Beyond kathmandu

Dhulikhel

A 30 kilometre  drive to the southeast of Kathmandu takes you to the resort town of Dhulikhel. This town has been a commercial trade route between Nepal and Tibet for centuries. Nepalis have used this route for centuries to bring salt and gold. Though the majority of the people here are Newars, other ethnic communities likes Tamangs, Chhetris, Brahmin and Dalits also make up the populace. During the main Hindu festival of Dashain, Tibetan traders make their journey into Nepal with their flocks of sheep; they in turn purchase various spices and condiments and return to their homeland.  Since the construction of the road connecting Tibet with Nepal, Dhulikhel has seen a remarkable transformation into a major and popular tourist destination. One would need to ideally spend the night there in one of the many resorts that have cropped up; especially to witness the sunrise over the mountains.

Situated at an altitude of 1550 metres, it is the perfect vantage point to view the snow clad peaks in the dissipating early morning haze and gradually opening up to the lush green farmlands below. The plains gradually rise to the forested hills and then further to the majestic peaks of the Himalayas. One can view Mt. Annapurna in the far west to Mt. Karolung towards the east. One can observe more than twenty peaks from Dhulikhel; Mt. Annapurna ( 8091 m ), Mt. Ganesh Himal ( 7429 m ), Mt. Langtang ( 7234 m ), Mt. Phuribichyachu ( 6637 m ), Mt. Gaurishanker ( 7134 m ), Mt. Lhotse ( 8516 m ) being the major ones.

Dhulikhel – The Old Town

The southern part is the oldest area of the town is a cluster of Newari households which are inhabited by local extended families. The houses with their ornately carved woodwork frames and doors  reflect local craftsmanship at its finest and is a culture and heritage asset.

The narrow streets and alleyways define the ancient and medieval way of life that has stood the test of time for over five centuries. The city or town has been planned as per Hindu doctrines that are based on harmony and religious auspices. An example of such a settlement is Shreekhandpur which is situated 2 km west of the main city near Kathmandu University, and for centuries has been inhabited by Newars and Magars. The Gorakhnath Temple is also situated here and the locals are safeguarded by Swet Bhairav an incarnation of Lord Shiva and Narayan ( Vishnu ) deities.

Temples in Dhulikhel

Both Hinduism and Budhhism have flourished here for hundreds of years and this evident from the numerous shrines and temples that are masterpieces of Newari craftsmanship. The central area of Dhulikhel has cobbled streets and in the centre of town is the Narayan Temple with yellow metalled roofs. This temple is a dedication to Lord Krishna. Next to it is the Harsiddhi Temple. These temples display intricate wood carvings and are guarded by Garudas. The Bhagwati Temple is situated at the western part of the town.

Namo Buddha

Namo Buddha which is Located at an altitude of 1750 meters is an ancient Buddhist monastery situated on the outskirts of Kathmandu and is over an hours drive from there. According to legend, King Mahasattva offered his body to a hungry tigress and her cubs so that they may live; this selfless and courageous sacrifice has made this site highly revered by all those who make the pilgrimage there.

The area is mainly inhabited by people from the Tamang community/ Besides the view one can get from here, the agricultural produce like rice, mustard, millet and soya can be an interesting feature for visitors. The three major Buddhist pilgrimage sites of Nepal are Boudha Stupa, Swayambhunath Stupa and Namo Buddha.

It would be an excellent idea to spend the night here as the sunrise and sunset offers you breathtaking and exhilarating views of the mountains and the valley below. In addition, the crispness of the pollution-free fresh air  and the harmony of the diverse communities that live here are a stark contrast to city life.

Namo Buddha is also a place for meditation and practice.

Hiking or biking or driving are your options to visiting this site.

Panauti

Located 32 southeast of Kathmandu is the city of Panauti which is a prominent historical city of Nepal mainly due to the fact that this city was given as a dowry to King Bhupatindra Malla's sister. The major attractions in Panauti are the Indreshwor Temple and the Durbar Square found in the town centre. Panauti, along with Kathmandu, was incorporated into the Unified Kingdom of Nepal in the 13th century. It is dotted with various Hindu and Buddhist monuments and sites and is therefore considered an important medieval site.

