Beyond Everest: A Himalayan road trip
This is a list of sights, activities and information on doing a Himalayan road trip in Nepal.
When Mike first invited me to go and visit Nepal on his behalf for this travel blog, I knew almost nothing of the country tucked between China and India. My only reference was that of two close friends in Cape Town, who recently returned from this part of the world after hiking to Everest Base Camp, and that they described it as “magical experience.”
Undoubtedly, Nepal is renowned as a trekking destination, but after this Himalayan road trip I took across the country over an 11 day period, I learned of so many interesting aspects offered across the foothills of this interesting nation. In no particular order, this is my list of things to do on a Himalayan road trip for non-mountaineers like myself (No hiking-boots of any kind required!).
PAINT YOUR OWN MANDALA IN KATHMANDU
Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, has been a hub of Asian culture and spirituality for centuries. The Nepalese’s long-established artistic signatures go back over millennia and has strongly influenced all Buddhist art. My absolute personal highlight in Kathmandu was the Thangka Mandala Buddhist Art Gallery. I loved everything about the space. From the very first moment I stepped in, it was a welcome respite away from the bustling, dusty and at times, completely overwhelming streets beyond its doorstep.
Mr. Phintso welcomed me as an old friend, sharing the story behind this art-form his family has been safeguarding and teaching since 1979. As we walked through the gallery he introduced me to his father, aunt, niece and brother, all acclaimed Mandala painters, practicing their art for 8 hours each day, seven days a week.
I learned that the Mandala or ‘Thangka’, an iconic circular design associated with Buddhist art, signifies the circles within the universe. The very act of painting a Mandala is also seen as meditation. These designs, set centuries ago by Lamas, illustrate the ‘Stupa’ (actual architectural design of all temples), but also man’s quest for achieving ‘Nirvana’.
I’m such a supporter of an authentic travel experience directly benefiting the local economy and its communities. If you would like to paint your own Mandala and deepen your understanding of Buddhist symbolism and images, they have a 10-day workshop, during which time you will be able to finish your own Mandala artwork and learn more of this beautiful tradition of connecting to the deep spiritual world depicted in the ‘Thangkas.’
SHOP IN POKHARA LEKHNATH
Pokhara, considered the tourism capital of Nepal, and second largest city in terms of population, absolutely stole my heart. A mere 200km west of Kathmandu, this beautiful town by the Phewa Lake, would be my personal recommendation as the first stop for everyone wanting to avoid the madness of Kathmandu.
If you, like me, are a bit of a shopper, I urge you to leave ample time for exploring the old town center of Bagar and the tourist district of Baidam. It took me at least 6 hours to walk through, and possibly just as much to decide how to not spend my entire budget on pure Dhaka (traditional hand woven textiles of the indigenous Limbu people of eastern Nepal), Pashminas, woolen goods, felt products and locally produced silk and hemp items. (Seriously, the textile options in this area blew my mind, unlike any other town in Nepal!)
This beautiful lakeside destination is best enjoyed in the various restaurants with views across Phewa Lake, or, with a leisurely traditional canoe trip across its waters, marveling at the surrounding Annapurna Range and its three of the ten highest mountains in the world.
VISIT NEYDO TASHI CHOELING MONASTERY AND HAATIBAN RESORT DURING YOUR HIMALAYAN ROAD TRIP
There are countless monasteries tourists can visit while in Nepal, often without needing to schedule appointments or following any daily visiting hours. As a first time visitor, I found it truly beautiful to see that anyone could enter these spiritual spaces and premises. If done with respect, and with as little intrusion as possible, you are welcomed with open arms (not literally).
The Neydo Tasha Choeling Monastery is located on the left side of the road, some distance before entering the village of Parping in the Kathmandu Valley. This was my favorite of all the monasteries we visited. I’m not sure if this is because it was the first monastery I ever entered in my life, or if it was the timing of the visit, but entering this great space with chanting monks and drums playing was a spiritual moment. I just loved it and found it incredibly photogenic.
I’m a sucker for an epic view. After visiting the monastery and continue the journey up to the ridge to the Haatiban Resort (the only resort at the top of the breezy pine forest), I found the sweeping views of Kathmandu Valley to be breathtaking. The food, comfortable setting and affordable accommodation make this a place quite special.
Established in 1993, The Haatiban is the second oldest resort in the Valley. There are a wealth of activities available, with an individual owner-run mentality and superb service and advice from all the staff, I assure you, you’ll will be enchanted. I wish I had more time to visit other surrounding monasteries and nunneries, as those bicycles at reception beckoned my name! Unfortunately, our program only allowed us to stay one night, but should you have more time to spend in this magical place, a detailed breakdown of attractions and other activities can be found here.
