Kathmandu after dark
Certain countries possess an undeniable mystique, holding sway over one’s imagination long before one has the opportunity to visit. For D, Nepal was high on this list, though his fascination had more to do with the country’s landscape than its reputed spirituality (as one travel guide puts it, “Nepal is a one-stop spiritual destination: every activity here revolves around finding yourself, seeking your roots…”). Ever since D got into mountain climbing during his Peace Corps days in Ecuador – and especially after reading a handful of mountaineering books – he had longed to see the Himalayas.
Whether one is dreaming of hiking beneath pure, snow-capped mountains or seeking transcendent spiritual experiences, Kathmandu – most travelers’ gateway to Nepal – is bound to be a shocking disappointment at the outset. The Himalayas, which can be glimpsed from the plane during the descent into the nation’s capital, are blotted from view by the smog and dust that hangs above Kathmandu valley. And it’s hard to square the pursuit of inner peace with the city’s noisy, dirty, crowded streets.
As long as one is prepared for the mayhem that awaits outside the airport gates, however, Kathmandu is definitely worth a visit. D spent four nights in Nepal’s capital during a recent work trip, and the city grew on him immediately. D had done zero research before arriving in Nepal, instead relying on recommendations from friends and colleagues who live in Kathmandu. Although his days were chock-a-block with meetings, D nevertheless managed to see a fair bit of the city and visit most of its prominent tourist attractions.
Returning to the hotel the first evening, D asked his Nepali colleague for sightseeing suggestions. “Well, Thamel is about a ten-minute walk from your hotel – that’s where all the tourists hang out.” “And what about temples?” D inquired. His colleague recommended Durbar Square, but cautioned that it was too far to walk at night: “Make sure you take a cab there and back.” D ditched his suit, donned his hiking pants and hoodie, caught a cab to Durbar Square, and spent the next four hours wandering around the city. Not sure what he’d find, D left his camera behind as a precaution. In retrospect, he likely would’ve been fine bringing it, but he decided to err on the side of caution and relied on his phone for photography.
Durbar means “royal palace,” and the square is ringed by spectacular, ornately decorated buildings and old temples. At night, it’s a popular hangout for lovers and young people, as well as a shelter for the city’s destitute. Someone strummed a guitar. A woman walked around balancing several thermoses of tea. People came to pray, light candles, and ring bells at the temples – a practice that is believed to communicate the devotee’s arrival to the deity and dispel evil spirits.
From the near constant honking of motorcycles and blaring of police whistles at busy intersections to the buzz of crowded markets, Kathmandu is a city that must be experienced with all five senses. In fact, it overwhelms the senses – at least for those, like D, who have not spent much time in South Asia.
From Durbar Square, D made his way through Indra Chowk – one of the city’s outdoor market districts, which was teeming with shoppers even late night – to Thamel. For all its lively establishments geared toward backpackers, Thamel felt tame compared to the unrestrained crush of humanity in Indra Chowk. Whereas the vendors in Indra Chowk plied practical wares, the shops in Thamel were overflowing with a stupefying assortment of tourist trinkets.
D found a quiet outdoor restaurant (Café Mitra) tucked away in the crevice between two nearly abutting buildings, where he cozied up to a brazier to have his dinner. D wound up eating there again the following night because although he spent every evening wandering around Thamel, he never found another restaurant that came close to offering the same soothing atmosphere. Turns out that even in chaotic Kathmandu it is possible to find peace and quiet if one knows where to look.