Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Nepal's capital

KATHMANDU Fri Jan 18, 2013 2:32pm IST

Mount Everest (C), the world highest peak, and other peaks of the Himalayan range are seen from air during a mountain flight from Kathmandu April 24, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Chong

Mount Everest (C), the world highest peak, and other peaks of the Himalayan range are seen from air during a mountain flight from Kathmandu April 24, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Chong

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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's capital of Kathmandu is an ancient town dotted with Hindu and Buddhist temples, a riot of colour and dust with clogged streets where stray cows and dogs vie for rotting leftovers beside swanky malls.

Ringed by rolling hills, the city has many satellite towns, of which Patan and Bhaktapur are popular with tourists. The area has seven old monuments that are listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage sites, all within less than two hours' drive.

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge suggests how visitors can get the most out of a 48-hour visit.

FRIDAY

7 p.m. - Thamel, known as "a city within a city," is the tourist hub of Kathmandu. Look for one of the many rooftop restaurants for dinner that offer a fantastic view of the city skyline. If you are fond of music, there are others that offer food and drinks with accompanying live concerts.

9 p.m. - If you wish, pop into one of the many discos, mostly frequented by young and well heeled Nepali youths, before retiring for a sound sleep.

SATURDAY

7:30 a.m. - Step out after breakfast on a "heritage walk" through the ancient parts of Kathmandu. A few minutes takes you into the 14th century, with narrow alleys and rutted streets, shops with carved doorways so low you have to stoop to enter and pigeons sitting on a maze of telephone cables that swirl overhead from utility poles.

The walk takes you below the balconies jutting out of brick and mud houses. Women with copper and brass trays of auspicious offerings such as vermillion powder, rice, sandalwood paste and incense sticks for figurines of Hindu and Buddhist gods rub elbows with street vendors selling fresh vegetables and fruits.

Pass through the Ason, Indrachowk and Makhantole neighbourhoods, which are lined with mum and pop shops displaying wares that range from golden ornaments to brass and aluminium utensils. Finally, you reach the Monkeygod Gate palace, ancient seat of Nepal's kings.

9 a.m. - The palace has many tile-roofed temples sitting on high brick terraces. On the one side is an old white palace where Nepal's kings used to be enthroned until the monarchy was toppled in 2008, and on the other is the cavernous Kasthamandap hall, reportedly built from the wood of a single tree. Kathmandu is believed to have derived its name from this.

Next door is the Kumari Ghar, the house of the virgin "Living Goddess" or Kumari, a major tourist attraction. Enter from the low door and you are in a courtyard waiting for the Kumari to appear in the second-floor window of an elaborately carved red-brick building. She is a virgin girl selected from Kathmandu's Shakya clan to serve the divine role until the onset of puberty, when a new one is selected. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, also hailed from the same clan.

The girl, with a third eye painted on her forehead and the black kohl paste around her eyes, is worshipped as a power goddess. Before the monarchy was abolished, the king of Nepal sought her blessings, a ritual now performed by the president.

11 a.m. - Get a taxi and head out for Swayambhunath, a magnificent monument sitting on top of a forested hill full of monkeys. It has a stupa, or temple tower with the ever-watching eyes of the Buddha painted on top of a white dome. If you are hardy, you can climb about 200 metres (yards) of steep stone steps to the top of the hill, or the taxi can take you up.

Swayambhunath is a complex of monasteries and temples, giving a view of the ancient part of Kathmandu. You can find monks jostling with locals to spin the prayer wheels, chanting from Buddhist texts to accumulate wisdom and merit, and purify themselves. Devout Buddhists believe spinning a wheel can have much the same meritorious effects as orally reciting the mantras or religious hymns. You should walk around a clockwise direction and can spin the wheels by a slight rotation of your wrist.

12 p.m. - Head out for lunch at Thamel. A short stroll will give you a wide selection of restaurants to suit your taste of local and Indian cuisines as well as Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food.

2 p.m. - It's now time to discover Thamel. Spread over 2.5 square km (1 sq mile), Thamel has about 3,300 shops selling everything from salt to smart phones, restaurants, book shops, bars, discos and shops selling climbing gear for mountain climbers.

You can find Tibetan Thankas, or wall paintings, hand woven carpets, huge curved knives carried by Gurkha soldiers, and singing bowls - brass vessels that produce soft sounds when struck with a wooden rod. These bowls are souvenir pieces and are also used as decorative items. Bargaining is advised.

6 p.m. - Do some window shopping in Kathmandu's fashionable Durbar Marg, or the King's Street, lined by posh hotels, shopping malls and fast food shops including the KFC and Pizza Hut, the only international fast food chains in Nepal.

8 p.m. - After a tiring day, a dinner of juicy momos, or steamed dumplings served with pepper-hot sauce, can be a welcome change. There is also "Fire and Ice" in the vicinity of Thamel, which serves pizzas and is popular with tourists.

SUNDAY

7 a.m. - Hail a taxi and head out to Patan Durbar Square, a complex of medieval temples and fabulous palaces built during the reigns of the Malla kings, between the 10th and the 18th centuries. It is also known as the art city because of its rich collection of arts and architecture.

9 a.m. - Head to Bhaktapur, an ancient town 14 km (9 miles) east of Kathmandu. It is known for crafts, pottery, magnificent temples, culture and festivals. It lies by the side of a highway linking Kathmandu with Tibet.

Noon - Now proceed to Narayanhiti palace museum, back in Kathmandu, by taxi. It was a royal palace that housed the office and residence of the King of Nepal.

A tour takes you through the bedrooms of the former royals, their meeting hall with stuffed tigers and massive crystal chandelier, guest rooms, royal kitchen and the massacre house - the building where in 2001, then-Crown Prince Dipendra mowed down his parents and seven other royals before turning the gun on himself.

That fateful family dinner marked the beginning of the fall of monarchy in Nepal, which once revered the king as the incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection. Bullet marks can still be seen on the wall of a nearby building and only the brick outline remains of the house itself.

2.30 p.m. - After a quick lunch take a taxi to Lord Pashupatinath temple. It is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. Non-Hindus are not given access to the actual temple but you can see the artistic shrine roofed in pagoda style with brass plates from a hill across the sacred but polluted Bagmati River and smell the smoke from nearby cremation grounds. (Reporting by Gopal Sharma, editing by Elaine Lies)

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