Click here to see where Kathmandu is.
“I’m going to Kathmandu- It’s what I really really waaaana do…” Denae gave me a blank look as I gave my best Bob Seager impersonation, and claimed to have never heard the song. Sigh. We were in the middle of some long and hard traveling, which is what it takes to go budget from Varanasi to Nepal and that fabled former hippy capital of the universe, Kathmandu. Our journey required an overnight train, a bus, a border crossing, walking, a rickshaw ride, and finally the horrible overnight bus that was currently crawling us along at a narcoleptic snail’s pace. The bus was jam-packed full of people, hot, bumpy and never-ending. It was tolerable as long as we were moving, but we kept stopping for infuriatingly long periods of time for no reason that we were ever able to figure out. We’d drive for thirty minutes, then stop for twenty, and the placid and patient expressions on all of our fellow passenger’s faces only infuriated us more as we gnashed our teeth and daydreamed about standing up and delivering self-righteous lectures on efficiency, by gawd. The Zen sense of patience that everybody knows you need to always enjoy traveling in the third world is really only attainable by, well, Zen masters. But we endured and did finally get to Kathmandu, at four in the morning and after 36 straight hours of traveling.
We were pretty wiped so we decided to grab a taxi after the driver assured us he’d use his meter, which is generally a reasonable guarantee of getting a fair price- hence the difficulty of getting drivers to use their meters. Four blocks later though we made him stop and got out of the cab, as the meter had skyrocketed alarmingly as soon as we’d started moving; either it was rigged or night fares are simply not affordable in Kathmandu. After paying the driver his 50 Nepali rupees for our 30 second ride (about 65 cents, and you’ll just have to take my word for it that that price is highway robbery around here) we found a tea stand and sat for a couple hours to wait for dawn.
Ahh, the tea stand, that shining beacon of light (at least at 4am), hope and refreshment. If you ever find yourself in South Asia in some unknown rundown location in an unfamiliar city, in the dark, with shadowy figures walking past, just look around. Within a block or two there will be a shack constructed out of tarps, twine and bamboo, and a lantern will illuminate a guy slinging cups of chai to waiting customers and selling them single cigarettes, rather than the full packs that many can’t afford. For a few cents you can have your own cup of sugary, milky goodness.
As dawn broke we got directions and started walking, feeling a little jittery from a few too many cups of chai. We were headed for neighborhood of Thamel, where the majority of Kathmandu’s tourists stay. We hadn’t yet bought a guidebook and after walking a while we didn’t really know where we were, and at 6:30 am it’s surprisingly hard to find a tourist ghetto. All the shops were closed and few people were out, and the area just looked too dead to be our destination. But when we asked a local how to get to Thamel he gave us a weird look, made an encompassing motion with his hands and shrugged; we were there. We found a hotel, talked them down to 350 rupees (about $5 usd) from 500, set down our bags, and fell asleep with our clothes on.
When we woke up that afternoon and left our hotel Thamel was transformed. Throngs of people were walking around and there was a lot of Ex Officio clad white skin. Nepal pulls in a lot of middle-aged and older tourists, in addition to the usual twenty-something backpacker crowd, who come to walk one of the famous treks or go rafting or just check out the historic sights. Trekking is definitely the big draw, and all the westerners walking around the streets wearing Goretex and fancy synthetic outdoor gear made us feel like we’d just stepped into an REI clothing commercial. It was a little weird after being in north India for a while, where most of the tourists were young backpackers wearing shabby-chic hippy clothing, which generally looks about like a 17th century pirate’s garb. Thamel is full of restaurants, guest houses, travel agents and shops, half of them selling trinkets and the other half trekking equipment. There’s an undeniable energy about the place, and with all the tourists and shopkeepers and roving salesmen the area almost hums with activity. There are many, many restaurants for which the area is somewhat renowned; we tried quite a few while we were there and found many to be so-so and a couple quite good. The older and less price conscious (i.e. not dirtbag) tourist crowd seems to have pushed prices up quite a bit, and many of the better restaurants were simply too expensive for us.
This was the first place we came across buff meat, in the form of buff momos. When we saw it on the menu we thought it was a simple misspelling of “beef”; English menu misspellings are the rule rather than the exception here. But after seeing it on a few other menus we inquired and learned that buff is water buffalo! A convenient substitution in a land where cows are sacred; water buffalo look and-as I now knew- taste pretty much the same, without the inconvenience of being too holy to consume. Anyway the stuff tasted pretty good, and I ate a good many buff momos, not to mention a few buff steaks.
We really enjoyed Thamel for about two days. The western atmosphere and food felt rejuvenating, there were lots of outdoor equipment stores where we shopped for the trekking gear we needed (about the only kind of shopping I enjoy), there were plenty of bakeries and real coffee shops, and we had a good time just walking on the crowded streets and dodging the crazy motorcyclists. By about the third day, though, it was all starting to get a bit old. The high prices, lack of street food, tottering tourists and the whole feeling of artificiality about the place made it start to seem kind of lame. We stayed, though, because just a short walk outside Thamel was a whole other world.
