From the hills around Bandipur to the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley, a week of light hiking in Nepal reveals a country that is as resilient as it is beautiful.
Photographs by Christopher Wise.
On the sinuous highway west of Kathmandu, a throng of Indian trucks were making liberal use of their air horns, blasting strident musical tunes at oncoming traffic and any goats or humans who strayed too close to the roadside. “Lovely scenery, very curvy,” my driver had told me of our route when we set off earlier that morning. Curvy, yes; but as for the views, I could only guess: a phalanx of billboards and a fog of dust and diesel fumes obscured our surrounds. It was not exactly an auspicious start to a week of tramping in the Himalayan hinterland.
Every few months, I feel the need to stretch my legs and defog my brain with a walking holiday, seeking out destinations far enough from the frenzy of city life but not too rough or remote that I don’t have good food and a comfortable bed when I need them. In recent years I’ve shaken out my bones in the countryside of Italy, France, and New England. This time, I was looking for somewhere closer to my home in Bangkok. A place with a mild climate and compelling landscapes where I could walk 10 to 15 kilometers a day.
An old friend of mine who had worked in Kathmandu years ago suggested Nepal. Not the classic hiking trails of the Annapurna region or the equally legendary Everest Base Camp trek, mind you—both of those would require far more time and arrangements than I could manage. Her recommendations instead were the hills above Dhulikhel on the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley, where a spa retreat called Dwarika’s Resort promised pampering remoteness; and Bandipur, a mountainous municipality some 140 kilometers west of the Nepali capital with a good mix of village life and walking trails. And so, after a three-and-a-half hour flight from Bangkok and a night spent acclimatizing in Kathmandu, I find myself crawling along a busy highway to a soundtrack of truck horns, wondering if my friend had steered me wrong.
Eventually, however, the trucks turned south for the border and the air cleared with some help from the breeze off the Trishuli River, its rain-swollen course strung here and there with suspension bridges. At the four-hour mark we took a sharp left turn onto a switchbacked mountain road to Bandipur. Founded by Newar merchants from the Kathmandu Valley in the late 18th century, Bandipur was once an important post on the old trade route between India and Tibet. Its residents grew rich and built handsome brick townhouses with lattice windows and carved wooden doorways, as well as pagoda-roofed temples and an elaborate little library. When the ridge-top village was bypassed by a new highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara in the early 1970s, it fell into decline, though tourism has brought back a modicum of prosperity in recent years.
My hotel, The Old Inn, which I had booked on the advice of a travel agent in Kathmandu, would prove to be a warren of snug rooms connected by Escher-like stairways with a scattering of antique chests, old lamps, and Buddha iconography. It stood at the end of Bandipur Bazaar, a pedestrian-only stretch of foot-worn flagstones where I said goodbye to the driver. On either side of the street, lovingly preserved buildings have been converted into guesthouses, shops, and cafés, cascades of crimson bougainvillea spilling from their wooden balconies. The vibe was almost European.
Strolling along, I stopped to admire a whitewashed colonial-style building that had been subdivided into two guesthouses, but that still had the stature of a former trading office or town hall. A Nepali lady in a patterned sari sat outside observing passersby. I greeted her with a “namaste” and told her I thought the building was very beautiful. At this, she broke into a broad smile and informed me it was her home. “I was born here; my father was born here. And my grandfather was born in the house over there,” the woman said, pointing across the bazaar to a four-story brick building with a slate veranda. “I love Bandipur,” she added. And I admit, I was falling for the place too.
With the late-afternoon sun filtering red light off the clouds that hinted at an impressive sunset, I decided to drop my bags at the inn and set off for the Thani Mai Temple, which sits high atop Gurungche Hill on the western edge of town. Moving quickly up the ridgeline staircase, I could feel my stiff joints loosen and my lungs clean out from the long drive. Cool breezes rolled over the hilltop and the whispering pines seemed to shush even the traffic noise from the town below. The temple itself was no more than a cluster of forlorn shrines haphazardly gated or covered with crooked roofs. But the views stretching out to the horizon, with postcard sunbeams streaking down, were decidedly more blessed.
The next morning, I met a guide, Ashoke Rai, for the three-hour walk to Three Mountain Lodge. He led me through fields of rice and millet down to the valley floor before leaving the trail at a giant stand of bamboo to climb the opposite slope. Soon, my calf muscles were firing. Though it was mid-September, the summer monsoon had lingered, making our route steamy and tropical.
The steeper the climb, the thicker and taller were the trees, and the only signs of cultivation were slivers of terraced fields. The path took us past a small hamlet of brightly painted farmhouses, where we stopped to say hello to a woman who was sorting black lentils on her earthen stoop. With Ashoke translating, we chatted about farm life and the protracted monsoon and the steady drift of village youth to cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara to seek employment or schooling. She then offered us a shot of raksi liquor, which she makes from millet in a bubbling cauldron. We couldn’t refuse—sharing a drink of raksi is a de rigueur element of Nepalese hospitality. The taste was surprisingly fragrant and delicate, like a rustic sake.
Our mountainside tipple added a mild buzz to the next half hour of walking, and elicited an extra punch of satisfaction from each step. My lungs and feet were now working in unison, a pleasing rhythm that I recognized as the in-the-moment bliss of a good hike, where worries and mind chatter ebb away.
