Returning to The Roof of The World, Nepal

With its myriad legends and legendary treks, mystical Nepal is adventure incarnate. Two decades after his first visit, Duncan Forgan heads back and finds you don't need to climb Everest to reignite your sense of wonder.

Sep 16, 2019

By Duncan Forgan. Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos.

“Not gonna happen,” says Aaron, our two-meter-plus photographer, with a shake of his head as he surveys the sardine can on wheels that is masquerading as our taxi. “We’ll never get into that thing.”

Driving through the streets of Kathmandu.

We are standing, a four-strong group defined by the girth and height of western men and a propensity for over-packing by the women, on one of the dusty streets that extend like tendrils from Durbar Square in Patan. Judging by the exasperation etched on the face of the diminutive cabbie as he tries to shoehorn luggage into the tiny trunk, it appears Aaron might be correct.

But logic-defying achievements are not uncommon in Nepal. The landlocked nation, abode of countless deities, shamans and spirits, has long fostered a proactive attitude that often transcends earthly constraints. This, after all, is a country where—according to which of its myriad legends and superstitions you subscribe—gurus fight it out with demons on lonely mountaintops, headless kings protect backstreet shrines and frogs possess supernatural powers.

And so, remarkably, after a little contortionism and suitcase Tetris, we are soon beating a speedy retreat through the action-packed streets. As the tiny car weaves its way out of Patan and over the sanctified Bagmati River—narrowly missing wandering sacred cows and the odd disorientated holy man—I’m elated to be back in Nepal.

I’ve come to the roof of the world in search of adventure and a chance to relive former highs in a country I had last visited near the turn of the millennium. On that occasion, I was flying solo. This time around I’ve got company in the shape of Aaron, plus Nana and Hyde, our partners.

Due to time constraints, one of Nepal’s signature multi-day treks is out of the question. Instead, we’ll restrict our focus to the Kathmandu Valley, a bowl-shaped basin purportedly created from the bed of a sacred lake by the deity Manjushri. The powerbase of the Newar—the sixth largest of Nepal’s 126 ethnic groups and creators of its heritage and civilization—the valley has long been regarded as the beating spiritual heart of the nation.

Momos with chili sauce in Patan.

I’ll be able touch on some of the things that I found so magical about Nepal all those years ago. We’ll swing through the UNESCO-listed medieval squares and palaces of Kathmandu and Patan and shrines, stupas and temples such as Boudhanath (Buddhist) and Pashupatinath (Hindu). For shopping kicks, we’ll browse visceral hubs of trade like Indra Chowk in Kathmandu and Mangal Bazar in Patan. At the close of these culture-packed days, we’ll check the pulse of the local nightlife and replenish in the valley’s enviable array of restaurants: a scattershot spread that takes in buffalo meat momos—Nepal’s tasty steamed dumplings, of course—and multi-course Newari banquets, as well as wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and even elevated tapas.

A table set for one of their signature communal lunches at Shivapuri Heights Cottage.

Last time around, the Kathmandu Valley was merely the appetizer for a 12-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp and some rhino-spotting in Royal Chitwan National Park. On this journey, we’ll get our scenic kicks by ending the trip at Shivapuri Heights Cottage: a bolt-hole high above the city amidst sub- Alpine forests brightened by prayer flags and blooming rhododendron.

It may not be the full spectrum Himalayan experience that my inner-adventurer craves, but for a shorter mission with plenty of meat on its bones, it seems like a winning plan: Nepal in a nutshell if you like. What’s most important to me is re-establishing a connection with a destination that impacted me more profoundly than most.

WHEN I FIRST VISITED, Nepal did much to reignite a passion for travel that had been mislaid following nearly two years on the road. The country was a tonic. From the soundtrack of temple bells and the pungent whiff of hashish in the dimly lit night streets I loved everything about Kathmandu. The mountains and the rhinos only served to seal the deal. By the time I took my leave I was already planning to return. I just didn’t expect it to take a full 18 years to happen.

But it did. And here I find myself, a little wiser and a good deal heavier than on my previous visit, tumbling out of an overloaded taxi and into the antique-strewn lobby of Dwarika’s Hotel, a repository of Newari arts and crafts that is one of the finest luxury hotels in Kathmandu.

