For most travellers the hills to the west of Kathmandu mean only one thing: the buzzing resort of Pokhara, which draws many thousands of tourists every year. But the region is actually home to a wide range of little-visited attractions.
Phewa Lake helped to put Pokhara on the tourist map, but it is now crowded by an ever-growing number of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. Just 15km to the east, however, are two equally beautiful, under-visited lakes, with little of the over-development that threatens to overwhelm Pokhara.
According to local legend, Begnas Tal and Rupa Tal are husband and wife, and if you throw something into one of them, it will eventually appear in the other. The former, the bigger of the two, is framed by impossibly steep, terraced hills, while the latter is hidden away in a lush valley just to the south. Both of the lakes have the majestic snow-capped, tent-shaped peak of Annapurna II in the background, and white egrets and ospreys flying overhead – and occasionally swooping down to snatch up a fish.
Flocks of tourists hike up the mini peak of Sarangkot, just west of Pokhara, to take in the superb views, yet similarly impressive vistas can be enjoyed in virtual isolation on the eastern edge of the city at the top of Kahun Daada hill. The route up to this viewpoint also takes you through some fascinating cultural sites.
On the outskirts of the city an exacting flight of over 200 steps takes you to the intricate Manang monastery, home to around 70 Buddhist monks and site of some superb views. A ten-minute walk from the monastery, up another few hundred steps, is the Hindu Bardakali temple, which is surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and is a popular – and suitably dramatic – spot for weddings.
From here, you pass through traditional villages before reaching several uncrowded trails to the 1442m summit of Kahun Daada. Here there are stunning views of the Annapurna range, notably the 6667m-high Machhapuchhare Mountain, popularly known as the “Fish Head” for its distinctive shape.
Nepal’s most famous wish-granting temple, Manakamama Devi attracts vast numbers of domestic and Indian pilgrims, but very few other foreign tourists. It is accessed by Nepal’s only cable car (www.chitawoncoe.com.np), which whisks you swiftly up 2.8km through the clouds to the hilltop temple. You may find yourself sharing a gondola with a tethered goat, pigeon or chicken – animal sacrifices are common here. After disembarking, a trail of guesthouses, tea shops, and clusters of stalls selling devotional items – including coconuts, flower garlands and gold-trimmed shawls – leads up to a small square, which bustles with energy.
There, in the shade of a giant champ tree (a type of magnolia), the two-tiered temple is surrounded by a gaggle of pilgrims, priests and sadhus (Hindu holy men, many of whom opt to walk up the hill rather use the cable car), who light candles, ring bells, chant hymns, ask the goddess Bhagwati to grant their wishes and snap photos. Beyond the temple there are superlative vistas down to the confluence of the Trisuli and Marsyangdi rivers, and across to the Himalayas.
It’s hard to imagine a more picture-perfect town than Bandipur. Located at the top of a series of limestone cliffs, and linked to the world below by a serpentine, winding road, Bandipur was an important trading post in the 1800s.
But road construction elsewhere in Nepal meant that it slowly fell from prominence, and today it feels frozen in time. The sleepy, vehicle-free bazaar area is filled with wonderfully preserved, nineteenth-century mansions, with shuttered windows, intricately carved wooden doors, and facades covered with creeping vines and flowers. Several of these homes have now been turned into atmospheric boutique hotels – notably the charming Old Inn – and the town is a wonderful place to relax and watch the world go slowly by. A short walk from the bazaar is the tudikhel (parade ground), which protrudes out of the ridge, with sheer drops on two sides, a line of fig trees on another and the Himalayas straight head.
The ancestral home of Nepal’s former royal family, and a town steeped in history, Gorkha should be an essential stop on any itinerary of Nepal, but it receives barely a trickle of foreign travellers. Its highlight is undoubtedly the magnificent eighteenth-century Gorkha Durbar, a stiff 40-minute climb up a flight of stone steps from the lower town, something that is best attempted in the morning before the heat rises.
The Durbar itself is a real feat of architecture and engineering: half palace, half temple, the brick-and-wood construction is perched precariously on a high, narrow ridge. It was from here that Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the country’s valley kingdoms and unified the modern Nepal. The Durbar, which gazes out towards the Himalayan mountains of Ganesh Himal, the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri, is a hive of activity during the Chait Dasain festival in late March or early April, when there are processions, ancient rites and animal sacrifices.
If you’ve got any energy left from your ascent to the Durbar, hike up for a further 30 minutes or so to the much smaller Upallokot (Upper Fort), which stands at some 1520m.
A version of this article was first published here.