Kathmandu Re-discovers Itself
Published: June 2009
By Peter Lindberg
For years, travelers have come here to find themselves. Now Nepal's capital is doing the same
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?
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.
"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.
If you're not planning on climbing Everest, October and November are the best months to visit Kathmandu; the weather is clear and dry, and temperatures are mild. Though there are no direct flights from the States, many carriers serve Nepal via Europe and the Far East. Visas are issued at the airport (15 days for $15; 30 days, $25).
Nepal still has no ATM machines, and cash advances on credit cards are given at only a few banks, so be sure to bring plenty of cash or traveler's checks.
A word about street addresses: only major streets have actual names; numbering, where it exists, is erratic. A good tourist map will show the location of many hotels, restaurants, and sights, and most taxi drivers will know the following places.
Yak & Yeti Hotel Durbar Marg; 977-1/248-999, fax 977-1/227-781; doubles $170.
Despite the hokey name, it's the top hotel in town. Lovely gardens, three restaurants, a pool, a casino, and very comfortable bedrooms, all in an updated colonial style. Request the new wing for better facilities.
Shangri-La Lazimpat; 977-1/412-999, fax 977-1/414-184; doubles $130.
Not related to the luxury chain, but a good deluxe choice nonetheless. Similar to the Yak & Yeti but farther from the city center, in a tony (for Kathmandu) northern neighborhood.
Kathmandu Guest House Thamel; 977-1/413-632, fax 977-1/417-133; doubles in south wing $20$60.
A longtime favorite of backpackers and budget travelers, right in the heart of Thamel, with its own travel services and a restaurant. It's a popular meeting place.
Every type of food you can imagine is available in Kathmandu (except possibly sashimi). Thamel is the place for "reproduction cuisine" or food just like you'd make at home: veggie burritos, spaghetti carbonara, Greek salads disinfected with iodine. Some of the Western-style places are pretty good, but fortunately there are also more traditional choices. The following four are great spots for Nepali and Indian food.
Thamel House 77 Thamel Tole; 977-1/410-388; dinner for two $16.
Specialties include sautéed wild boar, fermented bamboo shoots, and rich mutton curries, served on low tables in a 19th-century red-brick mansion.
Bhanchha Ghar Kamaladi Rd. 977-1/225-172; dinner for two $24.
The city's first upscale Nepali restaurant is still a favorite 10 years along.
Baithak Baber Mahal Revisited; 977-1/253-337; dinner for two $30.
Gitu Rana's elegant new dining room celebrates his ancestors the Rana maharajas' fondness for both Europe and India.
Ghar-e-Kabab Durbar Marg; 977-1/221-711; dinner for two $24. The best Indian in town.
For Western food, try Chez Caroline (Baber Mahal Revisited; 977-1/248-747; lunch for two $12), a salon de thé and patisserie run by an Indian French couple. The romantic bistro Simply Shutters Bistrot (Baber Mahal Revisited; 977-1/253-337; dinner for two $20) serves pastas and simple French and Italian dishes. Don't forget to try at least one piece of apple pie while you're in Nepal. It's really quite good.
Kathmandu's top boutiques are on Durbar Marg and at Baber Mahal Revisited. A few of the standouts at Baber Mahal:
Red Thread Trading Co. 977-1/254-260.
Tibet's best hand-knotted carpets are now available to individual buyers in Kathmandu.
Rajni Malla's shop specializes in brilliantly colored, and proverbially soft, pashmina shawls. Malla supplies silk and pashmina to Givenchy and other famous houses.
Paper Moon 977-1/256-618. Beautiful stationery, clothbound notebooks, lanterns, ornaments.
A balloon ride over the valley with Balloon Sunrise Nepal (977-1/424-131, fax 977-1/424-157; $195 per person) or a one-hour sightseeing flight over Mount Everest on Buddha Air (977-1/521-015, fax 977-1/537-726; $99 per person).
Where to shop in Kathmandu
If you're not here for the trekking you're probably here to shop. Kathmandu offers all manner of artifacts, jewelry, art, and antiues (both Nepali and foreign), but weeding through the junk can be hard. One option is to go directly to the artisan centers, in the towns beyond Kathmandu.
For wood carvings, try Bhaktapur. The workshops off Dattatraya Square are the best places to look for statues of Buddha, wooden masks, and large or small replicas of those famous window lattices. Carvers will do custom pieces, such as ornate mirror or picture frames. Near Taumadhi Tole a number of shops sell cast-bronze utensils and artifacts, including the famous singing bowls, which produce soothing tones when rubbed along the rim.
Patan, across the river from Kathmandu, is metalware central. Brass and copper water vessels, oil lamps, decorative trays, and urns are the best buys here, particularly around Patan's Durbar Square. Both Patan and Bhaktapur are centers for thangka-- Tibetan or Tibetan-style Buddhist scrolls made of canvas. Some are small and simple, some remarkably complex, with hundreds of distinct scenes, often painted with single-bristle brushes.
In Kathmandu, visit Potalla Gallery (Durbar Marg; 977-1/223-375) for Tibetan and Nepali antique metalcraft, and Marzan (Baber Mahal Revisited; 977-1/251-653) for modern and traditional gold and silver jewelry.
—Peter Jon Lindberg