What’s So Special About Bhaktapur?

For anyone thinking about visiting Nepal for the first time, especially for a trekking adventure, the image of this country is almost invariably of snow-capped mountains and sturdy sherpa villagers. Not many aspiring trekkers give much thought to the what the rest of the country is like. They also rarely consider an alternative to Kathmandu as a starting and ending point for their trek. As a result they often leave Nepal having only experienced a very narrow, and misrepresentative, portion of what this country can offer any traveler.

For reasons of convenience, over 99% of all tour and trekking companies in Nepal are located either in Kathmandu or Pokhara, the two largest cities. The vast majority of those companies are stuffed into Kathmandu’s crowded Thamel tourist district, where they can most easily sell and service the tourists who are herded into this ghetto of guest houses, souvenir shops and street vendors. For trekkers who are only interested in getting up to a base camp destination to claim their bucket list prize, Thamel and the rest of central Kathmandu is a convenient potpouri of relative comfort, obligatory sightseeing, shopping, and celebratory dining. They overlook the pollution, chaos, commercialism and artificial culture that surrounds them as they focus on either their upcoming challenge or recent triumph. Others trekkers sense, and sometimes complain, that Kathmandu left them with bad memories, an ill-fitting locale to prepare for their trek. But they are rarely offered the choice of enjoying anywhere else, even though alternatives are reasonably close by. Most of the Nepal tourist industry operates just like its counterparts around the world, corraling clients into the the areas that are most convenient and profitable for them, rather than where their guests might discover exactly what they are looking for (and even some things they had no idea existed).

We are very fortunate at ITrekNepal that most of our staff and their families are from Bhaktapur, the UNESCO World Heritage city on the outskirts of Kathmandu. It is why we decided years ago to locate our office here, and why we encourage our clients (guests) to stay here before starting their treks (amazing fact: since the new road was built in 2010 it now takes less time to get from the Kathmandu airport to Bhaktapur than into Thamel). With the completion of the Bhaktapur road there have also been several high quality hotels built in Bhaktapur (more about that in a moment).

One of the most unique parts of an ITrekNepal itinerary is the morning of the second day after arrival in Nepal. While trekkers encamped in Thamel hotels are awakening to the the din of Kathmandu traffic and street hawkers, our guests go hiking with us in the neaby Gundu valley. This remarkable refuge, which we call “The Hidden Valley of Gundu”, is within easy walking distance of any Bhaktapur hotel, but closest to the Hotel Heritage (our favorite). Having explored countless rural valleys throughout central Nepal, I still think that Gundu is the most pristine, alluring and beautiful of them all. A 2 – 3 hour hike in the Gundu is the perfect way to stretch legs after a long flight and to be introduced to Nepal’s village culture. When I escort guests on these hikes (it’s the only time I get to be a guide), they often exclaim “I had no idea there was anything like this in Nepal!” We gaze over rice fields where the red saris of women tilling their crops are set against the bright green and yellows of the fields. We are greeted by wide-eyed villagers who often invite us into their homes for tea, delighted that foreigners would want to visit their village (we are virtually the only ones who do). We walk through beautiful rhododendron and pine forests. In the spring the rhododendrons are in full bloom, and locals are picking the blossoms (Nepal’s national flower) to decorate their homes. We stop at Hindu temples set high above the valley, where Bhaktapur residents come to worship at one of the three temples in the Gundu, each devoted to the gods Shiva and Ganesh. We might even visit the local school where children in tidy green uniforms will stop their lessons to greet us gleefully with the English phrases they’ve been practicing.

The forests around the Gundu Valley are so special that the Nepal government is planning to eventually establish a wildlife preserve and recreation center in this area. When this happens the valley may lose some of its unique, unspoiled appeal. Until then ITrekNepal guests can enjoy a very special experience.

