A rough sketch of Kathmandu

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Flag of Nepal  , Kathmandu,
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What with the current situation up in Tibet, I was forced onto an overpriced flight to get to Kathmandu instead of going overland as planned. This gave me a few hours to think over the past 8 months in China/recover from drinking too much the night before. At least I had a window seat. Actually, everyone had a window seat - the plane was only about a third full. I sat enjoying the mountain views, but worrying slightly about a couple of things. Firstly, I wasn't 100% sure if i could get a visa on arrival at the airport (I had only checked land border crossings previously); secondly, I really wasn't looking forward to the reported masses of taxi touts always present at the airport gates. Neither of these was anything I could do anything about until we touched down, which we did a good hour earlier than expected - in Lhasa.

This surprised me somewhat. I had been told the cheaper flights from Kunming were no longer available precisely because they stopped in Lhasa, where we weren't allowed to be. Slightly confused, when we disembarked there were two routes to take - connecting flights, or into the city. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had a momentary impulse to make a run for it, though the armed guards put me off that one quite quickly. Twenty minutes later, we were back on the exact same plane; some beautiful views of Everest marked our departure from Tibet and entry to Nepal.

I needn't have worried. Obtaining a visa was straightforward, and I was happily spared the horrors of taxis and stepping into the tourist ghetto of Thamel by an American couple who knew of a much quieter place to stay in Boudha, the main Tibetan enclave of Kathmandu. I was very glad for this, since the new country was quite overwhelming after so long in China. I dislike flying into countries, it's so sudden a change. Crossing overland, there's usually some sort of overlap where the cultures merge and are indistinguishable, easing the transition. Consequently, everything seemed that much more colourful and chaotic; there was none of the grey orderliness I had become used to in China. Cows wandered through the streets unchecked, the cars, though fewer in number, driven with hope and prayers more than anything else. At once dirty and vibrant, a severed limb in bright orange robes, beggars were everywhere, something rarely glimpsed in China.

Again, I have to thank Jason and Gaia for showing me around a little, a metaphorical hand holding as I got used to the change. Once comfortable enough to start exploring alone, the huge stupa near the guest house, the Boudhanath, seemed a natural place to start. One of the largest in the world and of uncertain age, the painted 'Buddha's eyes' staring benevolently over the district and beyond, there's a very definite energy about the place that's hard not to get caught up in. I spent quite some time just sitting peacefully up on the third tier, watching the crowds beneath, but the square really became alive at sunset, as hundreds would circle around the base in devotion. Every evening I would come down for dinner and get caught up in it, circumnambulating with everyone else. There was a similar, more intense feel at the Swayambhu temple, a similar sight of more significance to the local Tibetans.

Boudha was a great place to stay for a few days. As a predominantly Tibetan community, I felt at least a little familiarity there, having previously spent some time in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan. There was a more comfortable, friendly feel to the place than elsewhere I saw in Kathmandu; few touts, and even the beggars would smile and not hassle you if you had nothing to give. Consequently, I ended up giving a lot more than usual; I quite regularly would take one guy to a small restaurant for breakfast. I think the presence of so many temples and monasteries (30 odd in a very small district) had a very large influence on all of this, and many westerners come to this small part of town to study Buddhism. There was an open lecture one morning, so I attended out of curiosity. What little I understood was interesting, though when faced with statements like: "All that we see is visible emptiness. All that we hear is audible emptiness. All that we think is non-conceptual wisdom", I felt a little out of my depth. I guess that's how many people feel stepping into a lecture on quantum mechanics.
Perhaps my favourite memories of Boudha will be of the group of young carpenters I met there when randomly exploring some of the suburbs. Quite excited that some random foreigners should have strolled into their part of town, they were exceptionally hospitable and insisted on bringing me food and drink. I spent a couple of days with them as they showed me around some of the more rural areas on the outskirts of the city. I had heard so much about how nice the Nepali people were, and it felt good to have it confirmed first hand, so soon after arriving in the country.

As good a place to get my bearings as it was, the majority of what I wanted and needed to do in Kathmandu forced me to move somewhere more central. Given the choice of Thamel and Jhochhe ('Freak Street'), I opted for Jhochhe without hesitation.

Thamel is almost as much a tourist hell as Bangkok's Khao San road. A small maze of souvenir shops, travel agencies and overpriced guesthouses/restaurants by the hundred, it's absolutely nothing to do with Nepal and everything to do with parting the tourist from his dollar. Full of touts and rather unimaginative scammers, I ended up spending far more time than I would have liked here for the simple fact that, being close to the embassy district, it is annoyingly convenient to get things organised. Also, my friend Greg, last seen in China 5 months ago, fresh from a confluence hunting expedition, recently prominently featured in outdoors magazine (http://outside.away.com/travel_photo_gallery/outside/bolivia/index.html) and on the verge of launching his own tour company (www.earthcubed.com), happened to be staying there, doing some research for his company.

