« When In Rome... | Main | Photos From Germany »

First Impressions Of Kathmandu

We arrived late yesterday evening into Kathmandu, following a long flight from Rome that included little emperors kicking the backs of our seats on one flight as well as a four hour layover in the airport of Doha, Qatar, which held a microcosm of much of the world's culture in its tiny terminal. Needless to say, we were glad to be off of the plane, and not yet aware of what to expect from Nepal.

First of all, let me explain my imaginative impressions of what I thought we could expect from Kathmandu, all of which were not accurate in any way. I had this idea of Nepal where people were in the sort of tranquility one might expect outside the walls of a tranquil Buddhist monastery in the high Tibet mountains. I'm not terribly misguided, I understand that Nepal is essentially the northern part of India, and as such is much more like India than Nepal. There is this idea that I had, though, that regardless there was a more tranquil sense of humanity here, perhaps from the pictures of grinning Sherpas you see with the guys who just reached the summit of Everest. Ok, maybe I am misguided.

So, to start, let me put in a little details that reach back to Rome. There, scattered around the city but concentrated around the Coliseum and other big tourist areas, were these guys who we figured were probably from India or Bangledesh, selling various souvenirs. The souvenirs were an odd choice, in my mind, because they were mostly of two types: first, these jelly blobs like the kind I used to buy back when I was six that can be thrown against the wall, where they will splat and then reform to their blob shapes again; and second, these little clear plastic squares that had tiny models of the Coliseum and other Roman monuments imbedded in them, that would apparently light up with a button. The little squares I could understand, as they actually correlated to the surrounding tourist destinations. However, the blobs, which far outnumbered the squares, made no sense, and neither did the look the sellers gave you as they threw the blobs at a piece of plywood on the ground and then motioned with an open hand of amazement at the splat that resulted, an expression that hoped that you would too be amazed, despite having just passed ten men doing exactly the same thing. There was no business logic in it either, since the men all were clumped together and trying to sell the same unsellable item; why not sell something different, or spread out? I won't bore you with my theories, and besides, I'm getting off track.

So, fast forward to the airport terminal in Doha, where we found ourselves in a long line of men lining up to to board our plane to Kathmandu. Suddenly we realized there was a possibility that those men in Rome were actually Nepali, though they could certainly also have been Indian (remember that Nepal is more than just a physical neighbor of Nepal, but it also shares a lot of its culture and ethnicity from its northern regions with Nepal). We found out later that a lot of Nepali men end up going to places in the Middle East such as the UAE, Dubai, and yes, Doha, to work on the huge construction boom as well as for other employment. We apparently paid a bit more than those men, since they were segregated to the back of the plane, behind the wings, while the tourists and more wealthy Nepali people got the seats in the front. That was a bit awkward to me, but then we were on Qatar Airlines, where they picked up the business class passengers in a limo and made all of us economy class fliers wait until the first class people were gone before making us exit out the back door, so I guess we were segregated as well. Don't get me started on the distinct levels of class that one finds in societies such as Qatar, where everyone except men in turbans are discriminated against. That is why I prefer not to have to fly through places like Qatar and Dubai, as no apologies are even considered for how they look down on much of the world.

Anyhow, we arrived in Kathmandu, and found that the customs process was much easier and smooth than we'd heard. We were through in less than a half hour, and exited to the baggage claim to find that our bags had indeed arrived from Rome. We picked them up and headed out into the main area of the terminal, where all of the public is allowed. Immediately, we were approached by taxi touts. This isn't new for us, nor unexpected, but it was annoying because they were very persistent, following us along as we looked for an ATM. I had to shake them off, because I didn't want to have to withdraw money in the presence of fifteen touts. Once we had money, we exited the building to an even larger group of touts. We looked around, hoping our hotel had sent a taxi, but eventually began to ask the cost of the ride to our hotel. They started out at 500 rupees and refused to budge; Jess, who looks to negotiate, began trying to talk them down to 300 or 400 rupees, but they seemed offended we would even try. They talked about the cost of petrol, the pothole filled streets, painting a vivid picture of the desperate lives of the airport taximen. Finally, as a group started to congregate, including several cops who seemed highly entertained by our bargaining efforts, we decided to just pay the 500 rupees, which is really only about $6.50, and off we headed into Kathmandu.

So, I sat in the front seat of the taxi, which was this little red square minibus, which gave me quite the view of our tour of the city. This perhaps was a mistake, as traffic in Kathmandu is exactly what you expect in the capital city of a developing world: absolutely crazy. Of course I knew this, deep down, even though I was still in the midst of my delusions of the Tibetan paradise. Had I been honest, I probably would have sat in the back, because I've been in traffic in enough crazy cities to not need a front row seat. The difference between Kathmandu and Rome is that while Romans drive like suicidal maniacs, they drive in a city with traffic rules, only that they are almost entirely ignored. In Kathmandu, there are no rules: traffic flows in the direction that seems the fastest, while motorbikes, cars, and even bicycles dart through breaks in the traffic in a perpetual race to be the fastest on the road. Folks cross at whim, some without any apparent knowledge that they are in traffic, and traffic does not slow down for them, only swerves. Two lanes road become four or six lane as needed, and inches really do matter, as they are the measurement between most vehicles and other characters in that mad show. Our driver talked and laughed with me the entire time, following a fashion and custom of driving accepted and followed by all of the surrounding drivers, but unknown to me. But, as it wasn't my first time in such traffic, I accepted that while severe consequences were possible, they were unlikely since the driver went through those conditions every day he worked, and both Jess and I were relaxed and enjoyed the trip. Imagining being in a movie can be quite helpful, if delusional.

