Chapter 1, Part 20
Our driver who picked us up from Bhaktapur tried to reach our hotel using the number I gave him earlier. He tried several times, to no avail, until he decided to just ask the locals for direction. We were heading to Thamel, an area in the Nepalese capital synonymous with hippies and backpackers, which I imagined to look similar with Khao San Road in Bangkok. However Thamel turned out to be more dense than I thought where multi-story buildings were squeezed next to each other, leaving no space for anything in between except for narrow streets and alleys where jumbled electric cables hung overhead, right above the steady stream of passers by.
Endless rows of souvenir shops, bookstores, restaurants, travel agents, hiking apparel stores, money changers, convenience stores, and hotels filled every available space in Thamel. In 2013, tourism contributed to more than 8% of Nepal’s GDP and 7% of all jobs in the country, and combined with other services industries they account for more than half of the country’s GDP. Obviously the country’s economy was severely affected by the April 2015 earthquake, and the months-long fuel crisis only exacerbated the already dire situation.
We finally arrived at our hotel, hidden from the ever-busy and crowded main street of Thamel. A statue of the Buddha and colorful Tibetan prayer flags welcomed us as we entered the hotel, and faces of friendly Nepalese staff greeted us at the reception desk. There is no better thing than seeing kind and sincere smiles upon arriving to such a chaotic place like Kathmandu.
According to Swayambhu Purana, a Buddhist scripture about the history and legend of the Kathmandu Valley, Manjushri (a boddhisattva in Mayahana Buddhism and a deity in Tibetan Buddhism) drained a lake in the valley using his sword. A hill then emerged, on which Swayambhunath was later erected. Highly revered by both Buddhists and Hindus, the temple is considered one of the most sacred sites in Nepal.
As we climbed up the stairs to reach the stupa, resident simians were frolicking around a multitude of miniatures of the Buddha, indifferent of the wary pilgrims and visitors. On top of the hill, a white stupa crowned with multiple layers of gilded ornaments was a prominent sight in the middle of Kathmandu’s grayish, polluted air. Underneath the bottom layer of the pinnacle, four identical pairs of eyes of the Buddha gazed with compassion toward all four directions. Around the stupa’s base, sets of copper prayer wheels gleamed softly under the morning sun.
In the 15th century, Kathmandu saw the rise of the Malla dynasty, who also started their reign in Bhaktapur, with Ratna Malla as its first king. However the construction of Hindu temples in Newar architectural style only began almost one century later under the rule of Mahendra Malla, including the imposing Taleju Temple, dedicated to the patron goddess of the Mallas.
More than half a century later, Pratap Malla began an era of prolific artistic development in the city, with the beautification of his palace, the addition of decorative elements to existing temples, and the construction of more temples in Newar style, essentially bringing the city’s Durbar Square to the center of the local people’s universe.
Today many buildings within the Durbar Square proper still stand, although a handful of ancient temples and pavilions did not survive the devastating April 2015 earthquake. Kasthamandap, from which the city’s current name was derived, unfortunately was one of the less fortunate structures, leaving only rubble on the ground where it once proudly stood. On one corner of the square, a seemingly out of place European-inspired building, built long after the end of the Mallas, only suffered minor damage.
Kathmandu Durbar Square was situated right in the middle of the city’s labyrinthine and claustrophobic streets, and getting in and out proved to be a challenge for both James and I. After getting lost several times, I started to take a mental note of which souvenir shop should be on my right side, what statue should be on my left, how the overhead electric cable looked like at certain intersections, which temple I should see after turning right, and other distinctive signs that might come handy for navigating the maze.
Kathmandu’s dense and crowded streets owe to the city’s historical importance as the main trade route between India and Tibet, making it a magnet for merchants and travelers from different parts of the Indian subcontinent as well as places beyond the mighty peaks of the Himalayas. Asan Tole might look like a normal busy intersection at the heart of Kathmandu’s crisscrossing narrow streets and alleys, but it is a silent witness of a bygone era when the city was a major economic center in the region. Walking down the very street where centuries ago traders carried goods from India all the way north to Tibet and vice versa certainly sparked my imagination of how it must have looked like in its heyday.
The Nepalese capital is no longer a thriving city it once was – thanks to widespread poverty, unemployment rate in the country is at a staggering 40%. On a local English newspaper an editorial mentioned about how dependent the country was to remittance, a grim reminder of how many young Nepalese chose to work overseas as job was hard to find at home. Nevertheless, at Indra Chowk and Asan Tole one would be reminded of the country’s golden days when Kathmandu was a melting pot for people who looked for better opportunities. A Bengali-looking fruit vendor here, a fair-colored Newar vegetable seller there, Tibetan shoppers walking by, a Hindu shrine to the left, a Buddhist temple behind a stall, Kathmandu’s eclectic nature made this weary city a fascinating place to explore, and to get lost within.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.