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Published: August 6th 2007
I've heard it said that Kathmandu is a stinking, cess-pit of a city and to an extent I would have to agree. The fumes from the adulterated mix of kerosene and gasoline used by some of the city's 2.5 million inhabitants can be choking, especially on a hot, breeze-less day. The torrential rain storms that happen every few days give some respite and the morning after a downpour is often clear and cool. Generally the pollution doesn't bother me much and as I feel at home in big cities I've been enjoying my time in Nepal's capital.
Thamel is the main tourist area of Kathmandu, where you can find the Kathmandu Guest House and a Nepali version of every type of Western food you could imagine. A twenty minute walk from Thamel takes you through more interesting streets where the locals shop and trade, to Durbar Square, a run down collection of historic buildings including the Kumari House, home of the yound girl chosen as the living incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju.
Compared to the austerity of the days trekking in the high Himalaya, my first night back in Thamel was an orgy of Western indulgence. Pushing
culinary boat out, I ate a delicious salad (I didn't actually fancy a pizza by the time I had dinner) of fresh vegetables, tomatoes, lettuce and a load of other greenery I'd not seen for a few weeks, drank loads of beer, well, two or three large bottles, listened to live rock music and had a couple of puffs of the local, home-grown, herbal relaxant. It would have been rude not to.
As luck would have it, following the sound of live music which lead me to a bar called G's Terrace, I bumped in to an Aussie lad, Akala (I think that was his name), that I'd met near Everest Base Camp. He was with his mum, and together we eased ourselves back into the swing of civilisation, sinking a few cold Everest beers and exchanging trekking tales during breaks in the incredibly loud music.
The band were rocking their socks off, entertaining us with fantastic, technically bang on, cover-versions of Rolling Stones, Doors and Pink Floyd tunes. These guys were good, not just going through the motions, but really understanding the music and playing with a vitality and enthusiasm that I've rarely seen on the
gig circuit. We kicked back on the covered terrace to enjoy.
A torrent of rain suddenly dropped from the sky and we joined the other revellers in a mad dash for tables in the dry area of the bar as the tarpaulin covering the terrace gave way. Once everyone had settled down, we found ourselves sitting with an English couple, Terri and Sayed. They made the very big mistake of asking us about our trekking experiences as they were considering which trek to do from Pokhara, the access town to the Annapurna range, west of Kathmandu. Akala expounded on the joys of walking in the high Himalaya while I showed them, at appropriate moments, photographs and videos to back up the chat. I summed it up saying something along the lines of "It's only walking; one foot in front of the other. It's easy enough.". By the end of the night they'd talked themselved into doing the Annapurna Circuit trek, sixteen or so days of fairly tough trekking, including a hike over the 5416M high Thorong La Pass. I said I'd try to meet them at the starting point,after I'd been to Chitwan National Park for an elephant
I went to see the guys at the Swissa Travel Agency, recommended to me by an Israeli metal-detector salesman, Gan, that I'd met in Namche Bazaar. Gan's advice was on the money and instead of selling me a trip to Chitwan, they talked me out of it, saying I'd be better off starting the Annapurna trek as soon as possible as we were getting close to the monsoon season when the route would be muddy and leech infested and the mountains shrowded in cloud. They didn't even sell me a ticket to Besi Sahar, the starting piont of the trek, advising against taking the more expensive tourist bus and telling me to take the more direct local bus.
With my plan for the next couple of weeks coming together I decided to get round a few of Kathmandu's sights.
First off was Boudha, an enormous stupa and it's surrounding Tibetan community. It took me thirty minutes to spin the prayer wheels that surround the monument. I could have done it a lot quicker, but I got stuck behind an elderly Tibetan woman with a bad leg and not being sure of the prayer-flag over-taking etiquette, I
Eventually, I got to the end and after a quick wander round the shops and getting some shots that I took of a Nepali lad having a lucky necklace blessed by a monk printed so he could take them back with him to his village, I hopped into a taxi to get some shots of Kathmandu Durbar Square. After a quick tour and a cup of tea in a roof-top cafe I got another cab to Patan.
