It’s so good to be back in Nepal.
Last time I visited here was in late 2014, traveling with my then-partner and tangled in the death throes of a relationship breaking down. Nepal was a mixed bag of sweet and sour experience that forced me to make some hard decisions about my life.
A few days in Kathmandu, a flight to Pokhara, a short trek up into the mountains and then a week in remote-ish Eco Village ‘resort’ in Astam. It didn’t help though, and so decided to call it. We said our goodbyes like grownups: she left in a cab for the airport and I stayed, spending almost a month by myself in Pokhara wandering the countryside in quiet meditation (with maybe some paragliding).
Blah blah blah you know all that already. I wrote about it in an earlier post ‘Nevermore’.
It ultimately worked out for the best and the experience did jumpstart my slow travel experience however, so it wasn’t all bad.
Anyway, a few months later Nepal was hammered by two massive earthquakes and the beautiful country I had gotten to know was shattered.
September 2018, and I was nervous about coming back – what would being here dredge up (if anything) and what’s changed the most in the past 4 years?
This time around the plan is to catch up with my friend Louise for a few days, and then focus on Kathmandu – no side trips or tourist distractions – get under the skin of the city a little. Being especially interested in the aftermath of the earthquakes, I was here for 3 and 1/2 weeks and going nowhere.
Gonna do Kathmandu slowly (ooo yeah baby…just like that). Sorry, caffeine has kicked in!
Serendipitously arriving 2 weeks before the start of the trekking season, its wasn’t as busy at the airport as I’d remembered from last time; the first real surprise though was how much the airport had changed! Last time I was here it was all very manual – cash required, paperwork to fill out by hand, go to this counter to that counter to the next. The whole process was an hour or so if you were lucky, and them you were in.
This time there are quaint handmade ‘automatic’ Visa machines to fill in your Visa paperwork using a touchscreen in an online form, do passport scans (which never works), get a photo taken, until finally a little Visa ticket spits out ( NOT a Visa I might add) that you STILL have to take to the payment window (queue again for almost an hour) to be paid for and processed manually. Only then can you go to the Immigration lines (queue again).
The new automation adds at least an extra hour to the process as no one knows how the heck to use them.
Anyhoo, once that was sorted out, you are finally on your way !!!!!!
BZZZZ sorry – with hope in your heart, you round a corner and go down some stairs to be met by a security scan checkpoint where (you guessed it) you have to queue up again as various old people struggle with the whole process.
Your soul dies a little more, and you wait.
(actually here’s a hot tip – if you put all metal objects on your person IN YOUR BAG you can skip the queue and just walk on through the scanner)
Once you get through here you finally get to Baggage Claim (where you hope your bag hasn’t been stolen), and if not, you go on through Customs and then are out in the street.
Maybe I arrived at a bad time but it took me close to three hours to get through with all of the “automation’ process becoming a massive bottle neck as anyone over 30 seemed to struggle with the technology, which itself only worked in a hit or miss manner.
Bah, doesn’t matter. I was through and from the second I stepped out into the heat, it was all exactly as I’d remembered it.
Chaos? Double check.
Namaste, muthafucka! Welcome to Nepal!
Once you step outside the terminal, the real fun begins as unless you are getting picked up by your hotel/hostel (in which case there will be a guy holding a sign with your name on it, looking for you desperately), there will be a bazillion taxi touts heading your way. Prepare to duck and weave or just dive right in.
(*another hot tip: standard fare to Thamel from the airport by taxi should be around 500/600 rupee)
Depending on the time of year, it’ll either be the humidity or the heat that will flatten you at first, so get ready to sweat. In September expect hazy days around 27-30 degrees with a few thunderstorms around as the season changes – the nights are generally cool and clear.
Kathmandu can be guaranteed to be either incredibly muddy or incredibly dusty, and those are your only choices really. This time of year (as the monsoon officially finishes) the Kathmandu Valley be a dustbowl, everything coated in a layer of fine pale dust, and with the bazillions of motorcycles and taxis zooming around the unsealed dirt roads, this can become a real issue.
If you are spending more than a few days in Kathmandu, a dust mask is recommended (most of the locals that can afford it wear them). After about 3 days you start to develop the Kathmandu Cough and a week or so after that you will be hacking up crap like a pack a day smoker.
*That American lady behind me just hid her purse!
No I’m not wearing it now inside (that would be dumb), just posting a demo of my sexy carbon filter mask (200 rupee) that makes all the bad air go away.
*Quite stylish I think. Might wear this in Sydney Airport on the way home and see how long it takes me to get shot.
**Also handy at the funeral ghats of Pashupatinath to filter out the, you know, ‘human bits’ floating in the BBQ smoke you are constantly breathing in.
***Get a mask: you wont piss off your hostel mates by coughing all night, and you’ll feel like a superhero even though you look like a dork.
…ANYWAY! Where was I?
Kathmandu, dusty, dirt roads… OH YEAH!
So arriving a few days before my friend Louise (we worked together last season in Antarctica and were both in the same place at the same time for a change), I was excited to finally be back here and after getting my NCell SIM card from the NCell booth at the airport (data only 16gb for 30days for $10USD), headed for the cab ranks and hopefully my ride.
Nope…noone there with my name on a board. Look 👀 again. Nothing.
Hmmm. Better check my messages.
It was about then I realised that I’d given the wrong arrival time to the hostel. Calling the hostel on Skype, I confirmed this was the case. Oops my bad. There would be no easy stress free airport pickup. I asked the hostel guy what a reasonable fare from the airport was and told him I’d be there soon.
