It is a common misconception that Nepal is all high mountains which means tourists should only come here for strenuous trekking. In fact, there is much more to Nepal than trekking. I went to Lukla, the gateway town to the Himalayas in the east of the country, and to Pokhara, where trekkers come to rest after their labours, as well as to Kathmandu, the admittedly rather charmless capital. Pokhara and Kathmandu are both in the centre of Nepal.
I am not in the right shape for too much Himalyan trekking but that did not stop me visiting the mountains for an overnight stay. This is not commonly done so I had to arrange it myself rather than jump on a tour. I took a flight to the town of Lukla, with its very short runway nestling quite precariously on the side of a mountain, surrounded by lots of other mountains. Tenzing-Hillary Airport is widely rated as one of the most dangerous in the world. The runway is a mere 527 metres (for a comparison, Heathrow’s runways are almost seven times longer) and a landing plane has to stop quickly, before running into a stone wall marked ‘Welcome Lukla Airport’. Taking off is quite a bit easier as the steep cliff just drops off at the other end, though at this altitude – 2,800m – the thin air reduces a plane’s ability to lift. To give you the full flavour of the scary landing, I captured it on video.
As you would expect, pilots fly into Lukla only in good weather, usually with a quick turnaround and departure before the conditions change. Expect delays flying in and out; sometimes for hours, occasionally a day or more. The flight itself is short, about an hour from Kathmandu, but it can get rough so keep your seatbelt fastened. And for the best Himalayan views, make sure you sit on the left of the plane going out and the right coming back. If you want to peek into the cockpit, get into the plane first (there is no seat allocation) and just head for the front.
Some aviation enthusiasts fly in and out, spending less than an hour on the ground. That is a real shame because it is easy to have a great time staying overnight, walking around the town and meeting some of the trekkers. Lukla is a small town in the mountains that mostly serves the trekkers and the views of the Himalayas hit you the moment you step off the plane. Airport workers have trouble moving disembarking passengers who just stand on the tarmac gobsmacked at the sight. To the left is Kongde Ri mountain, visible behind the hills across the Dudh Kosi river valley. Just a quick look at these amazing sights is not enough.
I stayed at Buddha Lodge Lukla which is right next to the airport terminal (the walk from arrivals to the hotel will literally take one minute). The staff are welcoming and will help with anything you need. They have basic en-suite rooms that are enough for an overnight stay. The highlight is the definitely the rooftop view over the entire runway, town and mountains beyond. Their deluxe (US$20) rooms have a view that any 5-star hotel would kill for.
The main street has plenty of small stores to supply the trekkers: hiking clothes and equipment, small restaurants and cafes.
Below the main street are houses with small allotments plus a picture-book monastery, as well as the world’s highest football field at 2,814m. Look for the local couriers using donkeys to deliver goods or individual sherpas carrying unimaginably large loads.
Lukla has steep and stony paths that are worth the trouble for the interesting glimpse of Nepalese life. This is not a place for the disabled or people unsteady on their feet like me. Take it slowly or else you will quickly find yourself out of breath and exhausted. Slow and steady is the Nepalese way and for good reason at these high altitudes.
I woke at sunrise and went to the hotel rooftop to watch sunlight touch the peak Mount Khumbu Yui Lha then creep down the mountain into the valley. At 5,761m it is relatively small (Everest tops out at 8,848m) but it has never been climbed partly because of the dangerous terrain and partly out of a respect for sherpa traditions which say that Khumbu is the home for the god protecting the area.
Pokhara is the second largest city in Nepal with a lovely lake and, on a clear day, fantastic views of the Annapurna mountains. This is where trekkers come for some rest and relaxation after their arduous journeys. It is also a great place for anyone who just wants somewhere to chill out, relax and take in some Nepalese life. I extended my stay in Pokhara an extra week because I was enjoying it so much.
The main official tourist draw is the World Peace Pagoda, which is easily visible from Pokhara and from the top there are wonderful views of Lake Phewa and beyond.
The energetic can reach the Pagoda by catching a short boat ride across the lake then walking up the steep hill to the summit. Others will arrange a taxi to drive around the other side of the hill and up most of the ascent. Along the way there are many small souvenir shops and cafés to stop and relax. The Pagoda itself is a religious shrine and visitors are expected to behave accordingly. Shoes have to be removed if you wish to climb the monument itself (no small thing if you have serious hiking boots).
Pokhara has many adventure excursions like tandem paragliding, ultralight plane flights, and a zipline. Sadly, clear days in Pokhara are becoming less frequent. The rising population, heavy car use and the deep valley mean smog, especially later in the day. If you wake to a clear day, take advantage of it to see the World Peace Pagoda and do your paragliding early.
The main tourist haunt in Pokhara is ‘Lakeside’, the strip around the eastern end of Lake Phewa, full of shops, restaurants and bars. For a more scenic experience go past the road and down to the lakeside proper. There is a long walkway around the lake with better restaurants and bars to choose from. Or just sit on the lakeside and enjoy the view. Boat rides are also available.
Forget any romantic ideals you might have about Kathmandu or memories from the Cat Steven’s song. The modern city is an overcrowded, poorly resourced place jammed with cars where the valley traps smog for many days at a time.
The major sights of Kathmandu are either closed for repairs (Hanuman Dhoka or royal palace) or fairly underwhelming (Seto Machhendranath Temple or Itum Bahal courtyard). Elsewhere in Nepal you can see far more personal and intimate places of worship.
Any charm or delight in the famous backpacker Thamel district has long since gone. It is a very crowded, hectic and pushy place. Thamel’s only advantage for visitors is the wide range of stores serving tourist needs, especially trekking and other travel gear, as well as souvenirs. A good example is the Women’s Skills Development Organisation, which has a lovely range of hand woven and sewn items including scarves and jumpers.
The Garden of Dreams is a pleasant, quiet haven on the edge of boisterous Thamel. Here you will find the Kaiser Café with a mostly western menu but also a shaded view of the garden.
Both visitors and locals alike will tell you; the best thing you can do in Kathmandu is leave. Savvy visitors spend a night in Kathmandu after flying in (if necessary) and another night at the end before the flight out. Nepal is a fantastic place to visit and your time is better spent outside the capital.