Published: December 5th 2009November 27th 2009
Thamel Street Scene, central Kathmandu
It's always slightly unnerving arriving in a foreign country under the cloak of darkness. You don't know what to expect, you don't know where your hotel is, and as you wait for your ride, it's not such a leap to conjure bad things happening down some dimly-lit alleyway.
Our place of stay, the famous Kathmandu Guest House, had emailed that we'd be picked up at the airport. What wasn't mentioned was that the vehicle was a decrepit van driven by a madman who seemed to take joy in ignoring basic lane discipline. Just outside the airport, he brought his van to a sudden halt, allowing another man to join him in the front. He wasn't introduced and we soon set off again. Angela and I looked at each other, but what could we do? I peered outside trying to make anything out but could see nothing, apart from other vehicles, all of which were beeping and flashing their lights. Perhaps we would be driven somewhere and robbed? We swerved to avoid a woman walking with a sack on her head and she soon disappeared into the gloom. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of a homeless person searching through a
A boy on stilts collects a few rupees
pile of rubbish with their hands.
Ten minutes later we arrived at a more densely populated part of the city which was thankfully well lit due to the sheer amount of bars, restaurants and shops lining the streets. It was here we caught sight of our fist hippie. He was a dreadlocked man in his forties wandering around in his own personal nirvana. Our taxi came to a sharp standstill, caught up in a snarl of traffic that immediately became an orchestra of beeping and hand gesturing. The taxi driver's friend seized this as a chance to jump out, waving goodbye as he did so. A few minutes later we arrived at our hotel.
The room we'd booked at the Kathmandu Guest House was billed as a deluxe room, the second most expensive at $70 per night. “This is the most basic room I've stayed in for years,” was Angela's first comment as she regarded the tiny space that made up our living quarters. “And it smells of mothballs. Are you sure this is a deluxe room? God only knows what the other rooms are like.”
The other rooms we didn't see but we did look at
A man on his cycle waits for custom
a tariff explaining them. Under the deluxe room was the garden view room, which charged $55 a night. The list then went though standard, economy, basic and simplicity before it reached the bottom of the barrel, a room billed as ultra basic. It cost £2 a night. “God help anyone who stays in one of those rooms,” I quipped as we unpacked a few things. There was mold on the ceiling and mildew in the bathroom. It was only the next day we found out that our room hadn't been a deluxe room, it had been a standard, costing only $30 per night.
“You want hashish?” said the small man who approached us from out of nowhere. We were wandering along the nighttime streets of Thamel, the area of Kathmandu where our hotel was located. We ignored the dealer and browsed the shops. Most were catering for tourists, selling pirate DVDs, second-hand books, hippie clothing and trekking trips. The streets were busy, filled with a mixture of Westerners and locals, the latter mainly made up of taxi and cyclo drivers touting for business. In some rooftop bars, rock bands plied their trade, some of them sounding astonishingly good.
Another man approached, this time simply begging, but he was soon replaced by a younger moustached man. After a quick scan around he whispered something out of the corner of his mouth. “You want marijuana? Golden?” Brushing him away, we found that most of the shops were beginning to close, lowering their shutters and so we retreated back to the hotel.
The next day we saw a totally different side to Kathmandu. Bathed in sunshine, the city was warm and welcoming. Along every side street was a photogenic picture: there a man leaning against a brightly coloured cyclo, here a small boy wandering on lofty stilts with a tin in his hand. Further on, a toothless old woman sitting on the floor peddling a selection of vegetables. Coils of wires hung above street level and as we stood looking at them, a man approached. “You want shoe shine?” he said. He was armed with a briefcase filled with what I presumed was shoe shining equipment. We said no and walked on, coming to a selection of shops specializing in fabric. One shop proudly displayed a sign reading: 100% Pashmina! Nepal Quality! Seeing our interest a man quickly appeared. “Come
The many street signs of Thamel
in please. I give you first customer discount!”
“Look at this shop!” I said to Angela as we passed by an establishment known as the Family Dental Clinic. In the window was a collection of false teeth and a large bowl filled with molars. “I reckon the only qualification you need here is a pair of pliers and a hammer.” I said. It wasn't the only such place either - there were half a dozen of them along the same section of street.
We arrived at Durbar Square, a large complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples. Once we'd paid the admission fee, we were greeted with the sight of some impressive looking temples, reminding me of the Kathmandu I'd seen on travel documentaries. As well as the temples, they were some sacred cows milling about, but they weren't the only things milling. The holy men were out and about too, willing to pose for a photograph in return for a few rupees. There were also plenty of guides in attendance and although we initially brushed them off we soon changed our mind.
