Kathmandu! The very name at once evokes images of mystery and adventure: of early morning mist over ancient temples; of a civilization lost in time; of the lure of the mountains beckoning from above. And we found the city every bit as exciting as its reputation. Flight scheduling difficulties left us here for two more weeks than we originally planned, but the incredible depth and richness of the city's culture and history, and the beauty of the surrounding countryside have kept us entranced and amazed (and exhausted!) from start to finish.
The city is a fascinating study in contrasts. The capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also the most accommodating place we've visited for western tourists, with endless bookstores, internet cafes, travel agents, clothing outlets, supermarkets, guest houses, and fabulous restaurants to suit every taste and budget, all with friendly staff and signs in English. And while basic services such as reliable electricity, fuel, and garbage collection are lacking, and the rivers are like huge open sewers, the streets themselves are safe and clean, and the stunning historic sites (including an astounding seven Unesco World Heritage Sites) are beautifully maintained. It's possible to stay in five star luxury near western-style shopping malls, and yet entering the old city just a few blocks away is like stepping back into medieval times, where you find yourself wandering narrow cobbled streets lined with ancient buildings that would be protected monuments almost anywhere else, full of tiny storefronts selling everything from grains to fabrics to fruit and meat, and milling with locals dressed in colorful traditional attire.
Rapid population growth and development in recent years has made the area notorious for its traffic jams and pollution, and a cloud of smog hangs constantly over the city; with the exception of a brief respite following the monsoons each year, mountain views are now a memory of the past. But just a thirty minute bike ride to the north takes you up into the surrounding hills where the noise and insanity of the city are left completely behind, and the air is clear and cool.
During our time here we have run the gamut of accommodation experiences, starting with Rosemary and Stephanie at the Yak & Yeti, Kathmandu's most luxurious hotel, and ending up at a nunnery atop the mountains in the Shivapuri National Park!
The Yak & Yeti was a luxurious hotel in beautifully landscaped grounds, with a restaurant offering a fabulous buffet of western and local food. And yet at western prices, we found ourselves somewhat underwhelmed. The front desk service was inefficient, the elevators broke twice (once with us inside!), the electricity and air conditioning worked only intermittently, and even the plumbing had its share of problems. But the saddest part was realizing that many visitors remain ensconced in this western-style compound for virtually their entire visit, completely missing out on the amazing experience of the real Kathmandu just outside their doorstep.
The evening we arrived in town, Prem led us on foot to Rum Doodle, a restaurant in the backpacker district, Thamel, for his final dinner with us. As always, the streets were alive with a chaotic mix of pedestrians, street sellers, pedal rickshaws, taxis and motorcycles, and the bright lights of the hundreds of shops and restaurants all vying for our attention. Rum Doodle, named after a spoof mountain 40,000½ feet tall, is a popular haunt for hikers, offering free food for life to anyone who summits Everest. The walls and ceilings are completely covered with cardboard footprints celebrating the hiking escapades of hundreds of visitors over the years, so we started work on our own footprint, which was later nailed to one of the last remaining pieces of blank wall in a back corner, memorializing our adventures in the Annapurna Sanctuary for posterity. Don't forget to look for it if you're ever in Kathmandu!
The following day, Prem found us an excellent city guide (a retired local university professor) to show us around, including a whirlwind tour of Bhaktapur and Patan, two of the original ancient cities of the Kathmandu valley, and Bodhanath stupa, an enormous 600 year old Buddhist shrine. We were all astounded by the incredibly preserved buildings and temples everywhere we went, but for Beckie, the highlight of the day was buying a bamboo flute from a vendor in Bhaktapur, which she played almost continuously for the rest of the day! In addition to providing historical background information, the guide also offered some insights into the current political situation (not surprisingly, a very different perspective from what we'd heard in the villages!) and his sadness at the unsustainable and largely unchecked rate of development that was polluting the air and swallowing up the countryside. Back at the hotel we all finally had to say a tearful good-bye to Prem, who had been our faithful guide ever since our arrival in Nepal, and had come to feel like an old family friend.
After lunch at a Japanese restaurant the following afternoon, it was Rosemary and Stephanie's turn to leave, and the Ker & Downey crew loaded them into a taxi as we bid them farewell until we see them again in London in a few weeks. We then moved down the road into the legendary Kathmandu Guest House in the heart of Thamel. A popular hangout for hippies in the 60's, this has now grown into a sprawling complex and a very successful commercial operation, but it has retained much of its original charm and character. And in spite of being one sixth the cost of the Yak & Yeti, the rooms were quite comfortable, and we loved being in the center of the hustle and bustle of the activity on the streets outside. We spent the first couple of days holed up in our rooms while Luke battled a brief bout of diarrhea. But he recovered quickly, and was soon back to his normal self. Amazingly enough, this was only the second minor sickness of the entire trip, and we've now made it through Nepal without further incident. We're not sure whether our anti-malarial antibiotics have been helping, but of all the countries on our itinerary, we were expecting Nepal to pose the greatest risk to our health, so we're now feeling cautiously optimistic about the remainder of our travels.
