KATMANDU : A CITY OF LEGEND, MYTH AND FESTIVALS

The little goat scampered about the yard, chased happily by a young boy who sprinkled the animal with water. A man in orange robes sharpened a large ceremonial cleaver against a leather strop.

Suddenly a man looped a rope around the goat's neck, its legs were seized by another man, the cleaver flashed in the sunlight and chop! The goat's head rolled in one direction and the body in another.

The children clapped their hands and the onlookers outside the gate turned away. The brief ceremony was only the first of many animal sacrifices on this day, the ninth day of Bada Dasain, when thousands of goats and buffaloes are sacrificed and everyone in the Kingdom of Nepal has meat for dinner.

The laps of the gods and the steps of the temples were bloody on this hot, sunny day in Katmandu, and the streets of the city were filled with crowds. Little rickshaws carried carcasses from temple to oven; ducks and chickens squawked their unhappy fate from cages in dark doorways; children sprinkled flower petals, grass and candy into the folded hands of stone Buddhas.

Hardly a month passes without a major festival in Nepal. Bada Dasain lasts for 15 days in October, when the rice is ready for harvesting, the monsoons are over and the days are clear and sunny. By mid-festival, one can scarcely find a bus or taxi out of town as they are booked solid by Nepalis going to visit their families.

On the tenth day, all of the Hindus and many Buddhists (the two religions coexist, often merge, in Nepal) travel to the family home or the home of elders and receive a tika on their forehead. By dusk everyone is wearing a tika (rice soaked in red dye). This assures good fortune for the year ahead.

Nepal is a kingdom of legend and myth. Around every twist of its narrow streets is the breath of history, behind every garden wall the mystery of ancient lore. Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha. It is the meeting place of Buddhism and Hinduism. It contains the greatest altitude variation on earth, from the lowland Terai near sea level to Mt. Everest, at 29,028 feet the highest point on earth. Mountain climbers and adventurers share the setting with primitive tribes, royalty, even a living goddess.

The Kumari, or virgin goddess of Katmandu, is a Hindu goddess but selected from a Buddhist clan. Once a year she is taken around the city in a huge chariot. Once a year she blesses the king. Lines of worshipers form outside the Kumari Devi, her residence, awaiting her blessing on days of Bada Dasain.

Some have caught a glimpse of the girl sitting at her window. She wears black shadowing wide around her eyes and her hair piled high on her head. She is chosen as young as age 5 and is the Kumari until puberty, when she again resumes her less exalted role as a human being and her successor is chosen.

Sooner or later, anyone who spends time in Katmandu also hears the name Boris. Hardly an adventure tale or novel set in Nepal since the 1950s fails to note the presence of the legendary Russian who once ran the Royal Hotel, the only good hotel for Westerners in Nepal in his day. Until recent years Boris ran the Yak & Yeti, which remains Katmandu's top restaurant. It's in a beautifully restored old Rana palace and the menu presents a delicious blend of French and Russian cuisine.

Later, Boris started another restaurant, which he called Boris, just outside of town. The diplomats and Westerners who live in Katmandu frequented the place, but it didn't last. Now Boris is 72 and some of his former loyal employees have opened a new place, on the second floor of an old downtown building. They call it Red Square and the menu is Russian. Peace Corps workers and trekking guides call it a favorite.

The main hangout for old-timers, the original mountaineers and trekkers, is the Rum Doodle restaurant in the Thamel area, just north of downtown where the guest houses are centered. Beer, steak and spaghetti are the draw. The mainstays are stories of risk-taking and hair-raising adventures, of swaggering novices and patient Sherpa guides, of climbers who've attempted to scale Mt. Everest and of those who never came back.

The center of Katmandu is Durbar (Palace) Square, around which are the old Royal Palace, pagoda- and Indian-style temples, vendors and beggars, and in all directions the maze of small dark shops, pleasant restaurants, dead-end alleyways, streets full of life.

All of the people seem to spend all of the daylight hours outside and every street in old Katmandu is teeming with crowds: strolling, sitting, sleeping, eating, children chasing each other, babies asleep in shawls on their mothers' backs, old men smoking their pipes.

Bada Dasain brings two events to Nepal especially for children. One is the flying of colorful kites from every small hand that can find a breeze to catch and a string to hold. The other is the setting up, near temples and all around the countryside, of tall temporary swings for visiting children to play on.

Some of the temples have erotic carvings decorating them. One guidebook's explanation is that the goddess of lightning, a virgin, would not strike a temple "with such shocking goings-on."

