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Kathmandu Re-discovers Itself

The answer will reveal something not just about the character of Baber Mahal Revisited but of tourism here in general. And that character has changed a great deal of late.

After all, Kathmandu was the original capital of Backpacker Land. In the days before Goa and Lombok and Penang, the hippie trail led straight to Kathmandu, and its legendary Freak Street was a mecca for hash-seeking tourists. Today Nepal draws a growing contingent of chic Europeans and Everest-bound yuppies, but the majority of visitors still fit the classic description: youthful if not young, in sandals, with Day-Glo rucksacks.

Freak Street remains, though it's a ghost of its former self. What's left of the patchouli crowd has moved to the Thamel district, north of Durbar Square. Thamel is packed with Westerners, each shadowed by the inevitable phalanx of touts. ("Hello, marijuana-cocaine-hashish?" they call, or often just, "Hello…something?")

One still sees an inordinate number of tourists in drawstring pants, but Thamel is not just for Deadheads anymore. Bookshops sell the latest issues of Elle and Gq. The recent influx of rich, middle-aged trekkers (read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air) has spurred an increase in high-end hotels and outfitters. Meanwhile, the $2 guesthouses of the past are becoming just that.

Even the yuppies and chic Europeans flock to Thamel, since it's the only place for real nightlife. Those East-West collisions Pico Iyer found a decade ago are still the norm. I stopped at a bar to hear a Nepali band play Marvin Gaye: "Let's get a dog," the singer pleaded soulfully. My dinner at the North Beach Café included a "Ginsberg" sandwich, topped with what the menu calls "a HOWL-ing good horseradish!"

After dinner I was trailed for blocks by a street vendor whose inventory ranged from prayer wheels and Buddha carvings to cheap girls and smack. I finally took refuge in a café down an alley off an alley off an alley. The stereo was playing Cat Stevens. I can't stand Cat Stevens, but I loved the café, especially the customers: two American men in their fifties with long white beards and topee hats, who looked as if they'd been here forever. Both sang along to "Where Do the Children Play?"—a fitting theme for this town of reborn refugees. Nearby sat a pair of Danish hippie-chicks, each no older than 17. The flower grandchildren, I suppose.

Out in the street an auto-rickshaw lurched by. Its engine made a sound like a blender with a rock in it. As the noise drowned out Cat Stevens I thought, Never has a city had a less appropriate sound track. In every café you hear reedy flute music or dippy folk-pop. But the streets are better suited to a Motörhead record.

Most visitors don't put up with the clamor for long. Even a short drive into the surrounding valley can transport you to an older, calmer Nepal.

Founded in the ninth century, Bhaktapur, just a few miles east of Kathmandu, is Nepal's best-preserved city. In fact, time there seems to be running in reverse. This is largely the work of the Bhaktapur Development Project, a German-funded program begun in the 1970's. Alarmed that Bhaktapur might become another Kathmandu, the BDP updated the city's infrastructure while "rehistoricizing" its famous temples and shrines. Roads were finished with red brick, not asphalt. Discreet sewer lines and storm gutters were installed. Schools were started, craft cooperatives set up. Today, Bhaktapur has no heavy industry, few modern buildings, and virtually no traffic. The council funds work by charging $5 admission to non-Nepali visitors.

Bhaktapur was one of the three ancient capitals of the Kathmandu Valley, and it's still the valley's third-largest city (population 50,000). Yet it feels like a small village. More than half of Bhaktapur's residents are farmers.

It is the artisans, however, who bring the city its fame. They seem to be everywhere—making thangka (painted scrolls) on doorsteps, casting bronze in open-fronted shops, dyeing yarn in the public squares. The dusty Potters' Square is lined with hundreds of clay yogurt bowls and piggy banks drying in the sun. Wrinkled men and women sit hunched over potters' wheels made of old truck tires.

Bhaktapur's skilled woodcarvers have been regarded for centuries as the best in Nepal; many of them are hired by the KVPT to help restore or re-create the monuments of Patan and Kathmandu.

Savoring the medieval atmosphere, I lost myself in Bhaktapur's alleys, kept company by a few ducks and goats. Now and then I'd emerge into yet another sun-drenched square where peasants threshed grain or ground chiles.

Suddenly a chorus of bells rang out: around the corner came a wedding procession. A brass band led the way across the square, followed by the bride and groom in a flower-covered Honda, the only car I'd seen all day. A hundred revelers trailed behind. (Remember the Sicilian wedding in The Godfather?Picture one with Hindus.)

I couldn't help but join the crowd, and for an hour we paraded through the winding lanes of the old quarter. For the first time since landing in Nepal, I felt that I'd arrived.

But soon I was back in Kathmandu, dodging Kawasakis and trying to ignore the Titanic posters. After quaint and quiet Bhaktapur, Kathmandu seemed even more urban than it had before—and a whole lot less like the "real" Nepal.

I stopped in at a café for lunch. The menu offered Chinese dumplings, chicken fajitas, a Dagwood sandwich, and borscht. Portraits of the Dalai Lama and Jim Morrison hung on the wall. The waiter claimed to be Nepali, but I couldn't say for sure that he was. It was all so confusing.

I wasn't the only one confused. After lunch I met a guy from Oregon, who was on a whirlwind tour of Asia. He told me about the places he'd been. But his most effusive praise was reserved for Kathmandu—for the people, for the nightlife, and not least for the hash.

"I tell ya, man, I love Tibet," he said. "I could spend the rest of my life here."

"Uh, this isn't Tibet," I said.

"Eh?"

"This is Nepal. Kathmandu is in Nepal."

He gave a look that said, Huh. Wow.

People keep coming here to find themselves, yet they don't even know where they are. We stood there in the street trading tales, wherever we were, as the city disappeared into a cloud of incense and bus exhaust.

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