Kathmandu. The very name conjures up images of snow-covered peaks, snake charmers and mountaineers, holy men and sacred cows. Perhaps no other city on earth has seemed so mysterious. This city, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, lies in a wide valley hidden behind a wall of nearly impenetrable mountains. Today, winging into Kathmandu on an international flight, the Mahabhaharat Range slides by below as the Himalayas shimmer in the distance. The jumbled landscape doesn't give the appearance that it could ever provide a level surface large enough to land a Boeing or Airbus. Then, as the peaks below grow uncomfortably close to the belly of the plane, mountainsides give way to gentler slopes and terraced hillsides, which are dun-colored in the post-monsoon months favored by trekkers. Brick houses dot the fields of a seemingly idyllic rural setting. Suddenly the city comes into view--uniformly brown and low-rise, it sprawls across the valley floor. There's a quick glimpse of a huge white hemisphere in the distance, and suddenly the plane is on the runway. The passengers breathe a communal sigh of relief for having safely landed amid the Himalayan peaks. The excitement is palpable as passengers wait to deplane. Through the door lies Kathmandu, city of mystery, the most exotic city in Asia.

However, as feet hit tarmac, the reality of modern-day Kathmandu immediately comes to bear. The arrivals hall is a zoo and no one seems to know what to do. Guards want to inspect your bags as you leave the arrivals hall. Outside, hordes of taxi drivers, porters, and hotel touts block the exit door. Beyond the airport gates, the streets are chaotic at best. Clouds of blue-black smoke billow from diesel trucks, buses packed like sardine cans stop in the middle of the road, cows wander aimlessly, and horns blare incessantly. The smoke of funeral pyres mingles with the stench of garbage. Women in colorful saris dash out of the way of your careening taxi as it bounces upon potholes large enough to swallow a car.

However, once you have settled into your hotel, you can venture out onto the streets of old Kathmandu, where a different picture slowly begins to emerge. Kathmandu is a city of alleyways leading into the unknown, a city where roadside shrines are sprinkled with marigold petals and aging temples double as produce markets. Strange odors--a m?lange of incense, cow dung, and rotting garbage--drift through the streets. Eerie discordant music--the tinny jangling of cymbals, the drone of a harmonium, the pulse of drums--might fill a nearly deserted square at nightfall as musicians sit hunched over their ancient instruments on the floor of a tiny temple. In the market, vendors swaddled in woolen shawls sit behind baskets full of mandarins and radishes. Kathmandu has been called a medieval city, and it is hard not to think of it as such as you wander its back streets. The lanes are narrow, and in the oldest parts of town, there is little traffic (though the few cars and motorcycles that venture into these ancient alleys make frequent use of their horns). People do the heavy work here, not vehicles. They carry heavy-laden baskets on their backs or slung from poles across their shoulders. Perhaps time has not completely stood still in Kathmandu, but it certainly has not passed as swiftly as it has in other parts of the world.

For more than a hundred years Kathmandu was cut off from the outside world by a government that wished to keep the country isolated. When the royal family was restored to power in the mid-1950s, Nepal opened its borders and the painful process of entering the 20th century began. Today, Kathmandu has much of the Western world's technology, but alas, many of its environmental and social woes as well. There are cars and computers, fax machines and factories, cellular phones and satellite TV. There are also traffic congestion and smog, deforestation and unemployment. However, with the help of the West, Nepal is working to overcome these problems. Kathmandu is certainly no Shangri-la, but it is one of the world's most fascinating cities, nonetheless.

Arriving in Kathmandu is a full-on sensory assault--an experience never to be forgotten. It becomes immediately obvious that you have arrived in a different world. Don't be unprepared. After reading this information you'll know what to expect and what to do. Preparation won't lessen the sensory overload, but it may help you to cope.

Immediately upon arrival in Kathmandu, you will begin to understand that dealing with the Nepali government bureaucracy is an arduous, often-frustrating task. Cultivate patience.

Because Nepali rupees are not available outside of Nepal, the very first thing you'll need to do is change some money at one of the currency exchange desks right inside the door of the arrivals hall. Exchange rates here are about the same as you'll get at banks and exchange offices outside the airport. Be sure to hang onto your receipt; you'll need it if you have to change any money back at the end of your visit.

