x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mystic mayhem in Kathmandu

The wet summer months can be a good time to visit the Nepalese capital from the UAE, as tourist numbers are fewer, room rates are lower and the air is cleaner.

Patan, also known as Lalitpur, was once a powerful city-state. Rosemary Behan / The National.
Patan, also known as Lalitpur, was once a powerful city-state. Rosemary Behan / The National.

Flying to Kathmandu with Etihad, I'm seated next to a seasoned pilot who has come for special training on landing an aircraft into Tribhuvan international airport - notoriously, one of the world's most difficult thanks to its mountainous location. Towards the end of the flight, he disappears into the cockpit and I'm braced for turbulence. The coming down is mercifully uneventful - a swift but smooth descent through the haze reveals parched rice terraces and stacked housing below. The landing is slightly bumpy, with faster braking than normal.

I get to the front of the visa-on-arrival processing queue where I'm handed a form stating what can and cannot be brought into the country. The archaic list of allowable items includes, rather randomly, "one set of binoculars, one video camera and one still camera, a portable music system with a maximum 10 pieces of recorded media, one perambulator and one tricycle, one watch, one mobile and one set of professional hand tools". I wonder what they would make of two sets of professional hand tools or an iPhone with tens of thousands of pieces of recorded music. In a country where an incredible 330 million gods are recognised, it seems oddly prescriptive.

I'm met outside by my guide, Rabin Tuladhar, who takes me to my hotel, Dwarika's, conveniently situated between the airport and city centre. It's a large, self-contained ensemble of brick buildings finished with elaborate wood carvings - many historic pieces rescued from ancient Newari buildings from across the Kathmandu Valley. "Much of this was being used for firewood," says Jyoti Upadhyay, a spokesperson for the hotel. The result of a labour of love begun in 1952 by the founder of the hotel, Dwarika Das Shrestha, the site is now like an Asian Oxbridge college, with peaceful courtyards and palatial accommodation. Das Shrestha envisioned a hotel that would allow people to appreciate Nepalese cultural history, then being destroyed at an alarming rate; it was an immediate success and his family still runs the project.

Inside the hotel's bedrooms and common areas, the traditional touches continue, though there is air conditioning and all the other modern comforts you'd expect from a luxury hotel. It's a welcome retreat from the chaos of the city, which is dustier, noisier and more chaotic than you would expect. That night in Mako's, the hotel's refined Japanese restaurant, I'm enjoying a quiet dinner before I realise that Jimmy Carter, the former US president who now runs his own peace foundation, is having dinner at the rear with his wife and some of the Dwarika's family. As they leave they all come and say hello.

The next morning I'm met by Govinda Tandon, an expert on the nearby Pashupatinath temple, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest and holiest places in Nepal. On the outskirts of the site, temple guardians sing devotional songs, usefully "not to get salvation in the afterlife but before death". Situated on the banks of the heavily polluted Bagmati River, Tandon explains that, while he used to swim here and even drink the water when he was a child, the capital's rapid population increase over the past decade - a growth of some 60 per cent - has led to its current toxic state. Still, the water continues to be regarded as holy, since it flows into the Ganges, and the site is the city's main cremation centre. Low-income residents mourning relatives, who are cremated within three hours of death, live in austere conditions in purpose-built bereavement centres; hospice-style accommodation is provided for the needy on the verge of death.

Originally built in the fifth century, most of the current buildings date from the 17th century. We walk past numerous community buildings to the gilt-roofed, pagoda-style main temple, but as a non-Hindu I can't go inside. Cows, holy men, ordinary citizens and tourists roam the streets and a historic bridge spanning the river. Cremations are taking place in grand ceremonies on the banks of the river - it's hugely atmospheric but I find it distasteful that some tourists are closely recording the process with their cameras. There are some elaborately dressed and half-naked men, whom Tandon describes as "tourist babus", who offer to have their photo taken with me. "Real sadhus don't ask for money," he adds. As we stroll around the site, Tandon, a strict vegetarian and a kindly soul, tells me that, as an animal-rights activist, he was instrumental in getting animal sacrifices stopped here and elsewhere. He talks non-judgementally about religious myths, Sanskrit, caste, compassion, the environment, the economy, one-ness and the soul.

As if that's not enough, he takes me to Mrigasthali, a mostly abandoned forested village behind the temple, where, in an upstairs attic, he introduces me to 89-year-old Swami Prapannacharya, who lives in a room filled with books, many written by himself, photographs of his world travels and awards from the World Hindu Federation. He's not in the best of health and sits on his bed with a plastic oxygen tube passing through his nose, but is still able to expound on the meaning of life. "To be normal is OK," he says, "But to be virtuous is to be unselfish, to do no harm, live in harmony, living simply and thinking highly. Truthfulness is jewellery in life."

