A November 1999 trip
to Kathmandu by Ozzy-Dave
Quote: Talk to anyone about a trip to Nepal and the focus turns to treks through exhilarating
mountain panoramas and visions of exhausting uphill battles, smelly feet and thermal
underwear. True, Nepal is a "Mecca for trekkers", but it also shelters a cultural landscape as diverse as any on the planet.
If you like this journal and want to explore more of Nepal, then check out:
Where Have All The Freaks Gone? for an in-depth look at Kathmandu, and
Nepals Wild Kingdom for Asia's best wildlife experience.
TIP:If you're going to spend more than a couple of days here, take a spare passport photo to the guardhouse at the main gate to the town (Durbar Square entrance) and they'll organise a special passport for you. All foreign visitors pay to enter the town - this helps fund the community and general up-keep of the district. Your own passport just means you can come and go as you please without paying more than once.
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 3, 2002
$15-20 gets you a clean, comfortable double, plenty of (real) pillows, bedspreads, fan and a hot and cold water bathroom. And the water is hot and strong - they don't forget the electric backup here. This is all pretty important because it gets quite cold here between November and March - colder than Kathmandu.
The rooftop restaurant serves good food at fair prices, catching the morning sun and providing views to the Himalaya on one side and over spectacular Taumadhi Tole and the 30 metre-high 18th century Nyatapola Temple on the other. You're right in the thick of the action, but at night it's blissfully quiet.Shamilar is the gracious and lovely hostess and Rabindra is the well-to-do man about town who can organise anything for you - oh, and he likes a drink and loves to socialise. He always has a good supply of Raksi and Gorkha oranges on hand for his guests but beware, if he invites you in, go easy on the Raksi!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 3, 2002
Hotel | "Lotus Guesthouse"
Adjoining one of Bodhnath's monasteries, you'll hear - well, actually feel - the odd Tibetan horn at the strangest hour, but this place is unmissable. The constant parade of monks only adds to the atmosphere and vitality of the place. They are a busy lot - there is always something going on; prayers in the gompa, music, lessons and scripture teachings, even cricket games in the garden. The buildings are arranged around a quiet and sunny central garden with plenty of space for lounging, reading and relaxing with a good book. There's also a family (probably families) of friendly resident cats to play with if you get too bored. Two of them actually slept with us one night. (see photo)
Real matresses, soft pillows, wall-to-wall carpet, lovely furniture and a fully tiled hot and cold water bathroom big enough to party in - 600rp a night. That's right, about US$9 at the time. Everything in the place is spotless. There's a choice of rooms with and without ensuites and various comfort levels. Our price was near the top end.
The Lotus is in a small lane only 400 metres from the stupa but it's a bit hard to find, you may need to ask directions since these back lanes can be confusing.
Lotus Guesthouse/Pal Dilyak Gompa
3 Blocks From The Stupa
3 Sisters overlooks the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal and never stops buzzing all day and into the night. A constant stream of passers-by, locals and travellers, cross paths in this cafe-cum-restaurant for the masses. There's two storeys. The bottom is home to the kitchen where a range of traditional and western meals are freshly prepared by a skilled band of Tibetan artisans. They like their work and it shows. The offerings even extend to a mouth-watering display of pastries and cakes baked fresh every day. Now that's gotta keep the crowds coming. In front of the kitchen (and pastry display cases) is a cafe area that tends to get used mainly for quick meals and the drop-in crowd.
Upstairs is a quieter restaurant-type area where the unobscured views over the stupa are, you guessed it, stupendous - sorry about that. There's a bright, minimalist decor with cool art on the walls. The conversations vary from the day's trekking highlights to Buddhist meditation courses and you'll meet monks keen to chat and world-travellers keen to, well, chat.
The food is as good as the atmosphere. The serves are large and the service proffesional and attentive. Despite its popularity and a constant crowd streaming through, they never hurry you along. If you want to share a pot of lemon tea and a chat with a friend then you're just as welcome as a table of eight gluttonous travellers. We had many of our meals here and tried everything from fresh fruit pancakes and Tibetan bread to tofu curries, dhal, fried chicken and kothe momos. Oh, and the lassis here were some of the best we had. Hell, it was all good. And we never paid more than 350rp for a meal, with drinks - I've attached one of our bills here.
