Wandering these Ancient Streets

December 12, 2011

A lone woman emerges from the intricately carved window above me. She surveys the scene below her, a scene no doubt similar to ones that she has witnessed before, but always with some new detail to observe. Crowds weave their way through the narrow rubble-strewn street, dodging bamboo-crested rickshaws, speeding motorcycles, and maniacally-piloted taxis. Proud women file past in immaculate, brilliantly-colored dresses. A tired porter trudges by, his back-breaking cargo strapped onto his forehead and many miles to walk still in front of him. The pungent aroma of exotic spices reaches her welcoming nostrils, offering a brief respite from inhalations of the polluted city air. She quickly glances down at me as I make my way towards the ancient temples glimmering in the afternoon light. Directly ahead of me is Durbar Square, the beating heart of Kathmandu and by extension, all of Nepal.

The tiered wooden pagodas that fill Durbar Square turn out to just be the backdrop of immense activity. Vegetable sellers hawk their fresh produce, all manner of traffic rushes through gaps in the temples, and Hindu pilgrims bless their numerous idols. Tourists browse souvenir stands and snap photos. I am not alone for long; the constant harassment of touts eventually gets the better of me and I exit the square. I hail a rickshaw driver to take me to a calmer place. I return to my hotel, full of impressions from my first day in Nepal.


Nepal is a small landlocked country that is surrounded on all sides by the giants India and China. It is renowned for containing a bulk of the Himalaya mountains, the highest range in the world, and this imposing geography is a strong reason that Nepal has never been consumed by it's far larger and more powerful neighbors. Tucked between majority Hindu India and Buddhist Tibet (now controlled by China), most Nepalese, unsurprisingly, can be found practicing either of these two ancient religions. Buddhists and Hindus coexist remarkably peacefully in Nepal and even worship at many of the same holy sites. I observed this curious phenomena firsthand upon visiting Swayambhunath, better known as The Monkey Temple.

Hundreds of rhesus macaque monkeys scrutinized me as I ascended the steep steps to the hilltop temple. As I bore no visible food, the aggressive simians largely left me alone. Others were not so fortunate: one little girl let out a huge cry when her recently opened snack was suddenly snatched from her hand. Like many other tourists I was drawn to this place as much because of the zoo-like spectacle rather than to see the actual temple. (I've since learned, however, that rhesus macaques are so common and well adapted to urban environments in this part of the world that locals regard them as little more than pests!) In addition to monkey distractions, tremendous views over Kathmandu were visible on the way up.


On top, Hindus and Buddhists alike offered blessings and turned prayer wheels under the watchful eyes of the Buddha. These cartoonish facial features adorn stupas all over Nepal and are something of a national symbol.

Just outside of Kathmandu are two other cities with a historic core. The Durbar Square of Patan is recognized as the most harmonious in all of Nepal, and I ventured over one afternoon to visit. Unlike in Kathmandu, no motorized traffic flowed through the square, and far fewer pestering touts were around trying to sell tours. I took this opportunity to appreciate in greater detail the exquisitite woodwork and stonework visible on the impressive temples.

The old cities of Kathmandu and Patan were memorable and well worth visiting. But their wonders would prove to pale in comparison with the nearby ancient city of Bhaktapur. Just ten miles east of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur feels a world away from the capital of Nepal. I arrived in the late afternoon with plans to spend a night here, and the fading sunlight offered a tantalizing peek at the next day's discoveries.

I arose shortly after sunrise and ventured out into the crisp morning air. Pious hindus were out ahead of me, visiting temples to give blessings to the Gods. With a near complete absence of other tourists in the early hour, I had space to explore and soak in the atmosphere of the ancient streets and monuments.

In awe of what I was seeing, I also began to appreciate that old Bhaktapur is far from small. The extremely well-preserved old city is quite large, such that it would take several days to explore every nook and cranny of it.

As the sun steadily rose in the morning sky, the streets of Bhaktapur came to life. All manner of commerce spilled into the streets, smartly dressed students marched to school, and woodcarvers could be heard plying their trade behind the walls of handsome old brick buildings.

Bhaktapur is a true living museum. I cannot ever recall visiting a medieval town that is so well preserved and yet still lives by its own pace, instead of falling completely into tourism. The historic architecture that awaits around every corner is not only stunning to behold but also consistent; very few modern-style buildings have been put up inside of the old city. Wandering the ancient streets of this place was an enchanting experience that I will not soon forget.

I had barely arrived in the Kathmandu Valley when I decided to act on the urge to move onwards. I wanted to see firsthand what really draws explorers from all over the globe to this mountainous nation. The roof of the world was beckoning for me to come and take a closer look.  


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