Nepal: On top of the world

In Nepal, a way of life that has remained the same for centuries is on the brink of profound change. Mike Higgins encounters a land of charm, simplicity and epic beauty, where the people are looking to the future

In most parts of the world, Maoists get a bad press. But in the mountain nation of Nepal, they get elected. The news last month that the people of Nepal had elected a Maoist minority government to draw up the country's new constitution may well have alarmed those planning a trip to the country, given that the 12-year battle between government forces and the Maoist insurgency has claimed around 13,000 lives. Nevertheless, visitors have been returning in increasing numbers to Nepal since the dark days between the royal massacre of 2001 and the political turmoil of 2006, and foreign tourists have not been a target during this period.

That's not exactly a reassurance to calm the nerves, nor is the prospect of a holiday in a developing country undergoing upheaval (the royal family are thought to be packing their bags before Nepal declares itself a republic). Yet the eight days I spent in and around Kathmandu Valley – spanning the polling day on which the followers of a hardline former Chinese leader were handed the reins of the country – left me with a question: can the Nepalese be both gracious hosts and political revolutionaries?

I went with Intrepid Travel, an independent tour operator that runs guided itineraries throughout Nepal – including several to the Annapurna Sanctuary and the Everest region. The company tries to practise what you might call "encounter" tourism. Its clients travel by local transport wherever possible and stay and eat in locally owned establishments; its tour leaders are usually local, and plenty of time is programmed for travellers to get to know the locals. If this sounds like hard work, don't worry. Intrepid realises that Westerners need to be broken in gently. Intrepid rates all its trips by "culture shock", and this, their "Nepal Adventure", gets a reassuring 3/5.

My trip, and encounters, began at the small town of Bhaktapur. A few miles east of Kathmandu, the "City of Rice" is a retreat from the hectic bustle of the capital. Traffic is restricted to the odd motorbike, small tractor and sacred cow. So I bought a juju dhau ("king of curds"), the town's yogurt speciality, and wandered in a fug of jet lag among the town's squares – where preparations were underway for the forthcoming Nepali New Year, including the construction of enormous ornate carts – and elegant temples. Lovely temples they were, too: two-, three-, four-storey-stacked pagodas, guarded by stone statues of wild beasts, both real and mythical. The pagodas looked Chinese to me, but Prakash, the endlessly knowledgeable 31-year-old leading our Nepal Adventure tour, gently pointed out that, in fact, the pagoda style migrated from Nepal north to China, not the other way round.

Things livened up in Bhaktapur's Pottery Square – but not much. Plates and pots lay drying on the ground and craftsmen worked at their wheels. Not even a large political rally in the town centre of Bhaktapur later that day woke the old folk dozing under a nearby veranda. Off the main streets in the courtyards, life in these hubs looked like it hadn't changed for a long, long time. Old men in their distinctive topi hats gossiped, women in violently coloured saris washed clothes and sorted wheat from chaff, kids played in grubby T-shirts, all punctuated by constant acts of worship.

This no-nonsense approach to religion is particularly striking if, as I was, you are on your first visit to a Hindu country. And I don't just mean the sexually explicit carvings to be found on the bases of roof struts on temples in Durbar Square (there, we're told, to encourage reproduction in the populace). The Nepalese are mostly Hindu (with a Buddhist minority), and statues of the Hindu gods covered with colourful offerings are to be found everywhere, with a procession of Nepali women observing their daily religious rite, or puja, along with the rest of their errands. It's a distinctive sight, and one to seduce you into believing, as the Nepalese do, that the gods are all around. (Be warned, though: the gentle but maddeningly insistent temple bells began tolling from about 4am around my otherwise very comfortable guest house in the Tachupal Tole district. Nepalis don't do lie-ins.)

An altogether more intense aspect of Hinduism awaits the tourist at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. The site is the most important Hindu temple in the country, and all of Nepalese life and death is here. It's to Pashupatinath that the Nepalese prefer to bring their dead, to be cremated in a spellbinding public ritual that takes place on ghats, or pyres, on the banks of the holy river Bagmati. Twenty yards away, on the opposite bank, mourning family members prepared the body of an elderly woman for burial; children scrabbled at the mourners' feet for the coins that form part of the final blessings, and the temple monkeys were shooed

away from the scene. (There are around 25 such cremations a day.) As the woman's body was placed on the pyre, a few yards downriver another family were delightedly celebrating a young boy's busakha, a rite of passage in which the head is shaved and the locks cast afloat on the Bagmati. Meanwhile, sadhus (holy men who have forsworn all worldly goods) cruised around in their garish body paints, offering to pose for photos for money.

