Hello, Kathmandu

Intricately carved exterior of a grand dwelling in the heritage city of Bhaktapur (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

Kathmandu. The name brings visions of rugged adventure. And the visitor’s initial impression does not disappoint. Kathmandu is a dusty city, disorganized, chaotic. No one goes there looking for sleek malls and limousine rides.

The city does not seem to have any zoning, and there are no apparent traffic rules. Taxi cabs, private cars, motorcycles, tuktuks, rickshaws, trucks and buses go every which way, competing for space on the road, crowding out pedestrians who are ever at risk of being side-swiped. But this is all normal to the Nepalis, much like Manilans accept the disorder in Quiapo and Divisoria during the Christmas season. 

Immediately, the visitor is enticed to go shopping. The bazaar in Thamel district is irresistible, where ready-to-wear are sold alongside top quality sarees and pashmina, cashmere and yak hair shawls, silver jewelry, cheap bangles, brass items, spices, teas, masks, mountaineering equipment, wood and stone carvings, woven bags, exquisite wall décor and other exotica. The bargaining is fun, even if you don't always get your way. Still, at the exchange rate of 100 rupees to the dollar, the prices are very reasonable. 

In the local market adjacent to the tourist stores, there is an entire street just for sarees. Another sells houseware, from large refrigerators to tiny soup bowls. Kathmandu residents find everything they need in stalls set up in its narrow lanes. In the plaza, vegetables, chiles, corn grit, all kinds of beans and other edibles are sold alongside small trays of prepared food, flowers and colored powder — offerings that the faithful buy to leave before the city’s many altars and temples, big and small, marked with images of gods and goddesses, and bells of different sizes.

The participants at the workshop on Women in Mediation, Tewa Center in Kathmandu. (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

Walking on its narrow sidewalks, the song in my head is by Streisand, the delightful “Supermarket in Old Peking.” Only, this is Kathmandu, a shopper’s delight, an adventurer's paradise. The colors of the city are amazing, especially after the rain washes away its dusty cover and the red brick structures are allowed to shine.  

All the activity in Kathmandu’s crowded commercial district can be stressful, until you reach Durbar Square, a treasure trove of ancient buildings, including temples and a royal palace, that is accessible to tourists for a hefty fee.  

Nepali culture is deep and unfathomable, with their myriad gods and goddesses and esoteric local practices and beliefs.

I was in Nepal with 24 other Asian women for 21 days in September and October, to participate in a workshop for women in peace mediation. We were lucky to be staying at the Tewa Center in Lalitpur, 20 minutes out of Kathmandu, a quiet haven with clean air and a great view of rice fields and green mountains that the natives call hills. In accordance with local custom, we entered our workshop room on bare feet, and sat on pillows on the floor.  Even our lecturers and facilitators had to work barefoot.

It was an intensive and interactive course with little time programmed for shopping and sight-seeing,   which was fine by me. After my first shopping day in Thamel, I preferred to stay at the center and contemplate the sunrise before doing yoga, and at the end of the day, watch the sun descend, erasing the distant hills as the day darkened.  

A woman rests beside a stone statue guarding a temple in Bhaktapur's Dattaraya Square (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

But our hosts saw to it that we would see more of Nepal than Kathmandu City, with two day trips to interesting places in the far reaches of Kathmandu Valley. We once got up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise in the hills of Nagarkot, which felt like the top of the world with the clouds below us and a double rainbow that framed the snow-capped mountains in the distance. 

We also visited Bhakthapur, a UNESCO Heritage Site, an ancient town that has been lovingly preserved, where one can walk through and absorb the art and culture of the Nepali people. I particularly liked the intricately framed windows in the old dwellings, the stone carvings, the Golden Gate beside the 55-Windows Palace, and the erotic wood carvings decorating the temples in Durbar Square. We were to learn that Durbar Square is the generic name of areas outside royal palaces. In Kathmandu Valley alone, there are three Durbar Squares, in Kathmandu, Bhakthapur and Patan, all of which are UNESCO Heritage Sites, where ancient temples, monuments, water spouts and stone carvings hold court alongside tourist shops selling tankas (intricately hand-painted mandalas), shawls and other Nepali specialties, and royal palaces that have been converted into museums. 

Worshippers bring food and flowers to an altar near the market in Kathmandu. (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

Nepali culture is deep and unfathomable, with their myriad gods and goddesses and esoteric local practices and beliefs.

On a visit to Nari Jagaran, a women’s cooperative in Nala municipality, we were welcomed with tikka (a sticky red paste) applied on our foreheads, orange ribbons around our necks, and small homemade bouquets of yellow, orange and red flowers. The short explanation given of these charming gestures was, we were welcomed, honored and given good luck.

In rural Dhulikahel on the northern edge of Kathmandu Valley, we took a bumpy uphill ride to Namu Buddha where the multilevel monastery of a Rinpoche (a high lama) done in red and gold commemorates the legend of Buddha who, in one of his lifetimes, met a hungry lioness and her five starving cubs. Upon seeing them, the story goes, the Buddha began carving off his flesh to feed the pack. 

Fifteenth century temple beam in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

It is said that if you come to Nepal, you must see Pokhara, a six-hour drive on a two-lane highway from Kathmandu. I visited Pokhara on an earlier trip to Nepal two years ago, where I met with local journalists at a workshop. There I also got up at dawn to catch the sunrise in the Annapurna mountain range and its spectacular Fish Tail peak.  At a Buddhist monastery in Pokhara, I saw young boys in crimson robes training to be monks intently playing video games. In Namu Buddha, they were happily shaving each other’s heads.

My memories of Nepal are of hundreds of altars and temples where there are always worshipers amid curious tourists, majestic snow-capped peaks glistening in the sun, hills heavy with forests or carved into terraces that grow abundant food, and spectacular sunrises and solemn sunsets. 

An exquisitely carved wooden peacock window in Dattatraya Square (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

Nepal is also a place for good food – if you like curries, which they make out of chicken, mutton, fish, hardboiled eggs and every possible vegetable.  There is also the other Nepali staple, dal, which comes in many versions using all kinds of beans and lentils that filled my joints with uric acid. But it has other gastronomic attractions too. I tasted the freshest sashimi and sushi in a small Japanese restaurant in Kathmandu.

Finally, Nepal to me is home to gentle, happy and helpful people who greet you with palms together saying, ”Namaste,” a heartfelt blessing that comes with a smile. 

I went to Nepal thinking 21 days would be too long for a workshop in a strange place. But there was much to learn about mediation from the facilitators and participants, and even more to absorb of the sights, tastes, sounds, scents and culture of the country and its people. 

How to Get to Kathmandu:

From Manila, you can take a China Southern Airlines flight to Guangzhou then a connecting flight to Kathmandu, five hours of flight time from Guangzhou.

The airports in China are huge, efficient and comfortable, but be prepared for third world amenities and service once you get to Kathmandu. You line up to get your visa on arrival. Be prepared with a 2x2 passport picture and $25 for a short-stay visa. 

If you're worried about the food in Nepal, instant noodles and other familiar snacks are available in the stores, and there are restos that serve Western, Japanese, Chinese and other cuisine. 

Paulynn Sicam

Paulynn Sicam

A retired journalist, Paulynn Sicam is a technical adviser to the Philippine givernment's peace panel negotiating with the Communist Party of the Philippines.