View of a town square
Bustling energy surrounds sacred temple.
On Saturday, April 23, our brief flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu, Nepal was under an hour, but exiting India had given us one more challenge. We arrived at Varanasi Airport about 10am, 2.5 hours before flight time. Immediately upon alighting from our taxi, we were swept away by a baggage handler who guided us very nicely through a multi-stage process. Even to enter an airport at all in India, one must show one's passport and electronic ticket at the door.
After patiently waiting over half an hour for the Air India baggage x-ray line to open, our baggage handler made sure our bags were the first to be x-rayed. After this, they were weighed, and we were then able to take them to the ticketing desk. After tickets were received (passports shown at each stage of this entire process), we were then led to the Immigration Desk which was not yet open. Our baggage handler found the proper forms for us to fill out and told us to wait there until they opened. There were officials and staff hanging out together, but apparently, it just wasn't time. More passengers gathered behind us. After another half hour of standing, clerks suddenly
Or is it Tree/Temple?
appeared. So far, so good. After showing our passports and completed forms, we were ushered to the next desk where Brian was asked how many rupees he had with him. Brian guesstimated an amount and was then asked to show them. They were all 500 rupee notes, upon which we were told that we could not take them out of the country. Apparently, there is a good deal of counterfeiting of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, so it is illegal to take them out of India. We asked about a money exchange as, after all, Varanasi is an international airport. No, there was no money exchange. What to do? The clerk kept Brian's boarding pass while he went back through the airport to see if he could change the money. Holly stayed with the carry on bags, imagining Brian circulating through the airport shops, asking shop clerks to change the 500s to 100s which can be exported. She didn't have much hope as getting change, under any circumstances, is very difficult in India.
As "Law of Attraction" would have it, Brian was drawn to a businessman-looking fellow who was at the airport for a domestic flight. Brian asked him
This place is wired!!
for advice in our dilemma, and the fellow asked how much he had. Brian counted out almost 15,000 rupees (about $300), and the man said he could change the money. He took out his calculator, checked the day's exchange rate, and gave Brian US dollars for the whole amount!!
When Brian returned to the Immigration Desk without the rupees, the surprised airport police then escorted him around the airport, wanting him to "finger" the guy who had made the exchange. Brian "insisted" that he didn't see the man, and focused upon repeating that he was worried about his wife and where was she? Finally, the police gave up and let him return to Holly in Immigration. The whole thing felt like a racket where airport officials can pressure ill-informed tourists into handing over money, simply to be able to make their flights. By the way, they never did ask Holly about money she was carrying, a situation where sexism had its benefits. We held our breaths until the plane left the ground!
Though it was a sunny day leaving India and arriving in Nepal, there was a good deal of haze over Kathmandu, and we wondered where were
The "invisible woman"
Who is that masked woman?
the mountains? We finally caught a glimpse of them on Sunday, and this is apparently a statement of the air pollution in the city. We were told that the air quality changes through the year, and as we head into monsoon season, things get pretty bad and then clear up in the fall, after the monsoons. The fact that many people (now including Holly) go about wearing surgical-like masks, doesn't bode well for the air quality. Fortunately, our stay is only 3 days.
Given the brevity of our visit, we have concentrated our time in the Thamel area, the oldest part of the city. Our initial Hotel Nepalaya, in the Thamel, was recommended by our young English friends in Varanasi. We spent 2 nights there for $15/night! An excellent place for the young, backpacker contingent, it was basic, clean, with friendly staff, and in the heart of the Old City action.
On Sunday, we took ourselves on a walking tour, as outlined in our guidebook, through the narrow streets and courtyards, eventually landing at Durbar Square, the heart of the Old City's historic palaces and temples. Small shops line both sides and are a feast for the eyes with some of the most beautiful craftwork we've seen. Textiles, jewelry, antiques, and trekking shops abound. Shop owners hang in their doorways, encouraging passersby to stop in and inspect their wares, and street vendors hawk a regional violin-like instrument with a lovely sound. As Kathmandu is a major jumping off point for Himalayan expeditions, Westerners are everywhere and the city caters to them with the variety of goods available. In addition, we read that in the 1970s, hippies flocked here and the name Freak Street reflects that era!
Walking the streets here is another experience in chaos, but of a different flavor than in India. Hardly more than a lane wide and filled with pedestrians everywhere, bikes and bicycle rickshaws are also common. If this were all there were to it, walking through Kathmandu would be a delight. Unfortunately, motorcycles are the transport of choice, not just for locals, but also rented to tourists. And even more unfortunately, they speed through the narrow streets claiming right of way, tooting their shrill horns relentlessly. There is also some auto traffic, but nowhere nearly as prolific as the motorcycles. It is utterly amazing that pedestrians are not mowed down on a regular basis, but as in India, this exercise in chaos seems to flow relatively smoothly.
Cows are not as common, but dogs are everywhere, as in India. In Kathmandu, there is a greater variety in the appearance of the dogs. Indian dogs are essentially all of a medium size, short-haired with pointy ears, and black and white or brown and white. Rarely, we saw some "Rottie" looking sized brown or black dogs. The dogs we see here in Kathmandu are also on the smaller side, but with greater variety of shape, coat and color. They look well fed and are usually sleeping, so at least, they are not adding significantly to the motorcycle obstacle course.
The motorcycles also kick up a lot of dust which is what finally drove Holly to join the mask-wearing proponents. It is unfortunate that appreciating the real beauty of the Old City is so marred by the need to watch out or be run over.
Another notable challenge here is the availability of electricity. Due to shortages, the city is divided into zones, and each zone actually has a schedule of when they'll have electricity. When we booked our flight at the travel agent, for the return Kathmandu to Delhi leg, he filled out all the paperwork by hand and reserved the tickets by phone. Then, he asked us to come back after 4pm when he would be able to actually print out the electronic tickets. Along with this schedule, power outages occur throughout the day (including our hotel where we are on the 6th floor- no electricity, no elevator!), and the drone of generators is heard everywhere. Along the narrow streets, small generators are often sitting on the front step, powering the shop within.
Today, we will shift to the 5 star Yak and Yeti Hotel, just east of the Thamel, for one night, where we will meet up with our fellow travelers for our Bhutan experience, flying out together on Tuesday. We are really looking forward to the flight along the Himalayan range...
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