In 1977, Kathmandu’s New Road had more “made in Japan” and “made in Germany” foreign goods, foods, cars, alcohols, and music cassettes, than the India or Indians of that époque could have dreamt of.
A trip to Kathmandu was a trip of a lifetime, especially if you flew with Royal Nepal Airlines, which served, in 90 minutes, a range of alcoholic beverages that could compare with top international airlines of that period.
Needless to say, most passengers, got off the plane in a completely inebriated state and had to be assisted.
Restaurants were few and far in between, and the only hotels, worth their salt were the Shankar and Annapura, and the lesser mortals stayed at the Crystal Hotel, off New road.
This was the Kathmandu into which many of us first walked in, many before me, and while some of them stayed back and became synonymous with Kathmandu and Nepal, I kept making trips, up and down, until my recent trip in June.
Kathmandu roads are being widened, there's a four lane highway that links it to Bhaktapur, there's talk of a 6 lane fast track that will crisscross the country, real estate is booming, hotels are witnessing record occupancies, you can go on a sightseeing tour of the Royal Palace - are among the many changes that struck me.
Oh and through all this my friend Caroline’s restaurant Chez Caroline is doing remarkably well, run as efficiently as ever by the faithful duo of Gopal and Madhu.
It is always a pleasure to walk into Babar Mahal an ancient Rana palace outhouse which has been restored and now houses, a string of rest bars, designer boutiques, music, antique stores and of course Chez Caroline. It is the watering hole of the expat community.
Indigo flight 31 touched down on time at 1 PM local time at Tribhuvan International airport, and my friend and partner Deepak whisked me away past immigration and customs to Dwarika’s, where Sheba the charming Director of Sales met us and I labored on a club sandwich before we drove back to the airport to catch the flight to Pokhara, gateway to the Annapurna sanctuary and Nepal's second biggest city.
Back in 1977 Pokhara airfield had cows grazing on either side of the strip that would obediently move away every time the siren went off, signaling an approaching aircraft. All that has changed - the 1466 m runway is fully tarred, it has a proper ATC and a terminal building. Luggage is still delivered by hand..
Our Land cruiser was waiting for us and our local contact Chandra drove us to the Temple Tree hotel that is located in the heart of town. It is a charming 54 room hotel, has a swimming pool, a bar and a restaurant not to mention a Spa. The rooms are small, but well-appointed and I wouldn't mind staying here for a night.
Our site inspection continued and we dropped in on our old mates at the Shangrila Village Resort, Pokhara. The Swiss geologist Toni Hagen was one of the first Europeans allowed into Nepal , and he walked all over the country setting a precedent for the 200, 000 odd trekkers who now visit every year. The Shangri-La Village stands where he once stood in Pokhara soaking in the best mountain views in the valley .
This resort hotel is now sadly surrounded by residences but has lost none of its charm… The rooms stood still frozen in time and the pool was as inviting as it was when our dear friends from Communication Voyages inaugurated the hotel in 1996. I remembered Christian planting - a stone plaque to commemorate this momentous occasion – and a bit of investigative working and after clearing a few branches revealed the Epitap
The Shangri-La Village Resort (SVR) is probably the best hotel in Pokhara and great value for money. Its advantage being the mother hotel in Kathmandu, both run by another efficient, aristocratic friend Raju and his very efficient team of passionate and committed people.
Pokhara is the gateway to the Annapurna sanctuary and on a clear day you can see the peaks of the Western Himalayas - Dhaulagiri, Annapurna , Machapucchere, Hiuchuli etc. …
A trek past Birethanthi for an overnight bivouac on a ledge only to wake up the next day to watch the sunrise on the majestic Himalayan peaks. Walking results in moments of happiness , these are some money cannot buy experiences of a lifetime.
You can also jeep up to Naudanda at sunrise and walk along the ridge. It’s less strenuous and the 3 hours to reach Sarangkot is easy going with the Annapurna looming over you the entire trek. Stop at the trail side tables and order breakfast - all fresh and cooked to order. It’s a great way to see the Himalayas and the mountains do not disappoint. From Sarangkot if you are inclined for a further walk it is a 2 hour descent to the lakeside or now zip line down in 120 seconds flat.
Our expedition headed back downtown and we walked the High street of Pokhara to the left of which is the famous Phewa Lake, which surprisingly was very clean..
The high street is dotted with shoestring hotels, hundreds of restaurants, karaoke bars, coffee shops, trekking gear shops and my favorite shop Urban Yeti where you get the best T shirts.
Pokhara’ s landscape is fast changing. The morning sky is filled with Para gliders and ultra-lite flights; the government is going full steam metalling what were once pathways and as my friend Manish would call them rumble roads … a far cry from my first visit there in 1977..
The GM of the SVR highly recommended a visit to the Fishtail Lodge, which sits on an island in the Phewa Lake. It is without a doubt the best address in Pokhara - there are chalets.. which have been named after its illustrious occupants and there are two block houses, which have regulation rooms for the best views of the lake, one must stay in the chalets… no question. The hotel is accessed either by boat or a shuttle float which is pulled by ropes from either side..
As we headed back to the hotel the skies opened up and it came down pouring… the monsoons had arrived and I discovered that Nepal has an interesting festival called the paddy sowing festival. The staple food of Nepal is rice and dal.. There we sat Deepak, Chandra and I sipping our G & Ts and ate an insipid dinner before turning in.
We left Pokhara early hoping to take in as much as we could on our drive back to Kathmandu, which in hindsight was a big mistake but a valuable lesson.
