On our recent trip to Bhutan we extended our stopover in Kathmandu to three nights and two full days on the first leg of our trip. Neither of us had been to Nepal before and this former Himalayan kingdom which turned into a republic in 2008 had been on our bucket list from day one. Our stay and schedule were organised by the brilliant people from Bhutan Norter, who had also sponsored our 6-day tour in Bhutan (we paid full price for Nepal, though, USD 650 for the two of us, incl. 3 & 4-star accommodation, breakfast, all admission fees, and guide & driver, who stayed overnight while in Nagarkot).
The pictures below are strictly in sequence but in order to spread them out evenly over the blog post, there are instances where the photos are placed in sections that cover different topics: You will find pictures of Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square in the Section about Boudhanath Stupa and the first picture of the Monkey Temple section still relates to the Changu Narayan Temple covered in the section above it.
Arrival in Kathmandu
We arrived at the relatively small airport in the late afternoon from London (via Abu Dhabi). As soon as we exited the main arrivals hall, we could already see our guide Nabid and our driver, who were holding up signs with our names. We were greeted very warmly, given scarves as gifts and the scarves were then wrapped around each of our necks as part of the common Buddhist welcome ceremony. Then we were off to the Royal Singi hotel, just a few kilometres from the airport and very popular with Western travellers. Due to rush hour traffic the ride took 45 minutes, which gave us an opportunity to suck in the atmosphere and wonder how on earth anyone could manage to get from A to B in this mind-blowing, crazy chaos.
Our tour guide’s introduction to Nepal
We also used the time to introduce each other. The driver would vary over time, so we focused on our guide. Nabid belongs to the Buddhist minority, which make up about 10% of the population of this secular but mainly Hindu country. Not only that, he is his master’s favourite follower and heavily involved in the teachings and workings of his master’s school. Throughout our stay our guide made sure we wouldn’t miss a thing about the glorious Hindu sites we visited, explaining everything enthusiastically. However, it was at the Buddhist sites where he outdid any other guide with his enormous depth of knowledge and his ability to merge facts about art, culture, society, and history with sublime contemplations about the essence of Buddhism.
It is beautiful to see those two major religions live in such harmony with each other, with many temples built right next to each other on the same grounds, and worshippers mingling. In many instances even the delineations between Buddhism and Hinduism themselves are blurry with religious sites like the Monkey Temple and various gods revered by devotees of both.
We briefly freshened up in our room, then explored the surrounding area for an hour, including a quick drink at one of the cafés, before enjoying a traditional Nepalese dinner at the hotel and an early night.
DAY ONE – Boudhanath Stupa (Kathmandu), Bhaktapur, Sunset in Nagarkot
Boudha (or Boudhanath, as you please) Stupa is located in what used to be the town of Boudha, now part of the Eastern suburbs, roughly 10km from the centre of Nepal’s capital, a city of 2.5 million people (the metropolitan area comprises 4 million people, approximately 15 percent of the nation’s residents). Luckily the distance from our hotel was only half as long, which meant it took us half an hour to reach our destination.
You can’t help but be blown away by the enormous monument. Towering over the surrounding area with its height of 36m it is one of the tallest stupas in the world and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 70ies. A stupa is a hemispherical or mound-like Buddhist structure containing relics, typically the remains of monks or nuns. It is used as a place of meditation. There is some controversy as to what specific relics the Stupa contains, but many believe that it is several bones of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha.
The building has origins in the 7th Century AD, when the first stupa was built on this site by the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, who had converted to Buddhism. It is believed he built it as an act of penance for accidentally killing his father. Most of the current substance of the building is believed to stem from the 14th Century following the destruction of the initial stupa by Mughal invaders.
Tibetan Buddhist holy site
There have always been a large number of Tibetans in Boudha, because it was one of the main stops on the ancient trade route connecting India and Tibet. However, in the 20th Century more and more Tibetans have fled to Kathmandu. The number of monasteries around the Stupa has exploded to some 50 over the years, so there are monks everywhere. Buddhists in Nepal are by no means all ethnic Tibetans, far from it. However, despite the fact that Buddha was born the son of a king of one of the Himalayan kingdoms in what is today Nepal, Nepalese Buddhism just like Bhutanese Buddhism is very heavily rooted in Tibetan Buddhism.
Especially when you have just escaped the mad traffic and noise from the rest of the city, the peace and quiet nearly burst your eardrums. It is a refuge from the world around you. We saw no more than two dozen Western travellers during our two-hour stay, many of whom seemed more like they had relocated here many years ago after converting to Buddhism. The vast majority of people appeared to be Tibetan, Nepalese, and from other parts of South Asia.
