Travel to Kathmandu and Experience Nepal's Cultural Centrepiece
Travel to Kathmandu was a slow, seven hour affair from the border with India. After hours of uphill, grinding gears, diesel fumes and numb limbs, the reprieve of Kathmandu’s dusty rubbish strewn bus station was very welcome.
I was greeted by a hot, dusty, haze covered city – something quite different from my naive conception of a quaint Himalayan town basking in pure Himalayan air. Its streets groaned with the whine of two-stroke and bumper to bumper taxis that travel Kathmandu and attempt to negotiate Thamel’s maze of tight, windy streets at rush hour.
The first stop after most travel to Kathmandu is the district of Thamel; a super-dense clash of hostels, hotels, bars, cafes, adventure travel agencies, money changers, bookshops – you name it; it’s there, all condensed and blended together. The equivalent of Bangkok’s Khao San Road area, Thamel has it fair share of tackiness, inescapable noise, pollution and ubiquitous street-hawkers. For subcontinent devotees, this shouldn’t come as much of a shock, but having come directly from India I was seeking some peace and quiet. I found a nice place by the name of Hotel Red Planet tucked down a side street near the north end of JP School Road (the main street running through Thamel) and settled in.
After checking in and still suffering from my travel to Kathmandu (the bus equivalent of jetlag), I explored the chaotic surrounds of Thamel and made a b-line for it’s much hyped bakeries for German pastries and coffee. Having spent the last five months in India, travel to Kathmandu had left me feeling fairly fatigued. I slowly eased into my Kathmandu meanderings.
Feeling well resting, fuelled-up with roof-top breakfast at Helena’s and read The Kathmandu Post (Nepal’s English language daily) twice, I set off to explore Durbar Square and all places in between. As I found out, it’s easy to be seduced by the many back-alleys, little lanes and hidden squares that you catch glimpses of. But for me, that was the beauty of Kathmandu; at every turn something new to indulge in and explore.
As an excellent introduction to Kathmandu’s old back streets I recommend the Lonely Planet’s suggested walking tour starting at Thahiti Tole (near Thamel) and finishing at Durbar Square. I used this as a rough guide, but veered off at every chance on seeing new and exciting diversions; the flutter of colourful prayer flags, the contrast of red powder on dark stone statues, clamouring market stalls; a sensory riot that held me captive for at least three hours - this is what travel to Kathmandu is all about.
Eventually I popped out into the majesty of Durbar Square. Not so much one square, but a collection of inter-linked squares including the open area of Makhan Tole to the north and public space adjacent to the Old Royal Palace entry; the main Durbar Square and Basantapur Square slightly further south. Together, these are collectively known as Durbar Square.
As a showcase for Newari temple architecture, craftsmanship and obvious religious importance, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The standout favourites for me were Maju Deval with its nine staggered terraces at the heart of Durbar Square, the perfect spot to stop and watch the chaos of central Kathmandu unfold; the understated, wooden Kasthamandap, reputedly built in the 12th century; the hugely intricate wood carvings and fenestration of Kabindrapur Temple, 17th century performance pavilion built for the god of music; the detail of Kumari Bahal’s carved windows, a three storey building from which Nepal’s living Goddess, kumara, can sometimes be seen watching the world go by.
Exploring the north end of Durbar Square, be sure not to miss the carving of Kala Bhaira to the rear of Jagannath Temple. This is a depiction of Shiva at his most fearsome; with multiply arms and a penchant for decorative skulls, he doesn’t disappoint.
After two days of wandering Kathmandu’s old town I took a walk from Thamel to Swayambhunath and got a bit lost. I eventually found my way to its base and the step stone stairs leading to the temple’s hilltop position. The Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath is one of the true icons of Nepal, its huge whitewashed stupa topped with Buddha’s omnipresent gaze keeps watch on the Kathmandu valley. Revered by both Buddhists and Hindus, Swayambhunath is a unifying symbol for Nepal and has been a site of pilgrimage since the 5th century.
