Butter lamps. Kathmandu

Kathmandu, the Timeless City

Kathmandu is a city that never changes. When we arrived in Nepal from Southeast Asia, it felt like we had traveled back in time. Our battered taxi from the airport bumped along rundown streets past tiny temples, women in red shawls, and the occasional cow. Hindu and Buddhist shrines peeped out between ramshackle shops and houses. It was dirty, chaotic, and colorful: in other words, just the way we remembered it from our long visit in 2007. We almost decided not to come to Nepal because of the earthquake and fuel crisis. But once we arrived in Kathmandu, we were absolutely thrilled to be back in our favorite city.

Sadly, the price of Nepal’s cultural integrity is poverty and political upheaval. In the last twenty years, Nepal has lurched from one political crisis to the next, interrupted by the occasional natural disaster. These problems keep Nepal high on the list of Asia’s poorest countries and make it feel like the 21st century hasn’t arrived yet.

We spent three days in Kathmandu before our Everest trek, and another six days afterwards. Before the trek, we stayed in Thamel, the backpackers’ hub in the city center, at the fine Pilgrim’s Guesthouse. After the trek, we spent another couple of nights at Pilgrim’s before moving to our old haunts in the Tibetan area of Boudhanath. We kept a relaxed schedule because we had seen almost every sight in the area during our stay in 2007. But we revisited several favorite places from before, curious to see what had changed. We were happy to find that in most cases, the answer was, not much!

Tough Times in Nepal

Our visit in 2007 coincided with the winding down of the civil war between Maoists and royalists. Nepal essentially had no government during the lengthy process of shaping the former Hindu kingdom into a secular democracy. Kathmandu and the Himalayas were peaceful and we were impressed at how Nepalis got on with life as usual amid all the uncertainty.

2015 has been a tough year, even by Nepali standards. The earthquakes in April and May killed thousands of people and caused tourist numbers to plummet. Just when the tourist season was beginning to pick up in September, a dispute over Nepal’s new constitution sparked a fuel crisis. The Madhesi people, who live in southern Nepal bordering India, accused the Nepali government of marginalizing them by denying them a state. They staged protests along the border with India, where 100% of Nepal’s fuel enters the country. The passage of fuel tankers through the border posts has been severely limited. Nepal and many other countries have accused India of engineering the blockade in order to enforce its agenda. Whatever the moving force, the blockade has reduced the supply of fuel and other essential supplies to a trickle.

As I write this on January 25, the border with India has only just been opened after four months of blockades. This was a double hit to Nepal’s economy that was already struggling after the earthquake. We considered canceling our trip because we were worried that flights wouldn’t be operating and we wouldn’t be able to get around the country. As it turned out, the impact of the fuel crisis to tourists was less than we expected. Fuel is available on the black market, but the price of transport has skyrocketed accordingly. Many restaurants, lacking cooking gas, are operating on a limited menu. This was a bummer since some of our favorite dishes from before were unavailable. But like before, the impact of the current political crisis wasn’t too strongly felt in Kathmandu and people got on with their lives as well as they could.

Every morning, we picked up a copy of the Himalayan Times or Kathmandu Post to get updates on the situation. It was striking how little the newspaper headlines had changed since our last visit. In 2007, during the country’s turbulent transition from monarchy to democracy, headline articles described political stalemates, roadblocks, border tussles, and the toll of these events on the country’s people. Eight and a half years later, the headlines have barely changed.

Earthquake Damage?

Something's missing. Temple with earthquake damage, Patan Durbar Square
A temple that lost its top in Patan.

In late April, we were dismayed to see TV images of rescue teams sifting through piles of rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake. Kathmandu has a stunning architectural heritage of multi-tiered temples and intricate carved wood buildings. We felt some trepidation as we approached Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, which once had one of the greatest concentration of fabulous temples and public buildings in Nepal. Had anything survived? Some tall temples had toppled over, and many more were held up by struts, but most were intact. Carved wooden beams were piled neatly around Durbar Square, ready for reconstruction.


As we walked around Kathmandu, we noticed a few collapsed buildings, but far fewer than the media would have had us believe. In most areas of the city, you would never guess that there had been an earthquake. In the old quarter of town, many buildings are damaged or lean at precarious angles, but Kathmandu has always been a ramshackle city, and it was hard to tell what damage was caused by the earthquake. The most visible sign of the earthquake was the large number of buildings propped up by struts.

Holding up after the earthquake. Kathmandu
Struts supporting a residential building in Kathmandu.

