Letter from Kathmandu: Brokedown Palace

Waiting at the ticket booth to Narayanhiti — Nepal’s Royal Palace — I felt like a Chinese commoner entering the Forbidden City for the first time. It’s not too much of a stretch. Nepali Kings, like Chinese Emperors, were touted as divine rulers: avatars of the Hindu god Narayana, the Great Preserver.

Ever since my first visit to Kathmandu in 1979, I had glimpsed Narayanhiti only through its high gates, or past the tall trees that shelter the grounds from view. But in February 2009 — less than a year after the former Kingdom became a Republic — the private residence was converted into a public museum.

Nepal was under royal rule for most of the past 500 years. What we need here, just to get it out of the way, is a brief history of Nepal’s king situation over the past 50-odd years.

In 1955, King Mahendra took the throne. He was an interesting guy who enjoyed black-and-white photography, admired Elvis Presley, and teased his subjects with the notion of democracy. Mahendra and the former kings didn’t live in Narayanhiti; they stayed in the old palace, or durbar, in what’s now Kathmandu’s historic quarter.

Shortly after Mahendra died in 1972, his eldest son — Birendra — was coronated, and moved into the recently completed Narayanhiti. As a leader Birendra was rather like George W. Bush, but without the wit and charm. The intelligentsia got fed up and in 1990, a massive “Peoples’ Movement” wrested power from the throne. But Birendra remained on as king; he was allowed to stay in Narayanhiti with his wife and family, serving as a unifying symbol of ethnically diverse Nepal. When he was killed in 2001 (more on this below), his brother, Gyanendra, took over. Nobody liked this guy — so in 2008 there was another People Power revolution. Gyanendra was shown the door, and the Palace became a museum. Whew.

After checking my daypack and passing through security, I entered the sprawling, grassy grounds. Far behind me, beyond the silver gates, lay Durbar Margh: Kathmandu’s frenetic boutique boulevard, sort of a cut-rate Champs d’Elysees. Its taxi horns and motorcycles faded into the background.

The architecture of Narayanhiti is hard to describe. Completed in 1969, it was designed by an American architect named Benjamin Polk. The building is grand without being impressive, stately without conveying any emotion, and the first reaction most people have when beholding the building is, “Hunh?” Still, it was a thrill to approach the sequestered palace and climb the marble stairway flanked by statues of horses and mythical beasts.

Though the building is grand from the outside, the inside felt cloistered and cold, with small windows, dark paneling and shabby decor that looks as though it hasn’t been changed since Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Live and Let Die.” With its narrow corridors and stuffed tigers (not to mention crocodiles, deer and rhinoceroses), the place has a strange juju. One cannot use the word “comfy” to describe a single room. This applies especially to the bedroom for the “First Lady of the Visiting Head of State,” which features a macabre poster showing a little girl morphing into a wrinkled crone. Below, in Nepali, is the phrase (roughly translated) “Yikes! This is Our Fate!”

Knowing Birendra’s fate, it’s a poignant experience to stand at the roped-off threshold of the late king’s office — a retreat as modest as the throne room is ostentatious. There’s a large wooden desk, a middle-of-the-line bookshelf stereo, and shelves filled with a strange assortment of books: Freedom in Exile, by the Dalai Lama; 1001 Wonderful Things, by Hutchinson; Hindu Castes and Sects. There is a picture of Mount Kailash on the wall. The image of the holy mountain, long a pilgrimage spot for Tibetan Buddhists, intrigues me. Was Birendra a spiritual man? A king of hidden depths? We’ll never know — but I’m inclined to doubt it.

Perhaps the most surprising room in the palace is the office of former King Mahendra, with its art deco furniture, vintage photographs and large globes of the planet earth and celestial sphere. I’m not saying I could live in it, but it would be a great set for a sitcom about a gay Nepali ad man.

Much of it you’ve seen before, in other former palaces. There are the usual salons lined with glass cases filled with useless gifts from visiting dignitaries: bronze medallions, filigree peacocks, a crystal paperweight from New York City Mayor Edward Koch. The walls are arrayed with photographs of distinguished visitors — even the humblest of them more significant, on an international scale, than their host.

The opulent Gorkha Hall does everything it can to contradict this bit of realpolitik, with its soaring, Gaudi-esque columns and — most important — Ceremonial Throne. Every King needs one of these, and this one is a beauty. More than half a ton of silver and 30 tolas of gold (nearly a pound) were used to build the settee-sized, velvet-cushioned seat of power. Silver elephants support the legs. A canopy of nine gold nagas (snake gods) shaded the King’s head, and thick gold serpents served as his armrests.

But even these nagas, despite their best intentions, could not protect Birendra from his own son. On June 1, 2001, during a social function at the Palace, the drunk and besotted Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly went insane, and gunned down his entire family — the King, Queen Aiswarya, his sister, and several other relatives — with automatic weapons.

