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Sunday, June 24, 2012
Katmandu beckons all who visit Nepal
By VICTORIA JAMES
Special to The Japan Times
Everest may be its most famous site, and Lumbini one of its holiest, but Nepal has plenty more to offer. Annapurna is the country's other great trekking location, while Chitwan National Park is home to some of the region's rarest wildlife, offering the chance to spot the endangered Bengal tiger, as well as leopard and rhinoceros.
But wherever you base your trip within Nepal, you're likely to have a few days to spare in Katmandu at the beginning and end of your visit. There's much to see and enjoy in the city itself, while the Katmandu Valley is home to two fascinating towns, easily reached by taxi or public transport.
Durbar Square, Katmandu
The Newar are the indigenous people of the Katmandu Valley region, and Newari rulers held sway there before the creation of the unified state of Nepal in the 18th century.
The Durbar (Court) Square in each principality's capital housed the palace, and ornate public and religious buildings. The one in Katmandu is the largest surviving to date, but those of Patan and Bakhtapur (see below) are no less impressive.
The museum in the former royal palace is possibly the most boring I have ever visited, but it is redeemed by the chance to climb a vast, rickety tower for a spectacular view over the entire city, across to the Swayambhunath Monkey Temple and the mountains beyond.
Katmandu has a large population of Tibetans who've chosen exile rather than Chinese rule. Boudharnath stupa is the spiritual heart of their community and it is breathtakingly lovely, especially when its white dome is set off by a cloudless blue sky. The stupa is set in a circular plaza ringed with shops and restaurants, but it doesn't feel like it's lost its soul to tourism. This is a good place to visit a thangka gallery if you want to learn more about this colorful Tibetan sacred-painting technique.
Pashupatinath is a Hindu religious complex, with temple precincts (including some areas accessible only to Hindus) and riverside ghats and cremation platforms.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pashupatinath is dedicated to the Nepalese manifestation of Shiva, the national deity. But Shiva here isn't the wrathful god of the Indian pantheon: "In Nepal, Shiva is peaceful," one Nepalese friend told me. Be respectful of any ceremonies in progress, keep an eye out for the wandering sacred cattle, and if you photograph any of the garishly painted sadhus (holy men), be aware they'll expect a tip.
Swayambhunath "Monkey Temple"
Part temple, part park, part knee-wobbling endurance test, Swayambhunath — reached by a punishing flight of more than 300 steps — is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.
It sits on a hill just west of the city center and looks dazzling after a recent restoration that involved the use of 20 kg of gold. Close up, it's a more mixed picture — the complex is littered with discarded offerings, which are carefully picked over by sacred monkeys, stray dogs and pigeons. (If you're visiting after trekking, take a taxi which delivers you to the back entrance and saves you the steps.)
Advising someone to visit Thamel is like recommending they visit Shibuya when in Toyko — it's more or less impossible to avoid. But Thamel, the heaving heart of touristy Katmandu, is a real pleasure.
With its narrow streets and stacked-up shop fronts, it has an Asian downtown feel, and offers more restaurants and trekking shops than you could visit in a month. Don't miss the inexhaustible pleasures of the Pilgrim's Bookshop — which sells much more than just books.
Garden of Dreams
A hidden gem in the heart of Katmandu, on the edge of Thamel, the Garden of Dreams is not, as I first assumed on seeing its posh entrance lit up at night, a high-class gentlemen's club.
Instead, this is a small corner of Italianate paradise — an elegant garden complete with fountains, a grassed amphitheater and six neoclassical pavilions now used as smart cafes. It was created at the beginning of the 20th century by a prime minister's son so besotted with all things European he renamed himself "Kaiser." It was lovingly restored and reopened five years ago — and WiFi is available throughout the garden for a small fee.
Professionally-trained blind therapists offer high-quality massage in this spotless clinic in central Thamel.
Many customers turn up in search of a post-trek treatment to ease their aches and pains, but I booked in before trekking in order to get a physiotherapist-grade stretching and a thorough working over of knotty muscles.
Sessions are 60 or 90 minutes long; be sure to book the latter, or you'll simply end up, as I did, begging for an extension after just 5 minutes.
The other great city of the Katmandu Valley's indigenous Newar people to have survived, Bakhtapur still feels otherworldly thanks to the absence of vehicular traffic in its center.
Beside the Durbar Square, there are several other open plazas and a number of ancient water tanks (reservoirs that look like large, square ponds) giving Bakhtapur a feeling of space and rare calm. Look out for the celebrated peacock window, and don't be afraid to try the local speciality of King of Curds. I played it safe by sampling this at a tourist-oriented cafe, the Nyatapola in Taumadhi Tole. Not only did I suffer no unpleasant aftereffects, it was absolutely delicious.
A mere 15 minutes from Katmandu by taxi, Patan — also known as Manigal — boasts what's surely one of the loveliest small museums in the world, exhibiting Buddhist and Hindu sculpture.
Information on exhibits is succinct and genuinely enlightening. There's also a courtyard garden and restaurant offering great food and respite from the heat and dust. The local deity is the rain god "Red" Machhendranath, and if you visit in April or May you may get caught up in the annual festival during which his image is pulled through the streets on a giant wheeled chariot — the atmosphere is very like a lively Japanese matsuri festival.