GUEST ARTICLE: My throat burns after inhaling a dense combination of dust, smoke, exhaust and a very small amount of oxygen. My ears are ringing from the constant sound of car and bus horns. I step warily, dodging the spit as men clear their throats and hurl phlegm and snot projectiles across my path. My eyes are dry and sore. Welcome to Kathmandu.
Upon arrival at Kathmandu International Airport we paid our US$25 per person fee for Visa on arrival. Some people had already obtained their visa back in Australia but that wasn’t necessary. The lineup was excruciatingly long and took quite a while to get through. It wouldn’t have helped if we had pre-arranged a visa (in fact it would have cost more).
Outside the airport it was blistering hot and busy. Hundreds of drivers with signs and porters were shouting at each other and their potential customers. Our driver was there on time and swiftly loaded our luggage into his tiny little blue vintage car. Before we knew it we were on our way to our hotel – Hotel Courtyard located in the popular tourist area called Thamel.
The drive through the city really gave us a taste of the overwhelming poverty of this very densely populated city. There were mangy dogs, cows, chickens and monkeys walking and lying around everywhere. An ever-present dust cloud hung thickly throughout the air giving our surroundings a hazy appearance.
The road became narrower as we entered the main shopping and tourist zone. At times it was so narrow that it was unclear whether we would actually make it through or not. The road was shared with strolling pedestrians, locals on pushbikes, motorbikes, rickshaws and schoolchildren. But this didn’t stop our driver and others from zipping through the streets like our asses were on fire. That drive was definitely cringe worthy.
After about half an hour of weaving through a rather confusing network of small streets we arrived at the Hotel Courtyard. It was a beautiful old converted mansion that provided an ideal sanctuary away from the maddening crowds and noise. Faint sounds of car horns and shouting locals could still be heard every now again but nothing too major.
The owner Michelle, an American lady who married into a local family was warm and accommodating. She explained that the people who generally come to Kathmandu are the more adventurous and interesting types. And she couldn’t have been more right!
As we sat around the courtyard waiting for our documents to be processed we met a New Zealander who was about to make his second attempt to summit Mt Everest and an Australian girl Allie Pepper who was the 9th Australian woman to summit the World’s Highest Mountain. We had never met anyone who had actually made it to the top of Mount Everest. We tried not to ask too many questions but found it too hard to resist. We wanted to know everything and thankfully Allie was happy to share her experiences.
For lunch Michelle gave us a small map of the area and pointed us in the direction of a nice little Italian restaurant. We felt like newborns taking our first tentative steps into those chaotic streets. Our senses were bombarded by our new surroundings. A never-ending collage of colorful vendors thickly lined the streets along with little cafes and a plethora of little hotels.
Walking down the narrow streets was nail biting at times but it all seemed to have a rhythm so once we got that down packed it wasn’t too much of a problem. Although this would be the last place I’d want to take a stroll with any kids. Lunch was great and cheap as chips but most importantly sanitary. I got the feeling one had to be really careful with their food choices there or you might find yourself becoming great mates with the porcelain god.
After lunch we went to a recommended tourist site called Durbar Square. It was a bit of a walk to get there but we saw some pretty interesting things along the way. On our ride in I remember commenting on how grungy everyone looked. Now, after being immersed amongst everything we found ourselves also getting the ‘worn look.’ It was hard to avoid when the dirt roads we were walking on constantly kicked up dust. I remember having this funny image of the character Pigpen from Peanut Gang cartoon in my head – yup that was us.
Like I said before, breathing wasn’t the easiest and our eyes were irritated beyond red. We found sunglasses helped somewhat and we eventually ended up buying some facemasks to help combat the wheeze. Not so nice in such hot temperatures but they definitely helped.
Kathmandu is hard living and we could see people trying to eke out a living any way they could, even if that meant cooking old corn cobs on a poorly lit fire on a dirty curb. Faces were really worn and clothes dirty, if I had thought I’d seen poor, this place had just done a king hit on that previous assumption of mine. There really are no words for how impoverished the situation is there, it certainly had an effect on me and will forever be ingrained in my memory.
