It’s a country many a mercurial teenager from Bihar or UP has run away to, one where Indian Idol is as popular as it is in Delhi and where the Indian rupee is common currency. And this is perhaps why Nepal goes unappreciated by so many Indian tourists. Over half of its annual tourists are from India. But the ease of travel — you simply get on a train, or fly there on the cheap, without even a visa — often renders it a domestic trip, one many expect to be underwhelming due to its familiarity.
Perhaps it’s disbelief that any place could be so universally boring, or a desire to prove critics wrong, but once in Kathmandu, I search for the unfamiliar. It begins with buying a map, which is a source of much mirth for a straight-talking tour guide I run into. “Are you really Indian?” he asks.
At Kathmandu airport, the taxi drivers seem to know Thamel all too well. Deep in the city, it is an astonishingly tight mesh of narrow winding streets, skinny buildings and mammoth signboards. Beehive-like, it refuses to sleep. After dusk, hotel rooms with street-facing windows turn Wong Kar-waiesque, bathed in the neon glow of the five nearest bars and the soundtrack of live rock bands playing on unmatched scales.
I check into a hotel that was highly recommended online — a tiny place run by two brothers who both introduce themselves as Krishna. One Krishna hands me a superbly detailed Thamel map, with markings for everything from a khukri knife shop to American diners. “So that you don’t get lost after partying!” he grins.
Any book or travelogue on Kathmandu will call Thamel a backpacker’s mecca, with its German bakeries, freshly ground coffee and shops selling trekking gear and toilet paper. Stores and hotels boast of 24/7 hot water and French/English-speaking staff. It was also recently declared a full wi-fi zone. Yet, by night, it is not the Israeli or French tourists you will hear earnestly crooning ‘Hotel California’ at the karaoke bars but young Nepalis. Over the past few years, Thamel has morphed into Kathmandu’s clubbing zone, with its endlessly thumping music, free-flowing alcohol and uninterrupted power supply.
Thankfully, the perfect cure for an inevitable Thamel hangover is just a ten-minute walk away. The next morning, puffy-eyed but happily breakfasted and coffeed under the lemon tree inside Pumpernickel Bakery, I head south towards the old city. A woman selling fake North Face bags points me to Tahiti Tole.
At the centre of Tahiti Tole is a fifteenth-century white stupa surrounded by rickshaw-walas playing board games. I was told by one of the Krishnas to walk slowly through this part and look, peer, stare. When I do, monuments and shrines seem to come suddenly into focus from the matrix of a dusty wholesale market: a Bodhisattva family shrine inside a mobile phone repair complex, a sixth-century statue of a standing Buddha framed by blue bathroom tiles outside an electronics shop and a hole-in-the-wall harmonium repair store. As I take pictures of the music store, the owner narrows his eyes at me. “Madam, yeh photo lene ke liye nahin, bajaane ke liye hai. Isme ab bhi jaan hai (Madam, this is to be used, not photographed. It is still alive).”
What’s true of the harmonium is true of old Kathmandu too. Large parts of it are ancient, almost decrepit, but vibrantly alive. Sixth-century monuments are public property, to be turned into flower and fish markets, chicken coops or tea shops.
All over Kathmandu, the old and the new exist seamlessly. A street approaching the main market (Asan Tole) seems bizarrely overcrowded with dental clinics, until I reach the square. There, thousands of coins are nailed on to an ugly tree stump. They are offerings to the toothache god, a finger-sized shrine hidden somewhere inside the twisted wood.
While the gods live among the masses, all the deference has seemingly been reserved for royalty. In Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, the palace from where Malla kings ruled for centuries has an entry fee, is heavily guarded and enforces strict rules. Although no one lives there now, non-Hindus and those wearing leather are not allowed inside. It’s common to see priestesses and devotees smoking inside temples, but they’d be dragged out by the collar if they lit up in the palaces.
The structures in Durbar Square (except a white Victorian-era inspired eyesore) are made of red brick and wood, typical of traditional Newari architecture. At dusk, a hundred oil-lamps are lit for Kalabhairab (a black Shiva in his most furious avatar) and, on the other side, a hundred kerosene lanterns for the vendors selling sublime smoked fish and vegetables. But despite the architecture, the real star of Durbar Square is a seven-year-old girl.
For over 400 years, a living child goddess called the Kumari has lived in the royal premises. When I walk into the central courtyard, tourists and guides are waiting in silence, their cameras all trained on one ornate window on the first floor. A guide whispers to some middle-aged American tourists that one glimpse of the Kumari can bestow a lifetime of luck.
Ever since the fifteenth-century king Mahendra dreamt about the goddess appearing in a child’s form, Nepal’s royalty has chosen pre-pubescent girls to be revered as the living embodiment of the Taleju Durga. As one of her tests, the three- or four-year-old girl from the Newar goldsmith caste is locked in a room alone at night with beheaded buffaloes and goats. If she does not cry, she is appointed goddess. Her divinity usually ends with puberty.
