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Urban chaos and pollution juxtaposed with some of the world’s most famous sights
Photos by Joanna
Wedged in the Himalayas in a valley, even landing in Kathmandu feels perilous as the plane is batted about by wind gusts and spirals onto the tarmac. And then, nothing really prepares you for what you will experience when you leave the airport in Kathmandu. A raucous assortment of sounds, sights and even smells assault the senses. Heaps of trash everywhere the eye can see. The pollution is so heavy that gulping air feels like an impossible chore. People are everywhere, doing all manner of things on the streets that in developed countries are activities done in special rooms of the home, e.g. using the bathroom, laundry, washing dishes and shampooing hair. Just getting into town to one’s hotel feels like an adventure as dodgy cars with bumpers and other necessary parts duct-taped on weave through traffic, oblivious pedestrians and errant dogs to fight the crush and enter the city. It’s shocking that a city with so many cultural riches is…well, so obviously and startlingly poor. In fact, 82% of the population live on less than $2USD a day and on the UN Human Development Index, Nepal is ranked 142 out of 177 countries. Actually, only Bangladesh and a handful of the poorest African countries are below it.

Trekking & the Thamel Backpacker Area
Trekking is Nepal’s biggest attraction, which is readily apparent given the glut of backpackers who use Kathmandu as a staging point to organize and party in “civilization” before hitting the trail. In fact Nepal is kind of a Disneyland for the adventure-seeking backpacking crowd. The Thamel area is a backpackers ghetto of sorts, a district littered with flea bag inns and cheap beer joints. It’s chaotic tangle of rickshaws, street hawkers and snack sellers is nearly impossible to navigate – be prepared to be carried along with the crowd. People watching is almost as interesting as the sightseeing – lots of dreadlocked foreigners in pajama pants and fleece pullovers, middle-aged travellers looking shell shocked by the cacophony, animals being butchered inches from passerbys with various bits and fluils flying into the crowd, old Nepali women laying out produce for sale on the filthy streets, hash dealers peddling their wares to said dreadlocked foreigners. Yes, Thamel is an “experience.” But for this girl who never was much of a backpacker anyway, going sightseeing (some major sights and curiosities are in this area) and having a few beers was plenty of time in Thamel for me.

Nepalese Beer
On beers…being a beer aficionado, one of my favourite (and first) things to do in a new place is try the local beer. In Nepal that means Everest and Gorkha. I actually tried Gorkha first, simply because it sounded more exotic and the label looked cooler. But in the end, I took a shine to Everest – a perfectly executed classic European-style lager.

If you are ever in Kathmandu and want a recommendation to where to stop in and have one, I can suggest a few places….In the Thamel area, try Full Moon, a super small chillout lounge that is a half step up (but only a half) from the dodgy beer halls with pool tables. Or for a more refined lounge that would be at home in New York or Bangkok, head to Tamas Lounge and order a Sex in the City style cocktail, champagne, espresso martinis, cosmopolitans…they are all here. And if university beer halls really are more your thing, then you don’t need any suggestions from me, they are in abundance. However, for a proper pub environment, I quite liked the Irish Pub on Ananda Bhawan in the Lazimpat area. Oh how I love a beer in the middle of the day when I am on holiday…. sigh…. By the way, keep in mind that bars in Kathmandu are not open past 11pm, so it only makes sense to start in the middle of the day 😉

We actually opted to stay not far from the Irish Pub (luckily!) in the more sedate expat area of Lazimpat at the Shangri La Hotel, so as to avoid bed bugs and other unseemly things widely acknowledged as a given in Thamel. Some people might think you are soft or not fully “experiencing” a place if you want a private bathroom and a helpful front desk…but to them I would argue that when you are travelling in unfamiliar surroundings where the cultural customs are unknown, you have no local contacts and especially if you are female travelling alone or with other females in Asia, a comfortable hotel provides the proper oasis in which to retreat from the madness. Unfortunately, it is quite common for Western girls to be assaulted in Nepal and this is apparently chalked up to the “sexy” Hollywood movies which give the impression to the South Asian man that a Western female is up for anything. (This is also true in India).

