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Published: November 19th 2018
Did you know that the Nepalese flag is the only one in the world that isn't square or rectangular? Me neither. It's like two pennants stuck together and is all the more interesting because of that. We initially decided to stay in Kathmandu because our future plans included trips to two nearby countries both at reasonably high altitudes. Kathmandu was the closest we could get and acted as a 'hub' for both countries. It would also mean we could acclimatise in the slightly elevated altitude of Kathmandu before moving higher.
It is, however, also incredibly difficult to get all the visas and other documentation in place independently so we started to investigate using a 'facilitator' many months before leaving home. It was all a bit of a lottery ... How did we know that the names thrown up by the internet were legitimate and trustworthy?
In the end we approached a company called Responsible Travel based in the UK and appropriately accredited, and they put us in touch with Achut at Manakamana Travel in Kathmandu. Even then it was a trial, with e-mails disappearing (into our Spam folder as it turned out), long periods of silence followed by requests
for the transfer of large amounts of money, initially via Paypal (OK, not a problem), then by wire transfer to odd bank accounts (is this really kosher?). We'd adjusted and amended an existing 16 day tour offered by Manakamana and costing many, many thousands of pounds to something shorter in time (we could do the Kathmandu bits much cheaper on our own) and be within our reach financially. Still, we turned up in Kathmandu with nothing, no visa, no plane tickets, no hotel bookings, zilch, nada, for the next part of our trip. Sometimes you just have to travel one step at a time - but when it's out of your hands and has cost you thousands of pounds somewhere in the ether, it's hard to be super-confident that everything will be OK.
So, it was a most welcome surprise when Prem, our Newa landlord, hunted us out on the lovely rooftop early the next morning to say that Achut had telephoned for us. This guy really exists then, and hasn't done a runner with our money ... After a telephone call, Achut said he would send someone to collect us at 11 am to bring us to his
office to go through the paperwork. And, indeed, he did send someone. Not in a car though. Kathmandu streets are generally not car friendly and certainly not the streets between the Newa and Achut's office. So we were 'collected' on foot! That was a first ...
Achut was impossible to dislike. We'd pictured him as a bit of a wide-boy, which I think he was but in the likeable, Arthur Daley-geezer style. And he was certainly a 'can do' type of guy. We filled in a ton of forms for the upcoming bits of our trip, gave him some photos to go on the visas and surrendered our passports to him so he could take them to the Chinese embassy. I'm never happy about giving up my passport (we once spent an uncomfortable 24 hours in Bolivia with no passports after having to leave them at the border where the immigration staff had been called to a bigger, more important (?!) job and with no passports we couldn't get any money, legally check in to the hotel, buy food ... you get the idea) but what can you do - turn around and go back? I don't think so
... we didn't anyway.
We had a quick drink in a rooftop bar in Thamel and tried both the Everest and Nepal Ice beers which made us feel quite intrepid by virtue of name alone! Back at the Newa we'd had another phone call we were told, this one from Sunil who owned the place we'd initially booked. He came to visit and thanked us for agreeing to be relocated and said his place was better. Good - hot water and a bathroom bigger than a cupboard without a resident (now deceased) cockroach would be nice but I didn't feel able to complain when I saw how some of the locals lived with no running water at all in vermin infested streets. Prem had lost everything in the recent earthquake and many people were still homeless and living in tent towns due to government corruption. Poor Prem was desperate for business to improve so he could start paying off some of his 100% loan and he and his family were lovely. He bombarded us with questions though - how much did we pay for so-and-so, was he charging too much, why weren't people coming to his place and when
all you want is a cup of coffee and a bit of peace and quiet first thing in the morning it was all a bit too much at times. Not that we could answer his questions anyway - we didn't work in tourism! I didn't suggest that maybe his chosen career change was not the right one for someone who had retired from the garment industry and had never travelled abroad. He was just too lovely to sucker-punch with that. I hope he is successful.
