Kathmandu

April 17-21, 2009

After a couple of days relaxing in Pokhara, eating well and catching up on internet, we decided we better move on.  We caught a local bus for the roughly 7-hour ride to Kathmandu.

Love / Hate

While we were traveling around Nepal we heard various opinions about Kathmandu from travelers who were already there (most travelers, it turns out, start their trip with a flight to Kathmandu).  These opinions tended to be very polar – people either loved Kathmandu or hated it.  Those who hated it complained about the thick crowds and air pollution, the same sort of complaints we hear from first-time travelers to India.  After hearing these comments from several people, we started developing a theory that people who travel in India before reaching Nepal aren’t so shocked by Kathmandu and thus like it.  And since Pnina and I had already visited India (twice), we figured Kathmandu would be OK.

But no, we were wrong.  Kathmandu really turned out to be that crowded and dirty.  In fact, it had dirtier rivers than we ever saw in our lives (dirtier, even, than the Ganges River in Varanasi).  We ended up staying in Kathmandu about five days, which is way too many.  The only reason we stayed so long is that we needed to arrange our onward travel to Tibet, something that is best done in Kathmandu on a weekday (unfortunately, we arrived on a Friday afternoon).

Thamel

Back in the 1960’s, western travelers used to stay in a neighborhood in central Kathmandu that came to be known as “Freak Street”.  It’s still there today, and some people recommended for us to stay there, but we opted for the modern-day backpacker neighborhood, an area called Thamel (pronounced “tah mel”).

Thamel is very crowded and noisy, and it has nothing to do with Nepali culture.  But it’s also very convenient for backpackers.  It reminds us of Bangkok’s Khaosan neighborhood.

The Thamel neighborhood in Kathmandu:

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Like in Pokhara, there are hundreds of guesthouses in all directions, though they tend to be a little shabbier and more expensive.  We checked into the Florid Hotel, where, for 700 rupees per night, we had a giant room that looked like a grandma’s apartment.  The price wasn’t so great, but the hotel had a nice little garden in the back where you can order a complete breakfast for 80 rupees.

During the day people wander around Thamel, look through the shops selling backpacker gear or Nepali music or Kashmiri clothes.  You can’t walk five steps without hearing “want hashish?” from one of the local drug-dealing boys.  At night the neighborhood becomes a party zone.  Live music blasts from bar after bar, mostly classic rock tunes like “Smoke on the Water”, “Love Me Two Times”, and “Wish You Were Here”.  If you happen to stay in one of the guesthouses close to the main drag, don’t expect to fall asleep before 1 AM.

One of many Thamel shops selling embroidered T-shirts:

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Before we reached Kathmandu, Pnina finished reading the last of her books.  We figured Kathmandu would be a good place to find a book exchange, but that wasn’t exactly the case.  There are book stores all around Thamel where you can buy or sell books.  They’ll give you $1-2 for your used book and charge you $5+ for whatever book you pick (many of them pirated copies, though pretty good quality).  It’s not a huge difference but it goes against our principles – we really prefer to just trade books with other travelers.  So, in a little gesture of sticking-it-to-the-man, we stood outside one of these bookshops and asked every incoming customer whether they wanted our books, free of charge.

The lucky girls who got our books:

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One thing we definitely did like about Kathmandu is the food.  There are restaurants with Nepali, Indian, and all kinds of western food, and many of them are really good.  The “Food Court” in Thamel was our regular hang-out, mostly because of the comfy chairs and the free wi-fi.  They also had some good Indian dishes.  We liked a place called Roadhouse Cafe where they make truly good wood-fire-oven pizzas and an awesome 3-layer chocolate mousse.  There’s a place called OR2K, popular with Israeli tourists, where they make good (but pricy) middle-eastern food.  At KC Restaurant they make a great tomato-mozzarella salad.  And our last pick is Mitho, a kind of charity restaurant that trains unemployed Nepalis to be cooks or waiters; they make pretty good Indian curries, though the same dish may taste different from day to day depending on who’s in the kitchen.

The “Food Court” in Thamel:

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Three-layer chocolate mousse in the Roadhouse Cafe:

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Wandering Around the City

Thamel is definitely a backpacker bubble.  Once you step outside Thamel things look very different, more “real”.  That’s the reason why some backpackers hate Thamel, but for us it was a haven.  We felt a little guilty taking refuge there, but we did it again and again.

