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Kathmandu

Everywhere you look in Nepal's capital city (pop. 535,000) there is something of interest - perhaps a small ancient temple tucked in a row of shops, an old stone figure set in the middle of the pavement, a religious sadhu in bright saffron robes meditating on the steps of a building or a Tibetan refugee spinning his prayer wheel as he walks down the street. Although their lives are guided by ancient tradition, the residents of Kathmandu are not walking anachronisms, and visiting there is not like a trip back in time. Citizens live very much in the present but have thoroughly integrated their traditions into their modern lives.
The highest concentration of attractions is within the area of Durbar Square (small admission charge). There are dozens of buildings, monuments and shrines of interest within less than a square mile. Among the most impressive structures are the 16th-century pagoda-style Taleju Temple, the old Royal Palace (which has the best view of the city) and the Kumari Bahal, or Temple of the Living Goddess. (A girl is chosen at the age of five to be the living form of the goddess Taleju until she reaches puberty. After that, she returns to normal life and another is selected.) Be sure to stop at the Jagnath Temple to see the erotic carvings and at the Shiva-Parvati Temple, where statues of the gods stand in an ornately carved window and look down on the action in the square below. Just off the square is Freak Street, which is well past its prime but still has a bit of the flavor it had when it was a hangout for Western hippies during the '60s and '70s.

A short rickshaw ride north of Durbar Square is the neighborhood of Thamel. Thanks to an abundance of cheap (but quite serviceable) hotels and eateries, the area is flooded with tourists of every nationality, but the neighborhood's energy and abundance of useful shops make it an enjoyable experience. Souvenir stands, craft shops, bookstores, bars, trekking companies and Internet cafes crowd the narrow streets, as do scores upon scores of roving vendors who will offer you everything from Tiger Balm to Hindu statuettes to hashish.

A 30-minute walk west of Durbar Square in Kathmandu (taxis are also available) brings you to the base of a wide staircase leading up to the Buddhist Swayambhunath Temple. It'll take another 7-10 minutes to scale the 300 stairs (it's also called the Monkey Temple, and any visitor will quickly see why: The little guys are everywhere). From the top, you'll have a panoramic view of the Kathmandu Valley from one of the oldest and most impressive stupas in Nepal. The Nepal Natural History Museum is located behind Swayambhunath Hill.

Kathmandu's many shops and restaurants serving international cuisine make it seem, in many respects, as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as the far larger cities of Delhi or Beijing. Nightlife centers around the bars in Thamel and the casinos along the nearby boulevard of Durbar Marg (most are in the upscale hotels that tower over the wide thoroughfare). A week in Kathmandu should be enough to see the city and some of its "suburbs."

One of the suburbs, Bhaktapur, is definitely worth visiting (tourists must pay an entrance fee of about US$10). Bhaktapur can be reached by public transport (on the Chinese-built electric trolley system) or by a short taxi ride. The town is a bit more relaxing than Kathmandu and has three interesting squares: Taumadhi Tole, Durbar and Potter's. There are several nice gompas (Buddhist temples) in Taumadhi Tole - our favorite is the five-story Nyatapola Temple, which has large stone animal figures flanking its staircase. You can get a view of the temple and the rest of the square from the multilevel cafe just across from the temple. It's a good place to relax and have a drink.

Other attractions include an art gallery at the Royal Palace, the famous Golden Gate that forms the entrance to the 55 Window Palace, and the stone sculptures and 12 temples of Durbar Square. Look for the carved peacock window in Pujahari Math, a monastery with excellent wood carvings. Potter's Square is, of course, a center of pottery manufacture - even the chief priest of the Jeth Ganish Temple (in the square) is a potter. The town also has a wood-carving museum and a brass and bronze museum. You can shop in the side streets leading up to the squares (among the best items are Nepalese puppets and bone figurines).

One of our favorite excursions from Kathmandu is a visit to Bodhnath, which is the center of Tibetan culture in the valley. Its main attraction is a gigantic stupa (religious spire). Try to visit the town during a festival, when the stupa is the focus of activity. The Tibetan new-year celebrations (Losar), which usually take place in February or March, are an especially stirring blend of worldly merrymaking and religious activity. For those interested in knowing more about Tibetan Buddhism, Bodhnath - which has more than 20 monasteries - is the place to go. Most of the monasteries welcome visitors. Free introductory discourses are given every Saturday morning at Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling monastery, which is a two-minute walk north of the stupa. (Expect to see many other Westerners there.) An hour's walk north through green rice fields is the Buddhist monastery in Kopan, where a monthlong meditation course is given every November.

On the way to Bodhnath from Kathmandu is Pashupatinath, one of the most famous Hindu sites in the world. It contains numerous ancient temples and draws pilgrims from all over the region. Non-Hindus can't enter the main Shiva temple, but stationing yourself on the opposite bank of the Bagmati River (which, like the Ganges, is considered holy) affords a nice view of the courtyard and the gilded roofs surrounding it. In front of the temple and farther downstream are ghats, platforms used for cremating bodies. (Although the cremation is performed in public, it's important to remember that it is essentially a very private ritual. Feel free to watch, but do so respectfully.) The temple area and the surrounding forest are also home to quite a few ash-pale sadhus, holy men who have cast away their possessions and devoted their lives to religious contemplation (which, in some cases, involves smoking abundant marijuana). On Shivaratri, the Great Night of Shiva, which usually falls in early March, as many as 400,000 pilgrims gather in Pashupatinath to celebrate. The temples are also home to many monkeys, who occasionally will scamper down from their perches to make off with travelers' food and cameras - so hold them tight.

