The year, 1999. It was a bucket list trip, but not the usual sort. For more than two years, my sister Sally and I had watched our middle sister Sue struggle with a brain tumor. Her last evening with us, she was listening to a book on tape which murmured tales of India as the medics took her from home to the hospital. After Susan died, Sally and I vowed to take the trip that Sue had longed to do, and to take her along with us.
For six weeks, we made our way across the Indian subcontinent, backpacker-style: cheaply, using local transportation and staying in cheap accommodations. Three of those weeks were spent amid the wonders of Nepal. One morning, we decided to find our way to Bhaktapur, knowing it was a walled medieval city with extraordinary architecture and priceless temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I hit my head as I we got on the Number 7 bus for Bhaktapur. Sally had no problem. The Newari of the Kathmandu Valley are not a tall people, so clearances in doorways are scarcely more than five feet tall. As the bus bounced along on the Ring Road, I kept hitting my head on the ceiling.
When we disembarked, we discovered foreigners had to buy a 300 rupee ticket to enter the city, much like a National Park. Fair enough. As we walked to the city center, its Durbar Square, we marveled at the intricately carved wood that graced doorways and windows.
We went looking for a place to eat, and discovered that the Peacock Restaurant had a pretty stunning view of the city below. I had my first-ever meal of ox-tail soup, a real change-up from the daily dal bhat.
Children in school uniform poured through Durbar Square as we approached, and then out the city gates.
While a cultural heritage icon for Nepal, Bhaktapur is also a living, breathing Hindu city. Cows wandered by chewing on stolen snacks. People hung their laundry from windows and across shrubbery.
It was a relief to walk the city streets without being accosted by touts as we’d been in Kathmandu. Instead, craftspeople displayed their wares and waited for you to come to them. We saw a flute-seller walk past holding a tall tree made of flutes. I still regret not buying one. A travel lesson learned: when you see a piece of art or craft that delights you, buy it. You may never see it again.
Bhaktapur is known not just for wood carvings – none of which would fit in our backpacks – but also for pottery, which was set out to dry along the bricks of the streets. As Sally took photos, I negotiated for a tiny clay ram, an incense holder that would fit in my pocket. It sits above my desk to this day.
Hearing the news of the devastating earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley was a shock: the loss of humanity, the loss of priceless heritage for a warm and friendly country. Bhaktapur had already lost many of its ancient temples in the 1934 earthquake.
My visit to Nepal touched me deeply. I only need to look up and around me as I write for the reminders of how the journey shaped me as a traveler and a writer.
Sally writes about travel, too. Follow her at Adventures of Mom.
The 2015 earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley caused a great deal of damage to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. While it is open to visitors, you will not see what we saw. However, the people of Bhakatapur, one of three royal cities in the valley, do rely on tourism, and the craftspeople continue to create beautiful objects of religious art. Learn more about Bhaktapur.