The old quarter, near Durbar square, is all narrow alleys and markets.  Every block has at least one temple or monument, which makes this area really fun to explore.  When you exit this labyrinth towards the larger street you have chaotic drivers and horrible air pollution (everyone wears some kind of surgical mask or bandana).  And if you’re unlucky enough to cross one of the rivers, that’s where you find the worst pollution.

One of the alleys not far from Durbar Square:

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Fabrics sold in one of the alley shops:

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Lots of people get around by motorcycle:

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Why rent a truck when you can hire people to carry your furniture on their backs?

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A river we crossed on the way to Swayambunath Temple.  This was the point we decided we didn’t like Kathmandu.  The water was literally black and bubbly; it smelled of sewage and was full of garbage.

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One of the sources of the filth pouring into the river.

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Before coming to Kathmandu we noticed that Nepalis tend to have the same bad habits as Indians when it comes to keeping the environment clean.  They throw garbage everywhere – out the window while riding a bus, on the side of the trail while hiking in nature, etc.  We theorized that the only reason why Nepal is not as dirty as India is because you just don’t have as many people.  But then we reached Kathmandu, a big crowded city, and sure enough it was just as dirty as any Indian city.

We read an article in the local paper talking about the water problems in Kathmandu.  As a country, Nepal is the second richest in the world when it comes to freshwater, after Brazil (all that snowmelt from the Himalayas is a fantastic resource).  But the rivers in Kathmandu are so filthy that they can’t be used for drinking (or even bathing), so residents have to drill wells to get ground-water.  And the city is becoming so overcrowded that each year they need to drill deeper and deeper.  A scientist quoted in this article estimated that within a few years residents will need to drill at least 400 meters down to reach water.  Meanwhile, more and more people move to Kathmandu to seek their fortunes.  It’s a real mess.

Swayambunath

Swayambunath is one of the more famous sites in Kathmandu.  It’s worth visiting both for the temple itself and for the view you get from its hilltop location.

Monkeys hanging around the Buddha statues at the bottom of the hill:

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Prayer flags from tree to tree:

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Climbing up to the temple:

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At the top of the hill there’s a flat area with a huge bulbous stupa:

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Local pilgrims walking around the stupa and spinning prayer wheels:

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The eyes at the top of the stupa:

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Incense burning in brass bowls on the ground:

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Candles inside the monastery:

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One of the tourist shops near the temple.  We loved the woodwork of the upstairs windows:

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A local game sold at one of these tourist shops:

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Durbar Square

Durbar Square is the other famous site in Kathmandu.  It’s the old center of the city, and it contains the palace that was once occupied by Nepal’s monarchy (the King later moved out to a newer palace, and later was removed altogether in favor of the shaky/corrupt parliamentary system we have today).  To enter Durbar Square you need to pay an admission, which is funny because it’s not a closed of park or anything like that – it’s just an area in the middle of the city.  So, tourists like us need to pay to get in but locals just pass through on the way to wherever they’re going.

Before we even entered Durbar Square we had a few locals come to us offering to be our guide for a one-hour tour.  We decided to pass – Pnina and I prefer to wander at our own pace and we tend to forget whatever we learn from tour guides.  But some of these guides were persistent; they followed us around giving us a few tidbits of information for free, so we learned a few things.  First off, there’s a temple called Kumari-Ghar that is home to a girl who is a “living god”.  When she starts to menstruate, they kick her out and look for the next reincarnation.  If you hang out in the courtyard of this temple, you may see her step to the window in the upper floor.  You’re not allowed to take photos of this girl, but of course you can buy one of the postcards just outside the temple.

The living-god girl made an appearance in the center window at the top of this building:

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In the main area of Durbar Square there are a few pagoda-like temples.  The biggest of them is called Hippie Temple because it was a common place for backpackers in the 1960’s to smoke a joint and watch life go by.  Pnina and I sat there for a while and, yes, while there we also had a few local drug dealers asking us if we “smoke marijuana?”  We passed.  But it was a cool place to observe Nepali life.

The pagoda-like temples in Durbar Square.  The one in the middle is “Hippie Temple”:

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Probably the biggest package we saw carried by a single man, though it wasn’t nearly as heavy as some others:

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Marionettes sold at one of the nearby shops:

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April 20 – The Worst Day Ever

April 20th totally sucked.

