Beyond the dusty streets, Nepal’s capital is a vibrant, beguiling mosaic of cultures and architecture.
Words and Photos Tiffany Chan
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 89, November 2017
Dust billows in the air as our car jerks along a rugged dirt road. The way ahead is shrouded in a gritty haze and we can barely see the car two metres in front of us. We try, in vain, to roll up the windows. They’re broken. “Nepali powder,” the driver says, with biting sarcasm. He raises his hand in an impersonation of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, followed by a regal flick of the wrist, “All for free. We’re lucky.” We fall out of the car to find our skin, hair and clothes veiled in a light film of dust. Lucky, indeed.
I’d been warned the Nepali capital was “a real sh*t hole”, that it was “dirty, dusty, a dump”. It can certainly seem that way at first. The unpaved roads are in dire condition, seething with beeping cars, screaming motorbike engines and rickshaws. Crumbling building façades drip with mould. Power outages are random and frequent. Yet visitors quickly discover the label is perhaps overly simplistic, if not inaccurate.
Once one of three city-states in the Kathmandu Valley, along with Bhaktapur and Patan, Kathmandu has over 2,000 years of history and is home to 12 per cent of the country’s population and more than a dozen ethnic groups, including the country’s first settlers, the Newars. It is this diversity that makes Kathmandu everything it is frenzied, chaotic and astoundingly exasperating, but also rich and vibrant. Indeed, Kathmandu takes thousands of forms. Narrow, dilapidated alleys open into broad ancient squares. Dusty streets thump with a colourful parade of roaming hawkers, holy men and the homeless. Beyond the turbulent roads there are tranquil gardens within gardens.
The Kathmandu most tourists know and feel comfortable in is Thamel. A backpacker’s haven, this is a frenetic 5-kilometre labyrinth of more than 5,000 establishments. Boutique hotels, cafes and souvenir shops that sell everything from masala tea and metal prayer bowls to trekking gear and cashmere ponchos hand-spun from the hairs of Nepalese Chyangra goats. Thamel flourished in the early 90s and today it is a one-stop shop. While it draws an eye-roll from visitors seeking an authentic experience the tourist hub attracts even the locals who flock there for its convince and celebratory atmosphere.
Just a few minutes away is Swapna Bagaicha or the Garden of Dreams, a Neo-classical garden built in the 1920s by the late Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Rana, a politician and military man. After his death in 1964, the garden was left to the government and abandoned until the early 2000s, when it was restored with the help of the Austrian government. Inspired by Rana’s travels in Europe, it is a respite from the chaos of Kathmandu. Contained within its thick walls is a Greek-style amphitheatre carpeted in lush green grass, where purring lovers lie entwined, artists sketch and writers write. There are ornate fountains bubbling in tiny courtyards, twig-wrapped pavilions and deep, forest-green ponds that reflect the moving sky. For 200 rupees (US$1.90), an afternoon here is a chance to people-watch, catch your breath and recover a bit of sanity.
From Kathmandu Durbar Square, the medieval old town sprawls in a tingle of alleys and squares studded with temples and pagodas. Many of the sacred structures were devastated in the 2015 earthquake and the mountains of rubble and debris are mostly left untouched – a sobering sight. In the nameless alleys, wooden lattice windows offer glimpses of families going about their day in wonky, collapsing buildings centred round bahals (courtyards).
To the south, across the Bagmati River, Patan was once an independent city-state. Now a suburb of Kathmandu, it is the third biggest city in Nepal and home to communities of expats. Also known as Lalitpur, city of beauty or by the Newari name Yala, Patan retains a quaint, quiet charm that Kathmandu lacks. While many of the temples and palaces in Patan Durbar Square were reduced to debris in the earthquake, it remains one of the best historic districts in the valley.
Weaving through the maze of small lanes feels like walking through Venice, Hobbit-sized doors open into courtyards, where children kick water bottles and grandmothers yell from windows two storeys above. Traditional Newari lattice windows are adorned with strings of dried corn husks; the kernels are often used as poker chips.
