Kingdom's wake

Cover Kathmandu still offers the same cultural curiosities and history that once attracted a throng of hippies. Now without the backpacking crowds.

People queue patiently at the recent opening of the Narayanhiti Museum, formerly the Royal Palace.
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On June 1 2001, the 29-year-old crown prince of Nepal, Dipendra, walked in on the royal family's regular Friday night get together in the Narayanhiti palace dressed in army fatigues and opened fire. He killed his parents, the king and queen, and eight other high-ranking members of the royal family before turning the gun on himself. The drunken prince, known to be emotionally erratic, was apparently angry that his parents were opposed to his plans to marry the beautiful Devyani Rana, a woman from a rival clan. The murders and subsequent political uprising by the Maoists plunged Nepal into political turmoil.

Eight years later, on the opening day of Kathmandu's royal palace museum, I'm one of 1,000 people - mostly Nepalis - queuing outside for a glimpse of how the recent former rulers lived. There are schoolchildren, housewives, businessmen, Maoist sympathisers and royalists all jostling for space. There's a small handful of foreign tourists and a few journalists. All have arrived hours before the official opening time.

For some, there was an element of gawping at neighbours fallen on hard times, while others want to see for themselves the riches of their former rulers. Yet Narayanhiti is hardly the romantic vision of mist-covered pagodas and incense one might expect from the world's last Hindu kingdom. The clunky pink structure more resembles a 1950s American council block. Yet it has a spooky, silent atmosphere. The complex where the massacre took place has been dismantled but the foundations and outline of the rooms, including the billiards room where the king was murdered, remain. The pond water under the small narrow bridge where Prince Nirajan was killed is still and stagnant. The bullet marks on buildings next to the complex are visible. The large garden is neglected and overgrown. There is plenty of kitsch and tat: the waiting room for visiting heads of state has a glass cabinet which holds a collection of ceramic dogs. One disappointed Nepali woman asks the guide why the crown jewels are not on display. She is given an evasive answer - but it is perhaps not surprising that they have been locked away for safekeeping considering the violence and political upheaval that has plagued Nepal since the massacre. Just nine months before the opening in February this year, the last monarch, King Gyanendra was deposed. He is now living quietly in India.

Tourism figures for Nepal, a fabled stop on the 1960s hippy trail, have never recovered. In the first nine months of this year, just over 217,000 tourists arrived in Nepal by plane, three per cent less than in the same period last year, according to figures from the national tourism board. It is a steep drop compared with 1998 when 470,000 tourists visited Nepal. The government is keen to bring them back.

"Over the next five years, Brand Nepal will be promoted as the next generation mountain destination for weekend breaks, adventure holidays, and lifetime experiences for people who live in cosmopolitan cities and travel internationally", the tourism board's website states.

Nepal is indeed a beautiful country and Kathmandu is the perfect destination for a weekend break. It is a cheap country to travel in, great for those on a budget in these credit-crunchy times. But if you are willing to spend a few extra dollars to get away from typical backpackers' haunts, you are in for a real treat.

For ordinary Nepalis, the consequences of the massacre have brought a great deal of hardship,, including daily electricity shortages - if you have eight hours of electricity in your hotel consider yourself lucky - and long lines for petrol. But the event hasn't stopped them from getting on with life and celebrating festivals. Upon arriving at the airport, I could hear the distant roar of crowds and explosions, but as the taxi made its way through hundreds of happy and relaxed looking Nepalis, the driver informed me it was a Shiva festival. It was a government holiday and everyone was heading to the temples. People were setting off fireworks on the streets.

The foundations of Kathmandu, set in a lovely green valley and originally called Kantipur, date back to the 12th century, although there have been settlements in the capital since the seventh century BC. The city flourished under the Malla dynasty in the 12th century and most of its temples and other monuments date from their rule. Kathmandu was an independent city within the valley, but in the 14th century the valley was united under the rule of the Malla king of Bhaktapur. The city was divided into three warring statelets in the following century. After the 1768 invasion of the Shah dynasty Nepal was unified and Kathmandu was brought together again and made the country's capital.

Until the events of 2001, the city was popular with young western tourists. The main tourist drag, Thamel, is on the northern border of the old town which is a warren of small streets, mostly unnamed. Thamel is chock-full of hotels, hostels offering rooms for around $4 (Dh15), cheap eateries and shops. A few sandalled visitors in their early 20s bobbed through the throngs of people, the vertical towers of North Face bags strapped to their backs. Shopkeepers stared listlessly from the doorways of their empty stores, calling out half-heartedly to passers-by to come inside. The lack of foreigners may not be good for business, but it was refreshing to see the city without a dreadlocked, guitar-carrying backpacker in search of his own nirvana. There are some gems to stay in if you are willing to look past the tatty lodges playing the Eagles and gloomy looking hostels. For around $70 (Dh260) a night, a good base is the Hotel Courtyard, in the middle of Thamel down a tiny alleyway with shops selling the requisite "same same but different" T-shirts. The hotel is a multi-storey dark brick building with a large courtyard and man-made stream that was until recently the home of an old aristocratic family who tore down their house in the countryside and moved to the city. The windows and doorways have been reclaimed from the previous house, finely carved and made of dark wood. Each bedroom has its own unique character and the cosy library is a wonderful place to retreat to in the evenings.

