Chomolungma, “Mother Goddess of the Universe”
The summit of Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, is an epic goal that few mountaineers ever reach. But trekkers don’t need to reach the top, nor even the overly popular base camp area, to experience the might of Chomolungma, “Mother Goddess of the Universe,” as Everest is known to the Sherpas.
Many encounter Everest through a journey to the beautiful Khumbu Valley to view the magnificent scenery, with its fascinating high-altitude Sherpa villages, spectacularly sited Buddhist monasteries, and unique wildlife. A visual feast for mountain lovers, Everest-area treks are highlighted by breathtaking close-up views of the 29,028-foot peak as well as of heavyweight runners-up such as Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu.
Balancing all this grandeur are the friendliness and cheerful good nature of the Sherpa people, whose hospitality provides a cultural experience as memorable as Everest itself.
A Faded Medieval Time Capsule in the Kathmandu Valley
Much of the area around Bhaktapur’s magnificent Durbar Square is magically evocative of Kathmandu, Nepal’s nearby capital, in the days before trekkers arrived bound for the Annapurna circuit and the Everest trail.
Unlike rapidly developing Kathmandu, however, Bhaktapur (also called Bhadgaon, the City of Devotees) is still a small town of medieval tableaux that has nearly escaped creeping Western tourism. Its impressive architecture and recent townwide preservation (the most extensive in Nepal, thanks to a German-funded project initiated in the 1970s) is due to its prestige as a former capital, beginning in A.D. 1200, of one of the four independent kingdoms in the Kathmandu Valley. (They were united in the late 1700s.) Durbar Square is bounded by the royal palace, with its seven courtyards; a sequence of pagoda-style Hindu temples; and the Golden Gate – made entirely of brass, it is one of Nepal’s proudest artistic achievements.
A short walk in any direction from the square brings you into the twisting backways where the town’s potters and craftsmen, for centuries a source of the city’s renown, carry on their unchanging traditions.
The Heart of Old Kathmandu
Since Nepal first opened to foreign tourism in 1951, legions of flower children have lingered in Kathmandu’s history-rich Durbar Square (durbar means “palace”). With an astounding concentration of more than fifty temples, shrines, and old palaces within a few blocks, the square still has its moments of magic when not overrun with tourist groups, touts, and bicycle rickshaws.
The sights, sounds, and smells can lead to sensory overload, and hours can be spent taking it all in from the platform steps of the triple-roofed Maju Deval temple. On the south side of the square is Kumari Ghar, the three-storied residence of the Kumari Devi (Living Goddess).
Around the square, teeming modern consumerism obliterates much of Kathmandu’s medieval character as it rushes heedlessly toward the future. But it’s still a great thrill to meander the tangle of back alleyways a bit farther from the square, reeking with incense and spices and full of hole-in-the-wall shops. Here, one can peek at a lifestyle that remains relatively oblivious to the arrival of Western visitors.
The Hotel Yak & Yeti is still one of the best in the area; it’s also one of the most original and historically interesting. Ask for a room in the original wing, the royal 19th-century home of a former rana (prime minister).
Astounding Scenery Above the Clouds
Adventurers arriving en masse since the 1960s have indelibly altered Nepal’s most popular treks, but unforgettable hill cultures and breathtaking scenery (minus the Coca-Cola signs and yellowed Rambo posters) can still be found on alternative, less-traveled routes.
The Jaljale Himal High Ridge Trek in eastern Nepal remains something of a hidden jewel, offering some of the most pristine wilderness in the Himalayas today.
There are regular views of four of the world’s five tallest and most majestic peaks (Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu) and some of the friendliest people in Nepal. Except for a handful of trekkers on the final three days, you’ll see few non-Nepalese faces – most of the picturesque villages on this trek rarely see foreigners, so travelers can still experience authentic medieval Nepal and the daily life of its three ethnic groups (Hindus, tribals, and Tibetan Buddhists). But beware: This trip will spoil you. After Jaljale Himal, everything else will seem tame and commercialized by comparison.