From such admirable accessibility, Rabin takes me into central Kathmandu via Rani Pokhari, a large, scenic pond. We walk though the city's market area, which reminds me of Old Delhi, to Durbar Square. Seeing tourists wandering around feverishly studying their Lonely Planet guidebooks, I'm relieved to have a guide who cuts out all of the navigational issues, allowing me to focus on the sites. In the 18th-century palace of Kumari Ghar, thanks to a 1,000-year-old tradition, a young girl known as the Royal Kumari is kept in virtual isolation for up to 10 years and worshipped. In a daily ritual which is now on most tourist itineraries, the "living goddess" can be seen appearing at the window of the top floor of the palace at 11am each day. We reach the courtyard just in time to see the heavily made-up and moody-looking face of the incumbent, Matina Shakya, who casts her eye over us all before retreating back inside. Photos are strictly prohibited. Rabin explains that a rigorous selection procedure is used to find the right contender from the right Newar clan at the age of about two. "They select a girl that is fearless with no habit of crying, weeping or bleeding. If there is any of that she is disqualified," he says.

We emerge from the dark courtyard onto Durbar Square, which is pleasantly isolated from the dust, noise and traffic of the rest of the city. There's an antiques market taking place in the main square and nearby Freak Street, the haunt of hippies in the 1960s, seems positively sanitised. There is no Starbucks yet in Nepal but the country has its own version, Himalayan Java Coffee House, where we stop for a break before continuing through the area's museums, palaces and temples. We continue walking through Thamel, the scruffy, tangled commercial heart of the city, to the Kaiser Cafe Restaurant & Bar, part of the Dwarika's group and situated in the Kaiser Mahal Garden of Dreams, a grand and fanciful enclave of neoclassical gardens and decorative buildings. Throughout the city, the ancient rituals of temple life are seen everywhere, and though the temples themselves are often covered in pigeon droppings, the sense of reverence is unshakeable.

It's a similar story the next day in the nearby cities of Patan and Bhaktapur - each has a Durbar Square and a variety of temples and government buildings from different periods, which are surrounded by a warren of crumbling and densely populated residential buildings. In Patan, also known as Lalitpur, once a powerful city-state, we have lunch on the rooftop of Si Taleju restaurant, enjoying a spicy Nepali thali with an expansive view of the historic centre. The highlight of the city is the newly revamped Patan Museum, a former palace filled with hundreds of statues, carvings and other objects, though perhaps most striking is the eight-year-old main priest at the Golden Temple, who is revered by the old and young alike. When we see him, he is showing some toddlers how to play a computer game on a tablet device.

My next stop is Bhaktapur, the capital of Nepal from the 12th to the 15th century but now a relaxed and impressively intact medieval city, thanks to its subsequent decline. Most surprising is the sight of dozens of women drawing water from ancient communal wells. My guide here is Rabindra Puri, a sculptor turned social entrepreneur whose restoration of a 170-year-old farmhouse has inspired a trend in preservation in the city's residential districts. "The house is an awareness campaign," he says as he shows us round. "So many old houses were being demolished and rebuilt in concrete. I wanted to show people that you can accommodate modern facilities in an old house." Puri is the first Nepali to win a Unesco award; his latest projects include a new, out-of-town housing development being built in traditional styles and a "Museum of Stolen Art", featuring replicas of sculptures smuggled out of the country or sold by corrupt officials.

My final visit is to the Bodnath temple, a vast, gilded, whitewashed stupa surrounded by monasteries and pretty townhouses. As dusk falls, endless strings of coloured prayer flags flutter in the wind, thousands of small candles are lit, incense burns and Tibetan Buddhists in orange robes spin prayer wheels and march clockwise around the temple. It's been like this for hundreds of years and will doubtless continue long into the future. It's that continuity between past, future, and the all-important present that I took away from the trip, and that's why I'll return.

The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) offers return direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu from Dh1,400 return including taxes. The flight takes 3.5 hours. The hotel Double rooms at Dwarika’s Hotel (www.dwarikas.com; 00 977 1 44 79488) cost from US$270 (Dh990) per night including taxes


The tour Kathmandu Travels & Tours (www.kathmandu-travels.com; 00 977 1 44 71577) can arrange private or group tours of the city and elsewhere.

rbehan@thenational.ae

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