x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Among the mountain merchants

From silk thangka scrolls and paubha paintings to wool rugs and Tibetan treasure chests, shopping in the picturesque Kathmandu Valley in Nepal is an art aficionado’s joy and a bargain hunter’s delight, writes Rabi Thapa

Medieval charm: Patan in the Kathmandu Valley has a good mix of museums and markets, shrines and shops. Rosemary Behan / The National
Medieval charm: Patan in the Kathmandu Valley has a good mix of museums and markets, shrines and shops. Rosemary Behan / The National

Rabi Thapa

Many visitors deplore the headlong rush into modernity that Kathmandu has made, but the older quarters of the Nepali capital and the neighbouring city of Patan in Kathmandu Valley retain their medieval ambience. Here, amid the winding alleys dotted with Hindu and Buddhist shrines, where crumbling old mansions alternate with concrete high-rises, there are bargains to be had. Filigree work by the Newari ethnic group vies with Tibetan jewellery; modern art is displayed alongside iconographic silk thangka scrolls; and increasingly, sophisticated social entrepreneurs cater to a global market for home decor and boutique fashion. Kathmandu may not be the haven for cheap deals that India can be, but it’s cooler in more ways than one. With the most diverse cuisine in south Asia and a choice of charming places to stay, the city is well worth the discerning shopper’s time – and that’s before you even catch a glimpse of the majestic Himalayas.

When to shop

True to Nepal’s easy-going approach to commerce, shopping hours – unless you’re on the lookout for early-morning veggies – start late and end early. Most shops, except in the tourist zone of Thamel, open between 10am and 5pm, and may be shut on Saturdays and public holidays, of which there are a bewildering variety. Call ahead if in doubt: from outside the country, dial 00977 for Nepal and add 1 for Kathmandu. Larger shops, restaurants and hotels will accept credit cards, but Nepali rupees are always handy and available through money changers and the ubiquitous ATMs. All prices listed here are inclusive of tax, though you will often see 10 per cent service and 13 per cent VAT added on for food and accommodation. Watch out for the summer monsoon, which can literally rain on your parade.

Where to shop

Fair-trade, socially responsible handicrafts have become a trademark of Nepal, and Patan’s main thoroughfare, curving up from the bridge that links it to Kathmandu, has a plethora of outlets. Dhukuti (00977 1 5535107), Mahaguthi (00977 1 5533197) and Sana Hastakala (00977 1 5522628) sell ethnically inspired textiles, home furnishings and affordable handicrafts, while Nepal Knotcraft Centre (00977 1 5528614) is the place to go for high-quality mats and furniture handwoven from natural fibres. Patan’s historic district, famous for its metalwork, teems with shops that are stacked with glorious representations of Nepal’s pantheon of gods and goddesses. Visit Kumbeshwar Technical School for fair-trade rugs, past the towering 14th-century Kumbeshwar Temple.

National treasures

If you want to purchase a top-notch paubha by renowned artist Lok Chitrakar, step into Patan Dhoka’s Simrik Atelier in the Patan Darbar Tole (paintings from Rs150,000 [Dh5,241], 00977 958 1098732). Refresh yourself with rhododendron juice at the adjacent Dhokaima Cafe, and for a starkly contrasting experience, head to the cultural treasures of the Patan Museum (entry Rs250 [Dh9]) and visit the small Peace Museum (entry Rs100 [Dh3.50]), a memorial to Nepal’s recent civil conflict.

Palatial purchases

Heading back into Kathmandu across the bridge, stop at Baber Mahal Revisited, where the outbuildings that once served the white stucco palaces on either side of the road (now government ministries) have been converted into a stately complex of shops and restaurants. Look out for the Indian-style home furnishings in Pasal (00977 1 4267447), the menswear and bags tooled with soft leather and natural fabrics in Requisite (from Rs2,500 [Dh87]), and Pipalbot (00977 1 4267657) – a lifestyle store with an intriguing line in rugs (from Rs32,000 [Dh1,118] for a four-foot-by-six-foot wool rug to Rs120,000 [Dh4,193] for a five- foot-by-seven-foot silk rug) and unique home decor such as hammered brass lamps from Rs8,500 (Dh297).

If you’re feeling peckish, tuck into the excellent continental fare at Chez Caroline (00977 1 4263070), or the newly opened Mul Chowk (00977 1 4259801), then explore Siddhartha Art Gallery to acquaint yourself with the Nepali modern art scene.

Play the game

No shopping trip to Kathmandu is complete without a meander through the unceremoniously jumbled mass of Thamel. Antique shops abound – sift through bronze statuettes, household utensils, wooden masks and figures once used in shamanic rituals. Prices will vary widely, but bargaining is acceptable in these lo-fi establishments. Keep the following guidelines in mind:

1 If you’re picking up more than one item, bargain for them en masse.

2 Feel free to walk away if you’re not happy with the price you’re being offered.

3 If the seller agrees on the price that you’ve named, fulfil your end of the bargain and buy.

4 Keep it nice and friendly. Think of bargaining as a duet, rather than a battle from which you can emerge victorious.

5 Be prepared to get your change in thousands of Nepali rupees if you’ve paid for your purchase using a large note in a higher currency – not ideal if you’re leaving the country the next day.

