Freelance Nomad

Friday, March 23, 2007


When backpacking around, it’s always interesting arriving in a ‘traveller hub’. I’ve been to a few. Khao San Road in Bangkok. Sudder Street in Kolkata. Colaba in Mumbai, Pushkar in Rajasthan, Anjuna in Goa. Various quarters and districts in Phnom Penh, Chiang Mai, Saigon, Hanoi…

And now one more to add to the list: Thamel, in Kathmandu.

I got a taxi from the airport, 5km out of town. I guess Kathmandu is one of those rare capital cities where you could conceivably walk downtown from the airport, but I wasn’t really up for that. So, after dodging the shady taxi touts around the arrivals hall and taking a stroll down the road, I flagged down a metered cab.

Thamel features the usual tourist mishmash of moneychangers, travel agents, touts, would-be-guides, curio vendors, postcard sellers, hustlers, street children and rickshawalas, scattered around all the restaurants, cafes, bars, bookshops, cybercafes and new age shops. In Thamel of course, there’s also a healthy number of trekking equipment stores. And you’re never too far from some shady character whispering offers of hash, opium or whatever.

In one bookshop south of Durbar Square, on a road nicknamed Freak Street ever since its 1960s hippy heyday, I spotted a book called ‘Auto Urine Therapy’ by ‘An Experienced Physician’. The front cover featured a line drawing of what could only be somebody drinking their own piss out of a wineglass. As the blurb stated:

An ideal way to express your good wishes
An humble appeal to society
Present this book to your loved ones

I’ll be sure to remember that around Christmas time.

Just a few minutes walk from Thamel is Kathmandu’s historic old town area. It’s a fascinating mix of small lanes, medieval buildings, temples and bazaars. But it certainly doesn’t have a sterile chocolate-box feel; it’s alive, densely populated and busy.

I sometimes think the true way to appreciate any city is not to concentrate on ground level, but to look up. Above the shops that tend to dominate the street you can see all kinds of interesting features. Here in Kathmandu, most of the old dwellings are tall, narrow buildings with lots of small windows, all decorated with wonderful wood carvings. Even the new (concrete) buildings seem influenced by the old designs.

The Durbar Square area is home to the old royal palace, and a whole host of quirky temples, statues and historic buildings. It’s great just to wander around for a while, spotting an erotic carving here, a giant pair of drums there… On my first night I took an evening walk back through the old town and spotted a crowd watching young men take turns to twirl a 10m pole on the narrow lane just outside a temple, pausing very occasionally to let the traffic past, or disentangle the pole from the electricity cables running overhead.

Street in old Kathmandu.
On the right you can see a typical traditional Newar building, with wooden shutters for the ground floor premises and carved wooden balconies on the upper floors. Even modern brick building next door is designed along the 'tall and narrow' principle.

Carved wooden masks for sale at the Swayambunath Stupa in Kathmandu.
Akthough the stupa is a Buddhist monument, Nepal is 90% Hindu and the masks demonstrate this influence. Scattered around the large stupa which located 300 steep steps up a big hill, there's an interesting mix of small temples and monasteries, postcard sellers, curio shops, cafes and even a bureau de change. For a religious site representing the thirteen steps to enlightenment, you're certainly never too far from earthly distractions. Next time I visit I'll check if there's a cybercafe up there.


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