Kathmandu has been the ‘hub’ of my trip to Bhutan and Nepal. I arrived and spent half a day here before Bhutan, then a day and a half before Bardia and finally have spent 28 hours here before flying home. I have stayed in somewhat opulent luxury compared with the world outside. Dwarika’s is a haven of calm compared to the rest of Kathmandu and I did have to draw down my conscience blinkers.
Bhutan was undeveloped and many areas were poor but because there are not the trappings (right on cue my ‘turn down service and chocolates just arrived), of western excess to contrast it did not feel quite so bad. In Nepal the population has grown from just 8.4million in 1954 to 26 million in 2004. During this time there has been little in the way of stable government and consequently little social policy, even from my brief reading of the Lonely Planet Guide it is not difficult to see why there appears to be complete chaos.
But I have never for one moment felt unsafe or threatened in any way. It is just that in central Kathmandu there are so many people trying to run their lives in such little space, with so few resources, to me as an outsider it just felt a little disorganised.
Despite this in my combined three days I have managed to fit in 8 of the Lonely Planets 15 top experiences in Nepal. You can google the facts and figures, what follows is how I found them, listed in order I visited.
Having arrived late at night but not needing to fly out to Bhutan until after two pm at the beginning for the trip, my trekking group and I decided to visit the old town of Thamil. Narrow streets with tiny shops and niche cafes and restaurants. Momos are the traditional dumplings, a bit like dim sum, and delicious. We ate them at Rum Doodles, a cafe which celebrates the Everest climbs by signed feet on the walls. Take a souvenir foot beer mat of your own.
Between Bhutan and Bardia firstly crammed in Pashupatinath. Here is Nepal’s most important Hindu temple there and a cremation area, where many Nepalis are cremated on the river Bagmati, despite its rubbish filled and polluted state. Cremation is a very public affair, not conducted behind closed doors.
One of the reasons is its so important to have a son is that the eldest son must light the funeral pyre of his father. Non Hindus can not go inside the temple, but are able to wander through the cremation area. I was struck by the abject poverty here. Many people were just lying asleep in the middle of the road, not even begging, just there. There are also a lot of monkeys around many have a great game of jumping in the river over the hill behind the temple.
A short walk, or even shorter taxi ride can be had from the other side of the temple to The Bodnath, a magnificent, vast, Buddhist. We managed to get there as the sun was dropping over the city and casting soft yellow on the golden roof. What is more, after walking round the stupa spinning prayer wheels, you can catch up on real coffee or eat well in one of the small restaurants surrounding the Stupa
The next day we took a trip with a guide out to Bhaktapur and Patan. Two of the Durbar squares in Kathmandu valley. After the chaos of the previous day the side streets and wonderful architecture of Bhaktapur was far easier to contend with. Again, if you need to know detail then please look it up. You can wander round tiny streets with ornate brick buildings on either side. Beautifully carved windows and doors stare out and over the streets. There are small covered platforms where people congregate. Some have carpets and cushions, others just remain plain, but they are obviously a common meeting point. In Bardia I met a Nepali from Bhaktapur and he explained to me that originally these areas were for travellers to rest when going from the south across Nepal to the mountains, but in recent years they have become meeting places for retired people, especially, he said, as Nepali people live a long time. His grandfather had lived until 105! They must be made of sturdy stuff. Sadly almost all of the streets are in a state of perpetual decay to such an extent they would be considered uninhabitable in the UK. Some have amazing waves in the brickwork created by an earthquake just a few years ago. Occasionally a building has had some money spent and a glance through a courtyard door will reveal a haven of tranquillity.
Durbar Square is full of various temples to various Gods, but beautiful, and in better condition than the surrounding streets. My lack of knowledge, and I have to admit interest, means that all the three Durbar squares look rather the same. But still well worth going to. Patan was second on our visit and again it was the life going on around the square which was, to me, most interesting. Rice being dried in the streets was a little incongruous, but it is still quite a rural area and the streets are direr that the paddy fields. Makes some kind of sense.
Through Bhaktapur and Patan, there are ancient and elaborate washing springs and fountains scattered almost as liberally as shrines and stupas. Communal open air washing of self and laundry is the norm.
Kathmandu Durbar square is, as the other two, full of ornate statutes and temples and tourists both local and distant watching the world pass by. It is easy to forget that the temples are scared places and so visited by Hindus and Buddhist people to worship, not just Disney Epcot for visitors to lounge on. Venturing north of Durbar Square was total mania. More packed with people and traffic than anywhere else I had visited. A battle with mopeds and their constant beeping.
Returning to the relative quiet of Durbar Square I took the advice of Lonely Planet and ate at the roof top cafe, Cosmos de Cafe where an enormous Nepali vegetarian meal was only 600 rupees, around £5. Chance to watch the world pass by and enjoy the remarkably clear afternoon with views of the snow capped Himalayas as back ground to the city skyline.
By the last day I had sussed out the taxi fares. Don’t pick up a taxi from the hotel, especially a 5* hotel. Your fare will be considerably cheaper if one is found on the street, especially if you have the grubby film of three weeks travelling. My quote from the hotel to Swayambhunath was 700r one way. A walk down the street and I negotiated 1000 to take me, wait 2 hours and return me. Accepted it is still tourist rate, but worth a 5 minute walk.
A good way to spend a morning wandering around the conglomeration of Hindu and Buddhist temples. Relatively early in the morning, there were more Napali people then tourists. The commercialism not overtly present in Bhutan was only just being unpacked and the ‘monkey mob’ described in Lonely Planet had not yet woken up. There is a wonderful view over the city but the haze of pollution sits somewhat alarmingly between the rooftops and the mountains. Not surprising that motorists and pedestrians wear face masks. Along with the commercialism was also the accompanying detritus of rubbish and graffiti. Something notable by its absence in Bhutan.
Lonely Planet describes a walk or cycle through the city, to Swayambhunath, but it is not for the faint hearted, and a face mask would be a must. I preferred the relative safety of my Suzuki taxi, with its driver beeping at every opportune moment. The taxi came to an abrupt halt on the way back and I was glad my flight was not imminent, as he leapt out with an oily rag and disappeared under the bonnet. Thankfully, after 3 or 4 trips between the engine and the key, success of starting and we were on our way again with Indian music blaring appropriate to the traffic.
So my 8/15, though I have substituted by visit to Bardia National Park for Chitwan, after all I did see a tiger. My tip would be, if you only have a very quick stopover in Kathmandu a taxi ride and walk through the streets is an experience in itself and not to be missed.
To see what the other 8 are check out Lonely Planet, Nepal, more pictures of Nepal here