Arriving from India, the obvious differences are meat and alcohol in restaurants, and military checkpoints. I shared a minivan with other backpackers to Pokhara. But we didn't make it. Police stopped us in a village at 7pm, a curfew. We had to stay the night. There are big problems when the only people allowed out at night are heavily armed police. War. The king was murdered about 2 years ago. Local people say the new king was behind the plot, and they increasingly support the Maoist guerrilla movement, which controls 70% of the country. The police curfew was for our own protection. No worries. We drank beer and pressed ahead the next morning.
Pokhara is lovely, and I sensed no danger from the war. I met a local family while mountain biking who invited me to join them for the Diwali Festival, sort of like Christmas for Hindus, a family holiday with singing, dancing, candles, and gift giving. Nice! Nepal is so poor (even compared to India) that there is always the money issue. To them, I am a rich tourist. But everyone has been friendly, even the people asking for money. As with India, one must be careful regarding theft. But understanding this, and taking the right precautions, it is great to spend time with Nepalese people. They tell me it is rare for them to meet a "tourist like me" - or rather, one who takes the time to get to know them. That's one of the great things about travelling alone!
I am planning to trek into a Maoist area. They do not target tourists. Instead, they charge protection money. I heard that tourists who refuse to pay or who otherwise do something stupid get beaten up. I intend to pay.
Wonderful scenery... including 8000 meter peaks. Wonderful people... Nepalese and backpackers alike. Even the Maoists were friendly, but on the advice of local people, I did not tell them that I'm American, and I'm sure that was a good idea. Americans pay 5 times more for Maoist "protection" (US $100 instead of $20). The Maoists said they were "fighting against their corrupt king and against American imperialism." I was surely better off being Brazilian. It was easy to get away with this because I was with a Spanish-speaking group.
Nepal is very poor; there is almost no industry, nor is there much of an upper class. Now is peak tourist season, and there aren't many tourists. It's the war. It's easy to understand why the people who live from tourism are a bit desperate now. This doesn't imply that they aren't nice people, only that they are pushy at times to sell stuff. I highly recommend a trip to Nepal. But as long as the war continues, a good chunk of the country is unsafe. Simply ask before going into a remote area. Update: the war is over.
So far I haven't seen much of the tourist attractions, but I'll get around to doing all of that. I've been walking randomly, thereby seeing "the real Kathmandu," not just the stuff listed in Lonely Planet. I'm staying in the Thamel district, loaded with cheap hotels, restaurants, shops, and tourists. It's convenient and hassle-free. I was expecting more pollution and crowds, but I have found neither to be excessive, especially compared to Delhi. I am without any travelling companions at the moment, and I'm using that opportunity to get caught up on some reading. I still have books from Boulder and I want to lighten my pack!
The Kathmandu district of Thamel is a nice place to stay, despite being touristy. That's where I met other backpackers for a tramp around the valley. We started in Bhaktapur whose Durbar Square has no motor vehicles, no modern buildings, no cyber-cafes, but some marvelous ancient temples, both Buddhist and Hindu. In Kathmandu's Durbar Square, the earthquake of 1934 destroyed similar architectural marvels. A local man showed me around. He said the earthquake was in 1991 - In Nepal, the year is 2060! In the villages around the valley however, it seems more like 1700.
It's great to be where nobody lives in the modern age, where nobody tries to make a dollar from the tourist (because there are so few tourists), where people go about their lives in peace. In such places, I do not miss a comfortable bed, Western food, or flush toilets (and it is possible to get used to using a bucket of water instead of toilet paper to clean your back side; that's what the locals all do). The village of Sankhu doesn't have tourist infrastructure and that's part of its charm.
My friends and I joined children to play chungi, kicking around bunched-up rubber bands similar to footbag (commonly known by the brand "Hacky Sack"). The kids then guided us along a jungle trail for hours and never asked for anything. After being so used to street hustlers in the touristy places, this was refreshing. We hiked to a place called Nagarkot to see a sunrise view of Mount Everest; it was too hazy to see the peak clearly, but no matter. It was a beautiful sunrise!