The venue for the infamous Royal Massacre, it turns out, was a separate building: an older complex of rooms on the grounds behind the palace. That structure has now been demolished. Only the foundation remains, as if it were an ancient ruin. Cardboard signs indicate, by number, the overgrown sites where the murders occurred – including the little garden bridge, still standing, upon which Dipendra reportedly took his own life. These landmarks are weird abstractions, and a sobering reminder of how the new government immediately destroyed every shred of evidence that might shed light on the real motives for (and perhaps the real perpetrators of) the killings.

It’s often true in Asia that places look better from a distance. I left Narayanhiti feeling underwhelmed and a bit sad. Partly it was for the palace itself: a place that seemed devoid of any warmth or vibrancy. But I was sad for Nepal as well. The one thing the floundering country most desperately needed, and truly deserved, was a great king, a leader who, like Thailand’s King Bhumibol or Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck, inspired their subjects by example.

Instead, Nepal got kings like Mahendra — who told one of his engineers during Narayanhiti’s construction, “It is worthless to give grandeur to my palace, because the people will never be ready to admire it even if I make something as grand as the Taj Mahal.”

It’s bad practice, among kings, to blame your subjects for your own lack of imagination. That was Nepal’s story for the past few centuries. Today, the new republic’s commoners stagger out of Narayanhiti in a daze, having spied at last the man behind the curtain. He put on quite a show — but the show is over. I hope they find the heart, brains and courage to take over from here.

Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit jeffgreenwald.com.

Visiting the new Liverpool

Liverpool has changed.

I attended the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (the Paul McCartney “fame” school) for three full years and thought I knew the place, but in the six years since my last visit, a series of events — particularly its run as European Capital of Culture in 2008 — has led to impressive developments of the “and New York still hasn’t finished Ground Zero?” variety.

Firstly, everyone knows the Roman Catholic Cathedral, affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam,” looks like a spaceship (or perhaps a wigwam). Now, it’s as though a newer, more modern spaceship has landed in the town center. The new spaceship is Liverpool One, an epic open-air shopping complex with over 160 shops you didn’t know Liverpudlians wanted or needed, as well as clubs, restaurants, a Novotel and a Hilton (on the left above) on the terrace and an enormous parking structure underneath it. The Grosvenor-backed project has brought a good deal of tourism to Liverpool, helping it to become the UK’s second most popular destination (after London); women come in packs for shopping trips and to go clubbing at the uber-fab bars.

%Gallery-86734%My only major issue with Liverpool One is that it seems to have been designed with style and not simplicity in mind. It’s pretty difficult to navigate. I couldn’t even find Bold Street, a street for which I once had a professional-grade radar, without assistance. When I did find Bold Street, many shops had closed or moved — this was the case with nearby Clayton Square, as well, and was a trend all around the outskirts of Liverpool One. Such is progress, though, and I can’t find much pity in my heart as most of the stores were national or international chains.

Albert Dock (above) is the same. The beautiful home of the Tate Liverpool and several nightclubs, some new, some not, is relatively unchanged and still carries its distinct old-world charm. The parking lot still has Humped Zebra Crossing signs, much to my delight (see gallery). The surrounding area, however, is majorly built up — you may have heard about the Echo Arena or the new Museum of Liverpool (opening in 2011), both of which are impressive achievements. There’s also new an extension of The Beatles Story (which is still in place), featuring a “Fab 4-D” experience; it’s one of those “rides” where you sit in a small movie theater in a chair that moves — you also get sprayed with water, and guess what scent they pump in during “Strawberry Fields Forverer”?

Dining and nightlife, if you ask me, have significantly improved. I had the good fortune of stopping into San Carlo, which is just three months old, on my first night by chance, where I had a truly immaculate appetizer (pictured below, Insalata Adriatica £7.25) in a terrifically classy and friendly ambience. I visited several of the new night clubs to take some photos and try some cocktails, and while none stood out as being the best, they were appropriately varied and well-attended; definitely serving the cosmopolitan locals as well as the tourists.

On the lighter and cheaper side, vegan best-kept-secret The Egg Cafe is still in place, and walking in the door still makes you nervous you’re about to break and enter into somebody’s house. Seriously, you climb like five or six flights of stairs and then there’s just a big purple door. If you didn’t know about it, you’d never find it — but now that you know, please go. The food is incredibly fresh, incredibly cheap, and it serves as a haven for artists and musicians with an array of long tables which encourage conversations with strangers. I’ve always loved it.

Despite the changes, Liverpool still has its charm. It feels a bit more London-like, but that northern, brass-tacks edge is untameable. The hard drinking, crass joking, bottle-blondes-in-tracksuits culture is still there — but it’s not the rule, and there’s something more relaxed about it. It’s like the blue collar city’s cosmopolitan dreams came true, and they’re are flaunting their hard-won identity. It’s a strange one, but that’s why we travel, right?

This trip was paid for by VisitBritain and VisitLiverpool, but the ideas and opinions expressed in the article above are 100% my own.