Religious life around the Stupa
We first visited two of the many small temples just off the main square, took some of the obligatory photos from one of the roof tops, then we explored the Stupa. You can climb onto the top of the main building and stroll around the steep spike-like structure on the top of it. In the morning and evening the pilgrims will go about their circumambulations, ritual meditative circular walks around the shrine.
Workers were in the process of decorating the Stupa with prayer flags and other adornments. We could also see many worshippers renewing the paint on the main building, a tradition that ensures that it is always glistening in impeccable shiny white colour.
A funeral procession was making its way around the Stupa. With all the loud horns, drums, and bells it felt such a happy occasion that we would have guessed it a wedding had our guide not filled us in.
Nepalese singing bowls
Before we made our way back to the car, we visited a small shop that sells Tibetan/Nepalese singing bowls. We stayed about half an hour while the friendly, very knowledgeable, and luckily completely unobtrusive, shop owner showcased his handmade goods and demonstrated in front of us and on us, how the bowls work.
Usually you bang or brush the bowl while it’s upside down and placed over the area you want to heal, such as your head or knee or someone else’s head or knee. However, in order to demonstrate the power of the bowls, the shop owner filled one bowl with water. He reminded us that the human body consists mainly of water. Then he started to brush the bowl with a mallet, causing a myriad of little fountains to erupt.
Even though most of the bowls were of a somewhat similar basic shape and size, they still varied greatly in terms of the sounds, volume of the sounds, their alleged abilities, level of capability, and, of course, their looks. The most expensive ones were covered in beautifully carved patterns, others were just plain metal.
Ms B was so impressed, that despite this being at the very beginning of a ten-day trip that would involve us moving to a different hotel nearly every day and spending days on the road and in airplanes, she bought one of the smaller bowls straight away (3.5kg, USD 180).
Arrival in Bhaktapur
It was nearly 2pm when we arrived at our next stop, the ancient city of Bhaktapur, just 15km away towards the East. The “City of Devotees,” also known as Khwopa, was the largest of the three Newa kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley and was the capital of Nepal during the great ‘Malla Kingdom’ until the 15th century. With its population of just over 80,000 residents, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is tiny compared with Kathmandu, but its old town, temples, and royal palaces are the best preserved in the whole country.
Even after the terrible 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000, injured tens of thousands, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings all over the country, this city still takes you under its spell immediately. It owes its wealth and prominence largely to the fact that for several hundred years since roughly the beginning of time it was the main stop on the trade route between Tibet and India, connecting to the main Silk Road.
Durbar Square (Bhaktapur) and old town
We enjoyed a lovely lunch at one of the rooftop restaurants in old town overlooking the vast palace courtyards, while we discussed the rest of the day ahead of us.
After lunch, we continued our expedition and explored the magnificent buildings around Durbar Square, which consists of mainly Hindu pagoda- and shikhara-style temples, and the royal palaces.
We strolled around old town, inspected the local stores and market stalls. The highlights included brief visits to a pottery, a painting and a wood-carving workshop.
Arrival in Nagarkot
After three hours we made our way to Nagarkot, 15km further East. While Kathmandu and Bhaktapur are at a relatively low elevation of 1,400m, Nagarkot with its elevation of just under 2,200m and its surrounding areas still do not even classify as “hills” by local standards. However, the town is famous for its fabulous views of the Himalayan Foothills and the actual Himalayan Range, which starts at roughly 5,000m.
At our hotel, which was a good 200m further uphill, we were greeted by the friendly hotel staff and shown to our rooms. A short while later our guide picked us up again for a 20-minute walk to a viewing point, from which we enjoyed the sunset. It was a memorable experience, even though we were a bit unlucky in that due to the weather conditions of the day the sunset was nowhere near as spectacular as it can get on some other days, but that is all fine in our book. When we arrived back at the hotel, we went straight for dinner and enjoyed an early night.
DAY TWO – Himalayan Sunrise, hike to Changu Narayan Temple near Nagarkot, Monkey Temple and Durbar Square (Kathmandu)
We got up at 5:30 and went straight to the balcony of our top floor room to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas. The whole show lasts for nearly an hour and was one of the most spectacular sunrises we have seen in our lives. You can’t help but get a bit emotional with so much beauty around you. And I am hardened after over ten years of marriage to Her Hotness, Ms B. It still hit me.
After a delicious breakfast we checked out and drove about 20 minutes to the starting point of a brisk 90-minute hike to the Changu Narayan Temple, which sits on a hilltop at 1,500m. Navid, our guide, told us more about the plants and animals and assured us that while leopards had regularly been spotted in the area, we were completely safe. The large cats only come out between dusk and dawn and their diet consists of wild (and sometimes farm) animals, not of humans. We were surprised to find out that there were more than two dozen sightings of leopards inside Kathmandu’s city boundaries within the past five years. Unsurprisingly habitat loss is the reason behind it.
