No tour of Nepal would be complete without Kathmandu; what a colourful, chaotic, crazy and fascinating city the Country’s characterful capital really is – no less than an assault on the senses at times ! I was fortunate enough to spend a considerable amount of time there in the 90’s when working as volunteer on reforestation projects with VSO, a UK based overseas development organisation. I’ve already said quite a bit about my time spent working in the mountainous district of Solu khumbu – here I’ll take a look the city of Kathmandu itself.
My aim here is to give a brief overview of my general impressions of Kathmandu as I encountered the city then – complete with descriptions of the fabulous sights, sounds and smells (the latter often not being quite so fabulous). I’ll not attempt to provide an up-to-date travel guide, which I’m certainly not qualified to do.
During the period of the early 90s, Kathmandu became very much a second home to me. Every few months, I would make the long journey into the city from the remote Soku Khumbu District where I was working. It gave me the chance to meet with VSO colleagues, enjoy some time out and to experience life in this busy and unique metropolis; all in all, a great contrast from the rural hill district where I was stationed. That said, I was usually happy enough to escape the chaos of the city again after a couple of weeks of living the high life there.
Most certainly, Kathmandu has changed significantly since the 90s – especially in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, through political upheavals and ever increasing urbanisation, as people migrate from poor rural hill districts to the city in search of better economic opportunities. To illustrate this point, a quick look at statistics reveals the staggering increase in Kathmandu’s population, by almost a factor of 4, since I was there in the early 1990s – from around 420,000 in 1991 to almost 1.5 million in 2021. This naturally creates huge infrastructure and pollution issues in an increasingly crowded and densified urban core.
As a whole Nepal has been through many difficult episodes in recent years, including the Maoist uprisings, a civil war and the 2015 earthquake – all of which have caused considerable destruction and loss of life, both in the Capital and in many remote hill districts across Central Nepal. Sadly many of the amazing temples in the Kathmandu Valley (pictured in this post) were destroyed during the big quake – however, many of these are now being lovingly reconstructed as part of an ongoing process of restoration.
Despite being more crowded and polluted these days, Kathmandu is without doubt still a fascinating place to visit. The impressions and photos I present here are therefore very much of the city as I knew it long before the 2015 earthquake and ensuing destruction. Some time it would be great to get back though and to see at first hand what has changed for better and for worse.
One of the first things that hits any visitor to Kathmandu is the sense of the completely disorganized (but somehow functioning) chaos there; generally if you walk a few hundred meters along the street you’ll see and experience more colorful sights, sounds and smells (good and bad) than you’d experience within an average lifetime in a more sedate European city. There are informal markets everywhere, pedal rickshaw drivers cluttering up the streets (being more replaced with motorcycles these days). Dogs, goats and cows wander randomly about the place, bringing vehicles to a screaming halt. There are horribly deformed beggars, cheeky street children, piles of rotting rubbish, decomposing dead dogs, prostitutes touting for business and merchants peddling all manner of wares – both legal and illegal.
Amidst the small winding streets and alleyways you’ll also come across numerous small temples and shines and a seemingly endless array of festivals going on. The Newar people of the Kathmandu valley are an interesting mixture of Hindus and Buddhists – very often you’ll come across temples where worshippers of both faiths come together. One of my favourite places in Kathmandu is Boudhanath Stupa which is located in a suburban area in the North East of the City. This is Nepal’s most important Buddhist Temple and the spiritual heart of the Tibetan Buddhist community in Nepal. The Stupa itself is ringed by small shops selling religious artifacts and by numerous Tibetan monasteries. There are also many small cafes and restaurants selling traditional Tibetan food such as momos and an interesting type of fermented millet beer called Thungba, which is a deceptively potent and drunk through a straw.
The whole area has a very pleasant and chilled out atmosphere. Pilgrims and tourists alike circumnavigate the stupa in clockwise direction, often spinning the many prayer wheels en route. You’ll also encounter many devout Tibetan pilgrims, repeatedly lying prostrate on the ground before standing up and then repeating the process again and again a mere body’s length away – the whole process looks painful and exhausting but such is the devotion of the Tibetans both the Buddha and to their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Monks also hand out donations of food and blessings to those who go hungry – physically and spiritually.