SEE THE ANCIENT TREE IN LUMBINI, THE BIRTHPLACE OF BUDDHA
I’m not a religious person by any means, so I seldom get moved by a spiritual or sacred places. Visiting Lumbini, however, was profoundly different: I stood in awe beneath the gigantic tree (considered the historic birthplace of the Buddha ) and felt almost as if I had entered a space beyond space and time—the closest thing to ‘heaven on earth’ I’ve ever experienced.
This magical tree stands in the center of the sacred Mayadevi Gardens, with over 25 international Buddhist monasteries. It is a gigantic space to explore, so arriving earlier is advisable, as you at you will beat the heat and the influx of visitors.
SUPPORT THE TASHI PALKHEL TIBETAN SETTLEMENT
According to UNHCR, Nepal is officially home to 38,490 refugees. Between 1959 and 1961 over 20 000 Tibetans resettled in Nepal. The most notable of all these Nepalese settlements is the Tashi Palkhel settlement. Unfortunately our guide had very little information share with us. Even though I wish we had someone who translated the space for us in more detail, I loved watching the real lives of these Tibetan people for a while, meeting the senior lama at their monastery and watching local ladies weave beautiful carpets.
SEARCHING FOR ONE HORNED RHINOS IN THE CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
It honestly takes quite a bit to impress any South African on a safari. We are so spoiled with wildlife sightings on our own continent, we tend to think we’ve seen and experienced it all. The jungles of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park however were so unique and unlike any other experience I’ve ever had, I still cannot stop talking about it to my friends and family back home in Africa.
There are so many aspects of the Park and its people that impressed me, most notably the integral part the entire local community, army and government plays in anti-pouching programs for their One Horned Rhino and overall conservation efforts.
I’ve written more extensively about this memorable safari experience, click here.
GET LOCAL WHILE ON YOUR HIMALAYAN ROAD TRIP BY DOING A COMMUNITY HOMESTAY
If you are truly interested in getting to know local people and their culture, luxurious travel in fancy hotels really limit the experience in any country. The Nepalese community homestay program however offers an innovative and unique way for anyone wanting a comfortable place to stay, with warm hospitality and a bit of local, authentic flavor to boot.
At times, a homestay can be a complete culture shock, as there are literally no bells and whistles to this experience, you simply slip into someones daily life within their home. It does however give you the chance to see and experience something that would otherwise not be possible: an authentic understanding of Nepali life and culture.
Most hosts are widows, housewives or young girls straight out of high school with limited tertiary education or alternative income options. The CommunityHomestay.com program, aside from empowering everyone individually, also injects a significant amount of money into the local economy.
I’ve written more extensively about my experiences and what to expect when staying with local communities here. You can also click the following link to read about Mike’s Panauti homestay.
HIMALAYAN ROAD TRIP FAQ’S & NEPAL TRAVEL TIPS
- Nepal Visa Feesare USD 25 per person and can be attained at the border on arrival. Be sure to have this full amount in cash as no credit cards are accepted and there are no ATM’s available. In addition you will need a completed hard copy of your visa application form (downloadable here), 2 color passport photos, a copy of your passport and off courser your original passport.
- Carry enough cash in small bills for street purchases. ATM are readily available in larger towns and cities, but vendors seldom welcome card purchases.
- Bring something from your country as a gift for your community homestay host. It can be as small as a postcard. Most host’s eagerly, and proudly, shared the stories of previous guests. I really wished I had brought something to leave with them to remember me by.
- Pack shoes you can remove with ease, you will constantly be removing your shoes and putting them back on again. I went crazy with my lace-ups.
- Hand sanitizer is absolutely crucial, along with small hand towels to remove the sweat from your brow while exploring.
- Never touch a Nepali on the head, to them, it is incredibly offensive—like you are ‘stealing their soul’.
- Do not put your feet up anywhere, pointing your feet in someone direction in public is one of the most offensive things you can do.
- Only ever eat with your right hand when not using utensils.
- Pack cool clothing that covers the maximum of your body, especially shoulders and legs.
If you have any questions about doing a Himalayan road trip, or visiting any of the places listed, please leave a comment below and we’ll try and answer it.
(MRT was hosted by Nepal Tourism Board and Himalayan Travel Mart. A detailed breakdown of our ‘Himalayan Circuit Road Trip’ can be found as ‘Itinerary 8’, here.)