The best place in all of Katmandu to get away from it all--and the need can arise amid the din of a festival afternoon--is through the door of the Crystal Hotel and up the ancient "lift" to a rooftop restaurant. The rooftop is a nicely trimmed lawn surrounded by red and yellow flowers. In late afternoon one finds groups of English people under the wide sun umbrellas, sipping their tea.

One of these was an elderly gentleman who had been a magistrate in India when the British still ruled the roost there. He chose not to return to England, but afternoon tea is a habit not to be broken. Room rates at the Crystal start at $30 for a double, with breakfast.

Budget travelers and trekkers tend to stay in one of the many guest houses in Thamel. The best-known one is the Katmandu Guest House ($8 and up), and its restaurant, Ashta Mangal, is a good place to go for Tibetan or Chinese food. Another guest house, cheap but clean, is the Nook, about $7 a night.

Nature's backdrop for Katmandu is a blue mountain range, the Ganesh Himal, capped by clouds that hide the distant Himalayas from view. In all of Nepal, rolling hillsides are terraced and planted with curving rows of rice, giving naturally beautiful terrain an overlay of steps. Paved roads wind through the countryside in graceful patterns. In the city the paved roads are interspersed with seedy dirt lanes and here and there a lush park.

Unlike the days when Boris alone held the key to travelers' comfort, there are several first-class hotels in Katmandu now. The Yak & Yeti ($67 and up for a double) is a favorite, with its fine restaurant and prime location close to the city center. Nearby is the Hotel de L'Annapurna, a stone's throw from the Royal Palace ($60 double). The Hotel Malla, west of the palace, has as an attraction a nightly cultural show for guests; doubles start at $53. Farther from town but equally pleasant is the Soaltee Oberoi, $75 and up for a double.

Stan Armington, who heads the staff in Nepal for Mountain Travel (a top trekking organizer), dismisses the comments of people who say there are "too many tourists" in Nepal and that things were better "in the good old days when nobody went there." In 1961 there were a mere 6,200 visitors.

The main difference now, he said, is that instead of feeding trekkers who would be passing by at mealtime, the mountain people "keep the fire going all the time" in the hope of doing more business with the passers-by. Still, he said, there are fewer than 6,000 trekkers a year in the Everest area and maybe 200,000 tourists a year in all of Nepal.

"People generally come to Nepal the first time to go on a trek," Armington said. "They come back because of the Sherpas." These are the Nepalis who hire on as guides and workers for groups of trekkers. "A trek presents a unique opportunity to become friends with primitive people, truly unsophisticated people, and I mean this in the best sense."

Patan, next door to Katmandu, has many temples, several shops for wood carvings and bronze, and a Tibetan refugee camp that is well worth a visit.

At Jawlakhel, the refugee camp, one can watch the beautiful Tibetan rugs being made. The rows of girls at the looms thrust pieces of paper into visitors' hands. Their addresses. They say, "Send me clothes. Don't forget me." They smile, pose for pictures, and say, "Remember, promise." They were born in the camp after their parents fled the homeland and have never known life outside. The fine handwoven rugs sell for $6 and up.

The Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, west of Katmandu and across a footbridge, is called the "Monkey Temple" for good reason. Dozens of monkeys inhabit the grounds, and have been known to grab packages or purses from visitors. It wouldn't be wise to feed them. A climb up the steep stairs will be rewarded with a look at the Buddha eyes and countless prayer wheels. The city spreads across the land far below.

Worth a visit too is Pashupatinath, site of the most famous temple in Nepal. Non-Hindus can't enter the temple, but one can watch bodies being cremated there on the Bagmati River.

Nearby Bodhnath, the center of Tibetan culture and also home of many Tibetan refugees, should also be visited for a look at one of the biggest stupas in the world, and again the Buddha eyes.

The best view of the Himalayas from the Katmandu vicinity is from the village of Nagarkot on a ridge high above the valley. For an unforgettable experience, one can stay overnight at the Nagarkot Guest House, run by a Nepali woman called Didi (Big Sister). No electricity or running water, but home-grown and home-cooked meals, a silence broken only by the evening breeze, a sense of being where time ends. Bring your own candle.

Several books have been written about Nepal, and are worth reading before heading to that country. "Katmandu & the Kingdom of Nepal" by Prakash A Raj (Lonely Planet) is a good reference book. For trekkers, two books are "Trekking in the Himalayas" by Stan Armington (Lonely Planet) and "A Guide to Trekking in Nepal" by Stephen Bezruchka (Sahayogi Press).

Mountain Travel, Inner Asia, Sobek International and other adventure travel organizations offer treks in Nepal. Hemphill Harris Travel, Lindblad Travel and other tour organizers offer escorted tours to Nepal. Travel agents can arrange independent itineraries.

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