How to describe Kathmandu? A medieval time capsule? An environmental disaster? A holy city? A tourist trap? The answer is, all of the above. There are a thousand Kathmandus, all layered together in an extravagant morass of chaos and sophistication. With a fast-growing population of around 1.7m, Nepal’s capital is easily the country’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city: a melting pot of a dozen ethnic groups, and home town of the Newars – master craftsmen and traders extraordinaire. Trade, indeed, created Kathmandu – for at least a thousand years it controlled the most important caravan route between Tibet and India – and trade has always funded its Newari artisans. Little wonder, perhaps, that the city has so deftly embraced the tourist business.
The Kathmandu most travellers experience is Thamel, a thumping, developing-world theme park, filled with hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, bookshop, imitation trekking gear, pirated DVDs, and touts flogging tiger balm and hashish. The old city, though squeezed by traffic, is still studded with temples and splendid architecture. Its narrow lanes seethe with an incredible crush of humanity, echoing with the din of bicycle bells, motorbike engines, religious music, construction and car horns, and reeking of incense, spices, sewage and exhaust fumes. Sacred cows, holy men, beggars and street urchins roam the streets.
To the south, the separate municipality of Patan was once the capital of an independent kingdom; though now subsumed into the greater Kathmandu conurbation, it has its own quieter and better-preserved historic district, marked by numerous Buddhist bahal (monastery compounds, some still active), proud artistry, and a conspicuous community of foreign residents, predominantly the staff of international NGOs and charities.
These quarters represent only part of a complex and eccentric city, which also encompasses shantytowns, decrepit ministry buildings, swanky shopping streets, sequestered suburbs and heaving bazaars. Perhaps the predominant images of contemporary Kathmandu are those that pass for progress: hellish traffic jams and pollution; suburban sprawl and rubbish heaps; crippling daily power cuts (at times up to 18 hours a day) and backup generators; chauffeured SUVs and families on motorbikes. The city hasn’t abandoned its traditional identity, but the rapid pace of change has produced an intense, often overwhelming, urban environment. New buildings are thrown up in a haphazard manner, with little concern for aesthetics or safety (according to a sobering 2008 Nepal Red Cross Society report, an earthquake measuring 7–8 on the Richter scale could destroy sixty percent of Kathmandu’s buildings, including most hospitals, and kill tens of thousands). Anyone visiting Nepal for its natural beauty is likely to be disillusioned by Kathmandu.
Nevertheless, the city is likely to be your first port of call – all overseas flights land in the capital, and most roads lead here. It has all the embassies and airline offices, Nepal’s best-developed communications facilities, and a welter of trekking and travel agencies. At least as important are the capital’s restaurants and bars, and an easy social scene, all of which makes Kathmandu the natural place to get your bearings in Nepal.
People must have occupied what is now Kathmandu for thousands of years, but chroniclers attribute the city’s founding to Gunakamadev, who reigned in the late ninth century – by which time sophisticated urban centres had already been established by the Lichhavi kings at Pashupatinath and other sites in the surrounding valley. Kathmandu, originally known as Kantipur, took its present name from the Kasthamandap (Pavilion of Wood) that was constructed as a rest-house along the main Tibet–India trade route in the late twelfth century, and which still stands in the city centre.
The city rose to prominence under the Malla kings, who took control of the valley in the thirteenth century, ushering in a golden age of art and architecture that lasted more than five hundred years. Kathmandu’s finest buildings and monuments, including in Durbar Square, date from this period. At the start of the Malla era, Kathmandu ranked as a sovereign state alongside the valley’s other two major cities, Bhaktapur and Patan, but soon fell under the rule of the former. The cities were again divided in the fifteenth century, and a long period of intrigue and rivalry followed.
Malla rule ended abruptly in 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha, a previously undistinguished hill state to the west, captured the valley as the first conquest in his historic unification of Nepal. Kathmandu fared well in defeat, being made capital of the new nation and seat of the new Shah dynasty.
Although politically outmanoeuvred from 1846 to 1951 by the powerful Rana family, who ruled as hereditary prime ministers and left Kathmandu with a legacy of enormous whitewashed Neoclassical palaces, the Shahs were essentially in power until April 2006, with the final decade consumed by a debilitating civil war with Maoist forces. A peace deal was struck later that year and in early 2007 the Maoists joined an interim government. A general election in April 2008 left the Maoists as the biggest party in parliament, and a month later Nepal’s monarchy was abolished.
Kathmandu remains the focus of all national political power in Nepal – and, frequently, political protest – while its industrial and financial activities continue to fuel a round-the-clock building boom.Read More
Where are the mountains?
Where are the mountains?
They’re there – behind the smog. In the 1990s, peaks such as Ganesh I, Langtang Lirung and Dorje Lakpa could be seen most mornings from Kathmandu. Now they’re rarely visible from the metropolitan area except on clear mornings after a soaking rain, or on bandh (general strike) days when all traffic is banned.
Kathmandu is among the world’s most polluted cities, and the traffic and fumes are appalling. The ever-increasing number of cars, motorbikes, buses and lorries, fuel adulteration, lax emissions tests, poorly surfaced roads, rapid urbanization, rubbish dumping and high levels of general pollution, mean that air quality frequently reaches “unhealthy” levels, according to official measurements. This toxic brew irritates lungs and eyes, weakens immune systems and increases the long-term risk of various health problems. If you can help it, don’t stay more than a couple of days in Kathmandu at the start of your trip. If you do, you’re likely to come down with a chest or sinus infection that will dog you for days and may be hard to shake if you go trekking.
