Within the relentlessly steep terrain of midland Nepal, the Kathmandu Valley is something of a geographical freak: a bowl of gently undulating, richly fertile land, lifted up towards the sky like some kind of sacrifice. It may only be some 25km across, but it is densely packed with sacred sites. So much so, in fact, that well into modern times it was referred to as “Nepal mandala”, implying that the entire valley acted as a gigantic spiritual diagram, or circle. “The valley consists of as many temples as there are houses”, enthused William Kirkpatrick, the first Englishman to reach Kathmandu, and as many idols as there are men.”
Although the valley’s sacred geography remains largely unchanged, the number of houses – and people – has soared since Kirkpatrick’s day. In the 1980s, two-thirds of the valley was farmland: today it covers just a third. The region is the country’s economic engine, and pulls young Nepalis in from the hills with an irresistible force. Thanks also to refugees fleeing the Maoist insurrection of the early 2000s, the valley’s population has doubled in the last ten or fifteen years to more than two million. What was once a rural paradise is fast becoming a giant conurbation, with the concrete spreading almost to the valley rim on the north and western sides, and smog obscuring the view of distant mountains on all but the clearest of days.
Despite rampant development, the valley’s underlying traditions have proved remarkably resilient. It was long the stage for the quarrels of three rival city-states, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and these divisions remain ingrained in valley society. Kathmandu and Patan have now grown together within the confines of the Ring Road, but Bhaktapur, on the east side of the Bagmati River, still remains proudly separate. Like the other, smaller Newari towns of the valley – Kirtipur, Thimi, Sankhu, Bungmati – it preserves a distinctly medieval air, its wood- and brick-built houses tightly clustered together around alleyways and temple plazas, and the lives of its residents still bound up with the paddy fields outside the city walls. On the southern and eastern sides of the valley, meanwhile, and in the lush side-valleys and on the steep slopes of the rim, the countryside continues to shimmer in an undulating patchwork of paddy fields – brown, golden or brilliant green, depending on the crop and the season.
In the heart of the valley, the sheer density of sights is phenomenal. Just beyond the Ring Road beat the twin hearts of Nepali religion: the Shiva temple and sombre cremation ghats at Pashupatinath, the sacred centre of Nepali Hinduism; and the vast, white stupa at Boudha, the hub of Tibetan Buddhism’s small renaissance. Other Hindu holy places provide moving reminders of the sacred geography that lies behind the brick and concrete: the sleeping Vishnu statues at Budhanilkantha and Balaju, the sacrificial pit of Dakshinkali and the hilltop temple of Changu Narayan are the most outstanding.
Hiking and cycling are best in the valley fringe. Trails lead beyond the botanical gardens at Godavari to the shrine of Bishanku Narayan, and up through rich forests to Phulchoki, the highest point on the valley rim. For more woodland solitude and views, hike up Shivapuri, Nagarjun Ban’s Jamacho, or any high point on the valley rim.