Nepal - Kathmandu

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

We thought our introduction to India wasn't great (bag broken into and hair clippers stolen) but that was a breeze compared to our first impressions of Nepal!
We knew that we would have to pay for a visa when we arrived at Kathmandu Airport; Jet Airways had told us that it would cost about 1000 Indian Rupees so we brought more than enough. Besides, most airports have an ATM near to the customs desk so that you can withdraw the necessary payment.
The Nepalese visa required payment in either US, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand Dollars, British Pound, Euros or Japanese Yen. They DIDN'T accept Indian Rupees, despite India being their next-door neighbour. Ridiculous!
We had to leave our passports, go through passport control and customs, past baggage check and security, past all the tour information and outside to the only ATM in the airport. After beating away numerous taxi and hotel touts we got to the ATM to find that it wasn't working! Argghhhh!
Even if it had been we would have got Nepalese Rupees - which the visa desk doesn't accept! WHAT?!!
Our only option was to exchange our Indian Rupees for US Dollars. Nope. Unlike all other money exchanges, the ones in Nepal don't exchange large Indian notes, the 500 and 1000 Rupee (6 & 12 quid) notes are illegal in Nepal so we couldn't change most of our money. Is someone having a joke?
Finally we returned to the visa desk and tried to explain our predicament - not easy when no-one spoke much English, and we hadn't had time to develop our Nepalese (i.e. we knew none).
We had to queue up again (in a different queue that conveniently happened to be the longest one left!), fill out a different form and get a free 3-day visa. We would then have to go to immigration in 3 days time to get a visa extension. All because they didn't accept Indian Rupees and couldn't be bothered to fix their ATM.
Nepal was going great so far!
We booked a hotel from the tourist information desk at the airport and got a free transfer into the main tourist area of Kathmandu, Thamel. The room we had booked at the Tibet Guest House was a bit grotty (and a twin - again!) so we asked to change to a better room. We got the suite for a decent price of $30 and decided to give it a go; after all we would be there for at least 5 nights.
Thamel was a quieter, friendlier place than we had expected. The narrow, uneven streets are laden on both sides with souvenir stalls, restaurants and hiking shops, their wares spilling onto the streets in an attempt to draw in the tourists. The only cars that trundled around the streets, and trundling was all they could do on the bumpy, unkempt roads, were small cars that locals used as taxis. It seemed anyone could use their car as a taxi, without any real license. Otherwise, the streets were filled with bicycle rickshaws, beggars and the occasional cow.
We called into a recommended restaurant for dinner, Fire & Ice Pizza. The food was reasonable but pricey and the added tax and service charge (totalling 25%) made it even more expensive.
We couldn't do much planning or booking on our first full day in Kathmandu as it was a Sunday and most places were closed. We spoke to a hotel arranged tour agent who gave us some information and prices for day trips in Kathmandu, Everest flights, transport to Pokhara and getting to Tibet.
No sooner did we get the information, and more crucially the prices, of getting to Tibet than we regretfully decided to cut Tibet from our itinerary. In order to get from Nepal to Tibet there are a number of bureaucratic steps you have to go through. Firstly you need to get a permit to travel and this requires you to be on some sort of tour 'programme'.
There are basically three programme options; a lengthy overland tour that goes by bus from Kathmandu to Lhasa (the capital of Tibet), a shorter city tour of each city joined with a flight between the two, or the quickest, most flexible option where you basically pay for a taxi to pick you up at Lhasa airport (this can be classed as a programme somehow). The two actual tours were too long and too expensive for us to contemplate so we were left with the 'taxi' option. This cost $170 each - one expensive taxi!
Once you have a permit you need to get a visa, which cannot be an individual one it has to be as part of a group. Luckily for us a group can be classed as two people. The main restriction to this visa is that you must leave China with exactly the same people as you entered. Fine for us but a real pain for people travelling alone.
When all the costs were totted up we found that our planned three day visit to Lhasa would have cost us over 700 pounds! That was just too damn expensive. We would have liked to have experienced Tibet and especially to have seen the Potala Palace but it just wasn't worth that big a chunk of our rapidly depleting budget.
Our first project on Monday morning was to call into the Nepalese Immigration. We took the correct amount of US dollars with us; after all we couldn't pay for our visa in Nepalese Rupees at the airport, and got there for the opening time of 10am.
The office opened 15 minutes late at which point the staff decided to sit down, drink coffee and chat for another 45 minutes, right in front of a room full of people waiting to be served! We filled out the forms and handed over our passports. We were given the invoice for $30 each and then went to pay.
They didn't accept US dollars!
Even though the notice on the wall said dollars, the invoice said dollars and the airport accepted dollars; the immigration office would only take rupees! Luckily an American woman in the queue behind us had enough rupees to change our money back so that we could pay for the visas. As one final insult we had to go away for a few hours and then return later that day to get our passports. It seemed that even though the airport can give you a visa immediately it takes the immigration office a whole day to stamp your passport!
