Kathmandu: The Magic that Remains

  • Kathmandu’s famed Bodhnath stupa.

    Kathmandu’s famed Bodhnath stupa.

  • A Buddhist monk collecting alms at Indra Chowk.

    A Buddhist monk collecting alms at Indra Chowk.

  • Urban Oasis On the grounds of the Garden of Dreams, a onetime aristocratic estate that has been transformed into a public park.

    Urban Oasis On the grounds of the Garden of Dreams, a onetime aristocratic estate that has been transformed into a public park.

  • Inside the Garden of Dreams.

    Inside the Garden of Dreams.

  • The temples of Kathmandu showcase the valley’s rich artistic traditions.

    The temples of Kathmandu showcase the valley’s rich artistic traditions.

  • A shopkeeper in Kathmandu’s old quarter.

    A shopkeeper in Kathmandu’s old quarter.

  • A road junction near Durbar Square.

    A road junction near Durbar Square.

  • Market Value Early-morning crowds at Indra Chowk.

    Market Value Early-morning crowds at Indra Chowk.

  • A wall plaque depicts a scene from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

    A wall plaque depicts a scene from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

  • Candlelight Vigil Prayer candles illuminate a shrine inside Patan’s Golden Temple, a Buddhist monastery said to have been founded in the 12th century.

    Candlelight Vigil Prayer candles illuminate a shrine inside Patan’s Golden Temple, a Buddhist monastery said to have been founded in the 12th century.

Click image to view full size

So one might think. But buying a SIM card in Kathmandu, I discover, first involves finding one, a scavenger hunt that makes Diogenes’s search for an honest man seem straightforward. This accomplished, I’m required to tackle a formidable pile of paperwork and provide a copy of my passport (which, of course, I’ve left in my apartment). I then need to track down a digital photo lab, where my peeved visage is captured by a gangly Nepali teen with an infected nose piercing. After two hours, my papers are in order. I am duly informed by the phone-center clerk that my new mobile number will be active “within one day, or 24 hours, or more.”

Still, I’m lucky that my little neighborhood, Ghairidhara, is a place where I can find just about anything, from photo labs to lime squeezers to motorcycle-seat reupholstering shops. This suits me well, since whenever I return to Nepal, I take advantage of the one thing that has not changed since my Buddha-shopping days: the Nepalese ability to fix anything.

In the 1980s, I was merely a spectator, snapping admiring photos of umbrella repair shops, flashlight clinics, and disposable-lighter refilling stations. These days I arrive in Kathmandu with a suitcase full of items that would be discarded back home. Among the possessions rehabilitated on this journey are a leaky inflatable camping pad (repaired at a bicycle tire shop for 15 rupees, or 20 U.S. cents); my trusty hiking shoes, falling apart at the seams (25 rupees to fix); my carry-on laptop case, in need of a new leather handle (60 rupees); and my noise-canceling headphones, the wires worn to a few copper threads.

The sculpture shops along Kathmandu’s Durbar Marg and in Patan still sell the most exquisite Buddha and bodhisattva statues in the world. Until a few years ago, the doyen of the art was Siddhi Raj. The elderly Patan sculptor died in 2008, but his students, some of whom studied with him for decades, are producing work of head-turning beauty. They are indisputable proof that Nepal’s ancient casting tradition is vibrantly alive.

In the back room, I find a meditating Buddha with a countenance so uplifting that the shopkeeper has to peel me off the ceiling. Equally breathtaking is a repoussé, in copper, of a flying dakini

I stroll down Durbar Marg, seeking I know not what. Will it be a silver Manjushri, the bodhisattva of discriminating wisdom? A lovely, lithe Tara? Ganesh, the remover of obstacles? In the back room of the Curio Corner I find a meditating Buddha with a countenance so uplifting that the shopkeeper has to peel me off the ceiling. Equally breathtaking is a repoussé, in copper, of a flying dakini. Adorned in silver, with turquoise and gold highlights, the naked “sky dancer” is the kind of muse to keep a modern mystic up nights. I’m also arrested by a small figure of Guru Rinpoche, the Indian sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. I’ve seen a lot of statues, but never  one more superbly painted. Snow lions and clouds swirl on the sorcerer’s robes. His face conveys a view of pure transcendence, gazing unfazed into the past, present, and future. He’s clearly immune to the vagaries of change. I’m tempted, but the price (more than US$2,000) is prohibitive.

