Ours was a pleasant first impression of the subcontinent’s small neighbour. Crossing the border around 9pm (after a ten hour journey in the back of a jeep), we were given a friendly welcome, which we appreciated all the more because our parting gift from India was to be somewhat cheated on our trip out of the country (the jeep was supposed to be a tourist bus, and trust us, it makes a massive difference).
Our first impressions were not to be broken. We have found Nepal to be a remarkably easy place to travel, full of home comforts that we’ve appreciated at our half way mark. We have found the Nepalese friendly, the bargaining has been relaxed, and we’ve actually experienced customer service! How different. The food is similar to India, the fashion is similar (though with a funkier western-dressed younger generation), the language too bled seamlessly into one another. And yet, in other ways it couldn’t be more different, and for us, the change was met with a couple of smiles, and some deep, relaxed breaths.
Photos by Ben Journee
We began our time in Kathmandu with the walking tour offered by Lonely Planet, a common thing to do we found out, as we seemed to follow another couple who similarly had their guide book out.
We would have to recommend the walking tours, as they allow you to explore the hidden alleyways and courtyards without getting dismally lost, or navigate the overwhelmingly busy market, and they also draw your attention to special details that you would otherwise not notice or fully appreciate. For example, the small 9th or 10th century Buddha sculpture, tilting slightly, that sits beneath the entrance to a dentist and beside an old television store. Another gem was being pointed out the large chunk of wood that has been covered with thousands of coins, nailed on as offerings to the toothache god.
Kathmandu’s streets are layered in history. Centuries old buildings now house contemporary stores, historical temple steps are used as platforms for people to sell their wares, and various deity sculptures are layered thick with bright red and orange paste which has been applied in worship for generations.
Many of the temples we visited were open courtyards, filled rather irregularly with small statues, stupas and shrines, and almost always, there was a magnificent (and inspiring) blend of Buddhist and Hindu figures and symbolism, which reveals a religious philosophy that is open, layered and malleable.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is a palace complex, packed with temples and courtyards. An interesting palace was the Kumari Bahal, a striking courtyard-centred building of burnt orange brick and black wooden carvings, and home to the Kumari. The Kumari Devi is a living goddess, a young girl who is believed to be an incarnation of the goddess Taleju (Durga). Once a day she stands at her window for onlookers to admire her. Her reign ends at the event of her first period, at which time the young girl converts back to 'normal' life, and the search begins for the next living goddess.
We visited Bodnath (or Boudha, or Boudhanath) which is the largest stupa in Asia. We circumambulated (walked clockwise around) the massive structure a number of times in the drizzling rain, and enjoyed a coffee overlooking the rather charming, slow paced and quiet courtyard and watching other pilgrims on their journey around the monumental stupa.
Swayambunath (also known as the Monkey Temple) was a joyous fusion of Buddhist and Hindu iconography. The large stupa that dominates the courtyard is the first thing one sees after the ladder-like climb. The courtyard is full of smaller shrines, stupas and temples, it's dotted with souvenir shops and a couple of cafes, and the full, musty smell of incense and butter lamps hangs in the air.
Patan is now essentially a suburb of Kathmandu, but was once a kingdom of its own along with Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, each of which has their own Durbar Square. The streets of Patan were similarly as layered and interesting as Kathmandu. Apparently stumbling across some festival celebrations, we followed crowds of people through a few major, lively and beautiful temples. And we may have got slightly abreast of Lonely Planet's instructions as we attempted the maze-like walk through low-roofed passages that connected numerous courtyards. But we found our way in the end.