So you find yourself swept up into a taxi from the airport, and dumped into a hotel in the tourist area. There are internet cafes, shops and modern restaurants all for the sole purpose of catching some of the lucrative tourist dollar that is the back bone of Nepal’s Economy. There is a man on every corner trying to sell you everything from trekking to Everest Base Camp to cheap plastic beads from China. Horns honk, touts shout and other lap top clutching tourists wiz by you. You find yourself feeling as if you have just been transported into yet another modern metropolis filled with back packers and self-important volunteers & NGO’s, when what you really want is to sample the exotic culture and local life of Kathmandu, a life you caught a fleeting glimpse of from the dirty taxi windows on the journey from the airport! So grab your bag, camera and sense of adventure and let your feet take you into the heart and soul of Kathmandu, one of the Himalaya’s busiest cities. Let me reveal to you some of the best places to sample a taste of the local Kathmandu, a side of this bustling city that is not often seen by the “tourist coach” crowds.
Asan Tole – Asan Tole is the main market square in central Kathmandu. The market is the pulse of Newar culture (Newar are and ethnic group from Kathmandu Valley). The narrow cobbled lanes leading to the tole are dotted with hidden temples and court yards, over looked by ancient houses, all leaning on each other for support. Look upwards and you can still see the original hand carved woodwork that for centuries has been the trade mark of Newar craftsmen. The market place itself is situated around some delightful old temples and leads into by several small side streets. From early morning to late afternoon you will find men and women squatting around the central square selling fresh produce brought in from the fields that morning. Depending on the season you can find everything from exotic oyster mushrooms, 10 different kinds of potatoes and small sweet tomatoes to juicy fresh peaches, piles of vibrant green spinach and an assortment of herbs. Wander on any of the side streets that spider out from the chowk and you can find aromatic spices, the local staple rice, pungent dried fish, chillies and fresh handmade tofu, brass and copper wear, pots and pans, incense, temple offerings and an almost endless variety of house hold goods. Asan Tole is a great place to practice your haggling skills, soak up the atmosphere of this bustling market place and come home with some amazingly fresh local produce or some authentic Nepali kitchen wares.
Muslim Chowk – If you want to feel the vibe of a local community, then just on the outskirts of Thamel, wander down this quaint laneway which is home to some of Kathmandu’s Muslim population. There is activity in this street all hours of the day, from the halals butchers constantly hawking their wares, the smiling juice and fruit whallas to the local housewives hefting huge baskets of washing on their hips down to the local water spout. It’s almost like steeping into another zone as the Hindu Nepali culture melts in to the India Muslim vibe. Muslim Chowk is also an amazing place to be in the evening. Entire families come outside; women sit on the door steps chatting, while the children play and the men sit in the tea shops sipping hot tea. Here, you can also find some amazing restaurants that serve up plates of mouth-wateringly tender meat, piping hot chapattis and Parthia and wholesome plates of spiced potatoes and chick peas! A cheap and rewarding meal enjoyed amongst some of the cities friendliest people.
Bag Bazzaar – Looking for some local fashion? This one’s strictly for the women. Bag bazaar is one of Kathmandu’s original shopping streets. Here you can find shop after shop displaying swaths of colourful fabric all waiting to be turned into Kurta Surwal or Saris, two of Nepal’s most worn clothing items by women. If you are in the market for an affordable new outfit then head into one of the shops that take your fancy and pull up a cushion. The shop keeper will lavish you with smiles and tea while his assistant brings on an endless parade of material for you to choose from. Once you have decided on the material, they will measure you and check your preference for style. Then comes the best bit, haggling for price! This can take some time and normally requires more tea! Within one to two days you will return to the shop and collect your new garment, and enjoy more tea. This is one of Nepal’s most fun and authentic shopping experiences and totally different from the way you shop for clothes back home.
Tulikhel – If you’re the early bird type, then strap on your jogging shoes and totter through the early morning streets. Wind your way through Asan and the side streets leading to New Road. You will see the street cleaners out in force, meat boys doing their morning deliveries of whole sides of buffalo and the newspaper lads weaving along precariously balancing a stack of newspapers on their handle bars with one hand and hurling newspapers into gardens with the other. Head towards Tulikhel a large open park in the centre of Kathmandu. This is the place where locals come in the mornings for exercise, socializing and yoga! Grab a mat and join in on the daily yoga class that takes place in the bottom corner of the park. Learn to stretch and contort your body at angles you never though it could, and be doubly surprised at the old lady sitting next to you with her ankles around her ears! The best part of these sessions hosted by yogis from India, is the big belly laugh session at the end. Put yourself in a good spirit for the day by placing your hands on your belly and joining the locals in roaring chorus of laughter that wakes up anyone that was not already up!
Swayambunath – This popular tourist attraction has a lot more to offer than photographs of monkeys and Kathmandu’s sky line. Come here early in the morning or late in the afternoon to join the throng of Tibetans and Buddhists who make daily circumnavigations of the stupa. Follow in their footsteps as the traditional clad men and women make three circuits of the bottom of the stupa, turning the 10,000 mani wheels as they go. Then climb up the stairs to the top, head behind the main stupa, down the stairs and into the jungle. There will hardly be a sole around. Find yourself a place along one of the many paths that lead into the jungle and sit in total peace and silence. When you are blissfully content stroll down to the small white stupa and Newar Buddhist monastery, have a chat with the child monks who will be busy sweeping the court yard in the morning. Back on the road head into a local tea shop for some tea and freshly cooked Mulpi (fried dough that’s crispy on the outside and gooey in the middle) or try some traditional Tibetan Salt Tea, spiced potatoes and fluffy flat bread. All this and you can be back in Thamel before the other tourists have even got out of bed, better still as you where so early you never had to pay the entrance fee!