We stopped briefly at The Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge set on a rural hilltop in the outskirts of Pokhara. Although closed for spring cleaning, Ishwar was kind enough to let us have a peek and bring us up to date. The 18 odd rooms are arranged in a cluster of cottages with a central bar / lounge and dining area. No mountain views this time of the year, but all around everything beautifully enveloped in all shades of green .
The Tiger Mountain Brand has now joined forces with RARE as their first non-India property . We marveled at their water harvesting as we did their home grown herbs and garden salads ; and their Energy, Water and Waste management set standards for Responsible Tourism . Even from the little that we saw, things are happening here.
Our old haunt Brigand's Bend on the other hand is no more ..
"A home like no place can be" Brigand's Bend in Thaguwater –on-Trisuli used to advertise itself as
Amongst the flowers, the birds and the trees,
Verdant surroundings is all you can see,
With gourmet cuisine and your kind of tea,
Just the kind of holiday, you might wish it to be.
On a hot summers day, in May 1995, Brigand's Bend was host to our TF 1 group in the Yeti to Tiger program when in one day a group of 90 French media tycoons had breakfast in Langtang at 5,000 m, lunch at Brigand's bend and dinner at Chitwan at 50 m . A first of its kind, Nepal has not seen another undertaking of this kind. Talk of AHA moments, it doesnt get bigger or better than this.
A poultry farm now stands where Brigand's Bend used to be , but we found out Brian had moved further upstream creating a resort for a hotel chain. The resort painted in subtle hues of yellow, has 9 quaint rooms overlooking the Trishuli and you can't miss Brian's trademark large open kitchen with the adjoining dining and sitting area. Very inviting. but you gotta get across the river.
Closer to Kathmandu, a trek through the countryside to the sacred Namobuddha shrine revealed that much has changed. I remember the time when there was the stone tablet depicting the compassion of Buddha, a small chapel besides it, a rest house with about a dozen rooms, and simple dwellings for the lamas. The place was a focus for worship and meditation and we aptly created a Body and Soul program for the lost visitors seeking instant nirvana.
Time has changed all that. While the tablet dedicated to the Buddha is "as is", the sanctuary has been embellished. A new monastery sits on the hilltop and its gilded roof towers over the countryside. The new chapel is grandiose with polished wooden floors, colourful textile wall décor, and an impressive gilt image of the Buddha.
Outside, strings of prayer flags fly as before , but modern day wind powered prayer wheels also carry prayers to Heaven. The road leading to Namobuddha is being widened and will eventually be black topped. So it is inevitable that a hilltop so prominent will attract more people.
But the views of the Himalayas are the best from within the valley, the lamas delightfully hospitable, and the trip still spiritually rejuvenating for the Body and Soul.
Upon our return it was wonderful reconnecting with Sangeeta who took us on an extended show of The Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikhel. Like a sphinx rising from the ashes, the resort is all set to be the new norm among spas. Private indoor and outdoor living, ancient Buddhist medicine and traditional Vedic Philosophy, fresh local produce all put together to offer a holistic experience. It’s a winner all right, and Sangeeta’s passion will make sure of that... And their flagship 80 room Dwarika’s in Kathmandu remains an oasis for the privileged few... with half the rooms now converted into suites.
Further on up the road, is The Last Resort. Closer to Tibet than Kathmandu, the pristine surroundings of The Last Resort are a relief after the drive. Nestled between the raging Bhote Koshi (which actually is its western boundary) and the surrounding hills - the trimmed lawns, spread out tented camp, and nearby facilities for bungee jumping, canoeing, and rafting etc. make it the ideal location for team building...
Patan is the valley’s second medieval city with its palace complex, lavish temples and bustling bazaar. However it is for the one of its kind Patan Museum, that I keep returning to Patan again and again.
On this trip I discovered the lesser-known Patan. An alternate walk away from the tourist route, through isolated alleyways, ducking through doorways and sheltered passageways, past ignored old houses with beautiful woodwork, latticed windows, monastery courtyards with chaityas, and sunken stone spouts, brought me to Swotha Square, right next to the Durbar Square .
Tucked away in a quiet by lane off Swotha was another one of its kind - Traditional Homes – a 90 year old Newari residence brought back to life and converted to an intimate 7 room bed and breakfast .
At this rustic chic guest house we discovered a sunny terrace overlooking Patan’s pagoda-strewn roofscape, and beyond it a glimpse of the Himalaya; and downstairs, a small café corner with the best Himalayan Java and Yoghurt Cake. It cannot get more authentic…
Back in Kathmandu, we pay homage to Budanilkantha – the Sleeping Vishnu. Back in 1977, just a few kilometres to the north of the Shankar hotel, it was a good half day off road excursion to this sleepy hamlet. Helas like the rest of Kathmandu , the scenic paddy fields along the route have now been replaced with affluent bungalows, and the temple shrine itself is lost in a maze of shops selling incense, prayer paraphernalia, and vivid flower garlands.
But amidst all this chaos – the Sleeping Vishnu lies peacefully pondering the fate of its living incarnate the last Shah King Gyanendra.
An election for the Second Constitution Assembly is slotted for later this year in November , and the hard-core royalists have not thrown in the towel yet, wishfully reliving a revival of the monarchy. A return to Kathmandu would have been incomplete without a visit to the indomitable Bodnath. It was to be our last stop before the return flight home.
Kathmandu has grown both upwards and outwards, high rises are appearing all over the valley, cars and motorbikes have taken over most of Kathmandu streets; broadband internet and anytime money (ATM) banking have reached the city courtyards. But the inner sanctum of Bodnath remains just as spiritual and unchanged (almost – except for the Roadhouse Café nestled above a thangka painters atelier). Bodnath is as vibrant and unfettered as ever and I left with the same “good feeling” as I did when I first visited it in 1977 and have, every time since.