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Kathmandu Valley

Kathmandu

Every trip to Nepal begins in the capital of Kathmandu. The Kathmandu Valley is in actuality comprised of three distinct cities—Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan), and Bhaktapur—all of which boast rich histories and artistic achievements, many marked by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Urban Kathmandu now encompasses Kathmandu and Lalitpur to create a worldly, cosmopolitan environment, while Bhaktapur retains the feeling of a medieval walled city, and small villages all along the Valley rim still practice their traditional ways of life. In one day, you can experience many layers of history, yet a full week is still not enough to fully appreciate the diverse heritage of this fertile Valley.

The heart of Kathmandu proper still beats in Durbar Square (Palace Square). Although it opens on to New Road, the center of Kathmandu’s electronics and luxury goods import business, Durbar Square itself still conjures up images of the divine royalty who once ruled the city. Merchants of all shapes and sizes throng below its grand monuments, and one can imagine a king emerging briefly to greet his subjects. Hanuman Dhoka stands guard at the far end of the Square—the ancient seat of Nepalese kings, it is a complex of temples and monuments guarded by the veritable monkey god, Hanuman. It is still used for government purposes today. The temple of Kasthamandap, from which the city takes its name, is a large pavilion with a multi-leveled-pagoda roof located nearby. In addition to many other remarkable temples, the Square now houses the National Museum, which provides a rich introduction to the country’s history. Nearby, you can visit the bustling market areas of Asan Tol and Indra Chowk, where nearly everything imaginable is available, from shiny glass beads and bangles to delicious curry spices to imported jeans and shoes.

Heading south across the Bagmati river, one reaches Patan, or Lalitpur, which literally means the “city of arts”. Maintaining an exquisite array of temples and palaces, it is also home to many contemporary Newar artisans who have followed in their ancestors’ footsteps, continuing to make the gods come to life in the mediums of stone, metal, and wood in which they work. The city’s Newars practice a fascinating mix of Buddhism and Hinduism, which is reflected in their unique artistic style. In the Buddhist bahals of Kwa Bahal and Mahabouddha, thousands of intricately carved tiny buddhas bring blessings to the city, while its inhabitants visit these temples to spin prayer wheels and make donations to monks. Nearby in Patan’s own Durbar Square, the elaborate Indian-style Krishna Mandir carved of stone pays homage to one of Hinduism’s most important deities. In front of the palace—a beautiful old structure of wood and brick which has been recently renovated and now houses the Patan Museum—devotees of both faiths stroll across the promenade bringing offerings to their deities of choice. Small stone temples abound throughout the back alleys of the city, dotted between artisan’s workshops where you can purchase silver jewelery or stone statues. Just out of the city center in Jawalakhel, Tibetan refugees produce their famous richly woven carpets. An afternoon spent wandering through this intriguing labyrinth of spiritual faith and artistic expertise can be extremely rewarding.

About fifteen kilometers or a half hour’s ride away from Kathmandu lies Bhaktapur, the “city of devotees”. With no cars inside the city’s gates, a walk through its brick-paved alleyways and broad squares transports you to another century. Impeccably restored by a German-Nepali project, the temples of Durbar and Dattatreya Squares, as well as Taumadhi Tole, are magnificent. Traditionally a center for fine woodwork and pottery, the Potters’ Square is still in full operation today, displaying fresh terracotta works every day. The finely carved windows found all over the city, are exemplified by the famous Peacock Window, and are a real pleasure to the eye.

Boudhanath and Swayambhunath are important Buddhist monuments on the outskirts of Kathmandu. To the northeast of the city center, Boudhanath is one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. Its painted Buddha eyes are striking, as is the sound of bells and monks chanting as devotees circle the monument spinning its hundreds of prayer wheels. The center of the Tibetan community in the city, you can meet monks and pilgrims, nuns and lamas from the farthest corners of the Tibetan cultural world, many dressed in traditional attire. You can also visit grand monasteries filled with golden Buddha statues, and observe the monks during their daily prayer practices. Located at the northwest corner of the city, Swayambhunath is smaller, yet similar in appearance to Boudhanath. However, it has the distinction of being the oldest stupa in the area—the story goes that the Bodhisattva Manjushri arose on a lotus on top of Swayambhu hill and threw his thunderbolt to create Chobhar Gorge (to the south of the city) and drain the ancient lake which once covered the entire Kathmandu Valley. Perched atop a steep hill, Swayambhunath is surrounded by trees and greenery and makes a perfect retreat from the busy city. One gains religious merit by climbing the three hundred odd steps to reach the temple, and the views from the top are a rich worldly reward.

For Hindus, Pashupatinath is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. Located just south of Boudhanath, it is the largest Hindu temple complex in Nepal. You can wander through the surrounding forests and come upon temple after stone-carved temple, many occupied by Hindu ascetics known as sadhus, and others occupied only by monkeys! This is also the site where Kathmandu’s Hindus cremate their dead on the banks of the sacred Bagmati river which flows into the Ganges, and cremation processions are a frequent site here.

These are just a few of the landmark monuments that make Kathmandu a treat for the mind and soul, not to mention the hikes up hills like Swayambhu to challenge the body! There are many, many more fascinating sites to visit. A few days or a week spent in Kathmandu is a fascinating journey through history, and a perfect way to begin or end your travels in other parts of Nepal.