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Kathmandu Re-discovers Itself

Some years ago a friend made a trip to Kathmandu. At her hotel, she asked where she might sample the city's best Nepali food.

"Hmm," the concierge said. "Good Nepal food, hard to find. I do not recommend. May I suggest dinner at hotel?This week, burrito promotion."

Over the next 10 days, my friend ate more pizza, falafel, pad thai, tempura, quiche, and moussaka than she'd had in a year in London. The food was fine, yet the whole situation made her uneasy. She constantly felt she was someplace else.

For the past three decades, Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, has been everything to everyone—everything, it seems, except Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. In the sixties, the city was legendary for its uncanny mimicry of all things

Western: apple pies, fruitcakes, Haight-Ashbury style coffeehouses that outlasted the originals. And as a popular stop on the Asian tourist circuit, Kathmandu became a sort of Eastern clearinghouse. Its shelves overflowed with Tibetan carpets, Kashmiri tapestries, Thai silk, Balinese batik, Ravi Shankar cassettes. True, Nepali handicrafts figured in as well, but only as an equal part of the mix.

Where indeed were we, anyway?

For some, Kathmandu's identity crisis was an attraction in itself. Visiting in the eighties, journalist Pico Iyer found a composite sketch of a city, littered with the rest of the world's detritus. After a week of spotting Deadhead logos and Rambo posters, Iyer realized that he "had traveled 8,000 miles, only to end up…in a facsimile of [Manhattan's] East Village." And the essence of Kathmandu—the "real" Kathmandu—proved as elusive as Shangri-La.

Here it must be said: Kathmandu can be a very unpleasant place. It is congested, loud, and terribly polluted. Travelers expecting either a pretty mountain kingdom or an archaic, bustling city-village will be disappointed. Kathmandu is in fact both of these things, but into its lap has been placed a modern metropolis. Development, beginning in the sixties, came quickly; in a sense the 20th century was simply dropped on top of the 12th. Today the infrastructure of a small medieval city supports a population swelling toward 1 million. And though Kathmandu has sprawled outward into a new landscape of highways and single-family houses, the city center largely retains its old configuration.

This is both a boon and a bane. Twisting cobbled lanes and jumbled squares give old Kathmandu its character. Yet these crowded passages are now overwhelmed by roaring generators, honking trucks, and sputtering motorbikes.

In the mere half-century since Nepal emerged from political and cultural isolation, its capital has become a city of the world. A dilution of local culture was inevitable, but no one was prepared for the speed with which this took place. While developed nations flooded Nepal with power plants and aid for roads, other Westerners scrambled to minimize the effects of these changes. Working with local groups, they created, for example, artisan cooperatives to sustain craft trades, and zoning committees to protect historic quarters. It's easy to snicker at the irony here, but in the past few years these efforts have brought about a renewed appreciation of Nepali culture.

This is most evident in the restoration of the Kathmandu Valley's architectural landmarks. Renovation projects put to work hundreds of architects, woodcarvers, metalworkers, and other artisans, helping to rejuvenate dormant industries. Local craftspeople have also found employment thanks to burgeoning private trade, mostly with foreigners. Top-quality works—not just cheap tourist trinkets—are now available from a number of new boutiques and guilds. And it's finally possible to find upscale restaurants serving real Nepali cuisine, beyond the familiar lentils and rice.

The valley's architectural heritage is remarkably rich. There are literally hundreds of rest houses (built for religious pilgrims), temples, and pagodas scattered throughout it. This relatively tiny region holds seven unesco World Heritage Sites. But centuries of decay and outright abuse have taken their toll on the buildings, and only recently has a concerted effort been made to save them.

The Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust was founded in 1990. Since then, the nonprofit trust has raised more than $400,000 to identify and safeguard the valley's endangered monuments. The KVPT's New York operations are run by board member Cathryn Collins, while Erich Theophile is the executive director and resident architect in Nepal.

Born in Boston and educated at Harvard and MIT, Theophile began his career restoring Beacon Hill town houses and Back Bay brownstones. A visit to Nepal in 1987 changed all that. He fell in love with the cities and villages of the Kathmandu Valley. "They're really the Asian equivalent of Italian hill towns—in their beauty, their complexity," he says. Theophile now divides his time between the United States and Nepal, where he keeps a pied-À-terre in Patan, just across the river from Kathmandu. Patan is legendary for its royal and religious monuments, and much of the KVPT's work is focused there. Only steps from Theophile's apartment, in Patan's main square, several temples, rest houses, and stupas have been meticulously restored, and look again as they did centuries ago.

But they are not museums. The temples and rest houses are still part of daily life—living, functional buildings whose very use poses a threat to their survival. (Votive candles, for example, can badly damage the brickwork in temples.) Because restoration will have to be an ongoing process, the KVPT hires and trains local architects and artisans—ensuring that the skills, not just the buildings, endure.