The present Kumari, Matina Shakya, lives with her caretakers. Indians and Nepalis are allowed into her room to meet her. When I enter, Matina is playing on a young woman’s lap, her legs high up in the air. When her large elaborately kohled eyes see me, she scuffles forward to sit on a red cushion surrounded by flowers and Cadbury’s chocolate bars as offerings. At such close quarters, it’s difficult to think of her as anything but a little girl.
As I walk out to Durbar Square, it is dusk, and a dozen masked demons are dancing in a trance to percussions that, thumping above the motorbike horns and vendor cries, sound otherworldly. That night, the chaos of Thamel seems like a poor caricature.
Taxi drivers in tourist-heavy places have a way of embarrassing you about your travel choices. The one driving me to Bhaktapur, a mini-kingdom and heritage village an hour outside Kathmandu, insists my parents would be deeply disappointed if I did not even step into the Pashupatinath temple. He had me at parents.
The pagoda-style Pashupatinath is, as the Nepali newly-weds ahead of me in the queue put it, Nepal’s own Taj Mahal. It is crowded but mesmeric. Guarding the god of beasts are oddly two Nandis, one small and the golden replica enormous. Behind the temple, the polluted Bagmati river flows sluggishly alongside the more photo-friendly dreadlocked sadhus. Even at high noon, the ghat is eerily quiet, with just the occasional crackle of the fire from someone’s cremation. At the exit gate, a scrawny man sings a bhajan: “This life is but a soft moment/why weigh it down with possessions/travel light/for the longer journey ahead.” I buy some of his CDs, fully noting the irony of weighing my life down with these possessions.
Across Nepal, heritage is a comfortably worn hand-me-down, not a family heirloom locked away. And there is no better illustration of this than Bhaktapur. This medieval city-state is so well preserved that going there feels like time travel. Most tourists do a day trip, but on the taxi driver’s advice, I decide to stay a night in one of the traditional low-roofed Newari houses that now run as hotels.
Bhaktapur has three main squares. The most jaw-dropping one can be seen long before you reach it — at its centre is Nepal’s highest temple, Nyatapola. Five storeys high, it is arresting both from a distance and when you climb up the steep stairs for a closer look. Dedicated to a bloodthirsty version of Durga, the shrine stays locked all year, lest it accidentally brutalise mere mortals. To Nyatapola’s left is a temple for an equally horrific Shiva (Bhairab), except the idol — a disembodied head — is just palm-high. It is placed in a dark burrow-like shelf lit only by an oil-lamp. Seeing experienced locals leave a handful of rice and stick their forehead and nose into the burrow, I do the same. All I see is a pair of beady eyes, a little black paw fidgeting with rice grain and the swish of a tail.
After a long walk, I have lunch at Sunny’s Café. It is lifelessly named but its terrace overlooks the Nyatapola temple. Uttam, our waiter, comes with my Newari meal. From a Newari family himself, Uttam is knowledgeable about the food. The samay baj (grilled buff), he warns, is not succulent but chewy. It is salted and air-dried because few families own refrigerators. Also, Newars usually eat beaten rice and dried bean instead of fluffy white rice. It comes with fried ginger and garlic, potatoes and egg. When my companion refuses the cup of curd served with a flourish, Uttam looks heartbroken. “But Bhaktapur is the birthplace of juju dhou!” he insists. Juju dhou or sweetened king curd is indeed ubiquitous; Nepalis devour this as Indians glug chai.
As we leave, I ask Uttam if there is an authentic Newari dish I’ve still missed. His polite face breaks into a smirk. “Roksi,” he says. “The local alcohol.” Now, a bar serving roksi (or perhaps ready to serve it openly to a woman) is not easy to find. But if you look hard in Tachupal Tole, ten metres from the Dattatreya temple, a green curtain might billow in the breeze. Knock on the door behind it. Enter and seat yourself at one of the three tables in the dark room. Try not to step on the pet chicken. The man at the counter asks only one question: Aila or sara aila? (Alcohol or cardamom-spiced alcohol?) I chose one peg of each — both are surprisingly smooth but the spiced aila leaves a great aftertaste. The drink goes best with badmas (salted soya bean). A plain-clothed cop at the table behind us was curious if I liked the drink. When I grinned wonkily at him, he was pleased. “Newari people is the top, the top!” he slurred.
Leaving Bhaktapur is not easy. Not only because it is ‘top!’ but also because the buses all insist on going via Kathmandu, even if my desired destination is Pokhara, in the opposite direction. The seven-hour drive, however, is worth the detour. Pokhara is 400 metres below Kathmandu, so the route is essentially up and down three mountains. Rivers and streams gush past the roads. About an hour before we reach the city, three radiant snow-capped peaks come into view: Hiunchuli, Annapurna and Machhapuchhare.
