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Follow the spiritual trail in the valley of Kathmandu

There are other paths to take when the winter snows put Nepal's mountains out of reach, says Raymond Whitaker

Nepal is a country tipped up on its side, where an Indian rhinoceros munching subtropical vegetation can lift its head and see snow glinting on the world's highest mountain range.

So it seems appropriate that the capital, Kathmandu, looks as though someone tilted a giant box of building blocks until they were all piled up in stacks. Some of the precipitous hotels and guesthouses of Jochne, the old hippie quarter, seem ready to topple over at any minute. They remind you that the pagoda was invented in Nepal, not China – with the Himalayas for inspiration, who would not try to build towards the skies?

The only problem is that these days you cannot see the mountains from Kathmandu. At street level, the senses are assaulted by fume-belching buses, hooting cars and darting motorcycles, producing pollution which not only sears the lungs but also blots out the view. It is no surprise to learn that travellers, the majority of whom come to Nepal for mountain trekking or other outdoor pursuits, are often advised to avoid the capital.

To bypass Kathmandu, though, would be to miss much of what makes Nepal unique. It has no fewer than seven Unesco World Heritage sites, produced by a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism that is found nowhere else. When midwinter snows or monsoon rains halt the trekkers, this city is still worth the journey.

Even if the mountains are invisible, the white dome of Swayambhu, one of Buddhism's holiest sites, can be seen on its conical hill from most parts of Kathmandu. Surmounted by a golden spire, festooned with prayer flags and scrambled over by troops of macaque monkeys, the temple is the place to come, both at the beginning of your stay, when you are trying to get your bearings in the city, and later, when you need a breather from it.

Swayambhu was already centuries old when three rival kingdoms, all within a day's walk of each other, sprang up in the Kathmandu valley below, each seeking to attract pilgrims by the magnificence of their temples. Kathmandu's trump card was its "living goddess" – a prepubescent girl worshipped as a living incarnation of the deity Taleju. Selected for the role when she is between three and five, the Kumari lives in her own temple until she reaches puberty, when she reverts to human status. There has just been such a changeover, with a three-year-old having been chosen, while her predecessor has returned to her family. Sadly, her chances of finding a husband are low: it is considered bad luck to marry an ex-Kumari.

The old quarter of Patan, just to the south of Kathmandu, is considered the most elegant of the three ancient capitals, but my favourite was Bhaktapur, away to the east, which is not just a collection of ancient buildings swamped in noisy traffic, but a rhapsody in brick – squares, palaces, temples and pagodas. If you see one pagoda in Nepal, it has to be Bhaktapur's Nyatapola, the country's tallest, with wonderfully ferocious guardian statues of wrestlers, elephants and lions. Look out too for the "snake pond" tucked away behind the royal palace, where two hooded cobras, many times larger than life, rear out of the water.

Most of the Kathmandu valley looked like Bhaktapur until well into the 20th century, but from the 1950s onwards, concrete replaced brick and much of Kathmandu came to resemble any other Third World city. That there is anything left at all of the old architecture is due mainly to the late Dwarika Das Shrestha, who salvaged a wooden pillar from a building site in 1952 and discovered a mission in life. Soon he was rescuing carvings from the demolition men all over Kathmandu, but what was he to do with them? His inspired answer was to build one of the world's most distinctive hotels, using traditional methods, which has won its own Unesco heritage award.

As you gaze into the tranquil courtyard of Dwarika's Hotel, where every brick is handmade and every room is different, the roar of the city hushed to the point where you can hear the fountain trickle, it is just possible to imagine what life must have been like for the royal families of the Kathmandu valley in centuries past. You begin to see why people come to this country seeking Nirvana. It's a pity, then, that no hippie could ever afford to stay here.

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How to get there

Raymond Whitaker flew to Nepal with Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; ), which offers return flights from £743. He stayed at Dwarika's Hotel, Kathmandu (00 984 12 78894; ), which offers rooms from £147 per night.

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