Friday, June 18, 2010

Patan's Durbar Square

We spent a fantastic weekend in and around Patan’s Durbar Square. Patan is south of Kathmandu, and is the “Old City”. We took a room in a guest house overlooking the square to squeeze two days out of the experience, which was an excellent idea as it turned out Patan was packing more than usual for us. I am bit disappointed with my photos of the weekend since the square itself is much more spectacular than I was able to capture, but hey, you can’t capture everything.

We left the house around midday and from Bhat Bhateni we caught a minibus to Patan (11 rupees a person, or about 25 cents). Turned out the minibuses are easy to catch, rather like car rapides in the sense that they are all over the place constantly running their routes with no fixed schedule. There are stops but most aren’t marked, you just have to know, ask, or pay attention. There are also small, whiny, unstable-looking three wheeled little spaceships that Allen calls “Tempos,” which I have yet to try. I still really miss my gorgeous car rapides.

Arriving in Patan we hopped off with another passenger who kindly helped us find our stop, and started heading towards Durbar Square (for reference there are three different durbar squares in the Kathmandu valley, those in Kathmandu proper, Patan and Bhaktapur). It was immediately clear that this part of Patan was totally different from anything we’d seen in Kathmandu: older, smaller, and more ornate. Overall a much more agreeable place to be then the city we know so far! Many of the buildings are quite old and made out of beautifully carved wood. We have been wondering recently what exactly the treat the wood with to keep it in good condition (especially during the monsoon season), but this remains a mystery.

After a nice walk littered with temples we arrived at the square and walked around for a while, taking it all in. Among the highlights was a young boy sitting astride an ancient stone elephant. Arriving at the southern end of the square we saw a group of men setting up A/V equipment for a large screen erected against the side of a stupa for … the World Cup! They were having a lot of trouble so we didn’t hang around and only tentatively planned to stop by later and see if any matches were on. 

After choosing a hotel (Third World Guest House) and dropping off our bags we chose Si Taleju restaurant for dinner, favoring a great terrace view of the square and the surrounding mountains over culinary excellence. And we scored big time! The restaurant did indeed have the best view in town, the tiniest little terrace on the very top of a skinny little building. The food was good and not too expensive but the near-panoramic view was spectacular, and we timed it just perfectly to catch the sunset (makes me think we are getting pretty good at this whole travelling thing). Since my stomach was still feeling a bit funny I took it easy with a plate of fried vegetarian momos whereas Coline ordered a meal of several different dahl-type sauces and rice. The clouds started gathering quickly though and we could see rain falling in the North, South, and East. Coline was a bit concerned about getting drenched by early monsoon action but I was rather thrilled by the idea. I managed to convince her we’d make a run for it if we had to. But darkness fell without incident, and the first game of the evening, Argentina-Nigeria, started on the temple-side. A crowd of people had amassed and would periodically burst into cheers when Argentina did well. After a while we began to hear music being played alongside the cheers, which we at first took to be a spirited accompaniment to the match. However the singing, drums and horns turned out to be, as our waiter informed us, a wedding! We couldn’t even see it, nestled as it was in the labyrinth of small streets below. We sure could hear it though, as the celebrators were soon actively competing for dominance with the South African vuvuzelas and the cheers of the hundreds of spectators filling the square. Finally as the wedding procession, which was effectively stopping traffic, wove its way through the streets to the square the music overwhelmed even the most ardent of the supporters of Argentina (quite a feat given how much the Nepalese adore Messi). From above the street the details of the procession were hard to make out, but we were able to discern some large drums and horns. The music was beautiful, as were what we could see of the Saris the women were wearing. Our kind waiter, who hovered around us half the meal as Nepalese waiters like to do (made sometimes significantly awkward by the limited communication) soon asked us if we could pay so that he could go watch the match. Happy to support World Cup spirit we agreed on the condition that we be allowed to stay at the table.

Soon we descended into the street ourselves and decided to watch the rest of the match ourselves. Following the Nepalese’ example we found a nice perch on a temple and sat down to enjoy the show. After a while we were too tempted and bought a fruit plate from a vendor standing in front of us. Argentina victorious, we let the square clear and headed back to the hotel.

The next morning we went over to Café de Patan for breakfast, a tomato and cheese omelet for me and banana yoghurt for Coline. Then it was straight to the famous Patan museum, which deserves every ounce of its excellent reputation. The collection, said to be one of the best in Asia, is complemented by many informative descriptions of traditional styles, symbols and motifs. It was fascinating to learn about the meanings of the dozens of different hand positions, not to mention body positions and symbolic imagery. The Hindu religion in particular seems endlessly complex from an outsider’s perspective, and the fact that the Gods can be represented in so many different ways is endlessly confusing. Some of the highlights of the museum were old drawings and black and white photos of Patan, as well as explanations of how to do traditional Nepalese repoussé work and bronze sculptures (reminding me a bit of a similar description in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay). We lunched in the museum café and its beautiful garden. Afterwards we walked through the square a final time and then picked up our bags and took a scenic route out of the heart of Patan toward the entrance to the old city. We easily picked up a minibus and were soon back in Kathmandu.