Located south of the Bagmati River, Kathmandu's sister city, Patan, is within bicycling distance of the capital. (It's also easily reached by taxi.) Patan's attractions are similar to those in Kathmandu, but the atmosphere is not quite as lively (if Kathmandu didn't exist, however, people would rave about Patan). Patan's Durbar Square is in some ways more picturesque and orderly than Kathmandu's, and the temples lining it are definitely worth exploring. (If you have time, stay and enjoy the sunset from one of the many rooftop restaurants lining the square.) In addition to its Royal Palace and the inevitable souvenir stalls, the square boasts Patan Museum, a wonderfully renovated 18th-century building housing a rich collection of cultural artifacts. Next to the museum, look for the sunken-tap area, where water flows out of the mouths of metal buffalo and crocodile heads. Also in town is the Hiranya Varna Mahabihar (Golden Temple), which has a gold-leaf roof and superb ancient wall paintings. Patan is also home to the only zoo in Nepal, the Jawalakhel Zoo, which holds tigers, rhinos and lesser critters.

Dhulikhel

This impressive town is worth a day trip from Kathmandu to see the countryside and beautiful architecture (several hundred years old). Arrive early in the morning to see the sun rise over the mountains. It's possible to go on a locally organized short trek (three hours or more). The region around Dhulikel offers good training for longer treks. 20 mi/30 km east of Kathmandu.

Nagarkot

This village is just a small collection of houses and guest houses - it barely exists. But its location, atop the mountains ringing the Kathmandu Valley, gives it a unique perspective. On clear mornings October-May, you can see Mt. Everest from Nagarkot. Though far off in the distance, the world's highest peak is worth a peek - especially if you're not getting any closer and want to go home saying you've seen Everest. (No guarantees issued - dawn is your best chance to spot the mountain, but if it's a foggy morning, you'll be out of luck.) 20 mi/30 km east of Kathmandu.

Manakamana Temple

En route to either Pokhara or Royal Chitwan National Park, you can opt for a stopover at the famed Manakamana Temple, home to the goddess Bagwati and a major Hindu pilgrimage site. Situated at an altitude of 4,200 ft/1,300 m, the temple itself is not especially impressive, but Bagwati's ability to fulfill the wishes of her visitors makes this a popular destination. A cable car runs between Cheres, near the road to Pokhara, and Manakamana, making it possible to do the 3-hour trek in 15 minutes. The view from the cable cars is well worth the cost of the ticket. 75 mi/125 km northwest of Kathmandu.

Pokhara

Most tourists stay in Pokhara or environs for a day or two to relax along the lake, but the main reason to go there is that it's the starting point for treks into the Himalaya - you can see the Annapurna range from town on a clear day. There's not much in Pokhara itself. The resort area on Lake Phewa has better accommodations generally, although Pokhara has been undergoing a building boom, so visitors now have a wider selection of accommodations from which to choose. You can rent a rowboat and paddle out to a temple, located on one of the lake's islands (birds are sometimes sacrificed before the altar there). Spelunkers might also enjoy an excursion to nearby Mahendra Cave, once believed to house Nidhini, a female demon who devours people and cattle.

If you're not planning a full trek, a day trek can be made to Sarangkot, a small village about a two-hour walk into the mountains. The mountain panorama you get from Sarangkot is far superior to what you can see in town, and in the other direction there's a fine view of the Lake Phewa resort area. Those who can tolerate some discomfort may want to stay in a villager's home (the price is negotiable, but it'll probably be less than you've ever paid for a room - a dinner of lentils and potatoes may even be included). You'll likely sleep on a mat in a smoky loft. The night view of Lake Phewa is impressive, and sunrise showers the snowcapped mountains with exquisite color. 90 mi/145 km northwest of Kathmandu.

Royal Chitwan National Park

This major tourist area in the southern lowlands (called the Terai), is a world apart from the mountainous region - hot, humid and often quite lush. It's home to tigers, leopard, rhinos, crocodiles, deer, boar, monkeys and more than 400 species of birds.

Because it sits well outside the Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan is somewhat closer to the areas of rebel activity than the capital. Although the national park has not experienced any attacks, there have been some incidents of violence along the highway between Chitwan and Kathmandu. Travelers should check the latest safety information before booking a trip.

Most visitors to the park stay at one of the Tiger Tops jungle lodges (in either the village setup or the tent camp). The lodges aren't cheap, but they are usually comfortable and staffed with excellent naturalists. Elephant rides are offered, but your chances of a tiger sighting now rely chiefly on luck and the experience of your guide. (The practice of baiting parts of the park to attract tigers and leopard has been abolished.) White-water raft trips are also offered (ending up at Tiger Tops). A few similar, locally operated lodges at the other end of the park are slightly less expensive (and less sophisticated). They can be booked through a Kathmandu-based tour operator. (A good mid-range lodge is Machan, which offers jungle tours on elephant or by jeep. There is a Machan office on Durbar Marg in Kathmandu.)

The village of Sauraha is the nearest populated area to Chitwan and is used by more adventurous travelers as a jumping-off point for self-planned tours of the wildlife park. The village can be reached from Kathmandu via a combination of public buses or by one of the private bus companies operating out of Kathmandu. (We prefer the Green Line.) Several small hotels are in the village. Those taking the public elephant rides into the jungle from there often see rhinos, but tiger sightings are rare - you'll have much better luck at Tiger Tops. In Sauraha, beware of unauthorized guides offering to take you for jungle walks (on foot) - they are not always as knowledgeable as they claim to be, and not a few tourists have accidentally encountered angry rhinos (a very scary and sometimes deadly experience) by trusting the wrong people. We recommend that you go to Chitwan with an established tour company.

Also in the Terai region is Lumbini, where Buddha was born, but it will only be of interest to pilgrims. Kapilasvatu, where Sakyamuni Buddha grew up, is also nearby. The park is 90 mi/150 km southwest of Kathmandu.

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