It's (understandably) popular with locals and tourists alike so expect a crowd, but somehow we always managed a table. Go early if you want to guarantee prime position over the stupa for an unforgettable evening meal.
Three Sisters Cafe
Bodhnath, Kathmandu Valley
On the rooftop of this eatery bordering Patan's Durbar Square you can catch the sun and a panorama of the Himalaya in one direction and almost reach out and touch Asia's most incredible architecture in the other direction.
While you're doing that, you can order from a bewildering range of traditional specialties and misspelled western food that is prepared well and rushed to you by attentive staff. The momos are good, the Tibetan bread even better and who can resist the banana and mixed fruit pancakes for breakfast with a big pot of lemon tea or freshly-brewed coffee?
Anywhere else in the world would charge you $50 admission just for the views! Two people can dine here for less than 300rp with drinks and get the views for free.
It's a bit of a haul up a few flights of old stairs to get to the top but the rewards are ample. So ample, you'll probably eat more than you should just so you can stay longer. We sure did.
Third World Restaurant
Patan, Kathmandu Valley
Attraction | "Kathmandu, Swayambhunath, Balaju"
A Diary Extract...
Breakfast at the Cosmopolitan was banana and honey pancakes and Tibetan bread. In Basantapur Square traders draped low tables with red and blue cloths. Tibetan singing bowls, beads of amber, turquoise and mountain coral, horns and prayer wheels jockeyed for space among a sea of Buddhist and Hindu statues. Wafting incense completes the picture.
We managed to avoid hovering rickshaw drivers, Tiger Balm vendors and the "10-postcards-for-100 rupee" sellers, when Karen was caught by a saffron-robed saddhu. He blessed her, thumbed a red tika on her forehead and sent her on her way. Just a little blessing to start the day.
Three women in green, pink and red saris threaded marigolds onto cotton and a cow wearing a garland of flowers snuffled through garbage. By a small roadside shrine a child ate cooked peas and potato, following the progress of a Coca-Cola truck beeping its way through the crowd.
We crossed a footbridge over the Bagmati River where ducks navigated through a million plastic bags. School children in white and blue uniforms and wide smiles greeted us,
"Hello, where you from?"
"Ah, Canberra capital city. You have pen, bonbon?"
400 steps loomed at the Monkey Temple. Women offered silver bangles and stories of hungry babies and old mothers. On the steps a child stared, one arm holding a baby, the other outstretched and grubby,
"One rupee for rice." We gave her 10 rupees then wondered who’d feed her tomorrow.
Monkeys chattered in the trees as we reached the top and paid a small entrance fee. Locals don’t pay, fair enough, we are sightseeing and they’re here to pray. Tibetan monks in burgundy and yellow circumnavigate the temple, prayer beads clacking. Women light hundreds of candles at small shrines while yellow dogs sunbake. I lost Karen as we walked around the stupa and had to race around again to find her. You have to keep going clockwise, it’s the rules.
She’d bought a book about Hindu and Buddhist gods and was getting her fortune told by a turbaned Sikh called Punjit who looked like our best friend’s ex-husband. He forsees wealth, a long life and recommends she take up jogging.
At the bottom we followed a narrow road to Balaju to see rather uninspiring water gardens and a Sleeping Vishnu smothered in marigold and tika offerings. In our book it says Vishnu is the Protector of the Universe and all its creatures. Karen suggests he may have been asleep too long; he has already visited the earth ten times to save it from destruction - another visit might be appropriate...
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 2, 2002
Attraction | "Kirtipur, Chobar, Chobar Gorge, Patan"
A diary extract...
From atop the Third World Restaurant in Patan we watched Durbar Square come alive as children hopscotched on the brick paving. At the Golden and Kumbeswara temples a festival to Kali unfolded, stalls of marigold wreaths, incense, candles, flowers and fruit offerings lining the entrance ways.