In Durbar Square beautiful old red heritage buildings dotted the small area. A mixture of tourists and locals strolled throughout and a handful of vendors had set up shop wherever they could. We saw men wearing traditional Nepali topi hats and women draped in colorful saris. We also saw a few Holy Men dressed in brilliant yellow garb with elaborately decorated faces. They on the other hand seemed to be busking themselves to the public.
Later that day we went for a little shop and found many wonderful things. What mainly caught my eye were the beautiful jewelry pieces and especially the soft knitted pieces made from the baby yak wool. We found the people to be really friendly and always replied with a friendly ‘Namaste.’ Someone told us it means ‘Hello to the god within you.’
The next day we had Michelle organize a small trek for us in the hills located just an hour and a half outside of the city. We really liked the drive it took us through some beautiful countryside. We wound around tiered hills and passed local buses overflowing with passengers.
When we arrived at our destination we were greeted by a young guy from the nearby village, his name was Kalum. He was going to be our guide for the day. After making sure we had all our necessities for the journey (most importantly lots of water and a good pair of shoes) we were on our way.
Kalum’s English was excellent and he gave us a great insight into our surroundings. We happily breathed in the clean country air as we trekked through a beautiful tranquil landscape peppered with quaint rustic looking cottages. The locals there were shy but friendly. Kalum said they didn’t get too many tourists around that particular area.
The trail was demanding at times (especially for us) but Kalum didn’t even break a sweat! We walked about two hours along dirt roads and winding goat trails before arriving at the Thrangu Tashi Yangste Monestary. The inside was elaborately painted and adorned in gold trim. A group of monks lined the walls each painstakingly restoring murals. Although, upon closer inspection of them working we noticed quite a few busily texting on their iphones?!
On the way back we stopped at a beautiful little cottage perched upon a hill. It had a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside. Farmers went about tending to their crops while carrying oversized woven baskets full of the day’s harvest. Small plots of intricately planted crops tiered the mountainside making it a visual delight.
The lady of the house made us feel at home and had prepared the most wonderful homemade meal for us (a cool part of the tour huh?). We sat outside at a little table and enjoyed the view while eating some excellent vegetarian curries and vegetable dishes accompanied with freshly brewed lemongrass tea and honey – Yum!!
After lunch we slowly made our way back down to our car. That whole day was the most wonderful experience and exactly what I had envisioned trekking through Nepali countryside would be like, it was no Mt Everest but at least we got a taste!
Later that night we went to a local restaurant called Thamel House. Throughout the night we were served all kinds of nice little local morsels. My favorite were the Momo’s (tender meatballs wrapped in fresh dough and steamed). My least favorite would have to be their rice wine. After swigging back a shot in one go (as per instruction by our waiter) my first thought as I frantically clutched my throat was…”Oh my god my throat is melting!!” Quickly followed by…”Uh oh, here comes dinner!!” After much restraint that ‘oh so wonderful’ feeling thankfully passed and I was left with that wonderful memory much to my chagrin.
On the way to the airport we went on our last sightsee to the 2nd Buddhist Wonder of the World – Boudhanath. We paid a small entry fee and then went to see this renowned destination for many Buddhists. The first thing we saw were the all-seeing giant eyes of the Buddha which were situated at the top of the Stupa. It is a massive circular structure and everyone walks clockwise around it chanting and praying. It was a nice spot and I’m glad we made the effort to see it before we went.
Initially we had booked 5 days to stay in Kathmandu but after hearing about another place called Pokhara we reduced that down to three days. To be honest, like most third world cities we were expecting Kathmandu to grow on us, but it didn’t. Really our highlight was trekking through the hills (outside of Kathmandu!). Perhaps we should have given it longer than 3 days but to be honest I don’t know if our lungs would permit us to head back any time soon (yes it is that bad).
Kathmandu is definitely not for everyone but it does hold a certain charm for many. All in all we are still really glad we went and would recommend it (at least once). It will surely make you grateful for everything you have right down to the shoes on your feet.
This travel diary has been written by Rob Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!