48 Hours in Kathmandu

Few city names roll off the tongue quite like Kathmandu. Maybe it’s the unusual spelling, the exotic string of vowels or the simple fact that it’s located on the far side of the planet at the base of the Himalayas. Whatever it is, the mere mention of Nepal’s legendary capital is enough to make you want to pack your bags and jump on the next flight.

Kathmandu is one of the famed stops on the 1960s overland ‘Hippie Trail,’ which stretched from London to Sydney via North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This journey gave rise to Lonely Planet – and indeed the modern backpacking phenomenon – though it ended abruptly in the 1970s in response to increasing regional instability.

Since then, Kathmandu has weathered its fair share of uprising and civil strife, but things are starting to look much calmer. And so, in honor of one of the greatest cities in Central Asia, Gadling is proud to present 48 hours in Kathmandu.Whether you’re stopping by Kathmandu en route to China or India, or using the city as a jumping off-point for Himalayan trekking circuits, Kathmandu demands at least a day or two of your time. Not sure what to do? Try this list for starters.

1) Shop and eat out on the cheap in Thamel. The original backpacker ghetto of tea shops and tour operators is now a proper destination in its own right. Bargain hunters can stock up on bulk tea, Buddhist prayer flags, carved wooden boxes, mountaineering equipment, dodgy antiques and all manners of Nepali kitsch.

And then there’s the food.

Nepal is home to a large Tibetan refugee population, which means that momo are on all the menus. If you’ve never indulged in this truly Himalayan delicacy, then you’re missing out on fried or steamed flour dumplings stuffed full of chicken, water buffalo, onions, shallots, coriander and/or cilantro. Add a spicy dipping sauce and you’re good to go.

2) Visit Nepal’s version of the burning ghats. Somewhat akin to Varanasi in India, Pashupatinath on the banks of the Bagmati River is the one of the world’s largest temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. In accordance with Hindu faith, it is also the site of public cremations on funerary pyres.

To be very clear, a visit to Pashupatinath is not for the faint of heart as the sights, sounds and smells of burning human flesh is an intensely visceral experience. But it’s also a deeply sacred experience, and a potent reminder of the beauty and frailty of human life.

3) Survey the city from the heights of the Monkey Temple. Swayambhunath is a Buddhist stupa perched at the top of a hill in the western end of Kathmandu valley. It’s also inhabited by mischievous roaming troops of monkeys.

Although they’re considered to be holy denizens, they also tend to be holy pains in the rear. Watch your bags if you’re carrying any food. Even if you’re not, don’t be surprised if they snatch at your purse or satchel out of habit. Clever little beasts.

4) Visit Kathmandu’s holiest Buddhist sight. Although it’s completely sheltered from the main road by a row of buildings, Boudhanath is one of the largest stupas in the world. While walking counterclockwise around the base, run your fingers across the prayer wheels while silently mediating. Contemplative bliss never came easier.

Once you’ve completed the circuit, you can ascend the staircase to the apex of the stupa, which is completely strung up with prayer flags and blanketed by a cloud of incense. Add chanting monks and ringing bells to the mix, and you’ll see why Boudhanath is revered as Kathmandu’s top tourist sight.

5) Day-trip to the ancient city of Bhaktapur. If you’ve got a second day to spare, a visit to this once great medieval kingdom is akin to stepping back to the glory days of the Silk Road. Lying at the crossroads of India and China, Bhaktapur grew wealthy on the caravan trade, which resulted in the construction of an elaborate pagoda-filled skyline.

One insider tip: don’t miss the chance to sample Ju-Ju Dhau, commonly referred to as the king of yoghurts. This delectable treat is served in handmade clay bowls, and is unlike any of the pasteurized blends you’ll find at your local grocery store. On the contrary, it’s made fresh and best finished in one helping.

Kathmandu might not have the urban chic of Beijing and New Delhi. But what it lacks in flashiness, it more than makes up for in personality. Where else can you bask in the shadows of the Himalayas while retracing centuries-old trade routes and paying homage to some of the most sacred sites in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Namaste. Kathmandu awaits.

** All images are original photographs produced by this blogger **