Chaotic but colourful and vibrant, the very name of Kathmandu conjures up images of a mystical and alluring city. Here are just some of the not-to-be missed sights in the Nepali capital
Nepal was closed to the outside world for much of the last 200 years - and there is still a sense of entering a mysterious hidden kingdom. A day in Kathmandu reveals some of that history and mystical culture.
Kathmandu has one of the most spectacular approaches to any capital city by plane – flying alongside the Himalayas before descending into the Kathmandu Valley.
Try and get a seat on the left of the plane if you are flying in from west of Nepal to make sure you get a view of the mountains as we did on our Gulf Air flight from London via Bahrain.
As we drive through the dim half-light of a Kathmandu evening, our guide explains that Nepal has “…more temples than houses, more gods and goddesses than the people who live here and more festivals than there are days in the year.” And the next day, he sets out to prove it.
As the smoke from the previous night’s Saraswati Puja festival fires still hangs over the city, we arrive (avoiding the 365-step climb) at the hilltop Swayambunath – the ‘Monkey Temple’.
One of the oldest and holiest of religious sites for both Hindus and Buddhists was so-called because the resident monkeys. According to legend, transformed from the head lice of Manjushree, the bodhisattva (enlightened’) who raised the hill of Swayambunath out of a lake.
All around there is spinning of the prayer wheels and clashing of bells and cymbals by the faithful. The smell of the butter lamps mixes with incense and marigold flowers.
In the centre stands the white dome of the stupa monument, topped with its golden ‘face’ and the all-seeing eyes serenely surveying the city below.
The pagoda temples of Durbar Square stand like dusty antiques in a stately home. But these structures, some dating from the 16th century, are still at the very heart of life in Kathmandu. Traders barter on them, children play round them and rickshaw drivers wait for fares.
Receipts from tourist entry fees now go some way to paying for restoration work.
It’s not every day you see a living goddess. Time your visit to Durbar Square right and you could catch a glimpse of the Kumari – the latest child goddess selected from a Newari family in the Kathmandu Valley at the age of four or five, in a tradition dating back centuries.
After meeting the strict selection procedure - which includes being put in a darkened room with buffalo heads and terrifying masked dancers - the chosen Kumari moves into the Kumari Bahal with her family.
Apart from a few ceremonial outings each year, she stays there until she reaches puberty or had an accidental loss of blood when the goddess’ spirit is said to leave her, and the process to find a new Kumari begins again.
The ghats at Pashupathinath temple complex are an equally fascinating insight into Nepali culture. Alongside the River Bagmati funeral pyres smolder as families from all over Kathmandu send loved ones on their final journey.
After the bodies are cremated, the ashes from the pyre are swept into the holy river. While non-Hindus cannot enter the main temple, it is possible to watch the dignified ceremonies from across the river.
Around the temple, the Sadhus of Pashupathinath are revered as enigmatic ‘holy men’ who have abandoned everyday life to embark on a spiritual journey.
With their dreadlocked hair and beards, piercing eyes and bright robes, it is impossible not to be transfixed by them. Although stand still for too long and you’ll have tikka on your forehead for “good luck” and be relieved of a few rupees by some of the less scrupulous amongst their number.
Our sightseeing was done on first day of a Himalayan Discovery tour with Himalayan Encounters (www.himalayanencounters.com).
Without an organised tour, all of the main city attractions can be easily reached on foot, by taxi or cycle rickshaw from Thamel – the main area for budget and mid-range accommodation.
We stayed at the Hotel Shanker – a comfortable and clean former palace, with a wedding cake-like dining room. It was a tranquil bolt-hole from the frenetic activity on the streets.
Walking through Thamel is like turning the dial on a radio – the constant beeping from the motorcycles merges with hacking coughs and spits, souvenir sellers shouting, the indistinct mutterings more dubious salesmen, the bells of cycle-rickshaws, sudden heavy rock from a live band in bar … clashing with another band across the street … its a cacophony but listen and take it all in – there is nothing else like it.
For a more tranquil shopping experience, try Pilgrims (Thamel, Kathmandu, PO Box 3872 www.pilgrimsonlineshop.com/) – the long established booksellers. There is room after room of coffee-table books, DVDs and handicrafts.
Passing the restaurants, supermarkets and trekking suppliers, you can simply turn a corner to find yourself in a courtyard with a centuries-old stupa, surrounded by buildings with traditional ornate Newari wood carved windows.
The instability of the last decade, combined with ever-present corruption has left the county’s infrastructure on the edge. Electricity can be intermittent. Be prepared and carry a torch – the streets are very dark and disorientating in the evenings without much lighting.
One of the periodic general strikes or bandhs paralysed the capital during one day of our visit in February 2010 - these could well increase as a deadline for the political parties to agree a new constitution approaches.
As tourists we were not directly targeted, but shops and transport were disrupted and groups of riot police on the streets did add to a feeling of unease.
Although the fact there was hardly any traffic made crossing the road a whole lot easier than it was normally. Keep an eye on the FCO travel advice about any strikes or curfews.
They are just another episode in the Nepali capital’s long and turbulent history which has seen rulers come and go. Throughout it all, wrapped in its culture of colour and vitality, Kathmandu remains a world apart.