The site that shows the most striking earthquake damage is sadly our old haunt of Boudhanath, the Tibetan Buddhist area centered on one of Asia’s biggest stupas. The stupa is crowned with a tall golden spire with the eyes of the Buddha swathed in prayer flags. Or, it used to be. We walked through the alleyway to the stupa and were shocked to see that the spire is gone. It looks more like the King Dome than a holy Buddhist monument. We later learned that the spire was badly cracked in the earthquake causing structural instability. The spire was dismantled and the slow rebuilding process has begun.

Boudha stupa in 2007
Boudha stupa, March 2007.

Boudhanath stupa... after the earthquake
Boudha stupa, November 2015.

The moral? Don’t believe everything the media says in the aftermath of a natural disaster! We would have been foolish to cancel our trip to Nepal because of the earthquake.

Art and Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley

Annapurna Temple. Ason Tole, Kathmandu
Annapurna Temple at Ason Tole, Kathmandu

Kathmandu is set in a wide valley in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Buddhist culture of Tibet meets the Hindu culture of the Indian plains. The historic inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley are known as the Newars, and their mingling of people and religions has produced one of the most interesting and unique cultures on the planet. Kathmandu is like a living museum with ancient temples and sculptures on every street corner. Hinduism and Buddhism are intertwined so that the Buddha’s eyes grace almost every Hindu temple. People make offerings of fruit, rice, and colored powder before statues of Hindu gods, but spin Tibetan prayer wheels on their way out of the temple.

The valley gave rise to three rival cities: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. Like the feuding city-states of Renaissance Italy, they competed to have the grandest temples and public buildings. The result is an incredible concentration of artistic and cultural treasures packed into a small area. Each of these cities has its own Durbar (royal) Square with numerous temples and public buildings.

The characteristic architectural style is the multi-roofed temple echoing the shape of the distant Himalayas. Doors and struts of the temples, not to mention window frames and doors on many regular buildings, are made of beautifully carved wood. It is unbelievable how many rundown buildings in the Kathmandu Valley sport wood carvings that would be museum pieces in any other country.

Wood carving. Patan Durbar Square
Wood carving in Patan’s Durbar Square.

Nepali temples are a riot for the senses. Sculptures of deities adorn every surface, incense burns on shrines, and worshippers ring bells. Some of the most ornate temples are in Patan, like the Uka Bahal with its outlandish metal guardian figures.

Uka Bahal. Patan
Sculptures at Uku Bahal in Patan.

Nepal is a majority Hindu country, but people in the Kathmandu Valley mix Buddhist and Hindu practices. It is common to see chaityas (small stone stupas with Buddha figures, usually topped with steeples with Buddha eyes) and Tibetan prayer wheels at Hindu temples.

Chaityas. Kathmandu
Chaityas in a small square in Kathmandu.

The Streets of Kathmandu

Street. Ason Tole, Kathmandu
Ason Tole.

The best way to understand the culture of the Kathmandu Valley is to walk through the old quarters of the towns. Lonely Planet describes excellent walking tours through Kathmandu and Patan, which we did in 2007 and happily retraced on this trip.

We started in the tourist ghetto of Thamel, about as un-typical Nepali place as you can get. Thamel is unashamedly touristy but it has a certain charm and is the best place to get good food and pick up souvenirs and backpacker essentials. Thamel’s bookstores are particularly well-stocked, and we replenished our supply of paperback books (a few of our recent favorite reads have been
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom).

Ding-ding! Kathmandu
Ding-ding! Cycle rickshaw

A few blocks south of Thamel, the souvenir stores peter out and the real Kathmandu begins. The streets are jammed with cycle rickshaws and vendors selling their wares. Many of the ground floor doors and outer walls are painted blue and bedecked with garlands of marigolds, one of the sights that I most strongly associate with the Kathmandu Valley.

Street. Kathmandu
Blue doors. Kathmandu

One of the great joys of Kathmandu is ducking through a narrow passageway off of a main street and emerging into a courtyard studded with Buddha statues. These residential courtyards, or bahals, are a great place to observe local life, like laundry hanging out to dry behind centuries-old sculptural treasures and kids playing ball among Buddhist stupas. The Buddha statues shaped like small stupas are called chaityas and are ubiquitous throughout Kathmandu. Kathesimbhu bahal, just south of Thamel, is a fantastic example of a bahal with a beautiful stupa surrounded by chaityas.

Kathesimbuhu. Big and small
Stupa and chaitya at Kathesimbhu.