Panauti still retains its golden past, and to the observer, it would seem that the town has been left as it was in the distant past. This traditionally Newari town with its narrow streets and alleyways has a quaint nostalgic atmosphere, and walk along these streets will evoke all your senses. The town's culture and tradition is reflected on the colourful items that one will find laid out on the streets.

Panauti is situated at the confluence of the Rosi and Punyamati Rivers. It has always been deemed a religious site that has been revered since the early times. A third river, Lilawati, which is presumed to be only visible to intellectuals and faithfuls. Devotees throng the Indreshwor Mahadev Temple during festive times to cleanse their souls. Various Jatras and chariot festivals are held here during various calendar months and one witness one of the oldest traditional dances, the Harsiddhi Dance which uses the language of the Gods.

BANDIPUR

Bandipur is a predominantly Newari settlement located on a hill top midway between the long drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Most old trading routes between Nepal and Tibet have transformed into modern hubs, but Bandipur still retains its age old ancient flavour which is reflected by its architecture, lifestyle, people and culture and its harmony with nature. Bandipur is also good for short trekking in Nepal.Taking the age old route from Dumre Bazaar, you will traverse uphill through lush, pristine forests till you find yourself in a quaint township where very little has changed despite the passage of time. Cultural activities are still conducted with fervour here, and the various temples and shrines, sacred cave dwellings, numerous festivals, houses with intricate Newari architecture, is a reflection of the bygone days of old Kathmandu Valley.

Standing proudly on a saddle situated at an altitude of 1005 metres, the township overlooks the Marshyangdi River Valley. This vantage point also gives you breathtaking vistas of the Himalayas, specifically Gorkha Himal. The surrounding hills provide excellent trails for hiking and takes you through ethnic settlements, virgin forests and hilltop shrines which doubled as fortresses in bygone eras.There are also some short trekking trips in bandipur.

This culturally and naturally intact settlement is a must visit, must see destination that offers splendid hiking trails, taste of mountain village culture and stunning mountain and valley views.

 

Chitwan National Park

Situated in the Mid-South Terai region of Nepal is the Chitwan National Park, which was originally known as the Royal Chitwan National Park ( RCNP ) as royalty used it for game hunting purposes. However, conservation orders were issued in 1973 to protect the endangered species of the region. In 1984, it was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. In the past hunting and poaching of animals like the one horned rhino and the Bengal Tiger had reduced their numbers to the bare minimum; fortunately over the years conservation efforts have increased the numbers of these endangered animals.

The park is home to wide array of diverse flora and fauna and is an animal lover's, bird watcher's and botanist's paradise. Among the many species of mammals and reptiles found there are the one-horned rhino, rhesus monkeys, deer, sambar, gharials ( local crocodilians ), the fresh water dolphin which is now a rare feature and the elusive Bengal Tiger. Pheasants, hornbills, cranes are many of the hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds that co-habit the jungles and rivers of Chitwan and its adjoining areas.

Activities

Some activities that you can engage in are as follows :

1.         Jungle Walks

These walks range from half day, full day, 2-3 day or even a week and one may come across rhesus monkeys, various fowls / birds, rhinos and if you are lucky enough, the Bengal Tiger.

2.         Elephant Rides          

This is a novel way of exploring the habitat of these rare animals. Such elephant rides can last from one to one and half hours. Elephant rides are mainly conducted in three shifts – morning, mid-morning and late afternoon.

3.         Elephant Breeding Centre

This where you can see baby elephants and get an opportunity to feed them and get up close and personal. There is also a museum you can visit to learn about the various species and the breeding and conservation efforts.

4.         Elephant Washing

Washing elephants is an experience that very few get a chance to do. For a nominal fee and a tip to the mahouts, you can help to wash an elephant. It becomes even more enjoyable when the elephants are taken down to the river banks for their daily baths.