Patan is a city that manages to retain its own identity despite the efforts of the creeping sprawl Kathmandu. It has its own slightly more picturesque and better preserved Durbar Square. After an hour or so's exploring it started to look very similar to the Kathmandu's version. It was also getting hot, so I went back to Thamel.
Later that evening, I joined the lads I'd met from the Caudwell Extreme Everest trek for their farewell knees-up. I had so much beer that my pool-playing improved enough to actually win a game. Or was it that the others were too drunk to focus on the baize? I will do more research into this phenomenon when the opportunity arises.
On my way from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur for some more sight-seeing the next day the Nepal Ice lager-induced hangover and stomach cramps conspired with the pollution-laden air to create a taste in my mouth so foul I joined my taxi driver in having a good old spit out of the car window. No, I wouldn't do this at home, but needs must and it was worth it for the look of respect I received from the man behind the wheel.
On arrival at Bhaktapur, a walled city that allows no cars beyond it's gates, I must have looked quite ill as the usually persistent tour guides backed off at my Withnail-esque response of "I don't feel well". After a sit down outside the city walls in the doorway of a Tibetan hand-crafts shop, I paid the expensive-for-Nepal entry fee of 750 rupees and entered the pedestrianised town. A guide, who said he was a student and didn't want any money, offered to show me round. In my weakened state, I agreed.
Bhaktapur is big enough to spend a few very pleasant days sight-seeing especially as there's no traffic, less pollution and a lot less hassle than Kathmandu.
I only really had time for a few hours there and so I focussed on the Durbar Square area of the city. I use the word "focussed" loosely here as I still wasn't feeling that great and was finding it difficult to understand the guide's English. When he asked me if I'd like to see the Thangka Art School where he studies, an obvious ploy to get me into the "school" shop, I felt too unwell to argue and went for a look.
To be fair, the paintings were great, but after making some appreciative noises I excused myself and headed for the nearest cafe for a Coca Cola and, to the amusement of the staff, an hour's kip.
Feeling much better after the snooze, I left Durbar Square and wandered the cobbled streets for a while, watching the locals beat wheat to release its seeds, old fellas working sewing machines and women chatting and playing with their children.
After some almost competitive spitting out of the taxi window with my driver who I'd paid to wait for me, I had a sit down in the relaxing garden of the Kathmandu Guest House, while I waited for
Receiving a blessing
Although appearing to look daggers in my direction, this lad asked me to take a photograph as he received his lucky necklace containing the mantra "Om mani padme hum" written a thousand or so times inside the pendant. We printed the shots so he could take them back to his village.
the sunset to head up to Swayambhu Gompa.
A waiter approached me and asked if I'd like a pastry. When I asked what sort of pastries they had he replied that they didn't sell pastries. Bemused, I left it at that. The penny dropped an hour later when he asked me again if I wanted a pastry. "Mango, orange, papaya", he replied this time round. I realised he was offering me a fresh juice. I didn't have one as by then I really fancied a croissant. Oh well.
A bit later, putting the memory of my Indian monkey experience to the back of my mind, I headed up to Swayambhu, also known as The Monkey Temple. The temple is so named because of the many monkeys that inhabit the long stairway, along with singing bowl and jewellery sales people, to the ancient Bhuddist stupa, but they are just a small part of the attraction to the culturally important site. The monument dates back to the 5th century and is home to many Tibetans in exile since the Chinese invasion of their country. The reason I walked up the hundreds of steps was to enjoy the fantastic views of
...found inside a monastary at Bhouda
Looking down I could see the disorganised, organic mess of the city. In the distance, across the sea of glittering city lights and through the pollution haze I could just make out the silhouettes of the surrounding Himalayan foot-hills.
It was soon time to leave intensity of Kathmandu and head back in to the mountains to join Terri and Sayed on the Annapurna Circuit trek. After purchasing my Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) entry permit I made an early start and took a taxi to the bus station. It was surprisingly easy to buy the bus ticket and even to find the right bus, more by luck than judgement, in the hustle and bustle of a busy, but thankfully cool Monday morning. The bus left exactly on time and I had two seats to myself. Things were looking good.
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