"Only one person at a time” the plaque above the steps into the aircraft read, not exactly reassuring words for someone with a fear of flying. After seeing the expression of horror cross my face, a man next to me encouragingly said with a wink, “Don’t worry the pilot wants to get home too.”
Pulling myself together and setting aside my pteromerhanophobia (allegedly the correct term for knee quaking at the thought of imminently boarding), I gingerly climbed into the aircraft hoping it wouldn’t be the last time my boot-clad feet were placed on terra firma.
Within a few moments of taking off from Nepali capital Kathmandu’s domestic airport, as the plane glided smoothly out from the green, terraced valley towards the snow-capped Himalayan range basking majestically in the golden rays of dawn, all my fears were quelled. From the aircraft window arguably one of the most magnificent panoramic sights the world has to offer was visible at eye level and that’s even before Mount Everest came into view.
Termed The Best Mountain Flight in the World by carriers Buddha Air, this one-hour journey sees an aircraft of 16 people flown around the massive mountain ranges of the Himalayas, home to some of the world’s premier peaks. Passengers are able to take photographs from their seats and on two occasions are also led individually to the cockpit where between the pilot and co-pilot, you can take advantage of the full aerial view from the aircraft windshield.
Depending on weather conditions and visibility, the flight generally takes off at 7am allowing an early start to a day of sightseeing in Kathmandu, where you can take in as many sights, sounds and flavours as possible of this historically entrenched city. I chose to do this with a veteran Nepali guide from Kathmandu Travel and Tours, the same company that had organised the mountain flight. I wanted to visit the multitude of beautifully ornate Hindu and Buddhist temples that permeate the city’s squares.
First, however, we had to get there and the driver whose commando like manoeuvres, including swerving to scarcely miss a holy cow that had meandered into the middle of the congestion-choked road, meant we reached our destination in one piece – just. More pleased to step out of the car than I had been the plane, we took the rest of the journey by foot and headed directly to the Hanumandhoka Durbar Square in the heart of the enchanted ancient city.
The square, which requires an entrance ticket, is filled with pagoda-style temples built between the 12th and 18th Centuries, including the impressive 366-metre-high Taleju Temple constructed in 1564 by King Mahendra Mullah. My guide tells me that until very recently it was considered inauspicious to build a house taller than this temple but with other more modern buildings in the vicinity such as the nine-storied palace somewhat looming over it, there’s a strong reason to believe this is no longer the case.
Around the square and between the temples you will find scattered local merchants at stalls selling everything from Buddhist trinkets, to herbs and spices and fiery orange marigold garlands, as offerings. It’s beautiful but somewhat chaotic in its South East Asian way, with beggars in high numbers and locals on scooters flying within a hair’s breadth of the city’s many stray dogs, lying blissfully oblivious in the afternoon sun.
This area includes 10 courtyards, the most magnificent of which is the Nasal Chowk (Nasal meaning “dancing one”) named after the image of a deity dancing located on the east side of the square.
Inside the courtyard is the nine-storey Basantapur Tower, with its climb to the top via a narrow, creaky wooden staircase. The walk up may knock a little wind out of you (and it is quite dark so careful with your step) but is well worth it for the far-reaching views of the city. My guide tells me this was a viewing post for the royal family so they could look out over their kingdom, a view that encompasses miles around including the affectionately termed Monkey Temple where my guide and I were headed next.
Known to locals as Swayambhunath Temple, the moment you descend from the car it’s understandable why this Unesco World Heritage Site has been given a pet name. Troops of red monkeys fill the entrance way, hanging from the fountain’s statues to dip their heads into the cooling water and leaping deftly between the bustling pilgrims. Walking up (in a clockwise direction for good luck, I am told) the 365 steps to the main platform of the temple, one of the first things to greet you in this highly sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site is the giant stupa, a brilliant white mound with Buddha’s all-seeing eyes painted at the head. It’s symbolic to walk clockwise around the stupa spinning the large encircling prayer wheels, an act that is said to bring about good karma and purify the bad. My guide must have seen straight through me because he made me walk the full way round three times!
