I’ve written a bit now about how crazy Kathmandu is. The traffic, the crowds, the visuals of it all. Well, forget all of that. It all pales in comparison to this place. It’s Nepal’s major festival season right now. We just had Dashain, and Tihar starts in a few days. So Ason Market, which is busy on a normal day, is absolutely insane right now. I’ve never been claustrophobic in a crowd before. Even in mosh pits at concerts. And I hate mosh pits. But after a few hours pushing my way through Ason, I was waxing nostalgic for those places.
But don’t let me paint this place in a negative light — it was crowded, yeah. But it was also such a quintessentially Kathmandu experience that I have nothing negative to actually say. I’ve been told the real Kathmandu happens in the narrow alleys, far from the busy main streets. There’s a whole labyrinth in the city where tourists don’t often venture. A place where, in a city as heavily saturated with Westerners as Kathmandu, people still look surprised to see you there.
Ason is its own neighborhood, located right between Thamel and Kathmandu Durbar Square. Given its location, you’d think that it’d be crawling with tourists. Thamel is basically nothing but hotels, trekking stores, and bars. Kathmandu Durbar Square is one of the single most popular tourist attractions in Nepal. You can walk from Thamel to the square and go straight through the market. Yet for the several hours I wandered around, I saw maybe three other foreigners. It’s just a local place.
As I walked from Thamel to Ason, the crowds became progressively thicker and more densely packed. Thamel is already crowded, but Ason was a whole new level. Shoulder-to-shoulder, stepping on toes, and being carried with the current of the crowd. I was surprised to see some intrepid souls brave the crowds on their scooters, honking repeatedly as they inched their way through.
Most of the stalls sold more or less the same thing. Brightly-colored sand was the most popular. People use it to make mandalas on the ground, which is a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Many stalls actually sold spices and dried peppers. Walking past them makes the eyes water and the nostrils sting. A large contingent sold normal produce, as well as lentils, beans, and chickpeas. The rest sold trinkets and clothing. Basically every store in the narrow alleys sold fabric and traditional wear.
But why should I just sit here and describe it when I can show you instead?
Old Monastery Art School
When I was still making my way out of Thamel and into Ason, a man started walking with me. His name was Sanjay and he was from the Punjab, India. We walked together for almost an hour, weaving through the crowd and alleys. Normally, I’m very suspicious of people here who just start talking to me. Nearly every time it’s happened, it’s ended with them trying to charge me or sell me something. So I was skeptical about Sanjay’s motives as we walked together.
We pushed through the crowds away from Thamel and towards Durbar Square. He talked about the buildings around us and I took pictures. Many of the buildings in this part of the city are still in ruins after the 2015 earthquake. We went to a temple that had stood for over 600 years but was now held up with scaffolding and prayers. Sanjay was actually in Kathmandu during the earthquake, which is something I hope we never have in common.
He pointed out many of the details in traditional Nepali architecture as we walked. No two windows on a building are alike. Temples have mantras carved into the metal-plated walls as small as a fingernail. It was actually a very interested walk and conversation, and I began to relax and drop my suspicions. He told me that he had been in Nepal for almost seven years, studying mandala art at a nearby school. After walking a little ways, he offered to show it to me, since it was open for the holiday. Moderately suspicious but nonetheless curious, I agreed.
We wove through a few more alleys and back onto a main street. Sanjay pointed to a small door with a sign above it — “Old Monastery Art School.”
Alright, it’s a real school. This is legit.
We went inside, and he brought me straight to a desk with another guy sitting behind it. It was a very familiar scene — I was led away from the Golden Temple on my second day in Nepal to a mandala shop as well. Sanjay asked me to sit, and his colleague took out some art to show me, and said I can pick whichever I like.
I knew it.
I’m gonna be honest, I only half-listened to him as he described the mandalas. I was annoyed to have been brought to yet another place to be sold something. When I asked him how much a mandala painting was, he told me $180 USD. At this point, I was checked out.
But there still remained the fact that I was in an actual art school. Students were working on mandalas when I walked inside. I asked if I could see some of Sanjay’s art, and he excitedly hurried off and came back with one of his own creations in moments. He laid it down next to a mandala done by one of the masters of the school and showed me the differences, mostly showing me how much better the master’s was. It took him three months to finish, and he had only completed it a few weeks ago.
I asked how much his mandala was, and he told me $80 USD. I thought about it a moment. Then I said alright, and Sanjay was absolutely elated. Normally, I hate spending more than $20 on anything. But I felt okay with this. I gave some money that supported the artist and the school, and I got to see tangible evidence of it. And now I have a beautiful mandala painting to bring back. Maybe I still got duped and fell for a scheme, but I don’t think so.
So here’s Sanjay from the Punjab with his newest creation, a painting of the Wheel of Life mandala. He’s got 3.5 more years to go before he’s finished his 10-year study at the school, and I’m happy to have bought something from a student who I met.
Kathmandu Durbar Square
Here’s something I didn’t know until recently — Durbar Squares are just the open spaces near the old royal palaces. There’s actually three — Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, and Bhaktabur Durbar Square. These were the main hubs of the ancient capitals of the old Nepali kingdoms that I wrote about in a previous post. I live adjacent to Patan Durbar Square, so now I just have Bhaktapur to go.
Patan’s square is full of magnificent buildings, but the scale of it is nothing compared to Kathmandu’s. It just keeps going. Dozens of temples and statues, and hundreds of locals and tourists visiting. Entry cost 1,000 NRS (8.55 USD), which almost put me off from visiting after buying the mandala. But the sun was setting and the buildings were all aglow, and I was already there, so I went in.
The first thing I saw were the sites where several temples used to stand. Kathmandu Durbar Square was hit hard by the recent earthquake, and some of the grand buildings that used to be there are just straight-up gone. Only their foundations remain. The rest are held up by wooden scaffolding like much of the old city. I wandered through, deflecting offers from hawkers and rickshaw drivers.
Once the sun set, I left. The square and the market are places I’ll be visiting with greater intention in the future. For now, it’s good to get out and see some more of this place.