Kathmandu is Nepal’s capital and by far its biggest and most important city. It has something like 750,000 people and more air pollution than many cities ten times its
size, and is usually veiled under a significant haze. And in the maze of old streets snaking their way between Thamel and the famous Durbar square at the city’s center, ancient and modern buildings and lifestyles mix together like nowhere else we’ve been. Walking those streets was the kind of experience we were after on our trip. They were incredibly crowded, but with locals rather than tourists. There were big markets set up on sidewalks with towering displays of fruits and huge bushels of everything from spices to dried sardine sized fish. There seemed to be a temple on each corner, and buildings that were many hundreds of years old were everywhere. It was a fascinating area, and we loved walking there although we tended to get lost. The crowds of people did occasionally get frustrating. One especially crowded day we were in a sea of people on a narrowish road, which at one point narrowed further to about fifteen feet between two buildings. There were just as many people coming our way as there were going the opposite direction, and as the two groups met they jambed together until they just… stopped. It felt like being a tapered plug pushed into a hole; there was simply no more room and the whole crowd of people just kept pushing against each other and no one got anywhere. Walking in south Asia is an every-man-for-himself type of activity; there is little to no thought given for lines or concepts like taking turns and letting one side go first and then the other. Luckily we were towards the back of this ridiculous human drain stopper and after a couple minutes of futility we simply doubled back through an alternate alleyway and around to where we had been trying to go. When we made it to the other side the plug was still in place.
Durbar square is the historic center of Kathmandu. It’s a grouping of extremely old temples and buildings, most with multi-tiered roofs and intricate carvings out of wood and stone. Some of the roof struts had erotic Kama Sutra type scenes carved into them, actually a pretty common thing in Nepal and India. Those old-timers had it on the brain, if you know what I mean, nudge nudge wink wink. We loved to go to the square and sit on the steps of some temple or another and people watch. Many locals and other tourists would do the same thing, especially in the evening, and it was always an interesting place to be. We’d buy some chai from one of the tea vendors who set up shop on some other temple steps, grab some momos from one of the carts, and watch the world go by. It was great. Just off Durbar square is Freak Street, which was hippy headquarters back in the 60’s and 70’s when this was the hashish filled Shangri La at the end of the overland trail from Europe. Now it’s just a normal looking road with a few more head shops than average. If we ever come back to Kathmandu that’s where Denae and I will stay, because the location right next to the square seems so much better to us than Thamel.
Another road branching off of Durbar square is New Road, where most of the non food and curio related shopping in Kathmandu is grouped. We read that it was a decent place to buy electronics, so we decided to follow through with something we’d been debating for a while: buying a new camera! This wallet-lightening move was inspired by some weird clickings and hesitations in our formerly backup and now only camera, the status of which came about when we dropped and broke our nice new Canon (see the “Manali” post for details) that we’d bought specifically for this trip. Well we’d had enough with the old backup and decided to re-buy the Canon. Upon shopping around we discovered that ours had been replaced by a new and improved model, so we ended up with an even better one than before, for about the same price as it would have been back home. We had the latest and greatest, and all we had to do was buy it twice. Anyway, the camera (model SX 110 IS if you’re curious) has been fantastic and we’re happy with our decision.
One afternoon we took a taxi to a famous Buddhist site commonly known as the Monkey Temple (I forget its real, but less common, name). It’s a temple built on top of a fairly tall hill on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and you have to walk a long series of steps to get up to it. There are all kinds of interesting chortens and statues built along the sides of the steps, making the walk up just as much of an attraction of the temple itself. At least that’s what we told ourselves when we got to the top and discovered the 200 rupee entrance fee for foreigners and decided to skip it. It’s only about $3 usd but that can pay for a night’s accommodation, and would be unthinkable to locals, who pay only 5 rupees. That kind of enormous disparity between local and foreigner admission prices is very common over here, and in one sense is simply a reflection (actually a conservative one) of income disparities between the two groups. But in another sense- the one we feel more acutely- it’s an unfair and ridiculous example of sticking it to the foreigner. Is a rich Indian charged $400 for a ten dollar admission to a US national park (the same ratio) simply because he can afford it? Anyway, foreigner pricing can be a pretty big blow to the budget, but there’s not much we can do other than ineffectual boycotts, because there are plenty of tourists who will keep paying it. I decide how indignant to feel about it on a case by case basis that depends on how cool we think the attraction is going to be.
So we never saw the actual Monkey Temple, but we sat for over an hour on the steps right below it looking down at the city as the sun set. It was a beautiful sight, made even better by the monkeys scampering around that gave the temple it’s unofficial name. It was pretty cool; we were sitting and watching a big group of monkeys playing a hundred yards down the steps below us. Then it was like the classic horror movie shtick: every time we looked the monkeys were closer, but we never actually saw them coming our way. Eventually we ended up in the middle of the whole troop of them, as apparently they had decided that our exact spot on the steps was the area to be. There were dozens of monkeys, jumping around and playing and swinging in the trees. At almost any given moment we could have reached out and grabbed a monkey without getting up; they were completely unafraid of us (it was probably us who should have been afraid!) and acted like we weren’t there. Denae and I sat there holding hands and looking down at the lights of Kathmandu, listening to the cackling monkeys and watching them play around all around us and right at our feet. It was surreal and wonderful, and we stayed until the security guard kicked us out as he came down from the temple for the night.
Kathmandu was a good place. I’d built it up in my mind as some sort of super-exotic paradise, and while it really wasn’t (too polluted, too modern, too normal) it was a fun and beautiful city with more history on display than almost anywhere I’ve been, and I only have to qualify that because of some other cities we saw in Nepal. The only other thing I wanted to mention was one of those small world moments, probably the weirdest one I’ve experienced. While we were in Kathmandu Denae and I had been talking about a possible job opportunity in New York for when we get back to the states. We’d first heard about it from a lady we worked with in Utah when we were ski bums out there, and figured we should try to email or call this woman for the job contact info and a recommendation. Well, walking down a street in Thamel with our backpacks on, literally as we were leaving town, we ran into the very woman and some other people we’d worked with in Utah. A little stunned, and with contact info in hand, we headed out. Maybe the universe was trying to tell us something.