The Ancient City of Bhaktapur

ps. Due to my tablet and keyboard dying in Thailand, and power cuts in Nepal meaning that my phone was never fully charged, I had to handwrite a lot of my blog posts and I’m typing them up now that I’m back in Australia. 

Having been picked up at the airport and whisked away to my yoga retreat, Bhaktapur was my first experience of a Nepalese city, and I was completely unprepared… I didn’t even know anything about the place – and didn’t have access to the internet to look it up – but I was in need of cash, and that was where the closest ATM was located.

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Alok, the manager at the yoga retreat walked me to the bus stop at Telkot, and bundled me in with instructions to the driver on where to let me off. “Only pay 20 rupees!” he drilled me; “Have you got my number? Good. Call me if you have any problems.” I assured him that I’d be fine. I mean really, how hard could it be to navigate a city?

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As it turned out, very hard. I got out at Bhaktapur in a bit of a daze. Street signs? None that I could see – and then later when I started to notice the small blue plaques stuck onto the sides of buildings, they were all in Nepalese Sanskrit (you know, the writing that looks like this:  जननी जन्मभूमिश्च स्वर्गादपि गरीयसी *) so that I couldn’t even read them. 

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Ahead of me was a maze, and before 9am the city was still waking up so that the streets were empty and the shops were closed. I had nothing by which to judge in which direction I should head. Bhaktapur was a jumble of winding alleyways connecting to even windier alleyways. I felt lost.

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“It’s only a small city,” I thought to myself. “If I just keep on walking I’m bound to find something.” (I actually thought wrong, and when I Googled it later I found that it was actually the third biggest city in Nepal. Go figure.) I tried asking some locals for directions to ‘Durbar Square’ but they just couldn’t understand my accent, shrugged, and walked away. I pushed on.

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Bhaktapur is sometimes called an open museum, and it’s a very accurate term; around me were beautiful buildings wrought of stone and red brick and majestic temples with delicately carved woodwork and children running joyously through them, as if they were playgrounds. As the shops started to open and the streets got busier, the relative quiet gave way to the constant honk of motorbikes, and locals calling out to me “where are you from” – which surprised me since I’d expected that I could pass for Nepalese.

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It was as I was wishing longingly for a map that I stumbled upon The Peacock Guesthouse, a sign outside proclaiming that the building was 700 years old and that there was free wifi inside. I was saved!

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I sat down in their gorgeous cafe ‘Himalayan Bakery’, ordered yoghurt and tea, and signed in to the wifi. The yoghurt was amazing – it’s a speciality of Bhaktapur called juju dhau, ‘king yoghurt’. It’s made with fresh buffalo milk and flavoured with spices like cloves, cardamom, cashew nuts and coconut shavings, then set in a clay pot so that it’s thick and creamy and has a consistency closer to custard than yoghurt. I’m not a huge fan of cloves, and I didn’t think I’d like coconut in yoghurt, but the flavours are so subtle and give it just a hint of sweetness, that the result is pretty damn delectable.

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The internet, on the other hand, was a bit disappointing. I searched ‘what to do in Bhaktapur’ and the results were mainly to do with temples, which was fine, but they didn’t really give you directions, which was less fine. The guy at the counter was a lot more helpful – he pulled out a map from a book for me, showed me every place I should visit, and drew me the paths to get there.

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Of course, maps are great if you know where you are, or have street signs that you can read. I now knew where to go, but I had no idea how to orientate myself and was too embarrassed to go back and ask. I figured I’d walk around for a while, then ask for directions.

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Somehow I picked the right way, and stumbled into Durbar Square entirely by accident. Durbar Square consists of this ancient ‘Palace of Fifty-Five Windows’, originally built in 1427 AD, the Lion’s Gate and Golden Gate, a couple of statues, and lots of temples – including the quirky erotic elephants temple. It’s the main reason people visit Bhaktapur, and it’s easy to see why – you almost feel like you’ve stepped back into another century – a century in which the king really wanted the architecture to capture everyone’s attention.

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It’s meant to be US$15 to get in, but I accidentally walked in through the wrong entrance and never got charged. I had Tatiana’s husband’s ticket anyway, but it said ‘James’ on it and I was a little concerned that they’d catch me out on that.

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There, too, was my ATM – finally! A lot of Nepalese ATMs will only let you take out $100 at a time, charging you ridiculously high fees for each transaction, so it’s really worth finding the few that cap you at $350 instead. Now that I’d taken care of that, I was free to just wander.

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I meandered down a side alley. Bhaktapur is full of handicrafts, and I stopped to buy a crocheted water bottle sling – perfect for music festivals – for 150rs, forgetting to bargain. A little further down, despite my resolve not to buy anything more – having very little of both space and money at this point – I was mesmerized by a collection of paper lanterns.

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I’d only intended to look, but when the guy selling them tried to get me to buy one, I joked that I was too poor and could only afford to pay 200rs, thinking that that was ridiculously low. Apparently not – he packed up the lantern, handed it to me, and I felt obliged to go ahead and accept it, handing him 200 in exchange.

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I kept wandering on until I found myself in the Pottery Square. A couple standing next to me had a tour guide explaining the process to them, and I overheard a bit. Pottery is a family business here, the trade passed down from generation to generation, and with the whole family taking part. The clay is collected by hand, and only a specific type of clay, that’s wet and airtight, can be used.

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The making of the pots is fairly labour intensive. They gather the clay, spin the pots, dry them in the sun, – regularly turning the pots around to dry evenly – dye them with terracotta, then take them to the kilns. Speaking of kilns, they dry corn and rice husks as kindling for the kilns in the square too, then have to carry that over. It was mesmerising to watch it all.

