A November 1999 trip
to Kathmandu by Ozzy-Dave
Quote: Kathmandu is big, but the region of most interest is the old town. This is where the city was born and where you will find Kathmandu's soul. Surrounding Durbar (palace) Square are the ancient marketplaces, linked by a narrow street that marked the start of the trade route to Tibet.
Highlights? There's a different one every day, but here is my Top 5 (in no particular order):
1. Freak Street - don't try and take it all in at once, all five senses will be working overtime! Created by the hippies for the hippies and now a memory to the hippies. So Where Have All The Freaks Gone? Look around, some of them may still be here.2. The marketplaces surrounding Durbar and Basantapur Squares, remnants of the old trade route to Tibet, openly display the colour and atmosphere of this ancient capital.3. Early morning at Swayambhunath - enjoy the other-wordly majesty of the place while observing the faithful in prayer. It's soul food for jaded journeyman.4. Watching night fall over the frenetic marketplace in Basantapur Square from upstairs at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant.5. Late night coffee and cake at the Snowman - an oasis of normalcy in a sea of culture shock.
When your mind and body have adjusted and you've fallen in love with Kathamandu - and there's every chance you will - come and explore this incredible country:Not Trekking in Nepal has some great walks through the Kathmandu Valley, andNepals Wild Kingdom heads south towards the Indian border for Asia's best wildlife experience.
Little three-wheeled bemos are good for longer hauls when you're feeling done-in and will get you anywhere around the city for less than 50Rp.The free map that the airport, bus stations and tourist centres give out is all you need.
I've provided a walking tour of the old city HERE. Allow a minimum of half a day and use it as a guide to exploring the ancient streets and lanes that have barely changed in hundreds of years.
We had a large double room with its own bathroom and gold foil door for 300Rp. I still don't know what the gold foil was for, but it looked kind of cool. There was a poster of Jim Morrison on one wall and the ornately carved teak windows opened on to a view of the central paved courtyard, littered with a few tables and chairs and the owner's pet doves. Smaller singles and doubles without a bathroom cost less - around 150Rp.
The reception area is lined with padded bench seats and a couple of bookcases crammed with travel books from all over the world in many different languages. You're free to browse and borrow and it's a popular place to hook up with other travellers keen to go trekking.
They also had the most gorgeous lhasa-apso when we were there. Her name was Lucky and she was suffering from quite bad cataracts then, so I don't know if she's still there. She slept with us a couple of nights and greeted every passing visitor with enthusiasm.
This is a budget place with a real (deserved) reputation - it's run down but it's clean, and the atmosphere is thick with history.Schedule your ablutions for the afternoon - you'll have the best chance of (solar) hot water if the sun shines.
To find it head down Freak Street from Basantapur Square and it's on your left only about 200 metres along.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 2, 2002
Himalayas has a reasonable restaurant-cum-cafe where you'll get all sorts of Nepalese and Tibetan standards as well as a comprehensive range of "everything-looks-similar" western dishes. They do a good job of most traditional selections, but their interpretation of Italian is for the adventurous. Check out their breakfast menu, there's a picture attached to this entry.
The rooms are basic, bright and clean - typically "atmospheric". It's a comfortable place and the best part is the killer views you get from the rooftop terrace - a great place to watch the world, read a book or get some rays above the smog. It's about 350Rp a night for an ensuite room and the solar hot water seems to work quite well, although you've still got the best chance in the afternoons.
To find it, head down Freak Street (from Basantapur Square) a couple of blocks and there's a narrow lane on your right. Go down here for about 100 metres and the guesthouse is at a junction - you can't miss it. Also, I think it's in the Lonely Planet book.
A young, friendly guy called Santa runs the Cosmopolitan, the staff are friendly and the service is attentive - most of the time. We never had a bad meal, but did speak to one traveller who did. Ask for kothe momos - they are half fried, half steamed, and the vegetarian meals and curries are also very good.
Our first meal here is a good guide to what you can expect to pay and the size of the serves. We were quite hungry and ordered a meal of steamed rice, vegetarian momos, chicken curry and large pots of tea and coffee.The bill came to 200Rp - that was about US$3 at the time. We tried other (guidebook) recommended places but this one became our "local".It's also worth noting that we saw a number of travelling families eating here as well as locals - testimony to the Cosmo's popularity and value.
