Nepal was not originally on my agenda for this mid-life crisi….I mean mid-life career break.
I was actually planning on heading to Myanmar or Sri Lanka next but had a change of heart when I read some other blogs about peoples experiences in this mysterious landlocked country and spoke to some friends who had been there. Cheap flights offered by Jet Airways also helped.
As I arrived into the airport on a long but smooth flight from Thailand via Dehli, I felt the usual mix of excitement, anxiety and isolation which I was becoming used to feeling as a solo traveller entering a new country all alone – without knowing a singe soul in that country. It was a good feeling and a bad feeling at the same time if that makes any sense. This feeling usually dissipates within days or even just a few hours once I get my bearings, chat to some people and make a few connections and Nepal was no exception. The friendly and sometimes colourful locals and the few other travellers I met during my few days in Kathmandu made me feel comfortable and like I had made the right choice in coming here. The warm smiles of the Nepalese people was actually one of the first things I noticed. A friend of mine told me that people come to Nepal for the mountains but return for the people and I started to understand that from day 1.
Landing in the airport, I embarked on one of the longest airport entry processes I have ever had to follow to gain entry into a country which took nearly 2 hours – fill out disembarkation card, large queue to type all your details into a computer to obtain an online visa, another large queue at the visa fee collection counter to pay the fee, then it is to the third large queue through passport control and to collect your baggage. Then it was queue number 4 so the security could check my baggage against my label to ensure I had taken the correct baggage. Just when I thought it was all over, I had to wait another 30 minutes in a customs queue where they scanned me and my baggage. Finally, I was in! That being said, if I had obtained an online visa in advance, rather than depending on a visa on arrival, I would have avoided much of that hassle so I am partly to blame.
One good thing I did like about the airport was that there was a taxi counter, which had an actual board with fixed prices depending on what district of Khatmandu you are visiting. For Thamel where I was heading, it was US$7. This was a welcome change to the (usually) painful bartering process you have to go through in some Asian countries. I was almost in a state of shock to see such a rare phenomena in this corner of the world.
As the taxi driver took me to my hotel teaching me some basic phrases such as “Na-Ma-Ste” which means Hello and Dha Nya Bad which means “Thank you”, I stared out of the window in a state of wonder thrilled in the knowledge that I was in the country which was home to the largest mountain in the world. This wasn’t like any place I had been before. The town had an almost wild west feeling to it. Roads were more like pot holed tracks and the dust in the air was visible. Random, inexplicable sights were everywhere – horses or goats walking around on their own, men waving around large sticks with flags on them, men in orange robes with paint all over their faces, women sitting on pavements weaving, piles of bricks everywhere in random places, children playing football amongst the manic traffic etc. Pavements were pretty much non-existent – the pedestrians walked amongst the traffic. I was enthralled already.
I arrived at my hotel to a very warm and friendly welcome. The lady asked if I was trekking and I said yes so she informed me she would be putting me on the top floor so I could start practicing. I thought that was quite a funny joke until I saw that the top floor was 5 stories up. I enjoyed a lot of exercise walking up and down those steps during my stay here. The hotel did have a great roof top terrace through which I had direct access to just outside my room which was a perk.
I arrived at Khatmandu in the dark which I always hate – I prefer to get my bearings in the day but I ventured out and after walking through the crazy traffic I eventually found a much nicer part of town known as the Thamel District – closed off to traffic and full of shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and other tourist perks that help give you some sense of familiarity and not make you feel like you have arrived at some strange, alien planet. I had a Café Latte and a Chicken Burger and then went back to my room, tired from the long day of travelling. The Café Latte was a bad idea as it took me a while to get to sleep.
The next day I went out to see some of the sights which was a very disorienting experience. The streets of Kathmandu were extremely difficult to navigate and my offline map which had worked so well for me in all other countries I had been too didn’t seem to work very well and I ended up walking around in quite a few circles and checking my phone map. A bit like a confused, lost tourist I guess you could say. And what is a lost tourist? An easy target.
Every time I stopped to look at my phone or map a man would approach offering to show me his art shop, sell me a certain type of unmentionable product or take me to a festival that was going on in town. The hassle factor (which means the levels of hawkers and vendors in the street trying to sell you things) was different here – they would charm and befriend you first before the sell came. It was much harder to resist and say no. I ended up in at least one art shop spending 10 minutes looking at paintings before telling him I wasn’t interested. Why I entered in the first place I don’t know? I usually just walk away (following a very intimidating experience in Egypt some years ago where I was pretty much forced to buy a painting) but he somehow managed to lure me in there.
I did develop a good strategy by the end of the day – if someone came up to talk to me when I was looking at my phone map I would just lift the phone to my ear and pretend I was speaking to someone.
Also, as I sat down in a café for lunch, an old and very smart looking man came up to me and asked if he could interview me for his Nepal tourist magazine showing me a copy of his magazine and official looking card. I was sitting alone so didn’t see the harm in a chat. I am pretty travel hardened by now and find it very easy to wave off and say no to hawkers in the street but the man had so much charm and warmth I ended up buying one of his magazine’s for 400 rupees despite it becoming obvious that the “interview” approach had been a complete ruse. It was a more intelligent system of “hassle factor” then simply thrusting something in your face and pressuring you to buy it.
On day 2, I took a tour around Durbar Square which is a famous square of temples around which an old Royal Palace was built and some kings used to live. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the constructions within the square had been ravaged by the 2015 earthquake. Some of the temples were still crumbled, some were being rebuilt and others had survived the earthquake. My guide had a few marks around his eyes and it turns out he had been in Durbar square during the earthquake and showed me pictures of his bloody, bandaged face from the day it happened. He also told me a story about him saving a child as well from under some bricks. The earthquake damage was still somewhat visible all around the city, rubble and piles of bricks everywhere and reconstruction work taking place. The guide told me it was turning out to be a very long process due to funding and political issues.