Kathmandu's Durbar Square holds some extraordinary landmarks. There's the Kasthamandap, the city's oldest building, said to have been constructed in the 1100's from the wood of a single tree. Near it stands the imposing red-brick Old Royal Palace, begun in the 16th century and continually expanded until 1908, when the hilariously out-of-place Neoclassical wing was added. North of the palace is the 16th-century Jagannath Temple, famed for the tantalizingly erotic scenes that are carved into the roof struts.

In the nameless alleys beyond Durbar Square, the humblest private dwellings are graced with details befitting far grander buildings. I found myself stopping in front of every house. As I inspected a particularly intricate window lattice, I realized I was staring in at a family eating breakfast. They regarded me blankly, as though this happens all the time. I had to remind myself that people actually live in these places—even if some entryways are only four feet high. Laundry hangs from those beautiful windows, TV antennas poke up from red-tiled roofs, and children cluster on the quaint wooden balconies, shouting "Hello-o-o-o!" to passers-by.

there's an oft-repeated line: ask a Nepali whether he's a Hindu or a Buddhist and he'll probably just say yes. While Nepal is officially Hindu (it is the world's only Hindu state), the kingdom has a long tradition of syncretism. Throughout the country, you find Buddhist temples decorated with Hindu figures and Hindu temples that welcome Buddhists as their own.

Geographically, culturally, demographically, Nepal is at the crossroads of eastern, central, and southern Asia—it is a beguiling mosaic of cultures and, especially, faces. Outside of America I've never seen such a diversity of physical features: The wild eyes of Hindu ascetics, their bodies painted with sindur paste. The serene smiles and cleanly shaved heads of Tibetan monks. The chiseled cheekbones of the mountain tribes, who so resemble Native Americans. The sloping foreheads and long Mediterranean noses of certain Newar men. The tiny frame of an ethnic-Chinese grandmother, half the size of a barrel-chested Sikh.

The range of ancestries and cultures is dizzying, but the Indian influence is most pervasive. Everywhere you find icons of India: betel-nut stains on the sidewalk, the scent of sandalwood incense, goats and cattle in the streets. Not to mention the signage, with its unique twists on English: super perfict type-writing institute, reads one billboard. A posting on a fence warns, no passing tress! (Took me a minute to figure that one out.)

And as in India, the street life here is thrilling. Some people love the chaos. I admit, I'm one of them. Still, I soon wished for a spot of calm.

calm is the first thing you notice at Baber Mahal Revisited, a complex of shops and restaurants not far from the city center. The serenity is disconcerting. As I walked through the quiet courtyards, I wondered, This is Kathmandu? The property is owned by Gautam "Gitu" Rana, who is also a board member of the KVPT. Gitu is an heir to the legendary Rana dynasty that ruled Nepal from 1846 to 1951. The Ranas' sprawling palaces reflected their obsession with Europe; it was one of Gitu's ancestors who added the strange Neoclassical wing to the Old Royal Palace. One Rana estate, the 400-room neo-Baroque Singha Durbar, was once the largest private residence in Asia, filled with Italian marble and French chandeliers.

The palace of Baber Mahal was built in 1919. In 1958 Gitu was born there. He had free reign over 200 rooms and a staff of 150 to serve him. But in 1965 the government "nationalized" Baber Mahal, reclaiming the palace as state property. Seven-year-old Gitu and his family moved into a 10-room villa nearby ("a cramped little place, horrible"). He didn't set foot in his beloved palace again for more than 30 years.

By the 1990's Baber Mahal had been transformed into offices. ("Oh, the indignity!" Gitu cries.) But Gitu still owned the land west of the palace, where his family's stables and cowsheds stood empty and near collapse. "All I really wanted was my old palace back," he says, "I lost my childhood when I lost Baber Mahal." In 1995, with the help of Erich Theophile, the KVPT's architect, Gitu set about re-creating his boyhood home. In less than two years Erich had recaptured Baber Mahal, down to the gleaming Neoclassical façades, the green shutters, and red roofs. Taking a cue from Boston's quincy Market and London's Covent Garden, they turned their "palace" into a trendy shopping and dining complex. Gitu christened the project Baber Mahal Revisited.

Store space was immediately grabbed by the city's top boutiques and restaurants. Gitu himself opened Baithak, an opulent dining room serving the classic Nepali dishes favored by his ancestors. Several new shops sell uncommonly high-quality crafts and textiles: hand-knotted carpets, brilliantly colored pashminas.

Baber Mahal Revisited was only six months old when I stopped in Kathmandu last spring, so the crowds had not yet discovered it. Still, I had to wonder whether the crowds would arrive—and just who the main clientele would be. Rich Nepalis?Tourists?What would they be coming for—the Nepali food at Baithak or the gazpacho at Chez Caroline?The locally made crafts or the imported compact discs?Will they seek the familiar comforts of Covent Garden in the heart of gritty Kathmandu?

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