A softie's guide to the Himalayas

Forget the backpacks, long hikes and aching limbs. You can do the peaks of Nepal in comfort - and even fit in a spot of shopping along the way. Elizabeth Davies reports

I am three-quarters of the way up a mountain in Nepal and feel surprisingly fresh. The summit is beckoning, the vista is spread out beneath me like a patchwork cover of yellows and browns, and, as I take a deep gulp of fresh air, I press on briskly and make it to the summit in under an hour. Am I a keen trekker? No. Do I even enjoy exercise? Absolutely not. The explanation is simple: I took a minibus three-quarters of the way up, managed the last 250m in half-an-hour, had a spot of lunch at the top while admiring the view, and wandered back down at leisure, doing a bit of shopping on the way.

Luxurious living is normally overlooked in a country whose dramatic scenery and diverse eco-system naturally recommend it as a prime destination for those looking to get away from Western living and exert themselves in the Himalayas. But there I was, in the land of hiking, rafting and camping, equipped with only a sun hat and a cunning plan: to forsake all pretence of seasoned-traveller cool, and do Nepal in style. Nothing - not cliff-faces, not rapids, not snow-capped peaks - was going to deter me from my mission of living the good life.

So the half-hour "trek" to the peak of Mount Sarangkot suited me fine. A paved road with the odd few steps leads the way to this popular 1,590m summit, an ideal spot for gazing in awe at the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and, far below, the shimmering waters of Phewa Tal (lake). On a clear day, the view is staggering - and you don't have to exhaust yourself to see it. Feeling virtuous, I helped myself to a large lunch at the fort (kot) at the top. Nobody had told me mountaineering could be this genteel.

Nepal, though, is nothing if not surprising. Before I arrived, I had my worries about my chosen destination- and not only on account of the number of red-faced backpackers I might have to encounter. The security situation, I knew, was not ideal; the king's decision in February to seize absolute power after 14 years of stumbling democracy was widely criticised and did nothing to add to the appeal of a country already locked in a bloody conflict with Maoist rebels.

But my fears were allayed within days of being there. While remote parts of the eastern provinces are better left alone, the major tourist areas, including Kathmandu, have been declared safe by travellers and diplomats alike, and the chances of becoming involved in any kind of violence are slim. No Westerner has ever been deliberately targeted by the Maoists and, given the impoverished state of a large proportion of the population, tourists are welcomed by locals who value their contribution to the languishing economy.

The number of people coming to Nepal on holiday has shrunk to roughly a half of what it was in the late 1990s, when luxury hotels hoping to capitalise on the booming market were springing up. Most of these resorts are now struggling to stay on their feet and have started cutting their prices in a bid to entice tourists back. Prices are at an all-time low; four- and five-star hotels are offering automatic upgrades, massive discounts and free nights, and while brochures try to keep up appearances and continue to advertise prices expected of swish hotels, the reality is that a quick phone call to the reception can see the nightly rates slashed by a half or even a third.

So, if you're attracted by the idea of seeing what Nepal has to offer but not so turned on by the prospect of roughing it, now is the time to go. What's more, the winter months see the most pleasant weather of the year arriving in the country; temperatures decrease to the 20s and the skies - often cloudy in summer's sticky heat - clear to reveal the dramatic landscape at its finest.

As the focal point of the country's culture and politics, Kathmandu is the obvious place to start any trip. We arrived as the evening sun was casting its golden glow over the city, and the colour and noise of the urban chaos won me over immediately. We drove through the suburbs, along dusty roads crammed with three-wheel tuk-tuk taxis, overloaded scooters, rickety bicycles and perilously ramshackle minibuses, all weaving in and out of each other, horns blaring. Every so often, a cow would be standing in the middle of the pandemonium, nonchalantly chewing on grass.

The hilltop Buddhist temple of Swayambhu is a must-see, a magnificent hub of spirituality overlooking the haze of the city. Every day, hundreds of pilgrims climb the 400-odd steps up to the stupa to worship. Happily, there is another option for those not wanting to do penance, and, having opted for the slackers' shorter way up, I emerged into another world. The heady scent of butter candles and incense filled my nostrils as monks in flowing crimson robes worshipped at the monastery and pilgrims spun prayer wheels and scattered rose petals over shrines to Buddha.

