You may have seen Bhaktapur - one of the Kathmandu Valley's most atmospheric cities - in the news this week as Nepal's colourful new year celebrations kicked off on Monday.
The medieval town is where the principal festival associated with the Nepali New Year - Bisket Jatra - is annually staged. The town-dwellers build a giant ceremonial chariot dedicated to the Hindu God Bhairab, drink lots of alcohol and a giant tug-of-war ensues in which the residents of the Eastern and Western parts of Bhaktapur battle for the right to pull the chariot through the town, a contest that's believed to bring the winning side good luck all through the new year. (Check out my photo gallery of last year's Bisket Jatra preparations at the bottom of this blog post.)
Apart from this rather boisterous festival, the town is famous mainly for its towering pagoda-style temples, sweeping ceremonial squares and intricately carved wooden windows.
Oh. And its famous "king curd". Something I thought I had tasted until I found out I hadn't. Almost exactly to the day, this time last year, I was being duped out of the legendary Juju Dhau.
It turns out that Bhaktapur's juju dhau takes time and effort to make. Time that the restaurant I tried it in obviously didn't have. So instead of having the creamy, custardy creation that this city is most famous for, I ate a watery version that, although tasty enough, really wasn't juju dhau.
So consider yourself warned. If the blogosphere is to be believed, there are quite a few restaurants in Bhaktapur serving what they claim to be juju dhau but what in reality is nothing more than sweetened curds.
If in doubt, bear in mind that authentic juju dhau is:
A. Made and served in red clay pots called kataaros or bhingats (not ceramic bowls found in tourist-trap restaurants).
B. So solid, you can turn it over your head without being drenched in whey (something I would never have considered doing with the version I ate).
C. Seasoned with spices and not sweetened with sugar (or indeed honey, which is what I suspect my fake juju dhau contained).
It's a real shame as milk-based desserts feature among my all-time favourites. The worst part is I never realised it until today, when I began researching juju dhau to add more detail to what I thought would be a well-timed Nepali New Year post :(
I guess the only good thing is I now have a reason to return to Bhaktapur. It truly was one of only a handful of places I've ever been to that made me feel I was going back in time without it seeming staged.
PS: If you enjoy the simple life, consider spending a night here. Most people visit Bhaktapur as a day trip from Kathmandu, but the city comes into its own after the tourist vans and buses drive off. Watching dusk fall over Bhaktapur while sitting on the red brick stairs of the Nyatapola Temple, and wandering the streets at dawn to photograph the city before the Bisket Jatra celebrations began rank among my favourite memories of Nepal.
Where to eat and what to do if you find yourself with 24 hours in Nepal's crazy capital - Kathmandu:
8.30am: Tea Time
Banana pancakes, eggs, pastries? It really doesn't matter, breakfast in Nepal is all about sweet, spicy masala chai. Nepalis wake up at the crack of dawn and if you are having trouble doing the same, the zingy ginger-laden tea will be a saviour all through your trip. Best enjoyed in the early morning sun on the roof-top of your B&B or hostel in Thamel. There are few things nicer than a pot of hot tea and a great book to start your day.
In and around the area: Souvenir shops selling everthing from yak milk soap to kukris, singing bowls, North Face gear, silver dorje earrings and more; travel agents to book treks, rafting trips and safaris to pretty much any accessible corner of Nepal.
11am: Cake at Snowman Cafe
This legendary cake shop looks like it got stuck somewhere in the 70's hippie heyday. A slice of cake or apple crumble teamed with a mid-morning coffee or milk shake is the perfect pick me up before or after wandering around Durbar Square. The cafe looks more trippy at night, when the psychedelic buddha-print lanterns come on, but morning or evening no visit to Freak Street should be complete without a sweet something at this cafe.
In and around the area: The towering temples, palaces and audience halls of Kathmandu's most photographed site - Durbar Square; the original address of alternative living - Freak Street; the manic markets around Indra Chowk.
1.30pm: Lunch in the Garden of Dreams
Lunching to the sounds of tinkling fountains and birdsong in a blooming formal garden may sound more like something you would do in England than Nepal, but that's exactly what Field Marshal Kaiser Shamser, the creator of Swapna Bagaicha - or the Garden of Dreams - intended. If you are tired of Thamel, this secret garden hidden away behind high walls is the perfect place for a breather and a bite. The Edwardian-style garden was laid in the 1920s and has been beautifully restored. You'll struggle to find a prettier place to lunch than the columned Kaiser Cafe located in the garden's Basanta (Spring) Pavilion.
In and around the area: Narayanhity Palace Museum - scene of the 2001 royal massacre.
Kathmandu is located in a valley and can be more muggy than mountain-fresh so a siesta or a massage in nearby Thamel may also be a good way to kill the hot afternoon hours.
6pm: Momos with monks in Boudhnath
Momos or Tibetan dumplings are incredibly satisfying, especially when dolloped with fiery tomato-chilli sauce. Whether steamed or pan-fried, vegetarian, chicken or the interesting "buff momo" (sadly made from buffalo meat and not something that gives you rippling muscles), momos make the perfect twilight snack. If you are not sure where to find them, the friendly monks wandering around the stupa will happily point you in the direction of the best momo joints.
In and around the area: The serene Boudhnath Stupa, colourful live cham performances on the grounds of the surrounding monasteries, stalls selling Tibetan knick-knacks, jewellery and thangkas.
9pm: Dinner and a drink at the Rum Doodle
This bar festooned with giant paper feet is a must-visit in Kathmandu. The food may not be phenomenal but they make a mean hot buttered rum and there's enough on the menu to keep most happy. The giant feet are inscribed with messages from mountaineers, hikers and trekkers who have been visiting the place for more than twenty years. Although any amateur can get scribbling, if you are one of the lucky few to have conquered Everest, you get a bonus - you get to eat here for free for life! The bar is particularly atmospheric during one of Kathmandu's frequent power cuts when it functions entirely by candlelight.
Things to do: Most of Kathmandu shuts shop early but its notorious casinos stay open all night long. If you aren't the type to turn in until the wee hours of the morning you might want to check them out. But be warned, there's a reason the locals refer to them not as casinos but cash-in-no-come-out.
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