Our decision to visit Kathmandu, and Nepal in general, literally came from looking at the map saying, "Wow, Nepal is pretty close to Varanasi..." Nepal was not on our list of destinations when we set out, but we're both glad that we went there. Our adventure began in the capital, Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is not the oldest city that we visited, but it certainly felt the oldest. Part of the reason is because Kathmandu is, in fact, very old, with archaeological finds in the city dating back to 185 CE. That main reason though is that Kathmandu has changed so relatively little compared to other old cities. You can walk down a street in Kathmandu and see a small Buddha statue that is over 1500 years old sitting on a porch stoop. In other countries, that statue would be in a museum.
Of course, the reason millennium old statues are still in the street is that the city, and the country, remain relatively undeveloped. Nepal ranks 145th out of 187 on the Human Development Index, classifying it as "Low Human Development" and making it the least developed nation we have visited. Regularly scheduled electricity blackouts are a daily occurrence, but to their credit they happen precisely on schedule.
Unlike most of nations of South and East Asia, Nepal was never colonized by European powers and was recognized by Europe as a sovereign nation in 1923. Despite this independence, they were always aware of their two much larger and more powerful neighbors (China and India) and remained largely isolationist until the 1950s. This, Nepal's mountainous and landlocked geography, and the 10+ year civil war to overthrow the monarch ending in 2006 are primary drivers behind Nepal's low development.
But things are getting better. Several peaceful election cycles have passed since the end of the civil war. Ecotourism and trekking are bringing more and more tourists to Nepal (home of Mt. Everest and the rest of the Himalayas) every year. While there are reports of problems with garbage and waste in some of the scenic sights of Nepal, in general it appears that the government is attempting to manage the natural resources for the long term. The trekking and climbing routes in Nepal all require a (not-so-cheap) license that generates enough revenue to ensure that routes are maintained. And while the licenses may be a little expensive, everything else in the country is incredibly cheap and so the crowds of trekkers are coming.
The plates above were found in Itum Bahal. Bahals are courtyards in Buddhist monasteries. These are the first and last of four plaques telling the story of the demon that would eat misbehaving children. Eventually, the demon was bought off with a promise of an annual feast of buffalo meat which he is eating in the last plate. Today the bahal is filled once a year with a feast of buffalo meat to keep the demon away.
Likes its neighbor to the South, Nepal is almost entirely Hindu, although a sizable Buddhist population remains (about 8%). Most of the enduring architecture of the city were of Hindu or Buddhist design. The type of Buddhism seen in Nepal is the same that we saw in western Sichuan in China and is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Buddhism. In the future I think we may write a post comparing the three different branches of Buddhism we saw, but for the moment I will only note that I think the Tibetan style has the most beautiful statues and architecture of the three and I was excited to see it again in Nepal. The colorful flags in the stupa photo above, for example, are something we only saw in Tibetan Buddhism.
We loved Indian food, but at the end of our six weeks there we were ready for a change of pace. In Kathmandu we found an expansive array of inexpensive cuisines to dine on, including Italian, Japanese, Mexican, and a smattering of steakhouses. Kelsi and I splurged and went to the K-Too Steakhouse and an appetizer, steak entrees, dessert, and a bottle of wine for $30. It was so amazing we did it again three nights later.
The meal that will stick with me the most, however, is the momos.
Momos are the Nepali flavor of dumplings. They can be steamed or fried and filled with the sort of things you might expect... chicken, potato, etc. The Nepali special is buff momo, filled with buffalo meat.
We've had a lot of amazing food on our travel. Momos weren't the best, but they are the dish I most crave. Steamed buff momos with dipping sauce, piping fries with spicy ketchup, and a bottle of coke while sitting in the sun on the roof deck of the restaurant in Kathmandu was one of the most satisfying meals I had on the trip. I recommend it to anyone.