It was a Monday so the Chinese embassy was finally open.  Pnina and I went there to sort out the visa for our ongoing trip to China, through Tibet.  After a long hot walk through the city, we arrived at the embassy only to discover that actually there are two Chinese Embassy buildings in Kathmandu and that visas are issued at the other one.  Shit!  The guards were nice enough to direct us to the appropriate local bus for the other embassy, and the people on the bus told us where to get off.

When we reached the correct China Embassy building we discovered another problem.  It takes five days to process the visa application, but we only had four days left on our Nepali visa.  There was an option to request rush service on the Chinese visa application, but for that you need to pay extra and the visa is already expensive enough ($130 for US citizens, regardless of whether you get a 1-month or a 1-year visa).  We needed to extend our Nepali visa anyhow since we wanted to go on another hike in a park north of Kathmandu, so we decided to revise the order: first extend the Nepali visa, then get the Chinese visa, then go on our hike.

It was already afternoon and the Nepali visa office closes early, so we took a taxi.  The price for the extension wasn’t too bad: $2 per day, minimum 15 days extension.  But when we went to pay we discovered that the money was gone!  Someone had pick-pocketed me at some point along the way! And it was a good score for them too: they took about 26,000 rupees (more than $300).  I was just stunned, and for the rest of the day I wore a very grumpy face.  This is probably the main reason why I dislike Kathmandu so much, and why this post has such a negative tone.

I wear light trekking pants, like these:

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On the right pant-leg have two cargo-style pockets, one behind the other.  The outer pocket has a velcro flap; that’s where I kept my wallet.  Behind it is a pocket secured by a zipper, which is where I kept the majority of our cash.  The pickpocket managed to unzip the zipper and take the cash out without me noticing.  It’s possible that the pickpockets are really that good, or it’s possible that they are nothing special but I’m that oblivious.  I spent the rest of the day in grumpyland, giving dirty stares to all the locals we passed and trying to imagine how/when/where the theft took place.  Was it just now on the bus ride over?  It was pretty crowded.  When was the last time I remember having the money in my pocket?  My memory was fuzzy – it could have been anytime in the last two days.

While I was lost in daydreams, Pnina took charge.  We had a practical matter to solve – we needed money to pay for the Nepali visa extension.  So we left the visa office in search of an ATM.  The people on the street directed us to the nearest ATM, but it was broken.  We asked some other people and they directed us to another ATM 1-2 km further down the road.  When we reached it, what do you know?  It was also broken.  The technician was there fixing it and he said that it should be ready in 30 minutes, but we didn’t feel like waiting that long (and frankly we didn’t really trust his time estimate).  So we kept walking down the same street…way way down.  We later learned that we nearly walked all the way to the neighboring city of Patan.  And along the way we passed yet another disgusting river…

The smelly river we crossed while searching for an ATM:

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But we did eventually find an ATM.  We got our cash and went back to the Nepali visa office.  It took another hour to get our passports back with the extension, and by that time the Chinese embassy was closed, so we retreated back to Thamel with a sense of defeat.  The Chinese embassy is only open on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, so now we’d have to wait another two days in this shitty town!

Later that evening we spoke with some tour agencies about going to Tibet and realized that our whole visa plan was flawed.  Our plan was to first get a regular Chinese visa and then to get a permit to enter Tibet.  The idea is that once we finish going through Tibet we’d already have our visa for onward travel through the rest of China.  But it doesn’t work like that.  If you first get a Chinese visa and later get a Tibet permit, the latter will cancel the former.  In other words, when the Chinese authorities issue your Tibet permit they will also cancel your Chinese visa – you can’t hold both at the same time (and, in all likelihood, they won’t refund the money for your visa).  The correct approach is to first get a Tibet permit, then travel through Tibet, then enter China and attempt to get a visa extension.  When we learned this, we signed up through one of these travel offices, gave them our passports, and got the hell out of Kathmandu to go hiking for a week.  More on all that in the next posts.

By the way, the only good thing that happened on April 20 is that Pnina’s dad (Ed) and our friend Josh Hoffman both celebrated their birthdays.  Happy Birthday guys!  🙂

Bonus Picture

Unusually sexy packaging for an ice cream bar, from a random street vendor on the way to Swayambunath:

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