A word about the confusing matter of royal deities: Gorakhnath, a mythologized Indian guru, was revered as a kind of guardian angel by all the Shah kings, and Taleju Bhawani, to whom many temples and bells are dedicated in the Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar squares, played a similar role for the Malla kings. The kings of both dynasties worshipped the Kumari, but mainly as a public gesture to secure her tika, which lent credibility to their divine right to rule.
Kathmandu’s street children
Kathmandu’s street children
Ground down by rural poverty and domestic violence, many Nepalese children run away to the capital in search of a better life. Some are lured by often false promises of high-paying jobs in tourism. The children are frequently referred to as khate, a derogatory term referring to scrap plastic collectors. There are estimated to be around 1500 street children in Kathmandu, predominantly boys, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
The conditions street children endure are arguably more debilitating than rural poverty. Homeless, they sleep in doorways, pati (open shelters) or unfinished buildings. Weakened and malnourished by a poor diet and contaminated water, few are without disease. Many sniff glue or become addicted to harder drugs. They’re regularly beaten by the police, and vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse (including from tourists).
Although it can be hard to say no when street children ask for money or food, in the long term your alms will do far better going to a charity than the beggars themselves. For more information, contact Child Workers in Nepal (t 01 428 2255, w cwin.org.np), Just-One (w just-one.org) or Voice of Children (t 01 421 5426, w voiceofchildren.org.np).
Himalayan mountain flights
Himalayan mountain flights
The harder you work to see the mountains in Nepal, the greater the reward, but there’s no denying the drama of the hour-long “mountain flight”. These scenic tours depart every morning, weather permitting, from Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan Airport – go as early as you can bear for the best chance of clear weather. Any agent can sell you a next-day ticket, and prices are standard, at $171 (not including taxi fare and Rs200 airport departure tax). There’s little to choose between the airlines, though Buddha and Yeti have good reputations. Routes are standard too: you fly close to the ranges northeast of Kathmandu, and get a slightly more distant view of Everest. Don’t imagine that you’ll actually be flying right in among the peaks, however, or you’ll be disappointed. And bear in mind that the standard flights to the mountain airstrips of, say, Jomosom and Lukla, are arguably even more exciting, given the landing. All that said, the mountain flight planes themselves are small, noisy and hugely atmospheric – and you’re allowed into the cockpit too. And the views, of course, are stunning.
The festivals listed here are just the main events; there are many others centred around local temples and neighbourhoods.
Basanta Panchami The spring festival is marked by a VIP ceremony in Durbar Square on the fifth day after the full moon. Children celebrate Saraswati Puja on the same day at Swayambhu.
Losar Tibetan New Year, observed at Swayambhu on the full moon of February, but more significantly at Boudha.
Shiva Raatri “Shiva’s Night” is celebrated with bonfires in Kathmandu on the new moon of Phaagun, but the most interesting observances are at Pashupatinath.
Phaagun Purnima (Holi) Youths bombard each other and passers-by with coloured powder and water. The festival lasts a week, but peaks on the day of the full moon.
Chait Dasain On the morning of the eighth day after the new moon, the army’s top-ranking officers gather at the Kot compound, at the northwestern end of Durbar Square, for the beheading of dozens of buffalo and goats and to troop their regimental colours.
Seto Machhendranath Jaatra A flamboyant chariot procession in which the white idol of Machhendranath is placed in a towering chariot and pulled from Jamal to an area south of Jhochhe in at least three daily stages. The festival starts on Chait Dasain.
Nawa Barsa On Nepali New Year (April 13 or 14), there are parades in Kathmandu, but Bhaktapur’s festivities are more exciting.
Machhendranath Rath Jaatra An amazing, uniquely Newari extravaganza in which an immense chariot is pulled through old Patan over a period of several weeks.
Buddha Jayanti The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, celebrated on the morning of the full moon at Swayambhu: thousands come to do puja, and priests dressed as the panchabuddha perform ritual dances.
Janai Purnima The annual changing of the sacred thread worn by high-caste Hindu men (and of temporary wrist bands that may be worn by men and women of any caste), on the day of the full moon, at Patan’s Kumbeshwar Mandir and other temples.
Ghanta Karna Demon effigies are burned throughout the city on the fourteenth day after the full moon of Saaun.
Gaai Jaatra Held the day after the full moon, the Cow Festival is marked by processions through the old city, led by garlanded boys dressed as cows. A good place to watch is in front of the former Royal Palace’s entrance in Durbar Square.
Krishna Astami (Krishna Jayanti) Krishna’s birthday, on which thousands of women queue for puja at Patan’s Krishna Mandir.
Tij A three-day Women’s Festival, starting on the third day after the full moon: women may be seen singing and dancing anywhere, but especially at Pashupatinath.
Indra Jaatra A wild week of chariot processions and masked-dance performances held around the full moon of Bhadau.
Dasain A mammoth ten-day festival celebrated in most parts of Nepal, concluding on the full moon of Asoj. In Kathmandu, mass sacrifices are held at the Kot courtyard near Durbar Square on the ninth day, Durga Puja, with tikas bestowed on all and sundry on the last day.
Tihaar The Festival of Lights, celebrated with masses of oil lamps throughout the city and five days of special observances. Lakshmi Puja, falling on the full moon of Kaattik, is the highlight.