By TED ROSE
Published: March 19, 2000 The New York Times
IT'S been almost 50 years since Nepal first invited Western visitors to trek its ancient trade routes, and 30 years since its capital, Katmandu, became a hippie mecca. More recently, in the wake of Jon Krakauer's best-selling book ''Into Thin Air,'' the image of the mysterious Shangri-La has suffered. Katmandu has been reduced to a polluted staging ground for mountain adventure, while the trails themselves sound as crowded as the Long Island Expressway on a summer weekend. One friend advised that I visit neighboring Bhutan instead. ''Nepal is finished,'' he told me.
My girlfriend, Rachel, and I arrived in Katmandu at the beginning of April, as the premonsoon heat began to warm up the city and the surrounding valley while clouding our view of the Himalayas. Our taxi from the airport dropped us in Thamel, the low-budget tourist section of town, which many Westerners think is all there is to Katmandu.
Even if one arrives directly from America, Thamel hardly delivers a culture shock. Signs are in English and most restaurants can deliver a generous slice of apple pie topped with a scoop of ice cream. We even checked ourselves into the Mustang Holiday Inn, although the name was apparently the only link between our quaint guest house and the international chain. To see old Katmandu, we strolled 15 minutes south through narrow dirt streets underneath dusty, ancient brick-and-wood buildings to the city's legendary Durbar Square, a motley collection of temples and pagodas clustered around Hanuman Dhoka, the old royal palace. Our guidebook had good information about the monuments of Durbar Square, but we hardly had a chance to consult it that day. Despite its historic significance, the square remains a noisy, bustling center of trade and worship for most Nepalis -- and accordingly open to all forms of traffic. (A couple of days later, a local newspaper reported that the area was in danger of losing its designation as a United Nations World Heritage Site for just this reason.) A few touts sold quick temple tours, and there were several souvenir shops, but sightseers were an afterthought here.
Just as we might have centuries ago, we moved between two lumbering elephants with their anxious owner and a steady stream of porters and farmers carrying loads of vegetables to market. The next moment we had to dodge the swerving motorcycles and trucks belching thick, sooty smoke. The pollution from the motor traffic and the omnipresent dust formed an unpleasant cocktail, and I noticed that many Nepalis resorted to wearing white dust masks as an antidote. Like most visitors, we quickly headed for the hills.
We hired a guide and a porter and embarked on a 13-day trek to the isolated Langtang Valley, a narrow strip of semiarid land sandwiched between two mountain ranges just a few miles south of Tibet. The valley was settled by Tibetan immigrants several hundred years ago, and people still reside there, surviving on a combination of subsistence farming and tourism. Langtang is hardly undiscovered, but it draws far fewer visitors than the better-known trekking regions surrounding Mount Everest and the Annapurnas.
I read that pollution had become an increasing problem in those other areas, forcing authorities to ban nonrecyclable water bottles. We were pleased to find the Langtang trails, as well as the basic accommodations along the way known as teahouses, quite clean. Visitors and residents appear to have benefited from an eco-tourism campaign designed to teach villagers everything from sanitary waste disposal to how to cook an American-style omelet.
Our trek began with an eight-hour drive from Katmandu to Dhunche (pronounced doon-chay), a sleepy town that serves as the trailhead for the region. From there, it was a three-day hike to Langtang Valley. Neither of us had any technical climbing skills and none were needed on the well-traveled main trail. Thanks to our porter, Dep, the hiking was tiring but rarely overwhelming. At first we were grateful for the company of our guide, Changba, too. He handled our negotiations over room and board and identified mountain peaks with great aplomb. When questions turned to flora and fauna, however, we quickly discovered the limits of Changba's knowledge (or perhaps it was his English). As the trip wore on, we vowed next time to keep the porter, but lose the guide.
We spent much of the first few days ascending a steep canyon just below the valley that was thickly forested with bamboo, then crossed a narrow suspension bridge over the powerful Langtang River. The entrance to the valley itself was marked by a fragrant rhododendron grove and framed by immense granite cliffs. The mountains are undoubtedly the main attraction in Langtang, but the Tibetan culture, seemingly untouched by lowland Nepalese influence, almost ended up stealing the show.
We savored our night in the village of Langtang, a medieval congregation of stone buildings covered with plain wood shingles, where the thin air at 11,500 feet mixed pleasingly with the smoke of yak dung fires. As the sun was setting, we looked out of our wooden teahouse and saw a woman herding her sheep home below the snow-covered saber-toothed peak of Langtang II.
The next day, we continued our walk up the valley to Kyangjin, essentially a group of teahouses clustered at the base of several imposing mountains. Kyangjin serves as a staging ground for day trips to nearby peaks and longer mountaineering expeditions. It also has a small Buddhist monastery, or gompa, and a Swiss-owned factory that produces yak cheese.
After hiking back down the valley, we spent three days on a side trip up its southern ridge to the holy lake of Gosainkund, which Hindus believe was created by Shiva, who receives more adoration in Nepal than any other Hindu deity. It is easy to understand the devotion to the volatile god when you are walking next to rivers that continue to carve deep canyons out of mountains rising to the sky. Gosainkund becomes the focus of worship every August when thousands of pilgrims come to the lake to honor Shiva. Our few days in and around Gosainkund provided the best views of our trek. One particularly clear morning we enjoyed a spectacular panorama of what seemed a giant Himalayan rock garden: neighboring mountain ranges dominated the foreground while faraway ridges could just be made out in the distance.