Ten kilometres away from Kathmandu is the valley’s largest, most famous and arguably most splendid stupa, 1,500-year-old Boundhanath. Circle the complex under fluttering prayer flags to goose-bump-inducing chants of “om mani padme hum”. Away from the crowds, down tree-lined alleys is Shechen Monastery. One of many Tibetan monasteries surrounding Bounhanath, is has a guesthouse with a pretty little courtyard restaurant. Sitting in the verdant garden-within-a-garden, with a juice and a place of vegetarian moms, the clamour of Kathmandu could not feel further away.
| First Things First
What to Do
Early morning is the best time to visit Boundhanath, when it’s least crowded, followed by breakfast at Shechen Guesthouse. On the outskirts of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery runs meditation sessions open to al, but make sure your shoulders are covered. The painted eyes on gold-spired Swayambhunath Stupid, the Monkey Temple, have some of the best views of Kathmandu. The temple is overrun by monkeys, which are considered holy, that should not be fed. Back in Thamel, shop for high-quality cashmere shawls, ponchos and blankets for next to nothing, or even less if you’re good at haggling. Take a break in the walled Garden of Dreams, a perfect escape from the intensity of the city. For food, OR2K is popular for its combination of Middle Eastern flavours and local dishes. Try the Malawach omelette, with a glass of fresh beetroot juice. Fifteen minutes away, Nilgiri Thakali Delights specialises in Thakali cuisine. For a taste of Nepal’s famed natural beauty, it’s just an hour’s drive to the Village of Nagarkot, more than 2,000 metres above sea level. It’s the favoured getaway from the city, where overnight visitors wake up to some of the brightest, most ethereal sunrises in the world. No trekking required.
Where to Stay
Heritage: Maya Manor Boutique Hotel
A beautiful boutique hotel converted from a historic mansion built in 1935 by the Rana family, the Maya Manor has colonial touches, including Victorian art and antiques. Nearby are landmarks such as the Monument Tower and City Clock.
Hattisar Road, Kathmandu
T +977 1 442 8028
Views: Hotel Mulberry
Ideally located in Thamel, the boutique property Hotel Mulberry opened this year. Whether you go for a deluxe room or the presidential suite, the Mulberry is hard to beat. The rooftop infinity pool has spectacular views.
Jyatha, Thamel, Kathmandu 44600
T +977 1 421 8899
Something different: Cosy Nepal
For an alternative to hotels, this French-Nepali agency specialises in converted traditional houses in Patan and the old town, which conserve their historic charm while adding modern touches. Short-, medium- and long-term stays are available.
T +977 1 553 4486
What to Eat and Drink
These traditional Nepalese dumplings can be found everywhere in Kathmandu and beyond. Our favourites – john moms, served in broth – were at Byanjan Bar and Grill in Pokhara, a 25-minute flight away.
The Nepalese have a saying, “dal that power, 24 hour”. And it all makes sense as Nepal’s energy-packed national dish fuels trekkers and sherpas on steep treks through the Himalayas. The dish comprises a mound of rice (bhat) served with lentil (dal) soup, a vegetable or chicken curry, pickles and greens. Especially popular in the mountains, dal bhat can be found everywhere in Kathmandu, and each restaurant makes it slightly different.
An unlikely favourite, chips chilli is essentially potato (or chips) stir-fried with onions, garlic and peppers in tomato based chilli sauce. Nilgiri Thakali Delights makes it best. The potatoes are warm and fluffy but stay crisp even doused in sweet-and-sour tomato-based chilli.
A traditional Newari dish, Yoh translates as “like” and mari as bread. Steamed rice-flour bread is stuffed to the brim with ground meat, or sugar and sesame seeds. Have it at Nadini Food Store, which serves traditional Newari cuisine just steps away from Patan Durbar Square
The Newari “King of yogurt” is a rich, sweet, creamy yogurt made with fresh buffalo milk and set in red clay pots. The porous pots allow the liquid whey to drain away, resulting in a thick, firm custard-like consistency. Have it at Bhaktapur, where it is said to originate.