KATHMANDU, Nepal – The choice of left or right makes a world of difference when walking away from the Tibet Guest House in the capital city's famous Thamel district.
Turn left, and a spider web of roads wends through a trekker's outdoor mall. Tiny shops spill North Face travel bags and down jackets, Nikon camera lenses and brass Buddha statues, Ghurka knives and Thanga paintings, embroidered T-shirts that say everything from "Everest – Top of the World" to "Dal Bhat – 24-hour Power". (Dal Bhat is one of the country's most popular dishes – a lentil soup with rice and curried vegetables).
Signs dangle from four- and six-story buildings advertising mountain flights, raft trips, paragliding instruction and Internet service. Touts walk up to Western tourists (they're really easy to spot – the only ones wearing North Face) and hawk guide services into the Himalaya Mountains.
The restaurants offer a curried version of English spelling and cuisine.
The New Orleans Cafe served Australian steak, river trout and German bratwurst, but no etoufee or jambalaya. Other places offered "Maxican" food. You can order steak with fries, "buff chilly" and apple pie. Order the apple pie. Nepali apple pie alone is worth the trip.
Turn right from the guest house, and in 100 feet you pass a huge tree with roots covered in wax and flowers from the early morning devotions made by people on their way to work. Such shrines appear at every intersection and often in nooks between buildings. All show signs of steady use.
Keep going a thousand feet, and all the English disappears from the signage. The crowd triples. In three hours of walking, we saw three other Western tourists.
This is the Asan Bazaar, and it's where Kathmandu lives out loud.
Mounds of fresh tomatoes, potatoes and dozens of other vegetables sit on blankets up and down the streets. Butcher shops have whole chickens and legs of goat sitting on counters. Food vendors sell unidentifiable goodies to lines of hungry customers.
One offering involved mixing a large handful of cooked grain with little dabs of other nuts and beans all laid out in six big squares like a colorful chessboard, then doused with four or five different bottles of sauces and mixed together in a big cup.
For the finale, the vendor made a cone from a sheet of newspaper, put a deft twist on the tip, and emptied the cup into it. The buyers scooped the mixture up with squares of cardboard cut from cereal boxes. It looked like a psychedelic vegan snowcone.
The Asan also bears big scars from the April 25 Gorkha earthquake.
The 7.8 temblor wreaked havoc on Kathmandu's stone buildings, which make up a huge percentage of this part of town. In that weird earthquake way, one building will stand untouched while its neighbor looks like it went through a blender.
Whole families are still hauling rubble away in the distinctive wicker hods Nepalis use for moving loads.
We met a persuasive young man named Sanjay who offered to lead us through the bustle.
Within minutes, he'd found the Bangemuda monument to root canals – a twisted hunk of wood with thousands of old coins nailed to it. In an early form of dentistry, people would nail their offerings to the god of toothaches.
Sanjay turned out to be a young man of many qualities.
Although a Hindu, he was studying Thanga painting at a school in the Asan. Most of the building was smashed in the earthquake, so a visit to his second-floor classroom took a gut-check climb through the jumbled concrete to one door with an electric light burning.
Inside, his teacher demonstrated the different qualities of Thanga detail, which he said takes about 10 years to master.
He uses brushes thinner than doctor's needles to work intricate designs into Buddhist emblems used for meditation. Be ready for the sales pitch, but the demonstration is worth the arm-twisting.