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Walking out of the square, a guy called out to me in Spanish ‘Ola!’ ‘Ola!’ I replied. He lit up; ‘Hablas español?’ I shook my head ‘Yo no hablo español.’ He didn’t believe me. ‘Usted habla español!’ I laughed ‘solo un poquito’ (I’d picked up a little in Spain and from some Spanish speakers I’d met in Thailand). ‘How do you know Spanish?’ I asked him in English – he was obviously a local, and Spanish isn’t commonly spoken there – ‘I studied it for 2 years!’ From his accent I assumed he meant on exchange. ‘Come, sit, talk to me,’ he urged, but I laughed and waved goodbye, ‘Sorry, got too much to see!’

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Tatiana had told me to eat at Bhaktapur Guest House, and I’d been roaming around hoping that I’d stumble upon it, but to no avail. In the end it was my bladder that decided where I’d eat, the growing urge to use the bathroom taking me into the creatively named ‘Sunny Restaurant’, where I then felt obliged to eat. The food wasn’t amazing, but the views were breathtaking – you could see all across Bhaktapur, from charming little rooftop terraces to the bustle of the streets below, with the chatter and buzz pleasantly muted at this height.

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It was lovely to look down upon. Bhaktapur’s just so full of colour. There were handicrafts and pashminas everywhere, and lots of little rustic galleries selling Thanka paintings and offering classes. It was incredibly fascinating – here’s this city that’s absolutely ancient, and although modernity has intruded somewhat, like with the motorbikes constantly blocking up the alleys, the lack of a constant electricity supply and the fact that Nepal’s still incredibly underdeveloped meant that so many things were still done the traditional way here – or if not in exactly the traditional way, still handmade, the long way.

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In one section there was just store after store filled with women on these huge, old fashioned sewing machines, pedalling away and making clothes to sell. You could watch bakers make donut-like pastries, from scratch, and woodworkers carefully carving patterns into timber. That’s the allure of Bhaktapur – you come here and you almost feel like you’re in a different century, and although the temples are what’s listed as the main attraction, I thought the best part was watching all these people hand-making everything, like artisans at work.

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Interestingly, there are also a lot of beauty parlours in Bhaktapur. Although when I say beauty parlour, I need to clarify – they’d be tiny rooms, like a little basement space, with a regular chair and a bucket of water and a little shelf of beauty supplies. They were very DIY, improvised kinds of set ups. But they were cheap and I thought the whole thing seemed quite intriguing, so I decided to give one a go.

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My hair by this time was turning into one huge dreadlock, all matted around my hair wrap. I went in to one of the parlours and asked if she could untangle it, without just cutting that huge hunk of hair off. She couldn’t speak much English but she nodded and made lots of acquiescing sounds, then once I sat down she grabbed some scissors and just lopped the dreadlock off, leaving me with a tuft of centimetre-long hair right in the middle of my head.

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While that didn’t go according to plan, I figured getting a head massage would be simple enough that she couldn’t mess it up. I was wrong. She thoroughly oiled my hair, but didn’t massage it at all, and then I had to pay to get it washed because it was dripping and slick, but she didn’t shampoo it, so that it was still slick afterwards, and then was trying to curl it by rubbing it all together so that it just got frizzy and tangled up.

At least it only cost me about $14.

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I felt a bit put out after that. I did a quick visit to Taumadhi Square, checked out the Nyatapola Temple cursorily, and headed back to Dattatreya Square and the Peacock Guesthouse to get some tea and sympathy.

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There was faint hymnal music playing in the background, and I sat inside the Himalaya Bakery with a peach iced tea, whiling away the afternoon reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to The East. There’s nothing like a good book to buoy up your spirits.

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My friend from earlier, who’d given me the map, was still there, and after finishing my book we ended up talking. He was the owner, Arunodaya Prajapati, and he showed me around the building and told me a bit about his life.

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His family had owned the place for the last few decades, but as a woodcarving showroom and workshop. He’d gone to university before coming back, taking over from his father and deciding to turn part of the building into a guest house and cafe. It’s still famous for being the oldest woodcarving shop in Bhaktapur, with the woodworkers practicing their art in the courtyard, and the showroom just upstairs, but it’s also one of the highest rated hotels and guest houses in the city.

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He’d poured his heart and soul into it, wanting to maintain their heritage but also wanting to create something of his own, and apart from being passionate, you could see that this place made him really happy.

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Getting back to the bus stop at the end of the day was easy – Google maps, I had just found out, has Bhaktapur mapped out pretty well. Getting the right bus back was a bit more challenging, since nobody seemed to be able to understand my pronunciation of ‘Telkot’, and once I found the right bus, it was so full that a whole bunch of people were just hanging out the door, and I was seriously concerned that the brakes would struggle under our combined weight – but after a very hot and sweaty ride, pressed up intimately against a bunch of strangers, I made it back to the yoga retreat.

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My final verdict: Bhaktapur was pretty amazing, although I think doing it as a day trip really doesn’t let you do it justice. There’s so much I wish I could have explored deeper and seen more of – the Newar heritage, the way Buddhist and Hindu religions don’t just coexist but overlap here, the masks, the locals chatting as they pull water out of the wells, the chickens pecking around everywhere…

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I wish I’d stayed there for a few days instead, and got to enjoy people watching more, without needing to fit all of it into just one day – especially because I walked so much that my feet ached incessantly and my shoulders were sore from lugging around heavy bottles of water and books. Complaints aside, I’m just really glad that I ended up here and got to see so much. Definitely an experience to remember.

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*It means “Mother and Motherland are greater than heaven.”

One Comment

  1. Pingback: The Tourist Hospital, Fireflies, and Lots of Time To Think | The Way of the Potato

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