Visas are never much fun to deal with. Obtaining an Indian visa in Kathmandu is less enjoyable than most. To do it all yourself, there's a process you need to go through. First, turn up at the embassy at 4 in the morning to receive your number for the queue. Then, come back at 9, take your place in line and wait. Once inside, fill in the telex form (in BLACK ink), go to the first window and submit the form. Your details are entered on computer, you're given a receipt. Go to the second window and pay. Wait three days. Repeat queuing process, go back to the first window with the visa form. Wait for details to be entered on to computer, receive receipt. Take this to window 2 and pay. Come back in the afternoon to receive your visa. 
Except it's not that easy. At four in the morning, I received number 69. This was good enough to get me into the embassy, but after that, it meant nothing. The visa 'office' was a tiny shed, large enough to hold maybe twenty people in comfort. Not a hundred and twenty. There was no queuing system, and some subtle pushing and shoving was going on. There was, stupidly, just one person to deal with everyone, telex and visa forms both. Each person took about ten minutes to deal with. I queued for 3 hours in the building heat with a migraine, waiting to get my telex form in, only to be the first to be turned away at 12.30 on the dot; the people in front of me pushed in line an hour or so earlier.
So I went to a Thamel agency. Much, much easier. I still had to go to the embassy one more time, but they are the ones that take the early numbers (well, them, and those that bribe the security guards). No disturbed nights. No messing around. No second time queuing. Just the annoyance of having to go up into Thamel once more.  

Jhochhe was much more to my liking than Thamel. The old haunt of the overlanders in the 70's, it has an air of faded glamour about it, an area once thriving in counter-culture now bereft of the freaks that gave it the name. Though less well endowed of conveniences than Thamel, you still don't need to venture far to find whatever you need, and at about half the price. There's no hassle here, and more locals than foreigners. And then there's the Snowman. A small cafe, it had possibly the best fruit shakes I've come across in Nepal (continuing my SE Asian obsession) and some great pies as well. I escaped the heat and dust of midday Kathmandu here almost every day.

Also, it lay directly off Kathmandu's durbar square (every town has one; there seemed to be a dozen around Kathmandu), the main sightseeing attraction of the city, home to a bewildering conflagration of monuments, temples and palaces (and tourist junk sellers). This region is home to the Kumari, a young girl worshipped as a living goddess. Oddly, I ran into her (well, she was paraded past me) in a tiny little backstreet in Patan, a town a few kilometers distant. Apparently, by taking her photo I robbed her of her godly status. Whoops.  

But to talk about the sights of Kathmandu, magnificent as they are, is almost to miss the point. There's so much going on around you all the time, it's impossible to take it all in; a rough sketch typifies the city far better than one, elaborate detail ever could. For me, my daily walk from Freak Street to Thamel, a short journey through the ever-changing lanes and alleys of this city, seemed to sum up much of Kathmandu. From my diary:

"The short-lived, high end commercial strip immediately after the monumental Durbar Square quickly gives way to a cluttered, unplanned jumble of brick and concrete. Gilded temples and hidden courtyard shrines, the once magnificent stupa, now enclosed by high-rise, the occasional wooden building with intricately carved door- and window- frames, unnoticed, all but lost in the decay, way past the stages of elegance but not yet squalid. Fruit sellers in radiant saris sit on filthy streets, choking in the fumes of the taxis and motorbikes that race up and down the too-narrow lanes, when not obstructed by rickshaws pulling tourists and locals in equal measure. Crowds push and shove during the day; dogs and rats preside over their territory with dignity at night.
Finally, into Thamel, more white faces than brown. Gone are the tailors and backstreet dentists and samosa stalls, here it's all North Face and poorly-copied thangka and overpriced cafes; cries of "yes, taxi! taxi!" and "Sir? Tiger Balm? Sir?" whenever I glance in the wrong direction; even when I don't, the ever-present, insistent whisper "Hash?". Just for me, the daily call of "Hey, British!" I regret being polite and talking to this guy my first day in Thamel. Every day now, he tries to persuade me that we're friends, and that we should go for a drink. This time, I round on him and explain why I often won't stop to talk, why I won't go for tea, yet still he tries. He just wants to meet foreigners, he claims, he's one himself - from Mumbai, not Nepal! He has money, doesn't want mine. I explain (yet again) that if he wants to meet people, he shouldn't try it in the middle of an area rife with scams, that there are plenty of other places where foreigners will be more likely to talk. He deftly ignores me, and I catch a whiff of a half dozen scams on the edge of his tongue. There's a lot of money in exporting to England, you know...I walk away. One, two ladies, large and healthy and clutching chubby babies approach "My daughter, she needs milk..." ...to sell back to the shopkeeper. An old scam, new variation, the lie on her lips betrayed by the golden ring in her nose. At least try to look the part! Open the milk before you give it, can't be re-sold, see the reaction. Not happy? No surprise. My mood darkens, I become too annoyed to do all of what I came here to do, retrace my steps and leave Thamel; I lose myself in the hectic mass of people in the crowded lanes, all too busy with their own business to bother with me that suddenly seems so comforting, and I begin to enjoy Kathmandu once again."  
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