'All because the airport didn't accept Indian Rupees and couldn't be bothered to fix their ATM.'
Our lack of a passport also meant we couldn't do our second task of the day - to get our Chinese visa. The visas could only be processed on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday so this would mean waiting until Wednesday, unless we could get the process started that afternoon.
Task number three: Change our Air China ticket (Lhasa to Beijing) to leave from Kathmandu instead. Not as easy as it would seem. Despite having done a very similar thing with our Virgin Blue tickets back in New Zealand we couldn't do it here. Air China wouldn't change or refund our ticket, even for a fee. This left us with only one option, to buy another ticket from Kathmandu to Lhasa to meet our current flight. We would be in Tibet for a few hours but couldn't leave the airport - or see anything of the place!
After picking up our passports from the Nepalese Immigration we rushed over to the Chinese embassy to try and get the ball rolling for our visa. Yet another brick wall; the Chinese embassy no longer processes visa applications! You what?!
There is now a separate place that deals solely with visa applications, and it's nowhere near the embassy. Another taxi ride took us to the correct place, which was closed! That's it - we gave up and went back to our hotel.
Back at the Tibet Guest House we sat in the lounge area and made use of the free wireless Internet. While surfing away we got chatting to a couple of Haitian chaps who were in Kathmandu as part of a large UN mission to oversee the upcoming elections that were due to take place in the near future. Nepal was at that moment fairly unstable and had suffered from unrest in the previous months due to the conflict between the government, the king and the Maoist people. It was widely expected that the king would be dethroned and an election would take place to build a new parliament.
The elections were initially due for the time we were in Nepal, which probably would have resulted in us having to give Kathmandu a wide berth. However, the elections had been rescheduled and the Haitians, with their experience of tense political situations in their own country, were drafted in to help with the logistics of the forthcoming elections.
We had a great chat to the Haitians about their lives in Haiti, and the US where their families were now living, and the job that they had to do in Nepal. They would be away from their families for months on end, which was obviously hard, but they did get long holidays, and relatively good pay, to ease the pain a little.
We asked the Haitians what they thought of the hotel food, as they had been there a while. They grimaced and suggested it wasn't the best, saying in fact that they had found most Nepalese food to be remarkably poor. We decided to give the hotel restaurant a go as we were tired but soon realised the Haitians were spot on. The food was completely tasteless and disappointing. We would have to find somewhere else to eat from then on.
There are a few moments in our travels that require one to sit back and take stock of what you have seen. You don't appreciate it fully at the time and it all goes by so quickly that you don't get the chance to breathe it all in. This day we encountered one of those moments, a scenic flight over the tallest mountain on earth, Everest.
It's one of things that you just have to do if you are in the position to do it. We were in Kathmandu and Everest was as close to us as it would ever be. A 45-minute scenic flight would cost about 130 pounds for the two of us so we signed up and waited at the airport for our flight to leave. The planes were small, with about 20 people per flight and everyone is guaranteed a window seat.
We took off and within minutes were above the Himalayas and staring down at snow covered mountains and huge eroded riverbeds caused by the violent melts that take place each spring. Not long after the landscape started to grow, and grow, and the white of the snow capped peaks became blinding as we started clicking away with the camera from every possible angle. The panoramic views were absolutely breathtaking (PICS).
As the big ones approached, we could see eight of the twenty 8000m+ mountains in the world, including the mother-of-them-all, Everest. We were allowed, one-by-one into the cockpit to get a superbly clear view of the entire mountain range before us (PIC). It was at this point that the pilot pointed out to us our first glimpse of Everest. First of all it looked like a double peak with a nearer mountain appearing to be of similar height but as we rounded that nearer peak we could see Everest in all its glory, the image that we hoped to see with Everest towering over its neighbouring mountains (PICS).
The flight seemed to be over in a flash and it was with a helpless reluctance that we returned to Kathmandu airport, but not without drama. As we left the shuttle bus that took us from the plane to the terminal, Verdi decided to take a tumble down the steps and whack her leg on the way. Luckily she managed to stay on her feet but a nasty looking bruise was to follow.
Our city tour was organised through our hotel and our driver and guide, Heeda, was a native of Kathmandu. We asked Heeda to pick us up from the airport and we got straight on with the tour after our Everest flight. There's nothing like cramming it in!
We had chosen a few of the key sights in and around Kathmandu to take in; Boudhnath Stupa was the first on the list. A stupa is essentially a religious statue built on a mound and it has several key features; eyes that look in all four directions, 13 steps to 'heaven' and an 'umbrella' that stands at the very top (PICS). Hundreds of locals visit the stupa each day and worship at the temples dotted around the circumference, a few of which we visited and were fascinated by the long lines of prayer wheels that line the walls (PIC) and a few huge prayer wheels that the older locals struggled to rotate and walk around three times as part of their prayer rituals.