It was all a bit much for me, so it was with a strange feeling of relief that the next day I found myself sitting in the bow of a large inflatable raft, having the last of my jet lag pounded out of me on the rapids of the Trisuli River, about 60 miles west of Kathmandu. Nepal is famed for its river-rafting, and Intrepid has helped to develop a project on the river that doubles as a community centre and a rafting outfit.

When we weren't paddling blindly through a rapid, there was plenty of time to sit back and watch Nepal's rural tableau roll by: children swimming in the river, cowherds tending cattle, teenage miners working the quarries that pit the steep sides of the gorges we passed through. But, as rewarding and successful as the Trisuli Centre clearly is, the requirements of 21st-century Nepal are beginning to encroach on rafting, one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. Over lunch on the sandy shore half way through our descent, we learnt that the nation is slowly harnessing its enormous potential for hydroelectric power (towns and cities currently endure power cuts on a daily basis). The trouble is, Prakash told us as he donned his helmet and buoyancy aid for the afternoon's descent, that dams may represent progress, but they do little for rapids.

That evening, high above the valley, we arrived in the hill town of Bandipur, which knows all about the inexorable march of progress. Until the 1950s, it had enjoyed centuries of prosperity as a trading post on the highway between India and Tibet in which merchants of the dominant Newari ethnic group thrived. Then the Pokhara-Kathmandu road was built, following the route of the valley floor, and Bandipur's raison d'être went with it. However, the commercial tourism that has tainted parts of the capital and Pokhara has bypassed Bandipur, with its main street of unspoilt, brightly painted 18th-century homes and temples.

It's so pleasingly preserved, in fact, that at first it was hard to see where the town's conservation efforts, funded in part by the EU, have gone. Oxen pulled ploughs in nearby terraced fields, a man in the dusty old telephone kiosk waited for business, the flutes of shepherds wafted up from the valleys, and kids challenged the few tourists there to board games of carom. But gradually I realised what wasn't there: cars must be left at the periphery, the main street was free from potholes and properly paved; there were a few restaurants and hotels, but no garish signage.

Our accommodation for the night, the Old Inn, was charming: a large, restored town house on the main street, with whitewashed walls, ornate door and window frames, and simple furniture. It was beautifully lit at night, and our evening meal, too, was good. Typically Newari, the food was meatier and spicier than the standard fare, dahl baht (lentil soup with rice and mildly curried vegetables).

Best of all was the view from the rear terrace at dawn the next morning. The rising sun picked out the peaks of the Annapurna and Mansiri Himal ranges of the Himalayas, one by one. Nothing can prepare you for the scale of these titans, rising 26,000 feet and more – they may have been 50 miles away but they seemed to float before us, just on the other side of our valley. (A few days later, we took the Everest flight, a breathtaking spin along the Nepalese Himalayas, culminating in a view from 20,000 feet of Chomolungma herself – but somehow it's the view from Bandipur that's the more impressive.) I could have stayed there for weeks.

On election day we found ourselves in Pokhara, Nepal's second city and gateway to treks around the Annapurna u o Sanctuary. The atmosphere was as calm as the large lake it sits by – was this really the day of the most significant election in a decade?

I bargained with merchants selling rugs and fake brand-name outdoors gear who grumbled about having to close in the morning for polling. I played – and lost – a game of football with some orphanage kids. I went for a row on the lake beneath the imposing, distant summit of Machapuchare, and then got a scolding from an Intrepid guide for grabbing a quick snack from one of the Nepalese fast-food handcarts (the tangy veggie curry was dicey, but more than worth it). Otherwise, the Nepalis were as warm as ever – even the officers running the busy polling station greeted us with a relaxed "Namaste!" Only the guard on the gate to the royal palace looked nervous behind his roll of barbed wire.

When we began our trek into the hills above Pokhara, my "encounters" started to teach me a bit more about Nepal. It was as our 18 porters and guides (for just eight trekkers) yomped on ahead of us, carrying food, tents and equipment in their distinctive baskets, that I fell into conversation with a young man named Deepak.

