The bus journey from Pokhara to Kathmandu was unremarkable, and following some minor hassle upon arrival (i.e. trying to find out where in the city we were being dropped off and subsequently fighting off the numerous taxi drivers) we found our way to a suitable guesthouse. From the rooftop terrace of the guesthouse we could see out to the surrounding mountains and the “islands” of forest within the city sprawl which made for a striking first view of the capital despite the mist.
We weren't expecting much from Kathmandu as nearly every other traveller we had met had already passed through the capital and described it is busy, chaotic, dirty and polluted, and advised us to get in and out pretty quickly. It soon became apparent that those other travellers might not have been to any other major Asian city, because we found Kathmandu to be relatively chilled out, certainly compared to almost anywhere in India.
We started exploring Kathmandu by following a walking tour from our guidebook; it was a really enjoyable introduction to the city. In central Kathmandu you can't go 10 metres without encountering a temple, shrine or interesting old building. Whilst the majority of sights we visited on our tour weren't particularly special in of themselves what was really remarkable was the way in which those sights are integrated so closely with modern Kathmandu - prominent temples and ancient shrines are crammed next to unimposing shops and restaurants, as if the city had grown with no regard for what was already there. The result is really quite charming. Tiny alleyways open up to courtyards with impressive stupas and idols sit in small shrines in between buildings. The most clear-cut example of this juxtaposition between old and new was a 5th century Buddha statue right next to the steps of a shop selling used electronic goods (although some of those goods looked nearly as ancient).
Other examples included beautifully ornate details on old buildings now used for such mundane purposes as newsagents.
One of the stranger shrines we found was on a busy street corner consisted of hundreds of coins nailed to a large irregularly shaped block of wood. Offerings to the toothache god. It also explained the plethora of dentist shops in the vicinity.
In between the sights we enjoyed the usual people watching that is always so interesting in Asian cities.
As interesting as the historic and religious sights were, the highlight of our tour for me was when Monique spotted two pieces art by French street artist Invader, one of which was complete with an Indian-style bindi. Invader's work always makes me smile when I have seen it in the UK, but in Nepal it as completely unexpected.
The main focus of the historic sights in Kathmandu is the central Durbar Square – a really impressive collection of beautiful tiered pagodas. Somewhat surprisingly, given that the square is the main area in the city for people to meet and socialise, foreigners are charged a whopping $15 each to enter the square. I don't generally have an issue wit paying to get into anywhere that requires maintenance, and I accept the concept that foreign tourists should pay more, rather than making such places inaccessibly expensive for locals; however I do begrudge being charged to go into a public space that the locals pay nothing to enter. In my opinion it's like being charged to go into Trafalgar Square or Times Square – it's an intrinsic part of the city and not an additional museum that warrants a charge. Perhaps if the Kathmandu council wants to enforce such an extortionate charge then they should place ticket booths on all of the various small alleyways that lead to the square, rather than just the main roads ;)
After eating lots of Western food in Pokhara I was keen to sample some more authentic Nepalese food before we left. So far our experience of Nepalese food didn't stretch much beyond daal baht (lentils and rice – usually served with a vegetable or chicken side-dish, similar to an Indian thali) as aside from that staple dish the majority of food we had seen available (apart from Western food aimed at travellers) was either Indian food (of which I had had my fill for the time being) or chinese-style noodles and fried rice. So I searched out some authentic momos (steamed dumplings with dipping sauce), Nepalese curry (surprisingly spicier than the food in India) and noodle soup. I also made the mistake of sampling a traditional Tibetan hot “beer”. The quotation marks are necessary as what I received didn't resemble beer in any way whatsoever; it was a very large wooden barrel-type receptacle filled with some sort of grain over which boiling water was poured, and it tasted even less appealing than it sounds (it did, however, look pretty awesome and I regret not taking a photo of it because I will not be ordering another one any time soon!
A number of the main sights in the region are quite a way outside of Kathmandu, and after a few enquiries it looked like the only way to see everything we wanted to see in the short time we had would be to hire a private car for two days (partly because the travel places deemed a whole day to be 6 hours) which was prohibitively expensive. Instead we opted to select one place only, and made our way to Bhaktapur by local bus which turned out to be really straightforward.
Bhatkapur is a really interesting medieval city to the East of Kathmandu that is chock-full of beautiful old buildings and temples.
It is also home to a big pottery industry and it was quite interesting to watch the various types of clay pots being made and then laid out in the sun to dry (no need for a kiln when it's 35 degrees outside!).
Overall it was a really nice day-trip, and I'm glad we made the effort to make our way out there by public transport rather than being put off by the expense of a private car.
On our final morning before flying out of Nepal we finished up some admin stuff (booking a hotel in Kuala Lumpur and shipping the numerous paintings we had purchased to the US) in time so do a bit more sightseeing before our afternoon flight. Monique stopped by a "salon" for a "haircut", which consisted of her perching in a wobbly chair whilst a man used children's scissors to halfheartedly approximate a straight line.
First up was Bouda/Boudanath stupa – the holiest site in Kathmandu for Buddhists. Bouda is an impressively large Buddhist stupa (one of the largest in the world in fact) in the style with which we have become familiar in Nepal with Buddha eyes peeking over the white dome. The huge, bright white stupa and colourful prayer flags against the day's moody sky was really striking.
We spent some time walking around the stupa (it is customary to walk around it twice in a clockwise direction) and investigating the small temples that surround it before stopping for breakfast with a nice view of it. The cleaning of the stupa is an ongoing operation which consists of people throwing buckets of liquid over it on a daily basis, and we climbed part way up to watch the cleaning in progress.
The atmosphere around the stupa was really peaceful and happy, as is usually the case with Buddhist sites, and our time spent there was probably my favourite part of Kathmandu.
Although a seemingly nice man deliberately gave us incorrect directions for no apparent reason, we also had just enough time for a quick stop at Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most significant Hindu temples in the world, and the main area for Hindu cremations in the city (non-Hindus are prohibited from entering certain areas of the temple, but you could enter part of the temple grounds...for a hefty fee. We simply opted to climb an adjacent hill for a look over the temple complex).
And so our time in Nepal came to a close. Suffice to say that it is an absolutely amazing country; it has amazing wildlife, incredible scenery, any sort of outdoor activity you can think of (maybe if we had more time I might have plucked up the courage to do Asia's largest bungee jump just outside of Kathmandu...maybe), great history and a real mixture of interesting cultures. Three weeks really wasn't anywhere near long enough to do the country justice. We'll just have to come back then!