Exploring Kathmandu in one week
On the evening of the 25th of September, I flew from Bucharest to Kathmandu. I had a stopover of one hour (which actually lasted two hours due to some delays) in Doha, Qatar. Qatar Airlines had displays incorporated into the front seat, and I could watch movies during the flights. Time passed quite quickly during the first flight from Bucharest to Doha. But during the second one, from Doha to Kathmandu, I fell asleep because it was past midnight. When I woke up, I looked out the window of the airplane and saw the Himalayas for the first time in my life.
I landed in Nepal the following morning, after a total of thirteen hours of flight, without considering the confusing difference of time zones. I literally woke up to reality in Kathmandu’s airport, which had the atmosphere of the ’70s. There, I paid my visa for three months (100$). Unexpectedly, no one was waiting for me at the airport as I had been promised. When I went in front of the airport, all the taxi drivers literally jumped on me.
I tried to withdraw some money from a bank machine, but none of my credit cards were functional. In this case, I left my big backpack with a Nepali man selling SIM cards at a Ncell store. After that, I exchanged some money at an office in the airport, bought a local prepaid SIM for Internet and, finally, wrote a message on Facebook to Dinesh (Sega’s acquaintance from a travel company). Dinesh told me he had forgotten to send me a driver, but he urgently sent me a prepaid taxi. The taxi took me to the Home Heritage Hotel in Thamel, where I had booked a single room beforehand. Hira (Dinesh’s employer) waited for me at the hotel. Dinesh had sent him to greet me as a request of forgiveness for forgetting to send me a driver at the airport.
At the restaurant of my hotel, I ate my first dhal bhat (the Nepalese traditional dish: rice with spicy sauce and vegetables). Then, I sunbathed on the rooftop terrace, while I was waiting Hira to escort me to Dinesh’s travel agency in Thamel. Dinesh was yawning and talking on the phone when I came in. He hardly paid attention to me but the conclusion was the same. I couldn’t go to Tibet because the Nepali border with China was still closed after the 2015 earthquake. Only the Nepalis and Chinese could cross the border. A roundtrip flight via Lhasa – Kathmandu had a fixed price, set by the Chinese government, and it didn’t worth to pay so much to go to Tibet (700$).
Kathmandu, the first day
Short description: I explored Durbar Square. My first feeling walking down the streets of Kathmandu was overwhelming. I felt I couldn’t handle my way out through the maze of the streets, but I activated my sense of direction after a travel break of several months. Eventually, I reached Durbar Square somehow.
Durbar Square is an architectural and urban complex, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Durbar means “palace” in Nepali. The kings of the town were crowned in the square and they lived in the nearby palace. The Durbar area consists of three squares – the Basantapur Square (the former royal stables), the main Durbar Square (which comprises all the temples), and the square in front of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace (which has a series of no less than four or five patios).
Big and small temples, altars, cows, peddlers, pilgrims offering orange flower garlands to the temples, crowds of tourists, guides for tourists, rickshaws, beggars, and saddhus interspersed throughout the Durbar Square. There were still many temples, even after the 2015 earthquake when some of them had collapsed. Saddhus are men ‘spiritually advanced,’ but the ones sitting in the square were competing to pose in photos for tourists and ask them for money.
When I entered Durbar Square, a guide wanted to offer me a tour, but I refused him and smiled assertively. Everybody sold something all over the square. Sabitri sold me a pair of wooden earrings that seemed both unbelievably cheap and beautiful. Pulna sold me a bag with a mandala drawing on it, which I bought for the same reason. Both women wore makeup and spoke English, although they had never been to school.
On one side of the Durbar Square, there was the house of the living goddess, Kumari. The Kumari Devi is the reincarnation of Durga. When I visited her house, I wasn’t allowed to see, touch, or photograph her. Her house was considered a holy place and saddhus dressed in white came to worship there. The Kumari goddess is chosen by a complex set of criteria. She has to be born as a member of the Newari caste of goldsmiths or silversmiths. She has to have thirty-two physical features (eyes, teeth, voice, not to be afraid of the dark, etc). However, Kumari Devi will lose her purity and the title of a goddess when she has her first period.
Guide Jyaipun recognized me when I passed close to him for the second time. He still wanted to offer me a tour, but I confused him when I asked where to eat in the square. He led me to a local eatery, where he paid for my meal, too. We ate somos (a spicy pie with potatoes, onions, and beans, served with a sweet-sour sauce) and seil (a kind of sweet donut, with a lot of sugar).
In the afternoon, I walked down the streets south of Durbar Square. I observed Buddhist stupas within various courtyards and Hindu temples, where merchants proudly displayed their wares. While I was walking back to Thamel, a saddhu saw me, came to me and offered a red tikka to me for good luck. He painted a red dot on my forehead and put some orange flower petals on my head. After that, he asked me for money, but he was obviously unhappy I gave him ten times less than he asked. After that, I continued my walk along the streets north of Durbar Square and stopped from place to place to wonder around.
At Indra Chowk market, I explored the stalls selling beads popular for married Nepalese women. The beads had a brilliant combination of yellow, red, and green and only men made them. Women ordered the beads model and then sat on stools in front of the shop, while they were waiting for their new pair of beads.
In the evening, I met my guide-cum-porter, Rishi, at the restaurant of my hotel. We talked about the trekking I wanted to do (Tamang Heritage Trail in the Langtang Area). Rishi had done the trek once but wasn’t sure of the correct trail. He said I shouldn’t pay him because we had common friends, but I told him I would give him as much as I could afford. We set up to leave by October 15. Everything seemed okay.
