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Why I love Kathmandu

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This city of 2.5 million, sprawling haphazardly across a smog-filled valley, does not crop up on the usual lists of the world’s most desirable destinations. From above it is a jumble of brick and concrete boxes, a turn-off for the more cocooned traveller. But coming from India – Calcutta no less – gave us a more sympathetic view. Kathmandu would prove far gentler, less filthy, and a lot less miserable. Those we encountered in Calcutta rarely smiled and almost always asked for tips; one Bengali at the hotel spoke to us rudely, with a clear sense of disdain.

The Nepalese, we find, are gracious to a fault. Even in the midst of a fuel blockade, with ordinary middle-class workers forced to spend an entire month’s salary on one canister of LPG, they face their challenges with patience, fortitude and humour. Power blackouts are frequent, but it is only the tourists who really complain. In many places, we are greeted with a warm smile and a Namaste, often with hands clasped in prayer position.

And we also find beauty in spades. If Kathmandu is not photogenic from afar, the reverse is true once you get up close. On the main roads, young and old clamber onto a ladder at the back of each bus for a free ride on the roof. Some bring bags and suitcases, others their confused goats. Shop fronts and roadside stalls are a blaze of colour; so too are the men wearing patterned Dhaka topi hats, almost always with a dominant shade of pink, and the occasional woman in a sari.

In the labyrinth of central Kathmandu, Bama and I take pleasure in each little discovery. To our right, a narrow street leads to a courtyard where flocks of pigeons and kids on bicycles circle a gilded stupa. We follow the paving stones, worn smooth by years of heavy use, to tread the ancient trade route between Tibet and Nepal. At each intersection we are greeted by the sight of small temples, where I imagine passing caravans would have prayed for safety on the arduous journey over the Himalayas.

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Idle rickshaws

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Pigeons galore at the Buddhist temple of Shree Gha Bihar

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Just hanging out

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The gilded stupa of Shree Gha Bihar, festooned with prayer flags

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A father and daughter feeding pigeons

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Saturday morning at the stupa

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A feeding frenzy

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Kathmandu’s old royal palace as seen from a rooftop restaurant

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Looking out over the site of Kasthamandap, the temple which gave its name to the city

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On the ruins of a pagoda in Kathmandu Durbar Square

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The Shiva-Parvati Temple survived the earthquakes unscathed

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A schoolgirl plays behind a fallen capital

Before war and revolution cut off the overland route through Iran and Afghanistan, Kathmandu was the metaphorical pot [no pun intended] at the far end of a drug-fuelled rainbow – or rather the ultimate destination on the Hippie Trail. My grandmother remembers seeing disheveled hippies when she visited with a few friends many years ago. She fell ill after drinking a cocktail and was confined to her hotel room for the next few days. One friend of hers commented on how lucky she was not to be born there, for both the people and animals were desperately thin. I want to laugh hearing these stories, because today’s Kathmandu is an entirely different place. We find its people well-fed and smiling; the women are naturally beautiful, the young men tall and well-dressed.

Dreadlocked wanderers in tie-dye no longer congregate at Durbar Square to smoke pot, though you might catch sight of a 21st-century hippie with bulging Aladdin pants in the streets of Thamel. That legacy persists in the name ‘Freak Street’, a small thoroughfare near the old royal palace, and the T-shirts that tell you the word ‘Nepal’ really stands for Never Ending Peace And Love.

That may not be true, but we both felt warmly received by the Nepalese, and were struck by their candidness whenever they spoke of the fuel crisis. Soon after I returned home, I sent a message to Kalpana, a Nepalese friend in England who I hadn’t seen in years. She was glad that I enjoyed her home country so much, and explained the charm of Kathmandu in her own words: “I got a similar impression of the Kathmandu valley – yes it is really dusty, noisy, dirty and poor but so old. I think it’s because Nepal is a country that hasn’t developed so rapidly that it has lost a sense of who it is – people keep their traditions and the cities keep their buildings, for better or worse.”