Next, you'll need to fill out an embarkation card if you did not already do so on the plane. Now is also the time to get a visa if you did not obtain one before leaving home. There should be both embarkation cards and visa application forms somewhere in the arrivals hall, but don't expect anything here to be marked or have any semblance of order. A 15-day visa costs $15 and a single-entry 30-day visa costs $25. With forms in hand and U.S. dollars with which to pay your visa fee (U.S. dollars are all they'll accept here), take a place in the correct line. There are separate lines for those who already have visas and for those who are applying for visas at the airport.

When you have completed these formalities, proceed downstairs to baggage pickup. Customs will then inspect your bag. You must have all bags, even carryons, inspected and marked before you can leave the terminal. Beyond the baggage pickup and before exiting the building, you'll find the airport's tourist information desk, where you can pick up a map and brochures. If you don't have a room reservation yet, the staff at this desk will call around for you.

Next comes the hard part--negotiating a taxi into town. The easiest way to get to your hotel is to let the hotel know (by mail, phone, fax, or e-mail) when you will be arriving and on what flight, and ask them to send a car or van to pick you up. Most hotels offer this service either free or for about the going rate of a taxi. If you haven't made arrangements with a hotel, the next-easiest way to get into town is to pay for a fixed-rate taxi before you even leave the arrivals building. You'll find the taxi desk near the visitor information desk. The fare into town is Rs200 ($3.05). These are your two best options, especially if you've been in transit for more than a day and are suffering from jet lag and sleep deprivation.

If, however, you want to save a dollar and throw yourself immediately into bargaining mode, step through the doors to the outside world without a taxi voucher in hand. Taxi drivers, porters, and touts will descend on you like vultures, pulling at your bags and demanding the name of your hotel. If you don't give them a name, they'll start trying to sell you some obscure hotel. A tout, for those who have never encountered one, is a person who is paid on a commission basis to take you to a particular hotel (or shop or whatever). A shrewd bargainer might be able to negotiate a fare of Rs125 to Rs150 ($1.90 to $2.25). Good luck!

Although there are public buses into town, they aren't likely to take you anywhere near your hotel and are overcrowded even when you aren't dragging any luggage. Don't even consider this option.

The Department of Tourism operates two information centers in Kathmandu: at the airport (tel. 977/1-470537) and just off Durbar Square on New Road (tel. 977/1-220818). They are both open Sunday to Thursday from 10am to 6pm and on Friday from 10am to 4pm. You are more likely to find brochures and maps at the airport information desk, which also specializes in providing information on hotels and guest houses. The downtown office usually has brochures during the peak seasons, though they are often reluctant to hand them out. Either of these desks can help you with general questions. Your hotel staff, travel agencies, and both Travellers' Nepal and Nepal Traveller magazines, which are sometimes available at hotels in Kathmandu, are also all good sources of information.

This is Kathmandu's main budget-accommodations neighborhood, and nearly every street is lined with cheap hotels and restaurants, interesting shops, and trekking agents. It's a real scene, and the crowds and constant noise can really frazzle the nerves after only a short time. Thamel begins 1 block west of the north end of Kantipath on the street known as Tridevi Marg. The area from Jyatha on the south to Lekhnath Marg on the north and over to Paknajol on the west is all considered Thamel, though the neighborhood seems to extend its boundaries every year.

Durbar Marg runs south from the gates of the Royal Palace and is Kathmandu's main upscale shopping and hotel street. Lining this wide avenue, you'll find expensive restaurants, deluxe hotels, and shops selling jewelry, imported clothing, and Tibetan antiques. Durbar Marg shops now seem to appeal primarily to Indian tourists, and aside from the antiques stores, there isn't much to see on this street.

The heart of old Kathmandu, Durbar Square is home to one of the greatest concentrations of temples, shrines, and old palaces found in the world. Although by day it is overrun with tourists, taxis, curio sellers, and cycle rickshaws, it is still the single-most-important stop on any visit to Kathmandu. You'll find Durbar Square at the western end of New Road, which has its start at the Tundikhel.