Deepak invited me to meet his mother, father, two younger brothers and one sister in their small, tidy home among the chestnut, banyan, pipul and banana trees in the hills above Pokhara. He offered me a cup of lemonade and told me that when he wasn't at college in Pokhara, he and his family farmed rice in the river delta below and wheat here on the hillside. He said he was struggling to pay for his college fees, but was otherwise happy. As happy as Keran, whom I also met that day on the trail, a bright 14-year-old with a thirst for English Premier League news and books – all I could give him was a copy of The New Yorker. Later, after he had brought us tiny, tart Himalayan raspberries and rhododendrons that he and his friends had picked for us, he pointed at his seven-year-old friend in a grubby T-shirt and casually revealed that his mate was off to America on an educational scholarship.

That night, I decided to take advantage of the clear night and laid my sleeping bag out under the stars. None of the adults I'd met would tell me how they were going to vote, but the conversations I'd had with Keran, Deepak and other children seemed to hint at big ambitions. Yet these chats were taking place against a backdrop that, at a guess, has changed little in a century or more: terraced hills receding to the distant high mountains, crossed by dirt roads and dotted with villages filled with neat, basic homes with little by way of electricity and inhabited by families whose subsistence lives have not changed substantially for generations.

Here and there were motorbikes, even the odd mobile phone, to suggest that we were in the 21st century. But it was out here, and in far more remote parts of Nepal, beneath this pretty rural veneer, that the real problems are to be found. Despite enormous amounts of aid, Nepal's 26 million citizens are among the poorest in the world and suffer one of the worst child-mortality rates; also, less than half are literate. Things are improving, but increasingly our encounters were prompting the realisation that, as much as we might want beautiful Nepal to remain as we were seeing it, the people around us were voting for a profound change to this status quo.

Perhaps that's leaping to a conclusion a little hastily. At any rate, the only person we met who began to express the need for radical change in Nepal was one of its favoured sons, a 70-year-old Gurkha veteran with 30 years' service in the British Army. Back in Pokhara after our trek, on the edge of Phewa Tal, the town's lake, Kushalsing Gurung told me how he was fighting a campaign to win parity in pension rights between former British servicemen and their Gurkha counterparts. He, a former captain, receives £350 a month, whereas a British former private receives £600. As for Nepal, Mr Gurung told us that he believes the current monarch, King Gyanendra, who assumed the throne after his brother was murdered, is a "bad king who does not care for his people".

Well, the king's days on his throne are numbered – a centuries-old monarchy is fast becoming a Maoist republic, a big constitutional step that the country's new government will debate when it meets on Wednesday. And, to date, this startling transformation is taking place peacefully, as the new government has been careful to reassure the 300,000 foreigners who visit Nepal annually (as well as those who make a living welcoming them). Can the Nepalese continue to be gracious hosts and political revolutionaries? It's too early to say; the Nepalis have endured at least seven governments since 2000. But so far, so good.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there:

The writer travelled with Intrepid Travel (020-3147 7777; www.intrepidtravel.com), on its 15-day Nepal Adventure trip, which costs from £445 per person. The price includes all transfers and transport, accommodation in teahouses and guesthouses, one night at a river camp, four nights' trek camping and some meals. A local payment of US$200 (£105) and international flights are not included in the price. There are no direct flights between the UK and Nepal. Kathmandu can be reached with Qatar (0870 770 4215; www.qatarairways.com) from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha; Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) from Heathrow via Bahrain; and Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; www.jetairways.com) from Heathrow via Delhi. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Visiting there:

There is a US$10 (£5.25) fee to visit Bhaktapur and Durbar Square respectively, payable locally. Everest flights can be arranged through Mountain Flights ( www.mountainflights.com).

Red tape & more information:

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Nepal. These can be purchased before travel from the Nepalese Embassy (020-7229 1594; www.nepembassy.org.uk) or on arrival at Kathmandu airport. Single-entry visas cost £20, or US$30 (£15.80) on arrival. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises: "The wider security situation in Nepal remains subject to change due to the political volatility in the country... If you intend to travel to the region you should remain vigilant and remain in close touch with your tour operator."

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

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