KathmanDO!

Trip Start Sep 27, 2010
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Where I stayed
Hotel Silver Home

Flag of Nepal  ,
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lots of westerners packed into cheap accommodation surrounded by touts, guided tours and people dressing like they belong there. I should hate Kathmandu but, surprisingly, I rather like it.

It has been ten days since my arrival here, landing on a rain-sodden runway which came close to giving seat 17-C a Richard-sodden something or other, possibly the only time I have ever really needed the toilet on a plane since I flew over Israel on the way back to Jordan and was banned from using it in its airspace. I admit freely, in those ten days I have been remarkably fortunate. I cannot fault Etihad Airlines though and my praise for the airlines of the Gulf States is again left unblemished so much so that I would have terrible trouble picking between any of them, Emirates had the best plane, well, the biggest and by the look of the livery the newest but apart from that they have all been excellent and I will do my best to continue my trip in their company as long as my budget allows.

Amazingly I am now two to one up on people meeting me at the airport after an arranged pick up and following the no-show in Lusaka, Zambia and the murderer I extravagantly tipped for not murdering me in Cairo, I was met with a couple of little rascals here at Kathmandu International airport, a surprisingly tiny and all-brown affair, who drove me through the narrow streets of the Nepalese capital at high speed to an infectious chorus of Punjabi electro music and rain smacking on the tin roofs through my open window.

It is not my first time in Asia, after all I have been in the Middle East for the last two months, but somehow it doesn't seem quite right to think of that part of the world as Asia and while I am the last to want to get into geographical not to mention geopolitical arguments, it really does not count. This was Asia, this was to me my debut and I instantly loved it.

I had decided to stay in a district called Thamel in the centre of Kathmandu, an area almost exclusively for the tourist population that made me think of the movie Escape from New York where Manhattan Island has been fenced off and turned into a vast open prison. I am not at all one to rush toward any sort of sanctuary for tourists and part of me was concerned about this seclusion from reality that I had managed to avoid almost entirely on the trip so far. But I had been pretty much alone in the entire Middle East save for a few days in Jerusalem with my German friends and, well, I just wanted to meet people, have some beer and generally relax before looking at things to do in the greater country.

On arrival in Thamel it looked like a bit of a rabbit warren, I was instantly reminded of Stone Town in Zanzibar though with much, much more sleaze, well, I think just with some sleaze as Zanzibar really does not do anything like that! It was hard to take in from the taxi as the area built up slowly from the back streets of the capital and little seemed to change other than a steady increase in both people and bright coloured signs and despite my open window I still couldn’t really hear anything for the bass of the two  drivers’ music.

I was taken down a few dark streets to the Hotel Silver Home, a five or six story place that didn’t look too bad for the four dollar a night charge. I booked a single room over the Internet, something I rarely do but I thought, '‘new’ continent, better to be safe.’ It turned out I need not have bothered, as my room was not available so I was given a larger one for the same price. I did not really need a four bed room with en suite but as soon as I got there, despite the rather decrepid décor that I was rather happy to have this huge room with four windows (overlooking other people’s windows) to myself, even the shower was warm, though the water did taste and smell very metallic and the door really needed to be shut at all times to prevent the smell from the toilet seeping into my oxygen.

So, here I was in Kathmandu and quite frankly I was overloaded and slightly overawed. The culture here in Thamel was very western, it was not at all like arriving in Amman or Cairo for the first time, here at least I could read the walls and had an idea of how to go about such things as sitting at a table in a restaurant or ordering a drink. It was just that, after Amman where I had called home for almost a month, despite its amazing atmosphere and bustle, I had felt quite relaxed, it wasn’t a mad city by any stretch and although the roads were chaos, I never felt overwhelmed on the streets by too much information trying to bargain for my attention. Here was a very different prospect.

The street just hit me like a car coming down the narrow road. The path from the hotel was fairly quiet and the only thing I really noticed were just how many dogs there were hanging around seemingly homeless but as soon as I breached the alleyway onto the main road it was like diving headfirst into a waterfall of sound, light and colour. To my left and right the road stretched until the hundreds of overhanging merchant signs of every colour imaginable overtook the horizon and its path, everything seemed to be on offer, massage, tours, trekking, clothing, washing, phone calls, internet, whatever any traveller might possibly want seemed to be hanging off the side of the three or for story brick terraces, their lower floors without exception glazed or open, offering some sort of tourisit-friendly service. People were everywhere, Asian faces, a mix of what I thought to be Chinese and Indian which makes up the Tibetan gene-pool were either walking left or right, fast and slow, some carried goods on their backs, others sat in rickshaws awaiting customers, no one stood still but the collection of shop owners sitting in front of their goods. Then there were the motorbikes and small white cars operating as taxis seemingly locked in an epic battle for road domination, their horn war cries sounding more like shouts of annoyance than something befitting anything other than the unorganized mayhem they found themselves in. Here and there would be a white face, some, like me looking confused enough to betray their virginity in such an arena, others casually strolling through as to offer a glimpse at the time they have spent here. Finally came the noise, it had no source or reason, it was just there, a background noise of improbably crescendo, a rock band plays Pink Floyd somewhere up or back, another picks through Guns n Roses and there are more on the air somewhere, there are engines and shouting as people try and swim upstream against a barely dominant flow, everywhere footsteps and shuffles, people open and close great metal shutters as they shut up their shops for the night, I feel bass in the air from some distant club which could be right next to me and all with the constant foreground accompaniment of beep! Beep! Beep!