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A group of temples just outside the palace

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Reflection of Hanuman Dhoka, the old royal palace

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Relaxing outside Jagannath Temple, known for erotic carvings on its wooden struts

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Pigeons and temples on Durbar Square

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An ornately carved window in Hanuman Dhoka

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Peering out from the temple of Akash Bhairav, on Indra Chok

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A mobile apple and pomegranate vendor

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The busy intersection of Indra Chok, right on the old trade route to Tibet

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Selling fabric on Indra Chok

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Above the vendors, a stone temple painted black and gold

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Copper cooking pots and Hindu/Buddhist images for sale

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A temple on the way to Asan, an ancient crossroads and bazaar

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Chillies and vegetables on display at Asan

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Market stalls flank a shrine to Shiva and Parvati

40 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathmandu is going to be the starting point of my rtw bicycle trip. Looks like I couldn’t have chosen a better point of origin! Thanks for sharing, James, as I can’t wait to visit this city!

    December 31, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Stephen! I hope you fall in love with Kathmandu just like I did – it is such a special, colourful place!

      December 31, 2015
  2. Sounds and looks wonderful. You make me glad I couldn’t find a convenient connecting flight from Hanoi to Kolkata for my upcoming trip.

    December 31, 2015
    • Kolkata was such a far cry from the south – I think I would have enjoyed it had I met the right people. We stayed only one night but by the end we were glad to leave!

      January 1, 2016
      • That is a pity. My daughter did meet the right people and said she enjoyed it but I’m still glad I’m returning through Chennai.

        January 1, 2016
  3. I’m so happy to read the ‘live report’ from you James. Seems that Kathmandu still amazing as before. Can not wait to be there again soon, especially in the new spot that Bama and you shared to me a few times ago.

    Artikelmu mewakili perasaan hatiku juga James. That’s why I love Kathmandu as well 🙂

    December 31, 2015
    • That’s great, Bart. I hope you get to revisit Kathmandu as planned! Make sure you spend time in Patan to see Durbar Square and its fantastic museum. 🙂

      January 1, 2016
      • Insya Allah James, doakan ya 🙂

        January 2, 2016
  4. I’m so pleased to read this happy report of Kathmandu. I’ve wanted to visit for many years. I was one of those hippies that heard its siren call but never made it there. Sometime in the future perhaps. You make it sound very enticing.
    Alison

    January 1, 2016
    • I hope you visit soon, Alison. Don would enjoy it more than India (Bama and I certainly did!) and I am sure you will appreciate its colourful street life. Not to mention the gentleness and warmth of the Nepalese people.
      James

      January 1, 2016
  5. As you know from my recent post, I ended up in love with Kathmandu also. And like anything that has to grow on you a little, it insinuates itself into your soul and stays there. The beauty of Kathmandu is more than skin-deep; it is the beauty of serenity and open-heartedness and color and generous spirit. They are so poor in many ways, but richer than we in so many others. I was there without family or close friends, and I’d love to take them all there someday to experience it with me!

    January 1, 2016
    • You describe it so well, Lex. We had quite a few candid conversations with people there and I was floored at how hopeful and resilient they were in such difficult times. Coming back to Hong Kong from Kathmandu gave Bama and I a bout of reverse culture shock… it just felt so staid and depressing in comparison.

      January 1, 2016
  6. Amazing pictures, James! I have been eyeing this place long time ago, hopefully i can make it to fly to Kathmandu and other cities in Nepal this year. Definitely on the top of my bucket list!

    January 1, 2016
    • Thank you, Hervina! I hope you get the chance to visit in the next 12 months – Nepal has become one of my favourite countries and I would happily return in a heartbeat!

      January 1, 2016
  7. Fabulous pics as always! Happy 2016 too. 🙂

    January 1, 2016
    • Thanks Carissa. 🙂 And Happy New Year!

      January 1, 2016
  8. No wonder you love Kathmandu! I already do too thanks to your stories and pictures!
    Happy New Year!

    January 2, 2016
    • Happy New Year to you too, Julie! Kathmandu is amazing… and easily one of my favourite places on this entire six-month trip!

      January 2, 2016
      • Nepal is on my list. only need to find time to get there… Thanks for showing the way! 😉

        January 2, 2016
      • De rien! 😉

        January 2, 2016
  9. Beautiful photos and background on Kathmandu. I loved it there too. Nepal is a special place.

    January 4, 2016
    • Thank you, Nicole. I am so lucky to live just 4-5 hours away by plane. Any plans for going back to do another trek?

      January 4, 2016
      • Yes you are! I would love to go to Bhutan but it is too hard right now to go that far so mostly to closer destinations. Someday!

        January 6, 2016
  10. Kathmandu looks like my kind of place. Your photos capture the ancient beauty there and make me want to go! That is terrible about the fuel crisis, but good, I guess, that they are handling it with humor and in stride. Hopefully, the situation gets better for them.

