The smaller SAARC countries,” said a lecturer in Kathmandu, “don’t define themselves in their own terms, but only as not-India.” My experience outside the lecture-room made me rework his definition in a positive way. Nepal really is not India, however alike it might seem at times.

 The difference leaps to the eye from the cheap souvenir stalls around Durbar Square. No doubt the khukris, prayer-wheels and woollen caps are mass-produced in Kathmandu or Biratnagar, but they are more authentic and, shall I say, dignified: wholly traditional in design, not jostled by the ghastly plastic animals and toy cars gracing every stall from Agra to Madurai.

 Another difference leaps to the ear, so to speak: Kathmandu is remarkably silent. I arrived there, straight from the unrelenting political decibels of Kolkata, as they began counting the votes after a historic election. The counting centre was close to my hotel. Our car took 10 minutes to negotiate the crowds; but there was singularly little noise, even from a victory procession at 2am that I managed to sleep through. 

 The idyllism is patchy, and no doubt misleading. Life is fraught even for Nepal’s middle class: there are heavy power cuts (though meticulously scheduled, unlike in India), and shortages of transport and cooking fuel. Rural poverty is highest among all SAARC countries except Bangladesh. The urban poor, especially in the tourist centres, fare rather better: urban and rural poverty levels were around 10% and 35%, respectively, in 2003-2004.

This explains the decisive victory of the Maoists in the April elections. The figures are not as dramatic as the headlines: with 36% of votes, the Maoists won exactly half the seats (120 of 240) in the first-past-the-post stakes, and another 100 from proportional representation, in the 601-member constituent assembly. This is double the strength of the next largest party, and more than the Maoists had dreamt of. Their elation was the chief factor behind the calm normalcy of post-election Nepal. The other parties were too demoralised even to make trouble.

The urban elite and the English-language press are wary of the Maoists; but even among them, the dominant mood was of expectation and excited involvement in the historic change. The entrenched order had been ousted: a national adventure was afoot. I was continually reminded of West Bengal in 1967, when the Congress government yielded to the first United Front. But that rag-tag coalition at state level was not at par with the world’s first elected Maoist-led national government.

UN observers’ cars, prominently marked, were everywhere. Jimmy Carter et al had set up camp. China and India must have been watching even more closely if less obtrusively. The vote-counting station was in a vast convention hall funded by the Chinese. I saw nothing as monumental offered by India, though various project vehicles were marked as Indian gifts. The new Nepal will no doubt provoke new diplomatic tussles, new bargains and balances. It was educative to see how the Nepali notion of South Asia differed from India’s. For them, Nepal was not on the edge of the region but at its centre, reaching out towards Tibet and south-west China. 

 Things have moved fast in the two months since my visit. The monarchy was formally abolished last month, and a new deal struck over the posts of president and prime minister. There are chances of dramatic alignments and adjustments ahead. The interim seems a good time to visit Nepal, to imbibe not only its beauty and its history but the deeper peace and character marking its landscape and ambience.

 The short trip from Kathmandu to Nagarkot (7,500ft) allows a quick glimpse of the scenic face of the mountain state. But the human ambience emerges best in the palace squares of Kathmandu. Three regional kings once had palaces that are now spread across three areas in or near Kathmandu. Each palace fronts an array of temples, built by successive kings to outdo not only each other but their own ancestors. Kathmandu takes its name from one such structure: the ‘kastha-mandap’ or wooden building, built with timber from a single tree, in the Durbar Square of the Kantipur kings. 

 The Durbar Square (or Hanuman Dhoka square, after a shrine to that god) abuts the palace of the Kumari, child incarnation of the goddess Parvati. The temple square at Patan is no less impressive. But most evocative is Bhaktapur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Its Taumadhi Square is dominated by the five-storeyed Siddhi Laxmi temple. Taumadhi also has an impressive Bhairavnath temple, and the Dattatreya Square one of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Make time also for the ‘palace of 55 windows’, and the secluded temple once reserved for the royal family. The whole ensemble preserves the absorbed mystique of a vanished age, even while today’s Nepalis go about their work across the venerable sites amidst a tangle of lanes. 

Kathmandu’s most fascinating maze of lanes is in Thamel, erstwhile haunt of hippies and flower children. Thamel has rows of little shops, wooing the tourist with wares of charm and local distinction: fabrics, spices, curios, semi-precious stones, brassware and copperware from musical bowls to gigantic cauldrons. Look up as you go: Thamel is full of traditional Nepali domestic architecture, with intricately carved wood façades.

 Unexpectedly, I recalled Thamel while exploring the nondescript modern shops along the lakefront at Pokhara: the restraint of its commercialisation shames the yuppified mall in Manali or even Shimla. Halt on the drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara for the breathtaking cable-car ride to the Manakamana temple, or even stay over for whitewater rafting on the Trishuli river. In Pokhara, stay if you can in a lakeside hotel. In any case, go for a long boat ride and see the peaks reflected in the Phewa Tal.

 To truly make the acquaintance of the peaks, you must go to Sarangkot for the sunrise. The Annapurna massif lights up from end to end, with the Machhapuchhare (Fish-Tail) in front, before the morning haze swallows them up. You can spend the rest of the morning in the International Mountain Museum; or in the Mahendra and Gupteshwar Caves, the Shweti gorge near the former, and the tunnel from the latter to the Devi Falls.

 The best thing about Pokhara is its ambience: mountains, lake and people interact in a setting of relaxed charm and serene beauty. The humid sub-terai of Chitwan is more secluded but more conventionally rural — until you enter the forest. Suddenly, the trees crowd you in, sheltering a varied population where man is an intruder.

 Chitwan has deer, pigs, gaur, leopards, tigers, wild dogs, monkeys, and reptiles including the rare gharial. Of its over 500 species of birds, the most conspicuous is the peacock. But you go to Chitwan chiefly to see the one-horned rhino. I never fail to wonder at the placid tolerance of rhinos for humans, at least those on elephant-back. In the open grassy swamp at Kaziranga, you can see rhinos grazing miles away. In Chitwan, they suddenly shuffle out of the undergrowth, or wallow nonchalantly in a pool like gauche models posing for photographs. Except for some warning snorts from a mother with a calf, we faced nothing remotely menacing. Had we been on foot, it might have been a different story, though the authorities feel confident enough to mark a ‘birdwatcher’s trail’. 

If your budget permits, stay in a hotel on the edge of the forest. Some have their own elephants, with whom you can share a swim. Otherwise, make the short journey from nearby Sauraha. Another short ride takes you to the elephant breeding centre. The calves insist on a gift of biscuits (purchasable on the spot), even leaping the fence to chase you and collect them. The local guides seem equal to these rather unnerving encounters.

Kathmandu has hotels of international standard, and Pokhara perfectly well-appointed ones. Our moderately upmarket hotel in Kathmandu charged around 1,500 Indian rupees for a double room. Indian visitors (but not others) can use Indian currency everywhere, but Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes are prohibited: it is a non-bailable offence even to carry them.

Apart from that, there is little or nothing forbidding about Nepal. May this state of things continue under the new government. A beautiful and historic country full of friendly people deserves no less.