After two days in bustling, crowded Kathmandu, I headed for the mountains. Almost all the tours I could find online were trekking tours. I’m all for getting amazing photographs, but come on, let’s get real. Respect the fatness… So embracing the spirit (if not the actual exercise) of adventure, I hired a car and driver for a trip to Nagarkot, a small town high up on the valley ridge where supposedly, you could see Everest on a clear day. On the way, we stopped in Bakhtapur, a medieval world heritage site, less than an hour outside of Kathmandu.
Before traveling, I’m an obsessive planner, but when I actually get to where I’m going, I like getting lost, just meandering and absorbing the sights, sounds and smells, eschewing the many tour guides hustling tourist dollars. The rickshaws in Thamel were cheap enough that you could forget about maps and get as lost as you wanted, simply hiring one to take you back to your hotel at the end of the day. In Bhaktapur, I was planning on taking the Lonely Planet walking tour through the dizzying maze of narrow cobble-stoned streets armed with a badly photocopied map.
After about five minutes where I wasn’t even sure which gate to take out of the square, I quickly gave up my noble plan and got a friendly high school student with decent English who earlier asked if I needed a guide. I met him in Durbar Square, a collection of old buildings decorated with erotic art. “A long time ago, the prince made these to teach the people”, my newly hired guide explained… Oooookay. I almost think the people were doing well enough on their own… Anyway, the tour guide fee turned out to be the best $3 ever, keeping my head out of maps and instead enjoy the fascinating 2 hour walk.
Weaving our way through the small city, we passed by sombre cremation areas, stopped in a family owned paper-making factory, picking our way through paper pulp slathered onto drying screens (I just love all things paper, ink and leather, even though writing on rough handmade paper is just plain impractical!), watched a woman draw water from a courtyard well – just basically the wonderful intricacies of everyday life, so mundane for the locals, so fascinating to visitors.
We wound our way through narrow streets, people perched by their windows watching us go by, chillis and spices drying in the morning sun. Narrow twists and turns revealed scenes of pottery making, wood carving and ornately carved windows and doors (complete with dried buffalo intestine for good luck. Nepalese version of a horseshoe?).
Before meeting up with the driver, I had time for lunch in the very unique – a temple turned restaurant smack in the middle of the square where you could watch the comings and goings from a third floor vista while enjoying an authentic (albeit pricey) Nepalese meal.
Travel tip: Like many of the Durbar Squares, an entrance fee is required. Most of the time, it’s a small shack manned by an official. Bhaktapur was the most expensive at just over USD 14. For the Kathmandu Durbar Square, get a multi-day pass for the same price. However, I was never once checked for a ticket, but was happy to pay towards conservation costs.