    It sounds like the Nepalese people are like Indonesians when it comes to friendliness.

    January 5, 2016
    • You would really love Kathmandu. There is so much going on in the streets and people aren’t fussed about having their picture taken. I guess you are right about the similarity between the Indonesians and Nepalese – they are both so welcoming and hospitable. And Bama was even mistaken for a Nepali several times!

      January 8, 2016
      • It sounds like my kind of place. Bama might blend in in Mexico too. We met a Nepalese guy in Mexico who said he was always mistaken for a local.

        January 8, 2016
      • It’s now a running joke that Bama gets that in a lot of places we go. It also happened in Myanmar, Southern China and an island off the southeast coast of Taiwan.

        January 8, 2016
      • He should work as a spy. He could blend in anywhere.

        January 8, 2016
      • When I was in Manila people talked to me in Tagalog. But when I was in Sri Lanka in 2012 some people thought I was Chinese or Japanese. Strangely when I was in Lake Toba in North Sumatra a local talked to me in English. So who am I? :0

        January 9, 2016
  11. James, what a great post and introduction for me to Kathmandu ~ amazing place and amazing photos, and hope that the situation there improves. This post is a beautiful way to bring in the New Year, sharing your adventures and I think you will have many more great ones to write and photograph in the New Year. Take care and cheers to a great 2016.

    January 6, 2016
    • Thank you, Randall. I loved your latest post with the portraits of snow macaques. And speaking of our perception of time, I do miss those childhood summers that felt as though they lasted forever. Best wishes for the New Year and happy travels!

      January 8, 2016
  12. Thanks so much for the update on Nepal. I have to agree with Lex above, once you visit Nepal, it gets inside and becomes a part of you somehow. You can’t forget it, and it engrains itself into your soul.
    I’m sorry to say, I may have met your grandmother all those years ago! I think we both drank the same concoction. Your photos are just lovely. And I’m wondering where all those pigeons came from. I mean, I saw pigeons, but not anywhere near that kind of number. And what’s with the fuel issue…the price of oil is down and gas is cheap everywhere else. Who does this to poor countries?

    January 22, 2016
    • I don’t know about that, Badfish… something tells me you are not quite as advanced in years! My grandmother mentioned it was a cocktail with orange juice. Maybe Buck’s Fizz? I wasn’t expecting that number of pigeons either, especially not in the heart of Kathmandu.

      Well, the Nepalese blame India for the fuel blockade. They depend on India for fuel, medicines, and a lot of their food but the border was shut then and still is now. There’s an ethnic minority group, the Madhesis, who live in the plains bordering India and have resorted to violent protests since they say the new Nepalese constitution sidelines them. It’s believed that they have the tacit support of the Indian government, hence the undeclared blockade.

      January 24, 2016
      • there seems to be trouble somewhere all the time…why can’t we just all get along?

        January 30, 2016
  13. Beautiful read James. And equally beautiful images. Makes me wonder why I have put off visiting my neighbouring countries for so long. At least I now have Myanmar under my belt. India’s behaviour towards its neighbours hasn’t been exemplary. Like BadFish, I wish politics didn’t have to rule every decision, especially humanitarian ones.

    February 1, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Madhu. I was amazed at how much history there was in the Kathmandu Valley – although part of me wishes we got there before the earthquake. It was sad to see so much of Kathmandu Durbar Square reduced to piles of brick and empty plinths. Of course part of the blame lies on the ineffectual Nepalese government. They should have focused their efforts on post-quake reconstruction instead of issues that were far less urgent.

      February 2, 2016
  14. wanderingnorth #

    What a terrific post and beautiful photos. I’m going to Nepal for the 1st time next month and this fuels my excitement.

    February 1, 2016
    • Thank you for the kind words. I hope you get enough time in Kathmandu to wander around and soak up the history!

      February 2, 2016
  15. Alain Jouffrey #

    I dreamt of Katmandou 40 years ago, we helped a fresh water project after earthquake so I think I should plan a visit next year. Your photos are so great ! How easy is it to go from Nepal to Tibet?

    February 29, 2016
    • I am not sure – but I remember seeing many travel agencies in Kathmandu with signs offering special visas for Tibet. However I still think it is best if you organise it in advance. Good luck and thank you for the comment!

      February 29, 2016

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