Walk the ancient trade route to Kathmandu's great medieval bazaar, exploring an unusual but underrated part of the old city with Nepali writer Rabi Thapa.
Thamel, Kathmandu’s designated tourist quarter, began as a medieval site of Buddhist learning connected to the now-defunct trans-Himalayan route between India and Tibet. Your tour traces these beginnings from Sohrakhutte in north Kathmandu before passing through Bhagwan Bahal, Narsingh Chowk, Chusya Bahal, Shree Gha and the marketplace of Asan. You will visit monuments old and new, accompanied by a fantastical cast of Tibetan demons, flying stupas and tooth goddesses as well as the equally adventurous set of warrior kings, traders, artisans and hippies who made Nepal the fantastic place that it is today.
Your journey will take you a thousand years back but bring you face-to-face with the very real problems faced today by people living in a city such as Kathmandu. Your guide Rabi is well placed to tell you the story of Thamel, warts and all - he's written a book about the place and grew up in Kathmandu.
Many travellers treat Thamel as a pitstop to streamline their trip to Nepal, too often making a beeline for the world heritage sites scattered across the Kathmandu Valley before heading to the mountains. But skating over the surface of this neighbourhood does it - and you - a great disservice: this is a chance to trace an alternate history of Nepal’s capital - once the greatest urban hub in the Himalayas.
Sohrakhutte, Bhagwan Bahal, Narsingh Chowk, Chusya Bahal, Shree Gha, Asan
Walking: If you're within walking distance, it will be simpler (and cheaper) to head to Sohrakhutte (pronounced So-raw-khoot-tey), a busy junction just outside Thamel, on its northern fringe. Nepali street names, where they exist, are sparsely signed, so it's usually easier to ask a local or follow the directions on your phone. Approaching from the northeast/east, make your way to the junction at Lainchaur, then go west about half a kilometre along Lekhnath Marg, past Malla Hotel then Amrit Science College (ASCOL) on your left until you come to a steep decline ahead of you, curving down to the right. Stop in front of Shakya Pharma, to your left, and position yourself so you can clearly see the fork at the bottom of the hill. Coming down from the north, go past Nayabazaar and head straight up the hill of Sohrakhutte and stop at the top. Coming from the south (from within Thamel), just head north till you hit Lekhnath Marg, turn left onto the road and walk till you reach Sohrakhutte.
Taxi: Tell your taxi to head to the top of Sohrakhutte, and make sure he doesn't take you into the maze that is Thamel.
Public transport: Local transport routes are confusing at the best of times, but it will be easiest to hop on a microbus, three-wheeler tempo or bus that goes to Lainchaur. Many of these will approach and keep going past Sohrakhutte, so make sure you ask the conductor or a fellow passenger to point out the stop.
Places to stop along the way:
Shopping: Thamel is designed to cater to all tastes. You can buy almost anything from travel supplies to books to mountaineering gear, and 'North fakes' of almost anything. Moving out of the tourist zone towards Asan, you'll find more interesting (and much cheaper) goods for the local market, from copper and brass pots to saris to mobile phones.
Eating: Thamel also has the most cosmopolitan fare this side of the Himalayas, for all budgets, from local dalbhat to Asian fusion (Cafe Mitra) to good ol' pizza (Fire 'n Ice). Many cafes provide excellent coffee - try Himalayan Java for a range of foamed drinks to Chikusa for plain black coffee.
Drinking: Unsurprisingly, there are an extraordinary number of bars here, many with live music, old favourites such as Tom & Jerry and New Orleans jostling with upstarts like Electric Pagoda, Purple Haze and Reggae Bar. Nepali youth frequent the late night clubs.
Best time of day:
Anytime is good, but morning is probably the best time to avoid traffic and catch the market at Asan at its freshest. It can get pretty warm and dusty over Spring/Summer as well, so the earlier the better. Keep in mind that the monasteries en route - Bhagwan Bahal and Chusya Bahal - are likely to be closed after sunset.
There are no real safety concerns in Kathmandu, except for the usual that apply in tourist areas. Keep your bag/purse secure, ignore the tourist touts and, most important, watch out for motorcycles, particularly when exiting the pedestrian zones within Thamel.