5.         River Boating / Canoeing

Canoeing or boating in the slow flowing rivers of Chitwan is not only a relaxing experience, but an opportunity to observe the wildlife on the banks of the river and in the river itself. One can spot gharials ( crocodilians ) and very rarely, the fresh water dolphin characteristic to this region. One can also spot many migratory birds in the process.

Besides such wildlife activities, one will also get an opportunity to sample local Tharu culture in the adjoining villages and enjoy an evening of such cultural dance performances at your choice of stay. The Tharus are the predominant tribals ( indigenous ) people of the area.

Accommodation

Accommodation can vary from tented ones, to wooden stilted huts, to lodges and luxury hotels. Some provide the bare amenities and food, whilst others may provide all luxury facilities and choicest cuisines.

Accessibility

Chitwan is easily accessible from Pokhara and Kathmandu by a 4 – 6 hour drive. If you choose to fly, the nearest airport to Chitwan is Bharatpur which is 10 kilometres away from the park centre.

Best time to Visit

Most local guides and tour operators claim that October to December, or even better, November-December is the ideal time to visit as one will not only experience bearable weather, but also stand a much better chance of sighting animals. Mid-June to September in the region is extremely hot and humid.

 

GORKHA

Driving 25 kilometre off the road from the major highway that connects Pokhara to Kathmandu, you will find yourself in the ancient and historical town of Gorkha. Approximately 300 years or so ago, Nepal was segregated into 50 small states, and Gorkha happened to be one of them. King Prithvi Narayan Shah who established the Shah Dynasty, which governed Nepal till recently, was responsible for unifying Nepal. It is here that you will find the renowned Gorkha Palace atop a hill which stands majestically at an altitude of 1000 metres. This vantage point was a strategic place for the king to watch over his subjects from the tallest palace at the heart of Nepal. Gorkha is also home to the legendary 'khukuri-wielding' famed Gurkha soldiers who have instilled fear in the minds of their enemies in countless wars in Nepal and around the world.

What to See & Visit

The first and most obvious place to visit would be the Gorkha Palace from where you can commence your tour of the region. Starting from the bottom of the hill, the climb up the 1700 steps leading to the palace may seem like an arduous task, but the reward at the top is fulfilling ( about 2 hours ). The consolation that you can draw is the fact that the way down is easier !! The palace is not the only feature you will be rewarded by your efforts; you can treat yourself to the stunning views of the panoramic Himalayan vistas which include views of Manaslu and Himalchuli peaks, and of course the sprawling valleys below that take your breath away.

The Gorkha District of Nepal has initiated a community tourist program and has been in couple of years of operation. This region is well appreciated not only by foreign visitors, but also Nepalis from other regions for its unrivalled natural beauty, spectacular views, virgin forests, mid-hill trekking routes, cave explorations, cascading waterfalls and the flora that has medicinal, aromatic and edible characteristics.

The Gorkha Village Tours, which is fairly new venture, has been successful in its endeavours to promote community-based tourism, and this is evident from the success and popularity that has stemmed from Sirubari, Syangja ( a half day excursion from Pokhara ). It is a three-hour walk from the roadhead which is 30 kilometres from Pokhara. A Management Committee oversees the welcome, accommodation, sightseeing and guiding of visitors. The village has 60 or so households that offer homestay accommodations with simple but clean and comfortable bedding along with toilet facilities. You will be treated to fresh local produce during meals which you share with the ethnic Gurung family with whom you stay with. In the evenings, you will be entertained with traditional Gurung dance, music and song.

Lumbini

Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been put on the world map for being the place of Lord Buddha's birth. It is a site revered by not only Buddhist, but also Hindu pilgrims. The Maya Devi Temple sits on the exact site of Buddha's birth and one needs to purchase an entrance ticket some distance from the gate to the Sacred Garden.