A lot has happened in Nepal since my first trip—much of it traumatic. The ravages of a long civil war would have been enough for a small country to deal with. A devastating earthquake in 2015 only piled on the pain.

I’d half-feared that I would encounter a destination suffering from prolonged heartache. Instead, I find that the valley is well on the road to recovery. “It was devastating of course,” says Sunita Gurung, International Marketing and Communications Manager at the Dwarika’s Group of the earthquake, as we stroll through the persimmon and grapefruit trees that dot the gorgeous courtyard at the hotel. “It was heartbreaking for me as a Nepali to go to Durbar Square in Kathmandu and to see it turned into a bombsite. This country may be small, but its people are strong. The rebuilding work is taking some time, but our pride in our heritage and our sense of hospitality remains intact. And that’s why tourists keep returning.”

A rickshaw driver navigates a small street in Thamel.

I find it simple enough to gravitate towards familiar highlights without encountering too many unpleasant surprises along the way. In fact, the presence of my companions—all Nepal newbies—often serves to heighten the sense of wonder. At Pashupatinath, the mass of humanity crowding Nepal’s most famous Hindu temple complex is as visceral as ever. In alcoves corniced by ornate carvings of fierce nagas and angry deities, ascetics—their faces powdered as brightly as saffron robes— meditate in silence. Elsewhere, devotees disappear into ancient-looking temples where entry is barred to non-Hindus and family members set up funeral pyres by the banks of the Bagmati. While such scenes would never strike me as “normal,” numerous trips to South Asia have cocooned me from their impact. Nana, however, is less inured. “It’s mind-blowing,” she gasps as we retreat up the stairs leading away from the temple on the opposite side of the river for a breather.

Further spiritual revelations are provided later that same afternoon at Boudhanath: the Buddhist yin to Pashupatinath’s Shaivite yang. The largest stupa in the valley and one of the main focal points for its sizeable Tibetan community, the giant white dome and its surrounding monasteries buzz with energy while at the same time exuding a sense of calm. We find a rooftop perch nearby from which to observe devotees spin prayer wheels, light butter lamps and complete their koras (circumambulations) as we sup Tibetan po cha (butter tea).

I enjoy the input my companions are providing. While planning, I had thought my previous experience with the country would see me take a lead. I’d stroll down memory lane and they would follow. As it turns out, these seasoned, grown-up travelers have their own priorities. Far from being a disadvantage, their thirst for new experiences and perspective on things I had overlooked previously prevents me from becoming a tourist in my own memory and gives fresh impetus to the trip. In 2001, I was too busy scaling trails, chasing mammals and ticking off shrines to give much thought to the patchwork of ethnicities that give Nepal much of its flavor. With a little help from my friends, I form a better understanding of the way the Newars—esteemed for their talents as architects, artists and artisans—have shaped the culture of the valley.

A boutique selling scarves and clothes at Dwarika’s Hotel.

At the stalls at Asan Market and Indra Chowk and the specialty shops at Babar Mahal Revisited—a complex of boutiques and restaurants in a recreation of a former royal palace—the presence of the girls, both champion shoppers, forces me to linger for a while and appreciate the intricacies of Newari jewelry and textile design. And, although I’ve never been averse to a spot of solo drinking or dining, it never hurts to have company when you are dissecting the highlights of a day over a meal washed down with a few icy Sherpa beers.

These evening soirees are an undoubted highlight, and another window to the lifestyle of the Newar. For many Nepalis—especially those in the countryside—the daily diet consists of little more than dal bhat tarkari (lentil soup, boiled rice and mixed seasonal vegetables). But there’s far more to Nepali food; the Newari kitchen, for instance, encompasses more than 200 dishes. Krishnarparn, the signature restaurant at Dwarika’s Hotel, is one of the best places in Kathmandu to gain an appreciation of the subtle intricacies of this rich culinary subset. Favorites include kukhura ko masu (Nepalese chicken curry) and juju dhau (a buffalo milk dessert with cinnamon translated from Newari as “king of yogurts”).

The Patan Museum in Durbar Square.