As soon as Luke was back on his feet, we began exploring the local eateries, including a rooftop breakfast on the seventh floor at Helena's, sandwiches from Hot Bread, pizza and ice cream at Fire and Ice, and our two favorites: Middle Eastern lunches at Nargila, and Italian feasts at La Dolce Vita. We also did a little shopping, picking up Lonely Planet guides for Hong Kong and South Africa, an embroidered tea cozy for Rachael, a safari shirt for Jeremy, and traditional Ghurka Khukuri knives for the kids. And we finally sold the huge stack of books we'd finished reading at a used book store. Lucas also bargained with a street seller for a couple of interesting wire toys that amused him and his sister for many hours.
After a few days, however, we were growing tired of all the hubbub, and looking for a quieter, and preferably cheaper place to stay. All our hopes were fulfilled by Hotel Ganesh Himal, a very friendly family-run business with comfortable beds, clean bathrooms, free internet and mineral water, fabulous cheap food, a beautiful garden, and all in a quiet Chhetrapati neighborhood within walking distance of both Thamel and the old city. Best of all, it was just one third the price of the Kathmandu Guest House! Between relaxing afternoons in the garden and in the hammock, we used this as a base to explore, including climbing to Svayambhu Mahachaitya (a.k.a “Monkey Temple” because of the numerous resident primates) where we had fabulous views across the valley, and walking through the old city to Durbar Square, the ancient center of Kathmandu. The ancient back streets and alleys were packed with crowds of Nepalis going about their daily business, and we all found the experience exhilarating. At times we felt we had been transported into a scene in Diagon Alley in a Harry Potter adventure! And on a return visit, Rachael and the kids caught a glimpse of the living goddess, the Kumari, peeking out of her window, and were excited to discover a traditional folk festival underway in the square. Another day we ventured far outside the usual tourists areas, to walk to the immigration office and extend our visas (which actually turned out to be a surprisingly efficient and straightforward process). On the way we passed a royal palace, the exhibition grounds, and the bus station, where we had a little experience of the craziness of local transportation!
One experience we did not want to miss was biking through the hills that encircle the Kathmandu Valley. So we rented four bikes, and early one morning braved the insane traffic to escape the smog and noise of the city, and wind our way up the mountain roads on the edge of the Nagarjun forest all the way to the Shivapuri Wildlife Reserve near Kakani. It was a wonderful day of great views, exciting windy roads (with occasional crazy bus drivers), bumpy dirt tracks, and very sore back sides! We arrived back at the hotel four hours later, exhausted but feeling very self righteous. And Jeremy was so excited to be back on a bike, that he got up at 5am the following morning for another two hours of hard back-country riding through the farmland and villages north of the city.
We had expected to spend our last few days in Nepal relaxing at our hotel, but a chance encounter in Thamel with Steve (from the Seti River rafting) led to a surprise opportunity to stay at his cottage in the foothills of the Shivapuri mountains. He had some last-minute availability, and was able to offer us a three-night stay at a very affordable rate. With included meals, it worked out at about the same cost as our hotel, which was an offer far too good to refuse! We packed our bags and took a taxi to Budhanilkantha, a suburb about 10km to the north-east. There Steve met us to take us up the steep track to the cottage, which sits on an isolated hillside just below the Shivapuri National Park. As advertised, this was the perfect retreat from the chaos of Kathmandu, and we'd highly recommended it to anyone visiting the area, especially if you have children with you (website: http://escape2nepal.com/shivapuri-heights-cottage).
Steve designed the cottage himself, and it has a great rustic feel, with exposed red brick and wood beams, and wonderful authentic Nepali and Tibetan architectural touches. The shelves were full of great books and family board games, there was a trampoline and tree house out back for the kids, and the staff took fabulous care of us. The chef JB cooked us some of the best food we have tasted on the entire trip, including dahl baht with egg curry, and pasta with fabulous homemade tomato sauce. His French fries, salads, and fried eggs were met with the kids' highest approval, and he even cooked Rachael's scrambled eggs separately for a few extra minutes to be sure they were exactly as she likes them! And when we took an all-day hike into the forest, we discovered he had sent us with a packed lunch of the most fabulous quiche and potato salad we had ever tasted.
