Sorrel visits her favourite place on earth … the hectic and chaotic Kathmandu, the City of Gods.
Legend has it that Kathmandu was once an ancient lake with a huge lotus flower in its centre exuding a divine light. Bodhisattva Manjushree, a saint from China, was fascinated by the story of the lotus and with a mighty blow from his sword to the surrounding hills, put an opening between them. The lake then drained away and Kathmandu became a city.
A more plausible explanation of Kathmandu's beginnings is that the valley was in the path of ancient commercial trading routes between Tibet, northern India and the Far East. It was built in 723AD by King Gun Kamdev.
Its old name was Kantipur, which then became Kasthamandap, meaning wooden temple in Sanskrit. It refers to the imposing wooden pagoda built near the Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Durbar Square, built in the 16th century from a single tree and it is still there today.
Kathmandu is a cultural cauldron of 500,000 people at the crossroads of Asia and India. It bubbles with energy and excitement and seems, in places, to remain unchanged from the Middle Ages. Most people arriving in the city for the first time are overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells. Narrow streets and lanes with carved wooden balconies perch above tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and town squares packed with amazing temples and monuments. Fruit and vegetable markets are alive with shoppers and there are many beggars and touts.
It is a very spiritual place, with sunrise being the most divine part of the day. And despite the chasm between rich and very poor, people are good humoured, with much self-respect and integrity.
There are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. Four are in the city itself Swayambhunath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, Boudhanath Stupa and Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square.
The stupas, or shrines, house Buddhist relics. They are frequented by pilgrims, but other visitors are welcome. Swayambhunath Buddhist Temple was built in 250BC on the holy site of the divine lotus and is one of the most revered and fascinating examples of temple structures in Asia. The faithful climb its 360 steps and are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Kathmandu Valley and the north-eastern Himalayan range.
Huge painted eyes look down in all directions from the stupa's four sides, representing the all-seeing Buddha and the ever-present monkeys living in the complex.
Its main feature is a white dome, supposed to be a "spotless jewel of Nirvana", with a 13-tiered conical golden spire. The whole thing is surrounded by hundreds of votive shrines and monuments and a two-tiered golden temple dedicated to Harati, an ogress converted to be the caretaker of children by Buddha.
Pashupatinath is a Hindu religious complex on the banks of the river, considered one of the holiest in Nepal. Stone sculptures support that it was built pre-Christian in the early Kirat era. It is always filled with sadhus (holy men), pilgrims washing on the ghats and mourning families attending cremations.
The two-tiered temple on the banks of the Bagmati River is a unique example of Nepalese temple architecture, with a magnificent golden main temple and four triple silver doorways. Covering 281 hectares, it is one of the largest Hindu temple complexes in Asia, with hundreds of lingams (the phallic emblem of Shiva), shrines and icons of Hindu gods and goddesses.
The Boudhanath stupa, built in the 5th century AD, is one of the oldest and biggest Buddhist monuments ever built in Nepal. The imposing 36-metre structure stands on three level mandala-style platforms surrounded by private homes. The mandala is a loved Buddhist symbol, looking much like a lotus flower, but more geometric. It is used on ceilings of Buddhist and Hindi shrines and represents the structure of the universe.
Boudha is an area dominated by a Tibetan influence, as around the base of the stupa live many descendants of Tibetan refugees who fled there when Tibet was invaded by China. Each year tens of thousands of Tibetan pilgrims go to the stupa from all over the Himalayas, as Boudhanath is a magnet for them. Incense and butter lamps burn day and night and each 12 years a special ceremony is observed when thousands and thousands of the faithful arrive to dance, play musical instruments, chant and sing hymns.
Durbar (palace) Square is the public square built adjacent to the old royal palace, Hanuman Dhoka. It has a wonderful range of heritage buildings and is one of the largest congregations of historical monuments and shrines built anywhere in the world.
Hanuman Dhoka is named after the Hindi monkey god, the faithful assistant of Lord Rama who employed his monkey army to search for Sita, his abducted wife. After a series of heroic and magical feats, Hanuman found her. Rama was a real person who lived as a chief around the 7th century BC and was worshipped as an incarnation of Vishnu.
Also around Durbar Square is the 16th-century Jagannath temple with erotic carved figures, Kal Bhairav, an enormous stone idol, the very tall Taleju temple, built by King Mahendra in 1549 AD, and the very large bell and drum. There is an impressive statue of a praying King Prtap Malla, a 17th-century stone inscription in 15 languages set into the wall of the palace, three museums and Kumari Ghar, a 17th-century temple showing highly-developed Nepalese temple craft.
Jochne, formerly known as Freak Street, is where all the flower children went in the 1960s and '70s to find themselves. It was the capital of cheap hotels, colourful restaurants, hashish shops and money changers. These days travellers prefer to gather around the new tourist centre, Thamel, right in the heart of old Kathmandu, a relatively stylish district offering shopping, hotels and restaurants with the western visitor in mind.
Dwarika's Kathmandu Village Hotel is made up of a collection of old buildings which were falling into disrepair. The hotel's founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha, began a program of conservation and restoration to save the beautifully-carved old works of art. Many of the buildings are quite new, but made from old materials, such as intricately-carved wood. The bricks are terracotta, especially produced by hand according to the old ways, shaped and decorated with traditional motifs.
Dwarika wanted to recreate a 15-17th-century environment where tourists and Nepalis would have a sensation of the original. He used the hotel as a vehicle to finance and carry his dream forward. The more he studied and toured Kathmandu Valley, he found a culture which was not understood and a heritage being destroyed out of ignorance.
Guests are invited to visit the restoration workshop it is a continuing project. Local people are keeping the old arts of wood carving and building alive, as well as introducing new talents, such as using chemicals to preserve the materials.
Accommodation is quite luxurious, with each of the 74 rooms individually designed. Some have 16th-century windows and others have private courtyards. Soft furnishings are hand-printed with traditional Buddhist designs.
The hotel's restaurants are very popular and, apart from being beautiful to visit, they offer a truly authentic Nepalese dining experience.
Over the past 20 years the population of Kathmandu has tripled. Nepal has had much political instability the Maoist movement is rising and intra royal-family murders