Now I am getting close to completing visiting all of my list of 197 countries, I have started a nice geeky spreadsheet with all the dates of entry for the different countries and noting which of my various passports has the entry stamp. In the process I realised that I had misplaced my very first kiwi passport. Most of the countries I had visited in that era (ages 14-23) I have already been back to more than once, but not Nepal. Twenty years ago I spent a few weeks hiking in Nepal and loved it, and I am sure I have some photos somewhere but I could only find one photo of someone who looked vaguely like me in front of a stupa in Kathmandu. But, as I was in Delhi for work, I decided I may as well pop up to Kathmandu for the weekend – it’s not far! I could get in at 9am and leave the following evening around 6 – allowing two full days for sightseeing …..(and fulfil my OCD need for some ‘proof’ I went there :-))…..
I had forgotten about the fog in Kathmandu. I was at the airport at 5.40 am, but our flight ended up being delayed for six hours due to the airport being closed in Kathmandu. Hmmm! Not ideal. Looking around the gate, it is obvious that things have moved on in Nepal. While there were a few happy hippies in flimsy embroidered tops and grubby trousers, (two with guitars,) there were also impeccable equipped japanese and American hikers with shiny new boots and even some business men. I was excited to see how different Kathmandu would be after 20 years.
We eventually got on the flight and landed in a wonderful sunny day in the kathmandu valley, which is surrounded by stunning mountains. Obviously air india don’t have great relationships at the airport as they have their own dedicated beaten up bus, and the door wouldn’t even close. I did my usual power walk through to immigration, paid the fee, smiled nicely at the immigration dude (apparently i was supposed to have two copies of something and I didn’t) and was first out of the airport.
I found a driver and negotiated a fee for the afternoon (the guy I had booked had given up hours before) and headed out to Bhaktapur. When you think of Kathmandu, the gateway to the mountains comes to mind, but I had also forgotten that Kathmandu has worse air pollution than Delhi! . it was vile, and i wasn’t surprised to see one young girl violently throwing up out the bus window next door given how bad the fumes were.
Bhaktapur was lovely. I had clearly come late enough in the day to miss most of the tourists, and the afternoon light was perfect. Nepal has a clever policy of charging special prices to tourists – not a bad idea given they need to get foreign currency from somewhere – so it was $15 to enter, but worth it. I wandered around the four main squares (Durbar, Taumadhi, Pottery and Dattatraya).
Dattatraya was my favourite, largely because there was an enigmatic goat who kept posing for me in front of the main temple. The streets of Bhaktapur are wonderful and although as over-run with scooters as most of Nepal, they are car free and pretty walkable.
We then headed to Patan. I left the driver in the carpark and wandered up the street. Before long I ran into three lines of what looked like riot police, and behind them a crazy loud crowd. I was mildly worried I had accidentally run into some demonstration,but there were a lot of women around so I decided to follow one of them and we squished past the police and forced our way along the sides of the crowd – quite tough in a narrow street. There were hundred of locals out celebrating some festival – honestly no clue what it was about, and i couldnt’t understand the name of the festival from the guy who started telling me about it (his accent was incomprehensible), but it seemed to be a challenge to haul what looked like 50 metre christmas trees down to the square.
Patan was badly damaged during the 2015 earthquakes, and many of the temples are still being rebuilt. However I loved it more than Bhaktapur purely because I timed it when the locals were in full celebration. After wandering around and chatting to some of the local ladies, I made my way to the hotel for a much needed shower to get the Kathmandu grit out of my hair
I am staying in Thamel, the backpacker haunt of the 70s (and for me in the 90s). It hasn’t changed a bit but is also totally different. Its still grubby, full of touts, blessed with unlimited momo shops and lots of counterfeit outdoor brands. And it is still over-run with tourists. But the tourists are much better dressed, everyone has a smartphone and every cafe has wifi (we didn’t even have internet last time the first time I came here). Its kinda odd. I wandered round and stopped for a crackingly good pizza at Fire and Ice and retired to bed in my small but perfectly formed room at the Oasis guesthouse
I managed to sleep in spite of all night construction works next door including concrete laying at 4am. The Australians next to me at breakfast were complaining vociferously about the noise, but in a country with limited regulation, construction entrepreneurs will use all the hours available.
Thamel and durbar square
After an amazing breakfast of masala omelettes and chapatis I wandered through Tamel down to Durbar square. Much of the complex was badly damaged by the earthquake. It is still worth a visit as it is lovely and very much still in public use with crowds of people performing their morning puja to Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god). This is clearly a tourist hot spot as the beggars are orderly and organised. I was amused by an aged wrinkly hippy with his dog who has likely been here since the seventies, who made his rounds giving alms to equally wizened beggars. The sadhus (holy men) are equally out in force to profit from the western photographers who get uncomfortably close to their faces.
Arjun picked me up and we headed out to Swayambhunath temple – monkey temple (so named for the many aggressive monkeys :-)). The traffic was not so bad as it is Saturday but the air quality really is awful! I saw quite a few tourists walking the route from Thamel, but while I love walking, I wouldn’t willingly do it here with all the fumes. Arjun took quite some persuading that I wanted to walk up the famous steps to the stupa rather than be driven up. It was a lovely shady stroll on the hill with lots of devout locals making puja. The monkeys provide tonnes of entertainment and you have to hold on tightly to anything shiny! The stupa is lovely!!!!!!!!
We then headed across town to Boudhanath. A lovely stupa surrounded by coffee shops. Kathmandu is third world but wonderfully organised for tourists, you are never far away from a flat white, WiFi and a clean loo! It is certainly much nicer than it was 20 years ago. After circumnambulating twice I restored myself with an excellent flat white and a banana muffin :-).
After that we headed to Pashupatinath – one of the largest complexes in Nepal and definitely the most important….it is where local Hindus are cremated and is said to represent Shiva’s head (his other main body parts are in India). The three most beautiful temples are off limits to non Hindus but it is a lovely place to wander around. The more ghoulish tourists spend ages watching burning bodies and trying to get close to take photos….I learnt years ago in Varanasi that I didn’t want to smell bodies cremating as it put me off food for a long time. I also wonder how we would feel if someone put an enormous lens in our faces while were burying our loved ones in the cemetery. I wandered around and got invited to join a family for a picnic. I sat in the shade and chatted to some kids for a while, but my Hindu is limited to two words :-).
After that back to the airport to head home the long way, via Delhi and Dubai. It was lovely to be back, but reminded me that there are amazing mountains in Nepal so am contemplating signing up to the mustang trail race in 2020. Let me know if you fancy coming
April 21, Kathmandu, Nepal
* stayed at oasis guesthouse. Clean, great location, very good management and excellent breakfast
* can negotiate taxis from place to place but I am lazy and found it easier to get a driver. Rate was $45 for a full day
* all the cafes are excellent, I tried several java Nepalese, the local Starbucks and they were good