Kathmandu, Nepal is an extraordinary city. It is the capital of the tiny state lying between the two emerging hegemonic powers in the Asian region. The country has only relatively recently reopened its borders to tourists and generates a substantial portion of its GDP from foreign travellers. The city lies at 1,400m above sea level. It is not uncommon to hear of those who have travelled to Nepal just how delightful it is to interact with the locals. I had been prepared multiple times by others for my interactions and I could not agree more. Before setting down in the nation we encountered a Nepalese gentlemen sitting behind us who commuted between Australia and Nepal on a monthly basis. He took a particular interest in us and offered to help us around the city of Kathmandu, as well as with the arrival proceedings for Tribhuvan International Airport. He offered to set us up with local SIM cards and ensured we were not unwittingly being picked up by thugs. Save for his concern for us, our tour group with Nepal Vision Treks was very professionally run and staffed. Deepak, our guide, was beyond fantastic and never once faltered in ensuring our trek was run as smoothly and safely as possible. I could not agree more with the sentiment regarding the Nepalese profile – incredibly generous and kind.
Flying in to Kathmandu, Nepal is an experience. I’ve flown in to many different airports on numerous continents, all of which tend to have their own unique characteristics but, Kathmandu is altogether another experience. Off the right hand side of the aircraft lay the Himalayan mountain range, standing almost as tall as our cruising altitude. We had about thirty minutes worth of spectacular views (thanks to our newly acquainted seat buddy who graciously acquired us window seats on the proper side of the plane). The other unique experience we had flying into Kathmandu was realising the passengers filling our Malaysian airlines flight tended to all know each other, something we also observed flying home. Passengers were constantly moving about the plane and swapping seats.
After we had deplaned and reached our turn at immigration, we paid the $40USD fee for our tourism visa and headed for the exits, where we were greeted by what seemed to be thousands of Nepalese people. We quickly spotted our pick up, said goodbye to our new friend and made our way to our car, dodging the ten or so people that had encircled us – insisting on carrying our bags the remaining fifteen paces to the car, only then to demand a regular tip they claimed to be in the vicinity of $20USD. We threw our bags in and sped off, not without the porter-proteges heavily insisting on their tips with their hands still in the car windows as we pulled away. It was undoubtedly a culture shock in the very essence of the expression, but also a sobering introduction to what people will do for money in what is a very poor nation.
The streets of Kathmandu offer endless exploring and cultural immersion with little shops sprawling out onto the sidewalks offering tourist souvenirs and every type of counterfeit hiking gear imaginable. The streets are packed with vehicles including: everything from push bikes, small hatchbacks, buses to of course the most popular mode of transport – motorbike. One thing you do notice and very quickly begin to feel at home with is the beeping. Each and every vehicle on the road seems legally obliged to ensure they utilise their horn at least twenty times a minute. And even with the uncontrollable proliferation of noise pollution composed by the traffic, you seldom if ever, see instances of aggression. Basic road rules are non-existent in Kathmandu and the method with which the traffic aligns itself is astounding. I felt very comfortable in the cars I rode in including taxis, not discounting the one driver who very clearly inebriated but managed to navigate the roads with precision. I witnessed one exchange of glares after two motorcyclists nearly collided head on. Both stopped and looked around at each other, holding their non-verbal exchange for around five seconds to then only continue on their way. Compared with what roads are like in Sydney, it seemed counterintuitive at first to have such madness result in so few instances of violence or aggression but, the expectation that their are no rules, no give way signs, I believe truly does create a system more harmonious and more conducive to a peaceful society. Admittedly, the reason why there aren’t as many accidents as there otherwise would be, is due to the fact that I don’t think we ventured over the 60km/h mark at any one point. Having said that, I would be interested in any study done that would look at reducing the amount of rules we have on our roads in Sydney. While we did encounter the roads as passengers on multiple occasions, our chosen method of transport around Thamel was walking. Crossing roads is again, a ruleless, anarchical undertaking that does still manage to espouse logic and efficiency. We were instructed to make our way into the road, while doing our best to avoid oncoming traffic, and to maintain the same walking speed, so that oncoming bikes and cars could judge where you would be and could manoeuvre around you. it was at first rather stressful, but soon became second nature.
Thamel, Kathmandu is the neighbourhood we called home for two nights before setting out on our journey. The shopping district was clearly aimed at tourists and as such, a plethora of salient security services stood by ATMs and shops to ensure the safety of all. Despite the presence of police, I generally felt comfortable and safe in Thamel, choosing to humour rather than ignore those offering services ranging from drugs to hiking trips. The resourcefulness with which some young Nepalese entrepreneurs do business is astounding, offering anything you could possibly want, whether it be: drugs, singing bowls, a ‘good time’ out or a fully staffed ten-day hike up in the mountains. Taxis constantly offer their services at barely any cost to the rider, all bartered for and settled prior to entering the car. Even as a tourist district, we certainly did not mesh straight in with the Thamel crowd. For the hour or so we initially spent in Thamel we may have only come across a dozen other travellers. I chose to acquire some of the more expensive items of gear required for the trek in Kathmandu, on the advice of all those who had travelled to Nepal previously. In doing so I made sure to visit the legitimate stores lining one of Thamel’s main streets. Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, etc. all had shops selling real gear for prices 30-40% off what you’d expect to pay in Australia. There was certainly a reason the most popular advice i received before embarking on this trek was to wait until getting to Kathmandu to buy any gear I needed.
