our faces towards the sun to watch it slip slowly through the clouds at our feet.
Our gruelling, mould-scented night ends in spectacular style at dawn when we climb to Mahakali Temple to watch the clouds lift on a snowy Himalayan vista stretching from the Annapurnas to Everest: past Machapuchare and Manaslu (8156m), revealing oh-so-close Ganesh Himal (7406m) and Langtang Lirung (7246m), and turning our heads east to the tip of Mount Everest’s 8848-metre-high, snow-capped summit.
With some local help, we name every peak in what is quite simply the most perfect mountain panorama I’ve ever laid eyes upon. By the time our rumbling tummies send us rambling back down the hill for breakfast, we are positively beaming and our embarrassingly huge spread of pancakes and chapattis and just-brewed coffee kickstarts one of our best days in Nepal.
Trails & trials
The mountain high endures as we bound downhill through Nagarkot’s skinny, ridgetop settlement and its melange of rise-and-shine rituals. To get a head start on the day, we jump aboard a surprisingly empty bus to nearby Telkot but, by the time the horn blows, bodies and luggage are piled together in a difficult-to-bear, sweaty crush. Halfway down the mountain we escape, pushing against a surge of bodies intent on claiming our now vacant seats.
Above this tiny five-shop settlement, we climb the foot trail through Telkot Forest and traverse a skinny ridge all the way to Changu Narayan. The views through the pine forest are breathtaking and this quiet, sunny walk is effortless.
My too-polite sister simply can’t make any headway so we grab her backpack and, as the bus threatens to pull away, yank her out the door. Not for the first time on this trip, she is laughing hysterically. Above this tiny five-shop settlement, we climb the foot trail through Telkot Forest and traverse a skinny ridge all the way to Changu Narayan. The views through the pine forest are breathtaking and this quiet, sunny walk is effortless.
Only Changu Narayan impresses us more: the oldest living Hindu temple in the Kathmandu Valley and surely its most picturesque UNESCO site. Climbing long stone staircases through the town, we are thrilled to discover that monuments toppled by 2015’s catastrophic earthquake have been painstakingly restored and artefacts rescued; a band of thankful tourists has returned. A local noodle shop owner conjures up big bowls of vegetable noodle soup to order and, restored, we jump on a bus to Bhaktapur to end the day in more medieval surrounds.
One night in Bhaktapur
In Kathmandu on the morning of April 25, 2015, a violent earthquake shattered the city. It killed more than 8500 people and levelled homes and historic sites, triggering landslides and avalanches as far away as Everest Base Camp and rendering thousands upon thousands of Nepali people homeless. The aftermath was dire as the aftershocks hindered recovery efforts and terrorised survivors for weeks.
The town of Gorkha, to Kathmandu’s northwest, bore the brunt of the shocks that rippled across the valley, toppling a random collection of sites while leaving others miraculously unharmed. In Bhaktapur, a revered UNESCO site and the most atmospheric of the Kathmandu Valley’s three ancient kingdoms, the earthquake killed hundreds, brought entire streets of irreplaceable traditional homes to the ground and shook some of the city’s ancient temples to breaking point.
The earthquake grounded Nepal’s tourism sector, too, and incomes and jobs evaporated overnight. By the time we visit Nepal 16 months on, an influx of aid dollars has fast-tracked repairs and Bhaktapur is bustling once again, packed with tour groups and travellers and freelance guides intent on leading us through Bhaktapur’s baffling maze of 15th-century temples, stupas and palaces. We consult our guidebooks and phone apps instead, sipping mugs of Himalayan-grown coffee as we search for the best route around the city. Orienting ourselves proves more difficult than we thought, so we ditch the maps and wing it.
Climbing long stone staircases through the town, we are thrilled to discover that monuments toppled by 2015’s catastrophic earthquake have been painstakingly restored, artefacts rescued and that a band of thankful tourists have returned.
It turns out to be the best decision of the day. We let our eyes guide us instead, peering into tiny, hidden courtyards where women fill big clay jugs from a communal well and following locals up Nepal’s tallest temple for a grand viewpoint of the city’s sunniest square. Cooling our tastebuds on frozen sticks of delicious, creamy curd and crispy donuts, we wander past handcrafted clay pots drying en masse in the sun and feed hungry carp in a 17th-century water pond.
Much to our surprise, we find our way to the famous 600-year-old Peacock Window that adorns an old Hindu priest house and rates as the Kathmandu Valley’s finest. We take in Bhaktapur with eyes wide open and, though there is much that we miss, our guidebook-free discoveries are our own and by day’s end we are finally ready to return to Kathmandu.
With one day to spare before our paths diverge, we hit the markets around Kathmandu’s Asan Temple, where just about everything from fresh spices and saris to jewellery and knock-off designer jeans are sold at bargained-down prices. We snap up backpacks and trekking gear, Tibetan prayer flags and incense, and join the locals standing shoulder to shoulder with cups of drinking yoghurt and spicy masala tea.
Bodhnath — Asia’s largest stupa and one of the most welcoming, culturally accessible sites in all of Nepal — awaits as the day winds down. The heart and soul of Nepal’s Tibetan community and the place where so many pilgrimages end, this is hands down my favourite place in Kathmandu, a place not to observe life but to join in, completing koras and spinning prayer wheels and lighting butter lamps and incense for safe travels and sheer thanks.
We take in Bhaktapur with eyes wide open and, though there is much that we miss, our guidebook-free discoveries are our own.
On our visit, post-earthquake scaffolding shrouds the upper reaches of Bodhnath’s immense white-washed dome, but its construction guise fails to hamper the site’s powerful spiritual force. As my young daughter and I sit in quiet prayer in Guru Lhakhang Gompa, a group of beaming monks beckons us to join in their sideline fun. Amid much laughter, one monk is road-testing the monastery’s collection of hundred-year-old Tibetan horns for an upcoming festival. The awkward, windy belching has everyone in stitches and there is plenty of teasing as a succession of monks try their luck.
Eventually one conjures a smooth, booming sound that mesmerises us and sends the monks into rapturous cheers. They tell us about the festival and ask my daughter about her adventures before returning to their work, carving butter candles that will be ceremoniously lit and left to melt. The message is that nothing lasts, but this memory lingers with me still.
Within months of our visit, when its recovery is completed, a fresh set of Buddha eyes stares out over the Kathmandu Valley, watching and waiting for its pilgrims to return. Like so many who end their journeys here, we linger, too, soothed by a collective energy that feels good at every level, and captivated by the sense of calm that exists in this bustling, chaotic and welcoming place.
Air Asia flies from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and the Gold Coast to Kathmandu (via Kuala Lumpur).
When to go
The mild, dry months from February to May and September to November are the best times to visit and trek in Nepal.
Where to stay
A perfect fusion of luxury hotel and authentic homestay, Shivapuri Heights Cottage provides fully inclusive stays in decadent suites and private cottages from AUD$150–450 per night with Ayurvedic spa treatments, yoga, cooking classes and guided walks on offer as well.
- Deepawali, the Festival of Lights in October, when the goddess of wealth visits Nepal.
- Get set to get wet and colourful during Holi, the Festival of Colours, in March.
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