An interesting part of my visit to Durbar Square was a brief appearance of Kumari, the living goddess of Nepal. The guide tried to explain to me what this was all about but I didn’t really understand it and was probably just as baffled as everyone else who had crowded around to get a glimpse of her. A man came to the window of her sanctuary, which she could never leave unless escorted by a chariot (she is not supposed to touch the ground) and warned everyone not to take any photos and then a young girl of about 3 – 4 years old appeared at the window wearing royal looking attire. I did a little bit of research on this when I got home and apparently it is some form of Hindu religious tradition where young girls are selected – through a very rigorous selection process – to be some form of religious goddess until she reaches menstruation and then she loses her reign and a new goddess is selected. This goddess is revered and worshipped by some Hindu’s in the country. Anyway, it is all on Wikipedia if anyone wants to know more under Kumari (Goddess). It is quite an interesting read, especially the selection process and her life after she is selected as the goddess.
The next day I went to visit another famous sight in Khatmandu known commonly as Monkey Temple but whose official name is Swayambhunath………yeah, I prefer calling it Monkey Temple too.
This was an impressive temple but I was more interested in all of the monkey’s roaming around the temple then I was of the actual temple until two of them proceeded to steal a bottle of water from me, sneaking up behind me a few seconds after I had opened it. I was a little annoyed at first but then I found it funny. You had to appreciate their intelligence. The puddle water wasn’t good enough for these monkeys. They wanted the proper drinking mineral water just like us humans do.
As I left the temple, I saw a local man throwing small rocks at one of the monkeys so obviously the locals don’t share the same enthusiasm about the monkeys as many of the tourists do. I am a bit of an animal lover so I briefly felt like throwing a rock at the man who was throwing the rocks at the monkeys but that would have probably got me in a spot of bother so I just gave him my most scary frown instead………..
He carried on throwing the rocks.
As it turns out, I had booked myself to stay in Khatmandu for 5 nights which in hindsight was far too long. I had seen all the sights by day 3 and I think 3 to 4 nights would have been better. To help enjoy my remaining time, I went on a night out on day 3. I watched quite a few decent rock bands (music scene was actually very impressive) and ended up in a place called Sam’s Bar where I committed what is probably the most classic socially embarrassing mistake of my whole trip.
I was quite tipsy by now and a little fed up of sitting around on my own so was scoping the bar looking for someone who might be approachable to talk to when I saw what I thought to be two blonde ladies who looked quite similar. They looked quite friendly and one of them smiled at me so I walked up and said “You two must be sisters” to which one of them replied “No, we are husband and wife”. After I recovered my composure and my eyes adjusted a little (it was dark in there), I noticed that one of them was indeed a slim man with very long blonde hair. I began to apologise like a fumbling idiot and they just laughed it off and said not to worry as it happened all the time. I was still very embarrassed but had a good chat with them about a trek they had been on and they gave me a few good tips. I was starting to get a bit more drunk so after making some more of a fool of myself talking cods nonsense to more strangers and locals I went back to my hotel which is a bit of a blur.
The next morning when I went down to the reception, I saw a look of disappointment on the receptionists face which I had seen once before in Vietnam. Apparently, I had been quite noisy when I returned, shutting doors too loudly, and the guests below my room claimed I had been “tap dancing”. Now let me tell you – I have never tap danced before, I don’t know how to tap dance and I cannot imagine me coming home from a night out and having a little tap dance in my room but I didn’t want to argue so, like I had in Vietnam, I apologised profusely and she seemed to be appeased in the end. I did genuinely feel remorse – I don’t like being one of those drunk idiots who wakes people up in a hotel when I come home from a night out but this had only happened twice in 6 months of travel so I am sure other people have worse records then that.
The next day nothing happened. I am 37 years old so when I have a night out like that, well nothing happens. I did make a bit of a vow to make the rest of my Nepal trip a bit of a non-drinking trip. Like I always do when I have a hangover.
On my final day 5, I enjoyed a bit of a lie in, still feeling a little groggy – yes at 37 I also get two day hangovers – and then I went to visit one more sight known as the garden of dreams. I didn’t really know what it was but it turned out to be quite a beautiful garden, full of flowers, ponds and squirrels. It was a nice haven from the chaos of Khatmandhu.
Later that day as I walked through the tourist district of Thamel, I saw some vegan protestors standing in the square with peculiar white masks on them showing videos attempting to explain why we should all convert to Vegan and exposing the truth of the cruel and brutal meat industry. When I walked past, on my way to get some food for lunch (the type of which I will not mention), the protest looked peaceful, however, when I returned violence had erupted. I even saw a man punch an old lady right in the face. She was shouting something about her father. Fortunately, the police arrived and dissipated the riot arresting several people but it was quite a tense experience. I was glad to be leaving Khatmandu the next day. I needed a change of scenery.
Next, it is off to the mountains for some trekking which should be the highlight of the trip and one of the main reasons I have come here. I am heading to Pokhara where I will buy some trekking gear and embark on a 10 – 14 day trek known as the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek which will take me to the base camp of a mountain and back again. It is a safe trek which is well marked with many lodges along the way but I am a little nervous. From the research I have done and people I have spoken to, the consensus is that it is fine to do the trek alone but I am hoping to meet some people to go on the trek with or maybe take a guide.
Next: Time in Pokhara before trek.