How rapidly can you get to the heart of a country? The world may be a smaller place, but there's still too much to see in one lifetime. So, for those too-busy-to-stand-and-stare, can you "do" Nepal in a week?
How rapidly can you get to the heart of a country? The world may be a smaller place, but there's still too much to see in one lifetime. So, for those too-busy-to-stand-and-stare, can you "do" Nepal in a week? That was my goal: a whistle-stop tour of Kathmandu, dip-in-dip-out rafting on Nepal's notorious white-water rapids, a gallop through the Annapurnas and a fleeting glimpse of the wildlife of Royal Chitwan. A true short break – but would it be enough?
Day One: Psyched up for speed, I jet into Kathmandu. The city is at a standstill. No cars. No bicycles. No people in the streets. At my hotel, Dwarika's, the clerk informs me Nepal is in the grip of a strike. As Dwarika's is miles from the major sights, there is nothing for it but to walk to Pashupati, the Hindu city.
At its centre sprawls the wondrous Pushupathinath temple, surrounded by tiny 19th-century Shiva temples, and sadhu. These holy men are the latest media obsession – some feel their sacred images have been vampirised. The sadhus I meet are innate posers who cheerfully contort their chalk-smeared limbs and flick their mighty dreadlocks for the cameras for a 100 rupee (£1.65) fee.
Day Two: I drive west with Umesh, my rafting guide, to the Trisuli River. I'm a strong swimmer but a coward when it comes to rollercoasters, be they on land or water. My anxiety increases as Umesh jovially describes the rapids we will encounter: Scree's Nose (after a rafter who broke his nose on a rock), Breakfast (where I will probably lose mine) and S-bend (when I might understand how the common turd feels).
From Baireni to Beni-Ghat, the rapids turn out to be the weedier sort. It's raining, cold and very, very wet, but the spectacular mountains and jungle divert my attention. We spin by flycatcher birds and majhi fishermen checking their traps, before putting out upstream from Charaudi.
The Royal Chitwan national park is in Nepal's Inner Terai valley. This is proper jungle, red in tooth and claw. I spend the night in a bungalow on stilts, with just a net between me and a battalion of blood-sucking insects.
Day Three: It's 6am and we're off on an elephant safari. Despite the sickly, rolling action at 20ft, being strafed by lianas and the slow pace, stalking wildlife on an elephant feels closer to nature than doing it in a jeep. We follow deer and a resentful rhino. Next, I go out on foot with Mr Karim, a fabulous bird caller. He's looking for a Royal Bengal tiger or a leopard. All we find are pawprints at a water-ing hole. The big game is buried in the interior of the park's 360 square miles of forests. They can stay there while I'm on foot, thank you.
Day Four: Everything is heavy and damp, from the ferns underfoot to my eyelashes. I'd like to take off on a speedy Triumph motorbike, but all we have is a lumbering ox cart. We pass through a village of the Tharu tribe. Living in the park, they are inured to human traffic, and barely notice as we pass by their beautiful, long houses. I buy Mount Everest whisky at a woman's stall. She says this brew and a bottle of rakshi or ayla (fire-water distilled from rice) are "a total-must for a swinging cocktails party".
Days five and six: Pokhara is Nepal's second largest city and the base-camp for explor-ing the Annapurnas. Most tourist activity is mountain-bound. People are buying gear to climb the mountains or planning their treks or photographing them or simply gawping at them. The Annapurna Himal is one set of magnificent snow-dusted peaks, from Annapurna 1 at 26,545ft to Machapuchhare at 22,958ft. Sir Edmund Hillary still walks on Everest, 50 years since he conquered the world's highest peak. Unfit people half his age (like me) might consider that as they attempt the easy four-day Royal Trek. At the other extreme, the Annapurna Circuit takes three weeks and is best done from mid-March to May.
I have only one and a half days to spare, just enough to catch two sunrises over Machapuchhare and to make two treks in the shadow of the foothills to drink in the rustic beauty. There's plenty of it. Women in fuchsia saris and flame-red blouses work in acid-green paddy fields. Children cut grass for their cattle, which they toss into a doko (basket) on their backs.
Day seven: I fly back to Kathmandu by turboprop plane, and head for Durbar Square. The traffic is in full flow, the air is filthy, my skin feels greasy. Everyone is spitting or gagging because of the air pollution. I wish I had an oxygen mask.
There is one last place I must see: the House of the Living Goddess, Kumari. The Nepalese adore and revere their little pet and carry her around during religious festivals. The incumbent is 10 years old and has been in the job five years. Her reign will end when she menstruates.
My guide, Tanka, calls to the Living Goddess. Suddenly, the window is filled with a vision I'll never forget. There is Kumari, her features enamelled red and black, perfect as a geisha. Brittle and unsmiling, precocious and indulged as Britney, with an equally unsure tenure. After 10 seconds, Kumari is gone. Showtime over. I am left with a vibrant impression, like those I have of the landscape and its people, but in such a short time, the place has failed to seep into my soul.
Beverley D'Silva travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845-0700 616; www.abercrombie kent.co.uk)