Kathmandu is a far cry from sleepy Pokhara. It’s a bustling city, practically overflowing with people and sounds and smells, shrouded in dust and pollution. To take the city in, for our first night we stayed at a perfectly average hotel called the Tibet Guesthouse in the Thamel district of Kathmandu – very active, very touristy area, which is also near Durbar Square. Naturally, as soon as we checked in to the hotel I broke my flip-flops and my poor feet could still not handle my trekking boots, so the first order of business ended up being some shoe-shopping. It was harder to find a simple pair of flip-flops in Thamel than I had anticipated, but eventually I prevailed and we made our way down to Durbar Square.
Durbar Square (one of three in the Kathmandu Valley) is a Newari plaza filled with temples near the old palace, including the temple which houses the Kumari, the child who acts as the “living goddess” of Taleju.
The structures were beautiful but the atmosphere was not conducive to admiring them; we were constantly harangued by people who wanted to be our guide,which we were not interested in. We had experienced the same in Indonesia and had hired the guides, which usually ended up being more of a nuisance than it was worth. Hire them or not, seems like it’s a situation where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The rest of the day we spent discovering Thamel and the surrounding area, including the absolutely lovely Garden of Dreams, a garden which is part of a palace built in the late 1800’s. I nabbed a funky silver and tiger-eye dragon necklace as well, because what jewelery collection is complete without a massive dragon necklace? We had a nice enough dinner (nothing spectacular) there later that week, at their Kaiser Cafe.
The following morning we visited Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple. It lies atop a hill at the edge of the city, where you are greeted not only by vendors, but holy rhesus monkeys (much better behaved than Ubud, Bali’s holy monkeys) as you climb the steep steps to the Buddhist stupa you see towering over you. As you walk clockwise (never counter-clockwise) around the stupa you find it surrounded by loads of shrines and prayer wheels and cheeky monkeys (are they ever anything but cheeky?) stealing the offerings left behind.
Having had about enough of Thamel (I probably could have happily spent one more night there, but no more I think), we checked out later that morning and headed over to the eastern edge of the city (near Pashupatinath temple and the famous Boudhnath stupa) where we checked into the total class and very lux boutique hotel, Dwarika’s (don’t let the crappy website fool you). Dwarika’s is set up like a Newari-style village and filled with carvings and art saved from old buildings being demolished around Kathmandu, as well as some pieces produced from the woodcarving studio on site. The rooms are really quite large and the bathrooms massive as well with a separate bath and shower. It’s a shockingly peaceful place when you consider that just on the other side of the fortress-like wall which contains the hotel is all of Kathmandu and a very busy street.
The afternoon was spent lounging poolside (a pool with water-spouting naga heads, no less) with cocktails and books, getting in some much needed relaxation. Later in the afternoon we were able to rouse ourselves and head over to the nearby Hindu temples of Pashupatinath.
Pashupatinath is the holiest site in the Hindu religion and is also where Hindus may be cremated (the family lights a fire in the deceased’s mouth), on gats on the bank of the Bagmati river. Said river was pretty much non-existent when we were there, but during the monsoon season, when the river fills up, the remains and ashes are washed down the river, where it eventually meets up with the Ganges river. At this time, with the river so low, it was a bit of a sad sight; monkeys and children were digging through the remains of the cremated which were pushed off the gats into the swampy riverbed while cows and dogs were rooting for food.
An unscheduled trip over to Patan (Lalitpur) Durbar Square ended up being quite pleasant. The Newari square was not as clogged with people as Kathmandu’s and the guides were far more easily deterred so we were able to stroll around and take in the temples at our own leisure. One temple, which I think was Hari Shankar temple dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva, even displayed a variety of erotic wooding carvings in beams under the roof. The surrounding area in general seemed a bit more pleasant than Kathmandu in general. Less people, less litter, less traffic and shops with actually some very nice thangkas which you could watch being painted on the spot. I regret not picking up a Wheel of Life thangka, but as I was told, it will give me a reason to come back again!
Our final visit was, of course, to Boudhanath. Boudhanath was expectedly lovely not to mention quite large (I believe it is one of the largest spherical stupas in the world). As you stroll around it clockwise, you are surrounded by Buddhist pilgrims spinning the prayer wheel, leaving offerings and lighting butter prayer candles.
Kathmandu is quite a city and definitely worth visiting, but I found it to be a bit overwhelming (litter, traffic, people) – a surprise as I am generally most comfortable in cities. If you take the time to go to Kathmandu in Nepal, I think it’s imperative you also get out of the city and in to the country or mountains, which were really spectacular and beautiful.
Hopefully I’ll return again (soon) as I would really like to see the other side of Nepal, which is jungles and wildlife parks; a world away from the snow-capped Himalayas! Not to mention, I still really want that damned thangka! I was originally planning on doing Kerala, India in November for my 30th birthday, but am now starting to have second thought as Nepal’s Chitwan National Park is sounding really good!