You’d also do well to remember that Thamel was once part of the historic core of Kathmandu; walk south through the maze of streets until the tourist tat peters out, and soon enough you’ll hit the hub of the old vegetable-and-spice market of Asan Tole, sprawled around several temples. Like the spokes of a wheel, lanes specialising in local products radiate from this epicentre. You’ll soon be wondering whether those elegant water jars, which are just perfect for either side of your front door, look better in copper or brass.

Mountains, monarchs and momos

Most visitors to Nepal squeeze in at least a short hike. Thamel is absolutely the place to go for a “North Fake” version of everything from shoes to sunglasses to sleeping bags. Several international labels have opened branches, but for a bona fide Nepali brand, skip over to Sherpa Adventure Gear, opposite the old Royal Palace (now a dowdy museum frequented by out-of-towners exploring the ex-residence of the ex-king). You’ll also find pashmina products of all shapes and sizes in Thamel, but for quality, head north to Lazimpat’s Himalayan Cashmere Company, or Tara Oriental, which supplies to Donna Karan, and stocks shawls ranging from Rs6,000 (Dh210) to Rs50,000 (Dh1,747). For block print fabrics for the home, the tiny Cotton Mill (00977 980 1039492) in Kamaladi offers traditional baby blankets for Rs1,100 (Dh38) and a set of pillow covers and a sheet for Rs1,700 (Dh59). Round off your day with some bargain antique Tibetan furniture (from Rs30,000 [Dh1,048]) and jewellery at Marzan in BhatBhateni, and reward yourself with some mouthwatering spinach and cheese momos at Lhakpa’s Chulo (00977 1 5524733) or luscious muffins and cake at Lakuri Cafe (00977 980 3477038), a cute joint run by a friendly Nepali-British family.

Online buys

If you can’t face pounding the streets, or want to research things first, use the internet. A number of online outlets will relieve you of the logistics of packing and shipping, particularly convenient if you fancy, say, a large Tibetan chest. For restored and reclaimed furniture, try Kaligarh as well as Crafted in Kathmandu, which support local artisans. If you’re feeling adventurous, go to Node to get your own rug designs woven and delivered by the ladies at Kumbeshwar, from Rs40,000 (Dh1,398) per square metre. And for a different kind of ride? Visit Arniko Skateboards and pick out a hand-carved skateboard for Rs18,000 (Dh629) – though maybe not for the potholed streets of Kathmandu.

Where to eat

In Patan, it’s worth getting away from the tourist traps that encircle the old temple square. Doughnuts at Cafe Hessed (00977 1 5530993); Newar bites at Falcha (00977 985 1013475); Asian fusion at Lhakpa’s Chulo – Jhamsikhel, across Patan’s main road, has it all. But if you’re seeking relief from the chaos of Thamel, the beautifully restored Garden of Dreams is the perfect antidote. Soak in the ambience of this miniature neoclassical oasis, then drop into the Kaiser Restaurant (00977 1 4425341; mains from Rs1,050 [Dh37]). For a more intimate experience, walk back into Thamel to Cafe Mitra (00977 1 4256336; mains from Rs950 [Dh33]), with cosmopolitan fare that avoids the pitfalls of the “con-fusion” restaurants that litter the neighbourhood. For a decidedly Nepali flavour, and one that doesn’t require you to bust a move at the end of a predictable cultural show, try Tukche Thakali Kitchen (00977 1 4225890; set meals from Rs400 [Dh14]) or the cheerful and hip Vootoo (00977 1 4005222; light lunch for Rs200 [Dh7]). Forage at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market in the atmospheric grounds of 1905 Restaurant (currently threatened with redevelopment; 00977 1 4225272), and supplement your brunch with local cheese and pastries.

Where to stay

For an experience of Nepali hospitality, there’s no trumping The Dwarika’s Hotel, with doubles from Rs37,000 (Dh1,293). Located close to the airport and the Unesco World Heritage zones of Boudha and Pashupati, this gorgeous exemplar of Newar architecture, with its scrupulously appointed rooms, elegant courtyards and lavish restaurants (including the chic Japanese Mako’s, and the 22-course Nepali extravaganza at Krishnarpan for Dh245) may conspire to keep you from venturing into town.

If you’d rather save the Dwarika’s experience for its recently opened lifestyle resort in the nearby hill town of Dhulikhel, then steer clear of the run-of-the-mill “five-star” competition. Opt for trendy guesthouses such as Tings (doubles from Rs8,000 [Dh280]) in Lazimpat, Swotha (www.traditionalhomes.com.np; doubles from Rs8,000 [Dh280]) or Newa Chén (doubles from Rs4,000 [Dh140]) in Patan, to set up an authentic base camp for your forays into the Valley of Temples.

Getting there

Etihad (www.etihad.com) offers direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu from Dh1,500 return including taxes.