Kathmandu, I love you

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
Trip End Nov 18, 2002

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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

-- Welcome to Kathmandu

After clean, orderly, modern Singapore, walking through the streets of Kathmandu was like being transported back to the first virginal weeks of my trip. Back when temples and stupas provoked a cold exciting chill of oh-my-god-look-at-that! to rush through my spine. I had become rather immune to the exoticness of India, Myanmar and other 3rd world countries. "Just another stupa, ohh look another cow, yay". It was all very familiar and routine now. Singapore and Malaysia had immersed me back into easy, yet expensive, familiar travel, reminiscent of being back in my mother land, Canada.

"I am in Nepal!" I said to the Tammy, the British girl I'd meet at the Kathmandu airport. I was grinning ferociously with excitement.

Everything seemed foreign again. Malaysia and Singapore had served as a refreshing holiday away from my holiday.

In Kathmandu, the crumbling houses, buzzing traffic and the trusty familiar cows pacing the dirty, busy streets brought a rush of exotic travel back into my adrenaline craving veins. I was relieved to feel the swell of exhilaration again that we all get from being surrounded by alien and unfamiliar surroundings. An unsuppressable half-grin was lingering above my chin that just wouldn't let up. The weather in Kathmandu was refreshingly cool. Not the cold winterscape I was expecting but rather comfortably unhumid and fresh. A welcomed change from tropical Asia. The city was engulfed in a Himalayan backdrop of mountains. Everest, K2 and the Annapurnas peaked over every white washed house, rickshawala and shop in the city center.

Seeing as my Tibet trek had been cancelled weeks before, I was determined to find a way to venture north to China, the minute I arrived. There had to be a way to get there, and I was going to find it.

I quickly checked into my hotel, the famous Kathmandu Guest House, and launched myself into the busy streets. Popping in and out of half a dozen tour agencies, I was racing against time for how-to-get-to-Tibet information. I needed to leave Nepal, Tibet-bound, as soon as possible if I was to return in time for my flight back to south India. Surprisingly, I found that tours were not lacking in quantity but, after talking to one agency, it became painfully obvious that I'd have to sift through mountains of lies and false promises before finding the right one. It seemed that everyone was reciting a symphony of half truths and lies in attempts to get me to buy-in to one of their "fabulous" tours. The ploys and techniques were oddly familiar. Just... like... India. Arrrr... Singapore and Malaysia, the land of set pricing and honest vendors was long gone... yet again, it was time to trust no one. My enthusiasm slightly deflated when I realized that I would have the same problems haggling and negotiating prices and details of a tour as I had done in India. I had been scammed in Delhi and was determined to not let it happen again.

"No, I am telling you, there are no tours which do Land Cruisers to Lhasa" the Nepalese man I'd been emailing with for a week about a trip to Tibet told me as he smiled a con-artist's practiced over-friendly smirk.

"Hmmm... these other 3 agencies said they have them" I skeptically replied squinting my eyes trying to pear into his as if trying to decipher some foreign language of pseudo-truthfulness.

"If this is what they say, then they lie to you." He smiled, sat back and nodded knowingly.

I sighed a heavy here-we-go-again sigh, "Listen, someone is lying to me. It's either you or them."

His right eye twitched slightly and he sat up straight to recompose himself and adjust his strategy, "Well, ok ok, they may have land cruisers ..."

"Hold on..." I interrupted, "you just told me that *no* one else had them, now your changing your story."

"No, no, your right, no one else does, this is true, they lie to you." he said trying to nervously back track.

"Hey hey... you said no one did, then you just said that maybe they did, and now you say no again... your changing your story. You're lying to me." I blurted waving a half-playful half-accusing finger at him. The setup seemed too familiar.

"Heh, uhhhh, would you like a chai?" he nervously offered as he attempted to change the topic of conversation which was obviously going increasingly in the wrong direction.

The man used the exact same false-smile, letters of recommendations and trust building techniques as they had in Delhi. Once I'd caught him in 5 lies, I chuckled, paused with an I-think-that's-my-cue-to-leave grin building in the corner of my lips then sprang out of my chair and followed my gut-instinct as it walked out the door leaving him in mid-sentence, holding a smile so that the tourists waiting behind me wouldn't think anything of me walking out on him. Poor bastards.

Out of 6, of the seemingly hundreds of agencies, I finally had enough information to allow me to sit back, have a pint and digest the data into a decision.

There were many challenges to get to Tibet, the biggest one seemed to be obtaining the elusive independent Chinese Visa. Crossing from Nepal to Tibet *without* a tour group was strictly forbidden by the suppressive Chinese, but crossing on a group visa would mean that I couldn't stay in Tibet after the tour group flew back to Kathmandu, that feat would require an independent visa. I had desperately wanted to stay in Tibet, alone, sans-tour group, and was determined to figure out a way to get myself an individual visa, one that would allow me to stay in China solo, from the embassy.