Within seconds we had procured the service of not one guide but two. “We have
A women sells her vegetables
been guides for fifteen years,” one of the men told us. “We met at university while studying to be guides. Sometimes we work alone but often we work together.”
Our first port of call was the Jagannath Temple, the oldest one in the square, noted for the pornographic carvings on its roof struts. Without the guides we would have easily missed them. Male statues with members almost as long as their legs were on display, as were smiling gods inserting their members into women's orifices with wanton abandon. And even the animals were at it. One carving depicted a horse mounted atop another beast!
“This next place we will visit is the House of the Living Goddess, home of the Kumari,” said one of our guides as he led us inside a small courtyard. Along the way we were pestered by the peddlers. They were selling wooden flutes, bracelets and other trinkets, but their persistence paid off because Angela ended up buying a few items.
I'd already read about the Kumari. She was a young Nepalese girl aged between four and thirteen who was a living embodiment of an actual Goddess. The girl was chosen carefully based
Holy Men of Durbar Square
upon a set of strict physical features, such as the colour of her eyes and shape of her teeth. When enough prospective candidates had been found, they had to go through stage two of the selection process. The girls were gathered in a darkened room and had to endure a night of torment. Men dressed as demons would cavort in front of the girls, shouting and screaming, trying to make the girls flinch. All around the room were hideous masks, and in the midst of this madness, a buffalo would be slaughtered. This would be a good night out for one of the old hippies in Kathmandu, but for a four-year-old girl, it must have been terrifying. A true goddess, though, in the face of such horror, would not have flinched. The young girl in question would then get to live in luxury until puberty set in when she would be reverted back into a mortal and the search for a new Kumari would begin.
At the end of our tour we stopped for a drink with our two guides at a roof top cafe in the heart of Durbar Square. I bought them both an Everest Beer. “I
Durbar Square - the ancient home of royalty
have noticed something about your haggling,” said one of the men, taking a slurp of his drink. “If they say it costs 2000 rupees, you should say 500 and then work your way up, not go half and then work your way up. You are being too generous! For instance, those slippers you bought for 1000 rupees (£8), I could have got for 150 rupees.”
The view from the terrace was quite amazing, affording a view of the whole of Durbar Square as well as the mountains. I asked the men about the commonly occurring strike days, when public transport ground to a halt, and sometimes even shops, schools and offices were closed. “Ah yes, the strikes!” said one of the men smiling. “These are like carnival day in Kathmandu! People do not go to work and instead they have a party. We like strike days, don't we?” he asked his pal, who nodded enthusiastically.
“At this time of year, we start work at 10am and finish at 4pm,” replied one of the men after I'd inquired about their working day. “One some days we might get three jobs, but on others no jobs at all. It depends.”
Banana seller waits for custom
After we'd finished our drinks, it was time to bid them farewell. They wished us a good day.
Just along from Durbar Square was Freak Street which became famous in the late 1960s as a gathering place for hippies as they made their way across Nepal. Hashish shops and cheap hotels plied their business along the street to cater for them, and possibly because of this, the road became known as Freak Street. Today, the hippies were long gone, banished to wandering around Thamel, and we didn't linger long either, heading off towards a white tower we'd seen from the roof top cafe.
Bhimsen Tower was built in 1825 and resembled a giant white lighthouse. After paying to enter, Angela and I found ourselves climbing the spiraling staircase than ran up in the inside of the tower. At the half way stage, after climbing about a hundred steps, I was well and truly knackered, but once at the top the views were amazing, spanning the whole of Kathmandu.
Two days later, after returning from our trip to Pokhara, we were back at the Kathmandu Guest House. This time we opted for the garden view room, which offered
The faded past of Freak Street
a panoramic vista of some dingy backstreet of Kathmandu. There was not an inch of vegetation in sight, let alone a garden. Feeling slightly disappointed we caught a taxi to the Monkey Temple, or as it was properly known, Swayambhunath.
“I can drop you off here and you can climb the steps to the very top,” said the taxi driver as we reached a high point on the hill where the array of Buddhist and Hindu shrines were located. “Or I can take you to the top and you can walk back down?” We opted for option two and after being deposited we were soon through the gates, finding out why it was nicknamed the monkey temple.
