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Published: April 1st 2017
Kathmandu's iconic stupa is one of the world's biggest and suffered much damage during the 2015 earthquake.
Nepal was never actually in my original itinerary to visit but I had met so many travellers in India who told me that "oh, you have to go!" that I decided to check it out. In Varanasi, I was already pretty close to the country so it made sense to get up to Kathmandu from there. Also, I do enjoy the occasional hike and Nepal is famous for its trekking and I had heard that the people up there were friendly so I thought that Nepal would be worth a couple of weeks of my time.
Shiva's wedding anniversary had occurred at an inopportune time for me as it meant that the direct overnight bus wasn't going on the day I needed it. With a tight schedule in Nepal thanks to the flight I booked from Kolkata to Yangon, I couldn't afford to waste a day waiting for the next bus. Thus I had no choice but to take the more complicated and less convenient route to Kathmandu, which first involved taking a train to, and then staying overnight in, the Indian town of Gorakhpur. Working out the logistics of the journey was a little bit of a ball-ache. Little
View Of Pashupatinath Temple & Bagmati River
View from above the viewing gallery that looks down onto the Pashupatinath Temple and the Bagmati River.
did I know just how much of an adventure was to yet to come, just in getting to Kathmandu.
While I didn't get any desired effects from the previous night's bhang lassis
, I did have some ill effects the next day and I didn't have an appetite for breakfast. I was also trying to sort out somewhere to stay in Kathmandu from a plethora of average options which wasn't easy in terms of making a decision and by the time I had made one, it was time to go to the train station and I was f*cking starving!
I had been told by an Australian I met in Sri Lanka that you had to pay for your Nepalese visa-on-arrival with US dollars - not Indian or even Nepalese rupees - but I had thought the whole time that you had the option to pay by card, because Gordon, a Scot I met in Delhi
, told me that he did just that. I did however, think about how realistic it would be for a land border post to have a card machine. "But nah, Gordon paid by card" I thought. Then on the train to Gorakhpur, I realised; Gordon
Streets Of Kathmandu
Typical dirt street that runs through the centre of Kathmandu and Thamel, in particular.
into Nepal. It looked like I was going to have yet another border crossing cock-up
. I now had to somehow get hold of some US dollars before arriving at the border the next morning. The fact my train arrived over four hours late ensured that anywhere that might have changed money for me in Gorakhpur would be closed and this was further complicated by the fact that I wanted to leave super early the next morning to make sure I was over the border before 10am, in order to catch the last minivan to Kathmandu, which were three hours quicker than the public buses; any banks in Gorakhpur would not be open before I leave. So it looked that I would be suffering exactly the fate the Australian guy I met in Kandy had warned me about. FFS Derek! Even my Lonely Planet told me I needed US dollars but I somehow managed to miss that rather important detail. Having been ripped off a couple of times before leaving Varanasi when I should've known better, I was starting to think if I was losing my edge. Either that, or travel weariness was finally catching up with me.
As for the train journey,
The tallest temple in Durbar Square.
already an hour late, the train then just stopped 14km from my destination. For a f*cking hour. The toddler in my section was screaming his head off. Fair play son, I wanted to scream too. I was meant to arrive at 7.35pm. We finally roll in at 11.35pm and I still have to find somewhere to sleep. I was fed up with India. Sometimes, travelling sucks!
While scouring the streets of Gorakhpur at 1am, there was still a surprising amount of activity going on - plenty of restaurants were still serving, many travel agents were still open and many guesthouses were still accepting guests. It was in one of these guesthouses where I ended up staying the night - possibly the ropiest guesthouse I've ever stayed in, in a massive, ropey 20-bed dorm. It was only ₹150 though, the cheapest accommodation I've ever had in India, so you got what you paid for - the Lonely Planet-recommended place was charging ₹990 for a private room as their dorm was full - but I only needed a few hours sleep before getting the bus to the Nepalese border so I didn't even bother using the disgusting bathroom. No such thing
One of the temples in the Durbar Square complex.
as courtesy in India though - at 7am my male dorm mates switched on the lights, started singing and talked at full volume. It seems like you're expected to sleep through anything here.
