An aerial view of Nepal is a sharp contrast to the agricultural plains of northern India. The thick jungle of the Terai runs east to west, eventually giving way to tree-filled hills and mountains where terraced rice fields embrace the slopes like necklaces of jade. We're on the second leg of our tour with Saga Holidays and, after the blistering heat of Delhi, the relatively cool altitude of Kathmandu is our Holy Grail.
The respite is brief, however, for the bowl-shaped valley in which Kathmandu sits traps pollution, making it unbearable during the summer months. Soon, like many of the city's inhabitants, we were reaching for our handkerchiefs. With the population having quadrupled over the past three decades and traffic volume increasing by 17 per cent each year, Kathmandu is sadly becoming less known for its stupas, ancient temples and beautiful people and more for becoming the most polluted city in Asia, if not the world.
No wonder then that, standing outside the Garden of Dreams, I am having serious doubts that it will live up to its name. Situated across the road from the King's Palace, on the fringes of the vibrant Thamel district, a simple door in a high wall next door to the Ministry of Education gives no clues as to what lies within. The sight and sound of water trickling from a wall feature just inside is, however, enticement enough from blaring horns, dust and fuel emissions, enough in fact to make you pause before you get to the ticket office. Intentional or not, it feels like a small decontamination chamber initiating a much-needed cleansing process.
Just beyond the ticket booth another shaded, walled chamber beckons, with water spouting and dripping down a contemporary diamond-shaped stone arrangement. Another chance to pause, and here you realise it's even OK to breathe. A crevice among the entwined roots of a ficus tree acts as a tiny shrine with daubed red pigment and tiny offerings. It's enough to hold our attention and soon we are sitting, slowly unwinding. We've glimpsed the garden beyond. It's European influenced, neoclassical. Not quite what I expected but intriguing nonetheless, particularly as it has already succeeded in doing what any good garden should do ... inspire curiosity. It was difficult to move from this inner sanctum, most likely because I was worried that the rest of the garden wouldn't live up to the introduction. But eventually, having lingered enough to acclimatise, we moved into the cool shade of a long pergola where an elegant stretched crescent of water confirmed that we were looking at something special.
The visionary behind this garden was Field Marshall Keshar Shumsher, who built the garden in 1926 reflecting his passion for art, literature and horticulture. Known also as the Garden of Six Seasons, it was originally built with six pavilions to celebrate the seasons peculiar to Nepal: spring, early summer, summer monsoon, early autumn, late autumn and winter. The site eventually fell into disrepair but, after decades of neglect, has been fortunate to receive Austrian Development Aid to save and restore half of the original garden. Even with just three pavilions remaining, the neo-classical influence teeters on the edge of being totally indigestible but, with a combination of skilled detailing and sensitive planting (sub-tropical meets European temperate) it crams in a multitude of views, water and architectural features without becoming cluttered or claustrophobic.
'Tranquil oasis' is a much-overused description in garden writing but this garden is probably one of the best examples of the clichÃ© you'll ever experience. One's appreciation of it is, without doubt, hugely accentuated by the contrasting chaos and fuel-choked air outside. But even surrounded by clean streets or a borrowed sylvan landscape it would still impress. We sat for hours soaking up the atmosphere, changing our aspect as sun and shade swapped places, and watched a small army of gardeners quietly groom, sweep and manicure every blade, leaf and paving joint. It would be a lie to say we were completely unaware of the traffic outside but it comes in waves as if drifting in and out of slumber. 'The Garden of Dreams ... yeah right!' I'd scoffed three hours earlier, but it's actually spot-on. It's quite a legacy and, as restoration of the garden continues, will almost certainly become not only a national treasure but a vital pit-stop for gasping residents and tourists alike.Reuse content