They were everywhere - hundreds of them - and not in least bit shy. Baby ones clung to their mother's backs as they clambered along walls or pathways, and every now and again, a whole troop of them would cross our path. In the epicentre of the complex were a selection of stupas, temples and shops peddling the unusual tourist fare, but the monkeys were far more interesting. Some of the more acrobatic ones were even sliding down the handrails that
Flags overlooking Kathmandu
lined the steps. Buddhist prayer wheels were in abundance, and a few saffron-robed monks gave the place an almost authentic feel. The views were amazing - eagles soaring above the vast expanse of the city. “I didn't realise Kathmandu was so huge,” said Angela.
Back in central Kathmandu, we paid the taxi driver and headed off to buy some teeth. Angela was adamant about purchasing some so that she could show the children in her class how fizzy drinks affected the enamel coating. We headed towards the row of 'dentists' we'd seen a few days previously. Wandering the streets of Thamel seemed a world away from the tranquility of Pokhora. The streets were grimy and often smelly and it was so damned noisy! Even the cyclos trundling along made a God-awful racket, with their horns sounding like a cross between a trumpet and a dog's squeezy toy. Some of the drivers even utilised empty plastic bottles as their horn, which were surprisingly loud.
At the first tooth shop, Angela tried her luck but it was to no avail. She came out shaking her head. “The woman said the teeth were not for sale.” I told Angela that I
would try in the next shop.
I wandered in, marvelling at the array of false teeth and went straight up to the proprietor. “Hello,” I said smiling, showing him my teeth and wondering at the same time whether he was studying them in the hope of harvesting them later. “I am a teacher and I need some teeth to show my class an experiment on tooth decay. I only need two though! Not a full set! Can I please buy some?” The man looked at me incredulously before shaking his head. But I persisted and he eventually cracked, producing two teeth from his till! I bid him good day and handed Angela my booty.
With the light fading fast, I was suddenly accosted by another shoe shiner. He'd evidently spotted the poor state of my shoes and saw an opportunity to make a few rupees. As he followed us, Angela suggested that I take him up. “They are a state,” she pointed out. “And while you get them done I can do some shopping.”
The shoe shiner and I agreed on a price of fifty rupees and he sat me down and began to work. While the
Nepal Ice - one of the 3 local beers
rest of Kathmandu passed us by, the man removed my shoes and began to shine. “Where are you from?” he asked me. When I told him he smiled and said that England was a good country. “I am married with two children,” he said. “My third child died because we are so poor.” I commiserated with him, but couldn't shake off the notion that the man's sob story was just another way of extracting more cash from me. He inspected the inside of my shoe and found that there was some repair work to be done there. He removed a small jar from his case and began sticking small pieces of leather to the inside casing. “This glue,” he told me, “is the same kind that street children sniff at night. It helps them go to sleep.”
The man finished one shoe and began on the other. Opposite me, a traffic jam had formed and I found myself to be the centre of attention. I tried to ignore them and moved my feet closer to the pavement to avoid the wheels of passing vehicles. The shoe shiner declared that the insole of the other shoe unrepairable and jumped up,
Newspapers of Nepal
disappearing from sight. A few minutes later he returned with a new insole and set to work again. The fifty rupees we'd initially agreed upon seemed woefully inadequate now that he had been working for over twenty minutes.
As the glue began to harden, the shoe shiner spoke once again. “My mother and father died from drinking whiskey. They drank it all day and they left me with nothing. I work all day and all I want is to send my children to school. But school is very expensive for a poor person like me. But at least I have a job. I have been a shoe shiner for ten years!”
I decided, that when the man had finished, I would give him double the original asking price. After all, 100 rupees was nothing (80p) and he had worked for nearly forty minutes so far. In fact my shoes had never looked better. As he passed me the finished articles, he told me that he wanted 500 rupees. I was taken aback and told him so. “But I have worked hard and I have even bought new insoles. Please, I beg you! Think of my family!”
Angela poses near the Bhimsen Tower
told him that I would pay 300 rupees and nothing more and the man nodded in resignation. I removed my wallet and found to my dismay that I had nothing less than a 500 rupee note. I asked the shoe shiner if he had any change but he shook his head. Feeling like a cad, I told him I needed some change and he finally nodded and rooted around in all of his pockets, eventually coming up with 120 rupees which he gave me in return for my 500. All the notes were crumpled and I hypothesized that it was the total amount of money he'd made all day. I thanked him and told him he'd done an excellent job to which I received a toothy grin.
