Upon arrival in Katmandu, Nepal, we learned from our tour guide that the American Information Agency was bombed the day before, causing the peace corps representatives to be evacuated, along with the families of all U.S. Embassy staff.
Maoist terrorists abducted 700 students and boycotted the city, closing down a dozen industries with a strike, killings and riots. The King dissolved the government, declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. The royal massacre of the then King and his family started the unrest in 2001, at which time the U.S. State Department issued a warning against all but essential travel to the country.
The political unrest was, of course, disturbing. But it also added another dimension to our experience of Katmandu-the smells of sizzling meat, incense and exhaust fumes mixed with the sounds of vendors hawking their wares, honking horns, screeching brakes and the haunting flute music (all absorbed while trying to dodge foot traffic and bicycles).
All of this coming together was an assault on the senses that was at once shocking, stressful, fascinating, exciting and energizing. Where else but Katmandu can you simultaneously see a cremation taking place on one bank of the great Ganges and a holy celebration on the other bank? We will never forget this overwhelming experience which took place near the Hindu Temple of Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred Hindu sites in the world.
Nepal is bordered by Tibet and India and situated in the Himalayan Mountains, which includes the legendary highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, with its peak at 29,000 feet. In fact, nine of the 10 highest mountain peaks in the world are in Nepal. The scenery is stunning, breathtaking and somewhat surreal throughout the country.
The 1,600-year-old historical center of Katmandu, Nepal’s capital and largest city, has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its rich history, cultural treasures and magnificent diversity. As if to ensure that it stays that way, we did not find any of the U.S. chain hotels, restaurants or coffee shops that now penetrate most of the civilized world.
Dunbar Square is at the center with its ancient temples, pagodas and shrines, all with intricately carved roofs, doors and windows. It includes the Great Bell, which is said to ward off evil spirits when rung; the Jagganath Temple, with its erotic carvings; the Royal Palace, and the Golden Gate. We visited the home of Kumari Devi, Nepal’s living goddess, who made an appearance while we were there.
My wife, Katrina, and I had drinks with our tour guide on the rooftop of CafÃ© du Temple near Dunbar Square. We felt like voyeurs in a magical land of teeming markets, monkeys and architectural showpieces.
We wandered for a pleasant two hours along the city’s most famous thoroughfare, Freak Street. This was not its original name, but the street was so named because of the dusty-haired “freaks” who populated it in the hippy days of the 1960s and 1970s. The moniker stuck and is still the official name even though much of the original incense smell, love-ins, prayer wheels, new age shops, and cheap hotels are gone.
We did not feel the effects of the high altitude since we were mainly in the valleys with their lush rice paddies, green jungles and wild flowers. The light-headed feeling was to come later on this trip when we arrived in Lhasa, the 12,000-foot-high capital of the majestic Tibetan highland at the top of the world-but that’s the subject of another column.
We were not surprised to read that the venerable travel magazine Conde Nast for the first time named Katmandu one of the 10 most popular Asian cities. We highly recommend a visit when the unrest has come to a rest.
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month.The next one will appear Sept. 29. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net