Freak Street / Basantapur Square corner
Head about halfway down Freak Street from Basantapur Square and there's a wide lane that curves off to the left - it's down here on your right.
If you're looking for somewhere to crash and veg out after a long day (or night), this is one of the few places of its type in the Freak Street district - and one of the few places that's open late.
"Dessert" is the key word, and you won't be disappointed. This atmospheric cafe serves all types of snacks but their cakes and fresh-brewed coffee are renowned. There's a warm and welcoming feel, with soft lighting, hip music and comfortable, cozy seating - the type that makes you feel like you've dropped by a friend's house. There's a comprehensive menu of sweet-tooth delicacies baked fresh on the premises and a good range of hot and cold drinks.
At night the place feels like a time warp to the Summer of Love, complete with music and incense. You'll find more than a few hippies here, but most of them are toting Nikons these days. And they share the tables with a range of travellers; families, young, old, even business people craving a sugar and caffeine fix.
We relaxed with pots of strong coffee and slabs of deliciously authentic chocolate cake with plenty of time to scan the complimentary newspapers and other publications scattered around.
The bill was 120Rp, and needless to say we returned the next night for more.
The Snowman is open all day, every day, until very late.
"Let’s check out Freak Street first. It sounds like fun, and the guidebooks say it’s right in the centre of the old city," I said to Karen.
We were on our final approach to Kathmandu, Nepal’s ancient and mysterious capital. Mt Everest and the entire Eastern Himalaya stood before us like sentinels, armour glistening in the midday sun.
"Do you think we’ll see any?" I asked.
"Freaks. I wonder if any of them are still there."
Karen looked confused and turned back to stare out the window as the seat-belt light flashed on.
Sculpted fields and clusters of mud-brick houses passed beneath us. Brightly clad women in saris of scarlet and gold paid no attention, and the sun reflected from gilded temple roofs as we stopped outside a newish looking red-brick building. We grabbed our packs from the jumble sale of luggage spread around the terminal floor, changed some money, and joined the queue to clear immigration.
STRAIGHT TO THE SOURCE
Outside the terminal building groups of touts circled like crazed lemmings, trying to attract dazed travellers to their taxis. We joined three other adventurers, the five of us pouring into a four-stroke Japanese shoebox.
Our Nepalese navigator delivered us, via several detours and a stop for petrol, to New Road, which leads to Freak Street in central Kathmandu. One of Freak Street’s original hippie-haunts, the Century Lodge, was our first stop, and they had some rooms available.
Freak Street’s real name is Jhonchhen, meaning "line of houses", but it’s rarely called that. It begins where Ganga Path, a continuation of New Road, meets Basantapur Square, and heads south for half a kilometre through one of the city’s oldest communities.
Christened Freak Street in the late 1960s, it became the gathering point and centre of the universe for the world’s hippies in search of peace and happiness, assisted by a colourful palette of mind-altering substances. It was home to an exciting array of hashish shops, cheap and colourful restaurants and hotels, and the many outrageous "freaks" who gave the street its name.
The Century Lodge was built in 1972 to cater for these psychedelic journeymen on their overland pilgrimage. Today it’s an atmospheric, ramshackle guesthouse with low ceilings, carved teak windows, and a central courtyard that’s home to a few potted plants and the owner’s pet doves. There is a well-stocked library and the cutest little lhasa apso called Lucky. Lucky’s got bad cataracts now, but she still rushes around greeting everyone with the enthusiasm and slobber of a puppy.
A CITY WITH SOUL
Doves continue to sing into the fading light of dusk, and somewhere nearby there is the sound of traditional music. The sweet smell of clove cigarettes and hash is in the air. This exotic cocktail seems to tease distant memories from the walls of the Century Lodge, but we didn’t see any freaks. Plenty of laid-back budget travellers and the occasional aging hippie, but no freaks.
The days were spent exploring the old area of Kathmandu. The city is large, but the region of interest to most travellers is only a couple of square kilometres, bordered roughly by the newer tourist centre of Thamel in the north, Kantipath in the east, and the river to the west and south.
This is where the city was born, and where you will find Kathmandu's soul. At its centre is a small area surrounding Durbar (palace) Square, where the ancient marketplaces of Indra Chowk, Kel Tole and Asan Tole are linked by a narrow street that marked the start of the trade route to Tibet.
