Kathmandu - General Info
The gateway to a mystical land of temples, mountains and monasteries, Kathmandu was always the jewel at the end of the overland trail. Even a decade-long civil war did little to dent Kathmandus reputation as the backpacker hub of the Himalaya, and legions of travellers still gather here to swap stories of adventure over plates of Tibetan dumplings before heading for the high mountain passes. Enclosed by a mountain wall, Kathmandu has been a beacon for adventurers since Nepal first opened its borders to foreigners in the 1950s. The first arrivals were geographers and mountaineers, who came here to survey and climb the highest mountains on earth, but they were soon joined by adventurous young backpackers in search of the ultimate Shangri-la. Visitors still come to Kathmandu in search of enlightenment, but the hippies have been joined by legions of trekkers, clad in the latest Gore-Tex gear and bound for the rugged trails that snake across the highest mountains on earth. Access to this trekking wonderland is tenuous - light aircraft can take you some of the way, but the high valleys of the Himalaya can only be reached on foot, and the highest passes need ropes, crampons and ice axes. In between expeditions to the mountains, travellers spend laid-back days exploring the medieval city-states that dot the valley floor - ancient Patan, historic Bhaktapur and Kathmandu itself, where internet cafs and pizza restaurants stand side by side with centuries-old temples and statue-filled courtyards. Listed since 1979 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the centre of Kathmandu still feels like a living museum of Hindu and Buddhist art, with temples, palaces, shrines and effigies of multi-armed deities scattered across its narrow streets. Every turn reveals another hidden courtyard, overflowing with ancient carvings and statuary, all freshly daubed with tikka powder by contemporary devotees. Poles apart from chaotic and crowded capital cities elsewhere in Asia, Kathmandu has a beguiling and magical allure that have not been tempered by time. With the mountains calling out to new arrivals, many visitors only spend a few days acclimatising in Kathmandu before embarking on a Himalayan trek, but almost everybody circumnavigates the famous Buddhist stupa at Bodnath festooned with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags and makes the dramatic ascent to the towering monkey temple at Swayambhunath, one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal. While still unpredictable, the political scene has calmed significantly since the Communist Party of Nepal gained power in the national elections in 2008, marking the end of the Nepalese civil war. With the abolition of the monarchy, peace has returned to the Kathmandu valley, though demonstrations and strikes sometimes shut down transport links to the rest of the country. The first port of call for new arrivals is the Old Town, which stretches from Durbar Square to Thamel, the main hang-out for trekkers and backpackers. From here, everything is accessible on foot, by rickshaw, or by rented bike or motorcycle. However, many of Kathmandus finest hotels are secreted in the suburbs, offering views of misty mountains and ancient Buddhist stupas.