Well-known in the days when Kathmandu was the hippie capital of the world, Freak Street is no longer the budget traveler's main lodging area in Kathmandu. However, shops and very cheap guest houses still line this street just south of Basantapur Square, which itself is at the southeast corner of Durbar Square.

Though it is actually a separate city, Patan, which is also known as Lalitpur, is divided from Kathmandu only by the Bagmati River. Patan has its own Durbar Square and old city area, as well as the Patan Industrial Estate and the Tibetan Refugee Camp. The city is known for its metalworkers, and their shops abound in the area near the Temple of 1,000 Buddhas.

Located 9 miles east of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur is the third major city of the Kathmandu Valley and is the best preserved. In order to continue the ongoing preservation of Bhaktapur, visitors must now pay a fee to enter the older parts of the city. Bhaktapur is known for its wood-carvers and thangka painters.

There are basically three types of public buses: full-size buses, minibuses, and three-wheeled tempos. However, they are all, for the most part, rolling sardine cans, especially the minibuses and tempos, which are built for people with an average height of about 5 feet, 2 inches. It is nearly impossible to get a seat on any sort of bus unless you get on at the very start of the route, and consequently, even a short ride can be a traumatic experience. For this reason, buses are best avoided, though they are very cheap. Most buses begin their routes from the City Bus Park on the east side of the Tundikhel, south of Durbar Marg. Bhaktapur buses are an exception. These buses leave from Bagh Bazaar, east of Ratna Park and a long block north of the City Bus Park.

The electric buses that operate between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur are an exception. These buses are usually crowded only at rush hour and are an economical way to get to and from Bhaktapur. The only drawback is that they leave from just east of the traffic circle near the National Stadium, which is a long way from Thamel or Durbar Marg.

In some parts of town there are three-wheeled tempos that operate on a fixed route in the same way that buses do. These tempos have two bench seats behind the driver and are usually blue or white. The white tempos are electric and are known as safa (clean) tempos. Most tempos start their routes from Kantipath, just north of the General Post Office or from Bag Bazaar, on the south side of Rani Pokhari, which is at the north end of the Tundikhel.

  • Boudhanath
  • Brass and Bronze Museum
  • Kaiser Library
  • National Art Gallery
  • National Woodworking Museum
  • Pashupatinath
  • Patan Museum
  • Swayambunath Stupa
  • The Central Zoo
  • The National Museum
  • The Tribhuvan, Mahendra, and Birendra Museums

The Kathmandu Valley has for centuries been the cultural heart of Nepal, and scattered across the countryside are innumerable temples and shrines. Among these are several that are worth a visit not only for the priceless works of art they hold, but also for their remote and tranquil locations. So once you have explored Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, it is time to head for the distant corners of the valley. In doing so, not only will you visit more of the area's fascinating temples, but you also will finally have a chance to see the countryside--the terraced fields that are so much a part of farming in Nepal. Excursions to such temples as Dakshinkali, Vajra Jogini, and Gokarneshwar offer a chance to escape the congestion of Kathmandu and see what life is like outside the city.

The Kathmandu Valley, due in large part to its rich soil, has also long been Nepal's population center. Dotting the rich agricultural lands are numerous villages and towns, some of which were formerly separate little kingdoms in much the way that Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur were separate kingdoms. Kirtipur, Bungamati, and Panauti are among the more interesting valley towns, and excursions to any of them will give you an idea of what Kathmandu looked like until quite recently.

Also found on the outer edges of the Kathmandu Valley are the easiest locations from which to take in extensive panoramas of the Himalayas. While there are views of the mountains from the Kathmandu Valley (when the smog isn't too bad), far better views are to be had from the valley's rim, which stands as much as 3,000 feet higher than the valley floor. From Dhulikhel and Nagarkot, once just quiet villages, it is possible to view almost 200 miles of snow-covered peaks. Sunrises and sunsets from these vantage points are truly remarkable and should not be missed. You can even do a bit of hiking using either of these villages as a base. A day hike along the ridges on the valley's rim will give you an idea of what trekking in Nepal is all about.