01.04.2010 - 03.04.2010 30 °C
How to describe Kathmandu? Beautiful, dirty, spiritual, crowded, colourful. A million adjectives could be used. Kathmandu was overwhelming on first arrival. This is a big, thriving, crowded Asian metropolis. The tourist district of Thamel where most foreigners start is a busy crowded place full of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, trekking shops, jewellery and clothing sellers, "holy men" who will anoint you with Tikka on the forehead and touts for anything a tourist could want: jewellery, guides, trekking tours, tiger balm, gurkha knives and of course, hash.
As I disembarked from the flight, burdened with a great tiredness and somewhat jetlagged. I was getting rather nervous about getting a visa on arrival. The guy at check in at Singapore airlines in Melbourne was sure I needed to show a return ticket to get a visa on arrival, and a guy i got talking too on the same flight who’d been to Nepal was skeptical, saying he’d never seen anyone arrive without a visa. So it was with some trepidation as we approached the departures lounge. My concerns were unfounded, with a few travelers getting visas. In fact as we were the minority and with a separate queue we beat most of the plane through immigration and the almost non-existant customs. In fact the bored officals hardly even checked the forms or passport, just stamp and go, as well as rather kindly undercharging me $60 US for the 90 day visa!
I stumbled into one of the prepaid taxis, an old decrepit suzuki. Kathmandu taxis have style. This one had one working door (the driver had to climb in over the back seat: not an easy task in a car the size of a shoebox) dangling wires where the radio should be and had a tendency to stall every time we slowed down. I followed the driver through the door and pointed to a guesthouse in the lonely planet. The driver grimaced, "Its expensive this time of year, and dirty! I take you to the Red Planet! Much Better!" Fine I thought, Red Planet was my second choice anyway, and I couldn’t really be bothered arguing. Though it was only the next day I realised that there are two Red Planets, a hotel and guesthouse, and of course I was in the other... Turned out to be pleasant, though next to a local nightclub, and some Nepali guests that apparently awoke at 1AM and talked till dawn!
Maybe it's because I'm on my own this time, but the touts in Kathmandu seem much more determined than Vietnam, actively stalking for block and blocks. "Where you from? how long you here for? Want some Hash? Why not? Nepal is for fun, more fun stoned!" Though they still don't quite compare to the motorbike drivers in Saigon who transform into dealers and pimps after dark. "Motorbike? Marijuana? Cocaine? Ecstasy? Heroin? Massage...? Is more than just massage... Woman?"
As I'm heading back through Kathmandu later in the trip, I only spent three days there. In a way, more than enough, but there are still plenty of sites to see within the city. Kathmandu is a very spiritual city, with a long history. Many of the "sites" in the city tell the story of the interwoven Hindu and Buddhist religions. Interestingly these go hand in hand, with many sites containing temples and shrines to both religions. A walk around the old Kathmandu town reveals numerous small stupas in suburban squares. Crouching through tiny archways often reveals traditional Newari houses, complete with small stupas and shrines. These are often hundreds (or thousands!) of years old and are used as clotheslines, and play areas for the local kids. Makes me realise how young and relatively uncultured Australia is. The Durbur square is the center for the cities sites, containing a mass of temples, dating as far back as the 4th century. The square contains some impressive sites, but is also home to agressive wannabe guides and colourful saddhus, hindu holy men in outlandish attire, who often ask to take their photo, only to demand a "Baksheesh" payment for the service.
The first arvo i was there i decided to wander through Thamel. A couple of "Uni students" started chatting to me and giving me a rundown of the history of Kathmandu, suddenly I was being ushered into a taxi to see "a rare festival, today only!" at another site. As I was knackered from the flight, I rather stupidly stumbled into the taxi and they took my to "Bodhnath" one of the largest and oldest Tibetan Budhist stupas. Blodhnath was quite impressive, but of course I was scammed, paying "western" prices for the taxis and tour. But live and learn!
Before I left Kathmandu, I decided to take a leisurely stroll to Swayambutinath or the "Monkey temple" This took on a few kilometre walk through suburban Kathmandu. As the temple is located on a hill, I decided not to follow a route, but just go by rough sight. This took me out of the tourist trail and through the heart of poor Kathmandu. This was an area which obviously sees very little tourists. The locals were staring, and looked confused when greeted by a white guy saying "Namaste", the traditional Nepali greeting (literally means "I bless the divine in you"). As I wandered by a group of kids playing street cricket, a lofty ball was hit in my direction, reflexes took over and I took a nice one handed catch. The kids were impressed, and by local rules taking the catch meant it was my turn to bat!! Of course I was clean bowled first ball by the 10 year old Nepali Brett Lee bowling, but we did up playing for about 20 minutes.
The Swambutinath temple complex is situated atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. It's a predominantly a Tibetan Buddhist site, with some Hindu shrines. It is covered with Prayer flags, and Rhesus monkeys! These monkeys are famously cheeky, and hang around the entrances to the temple.
One hapless Japanese tourist had his camera hanging out of his pocket, which was quickly nabbed by a nearby monkey who then disappeared up the nearest tree to inspect his takings. He quickly lost interest, dropping the camera causing its early demise on the stones below. The wails of the poor tourist were only outdone by the guffaws of the surrounding Nepalese!
Today came the 200km 8 hour bus trip to Pokhara. Thats right, an average speed of 25 k's an hour on one of the major highways. It's hard to describe the chaos on that roads. From Kathmandu the road winds up and down the Himalayan foothills, packed with a huge array of brightly painted trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes. The road is very narrow and the driving is rather eratic. We passed 3 crashes, one very serious, and multiple break downs, each one reducing the highway to one lane... Amazing scenery though. As we are still in the foothills (though these hills well outdo and mountains in Tasmania) the road passes through numerous old glacial outwash valleys, with snaking aqua glacial fed rivers running through. I ended up sitting next to rather interesting old hippy from Switzerland who regularly makes year long trips to Nepal. He keyed me into a nice guesthouse, just behind the main strip of Pokhara.
Pokhara is a breath of fresh air (literally!) compared to Kathmandu. The lakeside of Pokhara is like a chilled version of Thamel, full of bars and trekking shops, but lacking the crowds and pushy touts of Thamel. Quite a nice and relaxed vibe, with some really nice chilled sections by the lake. Unfortunately the air is quite hazy and the famous mountain views are obscured. Today will be spent cruising Pokhara and organising the trekking gear and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Project) entrance fees and TIMS (Trekking permit). Not sure exactly when I’ll start the trek as I’m suffering a mild travelers bug and might wait till it clears.
Next post most likely won't be till after the Annapurna Circuit.