Also on staff was Sonam, who helped with the cooking, waited on us in the cottage, and acted as our guide for two days of hiking in the surrounding area. He spoke fantastic English, and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him, and hearing about his hopes of eventually starting a business back in the village where he grew up. His thirst for knowledge and optimistic outlook were impressive, and we left hoping that he'd be able to fulfill his dreams and be part of a positive new future for Nepal. (As an aside, Sonam was full of great advice for budget travel off the beaten track in the Kathmandu area, so anyone planning to visit Nepal on a shoestring might want to drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
But the biggest excitement at the cottage was when Lucas had a little accident in the back yard while carving bamboo with his Khukuri knife, and discovered first hand how sharp a Ghurka fighting weapon really is. But in spite of his finger being sliced almost to the bone, and blood spurting everywhere, his biggest fear was that we would confiscate his beloved knife. Once we had assured him this wouldn't happen, he let us examine the wound, and Sonam quickly realized he needed some expert medical attention. Fortunately we were blessed to be in exactly the right place for such a disaster. Steve went far beyond the call of duty, rushing to the scene and providing us with his car and driver, who sped Rachael and Lucas into the city with lights flashing and horn blaring. Within minutes they were at the CIWEC clinic, a world famous travelers' medical center employing doctors rivaling those in the west. And we couldn't believe our luck when we discovered that Steve's partner was a doctor at the clinic, so even though it was outside office hours, he had the on-call number in his quick-dial, and by the time we reached the front desk the Medical Director was waiting for us, and took care of Lucas's finger with three stitches. Just two hours after the accident, we were all back at the cottage eating dinner together! (And while it didn't come cheap, it still cost about one third what we'd pay at the emergency room back home in Vermont.)
During our all-day hike into the Shivapuri forest with Sonam, we ate our picnic lunch at Nagi Gompa, a nunnery high in the mountains inside the National Park. Although the gompa is mentioned in Lonely Planet, what we didn't know is that it provides very affordable accommodation for anyone looking for a quiet place to meditate, or simply passing through on the hiking trail. We decided on the spur of the moment to spend a night there, as we were convinced this would be exactly the kind of authentic local experience we had been hoping to find on our travels. And we were not disappointed! The following day we left the cottage and hiked back up the mountain, arriving just in time for lunch. During our stay we were served three fabulous meals, washed our own dishes at an outside faucet, watched the nuns caring for a new-born calf, sat at the back of the temple to listen to afternoon and early morning chanting, and were even lucky enough to experience a “big puja” (or special prayer day) during which we were served hot butter tea. The usual guest rooms were all full, so they put us up on mattresses on the floor of a common room, which we didn't mind a bit, as it added to the monastic feel of our stay. The nuns were very friendly and helpful, and the other guests we met at mealtimes were a fascinating and hilarious motley crew, including a man from Peru, a couple from Belarus, a former professional female soccer player from New Hampshire, and a Welsh policeman, all deeply involved in the study of Buddhism. The Belarusian guy was particularly entertaining, at one point asking the policeman a series of in-depth questions about his job, including “Do you wear a uniform?”, to which the man replied “Yes, big hat and everything”, whereupon everyone completely cracked up.
The prayer was fascinating, involving a variety of fast and slow chanting, interspersed with loud discordant music on drums, bells, cymbals, seashells, and Tibetan horns. And it was all surprisingly informal, more like one of Molly's services than a Catholic convent, with lots of chatting and joking among the younger nuns, lots of loud coughing (and other phlegm-related sounds!) and the consumption of plenty of tea and instant noodles!
The entire experience at the gompa was everything we had hoped, and to top it all off one of the nuns was setting out for Kathmandu just as we were leaving, so we walked down the trail together, to find a white minibus waiting at the park gates. We had never plucked up the courage to try to ride one of these local buses before, mainly due to the fact that none of them have markings of any kind, and therefore require some kind of understanding of the rapid Nepali being yelled from the open door by the conductor. It doesn't help that they also expect you to jump aboard on the run, as they don't like to waste time actually stopping! But with the assistance of our nun friend, it was a different experience entirely. She negotiated where we would like to be dropped off, and told us exactly how much to pay. And when we reached our stop, the conductor helpfully stopped the bus and informed us that we had arrived. We had reached the city in great time, avoided the hassles of bargaining with a taxi driver, and saved a ton of money!
After a final night back at our favorite hotel, we packed our bags ready to head to the airport. But even this last day held some excitement for us. Although not apparent at first glance, politically Nepal is still in turmoil. The dire safety warnings of our two year old guide book are no longer warranted, as the civil war is over and the former Maoists rebels now control a majority of the seats in government. But the fragile coalition of political parties is in constant conflict, with the Maoists currently at loggerheads with the army, resulting in fearful speculation in the media about a possible military coup. And of course the infighting has prevented any tangible investment in much-needed infrastructure. So life on the streets of Kathmandu has returned to normal, but there is still much frustration and unrest beneath the surface, and we tried to stay clear of the many political rallies and marches we encountered during our time here. Unfortunately, this proved particularly difficult on our last day, as it coincided with a Maoist-organized May Day extravaganza to protest the army chief's refusal to resign, and with the stated objective of “paralyzing the city by blocking all major intersections with belligerent crowds”!
We set out for the airport several hours early just in case we ran into trouble, but in the end our taxi driver made it through the traffic without major difficulties, although he had to take a very circuitous route to avoid the blockades, and complained the entire time about the government, the traffic, and being forced to buy petrol at extortionate prices on the black market due to the chronic fuel shortages throughout the Kathmandu area. What was unclear was why he was still driving at breakneck speed, passing everything in sight, and probably using twice as much fuel as was necessary. Presumably old habits die hard. Anyway, we were relieved to finally find ourselves safely inside the airport terminal, and spent a couple of uneventful hours relaxing in the departure lounge before eventually boarding our flight for Hong Kong.