Nepal is where the majesty of the Himalayas merges into the heat and dust of the Indian plains. Journeys into this magnificent country will invariably start in the capital, Kathmandu. Even the name of this famous old city conjures up pictures of squares crowded with temples, chaotic bazaars and holy men, although recent images of the city have been less likely to appeal to tourists. Kathmandu has a large Tibetan community in exile whose protests against the ascent of the Olympic torch to the summit of Mount Everest were curtailed by Nepali security. Bloodied monks inside police vans conjured up a powerful image, and yet the presence of Tibetans in Kathmandu provides a vibrant social mix. The centre of the Tibetan world in Nepal is 6km outside Kathmandu in the village of Boudhanath. It houses one of the world's largest stupas surrounded by gleaming monastery roofs and hundreds of Tibetan and foreign monks. In this place Tibetan culture feels alive and unfettered. This is most true in the late afternoon when tour groups depart and the place becomes a Tibetan village - albeit in Nepal. Locals close their shops and leave for prayer services in surrounding gompas and, as the sun sets, the whole community turns out to circumambulate the stupa. Nepal's political problems haven't just involved Olympic protests. Internal strife reached an apogee in 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly massacred most of the royal family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, in a drug-induced fit of rage. And prior to the royal tragedy, the Maoists declared a 'people's war' in 1996 due to government corruption and the failure of democracy to deliver improved living conditions. Since then, the civil war has claimed 12,000 Nepali lives. The tourism industry, which employs about 25,000 people, has been badly hit. This year is a momentous one with the Maoists emerging from April elections as the largest party - twice as many seats as their nearest rivals. Their leader Prachanda, or 'the fierce one', is expected to take over the country's leadership. This abrupt termination of the world's last remaining Hindu monarchy is the culmination of years of struggle by the Maoists. Occasionally, Maoists have been known to extort 'donations' from bideshi, or foreigners, while out trekking (some regard the receipt given for these small sums as a souvenir). But tourists are warmly welcomed by locals, and it is hoped stability will bring back crucial tourist dollars. The mountains and trekking opportunities are almost limitless, and even in Kathmandu there are many temples, shops, palaces and parks to explore. It was Rudyard Kipling who claimed that a Buddha a week is enough for any man, but those afflicted with temple fatigue will find Kathmandu different from, say, Angkor Wat, Borobodur or Bagan. Here the temples are vibrant living places where locals worship their gods, remember the dead and socialise. The best example of this is at Pashupatinath temple, close to Boudhanath on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. This is Nepal's most important Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Wandering long haired Hindu holy men called Sadhus visit this place from all over South Asia and sit in serene contemplation, covering themselves in coloured ash and smoking hashish as Shiva did. They are quite willing to break off their meditation for a photo, but will expect a few rupees for a pose. Non-Hindus are not allowed in the main temple, which dates from the 19th century, but from the entrance you'll probably catch a glimpse of the 300-year-old golden backside of Nandi, Shiva's bull. The holy river is a popular place to be cremated and you'll see many funeral pyres and ritual bathing. The Arya Ghats in front of the temple is for the cremation of royalty, and it is here that the 10 members of the royal family killed in 2001 were cremated. Cremations are completed with remarkably little ceremony: a fire is lit and the shrouded body is placed there by mourners - their heads shaven as a mark of respect. The remains are later tipped into the holy water below. Swayambhunath temple has almost a carnival feel in comparison. This great Buddhist temple sits atop a hill above the city and is one of the most popular and recognisable symbols of Kathmandu. The view from here across the city to the Himalayas - with Everest a distant speck on the horizon - is sublime, especially in the early evening when the city is illuminated and the butter lamps are lit. The temple is notable for curios rather than cremations: the steps to the top are lined with hawkers selling prayer flags, astrological charts, peacock feathers and statues. Most notable of all is the wildlife. Swayambhunath isn't called the 'Monkey Temple' for nothing and visitors and devotees are entertained by hundreds of them. Although weary of Buddhas, Kipling also said that Asia will never be 'civilised' by the west since 'there is too much Asia and she is too old'. Kathmandu seems to epitomise this because it is so resolutely Asian. There's no McDonalds or Starbucks here - a culture intact in all its antiquity. Getting there: Dragonair (dragonair.com) has regular flights between Hong Kong and Kathmandu.