Continue south from Kathesimbhu and you will get to one of my favorite areas of Kathmandu, the market junctions of Ason Tole and Indra Chowk and the streets linking them. This area of a few hundred square meters must have the greatest density of color and life in all of Asia. Temples and market stalls are cheek to jowl with cycle rickshaws and pushcart vendors. Hand forged metal wares, Newari clothing, jewelry, and produce are just a few of the items on offer. One of my favorite photos of this neighborhood is from our 2007 trip.

Door in Kathmandu
Perfect light on a tailor’s door. Kathmandu

The Curse of Kathmandu?

Reincarnation, eternal recurrence, cycles of life. In Kathmandu, things go around in circles. The devout spin prayer wheels and walk in circles around stupas. It makes you wonder if the soul experiences a series of repeating events that span many lifetimes. I’m unsure about this view of the cosmos, but as I heaved the contents of my stomach into the toilet at 3:00 in the morning, I had the distinct feeling that I had lived this moment before.

In fact, I had. On our first trip to Kathmandu, I got a truly revolting case of food poisoning from a tourist restaurant in Thamel. Paul demonstrated that he was husband material by cleaning up after me, not once but twice! On this trip, we have been eating everything you’re not supposed to eat. Street food, unpeeled fruit, you name it, no problems. So we thought it was a good idea to have dinner at the local curry joint in Thamel, currently the #7 Kathmandu restaurant on Tripadvisor. We found the grubby hole in the wall around the corner from the hotel and tucked into rich, delicious curries and garlic naan straight out of the tandoor.

The curries were served too quickly for them to have been freshly cooked, but we didn’t think much of that until the middle of the night when I leaped out of bed to throw up. It is about par for the course that we traveled for six months in Central and Southeast Asia without getting sick, but we set foot in the Indian Subcontinent and it was only a matter of time before one of us was hugging the toilet bowl.

These bacteria were persistent, and I felt queasy for the rest of our time in Kathmandu. Paul also had a questionable belly for a few days. We had thought about revisiting some of the smaller villages on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, in particular the little gem of Bungamati. But with both of us feeling under the weather and transportation difficult because of the fuel crisis, we decided to spend the rest of our time taking it easy in our old haunt of Boudha.

Back Home in Boudha

Circles. Boudhanath stupa
Locals walking clockwise around the Boudhanath stupa.

In our time in Kathmandu in 2007, we stayed in the Tibetan Boudha neighborhood some distance east of the city center. The fuel crisis has jacked up taxi fares so that a taxi between Boudha and the tourist center of Thamel that was Rs250 in 2007 is now Rs800. With prices like that, and needing to buy trekking gear, we decided to stay in Thamel to save on taxi fares. Thamel is a tourist ghetto but it has the advantages of lots of restaurants, trekking stores, and being close to the main sights in the old areas of Kathmandu. It was convenient for supplies and sightseeing, but we were happy to go “home” to Boudha for our last few days in Kathmandu.

Boudha is a major center of Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu, with over thirty monasteries and countless shops selling dharma articles and cloth thanka paintings. Monks in red robes, old Tibetan ladies spinning prayer wheels, and Nepali families all walk together clockwise around the stupa. The soundtrack to Boudha is provided courtesy of a music shop that has been blaring the Om mani padme hum mantra song for at least fifteen years. This song is beautiful, but be warned that once heard, it won’t leave your head until your next reincarnation.

We stayed in the guesthouse that was like a home for us in 2007, the Pal Rabten Khangsar (PRK) Guesthouse attached to a Buddhist monastery. At $15 for a comfortable double room decorated with Tibetan carpets, it’s one of the greatest hotel bargains of our trip. One of the joys of the PRK is being woken up by the trumpets, cymbals, and chanting in the morning.

We arrived in Boudha at the full moon at the end of November. That night, the stupa came alive with people lighting butter lamps, making prayers in the stupa temple, and performing koras. These nights are seen as auspicious nights to give charity, so a large collection of Kathmandu’s down and out were lined up around the stupa. We handed out all of our small bills, lit a few butter lamps, and soaked up the atmosphere.

Lighting lamps. Boudhanath
Lighting lamps. Full moon at Boudha.

Butter lamp room. Boudhanath
Butter lamp room at a monastery in Boudha.

We were sad to see that our old favorite, the Saturday Café, was no more. The Saturday used to be our regular spot for banana pancakes, Nepali coffee, and browsing the well-stocked bookshelves. Our usual table was next to the romance novel section and we used to giggle over the backs of the books. The Canadian owner told us that two types of customers bought the romance novels: bored middle-class Nepali housewives, and monks looking to improve their English. I would love to hear the monastery dinner table chat as those books made the rounds!

