March 19, 2014 00:00 By Matthew C Crawford
With latest political crisis behind it, the Nepali capital seems set to once again attract visitors
The trekking guides of Nepal sometimes entertain themselves with a nonsensical piece of doggerel that asks, right before the punch line, “What to do in Kathmandu?”
While it may be a dull city for some of the locals, finding something to do or see should never be a problem for a visitor – except when the country is in the middle of one of its political crises.
Before the latest election, worries about stability put a serious dent in tourism, the country’s main industry. The hard-line Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (called the “Dashists” because of the hyphen in its name) wanted to stop the election from happening, and began holding traffic strikes in mid-November. Even taxis and buses had to stay off the streets or risk being attacked. Many feared that the country was heading toward chaos.
But the Dashists failed to derail the November 19 election and the Nepali Congress came out on top among the 100 or so parties. It has vowed to complete the writing of the interminably delayed Constitution this year.
This is good news for tourists as well as for the trekking agency operators, guides, hotel owners and thousands of other Nepalis who wring their hands when politics comes in the way of business.
Though travellers with superhuman endurance, or subhuman foresight, can enter Nepal by bus, and though there are flights from India to Pokhara, the second-largest city, almost every foreign visitor is forced to spend some time in the capital. Most of them stay in the maze of alleys that is Thamel.
The main activities in this central area of town are dodging taxis and motorbikes, saying no to vendors and mendicants, and choking down dust and fumes. The area’s narrow lanes started out as village paths, and their logic has long since turned to confusion. But getting lost can be part of the experience, and after some trial and error, familiar landmarks begin to pop out. Before long, friendships and dining discoveries will have softened some of the nuisances. Over repeated visits, Thamel may even come to seem like a strange second home.
Whether you’re staying at one of Thamel’s guest houses or at an upscale hotel in another part of the city, one of the first things to do in Kathmandu is visit Durbar Square. The 30-minute walk south from Thamel will not only help with acclimatising to the city, but will also provide eye-opening glimpses into the pageant of local life.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square consists of the former royal palace known as Hanuman Dhoka, and a set of Hindu temples. While the palace has been turned into a museum, the temples are anything but relics for the city’s Hindus, who come to them for daily rituals and yearly festivals.
The neighbouring Kathmandu Valley cities of Patan and Bhaktapur also have must-visit Durbar Squares.
Not far from the Hyatt Regency is the country’s largest stupa, Boudhanath, at the centre of Kathmandu’s Tibetan district. An ancient stopover along a former route of Tibetan traders, the white monument always seems to be watching, Mona Lisa-like, with one of its four pairs of mystical eyes.
The stupa, designed in the form of a giant mandala is meant to be circled in a clockwise direction. Like at the Jhokang Temple in Lhasa, it’s easy for bystanders to get sucked into the hypnotic flow of the crowd and begin making rounds of the stupa.
Despite the smell of incense and mumbling of prayers, and the general tranquillity of Boudhanath, this is still a politically charged area. Last year, the 100th self-immolation in protest of China’s occupation of Tibet took place near the stupa.
Another major Buddhist draw within city limits is Swayambhunath, a set of temples that requires some stair climbing to reach. There are monasteries and shrines on both crests of the hill, but the main attraction sits atop the eastern side – a large stupa with streaks of yellow on its off-white base and an upper finial more intricate than Bhoudhanath’s. Rocket-shaped structures stand at the four corners of the stupa, and the whole area is overrun by holy monkeys.
The hilltop also offers the best view of the city, though the peaks of the Langtang Himal in the north are almost always blocked out by smog these days. For those unable to visit the Nepali hinterlands on a trek, Swayambhunath offers a grand spectacle of thousands of Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
The last of the must-see, must-do attractions of Kathmandu is Pashupatinath Temple, near the Tribhuvan International Airport on the east side of the city. The Hindu god Pashupatinath is an avatar of Shiva, making the temple one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Shivaites. Built along the foetid Baghmati River, the ghats are used for ritual bathing and cremations.
On the other side of the Baghmati, steps up the hillside lead to viewpoints from which all of Pashupatinath can be taken in. The scene may appear infernal or enchanting, depending on the weather and the number of bodies being burned. Also on the hillside are shrines likely to be sheltering sadhus – yellow-robed, dreadlocked, homeless holy men – who will try to entice you into taking their photo. Sure you’ll have to pay him afterwards, but taking a picture with a sadhu is also one of the things to do in Kathmandu.