Patan - Capital of an Old Newari Kingdom

Trip Start Nov 29, 2013
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Tuesday, December 3, 2013




Although Kathmandu is the modern capital of Nepal two other cities in the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur and Patan (also known as Lalitpur) were capitals of local Newar kingdoms before Nepal was unified into a single kingdom in 1768. Patan’s historical center, anchored by its own Durbar Square and a royal palace complex similar to the one in Kathmandu, constitutes one of the seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley.


Of the three cities’ Durbar Squares, Patan’s probably has the most varied and impressive set of temples and is definitely the city’s busy focal point. A large part of the palace complex is now a well-curated museum of Nepalese art, probably the best I’ve seen so far in Nepal. The rest of Patan’s temples and monuments, though, are scattered through a traffic-clogged and fairly unremarkable urban landscape as the once separate city has become engulfed by Kathmandu’s outward sprawl. The rooftop restaurants around Durbar Square in theory provide great views of the high peaks of the Himalayas; in reality the tops of those peaks emerge only fuzzily above the big smog bubble created by traffic that barely moves trapped in a valley - a la Los Angeles and Mexico City.

Just getting to lunch can be somewhat of a workout, though. Rather than being streetside on the ground floor, many restaurants in this vertically oriented town have rooftop dining (and they never have elevators). That means climbing up four or five stories, but at least they’re short
stories; I feel like I’m back in a land of the little people where ceilings aren’t very high and I keep bumping my head in doorways. Maybe I should be wearing helmet instead of a baseball cap.

Patan is close enough to Kathmandu that I decided to walk the four or five miles back to Thamel in the late afternoon instead of sitting in traffic in the back of a taxi. I find it’s often possible to get a feel for a country by wandering through normal neighborhoods far from the tourist attractions. One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about Nepal is that most residential buildings in Kathmandu and surrounding cities actually look finished, in contrast to those in many other developing countries in which I've traveled (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey, Egypt come to mind). I have heard this phenomenon sometimes attributed to real estate being a preferred store of wealth in countries where governments, banks, and the financial system are not trusted. The theory is that when poorer people get some money, they continually add to their home to increase its size and value rather than invest in a financial instruments. If so I doubt there would be that much variation between countries or sometimes within them. I suspect it’s likely more a matter of the way real estate is taxed. Where unfinished buildings aren’t subject to property taxes there’s a strong financial incentive to keep your house looking like a construction site with lots of unsightly rebar sticking out the top.


 


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