In May 2018 Vicky and I were asked to visit Nepal as trustees and donors of United World Schools to find out about the challenges and opportunities of running remote schools in UWS's newest country. We had never visited Nepal before so were looking forward to learning about this beautiful and fascinating place.
Several people had told me that Kathmandu was disappointing - crowded and dirty - so I was pleasantly surprised. Sure the tourist centre of Thamel is full of tourists and shops selling trekking gear, jewellery, tea, clothes as well as restaurants and Chinese Hotels, but it is also teeming with local life and has interesting temples, palaces and museums. There is still plenty of evidence of the devastating 2015 earthquake - many of the old buildings and temples are under repair such as in Patan's Durbar Square below. The streets are narrow and muddy after recent rain which is a challenge for Kathmandu traffic - our hotel car reverses into the narrowest alley to drop us off when we arrive, and you have to dodge motorbikes, street vendors and the odd exhaust belching bus as you explore.
We have one day to look around Kathmandu before heading off into the country so we try to make the most of it. We are surprised to see how busy it is on a Sunday morning but find that this the first day of the working week in Nepal - in fact Saturday is the only day off in the week. Local shops are busy and kids are heading off to school as we walk through the narrow streets near our hotel. We are heading for Kathmandu Durbar Square, centre of the old town and site of the royal palace (Durbar) as well as many temples. The streets are a mixture of tall, old, wooden shuttered buildings and ugly modern blocks with temples and shrines at busy intersections. We follow one full of meat shops (ugh!) and then another selling pots and pans. There are pigeons everywhere as well as fruit and flower vendors, dogs, babies and motorbikes.
Tourists have to pay R1000 (about USD10) to enter Durbar Square - a lot but presumably it goes towards the considerable restoration needed after the earthquake. Locals and Nepali visitors get in free, or for a lot less and are busy visiting the Shiva temple and many shrines. People sit and chat on temple steps and brightly dressed saddhus ask for a few rupees for a photo. The old palace is being heavily restored - funding by Japan and China. A gurkha guards the entrance and just inside a cloister has photographs of the Shah dynasty of kings which came to a brutal end in 2001 when the crown prince slaughtered the entire royal family before trying to kill himself. He died a few days later in intensive care.
A lucky surprise for us as we visit another small palace next to the old palace is a sighting of the Kumari, or 'living goddess'. She is looking down at a small crowd of excited tourists from an upper window (below). Chosen as a small child, she is brought up in the Kumari Chowk and worshipped as the reincarnation of the goddess Taleju. She only comes outside on a few days a year for festivals and her feet are never allowed to touch the ground. She is retired on a small pension when she reaches puberty.
We explore other shrines and temples around the square, including one, the Maju Dewal, which collapsed entirely in the earthquake with the loss of several lives. Another shrine has a huge black god - the Kala Bairab - where you are supposed to have to only tell truth or the god will curse you. From the square we head off down "Freak Street", now a bustling trading street but home in the 70s to many hippies and dope smoking pop stars. We catch a taxi to the other Durbar Square in Patan, full of more temples plus Nepal's finest museum.
Patan was once the capital of an independent kingdom although it has now been absorbed into the expanding Kathmandu. The streets are better preserved, less frenetic and more Buddhist. We walk down a street full of shops selling gilt Buddha statues before wandering around a pretty square. Three old ladies come out of the Golden Temple as we wander around the lanes trying to find Durbar Square. When we do find it we are a bit disappointed to see that almost all of the fine temples are covered in scaffolding for repairs. The palace, however, has been full restored and contains a fine collection of Hindu and Buddhist artefacts (below) as well as an ornate Hindu throne. From the museum windows you look out over a garden and Jacaranda trees. South of the square we sample Newari cooking at the Cafe de Patan. The Newaris are the local people of the Kathmandu valley and we try buffalo cubes (choyila), rolled rice (baji), bean soup (tewati) and spicy potatoes (alu achaar) accompanied by a shot of raksi, Napalese grappa.
Our final sightseeing spot is Swayambhu where a large temple and stupa sits on top of a hill with fine views of Kathmandu rooftops. There is a big clean up going on for Buddha's birthday festival the next day. Women are scrubbing the statues and men are blowtorching the candle holders to clean them. Chinese tourists spin prayer wheels, vendors sell garish paintings of mountain peaks and dogs lounge around. This is known as the 'monkey temple' and a few are sitting on walls and stupas.
A grumpy taxi driver takes us back to the hotel and we walk to dinner through Thamel. The Thamel Garden restaurant is recommended in the guidebooks and does not disappoint. We have a string of tasty Newari dishes from their set menu washed down with Everest beer. Tomorrow our school visits start with a flight to Tumlingtar in the East.