Our stomach began to grumble as we had missed breakfast due to the unearthly time we had to get to the airport for the Everest flight. Heeda recommended a hotel around the stupa that had a rooftop restaurant and we sat outside and watched the people below as they congregated for what turned out to be a funeral procession. Thousands of locals gathered and followed a coffin around the stupa, again making three revolutions. The body would then go to be cremated.
Despite the huge amount of people we were amazed by how quiet it was around the stupa, especially as it was so loud and hectic just outside the walls of the Boudhnath area. It was as if the people within the stupa respected the sanctity of the area and kept the noise to a minimum. It also helped that the whole place was pedestrianised!
Heeda took us into an art studio to have a look at some traditional artwork being created. The paintings are known as mendala's and are ridiculously detailed works, some of which can take up to a year to complete and the prices reflect this, some of the larger ones costing thousands of pounds. Even the smallest ones, which we would have considered buying cost around $100 - we considered no further!
From Boudhnath we drove across Kathmandu to Patan, an ancient suburb and the home of the most impressive of three Durbar Square's in Kathmandu. The square has a collection of buildings, each with different architecture and varying purposes (PICS). Heeda gave us an abundance of detailed historical information, which kind of went in one ear and out the other - lists of kings who had built certain things and the dates on which buildings were destroyed and rebuilt, and destroyed and rebuilt....and destroyed and rebuilt! It was all a bit much but the buildings were still very interesting to look at, and the quirky locals even more so (PICS).
Patan had a certain ancient charm, a combination of the hustle of the throngs of locals and the narrow cobblestone streets and crumbling buildings.
Leaving Patan we drove northwards to Swoyambhunath, our final destination of the half-day tour. Swoyambhunath has another stupa, also known as the Monkey Temple, and it can be seen from almost anywhere in Kathmandu as it sits atop a large hill on the northern outskirts of the city.
After a climb of around 120 steps we reached the top and took in the amazing views over the whole of Kathmandu as it sprawled away from us (PIC). The stupa is smaller than Boudhnath but has just as much character and many locals still make the journey out to this more isolated religious site. In fact, there were numerous religious ceremonies, offerings and prayer sessions going on as we looked around the place.
A fascinating craft stall caught our eye as we wandered around; the outside of the store was completely covered in colourful and slightly freaky masks (PICS). We decided that we wouldn't buy one; it would probably scare the life out of us if we walked into any room with that on the wall!
Our half-day tour actually ended up taking close to 6 hours and we were surprised to find out that they didn't charge us for the extra couple of hours, though we did give Heeda a decent tip to make up for it.
Another few hours of planning and Internet searches led us to booking our flight home from Beijing to the UK. We found a superb deal with British Airways of all airlines that would get us back to London for less than 300 pounds each. We couldn't miss out so we took a rough guess of when we would have done all our sightseeing (and run out of money) and committed ourselves to a finish date!
That night we managed to find a decent place for food in the centre of Thamel; Helena's Restaurant. It had been given a good write up in the lonely planet and it didn't disappoint. We would definitely be going back there!
The Chinese Visa was still something that needed sorting out, especially as we had heard it could take up to a week to get it, so we went back to the visa office and spent a few hours filling out forms and waiting in line. We got chatting to a Belgian couple, Mike & Eve, who had been travelling on and off for about 4 years and were about to travel through China to go and buy some horses in Mongolia. They would then spend a couple of months travelling around Mongolia on horseback, despite never having even ridden a horse before - brave!!
It was lucky we had met them as they mentioned that we needed a photocopy of our passports, which we didn't have. Andrew disappeared down the road to get some copies made as Verdi stayed in the queue so that our time wasn't wasted. We could have picked our passports up the following Monday but we were planning on being in Pokhara so a week to complete the visa was fine by us.
Kathmandu, in fact all of Nepal, has a strange quirk that we discovered abruptly one night. All of a sudden the power cut out, nothing unusual in South East Asia as we had discovered during the past 5 months, but Nepal do things slightly differently. The power was out for about 45 minutes before we went down to reception to ask if they knew why the power had gone off. They replied, very matter-of-factly that the power goes off every Wednesday and Thursday evening for 2 hours. The government is apparently so corrupt that they don't allow enough power to be made and therefore a shutdown has to be enforced from 6pm till 8pm twice a week!
With nothing to do but eat we called back into Helena's Restaurant and enjoyed a 'romantic' candlelit dinner for two. The whole of Thamel seemed to deal easily with the power cut. Out came the petrol generators and the candles and business continued as usual. Guess they must be used to this kind of planned disturbance as it happens so regularly.
The following morning we made an early start and got on the 'Greenline' tourist bus to Pokhara. It would have cost us about four times the price to fly so we sacrificed the quicker journey for the cheaper option; after all we had loads of time to kill with our new flight to Beijing a week later than initially planned.
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