Changu Narayan Temple
We only passed by three other groups of hikers on our way through the hilly woodlands and a few tiny villages. The Hindu temple turned out to be a true gem with its amazing wood-carvings. It is considered to be the oldest of the country and has elements dating back to the mid-5th century AD.
The driver was already waiting for us when we arrived at the bottom of the hill the temple crowns, and we were on our way to the Monkey Temple on the outskirts of Kathmandu, passing through Bhaktapur again on the way.
The hundreds of monkeys, which gave the temple its name (well, its official name is Swayambhu Mahachaitya or simply Swayambhu respectively Swayambhunath), greeted us upon our arrival. Our guide warned us not to get too close to them, because most of them are not very healthy and carry all types of disease. To be frank, we did not have to be told twice, those little fellers really do not invite affection (and we love animals). However, the temple, or, more precisely, the temples were marvellous. On the small platform at the top of a sizeable hill, various Buddhist and Hindu sites are squeezed together.
Durbar Square (Kathmandu)
For lunch we drove to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square (yes, Nepal has at least four famous Durbar Squares, durbar meaning “palace”), where we enjoyed a relaxed meal at one of the roof-top terraces overlooking it. A full-blown wedding procession with loud brass music and even louder drums was taking place below us while we gobbled down our meals.
After telling us about the buildings on the Square and giving us a summary of the history, Navid excused himself for fifteen minutes while we walked around and took in the fabulous views. He was catching up with a tourist guide mate of his to gather some intel. When he returned, we did a tour of the local temples and palaces.
Then the highlight of our whole stay in Nepal was about to happen. Most of the other travellers had already been standing around in the courtyard of Kumari Ghar (“Kumari‘s House”) in Basantapur, back on Kathmandu‘s Durbar Square, for up to an hour when we arrived. Everyone was waiting for Kumari, the Living Goddess, to wave at the crowds.
According to legend 18th Century King Jaya Prakash Malla once had Goddess Taleju over at his palace for a visit. He had a tad too much to drink and started to come onto Taleju, who was not at all pleased. She forced the king to make an oath that he would select a virgin girl within whom she would always reside. The tradition has been continued to this day and until 2008 the Shah King (the Shah dynasty followed the Malla dynasty) would visit Kumari to receive her blessings.
The Goddess is selected from girls of the Shakya caste of the Newars, the local tribe. The candidates, many of them no older than four years (the current Goddess was even only three years old when chosen), go through an extremely harrowing, intense, and lengthy selection process before one of them is chosen to represent the Goddess. When she reaches puberty, another young girl is chosen to succeed her.
Catching a glimpse of the Living Goddess
So here we were standing in the courtyard of the Goddess’s little palace. The anticipation was unbearable and it felt like the atmosphere was filling with electric charges. Well, except for a group of Italian pensioners, whose guide was clowning around. No one seemed to mind. Then an old lady appeared at one of the windows on the top floor and asked the guides to ensure silence and that no one would take any photographs. The request was only met with limited success, but another five minutes later the 6-year old Living Goddess appeared in the same window for a few seconds, nodding quietly and majestically to the crowd below. She looked a bit sad but very graceful, intense, yet calm, small and fragile, yet with enormous purpose, confidence, and authority, quite surreal.
Like most Westerners, I personally do not believe in her divine qualities, but the experience definitely left a lasting, deep impression on me. Like, for a few brief moments there, we had been propelled into a forbidden, long-lost, ancient world where the realm of the living and the realm of the gods are overlapping and truth has nothing to do with reason but all with destiny.
Half an hour later we were back at our hotel for dinner and another early night. The following morning we were going to be picked up at 6am for our 9am flight to Paro in Bhutan.
Should you be concerned about the Kumaris’ well-being or simply want to learn more about this tradition, then this article in the National Geographic might be a good starting point that shows both sides to the story, the good and the bad.
Looking for more travel posts? Feel welcome to check out our write-ups for Nuremberg, Colesdalen (Spitsbergen), and the Jurassic Coast. For adventure, try our articles about our rides on a jet boat on Shotover Creek in Queenstown, New Zealand, on a jetlev near Cambridge, or on a hot air balloon over Winchester. We did not get much of a chance to squeeze in a bit of hiking in Nepal due to the time limitations. But if you are looking for a great post on hiking, check out our mate Anthony’s post about backpacking in Peru on his and his partner Anna’s blog Green Mochila. You won’t be disappointed.