The trek gave us a different perspective on Katmandu. Out in the terraced farms of the Himalayas, the city looked less like an entry point for tourists or the polluted capital of a developing country, and more like the main trading post of a mountainous, rural region. One man we met (who spoke English -- unusual outside of Katmandu) told us that when he was young his father had to hike 21 days to reach Katmandu and trade his goods in its markets. These days, the man hikes eight hours to the nearest road and catches a bus to the capital. We returned to the city refreshed, and I was ready to give it another chance.
I ROSE early our first morning and walked back to Durbar Square just as the sun peeked through the thin clouds over the royal palace. The temperature was a cool 70 degrees, and this time I understood the square's charm. Tourists and automobiles were gone, and the vegetable sellers dominated the space, even using the temples themselves to display produce. Some Nepalis shopped while others made morning offerings to the gods. The portly Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh, stuffed into a humble one-story pagoda, was getting most of the attention. A line of 40 to 50 Hindus waited to present rice, flowers and incense to the god of auspicious beginnings before heading off to work.
As long as one avoids the polluted main thoroughfares, Katmandu is a great walking town, and I spent my mornings strolling the city's smaller streets. I fell in love with the compact Asan Tole, a central trading junction in the heart of the old city, which boasts many spice and garment sellers as well as a disproportionate number of wandering holy cows.
One block southwest of Asan Tole -- the street, like most in the city, has no name -- is the entrance to Sweta Machhendranath, a well-attended pagoda temple in which both Hindus and Buddhists worship. As it is everywhere in Katmandu, religion is inseparable from daily life, and the solemn statue of Buddha marking the temple's location is trapped between a shoe salesman and a kitchen outfitter. In contrast to the bustling center, I found the city's outskirts sobering. There was no commerce to hide the poverty that continues to plague many Nepalis, despite domestic and international development efforts.
NEPAL is sandwiched, physically and philosophically, between the Hinduism of India and the Buddhism of Tibet. One day we paid homage to both great influences by taking a taxi from Katmandu to Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu sites on the Indian subcontinent, and then walking about a mile and a half to Bodhnath, the spiritual center for Nepal's large Tibetan community.
Pashupatinath is a collection of Hindu temples east of the city center built around the Bagmati River. We could not enter the main temple, which is only open to Hindus, so we climbed the complex's terraces, looking down at the cremation ghats on the river. Rachel photographed the colorfully dressed ascetic worshipers, known as sadhus, who squatted in small stone shrines dotting the hillside.
After an hourlong walk along a dirt road, we arrived at Bodhnath, Nepal's largest Buddhist shrine. We circled the huge white-washed dome, known as a stupa, gazing at long lines of Tibetan prayer flags in various stages of decay. We slipped off our shoes and stepped inside the nearby Sakyapa Gompa, a temple featuring an ornate smiling Buddha and the soft chanting of unseen monks. Rachel, who traveled to Tibet several years ago, felt that Bodhnath offered a far better sense of practicing Buddhism than most of what she had seen in the Chinese-controlled homeland.
It is hard to imagine returning from Bodhnath, the symbol of a lost Tibetan age, to a hotel in Thamel, the most westernized place in the Himalayas. One minute we were surrounded by Tibetan monks and the next by a group of young Israelis. The music of Lauryn Hill and the signs for pizza and Coke did not bother me as much as they would have the first day we arrived in Nepal. Now, they seemed less like intrusions and more like part of the melting pot: desirable products on sale in the vibrant trading post known as Katmandu.
I also found myself comforted by thinking of Shiva, the champion of creation and destruction. Nepal is far from finished, I realized, but only Shiva knows what it will become. Trekking the remote reaches of Nepal Lodging
Mustang Holiday Inn, Thamel, Katmandu; (977-1) 249507 or (977-1) 249041, fax (977-1) 249016. There are countless guest houses in Thamel, but the Mustang offers something only a few can supply: quiet. Tucked away down a sleepy alley off Jyatha Thamel, it has some character and a variety of rooms overlooking a courtyard. There is also a restaurant (closed when we were there, but now open daily). Prices are on the high end for guest houses in town; doubles $20 to $30, at 69 Nepalese rupees to $1.
There are a number of hotels for those wishing more luxurious accommodations.
On our trek to Langtang Valley, we had a private room in every guest house (teahouse), although sometimes we had to settle for two twin beds instead of one queen bed. We supplied the towels, sheets and sleeping bags. Each guest house had a shared toilet and occasionally a rudimentary shower system. For drinking water, we asked our hosts to boil some (which they were always willing to do) and we treated the water with iodine. We paid between $1 to $4 a night. Getting Around
Numerous trekking offices in Katmandu can arrange guides, porters and permits for teahouse or camping trips. (Last summer the government ruled that trekking permits were not necessary for Langtang, Rara, Everest Base Camp and the Annapurnas. There is an entrance fee of about $9.50 for national park areas and for the Annapurna Conservation Area.) We chose to save some money and put together the trek on our own. The Himalayan Rescue Association, (977-1) 262746, fax (977-1) 256956, provides good information about altitude sickness and other health issues, while the Katmandu Environmental Education Project, (977-1) 259567, fax (977-1) 256615, educates travelers about responsible techniques. We met our guide in Durbar Square and negotiated a price: $10 a day for the guide, $7 a day for the porter. Guides and porters are not a necessity for teahouse trips -- many trekkers travel unassisted in the well-marked Langtang region. But they can be quite helpful especially if one encounters bad weather.
To get to Langtang Valley, many trekkers take the local bus from Katmandu to Dhunche, a day trip costing about $2. We heard some horror stories about the bus, so we splurged for a Land Rover. Our guide arranged for the car to drop us off and pick us up at the trailhead. We paid $100 each way.