It is a quiet haven despite its busy location, a point emphasised upon arrival when guests are offered fresh lime juice. The owners, the son of the original owner and his American wife Michelle are very hospitable and look after their guests. They've made a virtue of the lack of electricity and at twilight the courtyard and library were lit by the flames of dozens of white candles, lending the hotel almost a dreamy atmosphere. A highlight of the city is Durbar Square, a 20-minute walk south of Thamel. The square - actually three squares situated very close to each other - was where Nepal's kings were once crowned. The lived-in Hanuman Dhoka was the old royal palace in the square until a century ago when they moved to Narayanhiti. Most of the architecture dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, but after an earthquake in 1934 much of it was rebuilt. The entire site was declared a Unesco world heritage monument in 1979, but most importantly, Durbar square is a living and breathing public space and the scene of frequent protests - the vast majority of which are peaceful - by various political groups. Nearly every day during my stay another group held a demonstration but it was never quite clear what they were protesting about. However, the atmosphere was unthreatening.

It's easy to spend hours wandering about, examining temples and buildings, watching people offer marigold wreaths to their Hindu gods. The most fascinating is the Kumari Devi temple, home to a prepubescent Nepali girl worshipped as a living goddess who must meet 32 physical requirements and be put through a rigorous test involving demon masks in a darkened room before she is declared a goddess. The goddess sometimes is visible to visitors in the courtyard but she did not deign to grace us with her presence on this occasion. Past Durbar Square is Freak Street - its real name is Jochne - which was once a gathering place for strung-out Western hippies who gave the street its name. It barely resembles its glory era of kings or hippies. There are no hippies hanging about but a lot of rundown hostels catering for time-rich, cash-poor travellers. Even more stunning than Durbar Square is the Patan royal palace, which is rundown complex of buildings dating from the 17th century on the outskirts of the city. The American government is giving Nepal US$900,000 (Dh3.3 million) in grants to restore the Patan, one of the country's biggest tourist attractions, which is also considered one of South Asia's finest palaces.

There are good places to eat but you need to look carefully for them. I passed on the duff tourist fare of beef stroganoff, Hawaiian pizza and banana pancakes and headed for the Thamel House Restaurant. The Pagoda-style house is narrow and steep with small doorways leading to dining areas that have long rows of low tables and cushions. Nepali cuisine is influenced by Indian food such as the thali. The $10 (Dh36) set menu gives a good taste of the national cuisine: daals, vegetarian curries and for non-Muslims, Bandel tareko - small pieces of roasted wild boar meat served with hot and tangy dry spices, a Nepali national dish. Nepal's major attraction, however, is still its mountains. The highlight of my trip was getting away from the bustle of the city and spending a morning in Shiva National Park with a Sherpa guide, which I arranged through the Hotel Courtyard. The guides pick you up from the hotel and drive you to the park's entrance (entry tickets cost $3 (Dh11). For the most adventurous, the minibus will take you right into the heart of the forest and you hike your way back with maps and guides, a trip that can take up to two days.

My tour was more like a brisk Sunday stroll through woodland with occasional glimpses of the Kathmandu valley below. The guide took me right to the foot of the Shivapuri Heights Cottage, one of the most tranquil spots in the country. The wooden cottage with its steep roof is set on just under one hectare of terraced fields at an altitude of 1,800m at the edge of the national park. The view from the garden is the Kathmandu Valley. Steve Webster, a Briton and an old Nepal hand, owns the cottage which has three bedrooms that sleeps a total of seven people for $30 US (Dh110) a night per person. If you give four hours notice, a lady from the capital will come up to the cottage and give you a massage. Shivapuri Heights is famous for its full moon barbecues. Every month when the moon is full you can enjoy a barbecue in the garden and watch the moon rise behind the cottage. There was no full moon during my trip but the hike was timed perfectly and I arrived just when lunch was served. A chef prepares everything fresh in the cottage kitchen, bowls of spicy curries and a homemade tomato chutney to die for. A perfect post-hike meal.

There is a friendly but greedy alsatian who will charm you with his affection but watch out - he lapped up the chicken curry from my plate when I looked away for about three seconds. I enjoyed the views of the valley in peaceful silence as no one else was around. It is unfortunate that so many tourists have stayed away, but for those looking for a quick escape, today's Nepal affords an opportunity to get under the skin of an ancient culture, mercifully stripped of any western hippy pretensions. The royal massacre may have resembled a Greek tragedy, with all the necessary ingredients of power, passion, love, and murder, but Nepal is much more than that. Now is a great time to experience it, before the hordes return.