The next morning I awoke at 6am, called the one tour operator which seemed the most trust worthy and knowledgeable at his home, and had him send someone to drive me to the Chinese Embassy to apply for my Visa.

"Ok, listen to me, do not say that you are going to Tibet." Mr. Raz said with a thick Indian-English accent.

"It is very important. They will not let you go alone, you must say that you are going to Shanghai."

Seeing as I wanted to stay behind in Tibet after the tour group went back to Kathmandu, I needed to get an Individual Visa rather than the standard Group Visa. I knew this but I hadn't planned on lying to the Chinese about my destination. Hearing Mr. Raz explain what I would have to say to the Chinese Embassy made my heart begin to race. I hated lying, most importantly, I really sucked at it. Not just your typical not-really-good-at-it sucking but full-on-complete-paralysis sucking. This wasn't good.

"There is a flight to Shanghai on Saturday at 11. You must say that you will be on this flight. If they question you on this, I can print a fake confirmation ticket for you. You go now."

"... and for God's sake, just don't say anything about Tibet, remember, you've already been there and you don't want to go back, that's your story. It is in your capacity now." I took this to mean "It's up to you now... I can't help you from here on in... if you screw up, it's not our fault.". Mr. Raz slapped my shoulder through the half opened car window and I drove off in the taxi headed for the Chinese Embassy.

I didn't like the way this was starting. I was nervously rehearsing my story and plotting out the possible ways the official's interrogation could go while standing in the unorderly line outside the embassy. Dozens or tourists, Tibetans and Nepalis gathered outside waiting for the doors to swing open to apply for their Chinese visas.

"Were are you going?" I asked the Isreali couple in front of me.

"Shanghai, Saturday"

They had the exact same route as me and, were leaving on the same date, only they were really going to Shanghai, I wasn't.

"Shanghai... June 8th" I scribbled my bogus destination onto my application form.

When the doors swung open, the herds of applicants rushed in like cattle to swarm the Visa issuing desk. I stuck close to the Isrealis as we slowly snailed our way to the officer.

I slid my application into the slit beneath the thick glass. "How quickly can I get the Visa to China, er.... Shanghai?" I needed it fast if I could go to Tibet within my timelines. "You get Friday, 56$".

I was handed a receipt and pushed out of the growing line.

"That was way too easy." I whispered to the Isrealites.

"Yes, it was. Maybe it's because of how early it is in the morning, you know, we were the second applicants. The officer is still in a good mood. Try again in one hour and you'll be taken in back under the heat lamps." Akiva said laughing.

The over-rehearsed explanations for my trip to meet an old friend in Shanghai weren't even needed. The officer took my application without question, my Chinese Visa was on it's way, hoorah!

After exchanging email addresses with the Isreali couple, they offered a helping hand once I arrived in Isreal. I accepted enthusiastically and headed back to the tour agency.

"I'm going to Tibet baby!" I proclaimed slapping Mr. Raz's hand as I arrived back at his shop.

With unexpected ease, my Visa was being processed, I'd be able to stay in Tibet without the tour group, Luc was happy.

After wading through several more barriers of red tape, Mr. Raz sorted out my travel permit, another document needed to enter Tibet, and booked my flights.

"It can't be this easy". I'd never had such good luck in my travels. Ok, well I'd been lucky, but not this lucky. Something had to go wrong and of course, something would. Although getting the approvals required get to Tibet wasn't easy, the initial challenges were surmounted with unprecedented ease. Fingers and toes crossed and firmly clutching wood, I hoped that my Visa would come through, as promised, on Friday morning and that the trek to Lhasa would go on as smooth as it had to date.

-- Kathmandu, I love you

With Tibet sorted, I ventured off into Kathmandu. As with most love affairs, it didn't take long for me to become totally entranced with Kathmandu. Once my second day in the colorful city had passed I was emphatuated with Kathmandu. It was living up to it's prophecized legacy that other travellers had evangelized to me over the passed months on the road.

Kathmandu, was...

...exotic, with it's religious zeal,

...accommodating to tourists, with it's well travelled Thamel district where anything from a good steak to cheap music CDs could be purchased,

...friendly, with it's Buddhist tinge,

...slightly challenging, with it's aggressive nature reminiscent of India

...and cool, dry, yet sunny and warm climate.

It quickly climbed the ranks to the top of my list of favorite cities. I knew right away that Nepal would be a country that I'd have to return to. To make sure that I would, I decided to pass on the Everest base camp trek. "I'll save it for next time...". Instead I opted to hang out in the city basking in its myriad of ancient stupas ( Buddhist temples ) and then venture off to Tibet. There was plenty to keep me busy in and around the town, besides, I'd catch a good view of Everest on the drive to Lhasa.

-- Kathmandu explorations

Eager to fire myself into the exotic city of Kathmandu, I waited until the sun was nice and warm as it always was before sunset and headed for Durbar Square. The square, in the heart of the old city, was filled with ancient temples and Hindu statues bathed in the orange light of the setting sun.