Since a Swiss explorer visited in the 1950s, Pokhara has become the gateway to the famous and arduous Annapurna trek. From a Newari village to an upmarket shopping street and mountain resort, Pokhara has come a long way. There is little to do in the city itself, except perhaps take a boat ride in the Phewa lake, wrapped by thickly forested hills. The best of Pokhara is outside it. But how to get there?
Dinesh, a tour-guide-cum-hotel-fixer, had accosted me at Pokhara’s bus-stand with these words: “Indian? Indian? I am also. No cheating!” He insists I must hire a taxi to see all the sights. But we’ve had an easy chat over tea by now, so he levels with me. “You want budget, I give you budget idea,” he says finally. “Can you ride a bike?”
And so it transpires that in the light of a single day, I spin all around Pokhara on a two-wheeler. The drive up the hairpin bends to Sarangkot, from where I trek up to a panoramic view of the Annapurna Himalaya. This is also a world-renowned paragliding spot, with the Phewa lake below and the Annapurna range just a few clouds away. On the way down, you can rest in anyone’s courtyard. Some villagers offer tea, others leave you to your book. A few kilometres away are Newari villages. Taking the long route through them, I turn back to Mahendra bridge, across which is a serene Tibetan refugee settlement.
A Gurkha museum is about ten minutes (in bike time) away from the Tibetan settlement. The impressively maintained museum celebrates the Gurkha warrior community, who were used by the British and Indian armies and the UN. It documents their history in great detail, but the four floors are conspicuously sparing on why so many of them would leave home to fight someone else’s war. One photo caption for a stern Gurkha soldier in Burma reveals that Gurkha sepoys would earn more in a month at war than they would in their villages.
The next day, as I wait for my 6am bus out to Chitwan, I realise that I’ve seen two Pokharas — the new cosmopolitan tourist-friendly one and the magnificent but shrinking rural one on its periphery. The couple running the bus-stop tea shack sell black coffee and their boys sell cinnamon rolls in a tray like they would samosas. For eighty Nepali rupees, I savour the effects of a city catering for more than sixty years to busloads of foreigners.
As Chitwan’s dust swirls into the sleepy bus, all passengers wake up coughing. Outside, half a dozen boys stand with hotel placards. Among them, a stocky man with sunglasses and hair in a ponytail, stands with his arms crossed and legs wide apart. He holds no sign. I have a strong feeling that this might be the person who named his guesthouse Chillax. I’m right. While the other hotel jeeps pick up their guests, Govinda thinks nothing of asking me to hop on his Bullet.
Govinda grew up in a village just outside the 932 sq km of reserve forest in Chitwan. A trekker and forest guide in his pre-paunch days, he was once very angry about the bloody history of royal hunting and the Maoist insurgency that wiped out Chitwan’s tigers and leopards. Then he learnt to, well, chillax. He started his rustic guesthouse with its organic garden and open kitchen. He also joined conservation efforts, fronted oddly enough by the local Tharu community, 22,000 of whom were removed from the forest boundaries in the 1970s to make way for the reserved forest. Since 1984, Chitwan has been a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Happily, the day I reach Chitwan is also the first day of its annual international elephant race. Fifty elephants thundering down a field is not a sight to miss. Then, a hilarious game of elephant football begins. One mahout throws a dramatic fit as his pachyderm, gunning for the goal, suddenly stops to chew grass. I lunch back in the main street, in a restaurant called Typical Nepali Kitchen (‘No pizza, no pasta, no problem’). I have a Tharu meal, which is regular dal-vegetables but with slightly sweetened fermented rice.
Chitwan town is only as big as a small neighbourhood; all energies are trained on the jungle. The next morning, a wizened guide, armed with binoculars, safari hat, trekking pole and bird-chart, takes us on a canoe along the silken Rapti river that surrounds the forest. Several migratory birds and egrets dart around the morning mist that hangs over the water. We get off at a relatively dry stretch of the bank to practically walk past gharials and an alligator resting in the sun. The forest trek yields little, but the afternoon elephant safari is unparalleled. Deer and rhinos barely look up as we pass by. The mahout explains that the elephant masks the human odour that otherwise makes animals dart before you see them.
I amble back to Chillax after swinging by at the Typical hotel. I could get used to this. In two days, I was giving directions to newer tourists, and recognising Typical’s loyalists and their food preferences. All it takes, perhaps, to feel at home somewhere, is to know your way around.
Indian tourists, especially families, tend to prefer guided tours in foreign countries. Many consider it efficient, the best way to get a bargain deal. But as it turns out, Nepal is the ideal place for an independent traveller from India: even half-decent hotels have websites, the treks are widely reviewed online and you can get by on Hindi and English. It might be the only country (other than Bangladesh) where Indians enjoy the hospitality extended to tourists as well as good doses of the bonhomie reserved for brethren. We might also be the only ones to not be rattled by the unpredictability — power cuts, late buses, elephant races, sudden festival processions — that’s built into everyday Nepal. It would be a shame to let that edge go waste.