After three incredible months in Africa, it was time to start the third major leg of our trip around the world…Asia. We flew from Nairobi, Kenya via Qatar to Kathmandu, Nepal and it was as if we had passed through entirely separate worlds. Riding the bus with Maasai, waking up to the sounds of hippos, eating impala for dinner, these things became our new normal. Then just when we thought we were above culture shock, we got a double dose with Kathmandu. A sensory overload to say the least, the country’s capital sent our head spinning but when our eyes cleared, we loved what we saw. Beautiful, bustling, colorful, ancient, fragrant, resilient, sacred, profane, and perplexing, this 2,000-year-old city seems to be held together by its sheer energy.
Though its history starts around 185 A.D., Kathmandu started to boom in the 1200s when the Malla king fast-tracked the development of the arts and architecture to make the Kathmandu the grandest city in Nepal. Durbar (Palace) Square is the greatest culmination of this Renaissance but with so many finely crafted buildings created across town, even the average corner store looks fit for a king. Intricately carved windows, doors, and awnings are standard on just about every building in old town with chipping paint, slumping frames, and a thick layer of dust adding to its charm.
To start exploring beyond the backpacker hood of Thamel, we set out on a fantastic self-guided Lonely Planet walking tour through the network of alleyways and courtyards that make Kathmandu so unique. Each little street we went down or doorway we entered felt like we were falling deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole towards secret temples, stupas, and shrines.
Little local shrines to Hindu deities were all over town–in the middle of intersections, along the baseboards of buildings, tucked in the roots of trees…everywhere. Not just ancient relics, these shrines are a vital part of daily Nepali life. Even amid the hustle and bustle of the city (to see what we mean, watch our video), the average Kathmandu-er is said to make a minimum of ten stops throughout his day to pay homage to the gods.
Nepal is mostly Hindu but the Buddhist presence is strong in Kathmandu and up in the Himalayas. At downtown’s Kathesimbhu Stupa, Buddha’s gaze and prayer flags seem to radiate to all corners of the square.
After coming from a bland African diet of too much cornmeal and kale, Nepali food seemed like an explosion of flavors. On our first day, we must have stopped at five food carts to sample anything we could get our hands on: momo dumplings, ten-spice rice crispies, and our favorite chaat. Chat is is a stew made of spiced veggies with mashed samosas. For 30 cents a bowl, we had seconds.
Fascinated by everything, it took us about four hours to get to travel 3km to Kathmandu’s main attraction: Durbar Square. This dense network of palace buildings and temples is true architectural wonder.
Perhaps as striking as the buildings in Durbar Square are the people. Beautiful sari-clad ladies, leftover hippies, hindu pilgrims, European mountaineers, and rickshaw cabbies rub elbows in this surreal space.
We decided to take an official tour of Durbar Square to wrap our head around complex pieces, like the Kumari Palace. A Kumari is prepubescent girl believed by many Nepali Hindus to be a living goddess. To be a candidate, a girl must not only be of a certain caste, beauty, and health but to make the final cut she must watch 108 animals slaughtered, then sleep in the room with their heads and show no sign of fear. Though it’s hard to believe this person exists, we saw her during the public worshiping and she’s one eight-year old you would not want to mess with.
On our last day in Kathmandu we hiked a little out of town to the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site in Nepal, Swayambhunath. To the common person, it’s called Monkey Temple because it is home to hundreds of them! It was a little daunting maneuvering our way around these rascals while climbing the 365 stairs to the top, but once we reached the stupa, it was complete serenity. Incredible city views, stunning architecture, prayer candles flickering, and the sounds of chanting monks made us want hike up all over again. Though this was just a little city jaunt, it made us even more excited for trekking in Nepal!
During our stay here, the Cat Stevens song “Kathmandu” played again and again in our heads. We had such an amazing time in this fascinating city that we can only hope, “Katmandu, I’ll soon be seein’ you.”