Taking a deep breath I headed to the taxis and was instantly mobbed by drivers descending on me like seagulls on a thrown chip at the beach.
Pointing to the driver that had the best English, I showed him the address of the hostel in Thamel and he quoted me a ridiculous figure in US dollars that actually made me laugh 😂
We haggled as the other drivers kept yelling random prices and finally agreed on a more realistic fee. Pointing to a small dusty white microtaxi that looked hung together by wire and duct tape, he opened the rear door for me (which thankfully didn’t fall off it’s hinges) but I got in the front instead.
Now there are ‘taxi drivers’ and then there are ‘taxi DRIVERS’ – this guy must have been a rally driver on the side (or played a lot of video games) as he took every side street he could to avoid the traffic (usually sideways in a cloud of dust and a storm of constant beeps). It was peak hour so the traffic was absolutely insane and he hit every footpath or side road or vague track to get through. At one point I think he drove through a school.
I was thoroughly terrified and impressed at the same time as we got to the hostel in 20 minutes (which is freakin amazing if you know Kathmandu – it can take up to an hour)
With mildly shaky knees, I paid the guy his well earned 500 rupees and checked into the absolute cheapest nastiest looking hostel in Thamel ($5 a night). Walking down he muddy side alley, surrounded by construction and filth, I made a mental note to actually read the Hostelworld reviews before I booked. Naturally as it was full (of course it was), there was a drama with my bed, so I was upgraded to a twin share private room with a relatively comfy bed and a window ( ok sweet!), then dumped my gear in the locker and went for a walk to calm down a bit.
Thamel hadn’t changed much in 3 years but it took a few hours to get my internal navigation system updated. The confusing spiderweb of laneways and alleys, packed to the rooftops with small shops and prayer flags, finally made sense as the toothache God temple appeared (with its shapeless mass of silver ‘coins’ nailed to a street corner) – finally my mindmap updated and swung into focus as I realised with a massive smile that “Hey, I know where I am”.
Strangely enough the crowded chaotic streets didn’t stress me out one bit and once I knew where I was, just felt… at home!
As I wandered deeper into Thamel, more familiar landmarks appeared – silver tinsel glittering overhead in the evening sun; the vegetable and spice market buzzed; passed familiar blackened temples lined with golden tin and guarded by demon dogs and street stupa worn down to faceless stubs; stepped over street dogs snoozing in the gutters and breathed deeply of the air filled with the smell of burning incense, dust and exhaust fumes.
The chaos was exhilarating.
I smiled way too much then joined with the deadly dance of the pedicabs, taxis and motorcycles weaving and roaring and beeping through the endlessly flowing crowds.
So I walked and walked and walked my ass of that first day, finally deciding that wandering through the dimly lit backstreets of Thamel at 11pm probably wasn’t the best idea and found my way back to the hostel for a good nights sleep (when the Karaoke Bar outside my window winds up at least)
5.00am: the construction site next door swings into life, as does my desire to choke the living shit out of everyone responsible for waking me up. Jamming my earplugs in so deep that I feel them tickle my brain, I roll over and bury my head under the pillow trying to snooze until the more relatable hour of 6am arrives but fail, miserably.
Shit. Better get up then.
It’s a given fact in hostels that the early bird not only gets the worm, he (or she) also gets the hot water. I slide gracelessly out of my bunk and try not to wake anyone, heading for the shared bathroom and hopefully a warm if not hot shower.
Notoriously scarce in Nepal, a hot shower is one of the few things that can make me feel human in the morning (hot shower, coffee, croissant – in that order). Luckily today the hostel is not full (as the season is yet to start) so noone is about.
I wander into the bathroom and am immediately confronted by the sketchiest plumbing and electrical work you can imagine – ‘bare wires plugged into electrical sockets in a bathroom’ sketchy.
With my barely woke brain deciding that electrocution wasn’t such as bad way to go, I flicked on the gas water heater, twiddled the knobs and uttered a quiet prayer to Steambathunath, the Hot Water God, for at least a warm trickle.
Apparently pleased by my offering, the playful Hot Water God rewarded me with a 45 degree blast of hot water for just enough time to get wet, followed by an icy torrent of cold water then a “FFFFFFFFFutt” as the gas heater ran out of gas.
‘clickkity.clickkity,clickkity,clickkity,clickkity,clickkity,clickkity,clickkity,clickkity,clickkity….’ said the starved gas heater as it tried to reignite.
“Fuuuuuuuuck…” said I, scrabbling for the taps before grabbing my towel and checking the gas cylinder outside the door.
Better go upstairs.
tromp tromp tromp…next bathroom.
No gas heater here (interesting) so I lock the door, hit the hot water and wait for the cold to turn warm…and wait…and wait…anytime now…annnnyyyytiiiimmmmeeee……
4 minutes of waiting semi-naked and wet in a shower at 6am seems like an unbearable eternity, but finally the cold turned to warm, the warm turned to warmer, and the warmer became scalding – but I can work with scalding.
SO short story, long – showered and blisteringly fresh I head up to the rooftop balcony (with city views apparently although that must have been before the two massive buildings went up front and side of the Hostel) for the included breakfast. Prepared in the roughest and readiest kitchen in the dirtiest pan I’ve ever seen (possibly never washed), the fried egg + black coffee+banana+toast and jam wasn’t actually too bad. Krishna, the cook cum default manager cum everything else was working has ass off cooking everyone breakfast (lovely chappie and to his credit does a wonderful job).
Hey this place was $5 a night – I cant complain.
The coffee was black, the toast was, well, warm bread really but the banana was lovely.
Breakfast done, it was time to explore ….
to be continued…