Kathmandu is a fascinating, crowded city, sometimes even infuriating. But if you really want to experience its secret surroundings, you have to put aside a couple of days and explore lesser known sights. If you are a newcomer to Nepal, it’s highly likely that you’ll stay in the tourist quarter of Thamel. From there, you can go to Durbar Square or even to the sites of Pashupatinath and Bodnath, but when you get tired of the constant bustle of the city, cycling to the relaxing Swayambunath and Ichangu Narayan Temples is a great activity.
On my third day in Kathmandu, I rented a bike in Chhetrapati Paknajol, a neighborhood close to Thamel. The shop owner gave me a compulsory helmet and a chain to secure the bike when I stopped. I felt like I was cycling in hell for the first three hundred meters. Taxis, rickshaws, bumps in the road, and people walking chaotically discouraged me completely. Nevertheless, I persevered and cycled further on.
I turned right at the Chhetrapati Chowk crossroads and pedaled down to the Bishnumati River. To cross the busy street, I had to get off the bike and pass slowly to the other side of the road. Eventually, after about 10 minutes, I crossed the street! After that, I continued at a more relaxed pace along Swayambhunath Marg, although I sweated while cycling up to the parking place near the Buddhist complex.
Swayambhunath, or the Monkey Temple, is a Buddhist architectural complex, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is located on a hilltop and has a large, white, and imposing stupa. Monkeys live there, and when I got there, they were running all over, entering the shrines and eating the offerings (flowers, fruit, or rice), or scratching themselves and each other. They seemed aggressive if anyone tried to get close to them, but they were sweet if you wanted just to look at them.
After I left Swayambhunath I cycled to the busy, crowded, and confusing Ring Road of Kathmandu. At Amideva Buddha Park, where three imposing Buddha’s statues are a good landmark, I crossed the street and asked for directions to Ichangu Narayan. A shop owner pointed me a bumpy dirt road and wished me ‘good luck.’
The path was constantly uphill, and I often had to get off the bike because the road was too steep. The road passed through small villages and at a bend, I had an overwhelming panoramic view of Kathmandu. An old Nepali couple, with whom I walked with for a while, smiled at me with understanding and tried to show me something down in Kathmandu. However, we weren’t able to communicate more than that. But I was happy that they nodded when I pointed up the road and asked ‘Ichangu Narayan?’ I left behind the urban murmur, asked for directions at every crossroads, and soon I found myself cycling along a country road, flanked on one side with green rice paddies. The road was not steep anymore; it passed traditional Nepali houses and small shrines, and eventually I reached Ichangu Narayan.
Ichangu Narayan is a small village near Kathmandu, not more than five kilometers from Swayambhunath, and it is situated in the back of a valley, dotted with rural households and agricultural plots of land. In the center of the village, I found the temple compound in an old courtyard with many ancient Garuda statues. The temple is dedicated to Bishnu in his incarnation as Narayan, and it is built of wood in the pagoda style, with rafters and reinforcements carved with deities, and later on colorfully painted.
When I got there, the Ichangu Narayan temple seemed deserted. A couple of Nepalis came to worship: they rang the bell to let the God know they were there, made a tikka on the forehead with red paint from the statues, and walked quickly clockwise around the temple. I was the only tourist, and I liked that the place had a serene and peaceful atmosphere, suitable for a picnic break after a steep cycle. If the ride up to the temple was demanding, the way back was an easy freewheel, and I reached the city in less than one hour, more quickly than I expected.
Visiting both Ichangu Narayan and Swayambunath is a good combination for a cycling day, or even a half-day trip, near Kathmandu. Swayambunath is a Buddhist stupa, situated on a hilltop and is a tourist spot, whereas Ichangu Narayan has a Hindu Temple, and is located in the middle of the Nepali countryside.
Top image by Graham Bland.