I didn’t have a map of the city on me so I decided to just try and find a bar, sit down and hope that someone would come and talk to me. I instantly noticed that seemingly every bar I walked past had live music. This was not a bad thing and by the sound of it the guys covering rock classics and modern radio-friendly kids hits were pretty good, but and at the risk of sounding terribly old, it was very loud and besides, I wanted to meet people and have epic conversations, I may as well turn up with my ipod in my ears if I am to sit in a place with constant rock music being thrown at me.

I eventually came across a bar called Sam’s which looked like it had a nice upper roof terrace and I distinctly heard people talking up there. Opposite was an Irish pub so I had the choice and was nowhere near making a decision when another chap looking equally lost asked me where a good place to drink was. I of course had no idea but under pressure now to pick, I opted for Sam’s, which was to prove a very good decision over the course of the next ten days.

Sam’s was indeed rather nice, a sort of beach vibe to the décor with outside cane chairs adorned with comfy cushions and all open to the stars (for reference there is a retractable roof which was to prove essential during this, the monsoon) and with its walls covered with slogans and pictures drawn by other travellers, most seemed to refer to a trip to Everest base camp although some of them were from summiteers, it was all rather welcoming. Totally in your face tourist clap trap but, at this time, exactly what was needed.

After ordering yet another ‘themed’ beer, this time the excellent Everest (who could come here and not have one?) I got talking to my new friend for all of a minute before he noticed some other friends who, well, turned out to be better friends, I never even knew the chaps name and it seemed that everyone he introduced me to had actually come there to avoid him which gave me some instant ice breakers about how sorry I was to have bought them back together with whoever he was. Anyway, to cut a long story short within this group I met Jeremy, a dredlocked skateboarder and artist from France and Innika, a practically bouncing bundle of energy from Australia. These were to by my Kathmandu buddies for the next ten days as we formed an intercontinental collective.

Apart from Israel where I visited several traditional tourist destinations with my German friends and Perhaps in Jordan where Luca and I tripped around Roman ruins and tried our best to sink in the dead sea, I have never really had the chance to ‘do’ a city. Africa isn’t like this, the cities have no sights other than their vibe and most of the middle east I ‘did’ alone rather limiting the appeal of actually going out of my way to tick off things in the guidebook, so here was a most unlikely opportunity to do just that and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Innkia and Jeremy had both been in Nepal for some time, Innika having trekked for thirty five days in the Everest region, Jeremy in the rather more travelled yet contrastly far more unknown to the general population Annapurna Circuit trek which had also taken some time to complete. I think they had more compelling reasons to go on these adventures than my ‘had nothing else to do so decided to walk to Everest’ route but hearing of their trails was certainly interesting but also, despite having been in Kathmandu for some time, it meant that neither of them had had a chance to see the city itself, so the three of us decided to do just that.

I instantly liked Kathmandu and the thought of seeing more of it, albeit total guidebook top tens that they were was rather fun especially as I would not be doing it alone. First off we visited the so-called Monkey Temple, perhaps an hours walk from Thamel through untraveled back streets which took me back to numerous under developed countries from anywhere in the world. One thing travel has taught me so far is that once you drop out of what might commonly be called a ‘developed country’ and before you reach the real ‘third world’, pretty much every urban area looks exactly the same. City centers are usually two or three, perhaps even just one main artery where the beautiful people buy their beautiful things (equivalent of course to their countries small GDP), there will be a few heard of names, a few tatty looking shops selling goods that most of the city cannot afford, kitchens or televisions and of course there will be a steady flow of traffic yet slightly more organized than elsewhere, pavement is an option. Off of this you will usually have a hinterland of slightly more cramped streets with some topographical blight,  hills are most common, steep roads leading up to the main thoroughfare are desirable in terms of  proximity to the city center but of course the rich cannot walk up and down hills all day long. It is around this area that you will usually get a market or large street bazaars, close enough so the city center is not excluded but far enough as to not be a burden on it with the added noise/traffic/rubbish and poor people.  After this the streets will narrow again for the inner city housing. Cars are either unwelcome or excluded due to narrow streets or the inconvenience of driving them here. Most people will work where they live, operating some sort of profession from the lower reaches of their building, dogs and litter will be common and a large number of people seem to spend the days sitting on their steps awaiting someone to come along and buy either a generic item (water, Chinese made anything, biscuits) or use whatever service they offer (butcher, metalwork, woodwork, coffin maker). It is usually around this zone or perhaps just linking this and the previous that the usual tourist hives are found, be it a street or a small area, they will be the same style as the usual living accommodation just retrofitted with an ounce or two of pain, noise and sleaze. There is usually a large bus station on the edge of the final zone before the city flattens but only after it has opened out toward a main road as evidently, everyone needs access and of course the busses need the room to actually take people somewhere.

