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Nepal at peace

As discord fades in the kingdom, visitors are again discovering its treasures: lofty peaks, warm people and an easy spirituality.

January 21, 2007|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Katmandu, Nepal — THE all-seeing eyes of Buddha stare blankly over Katmandu's Palace Square from a massive, wooden portal. The door is shut tight. But standing here on the very day in November when Maoist rebels signed a peace accord ending 10 years of turmoil and isolation in Nepal, I could almost hear the giant door crack open, bidding visitors back.

A Hindu adage says guests are like gods. But travelers have largely stayed away since 1996 when Maoist insurgents began a terror campaign. Rebels blockaded roads, bombed tourist areas and demanded money from trekkers in the mountains. The U.S. embassy in Katmandu advised citizens to avoid Nepal, and the Peace Corps suspended operations. Then in 2001 the king and nine members of his family were massacred in the royal palace by the crown prince.

The chain of tragedies seemed almost unreal, especially to the many travelers who, over the years, have become deeply attached to Nepal. As events unfolded, they waited, hoping for peace.

I booked a trip to Nepal -- my first -- last summer, about the time insurgents agreed to lay down their arms. Since then, negotiations between the government and the Maoists have remained on track. A peace accord was signed Nov. 21, and visitors have started returning.

With 75% of the country covered with mountains, including many of the world's tallest peaks -- among them 29,035-foot Mt. Everest -- Nepal has always figured high on the master list of dream destinations. Its closure to outsiders during the Rana clan's regime from 1846 to 1951 only piqued interest.

The first visitors who trickled in after that found marvels quite apart from the Himalayas, including the soulful, straightforward Nepalese.

The still largely feudal mountain kingdom was undeveloped but breathtakingly colorful. Its ethnically diverse population of about 27 million, including Gurungs and Chettris from the west, high-mountain Sherpas, and Newars who dwell in the Katmandu Valley, were ruled by a monarchy and organized in castes, but they coexisted.

The myriad faces of Nepal are nowhere more apparent than in the fertile and temperate Katmandu Valley, which is ringed by terraced rice paddies. The high Himalayas that attract trekkers are about 50 miles north but seldom visible from the city because of clouds and pollution.

I spent a week walking through the vibrant, noisy, nerve-rattling capital and touring nearby Bhaktapur and Patan. Since the late 13th century this triad of cities -- now melded together in urban sprawl -- has been the home of Nepal's kings, who filled it with elaborately decorated palaces and temples. With seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Katmandu Valley would richly reward visitors even if it weren't in the shadow of the Himalayas.

Closer to Everest

I didn't want to leave Nepal without seeing Everest. Soon after I arrived I booked a mountain flight in a small plane from the Katmandu airport northeast along the front range of the Himalayas. The aircraft are specially designed to give every passenger a window seat.

Some people find the flights too turbulent. It's best to leave early because clouds roll in by midmorning, obscuring the mountains. But I did not suffer in the hands of the little local carrier Buddha Air, and I was enlightened about Nepal's terrain, mostly covered by the Mahabharat foothills separating the jungly Terai to the south from the ice-capped Himalayas.

Minutes after takeoff, I saw 23,771-foot Langtang due north of Katmandu, followed by the eastern part of the amazing Himalayan chain, including flat-topped Menlungtse (23,560 feet), Cho Oyo (26,906 feet) near Nangpa La pass to Tibet, Nuptse (25,790 feet) on Everest's shoulder and then Everest itself. I'll never forget it, and just to make sure, a flight attendant came around selling T-shirts that said, "I did not climb Mount Everest, but I touched it with my heart."

I was back at my hotel by 9 a.m., eating muesli and wondering whether it had all been a dream.

I stayed at the friendly Hotel Tibet in the Lazimpat neighborhood near the foreign embassies and new royal palace. It is owned by a family that immigrated to Nepal after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951, when refugees flooded in, adding a new strain to the valley stew. The newcomers were known as keen business people, and they prospered in Tibetan Buddhist communities like the one around Boudhanath Temple on the northeast side of the city.

The women at the hotel's front desk wear long, traditional Tibetan dresses with colorful aprons. Intricately carved dark wood, tiger rugs and stuffed yaks decorate the lobby. Because I was a hotel guest, I got a 10% discount on a handmade carpet from the family showroom near Boudhanath.

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