The inclination to laze by the hotel’s pool is another way I’ve changed since my early 20s, but we’ve still got some catching up to do. We make our way to Thamel, the place where I pitched up all those years ago. The area has acted as a portal between east and west ever since hippies made Kathmandu an integral stop on the Asian travel trail. Westerners would seek enlightenment at ashrams or head off into the mountains comfortable in the knowledge that they’d be able to get a fried breakfast or a steak dinner in Thamel when they emerged. The enclave has existed in this form since the 1960s. Therefore, I’m not shocked to find that it is like a turbocharged version of its former self.

Street art of a Hindi movie star on a side road in Patan.

Familiar landmarks such as Tibet Book Store and Chikusa Café are still present and correct. But I discover that Thamel has upped its game since my last visit. Back then I took immense pleasure in its lively dive bars and shopworn steakhouses and momo joints. Nowadays, the area is awash with upscale coffee shops specializing in artisanal local roasts, while the restaurant scene has broadened its palette to encompass global flavors like freshly flown-in sushi and fusion nibbles.

By the time we end our day in Thamel with a Scottish IPA at the Yeti Tap Room and Beer Garden and a wood-fired thin- crust marinara pie at long-serving pizzeria Fire and Ice, all followed by some hip-hop inflected beats at Jazz Upstairs, we are in danger of being sucked into a hugely pleasurable vortex that many travelers find themselves unable—and often unwilling—to escape.

LUCKILY, IT DOESN’T take much effort to restore a sense of place. In Patan, one of the three great settlements in the valley—Kathmandu and Bhaktapur being the others— Nepal’s stew of influences is at its most heady. On an early morning recce, I lose myself in a maze of alleys stumbling, as if in a dream, upon artisans hammering metalwork in dark doorways, artists painting Tibetan thangkas and hidden Hindu temples where the relentless beating of the madal traditional drum accompanies elderly worshippers as they chant devotionals.

It’s incredible but intense. I am compelled to downgrade the pace of this trip before it comes to an end. And there are few better places to unwind near Kathmandu than at Shivapuri Heights Cottage. Here, 1,800 meters above sea level on the fringes of the protected Shivapuri National Park, Englishman Steve Webster and his Nepali wife Neeru preside over this low-key bolt-hole.

The only distractions from the incredible outlook over the valley and the simple pleasures of reading a good book are the presence of a fully stocked bar and the call to dinner for one of the nightly home-cooked communal spreads.

Nepalese thalis at the Baber Mahal Revisited complex.

There’s ample scope for reflection with such peace and quiet. I had come here to the Kathmandu Valley hoping for the best, but fearing a letdown. Twenty-odd years is a long stretch in anyone’s book and there was always a danger that present reality would compare unfavorably with my idealized recall. Thankfully that turns out not to be the case. Sure, Kathmandu Valley has changed—more cars, more people, more dust—and I have too, but it retains an alchemy that far transcends nostalgia. Familiar haunts retain a mystical allure befitting of their ancient status while fresh discoveries bring something new to the table.

The ever-seeing eyes of Boudhanath Temple in Kathmandu.

On our last day, we decide to stretch our legs on a walk up into the National Park. It’s a gentle hike rather than a trek really, but isolated monasteries framed by prayer flags, fast-flowing streams pouring down from the mountains and the occasional sadistic incline offer a tantalizing reminder of a previous expedition to Annapurna Base Camp.

Clocking my nostalgia, Steve throws out an offer. “You can carry on up to Shivapuri Peak if you want,” he says referring to the 2,732-meter mountain that forms the centerpiece of the park. “But it’s bloody hard work.”

Prayer flags near the source of the Bishnumati River.

Contemplating the prospect, I look to my companions, fully anticipating them to demur. Unexpectedly, they agree to proceed and we continue along and up the trail. As warned, the going is grueling. The steep gradient tautens every sinew in our legs and silence descends among us as we strain for the summit. The payoff, though, is spectacular: a grandstand view of the white Himalayan peaks, Mount Everest and the Annapurna range among them. Over a week we’ve delved into the spiritual, enjoyed the earthly and generally witnessed how the Kathmandu Valley has renewed itself in the face of adversity. Now we have hit heights that none of us expected to conquer—at least on this occasion. Up here on the roof of the world, it seems that a can-do attitude is infectious.

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