Kathmandu, the second day
Short description: I went to visit the Garden of Dreams. After that, I walked randomly through Thamel. I explored the local lifestyle and the shopping possibilities in Thamel Chowk, Paknajol, and Sagarmatha Bazaar in Mandala Street.
I had the feeling that I wasn’t in Nepal when I entered the Garden of Dreams. A British marshal designed the garden, which had rigorous influences that created a stark contrast to the outside world. Everything shined, fountains rippled and sparkled, squirrels ran all over the place keeping their tails up. They chased each other round in circles and asked for food from people. Nepalis relaxed on mattresses or lay on the grass. The grass was trimmed perfectly, colorful flowers alternated with banana trees, and the local restaurant was very expensive.
Thamel is the touristic district of Kathmandu. It has unexpectedly cheap accommodation and hotels, restaurants, and shops all close together. One can find anything, anywhere, anyhow, and at any price (which is negotiable anyway). I couldn’t understand what I had to do to withdraw money from a bank machine because some credit cards were functional, some weren’t. The rickshaws lined along the street and waited patiently for clients. Taxis honked on the narrow streets. I found out that a map was useless and I’d better use a GPS in case I got lost.
When it rained (the monsoon season was not over yet), all the roads were full of water mixed with mud, a marvelous combination. Cables and billboards were twisted, convoluted, and mixed up in bunches that seemed to be complex architectural details. However, all in one, I felt good in Thamel, despite all the existing mess. I had everything on hand and I had the possibility to experience the Nepali atmosphere gradually. I didn’t have to make a sudden jump from the European civilization left behind just the previous week. In a nutshell, Thamel is actually a Nepali district dedicated exclusively to Western tourists.
In the evening, I met Diku at a terrace. She was a Nepalese girl I had found on the Couchsurfing platform. She was a mountain guide and worked in a travel agency in Thamel. For dinner, Diku had masala tea and pakauda (balls of onions, potatoes, and other vegetables, a bit spicy) and I had lassi (Nepali yogurt).
Kathmandu, the third day
Short description: I decided to rent a bike in order to be more flexible. I cycled through Kathmandu to Swayambhunath (the Monkey Temple). After that, I pedaled for five kilometers up a steep hill, to Ichangu Narayan (a small, authentic temple I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide).
I negotiated and rented a bicycle at a shop in Chhetrapati Paknajol, a neighborhood close to Thamel. I had the feeling that I was cycling in hell for the first three hundred meters. Taxis, rickshaws, bumps in the road, and people walking chaotically discouraged me completely. Nevertheless, I persevered and cycled further on. I turned right at Chhetrapati Chowk crossroads and pedaled down to the Vishumati River. When I wanted to cross a very busy street, I had to get off the bike and step by step move toward the middle of the street. If possible, I hid behind another pedestrian and managed to cross the street this way. Eventually, I crossed the street in approximately ten minutes. After that, I continued relaxed to Swayambhunath.
Swayambhunath (or the Monkey Temple) is a Buddhist architectural complex, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located on a hilltop and has a large, white, imposing stupa in the center. Monkeys invade it all the time. When I got there, they were running all over, entering the shrines and eating the offerings (flowers, fruit, or rice), or they were scratching each other for hours. They seemed aggressive if someone dared to get close to them.
In the courtyard of the Swayambhunath Buddhist complex, around the stupa, shops lined up and tried to sell religious items. In Bishu’s shop, a CD with Om Mani Padme Hum mantra was playing. The sacred mantra means the entire path that an individual has to perform in life to transform its body and mind. Crooning the mantra, I entered Bishu’s shop. Bishu told me that he was not a wealthy man and that fewer tourists came to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. He added that in Nepal Christians lived, too. During the earthquake, a priest had locked his parishioners inside the church and had told them that God would protect them. The church had collapsed and all the forty-nine people inside the church had died.
From Swayambhunath temple, I cycled five kilometers uphill to Ichangu Narayan, a village near Kathmandu. There, I found a small temple in a courtyard with many deity statues. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu (reincarnated as Narayan) and it is built of wood in the pagoda style, with wooden rafters and reinforcements carved with deities, and later on colorfully painted. When I went there, the place was deserted. Two-three Nepalis came and worshiped, put a tikka on their foreheads with red paint from the statues, and walked clockwise around the temple.
When I returned to Kathmandu, I stopped once again at the Monkey Temple, on a platform at the beginning of the pilgrims’ stairs. Monkeys were chasing each other everywhere. I sat on a bench next to other locals. A woman wore beads made in Indra Chowk, where I had been the day before. An old man with a rosary in his hand whispered prayers from a book with yellow pages. A Nepali man expectorated every two minutes, and another one accompanied him blowing his nose. Two old women leaned slightly forward saying ‘Namaste’ to a man sitting on a bench and then sat down next to him. When I couldn’t bear the spittings surrounding me anymore, I took my bike and turned back to the European civilization of Thamel.
Kathmandu in one week (I) is my first diary about Kathmandu, Nepal (find the version in Romanian at ‘O saptamana in Kathmandu I‘). Its continuation, my second post can be found at the following link Exploring Kathmandu in one week (part II). And here are all my Travel Diaries from Nepal (x12).
Have you been to Kathmandu or plan to go there? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked about Nepal or what you’re interested to see there.
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