We found a school to pass on children’s storybooks we’d brought from home, the grateful headmaster leading us on an impromptu tour. Tiny hands were clasped in front of bright faces as children "Namaste’d" in unison. Namaste means "I salute the God within you" – so much better than hello or thank you.
We taxied to Kirtipur in the valley foothills to a landscape of crumbling buildings perched on a series of spectacular ridges. Chickens and dogs slept on slate steps and old men played cards, their stares following us as we passed. A Buddhist temple donated by Thailand interrupted the view across the valley and the town of Chobar on the opposite hill. This was our destination.
"You’re kidding," said Karen.
"It’ll be fun, it looks further than it is." She didn’t believe me.
A young guy called Simon showed us around Kirtipur, visiting some of the town’s old temples and a factory where his cousins boiled rice stalks to make paper pulp. This soft, handmade paper is made from many different plants and exported to exclusive shops across the world.
Kirtipur is a communist town and the scene of recent uprisings where five men where killed. We pass a wall emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and Simon explains that it’s still a volatile place. Back at the Thai temple we waved goodbye and set out for Chobar. It was warm, the countryside littered with mud brick houses and families tending their fields. Chobar is small, with a medieval atmosphere, a land-that–time-forgot feel, famous for its Buddhist temple loaded with hundreds of pots and pans nailed to its beams; offerings made to the Gods by newlyweds in the hope of a good marriage and many children.
Downhill, behind the village, we cross Chobar Gorge on a long suspension bridge. Eagles ride the air currents above the river, diving into the roaring chasm to pluck fish from its depths. On the bank dogs and children forage in mounds of rubbish, shrouded in fumes from the nearby cement factory.
This country is a curious paradox. Beautiful one minute, tragic the next...
Walking through Kirtipur, Chobar, Chobar Gorge, Patan
Attraction | "Bodhnath, Pashupatinath"
A Diary Extract...
The heart of Bodhnath is the stupa, the largest in Nepal, and we turn prayer wheels as we walk, clockwise of course, then enter the gates and climb to the highest level. The view is through thousands of colourful prayer flags to buildings that line the streets of Nepal’s biggest Tibetan enclave and religious epicentre. Children chase each other, dodging monks and tourists in glee.
We explore the surrounding community, its fascinating shops and monasteries. I feel good about being here then spoil it all by thinking too much (again). These tragic refugees are free to pursue their beliefs, but only in these isolated communities. Tibetans are skilful and successful business people, and Nepal, although outwardly sympathetic, is careful to keep them isolated. [shut up David]
For a while we watch a documentary about Buddhism being made at the monastery attached to our guesthouse and Karen vigilantly explores the set, hoping for a glimpse of Richard Gere.
Opposite the stupa across a busy road is the trail to Pashupatinath. It takes only 30 minutes to walk there through a hotchpotch of small farms and housing estates in various stages of completion or disrepair. We pass a school where infants play in the dirt and hear a chorus from the older children inside,
"The capital of Italy is Rome. The capital of Switzerland is Bern…"
This country has a real fascination for geography. Every child we meet tells us Canberra is the capital of Australia and the names of all our major cities. And English is not even their first language. I wonder about the merits of our education system.
At Pashupatinath we climb the steps past the Guhyeshwari Temple to another temple complex surrounded by beautiful forest that overlooks the village proper, laid out along the holy Bagmati River. Dozens of monkeys prowl, mischievous looks on their faces. Below us two funeral ceremonies occupy riverside ghats. One pyre has almost expired, the other just beginning, and a group of camera-toting Japanese tourists circle the corpse in a bizzare tourism ritual, Nikons fluttering. Ignorant, sure, but such insensitivity is obvious isn’t it?
Nearby at a succession of chaityas (small stupas) sadhus sit like sentinels, eager to dispense wisdom. We sit with a young woman called Tula, who kindly makes us some chaiya and we answer questions about our homeland. Tula sits with a pile of small rocks, ammunition against marauding monkeys trying to steal her rice as it dries in the sun.
