Kathmandu is the capital and largest city of the Himalayan nation of Nepal and is situated in a wide valley behind a wall of impregnable mountains. This might explain somewhat why Kathmandu was completely hidden from the rest of the world until 1951. In fact, it did not even have roads leading to the outside until 1958. The city, however, has quickly made up for lost time. Low-lying, brown bricks have been torn down and replaced by grey concrete. Roads are now infested with Japanese motorcycles and European cars and lined with mini-supermarkets, ice-cream parlors, boutique stores, and eatery stands serving noodles.
But old Kathmandu still refuses to die. Much of the city’s former atmosphere remains, including the warmth and friendliness of its people. Outside of the commercial and shopping districts stand neighborhoods characterized by rows of fine bricks lined densely along narrow lanes. The city is definitely a contrast between the modern and the traditional – the old medieval Kathmandu and the modern Durbar Marg area.
Today, Kathmandu is a wonderful city to visit, considered to be one of the most exotic cities in Asia. It is full of religious temples and palaces and is a semi-mecca for yoga, meditation, Hindu, and Buddhist enthusiasts. While the streets are filled with strange odors, they are saved by the colorful music tuned from the jangling of cymbals and the beat of drums from the hands of street performers. And the narrow lanes strolled by vendors carrying their woolen shawls and heavy-laden baskets full of fruits and vegetables somehow brings a sense of comfort to the foreign traveler’s eyes.
Kathmandu, once believed to be the legendary Shangri-La, is all about exploring the medieval pagodas, temples, and palaces, nowhere else especially than along the streets at the heart of Kathmandu in Durbar Square. This ancient square is filled with palaces and temples including the Kasthamandap (“House of Wood”), which was built in the 12th century. Today, the temple still serves as a community center and traveler’s hostel just as it has since 1000 AD.
In addition to the Kasthamandap, you’ll find a number of other temples and palaces at Durbar including the Taleju Temple. This is one of the oldest temples with its famed three roofs and pyramid-shaped base. It is dedicated to the royal goddess of Taleju. Built in 1563, the Taleju flaunts an exquisite woodcarving and is considered the most well proportioned of the temples. Another temple at Durbar is the Ashok Binayak located north of Kasthamandap. It is one of the most important Ganesh shrines in the region. Among others, you’ll also find the Maju Deval, Narayan Temple, Vishnu Temple, Saraswati Temple, and the Kumari Palace, which is dedicated to the young goddess from the Newar Sakya clan of gold and silversmiths.
Outside of Durbar Square, you’ll find other notable temples like the Pashupatinath, which is an important temple dedicated to Shiva. But mostly, you’ll find a number of palaces, many of them built by the Ranas.
Singha Durbar is another point of interest. Built in 1901, it was at one time the largest private building in Asia, boasting over 1,000 rooms and numerous interior and exterior courtyards. After the overthrow of the Ranas, Singha Durbar became the seat of the Nepalese government. Unfortunately, a fire in 1973 severely damaged the building and destroyed important records. This neoclassical building has since been restored. Today, it houses both chambers of parliament and a number of government offices.
Also of interest is the Rana palace of Kaiser Mahal near Thamel. The palace is occupied today by the Education Ministry and is also a public non-lending library. Many of the original books were seeded by Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher JB Rana who filled his palace with over 35,000 books. The palace, palace grounds, and the eclectic literary collection are open to the public.
Other former Rana palaces include the Shanker Hotels and The Yak and Yeti. To the east of the palaces, you’ll find the Nag Pokhari. This pond is great to bike or walk around and was transformed completely in 1987 when Kathmandu received a facelift for the South Asian Area Regional Council.
While the Durbar Square may be the best sightseeing area of Kathmandu, Thamel is the best place to unwind. Budget hotels, restaurants, cafes, bike rental shops, trekking equipment stores, and internet cafes all congregate in this area. Besides being a place to stroll, sleep, shop, and dine, you’ll also find information centers where you can obtain travel information.
Believe it or not, the slums of Kathmandu are also worth a visit as well. Back in the day, a wall used to enclose the city, prohibiting Hindus of certain caste from building inside. The “lower castes” of blacksmiths, sweepers, and cobblers had to live outside the walls in the slums. These neighborhoods are still comprised largely of people whose names are associated traditionally with having “unclean” occupations. The Bisnumati is a great example of a slum area outside the walls that’s been ignored by the city for years. It is located east of the temple of Ashok Binayak.
You should also visit Basantapur Square. At Basantapur, you’ll find the famed “Freak Street”, which is today lined with cheap hotels and hostels, pie shops, coffee joints, discount clothing stores, and a mix of modern concrete buildings. There are still the odd die-hard hippie hanging out in the odd café still tuning out old sixties’ songs.
For thousands of years, various dynasties ruled over Kathmandu, including the Malla Dynasty from 12th century to 17th century, which is when most of the city’s temples and palaces were built, and the Shah Dynasty from the 18th to the 19th century. For more than a hundred years from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Kathmandu was run by the Ranas who cut the city off from the outside world with the intent of isolating the country. When they were removed from power in the mid-1950s, Nepal opened its borders to the modern 20th century.
With the unveiling of Nepal to the rest of the world, the 1960s ushered in a wave of hippies and flower children. This liberal minded group made the Kathmandu Valley their backyard, a place where a dollar a day could buy enough marijuana and hashish, and then some. They hailed from all over the world, gathering in dark corners of Kathmandu’s restaurants, nodding to the chords of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead while sipping lemon teas and nibbling on hash brownies. They strolled the streets in a parade of velvet and satin, sporting earrings and “thongs”. Suddenly, streets that had never been graced by westerners had nicknames like “Freak Street” and “Pie Alley”. Within a decade, the hippies were gone and the next wave of tourists consisted of western, trekkers wearing athletic shirts and practical sneakers and munching on trail nuts. Today, Kathmandu is much like any western city – cars, computers, factories, cell phones, TVs, traffic congestion, and smog.
Burbank, Jon, Rosha Bajracharya, and Kesang Tseten. Nepal. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1993. ISBN: 0671879138.
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