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Home / Brunch / Travel: A world between the known and the new

Travel: A world between the known and the new

Kathmandu seems like any Indian city, but it takes only 24 hours to know it’s a brand new experience at a bargain rate

brunch Updated: Dec 21, 2019 23:01 IST
Sunetra Choudhury
Sunetra Choudhury
Hindustan Times
The glorious Boudhanath Stupa makes for a serene sight from one of the rooftop cafés that surround it
The glorious Boudhanath Stupa makes for a serene sight from one of the rooftop cafés that surround it(Sunetra Choudhury)

I like to believe that I am blessed with a super power. One, where if I really want something, I will it to happen. And so it was that after reading the memoir of Wai Wai noodles founder Binod Chaudhary Making it Big, I started relishing the thought of visiting Kathmandu. Nepal’s first billionaire according to Forbes magazine, painted this vibrant picture of the city, where royal family members found innovative ways to get fancy cars into the Himalayan Kingdom. I was intrigued enough to pitch it as our quick summer getaway (highs of 25 degrees celsius!) but my travelling partner vetoed with – ‘Who goes to Kathmandu these days?’

A monk telling the beads of the rosary at the Boudhanath Stupa
A monk telling the beads of the rosary at the Boudhanath Stupa ( Sunetra Choudhury )
If you want to see Everest for sure, you can get off at Kathmandu and take a joyride, which caters to that over an hour’s flight with champagne

That’s when my super powers kicked in and I magically, got an invitation to inaugurate the alumni chapter of my journalism school. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication, had hundreds of students from Nepal and they wanted some of us to be part of the event in September. “Do you think I’ll be able to hang out at Thamel after the event?” was my only query. That’s where my friends told me all the beautiful people hung out. As soon as I heard that my hotel was a walk away from that place, I packed to leave for that one night only trip.

Criminal passions  

Visiting any other place for just 24 hours would seem rushed but somehow Kathmandu seems tailor-made for such a short trip. It’s just about a 90-minute flight away, which means you can get there in time for breakfast on a Saturday morning. I am not sure I saw Mount Everest but the views from the plane are to die for. The guide books say that if you want to see Everest for sure, you can get off at Kathmandu and take a joyride, which especially caters to that over an hour’s flight with champagne.

A view of Kathmandu city from Swayambhunath Stupa
A view of Kathmandu city from Swayambhunath Stupa ( Sunetra Choudhury )

But even without the champagne, the clear blue skies and the moderate weather really had me in good spirits when I landed. You need to be in that mood to take on the crowds that hit you soon after. The airport isn’t an international, modern one and so it gets overwhelmed during rush hour. There were people falling over each other to get through the security scanners and at one point I felt I was going to be in the middle of a stampede.

When you step out of the stupa complex, the crowded streets feel like any other Indian city and the traffic jams are a lot like home too

But I quickly got over that because not too long after, I was in the heritage Yak and Yeti hotel. The excitement wasn’t as much for its old-world charm, its wooden flooring and ballroom but because I had just finished writing my book Black Warrant and its research mentioned that Charles Sobhraj had been arrested while gambling at the hotel’s casino. (By the way, I did try to squeeze an interview with Sobhraj into my 24-hour schedule, but the country-hopping serial murderer now imprisoned in Kathmandu returned my call from jail a week too late!). Other visitors should seek out this hotel for the beautiful way it has been preserved. You can feel you are part of the Royal Rana household whose palace theatre this used to be till it took on its more current form of being the destination for expats when it opened as the current hotel in the 70s.

Karma (rum and) Ola

In fact, Yak and Yeti is charming enough for a staycation but there’s simply too much to do in the city. If you are a believer, then your first stop may be at the iconic Pashupatinath temple. It was mine because I wanted to see what impact the 2014 earthquake had had on its structure. News consumers across the world were heartbroken to hear that it was damaged and I’m happy to report that it is as majestic as it is meant to be. There are few touts, which means you are allowed to have a truly spiritual experience without being bothered for money. And no cameras or filming is allowed, which means you have to just mentally capture the entire experience. The temple complex is located on the banks of the river Bagmati and we just stood around there, the river flowing on one side, admiring the stunning piece of architecture and its sculptures with several deities.

Enjoy the cocktails and wood-fire oven pizzas at Fire and Ice, Thamel
Enjoy the cocktails and wood-fire oven pizzas at Fire and Ice, Thamel ( Sunetra Choudhury )

My next stop became my favourite place in the city. The Boudhanath Stupa is another world heritage site, and just a short drive from the temple. A 100 rupees ticket gets you access to this awe-inspiring structure, which is encircled by restaurants, bars, souvenir stalls and clothes shops. There are many rooftop bars and it was therapeutic to just sit there with a drink and see people do their thing. There was a flash mob dancing to some Bollywood music and pigeons ala Trafalgar Square and I realised that momos taste much, much better in this Himalayan nation than they do in India.

The majestic Swayambhunath stupa complex stands on a hill overlooking the city
The majestic Swayambhunath stupa complex stands on a hill overlooking the city ( Sunetra Choudhury )

Sitting there and taking in the scenery, I wondered why people in India don’t go to Kathmandu anymore. When we were kids, it was quite common to hear of people holidaying there. Did that IC-814 flight from Kathmandu to Delhi that got hijacked in 1999 put everyone off the destination? Nepal has better weather and is cheaper than Thailand, so why isn’t it a viable destination?

Eat, pray, love

Ambassador Manjeev Puri with whom I spent time at the IIMC event that evening said the reason for low interest among Indians could be sheer proximity. “People think that it’s right here, so it’s not like going abroad,’’ he said, adding that a lot of work was now on to improve its infrastructure and there was even a Visit Nepal 2020 campaign planned.

The Pashupatinath temple is perched on the banks of the river Bagmati
The Pashupatinath temple is perched on the banks of the river Bagmati ( Sunetra Choudhury )

The fact is that when you step out of the stupa complex, the crowded streets feel like any other Indian city and the traffic jams are a lot like home too. Most Indians who travel to Asian destinations perhaps want a more tangible international experience, one that’s more spiffy. The advantage with Nepal is that it’s a brand new experience in bargain prices. The exchange rate with the rupee makes it possible for you to feel like Himalayan royalty and who wouldn’t want that?

The entrance to the Pashupatinath temple is vibrant to boot
The entrance to the Pashupatinath temple is vibrant to boot ( Sunetra Choudhury )

At the end of the trip, I asked my travelling partner, the one who had nixed our summer plan but had come along this time, if he had misjudged Kathmandu and would he come back with me again? For the Swayambhunath Stupa with the bathing monkeys and stunning aerial views; for the Boudhanath stupa, which is one of the most peaceful and scenic spots in the world; for our discovery of this boutique called Drichu with some really beautiful clothes. We had walked with some of my IIMC friends to Thamel and eaten the local meat curry while listening to dodgy live music at the Jatra café, we discovered that the Italian restaurant Fire and Ice may not be the best place out of Rome but it still served some nice Aperol Spritz to wash down your pizzas. That’s where he answered – ‘Yes, in a heartbeat.’ In other words, I ate, prayed and loved in Kathmandu – and would love to do so again, but beyond 24 hours, soon.

Author Bio: Sunetra Choudhury is the national political editor at Hindustan Times

From HT Brunch, December 22, 2019

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