So when our guests share their amazement at the hidden treasures of the Gundu Valley and say that they had had no idea anything like this existed in Nepal, I usually reply that they also have no idea what they are missing in downtown Kathmandu, and how lucky they really are to be here. Later that same day one of our local staff will take them on a tour of Bhaktapur. This World Heritage site is fascinating no matter how it is seen, but with ITrekNepal guides it takes on an entirely new dimension. When tourists from Kathmandu visit Bhaktapur for a couple of hours they are invariably guided by someone who lives in Kathmandu. ITrekNepal guests tour the town and cultural sites in the company of someone who has lived here all his or her entire life, and whose families go back many generations in this ancient city. They not only see the popular sights, but also meet other residents, visit local homes, and even enjoy festivals and religious rituals along with the families of our staff. It all adds up to an remarkably personal and authentic Nepal experience, completely different from the packaged Kathmandu tours that are invariably offered by other companies. It should also be noted that while some treks get off the beaten path and visit remote villages, most treks follow well-trodden routes where locals see thousands of visitors every year. Parts of Bhaktapur and all of the Gundu Valley see fewer visitors in a year than the popular Everest and Anapurna trails see in a day!

A few years ago some sacrifices had to be made to stay in Bhaktapur. Not only was there no decent road here from Kathmandu but the hotel choices were limited to a few simple guest houses. Now the trip from Kathmandu airport takes only 20 minutes, and there are three very good new hotels that combine traditional design with western comforts and service. The best of these is the Hotel Heritage, a 4 star category hotel that has been constructed in the traditional Newari style. The Heritage is unquestionably the best hotel in Bhaktapur (and equal to the best in Kathmandu), with large, comfortable rooms, a remarkably good restaurant, impeccable service, and an authentic Nepali ambience. It is also located right next to the ITrekNepal office, making it very convenient for our guests to prepare for their treks, or get any other help that they need.

Although ITrekNepal guests have the option to stay in Thamel after a trek, many prefer to return to Bhaktapur for their final night after they return from the mountains. I think it’s actually a toss-up which is the best place to stay after a trek, depending on your interests. There’s nothing quite like celebrating a challenging achievement (like reaching Everest Base Camp) at a raucous restarant or bar along with other revelers after your trek. But there is nothing better than being introduced to the “real Nepal” with a stay in Bhaktapur before starting a trek.

Trek to Namobuddha and Balthali

1,000 steps aren’t so bad once you see what’s at the top. Savannah, Nick, Suman, and I began our two-day backpacking trip from Dhulikel to Khopasi by climbing the 1,000 steeps. The ascent was long and tiring.  We were able to stop part way up at a giant gold statue of Buddha, but the real treat was at the top of the steps which was an amazing view of the Panchkhal valley and then up further to Namobuddha. This beautiful gold, red, and blue painted monastery is perched on a hillside overlooking the valley and the Himalayas beyond. Many monks live at the monastery and wandered through its corridors as we entered. Because it was Losar (Tibetan New Year), there was chanting, which hummed and vibrated along the hillside.  Two monks showed us around a couple of the rooms in the monastery where we were able to see some of the intricate carvings, statues, and paintings. A true celebration of Buddhism! We then walked over the hillside where thousands of prayer flags were hung connecting the hillsides and creating a canopy over the trail where we walked.

Down steep ravines, and then up steep hills, we continued our journey until we arrived at the magical little farming village of Balthali. The dark green fields contrasted with the women farming in red.  The hotel we stayed at is located at the highest point in Balthali, so we continued through the village. Children in their school uniforms ran over to us smiling and practicing their English, as women carried stacks of bricks up the hill and greeted us as they passed. The children asked me my name and allowed me to take photos of them as they continued on their way home. Cows, chickens, and goats also crowded the streets as we made our final ascent up steep steps to the hotel. The sun was beginning to set over the hills surrounding the farms and we exchanged card games and ate delicious chicken noodles before heading to bed, all of us exhausted after our long day.

Bhouddhinath Temple

I visited the Bhouddhinath Temple the day before Losar (Tibetan New Year).  It was crowded with monks, tourists, and locals coming to enjoy this monumental Buddhist temple, with its white dome and gold pyramid top with two giant blue and red eyes.  Nick, Savannah, and I walked clockwise around the temple and then entered and made a second circle. The square was humming with the sounds of monks chanting, beating drums, and bells ringing in preparation for Losar. It was only a 40-minute journey by bus and definitely worth seeing!