Later that afternoon, I ride my motorcycle across the Bagmati Bridge and up the long hill to Patan. Scores of shops selling exquisite statuary line the narrow roads near the old palace square. But what to buy? As enticing as the figures may be, none embodies my hopes and fears for the fragile, beleaguered valley.

Giving up the search, I duck through a low passage and into the courtyard of the Mahabauddha, or Temple of a Thousand Buddhas. The architecture is unusual, with an ornate gopuram tower rather than the traditional Nepalese pagoda. But what intrigues me most is a sign, nailed up next to the entrance of a building across the way:

You may take photographs from this building get the best view of Mahabauddha, Himalayas & other temples we are happy to have you there is no charge

One pitch-dark flight of steps leads to another. Finally, I reach a small brick crow’s nest overlooking the Patan rooftops. Most of them are planted with well-groomed flower gardens, oases of color in a brick and cement city. A light breeze blows in from the south.

On the rooftop beside me, three generations of Nepalese stand together: a white-haired patriarch wearing a smart topi (the brimless cloth cap that serves Nepali protocol much like the Western necktie); a young man in a blue sports jacket; and a little boy. The elder holds a square paper kite in one hand, and a spool of string in the other. With the gleeful expression of a kid one-tenth his age, he tosses the kite into the air. But the wind is sketchy, and the kite keeps dropping into the gap between the buildings.

After the elder makes several attempts, the younger man—possibly his son—takes the spool. With a few deft motions, the kite dances into an updraft and begins to gain altitude. The little boy watches, wide-eyed. The string spins from the reel with astonishing speed, and before it seems possible the kite is a speck in the sky, swooping and gyring far above the ravens and hawks. When it has all but disappeared, the boy is handed the spool. Imitating his father’s expert gestures, he steps forward to control this far-away emissary to the clouds. Though the boy has the string, all three are completely engaged. Their zeal is so contagious that I can feel the kite’s pull in my own arms.

In the 1970s, there were few motor vehicles on Kathmandu’s streets. That abruptly changed in the late 1980s, when, seemingly out of nowhere, hundreds of Toyota taxis appeared. The plague of cars proliferated. Today, the latest sensation is motorcycles, and there are thousands of them.

Riding home from Patan at sunset, I glance at the northern horizon, where the entire Himalayan range towers above the foothills. The sight is so overwhelming that I have to pull over

If you can make it in New York, the expression goes, you can make it anywhere. Likewise, if you can drive a motorcycle in Kathmandu, you can drive anything, anywhere. Granted, the bikes are small; my 150-cc Unicorn is about average. But that’s okay, because you can’t really go faster than 40 kph anyway (except when the city streets are clear, at about 3 a.m.).

By day, navigation is a surgical skill, accomplished with precision along narrow alleys, many of which are no wider than a cow. That’s about the width of my scooter; but I’m also sharing the lanes with vagrant dogs, taxicabs, badminton players, housewives in saris, rolling fruit, rickshaws, ice-cream carts, balloon sellers, schoolgirls, buses, baskets of onions, and many, many other far more aggressive motorcyclists. The players move in what amounts to Brownian motion. My concentration compares to the most austere Zen practice. There’s no room for error; if I show the slightest bit of indecision, other vehicles roar past me within a hair’s breadth, weaving like drunken wasps. If I go down, I won’t be getting up again. One friend refers to the exercise as “meditation at gunpoint.”

Riding home from Patan at sunset, I glance at the northern horizon—and nearly collide with a florist’s cart. The entire Himalayan range, from Ganesh to Gauri Shankar, towers above the foothills. The sight is so overwhelming that I have to pull over; it is impossible to concentrate on anything but the staggering beauty of those caramel-colored peaks.

This, I realize, is why I keep coming back. I forget the bad bits, the stuff that’s subject to change. Okay, there’s a salvage yard under my living room window. True, it now takes an hour instead of 10 minutes to ride home from the Fire & Ice pizzeria. And yes, I suspect I’ve contracted bacterial dysentery. These things shall pass. But the eyes of Buddha, gazing down from the Bodhnath stupa; the smell of incense in the market square of Asan Tole; the frosty peak of Langtang, like a white tent looming over the Kathmandu Valley—those are always going to be here. What remains eternal is Nepal’s ability to thrill me, offering moments of sheer bliss between one trial and the next.