We were fortunate to have a beautifully clear day on our visit to Swayambhunath and were able to take in magnificent views of Kathmandu, the valley and its surrounding mountains. Strolling through the temple area you can’t help but notice that both Buddhism and Hinduism are practised here and most of the visiting pilgrims make offerings to them both. Before leaving we also entered the Tibetan Buddhist monastery where you can pay to light a candle for a loved one, and on the way down we did some bartering at some of the many excellent craft shops. My guide was an outstanding wingman for this purpose and I picked up souvenirs at half the price I would have done in the more tourist-heavy Thamel where we headed next.
Distinguished by narrow busy streets overflowing with small scantly lit shops (daily power cuts can last up to 12 hours) this is a tourist paradise for bric-a-brac, travel agencies, budget hotels and traditional restaurants. It can be fairly busy, especially if you’re trying to get in via taxi as central roads get choked up by privately owned overcrowded minibuses given there is no public transport system. Nonetheless it is worth a visit but if what you’re looking for is a little calm away from the urban bustle, then head to the idyllic Garden of Dreams.
Located next to the former Royal Palace at the entrance to Thamel, this is a haven of peace away from the explosion of two-wheeled vehicles on the city’s streets, as its pristine white walls muffle the outside sound. Inside, couples lie in the sunshine on perfectly manicured lawns, and fountains seem to dance to the birdsong floating on the warm afternoon air. You can enjoy food and drinks in the pavilion Kaiser Kafe, operating under the management of the famous five-star Dwarika’s Hotel. The options are primarily European but the Nepalese offering is highly recommended. The Farm House Thali is a full meal consisting of seasonal vegetables, fried lentils and cottage cheese curry, rice, salad and pickles. Sitting back and enjoying the neo-classical fountains, ponds, pergolas and urns, it was time for the final stop of the day, and although this was beautiful the best had been saved for last…
The Dwarika’s Kathmandu is not only a luxury hotel, it’s a boutique experience in Nepali culture and heritage. From the moment you walk through the intricately carved dark wooden doors into the hotel’s red-tiled and plant-filled courtyard, you know this is a hotel with a difference.
Winner of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (2006) Heritage Award, the Dwarika’s, which took 30 years to construct, is testament to the passion of its conservationist founder Dwarika Das Shrestha. Incorporating some of the country’s most exquisite architecture from the 13th Century onwards, every nook and cranny of this hotel speaks volumes.
In 1934 the Bihar earthquake destroyed large swathes of Kathmandu and the ensuing reconstruction meant much of the country’s ornate wood was destroyed. Dwarika Das Shrestha decided to save many carvings for a personal collection, incorporating them into his home and this hidden gem.
Up the beautiful carved wooden staircase and past the lobby’s mammoth fireplace, the rooms in this hotel are spacious, comfortable and traditional. Like the rest of Dwarika’s, they thankfully lack the typical charmless luxury of many five-star hotels across the globe, and although they are a little behind in some respects (a cassette player is provided with a selection of tapes including Barry White) they more than make up for this in rustic charm.
Carved windows open out on to the red-bricked courtyard below and pigeons coo from the ledges of the hotel’s restored traditional Newari houses. The en-suite bathrooms are large with dark flagged floors, a separate shower room and a large sunken bath under a skylight window. A few things are noticeably missing for the hand-luggage-only frequent traveller such as dental kits and a fully functioning hairdryer, but that could easily be remedied by a quick call to reception.
Guests dining in the hotel have a choice of Krishnarpan, which specialises in local cuisine, Japanese food at Mako’s and Continental dishes at Toran. I ate at Krishnarpan, often touted as the best in the city, and can highly recommend the six-course set menu (unbelievably this goes up to 22 courses!).
At the end of what has been a fast-paced, fully absorbing 24 hours it’s time to head back to the room and get some shut-eye. When you get into bed and find housekeeping has placed a swathed hot water bottle under your soft hand-woven blanket, it really is easy to believe you’re in a home away from home.