Ten minutes later I was sat at the Kathmandu Guest House bar and ordered a beer. Angela was still shopping somewhere and when the beer arrived I paid for it there and then. 310 rupees for a bottle of Everest. I sat back and took a slurp, enjoying the refreshing beer until I realised that I had paid the shoe shiner only ten rupees more for all the effort and diligence he
I think I'll have my teeth done here, love
had taken. I felt like an even bigger cad.
The next, morning was another bright and sunny day in Nepal. It seemed the guide books had indeed been correct about the weather when they advised that the best time to visit was between October and December. For our final full day in Nepal, we caught a taxi to Patan.
Once a city in its own right, Patan was now more like a suburb of Kathmandu, and like Kathmandu, it had its own Durbar Square, which if anything, was even better than Kathmandu's. We had a wander around before heading south along a busy road filled with shops selling amongst other things, metal jugs and pots, for which Patan was famous.
“These poor dogs,” said Angela as we spotted yet another one curled up on the pavement. Further on we came across a dead one, left to rot with flies. As we stopped to consult the map we spied another street dog. This particular one looked alert enough but malnourished. When I bought a bottle of water from a nearby store, it looked up at me hopefully. Angela poured some water into a dry puddle but the dog
Durbar Square, Patan
ignored it. I bought some cake from the same store and threw it at the dog. It devoured it in a second and followed us for while before sloping off.
We decided to visit Nepal's one and only zoo, located in Patan, and after paying the entrance fee we wandered around the enclosures avoiding the hordes of people that were strolling everywhere. A few school parties were about too, and because it was lunch time, the children were all sat in rows eating their packed lunches. Oddly, we seemed to be the only Westerners in attendance.
As zoos go, and neither Angela nor I would ever consider ourselves to be connoisseurs, the one at Patan wasn't too bad. We saw hippos, vultures, turtles, monkeys and jackals but we didn't see the star attraction, the Bengal tiger. It was housed in a large enclosure but had hidden itself somewhere. It didn't stop people trying to spot it though. A crowd was jostling for position along the high section of wall overlooking the tiger's enclosure. As I tried to squeeze in to get a better view but was elbowed out of the way by an elderly Indian lady who literally
Happy hippo in Patan Zoo
shoved me sideways. Afterwards, as we wandered away, I told Angela about the rude woman and she shook her head. “I should've shoved her over the edge,” I said, “And then we would've seen the bloody tiger.”
Instead of catching taxi back to Thamal, we elected to walk. Along the way we walked across a bridge spanning the Bagmati River. Along one of its edges a shanty town had developed, and from our vantage point we could see a family sat around a fire. They were dressed in rags but they looked happy as hell, all smiling as they talked amongst themselves. We looked away from them and into the river which was piled with rubbish, including the carcass of some unidentifiable animal. “This smell is horrible,” said Angela. “It's like a toilet. I can't believe this water starts in the Himalayas.”
As we got closer to the heart of Kathmandu, the traffic began to thicken and so did the fumes. A long row of motorbikes were queued up along the side of the road, most with their engines switched off. Further down the road we saw what they were waiting for - petrol. I'd already read in
Kathmandu Guest House
the Himalayan Times that there was a shortage of fuel in Kathmandu because of strikes and that tempers were starting to fray. “Did you see that man?” I said to Angela. She nodded looking disgusted. As the man in question passed us he was still buckling up his belt, walking away from the pile of shit he'd just left. “I couldn't live in Kathmandu,” I said.
We approached Durbar Square just as a demonstration was beginning. Hundreds of policemen were lining the street, most carrying riot shields and hefty-looking sticks. In the distance we could hear a man's voice over a loudspeaker. As we neared the heart of the square, the amount of police thickened. They had roadblocked all entry points to the square and were stood in groups along the edges. Some nearby shops were pulling down their shutters and quite close to where we where stood was the demonstration itself. I informed Angela that the British Foreign Office had advised all UK citizens avoid any sort of demonstration or public gathering.
“Hello! You need guide?” We turned around to see the two men who'd shown us around a few days previously. We all shook hands and
Man with his pots, Patan
they told us that the demonstration was by farmers. I gestured to the police and joked whether they were expecting any violence. “Oh yes!” answered one of the men. “There will be lots of violence, but do not worry; It is safe for a while. I don't suppose you want a guide again? Today we have had no customers.” We said goodbye to the men and made our way back to the hotel. The next day would be time to go home. Strengths:
-Lots to see
-Very friendly people
-Very safe and tourist friendly Weaknesses:
-Dusty and dirty
-Heavy fumes from the traffic
-Traffic jams and endless beeping
-Men (but sometimes women) gargling their throats before hawking it out onto the pavement
There are more photos below