Finally, across a steep ravine, I could see the silhouette of Three Mountain Lodge, my base camp for the next three days. The rooms here occupy a trio of tin-roofed buildings slung along a ridge, each named for one of the snow-capped peaks they overlook: Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, and Manaslu. Today, though, the mountains were hidden behind cloud and mist; I had to content myself with photos on Ashoke’s phone. After refueling with a quick lunch of dal bhat (dal with rice) that Ashoke told me is his go-to hiking meal—“full power for twenty-four hour!”—we set off on an afternoon walk.
Avoiding a newly widened dirt road plied by honking Tata jeep-taxis, we spent the next four hours hiking along narrow tracks that connect the lodge with five different villages. The surrounding hillsides were incised with farm terraces, like the contour lines on a topographic map. The fields closest to the villages were sharply defined and well tended, while those lower down the slopes appeared overgrown and eroded. Rural flight was clearly the reason, leaving fewer hands and hoes to help till the fields. At intervals we passed pairs of pipul and banyan trees that represent the “marriage” of the Hindu deities Lakshmi and Shiva. Planted at sacred spots, they have shaded stone platforms called chautaara at their bases for travelers to rest on. Ashoke said the trees were planted here long ago by pilgrims or holy men or merit-seeking villagers, leaving them to grow into the magnificent natural shrines they are today.
Dinner back at the lodge was not nearly as elegant as my meals at the Old Inn, but it was nourishing and varied. Also welcome was the open-bar happy hour, where guests can have their fill of gin and tonics (no ice), Gorkha beer, and raksi. Ordering another beer for me, Ashoke said, “We Nepalis have an expression: atithi dewo bhawa. It means ‘a guest is the great god.’ So please, drink up.” I’m not sure if it was the booze or the post-walk endorphins or the profound silence of the Himalayan night, but when bedtime came, I feel into a deep and untroubled sleep.
Though we were still socked in with cloud cover the next day, Ashoke gamely decided to take me to a local lookout point anyway. Hemmed in by mist, we climbed up to a summit where another chautaara provided a picnic spot for a trail lunch of fried rice. As expected, the mountains were invisible. But the scenery below us was reward enough: verdant valleys, terraced hillsides, and orchards where goats and water buffalo rested in the shade of fruit trees.
On my last morning at Three Mountain Lodge, Ashoke banged on my door at seven to alert me that a break in the clouds had revealed the summit of Dhaulagiri. I strained to see the peak through the mists swirling up the valley into a ceiling of monsoon clouds. But then it appeared: a lone white pyramid afloat in the distant sky. It seemed impossibly tall, which was almost the case: at 8,167 meters, Dhaulagiri is the world’s seventh highest mountain. Then, in a wisp of atmosphere, it vanished once more.
One hundred and seventy kilometers to the east in Dhulikhel, I checked into Dwarika’s Resort. It’s the sister property to Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu, where I had stayed on my first night. The original Dwarika’s is something of a local legend. In the 1950s, its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha, was jogging past the ruins of an old building when he spotted a pair of carpenters sawing up an intricately carved wooden pillar to use as firewood. This encounter inspired his lifelong effort to protect Nepal’s architectural heritage and to eventually build a hotel that would serve as a living museum to showcase his collection of artifacts. (The hotel’s mission gained renewed urgency following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, which destroyed innumerable temples and homes in the Kathmandu Valley. An on-site wood workshop teaches young craftsmen traditional carving skills, restores old pieces, and has helped with reconstruction efforts around the country.) Opened in 1977, Dwarika’s Hotel is modeled after an old Newari palace, with an elegant inner courtyard that leads to 86 rooms and suites appointed with terra-cotta-tiled floors, beamed ceilings, and handcrafted furnishings. Suffused with old-world charm and familial conviviality, it’s an oasis in chaotically expanding Kathmandu.
Dwarika’s Resort, by contrast, is the brainchild of Das Shrestha’s daughter, and its focus is on holistic healing and wellbeing. There are free Ayurvedic consultations and crystal healing sessions; a Himalayan salt house and chakra sound chambers; a meditation maze; and visits by astrologists and Buddhist monks. Appealing as all this sounded, I spent most of my time that afternoon easing my muscles in the resort’s moon-shaped infinity pool, or sampling garden-grown vegetables in a lunch bowl brimming with quinoa and glazed tofu (the local honey and yogurt were also fantastic). Otherwise, I lingered at the Gol Lok Dham Lounge, a living room–like space with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Though I had already logged 60 kilometers exploring the area around Bandipur and Three Mountain Lodge, I was ready for some more exercise the next morning. So I consulted the activities list and signed up for a three-hour walk to the resort’s organic gardens. Joining one of the farmers employed by Dwarika’s, I set off down the backside of the property. Forty minutes later we were walking under kiwi vines and amid patchwork terraces of the same organic veggies I had enjoyed at lunch. From the garden, the view dropped straight down to settlements far below, without a honk or toot to be heard. But how had we arrived already?
“Oh, no sir,” the farmer told me. “This is the ‘near’ garden. The main garden is still another two hours downhill. We can keep going if you want?”
“Absolutely,” I replied. “Let’s keep on walking.”
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport receives direct flights from Bangkok (Thai Airways), Singapore (SilkAir), and Hong Kong (Cathay Dragon), as well as from other regional gateways.
When to Go
The winter and spring months in Nepal are optimal for mountain views. It’s best to avoid the hot, wet monsoon season, which usually lasts from June through August though, as the writer learned, can linger into September.
Where to Stay
Battisputali, Kathmandu; 977-1/447-9488; doubles from US$310.
Dhulikhel; 977-11/490-612; doubles from US$390.
Bandipur Bazaar; 977-65/ 520-110; doubles from US$80.
Bandipur; 977-1/443-5686; doubles from US$140.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“On The Right Track”).