The old palace, a series of interlocking courts and towers, stands at the east side of the square. It is soberly beautiful but somewhat dilapidated, haunted by intrigue and conspiracy, like the mass killing of 30 high officials in 1846, engineered by the first Rana prime minister. Wandering through the winding wings of the palace's Tribhuvan Museum, I found it easy to imagine gaslight and ghosts. Among its musty treasures are touching baby pictures of King Tribhuvan, who was raised as a virtual prisoner in the palace but escaped to India in 1950, where he helped unseat the Ranas and give Nepal its first democratic government.
Before the current Shah dynasty took over, the valley was ruled by members of the Malla clan. They competed with one another to fill palace squares in Katmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan with marvels, chiefly thanks to Newari builders, metalworkers and woodcarvers whose expertise was appreciated all across Asia.
One morning I went by car, with a guide, to Bhaktapur, set among small farms and brick factories about 10 miles east of Katmandu. It was harvest time, so even in the middle of Bhaktapur piles of golden rice were drying in the sunshine. Germany helped Nepal restore Bhaktapur's palace square and whole historic center, turning it into a living museum, especially noteworthy for its exquisitely carved windows.
Then we turned toward Patan, across the Bagmati River from Katmandu. Its Malla-era palace is now the country's premier art museum, showcasing stunning Newari bronze, painting, photography and furniture. Scores of uniformed schoolchildren were there when I toured the museum, clustered around displays that tell the fantastical stories of Nepal's myriad gods and goddesses: the monstrous Bairab with his headdress of skulls, Shiva and his bull Nandi, the beloved elephant god Ganesh and bloodthirsty Durga.
I thought of the supercharged Nepalese pantheon as a sort of Marvel comic book, until I visited Pashupatinath on the outskirts of Katmandu, with its riverside cremation ghats and great, incense-darkened Hindu temple.
Pilgrims come here from all over Asia to worship one of the more benign incarnations of creator-destroyer god Shiva, who is said to ride a bull and live in the Himalayas. When I asked my guide whether the Nepalese people viewed such stories as myths, he frowned and shook his head. "Our belief is literal," he said.
Literal, perhaps, but also an integral part of people's lives. In Nepal religion is not for holy days only, but tightly woven into routine, as I saw early one morning at Swayambhunath Temple a few miles west of downtown Katmandu. Devotees in warmup suits were taking their morning constitutionals and accruing blessings at the same time by circumambulating the hill on which the temple is perched.
A steep flight of steps leads to a giant white stupa, decorated with prayer flags and another image of Buddha's all-seeing eyes. Monkeys skitter across the compound's tile roofs and, when I was there, a platoon of teenage soldiers filed around the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels.
I stood and watched, counting my own blessings. To be in Nepal at that moment seemed a great gift. Only Buddha can see how the Nepalese will fare as they begin to rebuild their fragile democracy. But now I'm sure there is welcome in his eyes.
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An inviting destination once more
From LAX to Katmandu, connecting service (change of planes) is available on Korean Airways, Thai, Cathay Pacific and Air India. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,260.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 977 (country code for Nepal), 1 (the city code for Katmandu) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Dwarika's Hotel, 447-3725, www.dwarikas.com, is an architectural landmark constructed with wood carvings salvaged from traditional temples and houses throughout the Katmandu Valley. It has 72 luxurious rooms, a beautiful courtyard, swimming pool, restaurant and bar. Doubles $135 to $210.
Hotel Tibet, 442-9085, www.hotel-tibet.com, is a friendly, 55-room, family-owned hotel off Lazimpat Road, about a 10-minute walk north of Thamel. It has a restaurant and rooftop terrace. Doubles $80, including breakfast.
Hotel Vajra, 427-1545, is a handsome compound on a hilltop outside the city center near Swayambhunath Temple. Favored by trekkers, it has a garden setting, elaborate wood carvings, restaurant, rooftop bar and theater; doubles $16-$61, including breakfast.
Kathmandu Guest House, 470-0800, www.ktmgh.com, is an old favorite among budget travelers, in a compound set back from the busy streets of the Thamel district. It has 121 rooms, a courtyard cafe with WiFi, ATM, laundry, bike rental, travel agency and hair salon. Doubles $4 to $65.
WHERE TO EAT:
Chez Caroline, 426-3070, is a stylish and agreeable restaurant serving French onion soup, quiche, omelets, etc., at the Baber Mahal Revisited shopping arcade. $10-$15.
Mike's Breakfast, 442-4303, founded by one of the first U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to arrive in Nepal in the '60s, is in a courtyard shaded by a giant camphor tree in the Naxal neighborhood, east of the new palace; it offers a diverse menu, from gourmet coffee to quesadillas. $5-$10.
Yin and Yang, is an excellent Thai place in busy Thamel. $10-$15.
Thamel House, 441-0388, is in a restored 19th century Newari town house at the north end of Thamel. It serves traditional Newari cuisine at low tables with seating on the floor. $10-$15.
TO LEARN MORE:
Nepal Tourism Board, Tourist Service Center, P.O. Box 11018, Bhrikuti Mandap, Katmandu, Nepal, 425-6909, www.welcomenepal.com.
-- Susan Spano