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Blog: Remembering the Kathmandu Valley

People often ask me what my favourite WHS is. Of course it is hard to choose – depending on my mood of the day I might say Angkor or Machu Picchu, or a lesser known natural site such as Manu National Park where I "learned" to love nature. But generally I opt for the Kathmandu Valley. Maybe not an obvious choice, but it’s a place that I keep coming back to and where there’s always something left to explore. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of April 25, I think it is right to put the spotlight on the Kathmandu Valley.

Boudhanath Stupa

I have visited the Valley four times: in 1993, 2001, 2007 and 2011. The WHS covers 7 locations, spread out over 4 different towns. I’ve been to all separate sites, most of them more than once. During these trips, I have never skipped the short commute to the outskirts of Kathmandu for Boudhanath Stupa. This is the religious symbol of the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal and probably the greatest Tibetan Buddhist site in the world. It is surrounded nowadays by over 50 Tibetan monasteries. Can it substitute a visit to Tibet proper? Yes, I believe so. When I look at our list of Tibetan Buddhist WHS, this surely is the most active maybe only rivalled by Lhasa's Jokhang Temple.

Then there’s Pashupatinath, one of the most impressive Hindu sites on the WH List. It's an active "burning" ghat, where bodies are cremated in public. You may be familiar with it from Varanasi (India), but there's no WHS similar to this.

Patan Durbar Square

Most of the typical Nepali / Newari charm lies within the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Patan has an excellent Newari art museum, rated one of the best in South Asia. It is housed in one of the old royal palaces at the square. As it is difficult to maintain a museum of this standard for a developing country, it has been supported by Austria from the start.

Wherever and whenever you go, there’s always something going on. Daily life of the Nepalese incorporates visits to the small or big shrines at these squares, just a quick prayer on their way to work or school. Often a festival is in preparation, or a procession of some kind occupies the narrow streets. What I like most about the Kathmandu Valley is its liveliness. By that it resembles a living cultural landscape, and gives it an edge beyond a historic or archaeological site.

Ready for yet another procession

There’s so much to see and to experience, and the quality of the sights is high enough to warrant repeat visits. Also there are other, non-WHS sights in the Kathmandu Valley that are worthwhile to visit. Think of the unique horizontal Vishnu statue at Budhanilkantha, which is ritually washed every day by a Brahmin priest. Or the traditional Newari town of Kirtipur.

After the 1934 earthquake, the Kathmandu Valley has been fully rebuilt without affecting the function of the sites. I hope they can repeat it this time.

Published 3 May 2015

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Responses to Remembering the Kathmandu Valley
Bill Duckworth, Montrose, CO (8 May 2015)

I think Bodhnath will always be my favorite. I went to Nepal at least 7 times and feel a newness in the old country every time I go


Paul Tanner (4 May 2015)

“Remembering Kathmandu”.
I have just worked out that my 4 visits to Kathmandu were in 1972, 1976, 1994 and 2001 (The first 2 before WH inscription). In 1972 the population of Nepal was c12m – it reached 28.3m in 2014. Kathmandu City was 342k in 1971 and the larger “Valley” conurbation was 600k. In 2011 these were above 1m and 2.5m respectively! So in just over 40 years the population of the country has a bit more than doubled whilst that of Kathmandu and the Valley has increased around 4 fold!

This growth was already visible by 1994 and very much so by 2001 when the valley population was still only 1.6m. In 1972 Swayambhunath was way out in the countryside. I remember cycling out from Kathmandu through rice fields to get to it and cycling everywhere in Kathmandu was a pleasure with little motorised traffic. By the time of my second visit in 1976 Bhaktapur was reached by a new, Chinese supplied, trolley bus system! But this too chugged its way out through rice fields. The Web shows that the trolley system was shut down in 2001 and restarted in 2003 but only inside Kathmandu itself before closing completely in 2008.

Certainly in 1972 and ‘76 there were no entry fees anywhere. I can’t be sure about 1994 but by 2001 tourists had to pay to enter the historic zones. In ‘72 of course the “Hippy trail” was in full swing, having built up during the 60’s. Kathmandu was on the road of inevitable change and the growing impact of low budget travel through the 60’s was already having an effect. “Freak Street” was the hippy centre and contained the well known “Aunt Jane’s” - across the subcontinent and beyond, travellers arranged to meet there to exchange stories and partake of a piece of Chocolate cake in this café started by the wife of a US Peace Corps director! And, after your cake and coffee, “Hash” was readily available for those who wanted it. The Yak and Yeti was still run by the original Boris Lissanovitch, the “legendary” White Russian émigré who was instrumental in getting Nepalese royalty to open the country up to tourism. In those days, although being a bit “upmarket” for Kathmandu eateries, it was still a long way from its current 5***** manifestation with the first hotel “upgrade” not being constructed until 1977 (followed by further extensions). I can still remember in 1976 having a bit of a “blow out” celebration for reaching Everest Base camp with Borscht in the original Chimney restaurant!

But, back to my first visit in 1972. I note that it was only 38 years after the 1934 earthquake but that a further 43 years has passed since then!! Well, the 38 year old “reconstructed” buildings all looked pretty authentic back in 1972 despite their relatively “recent” reconstruction!! I think we can presume that the current destruction will similarly be “erased”. The human deaths on the other hand are irrevocable and are the real tragedy. But that “old Kathmandu” of 1972/76 had already gone for ever long before the earthquake destroyed the buildings!