The whole US dollar saga had a pretty straightforward conclusion in the end - there was a money exchange place at the border but it cost me; to the tune of ₹500 to get US$25. So I basically paid US$8 to get it. But what was I gonna do? I had no bargaining position because I needed the cash.
Crossing the Nepalese border was pretty straightforward; get your passport and visa stamped on your way out by Indian immigration, walk a couple of hundred metres, fill out an application form and pay the fee for your Nepalese visa at Nepalese immigration, wait twenty minutes for the visa to be processed, and then you're on your way. Once in Nepal, the only form of transport that seemed to be leaving imminently was a public bus - so I braced myself for a rocky ride.
And just as well I did. It seemed that almost the entire length of the road was under construction. The bus staff
Shree Ghah Gumba
One of many Buddhist temples in Kathmandu. I just happened to stumble across this one.
seemed to deliberately put Aussie Thomas next to me on the bus and I was glad they did because our conversations helped to pass the ten hours of bumpy journey time. Thus we arrived super late again, before getting a cab to the hostel.
The first thing that struck me about Kathmandu was the fact that the roads were wide, things were generally cleaner and there was actual nightlife in the form of a couple of nightclubs near our hostel. Also, liquor seemed to be readily available. The weather was a bit nippy on arrival.
The next day, I noticed that the general ethnic mix was made up of Indians and Nepali locals. The folks here seemed way friendlier and more polite than their Indian neighbours too. I'm wasn't getting stared at so much here - maybe because I look a little like a local.
My first full day in Nepal was an admin day - a day that annoyingly, had a lot of hidden costs! Among the fees I had to pay were US$50 of national park and trekking fees as well as cash withdrawal fees of Rs500 (Nepalese Rupees)! That is over £4 per withdrawal! Keep in
Seto Machhendranath Temple
This temple was not named after me; it is named after Seto Machhendranath, a deity worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus.
mind that I'm trying to stick to a budget of about £12 a day. In general, Nepal hasn't proved to be cheaper than India, as many I met have said. Also, Nepal's time zone is fifteen minutes ahead of India - fifteen minutes! Why would you even bother?
As for the general look and feel of Kathmandu, it's a dusty old town - a bit of a shithole in places to be honest - but still retains charm somehow. There are some lovely old wooden, oriental-style, 19th-century buildings and this gives Kathmandu a definite oriental vibe. Seeing all these lovely Chinese-style temples was a nice change from all the Hindu ones of India; nevertheless I was surprised to discover that Hinduism is the official religion here - I would've thought it would be Buddhism if anything. I'd say in appearance that Kathmandu is almost a perfect mix of India and China. Like India, Kathmandu was busy, but it wasn't chaotic.
More than anything however, I found myself overwhelmed by dust. I normally laugh at people who wear surgical masks - particularly Chinese tourists - but here in Kathmandu, they are completely justified. Smog is also a big problem and seems
Spinning these wheels in a clockwise direction is meant to purify your soul.
to get trapped in the valley that Kathmandu is in and there is a permanent haze that shrouds the city. There is an absolute shitload of dust and smog in the air and walking down one particularly dusty road, I could feel the dust particles on my teeth.
I was telling Thomas that there are very few foods or drinks that absolutely repulse me and having had both raki
and whiskey before and not been repulsed - well, perhaps I may have been repulsed a little by raki
- I did find it unusual that I should be so repulsed by the local Nepalese spirit of rakshi
. The reason the smell and taste of it almost made me sick came in the middle of the night as an emergency trip to the loo - plus two more later that morning - evidenced the presence of diahorrea. Ropey-looking roadside eats for two days may have been the culprit but this was really bad timing. With unexpected fees and transport difficulties getting here, things haven't exactly gone smoothly and with an already tight schedule, I was faced with the choice as to whether I should go ahead with the trek as planned or wait for the diahorrea to subside.