At Boudhanath, as with many other temple sites in Kathmandu, you’ll encounter many monkeys who find unlimited bounty from the various pilgrims and tourists. When I was there in the 90s the was a roof top restaurant overlooking the Stupa and this was a place of rich pickings for the monkeys. It was also a favourite haunt of mine and I can remember one particular mean looking monkey with one eye which used to steal food off the tables on the terrace. I particularly remember one comical evening when the greedy brute was caught in the act by the waiter. A chef then appeared and proceeded to chase the accused across the adjoining rooftops in a desperate attempt to retrieve the stolen goods, much to the amusement of the other customers. Years later I remember one similar incident in Germany where a feral cat stole my schnitzel from an outdoor beer garden.
At night Boudhanath is also a pleasant and fascinating place, though less crowded than in the day. There are a plethora of small shrines with butter lanterns burning which are lit as offerings. There are also numerous large prayer wheels and the sounds of religious devotion echo around the quiet square. The Stupa itself is lit up in a ghostly light creating good photo opportunities from the surrounding rooftops for those with a steady hand or a decent tripod.
Another atmospheric location in Kathmandu, which is well worth spending time in and around, is the Pashupatineth Temple which is located by the banks of the Bagmati River some 5 km north-east of the city centre. The temple is one of the 275 Holy Abodes of Shiva on the Indian subcontinent. It was created in the 5th century by Licchavi King Prachanda Dev and is the oldest Hindu Temple complex in the Kathmandu Valley. It’s fascinating just spending time around Pashupatineth and watching the daily rhythms unfold. You will usually encounter any number of Sadhus around the place; devotees of Shiva, who have turned to a life of asceticism as wandering Hindu holy men. In reality, many of the Sadhus that I encountered appeared to be on a permanent high and performed some interesting and seemingly unfeasible acts of yoga for the benefit of passing visitors. Many mainstream Nepalese appeared to be somewhat cynical about the motivations of some the Sadhus – not all of whom appeared to have interests that lay purely along the spiritual path.
There are a plethora of festivals going on throughout the year around Pashupatineth, from simple acts of devotion through to larger and more colourful events. One of the biggest annual festivals organized there is the Teej Festival. Teej is celebrated by Hindu Nepali women to bestow long life and happiness to their husbands – a noble cause indeed !
As an important site for Hindus, Pashupatineth is also the place where families gather to honour their departed loved ones. The Ghats alongside the sacred Baghmati River are an important location for open air cremations, followed by the symbolic scattering of the ashes into the river itself. In general, death in Nepal seems a much less taboo subject than in Western countries and funeral rites much more open. That said, it embarrassed and irritated me to witness the sometimes voyeuristic and intrusive behaviour of many foreign tourists whilst observing such personal family events; often openly brandishing video cameras within close range of the mourners – seemingly without awareness to the sensitivities involved. Imagine the negative press if such insensitive behaviour occurred in a European country.
In Kathmandu, temples certainly abound. Another fascinating location is Budhanilkantha Temple, a Hindu open air temple dedicated to Vishnu. It is situated below the Shivapuri Hill at the northern end of the Kathmandu valley. It comprises of a large reclining statue of Lord Vishnu, a deity regarded as one of the Trimurtis, along with Brahma and Shiva. The statue is surrounded by water and made accessible from above by a series of steps. It is reportedly the largest stone carving in Nepal. Each year the Haribondhini Ekadashi Mela takes place there in the autumn and is attended by thousands of pilgrims celebrating the awakening of Vishnu from his long sleep. It was always fascinating to watch groups of devout pilgrims queuing there to present their colourful offerings to the awakening deity. The Temple is regarded as a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Located around the Kathmandu Valley there are also a number of wonderful civic squares or “Durbur” squares which boast amazing temple complexes and historic structures, including palaces and other fine buildings. One such splendid location is the Durbur Square in Patan, a district of Lalitpur in the southern central part of the Kathmandu Valley. It is one of three such Durbur squares in the Valley, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I really used to enjoy spending time in Patan. It was a fascinating place, somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of nearby downtown Kathmandu.