So the Shangri La became our staging ground for our trek. We were headed to Nagarkot which happened to be the shortest trek we could do in 2 days. Not super strategic to come to Nepal for anything less than a few weeks, but a working girl has to squeeze these things in. As it turns out Lazimpat and the Shangri La was a perfect area to be based. We could cozy up by the fire at night and enjoy an Everest beer and the most amazing Dahl Makhani I have ever tasted and then by day, we toured the area, popped down to Thamel and other far flung parts of the city to explore as many nooks and crannies as possible. We often frequented a favourite place for lunch called Dechengling (meaning “place of joy” in Tibetan) where we would sit in the garden and eat momos (local dumplings) whilst sipping the totally addictive Nepalese Milk Tea (think Starbucks Chai Latte).

A word on sightseeing…you can use your Lonely Planet or other for this. There are so many important historic sights that it would be impossible to name them here. I will say Durbar Square is a must – the former palace for kings which is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

We also had the rare opportunity to see the Kumari, the prepubescent female child known to locals as the “living goddess” for they believe the goddesses spirit enters her body. If you haven’t heard about this before, read the wikipedia… it’s kind of wacky to a non-Nepalese. We had quite lucky timing when we arrived at her palace. We saw a lot of commotion and curiously peered in at which point, we were ushered back to a courtyard. Everyone was looking up at a window expectantly and within in a few minutes she appeared. Seriously, she appeared… it did seem as if she walked up…. her body just glided to the window. And I gasped! She stared back at us, totally expressionless for what seemed like ages, but what turned out to be mere minutes. And then she glided away. Just like that she was gone. Sorry no photos, not allowed.

Local Handicrafts and Shopping
There were actually a few shopping gems nearby the hotel as well. At a neighboring store named Dad’s I bought a lovely handmade Tibetan carpet for my home office. I was oh so tempted by the gorgeous cashmere sweaters and pashminas, but living in the tropics means I have had to quit my cashmere addiction. Also a perfectly cute tea shop with the loveliest owners is just a short walk down the road as well. They showed me how to make Nepalese Milk Tea and displayed endless helpfulness as we perused dozens of teas that were foreign and exotic to us – in fact they insisted that they brew it so we could taste and seemed to find real joy in watching us experience a new flavor.

In Nepal, there are a great many textiles…from cottons, to cashmeres, to wools and silks. The prints are vibrant and mesmerizing, and thus can be quite tempting. Shop around and you will find that many goods are similar and should have similar pricing. This should give you an idea of what you should pay before you buy. And do negotiate.

In the Thamel area, but generally all over as well, you will find it plentiful shops selling curios, tapestries, fabrics, souvenir t-shirts, blocks of old wood carvings, Tibetan carpets and beads and more.

Final Impressions of Kathmandu
In the end, Kathmandu is a crazy, messed up, overwhelming and yet somehow charming place full of idiosyncrasies and contradictions. For example, absolutely wealthy with untold cultural and historic riches, yet somehow one of the most filthy and obviously poor places I have ever visited.

Air pollution threatens the wellbeing of each and every citizen and visitor. No one can biologically tolerate it without some ill effect. And the more you try to understand it the more disgusting it gets…because so many people defecate on the street, this dries and becomes particulate airborne fecal matter, so yes, you are breathing in poo. I was the unwelcome recipient of a cough it took 4 weeks to shake after my visit.

On the river, dead bodies are cremated daily (and of course this enters the air as well). Downstream from where the bodies are lit on fire, local men wait to scavenge what is not totally ruined from their smoldering bodies, e.g. shoes, a piece of jewellery, etc.

There is garbage everywhere you look – small piles, big piles. And it’s not just the locals who have a weak sense of civic responsibility. You go on the trails and there are discarded candy bar wrappers and water bottles from the backpackers. That’s just shameful really.

Kathmandu is the only capital city in the world that goes up to 16 hours a day without electricity. There are roaming blackouts and at any given time you can be walking down a street and one side is fully lit, while the opposite side is totally dark. (be sure to stay in a hotel with a generator.)

And yet, there is still something captivating about this otherwise, dank and dirty place. The hustle and bustle and general chaos is part of the charm, but more than that it is the intersection of centuries of history, a society coping with urban industrialization, the optimism so often seen in inhabitants of less developed countries and the cultural splendour that will keep me coming back.

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