Packed full of history, Kathmandu is a noisy, vibrant capital city, gateway to the Himalayas and the rest of Nepal. Young people from the country come here to study, to earn a better living and to own a piece of its future.
Heavy traffic all day; cars, buses, vans, motorbikes and bicycles vie for space on the poorly surfaced main roads. Occasional traffic ‘uncles’ at busy junctions control the flow in any direction; drivers are patient and polite, allowing each other to navigate their individual routes, all aware of the commanding pierced whistle as the uncle points.
Our Thamel hotel is close to the rabbit warren of narrow shopping streets and alleyways which hotel and shop staff try to keep clean. We arrive in rain; the unmade side streets soon turn into muddy puddles and people jostle with umbrellas. Shop shutters are up, crammed with goods and items dangling around doorways to entice passers-by.
All manner of crafts are displayed; hemp bags from women’s collectives, pashminas in ‘best soft yak’, carvings, clothes, Thanka paintings, felted woollen mats, hand-made paper, men with sewing machines in T-shirt shops – we choose six assorted designs and he will embroider, ready in two days.
The very many restaurants offer every kind of meal from European fast food – pizza, pasta – to traditional Nepali alongside Indian, Italian and Mexican. We settle in a quiet garden courtyard for our first lunch in Nepal.
Over the next five days, we sample and taste the delights of the city and beyond. Everywhere, we are struck by the warmth and friendliness of the Nepali people. No doubt two pale-skinned women with 14-month toddler are a novelty; they smile and nod as we pass or come and chat.
We took a taxi to see Boudhanath Stupa, the largest temple in Nepal. Tucked behind higgeldy, piggeldy brick and tile tall, thin circus of buildings housing restaurants, bars, souvenir and craft shops, backpackers hostels and cheap hotels is the stunning white dome of Boudhanath Stupa, crowned with a square, golden tower, each side topped with a pair of staring eyes. Beautifully restored since the earthquake in 2015 created huge cracks, the circumference pathway is teeming with people and monks, all walking clockwise. We just make the entrance before closing time and the smiling attendant permits one circular walk around the stupa inside the surrounding wall.
Second in importance is Swayambhunath Stupa, the ‘Monkey Temple’, perched on a hillside to the west of Kathmandu and approached by 365 steep worn steps. The taxi takes us to the entrance where people “buy” coins to throw into a bucket at the foot of a slim standing buddha, surrounded by water and signs extolling ‘peace to the world’. We start to climb up the hill, admiring breath-taking views – mountains above, city below, houses perched on the steep hillsides, half hidden by trees.
At the top, small shrines sit amongst shops, narrow walkways and uneven courtyards. Prayer wheels are spun as people walk round the small stupa. A troop of monkeys hurry by, mothers with babies clinging, picking up scraps.
There are signs of the earthquake of 2015. Huge cracks in walls, builders’ hammering, drilling and cementing, sounds of reconstruction all round; bricks, rubble, corrugated iron, statues bound by wire fences.
Close to the airport is Pashupathinath, the most sacred temple for Hindus, the site of cremations. Bodies on bamboo ‘stretchers’ covered in marigold flowers and petals, are dipped in the still, muddy water of the Bagmati river (sacred because it flows into the Ganges) and placed on funeral pyres of wood to burn – “some 50-60 each day” says our driver.
We have inadvertently wandered into a series of on-going funerals; families walk and chant aa the rituals unfold. Bystanders lean over the bridge to watch, idly curious or fervently in prayer. There is a hospice here and families come from all over Nepal to cremate their loved ones. It feels a little uncomfortable and intrusive to witness yet also very moving. Sadhus, long hair coiled round their heads, spot us, “come, come”.
The site is huge and we barely touch the surface of endless shrines, courtyards and small temples while palm readers sit, lazy dogs sleep and monkeys abound. Away from the river, people climb the steps, chat, take photos of themselves and us; this seems to be a place people like to come and relax among the shrines.
Durbar Square with temples dating from the 12thcentury is the heritage heart of Kathmandu. We are shocked at the level of destruction caused by the earthquake. The heritage centre of Kathmandu is a building site; walls and roofs have huge props. Once beautiful temples have become piles of rubble, plinths now strangely bare. Hoardings and wire fences surround the workers pouring cement into gullies. I spot a woman in full make-up striking stones and loading a bucket.
The Kumari Buildingis where the living goddess and family reside. Chosen at age three, the child with an impassive face appears at a fourth-floor window overlooking an inner courtyard where an assorted crowd has gathered. “No photos, no photos!” No-one dares lift a camera or phone. We stand silently staring back at her expressionless face, others bow and pray.
Across the Bagmati river from Kathmandu is Patan. Here, too, sounds of rebuilding the temples destroyed or damaged in the earthquake; two display signs that Japan is paying. The intricate carvings in the wooden pillars and stonework doorways are superb. Traditionally known as Lalitpur (city of beauty), Patan is indeed an architectural treasure.
Patan Museum, housed in a former royal palace, has an interesting collection of bronze or copper gilt statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities which reflects the city’s influence as the melting pot of the two religions. There is a red brick courtyard and garden café and happy noise of a school nearby as we hear drums and children laughing.
Away from the square are the familiar narrow streets, with artisans selling fine metalwork, handmade brass statues, Thanka paintings, Nepalese tea and Himalayan coffee. Young and old men sit in shop doorways chipping stone and carving wood into complex and elaborate patterns and shapes. Corners are marked by ancient stupas. I spot a sign – ‘this is a child-free labour zone’.
Nargakot, some 32 km northeast of Kathmandu, is a favourite destination to view the majestic Langtang mountain range and Everest on a clear day. It’s a pleasure to leave the density of people, traffic exhaust fumes and dust of the city, cross the bridge over the Bagmati river, navigate the potholes and rough road surfaces and occasional cow to gradually climb and see the countryside turn green. We feel excited about seeing another side of Nepal and here is a true sense of the Kathmandu Valley as mountains soar and circle the flatter plain.
Steppes create small spaces to grow vegetables and fields are being harvested for grain. Women carry huge bundles. Our driver says the men are working in Quatar, Dubai, etc, away for 3-4 years so the women look after fields and families.
On the approach to Nargakot are tall modern hotels with windows facing magnificent views. We reach a cluster of stalls selling bottles and cans of water and soft drinks, hot food being cooked, souvenirs – no-one hassles us. We walk up worn concrete steps through woodland to a clearing and rickety tower. The views all round are worth the precarious climb up a vertical ladder. From here, Everest can be glimpsed at sunrise and sunset before the mist or fog obscures the distant horizon.
Back to Thamel and The Garden of Dreams, half a hectare of lush lawn, sunken flower gardens, large central pond, benches, gazebos and three neo-classical pavilions all kept in pristine condition. We note the ladies gardening and watch the small brown striped squirrels cheekily playing. It’s hot this afternoon and the sun reflects heat off the buildings. People of different nationalities sit or lay on mats, some picnic, some chat, some doze. All attracted by this seemingly oasis of calm, I found it a little too busy and crowded in a relatively small area.
There’s no doubt the government has much to do to fulfil its priorities to rehouse Nepali people still living in temporary accommodation and shelters, to rebuild the heritage sites and improve the road surfaces which connect the cities and outlying regions. People are nevertheless very industrious and there is a great deal of skill in the work of artisans; few are begging on the streets. The warmth and genuine welcome of the people transcends the traffic and pollution and we leave Kathmandu thinking there’s so much more to see. Ahh, next time …
Thank you to my mother-in-law, Ann Stainton who kindly wrote this piece on our return from a fantastic week in Kathmandu.