Rubble is one word that accurately describes Kathmandu. It seems that the vast majority of streets and lanes you venture down at some point, contain bricks and dirt encroaching onto the road. Eternally entangled power lines and vast pot holes round out the canvas. There are many shops that are kept in an extremely presentable manner but others are quite desolate. Close to our hotel, there is a street in containing a number of up market shops including a KFC and Pizza Hut, an underground bottle and cigar shop (the nicest bottle shop I’ve ever been in anywhere) and expensive luxury goods shops include a Rolex, all legitimate. While the presence of these higher end outlets seems obscure when juxtaposed to the landscape surrounding them, there must exist a market for their goods. Flying back into Kathmadu from Lukla, we did pass over what appeared to be a very expensive neighbourhood with big, well kept houses – possibly one source of demand for these goods. On the speculation of another, we witnessed many UN vehicles over the couple of days spent in Kathmandu, possibly providing another set of potential customers.
On our first night in Kathmandu we found ourselves at a bar in downtown Thamel with live music and Shisha pipes. There was no shortage of nightlife venues and again, the solider like police forces wandering down streets with rifles ceased any concern over the safety of being out late at night. The bar had a wide range of drinks to choose form including the Everest beer – which is actually pretty good, for a fraction of what you’d expect to pay in Sydney. As expected there were tourists filling up a lot of these venues but, there was certainly a large local presence as well. The naivety of some younger travellers was perfectly displayed when we discovered that three girls had paid a man to interview them for an obscure magazine he was affiliated with. Their regret over the transaction was unmistakable.
As apart of our day tour we visited the biggest Stupa in Kathmandu. We walked around it severely times, passing by people praying on mats, people lighting candles, as well as many tourists taking photos. Stupas originated as pre-Buddhist earthen burial mounds, in which ascetics were buried in a seated position. The stupa was then elaborated as Buddhism spread to other Asian countries. The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire’s base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne. Although not described in any Tibetan text on stupa symbolism, the stupa may represent the five purified elements: The square base represents earth, the hemispherical dome/vase represents water, the conical spire represents fire, the upper lotus parasol and the crescent moon represents air and the sun and the dissolving point represents the element of space.
There were a number of central rivers that flowed through Kathmandu, all appeared to have been substantially littered with everything from paper and cardboard to plastic bags. It wasn’t uncommon to see people in these rivers, children playing or washing. They were unfortunately pretty unsanitary and an important reminder to only drink bottled water, even in the hotel.
This part of our city tour was home to several temples and palaces in Basantapur Durbar Square. The square is a UNESCO world heritage site and is surrounded with incredible architecture and showcases the skills of the Newar artists and craftsman. They were a privilege to explore and we were lucky to have our guide provide some of the history regarding their presence. We were told of princesses of the Royal family being indefinitely sequestered to certain palaces and were taken through a number of them to explore. We climbed nine stories in one tower to be greeted with spectacular views over the markets below and the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Small shops like these comprised the sidewalks on many streets, offering everything imaginable from books and movies to motorcycle repairs. We constantly saw people congregated around these shops drinking tea or eating, having a good time. It’s clearly evident that many of these people don’t have much when compared with some citizens of Western countries, but the happiness that transcended many of the Nepalese people we saw congregated in some of these shops was undeniable. While these smaller types of shops were very prevalent, larger glass buildings occasionally appeared giving the indication that there were some larger corporations operating in the city.
Our final stop on our day tour was to this open air crematorium. A ritual in Nepal, the families and relatives of the deceased come together to cremate the departed, and to then spread their ashes through the river. This was quite a scene to comprehend, with distraught families and dead bodies lying across the river from us. Further down the river there were bodies currently alight.
The city itself is home to around 2.5 million people and encompasses an area of about 50 square kms. The colours of the buildings can be astounding and encapsulating to watch from higher vantage points. I loved spending time in Kathmandu. There isn’t an endless source of things to do and see but a couple of days before any adventures in other parts of the country is a must. Exploring and experiencing the majestic Himalayas, or other parts of this beautiful country, is an absolutely humbling and awe-inspiring journey. I believe spending time in Kathmandu in addition to time up amongst the mountains or other areas of the country is important, and allows you to grasp some sense of what Nepal is as a country and who its people are.