Unfortunately many of the wonderful structures in Patan were completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair during the 2015 earthquake, which shook the City to its core. The havoc and loss of life wrought by the quake around the Kathmandu valley is a far cry from my memories of the relaxed street scene existing in Patan when I was there in the 90s. Since 2015, a huge reconstruction and restoration programme has been underway to restore, or in many cases, completely rebuild, the structures again, sometimes almost from scratch. This is painstaking work which will take years to complete, although there has already been a significant amount of restoration work completed.
Kathmandu’s Durbur Square used to look particularly impressive at night, especially during the annual Tihar festival, when the temples were illuminated by hundreds of tiny lanterns. Tihar is the Nepalese version of the Indian Dewali festival, or “festival of lights”, which is celebrated in the autumn. It is the second biggest Nepali festival after Dashain and the one which is likely to prove the most palatable to Western visitors (the latter festival being most associated with the sacrifice of 1000s of goats, when the streets literally run blood red). Tihar is a three-day-long public holiday, during which it’s not only gods that are honoured, but also crows, cows, and dogs (the rest of the year dogs aren’t treated quite so well in Nepal). During the Tihar festival I got into experimenting with some long exposure shots using a tripod, with some quite pleasing results:
I do remember though that Tihar was also not without its own particular challenges. For the period of the festival, kids used to delight in chucking endless firecrackers out of windows, carefully targeted to land just under your feet as you walked down the street – with an almighty and coronary inducing “BANG!!!”. A day or two of such aerial bombardment was enough to fray the nerves of even the most resolute and level headed individuals – mind you “Silvester” (or New Year) in Germany also engenders similar feelings of anxiety as fireworks whizz randomly at eyelevel across crowded city squares.
In general Kathmandu at night was a fascinating and atmospheric place to walk around with numerous small temples, stalls and shrines all lit up. This however contrasted dramatically with periods of blackout, when the electricity supply to half the city was suddenly switched off without warning, as part of government load shedding policies (rumours had it that the electricity was sold off to India). The ensuing chaos was hard to describe; one minute you’d be cycling along quite happily in a brightly lit street, the next you’d be colliding with countless phantom pedestrians in the pitch black, crashing into rickshaws, falling down potholes or running over street dogs. Meanwhile the lazy and nonchalant street dogs of Kathmandu would turn into aggressive packs of testosterone charged man-eaters, lurking down unlit alleyways, snarling and awaiting their quarry for a full on attack.
In contrast with the often hectic streets of Kathmandu, the ancient city of Bhaktapur, located a few miles to the East was a veritable oasis of unhurried calm and another of my favourite haunts. In pedestrianized streets, the rhythms of the city proceeded, as they perhaps had for thousands of years – women piled up their grain on mats in the street, artisans made pots or leather goods in the open air or stacked them to to dry in the midday sun, the sounds of laughing, cheeky kids drifted through the squares and courtyards. In addition it seemed there were very few tourists to see in a destination which would no doubt be crowded in Europe – just compare this with the tourist magnets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria or Salzburg for example.
All around Bhaktapur are fine examples of Newar craftsmanship, particularly woodworking. The City is the home of traditional arts, incredible architecture, ancient monuments galore, magnificent carved windows, pottery and weaving – all of which are on display as you walk around the maze of historic streets. It is also a City of incredible temples, though again many of these were damaged in 2015.
If any single place though can capture and encapsulate the atmosphere of Kathmandu though, it must surely be the Swayambhunath Stupa, perched prominently on a hilltop to the North West of the City and reached after an exhausting ascent of countless steps from the teaming streets below. There is surely no finer time to be there than around dusk, as the lights of the city start to glow – innumerable points of luminescence shining through the haze from the shops, houses and temples of the valley below. The temple bells clang and the heady scent of incense fills the air; a Sadhu drifts by in ghostly contemplation, murmuring incoherent blessings to Shiva.
If you’re lucky and the visibility is a bit clearer in the post-monsoon, you might catch a glimpse of the distant and mighty Himalaya, far to the northern horizon; the last rays of the dying sun illuminating their eternal snows with a rosy orange glow. Majestic and captivating as the scene is though; don’t let down your guard – there are thieves about and they’re woolly, agile and hungry ! The Temple monkeys, of course !!!
…. now just watch out for that big mean fellow; that monkey with the one eye !
And not forgetting those fun times too with VSO Nepal…