Back at Bodhnath the light fades and strings of tiny lights glow across the stupa. Last week it was lit with thousands of butter lamps and I wished we had been here to see it…
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 2, 2002
Attraction | "Nargarkot (Telkot), Changu Narayan, Bhaktapur"
Locals will show you the southern exit that descends through forests, villages and
terraced valleys to medieval Bhaktapur - an amazing pedestrianised town showcasing some
of Nepal's finest art and architecture.
It was dark and cold as we walked to the Mahakali Shrine in Nagarkot – (supposedly) the best place to see the sunrise on the Himalaya. A velvet sky was sprinkled with a billion stars. We were alone for a precious time but were soon joined by many of our new friends from last night’s sing-a-long ‘round the fire at the guesthouse. An enterprising local sold strong coffee for 10 rupee a glass and the mist parted to reveal a sky streaked with gold and amber and mountains of rose. Dew dripped from bushes and faded prayer flags hung forlornly. Temple bells rang and dogs barked.
After a suspect breakfast of rancid butter and rubbery eggs, we walked to the village and bought some supplies for the walk; oranges, bananas and chocolate from a talkative Indian fellow. The local bus ferried us halfway down the mountain to Telkot where we picked up the trail.
Rhododendron forests carpeted the hillsides, interspersed with hamlets of yellow and blue-trimmed mud brick houses perched on ridges overlooking the Sankhu valley and its backdrop of dusted Himalaya peaks. Terraced rice fields provided order to the landscape and there were crops of millet and corn. It took two hours to reach the hilltop village of Changu Narayan, where we stopped at a café for cold drinks, watching a woman scrubbing a buffalo in the dam below.
The village’s focus is its stunning temple, glorious in its detail and intricacy. Dedicated to Vishnu’s incarnation as Narayan, the beautiful carved doors, struts and an enormous brass conch shell (the symbol for enlightenment) inspire Karen to make a few sketches – ideas for future paintings no doubt. Children played around us in the courtyards. This place was inspiring, food for the soul indeed.
With the help of some local kids we found the trail down to Bhaktapur. It starts at the back of the temple and goes along a ridge downhill through forests and villages. Along the way we were greeted by dozens of children, women tilling rice fields, old men walking buffalo, hunched old women lugging stacks of fodder on their backs. Sometimes these stacks of fodder even had babies in them! The sun shone. It was a sensational walk and we voted it one of our favourite days in Nepal.
Two hours later we arrived in Bhaktapur to a hot shower at the Pagoda Guesthouse and large pots of Shamila’s (our hostess) magic lemon spiced tea...
We met Ranjit our first day in Bhaktapur and immediately liked him. His enthusiasm for life was infectious and he had an opinion on everything. He was desperately trying to get work as a guide so we tracked him down to accompany us on our walk to Panauti in the hope we could learn something and spend time with our new friend.
We caught the bus to Dhulikhel, stopping outside the village to buy some juicy Gorkha oranges
from a roadside stall. Our guidebook said we’d need to change buses in Banepa, but Ranjit found a bus that went directly to Dhulikhel. There is a Vishnu shrine near the bus stop, simply a small rock in a banyan tree. I am still captivated by these small jewels. A road leads up to a field at the top of the town where a group of kids hone their soccer skills and we stop to admire a Himalaya panorama. Almost as good as the view from Nargarkot where we were a couple of nights ago – and nowhere near as cold.
Dhulikhel has some wonderful little temples in the old western part of town, many of them surrounded by atmospheric, crumbling Newari buildings and we explore for a while before Ranjit helps us find the trailhead to Panauti.
We head downhill through terraced fields, crossing streams and passing through small villages. There are postcard views; sometimes the Himalaya would appear over the rice fields, other times the terraces would rise to meet thickly forested ridges. We stopped at the home of a man who was cooking his rice and vegetable lunch, exploring his village while he finished cooking, then washed out his only saucepan so he could make us chaiya at 3 rupees a glass. The children of the village congregated, fascinated by our presence, and we soon had them engaged in a friendly soccer game.