"You must visit the Kali, the living goddess" the young Nepalese man said. He was a local guide and after brief negotiations, I hired him for the afternoon on a promise that I would buy him powdered milk for his baby sister. We wandered through the city discussing everything from Nepalese politics to the history of the country.

"You must not go out late at night, it is emergency now. The curfew is 8pm."

I had completely forgotten about the violence which was plaguing Nepal. Before arriving, it weighted heavily on my mind but after having been in the city for 2 days, it was barely noticeable. Once he'd reminded me of the violence, I scanned around and noticed that almost every corner did indeed have a gun totting guard and a cammo-clad commando. Despite the media hype and the Canadian Government's warnings to stay out of the country, it seemed peacefully safe and I couldn't sense an ounce of tension in the air.

We continued the tour on to the living Goddess. Kali, a Hindu god is said to have been reincarnated in a small child who has been depressingly confined to a temple since a young age. Only during 3 days every year could she leave the temple. We walked into the courtyard of the beautifully ornate temple as she leaned out from her balcony to wave hello. She looked to be 7-8 years of age and was strikingly beautiful. "Namaste!" I greeted and bowed cupping my hands together. Poor kid. Although she was more well-respected than the king, she was still a child and trapped in an enclosed palace. "Once she has her first menstruations, she is no longer considered the goddess and a new one is sought out" the guide explained. "I'll bet she can't wait for puberty" I muttered under my breath as we walked back into the square.

Kathmandu's main square buzzed with activity as women clad in saris passed by waving.

The sun was perfectly positioned for prime photo-snapping. It radiated a comforting blanket of warm light and I still had time to make it to the Monkey temple before the sun disappeared behind the giant mountains surrounding the city. The sun vanished at 7pm in Kathmandu, a shocking 14 hours of sunlight blazed down on the city everyday.

I paid a rickety bicycle rickshaw to lug me up to the monkey temple in time just for the sunset. The temple was the most recognizable symbol of Nepal, with it's large bulbous stupa, ordained with prayer flags, prayer wheels and the familiar Buddha eyes and squiggly nose.

The temple was swarming with monkeys, as the colloquial name, "Monkey Temple" implied.

Walking through the temple amongst the monks draped in dark burgundy cloth, I heard feverous yelling from the far corner of the hilltop. "Score!", I followed the yelling to a tiny shop where 3 Nepalese men huddled around a 4 inch mini-black and white TV.

"Hey, whats the score?" I asked, pulling one man away from the TV set.

It seemed that the whole of Kathmandu was passionately enthralled with the World Cup. The monkey temple was no exception. The man invited me in to sit with them and I sat to watch the game until the sun almost completely vanished under the horizon.

"Thanks guys, but I have to go", Although the men informed me that I would be ok out passed the 8pm curfew, I didn't want to take any chances and headed back to the safety of my guest house to retire for the night and plan out the next day's activities.

-- Tibet, here I come...

I woke early and made my way to the Chinese embassy to stand in line before the hordes of visa applicants arrived. As the doors opened I rushed in to nervously perch myself over the visa issuing counter. The women was flipping through passports as I scanned for my Canadian one. I handed over my ticket and 56$ US and, with baited breath, waited for my passport. To my great relief, my Chinese visa had been issued. The last obstacle to get to Tibet was finally completed!

"Tibet, here I come!" I proclaimed to Mr. Raz, waving my passport in the air like a victory flag as I walked into his office.

They finished up the last of the permits and wished me good luck. I was on my way to China!

Having all of my formalities out of the way for my Tibet journey, I decided to see more of Kathmandu.

Boudha, the largest stupa in Nepal and one of the largest in the world was the target for the afternoon's sightseeing. Unfortunately, the light was horrible as gray clouds loomed above. I had bumped into Tammi who had postponed her Annapurna trek by one day and we retreated from the drizzle onto a rooftop restaurant, drank chai and observed the mass of pilgrims circumbulate the Stupa. The stupa was enormous, once the rain stopped and the clouds broke for a brief amount of time, we climbed the stairs to the top and watched the strangely half gray and half orange sky fade.

Before heading off we stopped at a near by Gompa (monestary). The young monks were playing soccer and all starred as we walked in. Luckily one monk spoke english. We chatted for what seemed to be hours. Before leaving I snapped a picture of him standing next to his "FREE TIBET" sticker.

As we walked out, a Tibetan women walked up to me, stopped with hands raised and cupped. "Namaste". "Namaste" I replied awaiting for her to divulge the reason for her introduction. No one just stops to say hello without wanting to sell something... but she did. She walked away with a giant smile which creased her wrinkled face in a friendly way.

As we tried to exit the circular stupa we'd wandered into, a man offered to show us the way outside. He took us out and we hoped into a taxi. To my surprise, he didn't ask for any money for the favor as you would expect from most Asian countries.

Nepal was great...
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