Prayer wheels encircle the stupa’s base while a garland of prayer flags radiate of from Swayambhunath’s spire. Be sure to admire the amazing metalwork on show; I particularly liked the pair of fierce, winged animals (I think they’re lions) guarding the prayer wheels and of course the resplendent gold spire. Around the stupa are a number of other temples and shrines and it’s also worth just sitting and watching the daily rituals of worship take place; the lighting of candles, spinning prayer wheels. For me the sight of Swayambhunath Temple had made travel to Kathmandu worth the while.
On leaving Swayambhunath, I headed toward the National Museum, about 20 minutes walk away. With energy levels waning and struggling attention span, I gave the museum a very cursory walk through before wandering back to Thamel for more cake and coffee. Food prevailed over culture.
Feeling refreshed and ready for action I wandered down to Chhetrapati Tole, hired what I think was Kathmandu’s worst bicycle and cycled an excruciating two kilometres to Patan. Although travel to Kathmandu from Patan is very close, it is in fact its own distinct town and I had endured cycling hell to come see Patan’s Durbar Square (not to be confused with Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. No).
After locking up Kathmandu’s worst bicycle, I set off on a walking tour developed by the Patan Tourism Development Organization. A copy of this is printed in Lonely Planet Nepal and can also be found on the Patan Tourism Development Organization website. Kicking off at Patan Dhoka bus stop, the walking tour takes in many fine temples, communal courtyard spaces and streetscapes still unchanged since medieval times. With amazement I came across what some consider Kathmandu’s oldest objects of worship, a collection of megaliths in amongst a normal street scene, the largest of which being used as an impromptu power pole!
Patan’s Durbar Square holds the status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. The Royal Palace of Patan faces directly onto the square which contains a stunning collection of Newari temple architecture; elegant stone and timber pagodas sit side-by-side with Mughal influenced all-stone temples.
A few caught my eye more than others, they were; Hari Shankar Temple, a three tiered structure with intricately carved rafters; Vishwanath Temple, guarded by two large stone elephants and when I was there a rather grumpy Sadhu demanding money. Watch out for the finely carved columns at the temple’s base and elaborate lintels; Manga Hiti, a fine example of one of the many sunken water collection points common in the Kathmandu valley. Be sure to admire the waterspouts!
Bodhnath and Pashupatinath
Another cycle ride a few days later saw me arrive at Bodhnath with a lung full of dust and diesel fumes. I got sensible, did as the locals do and bought a face mask from a road-side stall.
Bodhnath stupa sure makes a dramatic entrance; its huge, whitewashed, bulbous base sits in stark contrast to the hard-edged brick buildings surrounding it. Monasteries, small shops and cafes form a circle around Bodhnath, an important centre for Buddhism for Nepal’s community of Tibetan exiles and one of the world’s biggest stupas. For me it was a place just to sit and watch the rituals of worship; monks and pilgrims mouthing prayer, others with spinning prayer wheels, all in a blaze of maroon that makes for a dramatic sight.
A morning at Bodhnath and I was ready to venture forth; next stop was a brief visit to Pashupatinath, Nepal’s most important Hindu temple. Non-Hindu’s aren’t allowed into the main complex so I satisfied myself with a wonder around the banks of the Bagmati; a surreal scene of cremation ghats and funeral pyres.
I rounded my time off in Kathmandu with more cake, coffee and an all-day mountain bike marathon; a 70km epic starting in Thamel, up to the small settlement of Kakani at 2073m, through the Shivapuri National Park, then travel to Kathmandu via hours of tree-lined single track and white-knuckle downhill. A battered and bruised version of me finally made it off the trails (got slightly lost) and back down into the outskirts of Kathmandu.
So travel to Kathmandu is well worth the effort. It’s a place I know I’ll be coming back to, there’s so much more exploring to do!