After a couple of hours we found the Pungamati River, following it into Panauti where it meets the Roshi Khola River and a group of fascinating temples, one of them, the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple, being (probably) the oldest in Nepal.
A cremation was in progress at a ghat on the river bank. It was a boy of fifteen, but we didn’t find out how he died. The funeral pyre smoked as men gambled nearby. Across the river a fight broke out between two drunks and was broken up by a woman wielding a cane basket, repeatedly pounding it on their heads. Another woman washed a buffalo as ducks paddled in the shallows. Two more women washed clothes on the rocks while their children swam.
Life goes on...
Talk to anyone about a trip to Nepal and the focus turns to treks through exhilarating
mountain panoramas and visions of exhausting uphill battles, smelly feet and thermal
underwear. True, Nepal claims eight of the world's ten highest mountains and is a "Mecca for trekkers". But it also shelters a cultural landscape as diverse as any on the planet. A landscape often overlooked by the casual visitor.
A Third World country in the 21st century, much of Nepal still resists the 20th century. A melting pot of more than a dozen ethnic groups speaking fifty languages devote themselves, in harmony, to two of the world's major religions, Buddhism and Hinduism. Their legacy is an incredible architectural and artistic history displayed with pageantry and
colour in year-round festivals.
The nation's capital, Kathmandu, sits at the centre of a fertile valley measuring barely
thirty-by-thirty kilometres and ranging in altitude from 1,500 to 3,000 metres. Outside the city the landscape gives way to terraced farmland and a smorgasbord of medieval villages and ancient sites where time stands still.
Its size, accessibility and abundant attractions makes the Kathmandu Valley an ideal destination for those wanting to explore Nepal's cultural riches. And the best way to do it is on foot. There are even some walks to keep the trekkers happy!
THE WALKER'S BEST FRIEND
Nepalese believe the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, even if there are five hills in the way. Your greatest ally is a reliable contour map - it shows you what you're in for. Here's how we used it to plan our walks:
1. Mark the places to visit, identifying those within walking distance of each other.
2. Link destinations to form walking tours, taking note of the contours. These show the altitude change during the walk and any hills you'll encounter. Plan your walks to minimise the uphill bits - it's much more fun!
3. Use different towns as convenient accommodation bases. This allows time to
explore the communities and meet people at a relaxed pace.
ON THE TRAIL
Expect contrasts and experiences to challenge your senses when you're exploring. Here are a few tips to make you better prepared:
1. Nepal's history is built on trading. The country is covered in footpaths and there is always more than one way to reach your destination. Ask directions if you're not sure, locals love to help.
2. Allow time for diversions. Don't expect to walk more than 15 kilometres in a day.
3. You won't experience altitude related breathing difficulties on valley walks.
4. Pollution is a problem. For the clearest views, best conditions and countless festivals, visit in the months immediately following the monsoon - around October to December. The valley becomes a dust bowl as the dry season progresses, and
travellers with respiratory problems will experience difficulty.
5. Consider using local guides. They'll show you sights you may otherwise miss and
often include an entertaining history lesson. $10-20 a day is an accepted rate.
6. Begging children are everywhere, usually asking for money, books or pens. If you want to help, visit local community institutions like hospitals, schools and
orphanages, and make a donation. You will sometimes be given an impromptu tour
and meet the person in charge. These experiences can provide the most rewarding
7. Use a water purifier and pump straight into a collapsible plastic water bottle. It's easy, convenient, cost effective and responsible. Nepal has no recycling facilities, so buying water in plastic bottles doesn't help.
The Kathmandu Valley spoils travellers with a bounty of cultural riches in an
environment largely unaffected by mass tourism. Grab a map and plan your journey - there are some suggestions in this journal to get you started. With a little luck you might even have time left for
CHECK OUT THE HAND-DRAWN MAP PROVIDED WITH THIS JOURNAL FOR LOCATIONS OF THE DESCRIBED WALKS AND POINTS OF INTEREST AROUND THE VALLEY.