Travelling to Kathmandu, Nepal

Mystical vibes, holy places, and downright serious drugs.

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Travelling to Nepal: Kathmandu definitely
requires some tolerance for chaos.

Travelling to Kathmandu: For many, Nepal’s capital is a launch point to the Himalayas. But there’s plenty in town to take your breath away too.

It’s important I understand about the garbage. The garbage is not an everyday thing, the Hotel Shanker desk clerk assures me. There’s some kind of strike going on.

Actually, it’s not really a problem for me. Seeing as how this is my first visit to Kathmandu, the fact that almost every block has its own heap of refuse is, as far as I can tell, part of the local colour. Besides, there are surprisingly few rats. And the wandering cattle, goats and stray dogs really seem to appreciate the buffet-dining concept.

I can understand the clerk’s desire to paint the city in a better light. There’s a lot to answer for in Kathmandu: power outages up to 16 hours a day, traffic chaos, wandering livestock and roads that sometimes make you wish for hooves of your own. But really, he shouldn’t worry. I’m sold on the place. Kathmandu is a good kind of crazy.

Weather: Try to go in spring or autumn; rainy season is summer, while May and June can be hot and humid.

Can’t Miss: If you can stand some fumes, try at least one rickshaw ride to get a street-level feel for the city.

Cool Eats: Patan is a good place to look for a local treat: buffalo meat patties fried with egg, a local variation on the burger.

Best Bed: Hotel Shanker, an old converted palace, is still stately with its huge, beautiful lawn and garden.

The capital city of Nepal is often just a jumping-off point for trekking adventures in the Himalayas. But there have always been those who became captivated by the city itself. Once upon a time, counter-culture travellers made Kathmandu a primary destination – their influence lingers in the district still known as Freak Street and in the popular Thamel district.

Even now the city attracts a certain type of seeker, drawn by a certain mystical vibe, the wealth of Buddhist and Hindu holy places, and of course the availability of recreational or downright serious drugs.

Kathmandu definitely requires some tolerance for chaos. If you want trekking, there’s always the rutted sidewalks, lit only by the beams of passing vehicles in the powerless night. But those who endure will be rewarded with sights, treasures and experiences that can be almost overwhelming.

Kathmandu Durbar Square is home to the temple that gives the city its name and a welter of other attractions besides, including an actual Living Goddess named Kumari (she’s four years old, makes random appearances at a balcony and will be replaced after reaching puberty). The nearby Patan district has its own version, easily reachable by cab (insofar as anything is easily reachable by cab here).

Then there’s Pashupati Temple, overrun with monkeys, beside the Bagmati River. Only Hindus can enter, but it hardly matters; you’ll be transfixed by what’s happening all around the complex. This is where devout Hindus bring their dead for open-air cremation, decorating the shrouds with flowers and coloured dyes. Ash-covered Hindu holy men are everywhere, and you needn’t worry about taking pictures – it’s how they make a living.

Boudhanath is the largest stupa (Buddhist monument) in Nepal, a huge dome topped with a steeple and surrounded by a circular walk that fills with candle-bearing devotees every evening. The surrounding area is also home to some of the city’s better furniture and antique shops.

The “tourist” area, Thamel, is full of shops selling souvenirs and thanka, the traditional Buddhist paintings mounted on colourful embroidery. It may be the tourist trap by Kathmandu standards, but Thamel is no fast-food/Starbucks enclave. In some other cities this would qualify as the most interesting and adventurous neighbourhood.

But Kathmandu is a spectacle all over. Even the power outages lend to the atmosphere – having to pass a candle over a dark wall of tribal masks is a fabulous sales strategy. A taxi ride across town in the evening is a surreal experience, past cattle and rickshaws, open fires and candlelit shops, holy men and “Holy crap!” sights of every description. Better than a guided tour of some sleepy Western capital, in my books – just watch your step.