A brief pit-stop in Kathmandu was a little bonus. A stepping-stone on my way home from Bhutan, the Nepalese capital is famously exotic with layer upon layer of history to explore…and a fascinating array of characters to photograph. After two weeks among the pine-clad, silent valleys of the Dragon Kingdom, where the land bears very few signs of human occupation, touching down in the lung-burning cacophony of Kathmandu’s traffic nightmare was one of those cultural somersaults that makes travel so compelling. Leisurely people-watching in the Indian sub-continent is a favourite occupation of mine but with only two days to explore the city, it was a case of hitting the highlights on the run with little time to sit back and enjoy the show.
Kathmandu has been a backpackers’ favourite for more than 40 years – the final destination on the 60’s hippy trail to the jumping off point for Everest summit attempts. Centre of operations is Durbar Square, a jumble of medieval temples, multi-tiered pagodas and imposing colonial-era buildings. The square pulsates with life – on the day I visited, there was a vibrant ceremony taking place involving a parade of coloured flags, thumping music and lots of dancing. An army of enterprising hustlers is always on the prowl, trying to separate tourists from their cash while they’re still fresh off the plane. Fake sadhus (holy men), beggars, freelance tourist guides, rickshaw wallahs and purveyors of hashish circle the temples, quietly muttering their business while trying to stay under the radar of the cops.
Behind the square, a network of alleyways provides fascinating glimpses into the ancient city. Around every corner, it seems there is a crumbling temple to a Hindu deity, or a Buddhist stupa. Whatever the age or condition of the shrine, lamps, saffron flowers and vermillion powder attest to the fact that they are all still in regular use.
Perched on a hill above the city is Swyambunath Temple – a huge Buddhist stupa, it attracts a varied crowd at sunset with Buddhist monks, Tibetan pilgrims, tourists toting selfie-sticks and hordes of macaque monkeys.
When the crazy motorbike riders, honking horns and toxic pollution of the city centre start to take their toll, a taxi out to Bhaktapur offers a quieter, more traditional side of Nepali city life. The town still supports a network of traditional artisans who ply their trade in the streets. In the lanes around Pottery Square, families work together in tiny production lines to produce dozens of clay pots every day. The heavy potter’s wheel is spun furiously with a large stick, then the master craftsman quickly forms an elegant pot in minutes before the wheel loses its momentum.
The pots are laid out to dry in the sun alongside the rice harvest…
An essential stop for any Kathmandu explorer is Pashupatinath Temple on the Bagmati River. Not just one temple, but a complex of shrines large and small, these are some of the oldest and most sacred sites in Nepal. I would recommend hiring an unofficial guide here (you will get plenty offers!). Every building has a story to tell and some of the most interesting places are hidden down little passages, unnoticed by the casual visitor.
A place with such spiritual power attracts a large number of sadhus – holy men (and some women) who have renounced all their worldly possessions to devote themselves to a spiritual life.
Some of the sadhus seem to spend all day sitting around the temples, puffing on huge joints and posing for tourist pictures (for a small fee of course!). Are all these guys genuine holy men? Or are they just enterprising street performers with a talent for hair-styling and face paint? It’s really impossible to tell.
The palls of grey smoke hanging above the river indicate that it is not just Kathmandu’s living residents who visit the temples. The city’s dead are brought here to end their earthly journey at the cremation ghats. Bodies are brought to the riverbank wrapped in saffron shrouds and covered in flower petals. The family of the deceased also has to supply the logs which are stacked around the corpse and set alight. The cremation is managed by dedicated expert who tends the fire constantly, ensuring the body is reduced to ashes before being committed to the river. The whole process is very dignified and fascinating to observe. I stood watching this scene for a long time before I took a photograph, conscious that a camera has no place at a funeral but I think that any depiction of the spiritual life of Kathmandu must include the ghats.
Despite the anarchy of the traffic, I found Kathmandu a compelling place to visit. Very few other destinations have such a variety of experiences and sights crammed into such a small space. It’s the type of place that would reward travel at a slower pace…I barely scratched the surface.
My full Kathmandu gallery is here