Nepal: Kathmandu's divine inspiration
Ornate, spiritual and choked by traffic, Hilary A White finds Nepal's ancient capital overflows with Eastern promise
Published 18/04/2010 | 05:00
KATHMANDU. Let it roll off your tongue and swirl around your imagination. It is one of those names, like Xanadu, Shangri La or Timbuktu, that conjures up images of Eastern promise, mysticism and the exotic.
Your first journey from Tribhuvan International Airport into the centre of the Nepalese capital will be memorable. Cars, swarms of motorbikes and bustling pedestrians all vie for right-of-way in streets seemingly no wider than a snooker table. The brake and horn mechanisms are used liberally while the indicator bulb is spared. If used, it does not necessarily denote an intention to turn, and is part of a mysterious code of ethics in the country's favourite automotive pastime -- overtaking. Overtakers are themselves overtaken and oncoming traffic is only bowed to if it looks bigger and meaner.
The heavily polluted air is another thing to brace yourself for. A sea of generators operates for hours each day, their fumes and vibrant rattles rising into the city streets to join the emissions of buses and noisy taxis. Before legislation came into force to curtail the use of more primitive combustion engines, the narrow and high streets of Kathmandu were said to glow with an ominous petroleum blue. These days, it is felt as a gritty dry presence on the back of the throat, and vigorous gullet-clearing is often heard .
The city's Thamel region is close to everything and a well-established starting point for travellers. It was once a Mecca for hippies and wayfarers, an era echoed in the occasional dreadlocked mop and whiff of rare herbs.
We stayed in the immaculate and impossibly friendly Sacred Valley Inn, just far enough away from Thamel's boisterous nightlife to ensure a good sleep. Yet when we decided we were in the mood for cold beers and bar bands butchering Kings of Leon tunes, it was all on our doorstep.
Kathmandu is rarely the reason anyone comes to Nepal. Its purpose was always that of a way station for the country's great draw, the mighty Himalaya (pronounced him-awh-lia and always in the singular). But rising early in the morning you can discover a city where the ancient, the ornate and the spiritual sit alongside the relative modernity of a third world capital. A popular walking route to the south from Thamel takes you to the palaces and tiered temples of Durbar Square, once the city's seat of rule, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Detailed wooden carvings depict gods and goddesses, animals, demons and even erotic art. People ring bells and bless themselves with golden and red petals on the way to work amid carpets of vegetable sellers and fluttering pigeons. Youngsters send texts from the terraced stone steps while sadhus (itinerant holy men) try to thumb a tika (smudge of colour) on to the foreheads of bemused tourists. Black kites replace gulls as the resident winged opportunists. It is truly otherworldly.
Hinduism, Buddhism and commerce live in and among each other. Wedged between a Coca-Cola sign and construction scaffolds made of bamboo will sit a small shrine. Turning another corner may reveal a pagoda or one of the bell-shaped Buddhist stupas. Museum pieces elsewhere, but in active use in Kathmandu's dusty streets.
The people are a delight. The popular greeting is "Namaste", a beautiful expression that literally translates as "I greet the divine inside of you". It can be accompanied by a palms-together gesture and always with a warm smile. Religion and the "divine" are in and of everything for Nepalis, something a friend of mine blames for their daredevil escapades on the roadways. It's hard, however, to be cynical when Nepalis are falling over themselves to help you with something, to welcome you and start a friendly conversation. Service and hospitality are not some formal social code but a natural tendency everywhere, from reception desks to pavements.
This was made clear to us at the Nepali Chulo restaurant, a culinary institution that has always placed great store in cultural authenticity. What Nepalese cuisine lacks in variety it more than makes up for with flavour, aroma and fragrance.
The choice was simple -- a fixed menu with or without meat. The earthenware ramekin of raksi (Nepalese firewater) may have been kicking in but there seemed to be a different waiter each time, serving a series of small openers that included momos (moist and moreish chicken dumplings) and a hearty and sinus-cleansing bean soup.
Another queue of smiling waiters formed by our table for the main course, a mound of rice orbited by radish pickle, a mild chicken curry, stewed vegetables and gorgeous peanut-tinged spinach. All the while, staff swivelled and stooped to avoid the traditional dancers and a man in a peacock suit reenacting a fable. Dessert is a few mouthfuls of a sweet, lemongrass-scented curd. Exquisite.
We left it to our final morning to visit Patan, a suburb that was once a separate and staunchly proud city state of its own. A quick taxi and a few rupees later, we were at Patan's own Durbar Square and were adopted by a young and knowledgeable tour guide. He walked us through the forum of temples, pagodas and stupas, arranged proudly like spiritual trophies on a mantelpiece.
The atmosphere is that bit more potent than Kathmandu's central Durbar Square; it is cleaner and shows less of the clutter of the tourism machine. You are left to block out the modern world and imagine Nepalese royalty ambling through on elephant-back with scimitars at their sides. That mysterious Eastern promise, whatever it may be, comes out to play. Through the smoggy haze, the exotic wonderment of Nepal and the entire span of Asia has suddenly manifested itself.