February 2012


Kathmandu: A City Of Contrasts
February 2012




Crowds gathered during the Bisket Jatra New Year festival at Bhaktapur

Words and Photography Sue Watt

Since 1950, when Nepal opened its borders to visitors, Kathmandu has welcomed trekkers lured by the Himalayas, hippies inspired by a gentle blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, and adventurers seeking thrills from white-water rafting, paragliding and tiger-spotting. A city of contrasts and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Nepal's charismatic 
and colourful capital has something for everyone.

The impressive Newari palaces and temples of Durbar Square evoking Kathmandu's former grandeur seem worlds away from its brash tourist district of Thamel. Only a 45-minute walk along Chhetrapati and crowded market streets around Asan Chowk you pass medieval shrines and statues that could easily belong in museums. Look up as you walk and discover the tired, dusty beauty of the old city. Ancient wooden lintels and doors bear intricately-carved Hindu gods with peacocks and snakes guarding their domain. Between crumbling houses, little alleyways lead to surprisingly huge courtyards where typical Nepali life goes on as clothes are washed, children are scrubbed and men and women gather to gossip.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, Nepal's Charismatic And Colourful Capital Has Something For Everyone.

Compare this with Thamel, the frenetic yet strangely endearing epicentre of Kathmandu's tourist industry. Rickshaw drivers and taxis honk their horns negotiating the narrow, crowded streets of half-finished concrete buildings while hawkers constantly demonstrate the squeaky screech of their fiddle-like sarangi. Vivid colours are everywhere: in trekking clothes hanging outside shops, in displays of beads and turquoise jewellery, in prayer flags tied across the streets. The heady smell of smouldering jossticks permeates everything and melodic strains of the Buddhist chant "Om mani padme hum" float from CD stalls.

Thamel is home to hundreds of outdoor and souvenir shops selling everything from bootleg fleeces to Buddhist thangkas. A favourite is Pilgrim's Bookshop, an idyllic warren full of books on subjects ranging from architecture to Zen Buddhism - it's easy to lose yourself in there.

Kathmandu's nightlife is centred around Thamel as well, with eateries covering all tastes from excellent pizzas at Fire & Ice to traditional Nepali food like momos (dumplings) and dhal bhat (vegetable curries) at Thamel House Restaurant. The Full Moon Bar is the place to be seen, along with Sam's Bar for reggae music, New Orleans Bar for jazz and Maya for its cocktails. Ever-popular, Kathmandu Guest House in the heart of Thamel is a former Rana mansion whose garden is a sanctuary from the bustling streets, and nearby Hotel Courtyard is a traditional Newari house with a roof-terrace overlooking the mayhem below. Quieter locations to stay include the romantic Dwarika's to the east of town, full of ancient wooden carvings, and luxury Hotel Shangri-La in the expat area of Lazimpat.

Bodhnath Stupa, one of the world's largest Buddhist temples, is a short taxi-ride away. Young monks swathed in scarlet robes, Tibetan women wearing multi-coloured petticoats and tourists wearing anything shuffle slowly, mesmerizingly, in a clockwise direction around the stupa and its enormous white dome, turning prayer wheels as they go. All this occurs under the ever-seeing, piercing blue eyes of Buddha watching from all four sides of the dome's central spire, his vision obscured only by the rainbow streams of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

Another venue with an addictive tranquillity is the aptly-named Garden 
of Dreams, just a stone's throw from Thamel. Initially designed in the 1920s, 
it's been sensitively restored as an elegant oasis bursting with colourful blossom, pagodas and lily-covered ponds.

Between crumbling houses, little alleyways lead to surprisingly huge courtyards where typical Nepali life goes on

A brief stroll to Durba Marg takes you to Narayanhiti Royal Palace, the now-deposed king's former residence. After historic elections in 2008, the new coalition government made Nepal a democratic republic and opened the Palace as a museum for all to share.

Kathmandu's many temples and festivals bear witness to the importance of religion here. People are mainly Hindu or Buddhist, but with characteristic harmony and a gentle mutual respect, boundaries between the two faiths are blurred and everyone enjoys the lively festivals.

In February/March at the Maha Shivaratri festival, thousands of pilgrims and orange-clad sadhus celebrate Lord Shiva's birthday at Pashupatinath, Nepal's holiest Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River. In May/June, watch the monks dance and listen to soothing chants celebrating Buddha's birthday at Buddha Jayanti festival at the Swayambhunath stupa. Known as the Monkey Temple after its prolific primate residents, it's perched high on a hill with great views over the city. The ninth day of Nepal's biggest festival, Dashain in September/October honours the goddess Durga. In October/November, cows with silver-painted horns and dogs wearing flower garlands wander the streets, as animals are honoured during Tihar. On the third day, Deepawali celebrates Laxmi, the goddess of wealth with Kathmandu illuminated by everything from oil lamps in temples to neon lights in New Road, its busiest shopping street. And nearby Bhaktapur is worth visiting in April for Nepali New Year and Bisket Jatra, a fervent tug of war with an enormous wooden chariot as the centre-piece. Finally, for the ultimate in armchair adventure, take a flight from Kathmandu's airport for effortless views of the Himalayas and the highest summit of them all, Everest.

 

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    A tug of war with an enormous wooden chariot, the centre-piece of the New Year festival

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    A far cry from the brash tourist district of Thamel, Durbar Square evokes Kathmandu’s former grandeur

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    Typical Nepal life goes on at Durbar Square

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    Bodhnath Stupa, one of the world’s largest Buddhist temples

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    Eyes of the Buddha on the Stupas central spire

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    Faces of Bodhnath

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    A vendor at Durbar Square

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    Looking up as you walk ancient wooden lentels are hints of the old city

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