The country's capital and largest city simultaneously reeks of history and the wear and tear of increasing modernity. The tightly packed historical centre, with its squares and temples, continues to preserve a world light years away from the shanty towns, expensive hotels, restaurants and shops on the city's outskirts. Kathmandu's core is Durbar Square, with the Vishnumati River to the west and Ratna Park to the east. The Bagmati River forms the southern boundary, while Thamel, the budget travellers' hangout, sprawls to the north.
Patan, the second-largest city in the valley, lies just across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu, but it's a much quieter and less frenetic place to visit. The city is justly proud of its temples and artisans and it is their handiwork that provides the focus of the stunning Durbar Square - choc-a-block with the largest display of Newari architecture in Nepal. It includes the Royal Palace, which contains a richly decorated bathtub, and the two-tiered brick Jagannarayan Temple. Look up to the roof struts to see carvings of figures engaged in quite athletic acts of intercourse. A few minutes' walk north of the square is the Golden Temple, a Buddhist monastery guarded by sacred tortoises that potter around the courtyard; and the Kumbeshawar, reputedly the oldest (1392) temple in Patan. South of the square is an area of charming streets lined with metalsmiths and brassware shops.
Patan's other attractions are flung further afield. Among them is a collection of four stupas, thought to have been built over 2500 years ago, and Nepal's only zoo, which features a reasonable assortment of rhinos, tigers, leopards and bird life. Palm readers gather in the park outside - they may be able to point out which animal you'll be reincarnated as. Tibetan carpets can be bought in Jawlakhel, east of the city.
It's an easy 5km (3mi) from Thamel in Kathmandu to Patan and you can get there by bicyle, taxi, bus, or tempo.
Bhaktapur is in many ways the most medieval of the three major cities in the Kathmandu Valley. Despite recent development, the city still retains a distinctly timeless air, with much of its glorious architecture dating from the end of the 17th century. Most sights can be easily traversed by foot and include yet another Durbar Square, which is infinitely larger than Kathmandu's and has its fair share of temples, statues and columns, many with grisly histories behind them. For instance, the sculptor of the Ugrachandi & Bhairab Statues had his hands chopped off to prevent him from duplicating his masterpieces.
Bhakatapur's second main square is Taumadhi Tole, which features Nyatapola, the highest temple in the valley, and Til Mahadev Narayan, an important place of pilgrimage. Nearby is Potters' Square, where thousands of clay pots are made and sold. East from here, through the sinuous streets of the old city centre, is Tachupal Tole, another square containing temples and monasteries plus craft museums.
Sometimes it's best to take a break from temples and sit back and watch the unchanging rituals of daily life: the laying out of grain to dry in the sun, families collecting water or washing under communal taps, children playing simple games, dyed yarns flapping in the breeze or potters at work throwing clay.
Bhaktapur is about 35km (22mi) south east of Kathmandu's city centre and is easily reached by bus, minibus or trolley bus. You may have second thoughts about the minibuses, though, as they are overcrowded and can turn a 35 minute trip into an hour long torture; the Chinese trolley-buses are a better option.
Apart from Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, there are a number of other fascinating villages, temples and stupas scattered around the valley. One of these is probably the best known site in Nepal - the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath. The temple is colloquially known as the 'monkey temple', after the large tribe of garrulous monkeys which guard the hill, amusing visitors and devotees with their tricks, including sliding gracefully down the long double bannisters of the main stairway. The soaring central stupa is topped by an aureate block featuring the watchful eyes of Buddha. Set around the base is a continuous series of prayer wheels which pilgrims, circumambulating the stupa, spin as they pass by.
Beyond Swayambhunath, on the banks of the Bagmati River, is Pashupatinath, the country's pre-eminent Hindu temple and one of the most significant Shiva temples on the subcontinent. As the Bagmati is a holy river, Pashupatinath has become a popular place to be cremated - the ghats (river steps) immediately in front of the temple are reserved for the cremation of royalty, while those a little further south are for the riffraff.
Another site with a religious bent is the huge stupa of Bodhnath, which is the largest in the country and among the largest in the world. It's also the centre for Nepal's considerable population of Tibetans. Late afternoon is a good time to visit. This is when prayer services are held and the locals turn out to walk around the stupa (if you want to join in, remember to walk in a clockwise direction). Surrounding Bodhnath are a number of monasteries, but be discreet and respectful if you intend visiting them.
The valley also offers plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track, with treks to and from the resort villages of Nagarkot and Dhulikhel, wallowing in Tatopani's hot springs, exploring cloud forests in Pulchowki, and mountain biking in the regions of Chapagaon and Bungamati.
Most of the valley attractions around Kathmandu can be reached on foot but the easiest way to get around is by bicyle. If that sounds a bit too energetic, consider hiring a taxi for the day.
If you come to the Terai expecting snow-clad mountains and jaw-dropping vistas, you'll soon be disappointed. What you get instead is hot subtropical plains and some of the most fascinating attractions in Nepal. Foremost among them is the magnificent Royal Chitwan National Park, once the hunting ground of British and Nepalese aristocrats. Today, the animals - elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, leopard and deer - are protected, not shot. Probably the greatest thrill here is to scout for wildlife on the back of an elephant. If that's too uncomfortable, you can do the same thing in a jeep or canoe, or go jungle walking with experienced guides. Watch out for leeches, which operate with stealth-like efficiency during the monsoon.
Janakpur is an attractive city, bustling with tourists - Indian pilgrims that is, not Western backpackers. The city's religious significance is due to its role as the birthplace of Sita (Rama's wife in the Hindu epic Ramayana). During festivals, when vignettes from the Ramayana are re-enacted, it almost feels as if the ancient myth has come to life. If you can overcome its bewildering tangle of streets, Janakpur is packed with worthwhile sights including temples, pilgrim hostels and tiny sacred ponds. On the city's outskirts is the Janakpur Women's Development Centre, a must-see if you're interested in traditional painting and ceramics or the role of women in local society. Beautiful Devghat and Lumbini, now confirmed as the birthplace of Buddha, are also important devotional sites in the Terai.
Janakpur is over 135km (84mi) from Kathmandu, and a little less than that to the Chitwan National Park. A number of airlines fly to destinations within the Terai, but the most popular mode of transport is bus, more through economic necessity than choice. Usually they are overcrowded, stopping-all-stations affairs that leave you battered and bruised. If you've got a bit of extra cash, hiring a car is a comfortable way to see the region or, alternatively, a good mountain bike will get you there, back and around.
The city of Pokara is renowned for its setting rather than its historical or cultural endowments. Its quiet lakeside location and proximity to the mountains mean it is an ideal place for recovering from (or gearing up for) a trek, taking leisurely strolls or simply putting your nose in a good book. And wouldn't you know it, Pokhara has some of the country's best accommodation and restaurants as well. There's a batch of Tibetan settlements, a hilltop monastery and the pretty Devi Falls nearby. Day walks can be taken to Sarangkot (1592m), the limestone caves at Mahendra Gufa or Rupa and Begnas Tals lakes. More exertion (but not much more) is required to tackle the three to four-day Annapurna Skyline Trek.
There are daily flights between Pokhara and Kathmandu. For Himalayan views sit on the right-hand side if you're heading to Pokhara and the left if heading to Kathmandu. The bus trip between the two towns takes about eight hours.
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