We booked a Kathmandu sightseeing tour with Achut (he never missed an opportunity and the price was reasonable!) and we set off for an early start from his office the following day. We were joined by a couple from Surbiton who were doing the whole 16 day trip with Achut. Probably not our sort of people in normal circumstances but she turned out to be OK in the end. The day was hot and sunny and our transport was cool and air-conditioned. There was still no escaping the dust, which got everywhere and had all the locals (as well as some of the visitors) coughing and spluttering and hawking up the damned stuff. Not
at all pleasant.
We visited the Bouddhanath Stupa which had been damaged in the earthquake and was being repainted and we walked clockwise (everything has to be done clockwise - it's the circle of life apparently!) round the perimeter which was bustling with a mix of tourism, religion and industry with shops, monasteries and hotels. A group of western looking hippy-types were being led by a chap in saffron robes in their chanting to Buddha and people were praying, prostrate, on the floor. I felt quite awkward trundling past them in their spiritual acts of worship. A temple where open cremation was being performed was scheduled next but we took a rain check on that, though the other couple went in. I didn't feel the need to get up close and personal to a burning body in what I felt should be a more dignified final curtain than having tourists gawping at them. We waited with our driver instead, next to the only bit of green space we had seen since our arrival. He told us it was a park, but he said no-one was allowed in to use it because they make such a mess of it. The
locals have no concept of litter disposal (though I never saw one litter bin so it's hard to use something that isn't provided!).
I spent my time befriending the local dogs who often roamed in packs but sometimes clearly 'belonged' to someone or somewhere and these often wore a collar with a telephone number written on it. The Newa had two and a small black puppy had decided that was the place for him. One guest said he had taken it into his room the previous night because it seemed lonely. It was made welcome and even overturning a plant pot during a spot of rough-and-tumble with one of the others didn't result in banishment.
We next visited the Royal Palace in the Cultural City of Bhaktapur which includes the famous Durbar Square. I was amazed that people have to pay to enter here. It suffered a lot of damage during the earthquake but is still pretty, despite that and all the restoration work that is taking place. There were lots of temples (I was starting to zone out on all these temples already), some noteworthy big bells, city wells, more temples and more palaces (Google it for the sights and history if you want - this is just about my experience!). There were also lots of soldiers with very big guns ...
We had a lunchbreak here before spending some time exploring Bhaktapur on our own, which we prefer to do. I took the time to appreciate the intricate wood carvings, especially the Peacock Window in Dattatraya Square, and to wander through the streets soaking up the ambience.
At the end of our trip our guide said we needed to call into ManCanDo's office because our visa applications had been rejected by the Chinese embassy. Great - thousands of £££s later and we get rejected! However, it turned out to be only our photos they didn't like and a quick trip to a backstreet photographer soon had a new version of the same wrinkly faces, but this time with our ears showing and no fringes. I can now at least say I have been professionally Photoshopped but it didn't result in a dramatic improvement! No matter - fingers crossed this time but we understood that the Chinese could still refuse our visa, with no explanation given, or even close the border altogether!
Finally - photos! Many of you will know I take literally hundreds if not thousands of photographs. My house is stuffed to the rafters with photo albums full of pictures, postcards and other souvenirs that tell the story of our trips. We always use a camera because the phone just can't deal with the volume. We stupidly put aside our old faithful 'point and click' camera in favour of an izzy-wizzy update. Well, more fools us. We couldn't save the photos from the camera to the tablet without wifi and that was in short supply for the first part of our travels. By the time we had a reasonable wifi supply we were well onto the second camera card only to find we couldn't retrieve the photos from the first one. We bought a card reader in the end (reverting to the 'old-fashioned' technology) but the photos were just not there. Nowhere. Card empty. I nearly cried. Then I got real. Nobody died, we still had the experience and the memories and travelling is all about that, not a pile of photographs. (If I say it often enough I might just convince myself.) So, here's the start if the blog with pictures, which I hope will make it a more interesting read. They won't initially be in strict date order, but near enough. I might even have to break my own rule and use some of the two of us just to pull in enough to populate the blogs!
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