All I need to do is find one perfect statue: the single god or goddess, saint or sage, who will bring me back to such moments.

Tihar is Celebrated a Month

After Indra Jatra, during the new moon of Kartik. The five-day Festival of Lights honors Laxmi, goddess of wealth, who visits freshly cleaned homes where a flame burns in her honor.

Decades ago, the only lights seen on Tihar were butter lamps—small, handmade clay bowls placed artfully in windows and on rooftops, each with a woven cotton wick. This year, as I wander through the crowds filling Asan Tole and Indra Chowk, the vast majority of lights are electrical. Garish Christmas-style decorations blink and flash, the banks and corporate buildings garlanded with especially ostentatious displays. It’s a vision from Disneyland, or Las Vegas: eye-catching, but somehow soulless.

Suddenly, there’s a deafening bang! as an overloaded transformer shorts out, showering the street with sparks. Indra Chowk is plunged into darkness. Or near darkness as hundreds of little clay lamps, previously obscured, flicker into view. They glow from windowsills, rooftop planters, and the workbenches in cobblers’ and electricians’ shops. A reverent hush descends on the crowd. Children reach for their parents’ hands. Everyone seems transfixed, the fortuitous blackout evoking memories of an almost mythical time, not so long ago, when the Kathmandu Valley was still a place of mystery and enchantment.

A minute later, the lights blink back on. Then I hear something extraordinary. A collective groan of disappointment rises from the streets, as if a magic carpet has been snatched away from beneath us.

At that instant, I know what I will bebringing back from Nepal. It will not be another Buddha or Ganesh or Tara; it won’t be Milarepa, or Manjushri. Only one object, fragile but timeless, can affirm my attachment to Kathmandu, and remind me of what I always come here to find.

Near the thronged intersection of Indra Chowk and Asan Tole I find a small ceramics shop, tucked between a cyber café and a photo lab. I purchase a dozen little clay bowls—and a package of woven wicks.

THE DETAILS:
Kathmandu

Getting There

SilkAir (silkair.net) operates direct daily flights from Singapore to Kathmandu, while Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to the Nepali capital three times a week.

When To Go

For balmy weather and clear skies, visit Kathmandu in the first few months of the dry season, through October and November.

Where To Stay

The most luxurious lodgings in town, the Hyatt Regency (Taragaon, Boudha; 977-1/ 449-1234; kathmandu.regency.hyatt.com; doubles from US$125) sits on the road leading to the Boudhanath stupa. Set around a swimming pool, its 280 rooms feature wooden floors and handwoven Tibetan carpets.

In Kathmandu’s old town, the 48-room Kantipur Temple House (Jyatha; 977-1/4250-131; kantipurtemplehouse.com; doubles from US$70) takes its cues from traditional Nepali architecture. The large rooftop patio affords fabulous views of the city.

The Himalayas tower over the Gokarna Nature Resort (Rajnikunj Gokarna, Thali; 977-1/4451-212; gokarna.com; doubles from US$140), a series of pretty cottages set amid forests that were once used as the private hunting grounds of Nepali kings.

Where To Shop

Even if you don’t find what you’re looking for, start your hunt at the Curio Corner (456 Durbar Marg; 977-1/4223-458), where Tibetan and Nepalese artifacts range from beautiful statues to elaborately painted furniture. Quality is guaranteed at the Babar Mahal Revisited (Bijulibazar Rd., Maitighar), a complex of old Rana palace buildings dating back to 1919, today converted into high-end boutiques and restaurants.

Where To Eat

Occupying a traditional Newar-style house, Mike’s Breakfast & Indigo Gallery (Naxal; 997-1/442-4303; mikesbreakfast.com) is as popular for its hearty pre-trek meals as it is for its gallery of Nepali art. In the Tamel area, Fire & Ice (Sanchaya Kosh Bhawan, Tridevi Marg; 977-1/425-0210) is an excellent Italian place serving the valley’s best pizza. Splash out on a meal at Baithak Restaurant (Bijulibazar Rd., Maitighar; 977-1/426-7346) in the Babar Mahal Revisited complex. In this regal dining room, waiters in elaborate costumes serve you Rana cuisine, a courtly style of cooking.

Originally appeared in the October/November 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Kathmandu: The Magic that Remains”)

Share this Article