The Rhythm And Chaos Of Kathmandu
A journey to Kathmandu has the power to leave the traveller enchanted, inspired and even enlightened, however the city’s highs and lows can also overwhelm.
From the moment you step foot on to the busy streets of Kathmandu, it’s an assault on your senses. Swerving between beeping cars, motorbikes and rickshaws as you squeeze past the crowds on the narrow streets, you can’t help but get sucked into the vortex of the fast pace and chaotic atmosphere.
Kathmandu is the gateway to adventure, and the majority of tourists only visit the city with a two day pass. From Kathmandu people generally fly to Lukla to trek the Everest way, head to the adventure playground of Pokora where the famous Annapurna trek awaits or seek tranquillity in Chitwan National Park.
While it is tempting to escape the city to seek solace in a more quiet and natural setting, don’t be too quick to give up on Kathmandu. With a bit of patience you’ll learn to become a part of its intriguing turbulence. Allow yourself to get lost in the mayhem and spend a few days exploring its hidden charms, for there is more to the city than meets the intimidated eye.
The old city of Kathmandu
Taking a walk to Durbar Square via the old city of Kathmandu cannot be missed. Within 10 minutes of leaving Thamel you reach Asan Tole, notoriously the most chaotic intersection in the city. From dawn to dusk local people sell spices, fruits, vegetables, colourful tikka powder and handmade crafts. These markets are renowned for their vibrant colour and buzzing energy. It was here that I decided to stop off and purchase a scoop of kumquats to snack on, measured out by an old man with a set of antique brass scales.
Other things that I found worth buying at the markets were handmade paper, rosewood mala beads, pashminas and thankas. Local handcrafts are often a form of community work, born out of necessity – so take the time to find something authentic and you’ll be supporting the local community. With my kumquats in one hand, rosewood beads and a roll of hand-made paper in the other, I walked for another ten minutes until reaching Durbar Square.
Exploring Durbar Square
Exploring Durbar Square is like stepping back in time. Dominated by Newa architecture, the bustling streets are an archive of history, where deteriorating yet noble buildings are remnants of what use to be a royal kingdom. The exotic wooden doors, shutters and window frames are intricately hand-carved. Shop fronts have been built slightly lower than the footpath, so if I didn’t keep my eyes open it was easy to miss the treasures inside. The air was filled with the smell of burning incense and around every corner was either a temple, prayer flags or a religious offering of some kind.
Eventually I arrived at the small door of the Kumari Ghar, once inside I waited in the royal courtyard for thirty minutes in hope of catching a glimpse of the Kumari, or ‘living goddess’. The Kumari is a young girl, chosen amongst many, and she symbolises purity. Occasionally she overlooks from one of her windows, and her appearance is said to bring good fortune for those who see her so it’s no wonder hundreds of locals visit the palace courtyard daily. As I waited for her to come to the window I took the opportunity to sit and relax, watching the pigeons flutter in the ancient attics above. She never did come to the window that day.
Go back a third or fourth time
Kathmandu is a labyrinth of colour, sounds, experiences and choices, however with time and patience you will eventually master your way around. Use Asan Tole, India Chowk and Durbar Square as your main navigational points.
Once you have mastered the route, go back the next day and explore the hidden streets you missed the day before. What you’ll discover are streets dedicated to different businesses such as spices, jewellery merchants or day spas; you may even stumble across a quiet neighbourhood courtyard where children sing or chase pigeons.
The exotic streets of Kathmandu are just as fascinating as they are hectic, as charming as they are chaotic. With smiling faces and temples at every turn, the city is a melting pot of culture, history and religion. For an authentic Kathmandu experience, take the time to explore the markets and courtyards, seek out the logic amidst the chaos and let your body fall in rhythm to the city. Allow yourself to surrender and get lost within the frenetic and energy-filled streets, for that is when you will expectantly stumble upon that quaint bookstore, hidden temple, yoga studio, rooftop garden café, enlightenment or whatever else you may need.
Fly: China Southern offers flights to Kathmandu for as little as $900 return, with just a short 3 hour stopover in China.
Stay: For an air of old time chic and charm, stay at the Shenker Hotel. If you enjoy drinking tea in beautiful gardens then Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse is also worth a visit.
See: Bodhnath Stupa is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world for Tibetan Buddhists and Nepalis, it definitely is well worth a visit. Perched atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley is the ancient religious complex of Swayambhunath – also known as the Monkey Temple – great for sunset. Then there’s Kopan Monastery, a spiritual oasis that offers various meditation and yoga courses.
Eat: No trip to Kathmandu would be complete without eating momo’s, a steamed vegetable dumpling served with fresh tomato relish. For something a bit more sophisticated, head to La Dolce Vita in Thamel and sit on the rooftop garden terrace while sipping a Caffè freddo.
Images by Claire-Maree Charters