One restaurant that hasn’t changed a bit is the Double Dorjee across the street from the PRK. If you had a Tibetan grandmother with a cozy living room, this would be pretty much the same as the Double Dorjee. The Tamang woman who cooks up momos, tsampa, and other Tibetan comfort food is a real gem and has been doing this for almost 30 years. On every cold night on the Everest trek, we had been wishing for mugs of tongba, the Tibetan answer to a hot toddy, and we finally had some at the Double Dorjee. Take a tankard of slightly fermented millet, and drink it with a straw. Top up the hot water and repeat. It is utterly warming and heartening on a chilly night.

Warmth. Tongba at the Double Dorjee
Tongba at the Double Dorjee.

There was still one thing that we needed to compare with our 2007 visit: ourselves. Early in 2007, we took a selfie on top of the Boudha stupa. The upper part of the stupa was closed to visitors this time, but we found a spot on a monastery roof with a similar background and reproduced this shot.

Us on the Boudha stupa in January 2007.
Us in Boudha in January 2007.

Us in Boudha in 2015.
Us in Boudha in November 2015.

The years haven’t treated us too badly! In fact I have nothing to complain about. I feel very lucky to be back in one of my favorite places in the world with my favorite person. In early 2007, we had been dating for under a year and had just started our first big trip together. That trip to India, Nepal, and Tibet was a watershed in many ways. We learned that we traveled well together, and not long after coming home we decided to spend the rest of our lives together. It was also on that trip that I decided to study software engineering, starting a path that led to a rewarding career. And that trip gave me the itch to do another long trip to many of the countries I had long wanted to visit. Now we are more than halfway through the big trip that we planned for so long, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Goodbye for Now

Prayer wheels. Patan
Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels.

No trip to Nepal is complete without some kind of transportation comedy. This trip was no exception. We had booked a multi-leg itinerary from Nepal to Kuala Lumpur and onward to Ambon in the remote Maluku province of Indonesia. The morning of our flight, we got an email from Malindo Airlines that our flight had been cancelled and rescheduled to the next day. Argh! Missing our originally scheduled Kuala Lumpur flight would cause us to miss our onward connections to Ambon and the twice-weekly ferry to the Banda Islands. Unsure of what to do, we jumped in a taxi to the Malindo Airlines office to ask for help rescheduling our flights. The friendly and helpful agent there told us that our flight that evening had been canceled, but yesterday’s Kuala Lumpur flight would be departing tonight. Huh? Never mind logic, could we get on that flight? The agent called her boss and arranged for us to get seats on that evening’s departure. We even got an unanticipated detour to Bangladesh. The Kathmandu airport has stopped allocating fuel to foreign carriers because of the fuel crisis. So our flight out of Kathmandu had a refueling stop in Dhaka. Many hours later, we arrived in Kuala Lumpur and all the glitz and polish of the modern world.

Nepal’s tourist board got it right when they chose the slogan, “Once is not enough.” It’s rare to meet a foreigner who has only been to Nepal once, or who isn’t planning a return trip. So it seems appropriate that the first and last thing that you see when arriving and departing from Kathmandu’s airport is the cremation ghats at Pashupatinath, a reminder of the repeating cycle of life and death. As we drove to the airport to catch our flight, a funeral pyre burned against the setting sun. I am sure this will not be our last trip to Nepal, and unlike many places in Asia where rapid change threatens cultural integrity, I am confident that Kathmandu will not have lost its magic.

Photos

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2 thoughts on “Kathmandu, the Timeless City

  1. Eric Anderson

    I’ve been following your posts as you’ve been to so many places we are planning to visit the next 1/2 year (we had an abrupt end to Peace Corps KG so we’re home planning now.) I’m so happy to hear Kathmandu is really ‘open for business!’ During our trip we need a city every so often to recharge our batteries (and devices) and do some work. I had planned on spending some time in Kathmandu and it sounds like it will be perfect to do that.

    Reply
    1. Laura Post author

      Kathmandu is open for business as normal. Sadly, “normal” in Nepal often means “getting by in the middle of a political crisis.” I have seen some articles online that suggest the fuel crisis is easing. Now is the time to go, with fewer tourists than normal. If you will be in Nepal this spring, try to catch the Nepali New Year in Bhaktapur or Patan’s Rato Machhendranath festival. We saw these in 2007 and they were quite colorful.

      Reply

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