Kathmandu is of course exactly the same and until I got to the temple itself, I could have been anywhere in the world. This might have been on the minds of the architects when they designed the thing as there really is no confusing it, the temple is absolutely huge. The largest stupar in Nepal, the entrance is bright yellow and full of prayer wheels and incense burning around small statues spattered red with the wax of a million long gone candles. People are everywhere either dressed in the orange and burgundy of Buddhist monks, silently offering themselves to the temples, trying to sell trinkets on the street by shouting and holding things as close to passers by as possible or tourists (mainly Nepali) confused by both. This is of course before you get to the actual ‘temple’ itself which is up an imposing concrete hill of stairs perhaps close to a thousand tall on which you see the first evidence of where the common name comes from with rather lovably tame apes dancing around the trees and living their lives for all to see at very close quarters indeed.

At the top of the steps the stupar is there for all to see, it is massive, perhaps thirty or forty meters into the air, capped with a white concrete face and golden top, adorned with the green, red, white, blue and yellow Buddhist prayer flags that would become possibly my strongest memory of the whole of Nepal such were there distribution, stretched out on rope like dancers around a maypole. There really wasn’t a great deal to actually do at the temple but it did make a rather fine people-watching destination as hoards of pretty much the same folk hanging around at the entrance did the same things at this new perhaps more devout altitude. In fact the site was far bigger than just this one temple with a monastery and several other Buddhist structures sprawled over two or three conjoined hills which all offered rather nice views of the city though sadly an eternal fog around the barricade-like hills which confine Kathmandu shut out any possible views of the Himalayas.

Perhaps more interesting than the temple were the two old cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, both part of Kathmandu but a good twenty and fifty minutes in a taxi respectively from the centre. My first taxi ride in Kathmandu was a rather fun affair, I do not think Jeremy Knew you could sit in the front with the driver and with Innika perhaps unwilling and me trapped by a child lock on the door of all things, the three of us enjoyed the trip to Patan huddled up in the back of the tiny Suzuki as the monsoon did its best to wash us away.

Patan was great fun, if you think of ‘Kathmandu’ in your head, it would probably be something like this (to be fair, Bhaktapur is exactly the same, perhaps even more picture postcard, but I did Patan first so it probably gets an unfairly biased review in comparison to its bigger brother). A lot of this enjoyment was caused by the monsoon which, though dispersed by the time we arrived bought in some chaos inducing floods and a large amount of hail picked up en route over the mountains which created a rather bizarre image around ancient wooden stupars, temples and tiny alleyways.

There were people everywhere from local tourists to people seemingly as old as the temples themselves carrying about unknown and probably ancient business. It was all very different from anything I had seen before and once again compounded the fact that I had finally arrived in a new world, ‘real’ Asia.

Around Patan we decided to get lost by walking in an arbitrary direction and eventually found ourselves well out of any tourist comfort zone in the hindu part of the city which took us over bridge where funeral burnings were taking place on the waters edge below is. It all had a very ‘out of town’ feel to it but the streets were wider and prices cheaper than anything I had seen before in the country though I did feel that I was significantly more of an object of interest here than I was elsewhere in the city.

On the same day after consulting a map of the city we decided to pay a visit to the city zoo. If ever I can do something to kill an afternoon, spending it with animals generally beats anything whether it is watching elephants in Zambia, monkeys in Uganda or camels in Jordan. Sadly though most of the zoos in the developing word tend to be rather depressing places and while I have been to worse, this was sadly not a massive exception. Some beasts did ok, the Tigers had a fairly big habitat but other less glamorous mammals faired far worse and I wondered the logic in having a half-acre area for a cow which freely wander the streets while a moon bear begs for food chained inside a concrete cage. The low point occurred when, while looking at a leopard rest we were interrupted by a local man who decided to spit on the creature to prompt it to move or look in his direction. Shoddy conditions in the zoo is one thing but ignorant members of the public treating an animal which could kill them in three seconds which such a lack of respect is a step too far on how much I can take and I hope at the very least my shouting, shoving and grabbing may have embarrassed him in front of his lady friend enough so that he might no longer act in such a way. Sadly I doubt he even knew what I was so upset about.

Bhaktapur was basically the same as Patan though much further from Kathmandu, it had more of a residential feel to its surroundings. An ancient walled city in its own right, Bhaktapur was blighted only by the fact that I visited after I had been to Patan and with the cities so similar and the latter costing a rather steep $15 to enter, I will leave it to memory other than to say it was almost identical to the above yet larger and felt rather more preserved for us rather than the people who actually have some religious link to its being there.

So, a week in Kathmandu, I have had less exciting weeks I must admit, exactly what I expected and hoped for as soon as I got off the plane.
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Comments

rachelkw
rachelkw on

Very much enjoying following your travel, Richard. :o)

ricduncombe
ricduncombe on

Thank you! I think along with my secretary (sorry Sam, FRIEND!) You are my biggest fan!

rachelkw
rachelkw on

Glad to be founding member of your fan club. You write with delicious metaphor, take some stunning photos and go to places that make me jealous. What's not to like? :o)

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