Ke garne, ke garne – or What to do in Kathmandu
Kathmandu is the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. Home to almost one million Nepalese, this city was once the termination point of one of the most famous overland trips of the 1960s and 70s. A magnet for hippies, dope smokers and those looking for free love and spiritual liberation. Back then, you didn’t come to Kathmandu for the mountains, but for nirvana. Today, the seedy echoes of those times can be glimpsed in the odd aging hippy, grey-haired and haggard, slipping through the crowds in Thamel, a bedraggled, roll-your-own dangling from his lips. Freak Street, so-called because it was the haunt of the hippies, is now a curiosity stop for hip, tanned, muscular trekkers from the world over, just one more bit of this city’s many layers of history.
At first glance, Kathmandu seems to be just another teeming city of the developing world. Smog, cacophonous traffic, billboards, hucksters and tricksters on every corner. But, wait, slow down and look around and look closely. Those tenements are built from handmade bricks and could be several centuries old. The window frames and shutters are carved by hand in the distinctive Newari style. That tailor with his treadle-operated Singer sewing machine turns out embroidered T-shirts that we can only re-create using a computerised, pre-programmable machine. Everywhere you look, there’s a shrine or a temple with someone paying homage. A far cry from our shut and deserted churches. This is a land in which the people live their religion.
Trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, taxis, tractors, 4WDs and sedans of all makes, models and vintages fill every space on the roads. And all of them are beeping their horns. Traffic in Kathmandu abhors a vacuum. If there’s an empty lane on the other side of the road, fill it! But watch and listen. The honking is not the aggressive sounds of Western drivers. Instead, a beeping horn is a polite warning to the vehicle, or person, in front that you intend to pass and could they please move over to the left to facilitate your desire to pass. And, marvellous to behold, rather than a curt finger in the air, the driver ahead does indeed inch over to the left!
This is the secret charm of Kathmandu. Underneath all the seeming noise and chaos is a spirit of goodwill, humour and co-operation. Realise this and you soon relax, drop your guard and embrace the kaleidoscope of colour, movement and sound that surrounds you.
Now you can start to discover and enjoy this city. Visit Swayambhunath for its unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist religions, and then walk back to the centre of town. This is the real Kathmandu. This is where the locals live and shop. Peer into tiny little stores, venture into hidden courtyards, touch and smell the fruit, vegetables and spices on sale. No-one will pay you slightest bit of attention – except the little boy trying to sell you a pot-scourer.
A visit to Boudnath is a must. The largest stupa outside of Tibet, Boudnath offers one of the richest insights into Tibetan culture. Explore the shops and monasteries that circle the great stupa, do a circumambulation of the stupa, turning all the prayer wheels along the way. Then, instead of heading back to your hotel room, take the road to Kopan. You’ll soon find yourself walking amongst fields and open-air paper-making factories, with racks of paper drying in the sun.
Once a city state in its own right, Patan is now a suburb of Kathmandu. Explore its ancient streets and go looking for the temple of the 1,000 Buddhas. Like its counterparts, Bhaktapur and Kirtipur, Patan is a lived in heritage site. As an Australian, I find it awesome that people live and work in buildings hundreds and hundreds of years old. In my country, such buildings would be empty, lifeless shrines to the past. Here in Kathmandu, they are people’s homes and businesses.
Go to Pumpernickels in Thamel for one of the best cheese sandwiches you’ll ever eat. Made from a long crusty roll and nak cheese (which looks and tastes like Swiss cheese), it is simply delicious! Le Bistro, a few doors up from the Kathmandu Guest House does a fabulous lassi – banana, mango or plain.
Kathmandu suits travellers of all budgets and interests. Looking for pashminis, khukuris or thankgas? You’ll find just the thing here in the shops of Thamel and Boudnath. Want a few trinkets and souvenirs for friends and family back home? Look no further than the shops and stalls of Thamel. Do your tastes run to carved masks or hand thrown pottery? Then Bhaktapur is the place to go.
Accommodation caters to all budgets as well. Everything from the luxury of the Hyatt out near Boudnath, to the stripped down basics at Hotel Earth in Thamel, you’ll find a room to suit your bank budget.
Kathmandu. It’s noisy, crowded and seedy. But its streets are filled with hidden delights and sudden surprises. It’s a city steeped in medieval history that is grasping the present with both hands. The result is a vibrant energy that creates some breathtaking juxtapositions of old and new. If you’re lucky, Kathmandu will cast its spell on you and draw you back again and again.