This district is home to a maze of lanes and paths unchanged since medieval times, used by millions of traders over the centuries, and still used in much the same way today.
In the evening we would become voyeurs, vigilant in our search for the elusive freaks. Upstairs in the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, on the eastern side of Basantapur Square, we dined on momos, curry, rice and noodles. We drank delicious lassis and shared pots of lemon tea. And we watched.
As the light faded traders turned their attention from their craft and produce stalls to preparing the evening meal. Lanterns were lit and distributed around the square, cows settled in for the night, and the scene took on a distinctly medieval atmosphere. Still no freaks. The occasional bearded and beaded hippie with a shoulder bag and Nikon camera. But no freaks.
Sometimes we would take a late-night stroll around the district. We would usually end up at the Snowman, a wonderful little café-cum-restaurant that serves the best cakes and pastries in the area. It’s a cozy, eclectic place with loads of ambience, tailor-made to its Freak Street surrounds. Surely we would meet some of the area’s namesakes here. Nothing.
MAYBE SOME HASH WILL HELP
"You want hash, best in city? Maybe change money, best rate, just for you?"
"No thank you," I said, dodging another pile of smouldering garbage and its obligatory pack of mangy dogs on the scrounge for food.
Further on is a group of homeless beggars, somehow still asleep under a few pages of the Kathmandu Post on this frosty five-degree morning. Like the dogs, many of the poor are horribly disfigured, diseased, or both. This city is a constant assault on the senses, a paradox, seemingly on a crash-course with the 21st century while some of it still struggles with the 20th century.
In Durbar Square produce is traded at a furious pace. Women thread garlands of marigolds to be used as temple offerings, rickshaws roll by, and all around us people busy themselves with the morning chores of washing, praying and socialising.
We bought bananas and mandarins, and climb the 17th century Maju Deval temple to sit with a cup of delicious chaiya (sweet milk tea) and watch the day unfold. For over an hour we watch. Clearly, the freaks don’t go to the market either.
KATHMANDU'S BROCHURE FACE
Frustrated, but not beaten, we decide to visit Thamel. A 20-minute walk north of Durbar Square, Thamel is the name given to a one square kilometre collection of districts that has replaced Freak Street as the city’s tourism capital.
It’s cleaner and slicker, jam-packed with traffic and people, and home to a range of services common to any commercial centre. There are no smouldering piles of rubbish here, no groups of itinerant beggars and society misfits, no open sewers and bands of scavenging dogs. It’s an exciting place, and moves to a frantic buzz of activity and noise without losing too much of Kathmandu’s exotic personality. But the prices are higher, the pace faster, and the atmosphere a little contrived.
We relax in an upstairs restaurant, catching the midday sun and dining on (surprisingly) exceptional pasta as we watch the crowded intersection below. There are cyber cafes, travel agencies, bars, bookshops and even pool halls. But definitely no freaks.
REVELATION! THE LEGEND SURVIVES
Back at the Cosmopolitan that night, we chat with one of the owners, Santa Dongol, as we contemplate our last night in the capital. We have decided to move on tomorrow and explore some of the Kathmandu Valley.
"Have you enjoyed your holiday in Kathmandu?" asks Santa.
"Very much. We like the city. It is very different for us," we explain. "And we like Freak Street more than Thamel. It’s a good place to stay, but it must have changed a lot. All the freaks have gone."
Santa smiles, "It hasn’t changed that much. People still come here for the same reasons they did 30 years ago."
It took us a minute to appreciate what Santa had said. He was right. We were looking too hard. The freaks hadn’t gone. They had been replaced by a new generation of earth-children, young and old, seeking similar enlightenment and still pursuing the path to peace and happiness. Thirty years on they didn’t seem so freaky, but they were still here. Freak Street was alive and well, just a bit tamer than it was.
Then the power went out.
"Don’t worry," said Santa. "This happens for a couple of hours every Tuesday here, and on Sunday in Thamel."
Outside, in Basantapur Square, the lanterns cut defiantly through the gloom as a tall, thin man, resplendent in a kaftan, beads, beard and plaited hair strolled barefoot through the crowd.
"That’s weird," I said to Karen.
"No," she said. "That’s freaky."