Back in the all too mundane city centre, smog lowered over us as we made our way through the bustling crowds and rickshaws to take in some of the other sights of the city, including Kathmandu's own "living goddess" (a six-year-old girl who is kept in a gilded temple - Kumari Chowk - only to be let out once she starts to menstruate). We also stopped by the temple to the goddess of beauty, where a woman indubitably well past her salad days was celebrating her birthday. Hindus believe that if you keep worshipping here for decades, all your physical imperfections will vanish and you will become irresistibly gorgeous. I suppose it's a kind of spiritual anti-wrinkle cream - and I can't say I wasn't tempted.

Patan is the arty quarter of the city, where the crowds thin and the frenetic Kathmandu pace slows. This was my favourite part of the city, with its quiet tea shops and strikingly beautiful skyline of the royal Durbar square, boasting tiered-roofed, pagoda-style temples. The exquisitely designed carvings on these turn out, on close inspection, to be quite startlingly raunchy. Little did my fellow travellers know that, while I pretended to admire the architectural harmony, I was inwardly marvelling at other matters entirely.

It was also from Kathmandu that I managed to see Nepal's most celebrated natural asset. The mountain flight, a 40-minute tour along the Himalayas, is a wonderful opportunity to sit back and let the majesty of the Nepalese landscape come to you. From my seat on Buddha Airways I saw Mount Everest in all its magnificent, ice-clad glory. I may not have spent weeks climbing, stretching every sinew to breaking point, but I did catch a glimpse of the legendary summit. The T-shirts for sale on board the flight proclaim: "I touched Mount Everest with my heart." I wouldn't go that far - but it was pretty special, all the same.

After several days, we left the urban hum behind and almost implausibly quickly were surrounded on all sides by vast stretches of yellow wheat fields. We headed south-east to the vast* * Chitwan National Park, home to thousands of different species of bird and animal. Within minutes of arriving by Range Rover, having already driven through the river Rapti which acts as a bathing ground for many of the park's inhabitants, we were whisked onto the spiky-haired backs of elephants and taken for a safari ride around the forest, alive with growls and rustlings from the undergrowth and incessant birdsong from the treetops.

We heard the snorts of two wild boar fighting and spotted antelopes springing away from us into the bushes; the luckiest moment of all came when two rhinos emerged, black as night, from the water and proceeded to be stealthily chased by our elephant trainer. The lumbering gait of the elephant is deceptively speedy and we eventually hunted them down close enough to be able to spy on them from behind a tree trunk. My heart was racing and my palms were sweaty; this was the original hunter-gatherer adrenalin rush.

Other activities at the Chitwan are generally less heart-in-mouth affairs, involving rather a lot of 5am wake-up calls to go birdwatching. We spent a baking hot afternoon bathing elephants - a mother and her six-month old baby - in the river, and took a trip downstream in a dugout canoe - the smoothest mode of transport we had discovered so far.

And, as I lay back, miles from the nearest phone or e-mail connection, let my fingers skim the cool water as the sun set, and watched tiny flying fish darting across the surface, I thought to myself how paradoxical it was that, in the land famed for its strenuous pursuits, I had found perfect serenity simply by messing about in a boat on the river.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled as a guest of the Nepal Tourism Organisaton (020-8900 9485). There are no longer direct flights between the UK and Nepal. Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfair.com) flies to Kathmandu from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi or Bahrain and Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) flies from Manchester and Heathrow via Doha.

STAYING THERE

Hyatt Regency, Taragaon, Boudha, Kathmandu (00 977 1 449 1234; www.hyatt.com). Doubles start at US$153 (£85), room only.

Shangri-La Village, Pokhara (00 977 61 522 122; www.hotelshangrila.com). Doubles from US$90 (£50), including breakfast.

Machan Resort, Chitwan National Park (00 977 1 422 5001; www.nepalinformation.com/machan). Rates start at US$141 (£79) per person per night, all-inclusive.

VISITING THERE

Everest Experience mountain flights are available with Buddha Air (00 977 1 554 2494; www.buddhaair.com).

RED TAPE

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Nepal, which costs £20 for 60 days. Contact the Royal Nepalese Embassy, 12a Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 (020-7229 6231; www.nepembassy.org.uk).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Nepal Tourism Board (00 977 1 425 6909; www.welcomenepal.com).

For the latest travel advice on the region, contact the Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk)

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