Monkeys, Buddhists, Hindus and hikers in captivating Nepal
Travelling from Dubai to Kathmandu is a cinch: just three and a half hours away, it’s the perfect place to escape the summer heat for the weekend. You’ll land 1,400m above sea level in a bustling city surrounded by lush mountains, wayward tuktuk drivers and explorers desperate to catch a glimpse of the looming Himalayas. Those interested in cultural sights and spiritual venues can meander around monasteries and temples and soak up a city that prides itself on being a conglomerate of nationalities and influences.
The three million Nepalese residents of Kathmandu are a glowing example of the diverse culture, some with striking Indian features, some with Chinese and Tibetan characteristics mirroring the country’s neighbouring nations. This is also reflected in the cooking, which combines a variety of spices and flavours. Delicious momos, for example, resemble delicate dumplings, but have the kick of a samosa. Meanwhile, the local places of worship sit side by side and swap architectural features as freely as Pokémon cards.
About 120 native dialects are spoken in Nepal, the big one being Nepali. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken; either way you’ll be greeted with a warm welcome of ‘namaste’ everywhere you go. Follow our must-do guide to get stuck into this incredibly rich sightseeing region, which offers everything from thrilling hikes to chanting monks and tranquil spiritual journeys.
Kathmandu is known for its paper and pottery production, not to mention all the stores in the Thamel district selling hiking gear, spices and teas. Make sure you buy fair-trade – a lot of the hand-made items, though cheap, will be made by underpaid workers. Try shopping at Kupundol (you’ll find it heading into Kathmandu from Patan), which has a number of fair-trade stores with high-quality goods at low fixed prices, where you can escape the tourist traps of Thamel. Barefoot Paper Boutique has hand-made wrapping paper, pencils, cards and natural paper books, and Anokhi Handicrafts sell lamps, soaps and other goodies. The stores across the road sell local fabrics such as Tibetan wools, hemp and cashmere.
Temple and monastery spotting
The grand 43m-tall Boudhanath stupa (Dhs50 entry, +977 1 448 9257) is surrounded by spectacular hills and sits in the centre of a mandala (a Buddhist square with four gates). Thousands of pilgrims flock here every year and walk around it in a clockwise direction, turning prayer wheels as they go. When the Tibetan trade routes were fully open, traders, pilgrims and travellers would pray here before setting off on a life-threatening journey over the Himalayas. Relax in the square and enjoy the view of moving people from the Boudha Stupa Restaurant & Cafe (www.boudhastupacafe.com.np), where you can taste delicious Nepali chicken thali.
For spectacular views over the city, visit Swayambhunath, also known as Monkey Temple (Dhs6 entry; try a tour with Jai Mata Di Tours; www.jaimataditours.com). Climb the 365 steps and monkeys will jump across your path to see if you have any food. At the top, you’re confronted with the watchful eyes on the stupa and dozens of colourful prayer flags to represent the five elements; the 13 golden pinnacles at the top represent the stages to reach Buddahood. If you’re lucky you may spot monks buying birds from street vendors, a bizarre but intriguing sight.
Durbar Square is the most popular historical sight in the city (Dhs11 entry, www.kathmandu.gov.np, +977 1 426 8969). It’s full of Buddhist and Hindu temples, shrines and strange-looking mystic men called ‘sadhus’ wandering around. You’ll spot them a mile off – they usually dress in bright colours, wear their hair in dreadlocks and paint their faces. Durbar Square itself features more than 30 sites of interest, including Jagannath Temple, the oldest in the square. Dating back to 1563, it boasts detailed wood carvings on its roof and beams.
Also worth a look is the Kal Bhairave, which symbolises Shiva in his destructive manifestation. Go later in the evening and you’ll see rows of local women selling vegetables under the temples; take a walk through the lanes where you can pick up gifts and souvenirs.
Active types wanting to soak up the greenery as much as possible before heading back to Dubai’s barren desert should opt for a hike starting from Dhulikhel village, just outside Kathmandu. The Himalayan Shangri-la Village Resort (www.dwarikashimalayanshangrila.com, +977 1 149 0612) offers a walk package from Dhs102, allowing you to choose between trails of different lengths and difficulties. The three- to six-hour walks will take you into rural Nepal, past small local villages and rice farms, along dirt tracks and up to temples in the mountains. There’s also a small chance you’ll spot a tiger (though you’ll be incredibly lucky).
The guide will explain sites along the way; depending on your route, you may pass the hard-to-reach Namo Buddha Monastery, known for its age-old fable about a buddha who offered himself to a hungry tiger to feed her hungry cubs. The Shangri-la resort also offers excursions, mountain biking, white-water rafting and kayaking in the Bhote Koshi, plus bungee jumps and bird-watching trips.
Something more adventurous
A great way to see the Himalayas on a short weekend trip is to splurge on a plane ride over Mount Everest. A small but sturdy plane ascends to 8,000m up over the breathtaking snow-capped mountains – go at sunrise or sunset for a multicoloured view of the sky. The airlines also encourage you to visit the cockpit, where you get 180-degree views of the world’s highest mountain and perfect positioning for a photo to show off when you get back to the UAE. Several airlines offer this service for around Dhs588, including Agni (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yeti (www.yetiairlines.com) and Buddha Air (www.buddhaair.com).
On your way back to the airport, visit the heritage area at the Dwarika’s Hotel (www.dwarikas.com, +977 1447 9488). Here you can sit in a traditional Nepalese courtyard and enjoy a coffee while you admire the carved wooden pillars and bronze and terracotta statues. It’s Kathmandu’s answer to Dubai’s Bastakiya quarter. While there, grab a bite to eat at the highly rated Krishnarpan restaurant, which serves local curries, meat, vegetables with aromatic spices, purified oils and saffron. To wind down before your flight home, try a traditional Newari massage at the Pancha Kosha Spa, which uses scented oils and acupuncture pressure over the body.
Need to know
Getting there Flydubai flies from Dubai to Kathmandu from Dhs1,000 return (www.flydubai.com).
Where to stay Kathmandu Guest House The city’s original backpacking joint is smack bang in the centre of bustling Thamel, but still manages to have a serene community feel, with clean rooms and beautiful surroundings. From Dhs111 per night. www.ktmgh.com (+977 1470 0800)
Dwarika’s Hotel With beautiful 15th-century carved wooden doors, pillars, courtyards and even a colonial bar, this luxury venue is the relaxing choice away from the bustle of the city. It’s littered with Nepalese artefacts, all lovingly collected since the ’50s. From Dhs1,600 per night. www.dwarikas.com (+977 1447 9488)
Himalayan Shangri-La Village Resort Located between the Kathmandu-Lhasa trade route, a wealth of hiking is available for outdoorsy travellers. But you don’t have to leave the grounds to feel close to the mountains – the floor-to-ceiling windows have jaw-dropping views of the surrounding vista. Summer promo: Dhs805 for a two-night stay, including dinner, lunch and a massage. www.dwarikashimalayanshangrila.com (+977 6146 2222)
History & Geography • The word ‘Nepal’ is derived from Sanskrit and translates as ‘at the foot of the mountains’. • The city of Kathmandu was founded in the 10th century by King Gunakamdeva. • Rivers in the city include the Bagmati, Bishnumati, Dhobi Khola, Samakhusi, Tukucha, Bhaucha Khusi, Balkhu and Manama. • The literacy rate in Kathmandu is 83 per cent. • World heritage sites in the city include Durbar Square, Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath.