Kathmandu: the end of the hippy trail, and about as far from the bling of the UAE as you can get. It’s an amazing airport to arrive at. The plane doesn’t descend so much as the valley rises to catch you, and dilapidated suburbs – a depressing sight elsewhere – are washed vibrant with colour; a stimulating alternative to the desert and glass you’ve just left behind.
It may be easy to dismiss the Thamel district as a tourist trap, but make it your base and you’ll have no complaints. At the grand old age of 40, the Kathmandu Guest House is the city’s original backpacking joint, rumoured to have once housed a Beatle (what’s good enough for Ringo is good enough for you, surely). Step out of the gates and you’re an instant target for hawkers of every nature – within 500m of the hotel we managed to spend Dhs33 on a Nepalese violin, Dhs7 on a none-too legal DVD, and someone managed to splash a religious symbol onto our foreheads before charging us for his handiwork. It’s a shock to your senses, but it keeps the adrenaline pumping.
There’s very little to do around Thamel other than shop, so head south to explore the old part of the city. There are still plenty of tourists, of course, but the constant badgering of beggars and conmen is less rabid. It’s dusty and decrepit, which, coming from the ultra-modern UAE, is a splendid relief, and the little side streets are an amateur photographer’s paradise, with every crumbling window begging to be recorded before it falls into history.
From the old town, swing back towards Durbar Square. It costs about Dhs14 to get in, but it’s well worth it. The district contains a large collection of stupas and craft markets, all registered by Unesco, all still very much alive. In many ways it’s as touristy as Thamel: even the wizened old ascetics are on the make, first finding their way into your viewfinder, then chasing you to demand compensation.
For a morning you’ll never forget, jump on a charter flight over the Himalayas, a mere 10 minutes out of Kathmandu Airport (try Buddha Air if you’re in the mood for an adrenalin rush). The stewardess points out the peaks as though she’s on a bus tour around London, and then – about 20 minutes in – each passenger is invited to go to the cockpit to see Mount Everest as it looms ahead. It’s an extremely humbling experience, one that inspires an urge to get out and explore the countryside.
Stretch your legs near Dhulikhel, a village situated 30km into the Himalayan foothills, where you can take part in a small hike. It’s nothing taxing; the simple joy is in the cleanliness and light chill of the air, not to mention the mesmerising backdrop. For your evening meal, head for the Shangri-La Village Resort and try the momos (a local dumpling delicacy) while sitting on the restaurant porch watching the sunset. If you choose to stay, the rooms have floor to ceiling windows, meaning that your morning starts when the Himalayas tap you on the shoulder.
No visit to Kathmandu should be without a mooch around the shops and cafés in Dwarika’s Hotel, a magnificent folly on the way back to the airport. Founded by a local art lover to house his collection, the hotel has as many nooks and crannies as Thamel itself, and is to be admired for its dedication to local traditions and regional produce. Every room is furnished with local artifacts, so a night here is a bit like staying in a Nepalese museum. It’s also a great place to take a final deep breath before rejoining the hordes at Kathmandu Airport.
Originally published in Time Out Abu Dhabi