In 1992, archaeologists carried out excavations that unearthed a series of ruins which were found to be approximately 2200 years old. There is a commemorative stone on a brick plinth which matches a stone laid down by the great Emperor Ashoka of India in the 3rd century BC. Plans have been laid out to build a magnificent monument; however, currently a solid brick pavilion protects the ruins of the temple.

Before walking round the ruins on a boardwalk, you have to remove your shoes; advisable to keep your socks on as the walk is quite substantial. One prominent feature of the ruins for most pilgrims is a sandstone carving of the birth of Buddha claimed to be put there by Ripu Malla, a Malla King in the 14th century. Though the carving is worn out, one can make out the figure of Maya Devi grasping a branch as she gives birth to Buddha. Right under this is the exact spot of the birth of Buddha marked by a stone encased in bullet proof glass.

Beside the temple is the pond where it is believed that Maya Devi had taken a bath before she gave birth to Buddha. Spread across the ruin complex are the ruined foundations of various brick stupas and monasteries which have been dated as early as 2nd century BC to 9th century AD.

Location /Accessibility

Lumbini is situated in the Rupandehi Southern Terai district of Nepal and although at an altitude of 600 feet, is considered the lowlands.

Lumbini is 230 kilometres from Kathmandu and one can take an 8 hour journey via Bhairahawa. Bhairahawa which is 22 kilometres to the west of Lumbini is also the nearest domestic airport – the flight time from Kathmandu to Bhairahawa is 30 minutes from where you can either take a bus or taxi to reach Lumbini.

Accommodation

As Lumbini is a place most visited by tourists and pilgrims, accommodation is not a problem. For budget options, you will find such hotels in Lumbini Bazaar ( aka Buddhanagar ) a village opposite the eastern entrance to Lumbini Development Zone.

The up market hotels are mostly located in the Development Zone north of Bhairahawa. Most visitors eat in the hotels.

MUKTINATH

Muktinath is a highly revered site of pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists alike and situated in the Muktinath Valley at an altitude of 3710 metres. The place is located just at the foot of the Thorongla Pass in Mustang District of Nepal. This sacred site is not far from the village of Ranipauwa, which itself is sometimes mistaken as Muktinath. Hindus refer to this holy site as 'Mukti Kshetra' which translates to 'the place of salvation'. The temple is prominently considered to be of Sri Vaishnava origin and reverently worshipped by Buddhists. Buddhists refer to Muktinath as Chumig Gyatsa or a prominent place of Dakinis – Goddesses who are known to be sky dancers and one of the 24 tantric places. They consider the statue to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara.

The central shrine of Muktinath is considered to one of the most important shrines of the eight Hindu sites; the remaining seven are Srirangam, Srimushnam, Tirupati, Naimisharanya, Todatri, Pushkar and Badrinath. This temple is one of the most ancient temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The statue is golden and cast to the size of a full human figure. Water is poured through 108 bull faces and devotees take baths in freezing waters to cleanse themselves ( 108 is an auspicious number in eastern philosophy ) – 108 water pipes also pass through the temple complex. There are both Buddhist monks and nuns who oversee the prayers and worship.

As per Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Guru Rinpoche who is also known as Padma Sambhava, had meditated in Muktinath en route to Tibet. Muktinath is the only place on earth where you can find the five basic elements from which everything is made; fire, water, earth, sky and air. The river bed here is entirely covered with Shaligram stones which are vital in order to worship Lord Vishnu and establish a temple in his dedication.

Muktinath : When & How

The ideal time to visit Muktinath would from March to June as weather conditions in the remaining months are too harsh and there would be safety concerns too. The pilgrimage passes through numerous archaeological sites and temples.

As mentioned, weather conditions make accessibility difficult, however, under favourable circumstances, one can fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara and then Pokhara to Jomsom. From Jomsom you can either opt to trek all the way to Muktinath or take a jeep. Some people to choose to charter a helicopter ( a 45 minute flight ) – this is convenient, but if you are planning a longer stay, this is not advisable due to risk of acute altitude sickness(acclimatization is a gradual process ).