I never tire of Janakpur, a holy city in Nepal's eastern plains. If Janakpur were in India, just a few miles to the south, it would be polluted and ten times bigger. Instead, it's practically devoid of commerce, its economy supported by the patronage of Hindu pilgrims flocking to the place where Ram and Sita were married. Pundits preach from the verandas of onion-domed ashrams, the devout bathe in sacred ponds early in the morning and gather in lamplit huddles at night, and sometimes you'll see ceremonial transvestite dancers performing at the main temple. Until recently, one of the ashrams kept what it claimed was the world's largest rhesus monkey as a sort of avatar of Hanuman, Ram's simian sidekick. You couldn't make this up. Janakpur was of course "discovered" by tourists - religious ones - long ago, but because of its out-of-the- way location it remains almost unknown to Westerners.
The Hotel Vajra sits across the Bishnumati River from Kathmandu proper, well away from the tourist ghettos and situated to provide phenomenal views of the hilltop Swayambunath temple from its rooftop terrace. Financed by Ed Bass (the man behind Biosphere II), it's a quirky mid-range hotel decorated with fine traditional woodcarving and paintings, and is home to an art gallery, a theatre, and a library manned by a white-bearded, pot-bellied swami.
Nepalis' innate honesty can make a traveller complacent. Hitching a ride on a truck on a remote mountain road, I blithely agreed to stow my bag on the roof, and didn't suspect a thing when the driver's assistant climbed aloft to check the rigging a couple of hours later. He got away with it - I had no proof - but the outpouring of help that I received from the local police and villagers restored my faith in Nepalis.
People try to sell you hash and other drugs all the time in Kathmandu. I thought I'd seen it all until I stayed the night in The Captain's Lodge in Chhomrong, in the Annapurna trekking region. After dinner the proprietor, a former Gurkha regimental captain, asked, "Who wants dessert?" He reached into an old coffee can and pulled out a ball of hash the size of a grapefruit. He auctioned off plugs of it for pennies apiece - and when the bidding flagged, he sold the remainder for the equivalent of 80p.
MOST MEMORABLE MEAL
Two meals vie for this honour. One was a plateful of woh (fried lentil patties, a local delicacy), accompanied by countless rounds of raksi (spirits) pressed on me by fellow diners, at a hole-in-the-wall just off the main square of Patan. The other was my first encounter with tongba, a hot millet grog served in a tankard that looked like it had been fashioned for Genghis Khan, sipped through a straw by the dim light of a Tibetan kitchen in the eastern hills.
Thamel, the main budget travellers' enclave in Kathmandu, always depresses me. It's such a scene - the touts, the pseudo-Western food, the "ethnic" clothes, and especially the tourists walking up and down the lanes imagining that this is Nepal. And it gets worse every year.
Bistaarai ("slowly") is the most useful word in dealings with taxi drivers. No one phrase is consistently effective in silencing the "bye bye one rupees" refrain of Nepali children, but two that get results are maagnelai dinna ("I don't give to beggars") and bhudi chhaina? ("Don't you have any manners?").
Writing a book is a great excuse to meet all sorts of characters, but I think my favourite was Mangal Raj Joshi, one of Nepal's most respected astrologers. He sat cross-legged on the floor, glasses perched on the end of his nose, scowling over a sheaf of papers and, except for his Nepali- style clothes, looking exactly the way I'd always pictured Professor Godbole in A Passage to India. You'd ask him a question and he'd push his glasses up on his forehead, scribble something, then pull himself up to answer. It was like visiting an oracle, or one of those cartoon mountain-top gurus.
David Reed wrote 'The Rough Guide to Nepal'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
Flights from London to Kathmandu cost pounds 500-700. Carriers include Royal Nepal Airlines, PIA, Qatar Airways, and Aeroflot.
October and November are the most popular months, when the air is clearest and temperatures are mild. February-April is almost as busy. The monsoon makes travel more challenging from June until September.
The government has proclaimed 1998 "Visit Nepal Year". A good reason to go in 1997 or 1999.
A 30-day, single-entry visa is $30 which must be paid in US dollars on arrival at Kathmandu airport.
Janakpur is a 12-hour "express" bus ride from Kathmandu.
Double rooms with bath at the Hotel Vajra (tel: 911+272719) start at about pounds 20. Rooms with shared bath, pounds 10.
For online information about Nepal, including the latest updates to The Rough Guide to Nepal, visit http://roughguides.com/RG_WWW/books/tbk_nep.html.Reuse content