Along the way, we received our first glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of Kathmandu, and it was quite eye-opening. I was very aware that Nepal is a developing country, but the amount of poverty that was apparent from our limited ride into the center from the airport made it obvious that Nepal has poverty on the same levels of countries we've visited like Kenya and Cambodia. The traffic kept our attention, but on the periphery, we could see piles of trash lining the road, buildings in utter disrepair, dark streets and windows, people standing around rubbish fires to keep warm. My ideas about Nepal melted away in the face of this reality; of course we were arriving at dusk, which isn't a good idea since shadows always make things seem worse than they are. Still, we could no longer imagine Kathmandu to be this city in the clouds, all ethereal and filled with clouds of incense (actually, the clouds of incense do exist, chokingly so). 

We soon arrived in the neighborhood of Thamel, the backpackers' neighborhood, a crazy mix of restaurants, guesthouses, shops and definite local characters. We had booked a hotel online, one that sounded great with descriptions of a fireplace, a balcony, deluxe beds, and hot showers. Our taxi driver swung through the center plaza of Thamel and began heading off away from it; then, alarmingly, he turned down a dark street and then onto another. My first impression was that it would unfortunate to have to walk along that road in the dark to go to and from our hotel. As it turned out, the word 'hotel' was far too generous for the hovel we arrived at. Walking into the dim reception room, we learned that the power was out (due to low rivers leading to low hydroelectric power output, we found out later), as it was for up to 14 hours a day in the city. However, a generator allowed us to check in and find our way up to the fourth floor, where our room awaited. We stopped in the doorway and immediately began planning an escape; even our little rural house in Kenya had been cleaner, more hospitable, and safer. The room, which literally had zero of the amenities described on Hotels.com, was a bare-walled affair, with three hard cots in the center, a broken window, a bathroom that just needed darkness for its army of very-likely cockroaches to come streaming out, and a simple chair tiredly sitting next to the door. Concrete floors and ceiling matched the plain walls, and a single bulb illuminated the room and kept away the roaches. We have fairly low standards when it comes to accommodation, and have stayed in some sketchy places, but this would have taken the award, and all we needed was an excuse to flee. Jess quickly developed an itch in her nose that we both knew would lead to a sinus infection, and boom, I was out the door, dodging the crazy motorcycles. It took me less than a half hour to return, jubilantly holding the key to an excellent hotel nearby, appropriately called Excelsior. Indeed. I won't say we ran out the door, but we didn't waste time. I thought of trying to get my $16 back (hey, it's Nepal, that is a standard cost), just out of principle, but the less time we spent there, the better.

Today has been smoother. Daylight makes the world seem much better. We were so worn out by the trip from Italy that we slept til noon (although that means it was 7am in Italy...so actually we got up really early). Our meal the night before had been at a steakhouse nearby our hotel, with an American style steak, much needed after the carb-loaded diet we'd had in Italy, so we were ready for a real Nepali meal. We wandered down some alleyways, fighting through the clouds of incense, avoiding the maniac motorcycles, before finding this little cafe serving up two types of food, both involving stir-fry veggies, one with noodles and the other with uncooked oats. With its three year old Fanta, its rough cut plywood table, and the kids' chairs that served as seating, it was exactly the place that a travel clinic nurse would tell us to avoid, and exactly the kind of place we zero in on. If you want a taste of the local cuisine, there is no better way. The food was actually excellent, a bit spicy, but it went down well. Granted, it had the Nepali standards--lentils, veggies, and noodles, which is pretty much the basic ingredient list of most of vegetarian Nepali dietary menus. We still enjoyed it, our first authentic meal in Nepal.

We wandered briefly through Thamel, though not for too long. The jet lag has been quite persistent with us, I'm not sure if it means we are getting older, or if starting a day at 8 am Italy time and ending it at 7 pm Italy time the next day is just simply exhausting, but we haven't had much energy to get out to do too much exploring. We did summon the strength to seek out a trek while we are here in Nepal. I'd researched some about different treks and had emailed a few recommended guides, but when we hadn't heard from them, we decided to visit a few local travel companies here in Thamel. The first one was a dud, the guy seemed surprised that we were wanting to go for a trek, but our second company was a score, and we booked an 8-day trip starting on the 18th. There will be two days of driving (to and from the city of Pokhara), and then we will be out hiking in the Annapurna region for six days. It promises to be incredible (and very cold), and even better, our travel company seems very professional and helpful. We are both looking forward to it, hoping it to be a highlight of our trip.

Until next time, be safe.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Hosting by Yahoo!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)