Prayers printed on flags of different colours which are then strung like bunting can usually be found by Buddhist temples and stupas.
You don't really wanna be caught short halfway up a mountain and you kinda need the ability to eat and keep your energy up when trekking! But could I afford to stay another day in Kathmandu?
I decided to stay an extra day in Kathmandu to try and get a little better in the end and not take the risk; I could afford to delay my trek by one more day, but not more.
In the end, it gave me a couple of days to do some sightseeing.
Thamel is the backpacker enclave and the place feels like a big bazaar except with square, multi-story, brick buildings instead of tented stalls.
The Garden Of Dreams does look somewhat heavenly, like some sort of Garden of Eden - but I'm not sure it was worth the Rs200 entrance fee.
The Boudhanath Stupa is arguably Kathmandu's most famous sight. I noticed that everyone was walking around this white, gargantuan structure in a clockwise direction, spinning all the prayer wheels in the same way. Despite being basically a public space, there are ticket offices at all the main entrances to the stupa where foreigners are charged Rs250 to enter. In hindsight, I
Right next to the Pashupatinath Temple. To burn a body on one of the furnaces closer to the temple costs more money.
could have easily snuck in without paying as there are loads of small alleyways leading into the square where many a shop, restaurant and guesthouse live.
The same can almost be said of the Pashupatinath Temple; there are ticket booths at the main entrances but these are easily bypassed - ridiculously so - simply by walking through another unmanned entrance and into the compound. And just as well - they wanted Rs1000! That is approaching the price to enter the Taj Mahal. Just like in Varanasi
, there are burning ghats right on the small river outside the temple, which apparently links up with the Ganges. If I hadn't just been in Varanasi, I might've been a bit shocked, but instead I simply took in what was happening from the public viewing gallery on the other side of the river. As a non-Hindu, I couldn't go into the temple itself but could get pretty good glimpses of the interior from many a vantage point around it. The whole complex looks pretty cool - like some sort of Chinese palace, which I guess is unusual for a Hindu temple.
And in terms of an entrance fee, you could get around it at
Palace building that suffered extensive damage during the 2015 earthquake in Durbar Square.
Durbar Square too. The authorities want Rs1000 but f*ck that. The old temples and palaces in this royal quarter are beautiful though; but much of the place is under repair.
It was while walking around Durbar Square that it finally struck me. The dust. The unpaved roads full of uncleared mounds of dirt. The number of derelict buildings. The reason why most of Durbar Square was under repair. Kathmandu is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of April 2015, which killed 9,000, injured almost 22,000, left 3.5m people homeless and caused US$10bn worth of damage - 50% of Nepal's annual GDP. I remember at the time feeling incredibly sad about Nepal's plight - it just seemed so unfair that this should happen to a nation already so poor, much like how the same happened to Haiti in 2010. Two years later, Nepal is still visibly recovering from all the damage.
In this context, it seems ridiculous to complain about this but of all things to lose just before going into the mountains, you really don't want to lose your jacket! Nevertheless that is exactly what I did - it was looped around my camera bag and must've fallen off
Many nice restaurants, shops and guesthouses surround the ancient stupa of Boudhanath.
as I caught one of many moving public buses in Kathmandu...which was quite difficult to do. All signs are written in local script and there is almost no signage in English outside of Thamel. I had a hard time deciphering things and this made things interesting once I boarded a bus or shared taxi as you would need to provide a destination to the conductor.
Overall, I'd say that Kathmandu is worth a day looking around but probably not more - in saying that, what there is to see is pretty cool. Kathmandu is mainly used as a base for trekkers to prepare for their treks - which was exactly what I was doing too.
चाडै भेटौला (Chadai vetaula),
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