To get away from the “bathing in our own sweat” humidity of South East Asia, I decided to venture to Nepal at the end of October. I knew it would be heading into peak climbing season so booked a flight to Kathmandu and off I went, excited to start another adventure. Booking the cheapest route to Kathmandu (there aren’t many from HCMC surprise, surprise) I had an overnight layover in KL, so opted to stay at the Capsule by Container Hotel in Terminal 2 of the KL airport, well…little did I know at the time of booking that there were two terminals, and little did I know that I was arriving and departing from terminal 1 not too, AND little did I know that trains no longer ran between the two terminals after my first plane was slightly delayed and arrived at 10:30pm. Well a palava and a half it was to find. After waiting around another 30 minutes at the bus statin I was finally able to get transferred after another flight came in for an extortionate amount of money (I think it was only $1 but relative to how much it should cost it was extortionate). Nonetheless it was almost definitely worth it for a pretty decent nights sleep – except of course that I woke every couple hours afraid that my alarm hadn’t gone off and I’d missed my flight. Eventually it was morning and I packed up my things and made my way back to terminal 1 (by train in the morning thank god) for the second leg of the flight.
Stepping off the plane it was definitely a nice change from the sticky weather of Vietnam and Laos, which I had had for the previous month. Once again getting a visa on arrival was very simple and straightforward (once you hand over your $US of course). I am always one to try and get off the plane near the front of the queue and through security and customs quickly, I just can’t stand waiting around when I have an incredible new country to explore! I caught a taxi from the airport, it was very straightforward, and I think about US$7. I didn’t have any nepalese rupees on me so this was the easiest option. I eventually arrived at the Happily Ever After Hostel and didn’t know what to do with myself! After I had had such a solid itinerary and list of things to visit and do with my friend in Vietnam, I was overwhelmed with all the time I now had to myself (nb. I do very much enjoy having alone time, and I was definitely ready to just relax for a couple of days, I just felt a little weird at first not having to be accountable to anyone). The reception workers were lovely and showed me to my room, up multiple flights of stairs but they helped with my big backpack – 5-stars for them so far. I had a bit of relax, a shower – always nice when you get off the plane – and headed back to the lobby area to look into my plans for the coming days.
I had booked with a Nepalese trekking company to complete the Everest Base Camp trek in about 5 days time – my doctor had recommended the best thing for altitude sickness was to acclimatise first in Kathmandu for a couple of days before the trek begins- more on this in my base camp post. Before then, I had Thamel and the rest of the capital to explore! First things first, I That afternoon I just relaxed and went for dinner with some nice people from the hostel to Donald’s Fast Food Tandoori Restaurant (the name definitely a knock off of the western- McDonald’s equivalent). The gasoline crisis was just beginning and little did we know it was only the beginning of a long and hard struggle for the country. Furthermore, an ATM crisis was also upon me. Luckily when I first left Australia I brought with me about US$150 to cover all my visa costs. Well, thankfully this hadn’t quite dried up yet. Upon arriving I had gone to get money out at a group of ATMs down from my hostel. It had about 4 ATMs in a row undercover through a glass door. Well unfortunately none of these successfully gave me money. They stated things such as “transaction terminated” or “insufficient funds” when I knew that I most definitely had sufficient funds and should have been able to get money out. Well, I gave up that day and luckily I still had about US$10 to my name to use for dinner that night.
The next day, early in the morning I went scouting the area a little further afield for ATMs. I chatted to reception in my hostel and found out this was a popular problem among tourists – so rest assured your bank account has not been hacked. I eventually found another group of ATMs the hotel told me about (a little further near the supermarket and kebab shop) and one of these five ATMs did successfully work. YAY!! It was a great feeling of relief and I continued to get all my cash out of this one ATM for the rest of my time in Kathmandu without a hitch.
I also met up with my trekking guide to get my hands on some trekking gear – I had come with my thermals and hiking boots from back home but that was the extent of the suitable clothing I had. I met at the Advanced Adventures office to pay for the remainder of my tour (this would cover sherpas, guide accomodation and all food for the trek) and discussed the itinerary with the director of the company, he seemed kind (he was). He also introduced me to my guide for the trip- Santosh – and gave me a little information about the other people I would be trekking with – “two people from Australia”. Well, I had signed up to a group trek and literally had no idea who I would be walking with. Given it was a nepalese company (I was determined to get all of my money to go into the pockets of the beautiful Nepalese people rather than an Australian/American organisation), it was possible to get anyone and everyone doing this tour; well at least now I knew they were some Aussies. Santosh took me to a hiking shop where he found me some hiking pants, fleece, socks, gloves (woollen and waterproof), quick dry t-shirt and longer sleeve top, drink bottle and chlorine tablets (once again cannot drink water out of the tap in Nepal without treating it) all for well under $100 – of course it was all knock off North Face, but probably made in the factory next door and definitely decent enough quality.
After this I went for a walk around Thamel, heading towards Kathmandu Durbar Square (NB. there are two Durbar squares in Kathmandu – one in Patan and one closer to Thamel). I stumbled upon Kaathe Swyambhu ShreeGha Chaitya (काठेसिम्बु श्रीघ चैत्य), reminiscent of Swayambhunath (aka. monkey temple) and enjoyed just wandering through the bustling streets. It is also important to note that nothing is usually bustling until about 11am in Kathmandu, however, once things are open the street comes alive with shop keepers everywhere calling out to you to support their business. A special shoutout to the shop owners of the stall in the photo above – everyday they placed thousands of individual bits and bobs out on display and then packed them up again at the end of the day. It was on a corner on Thamal Marg just down from my hostel and their dedication was truely impressive. I did buy one or two cool more original souvenirs from these guys too to send home for christmas.
There were still many reminders of the devastating earthquake that had hit Kathmandu and Nepal earlier that year. Piles of bricks lay here and there and I wondered whether they would have been there regardless or if the building had played victim to nature’s destruction on the 25th April and beyond.
Kathmandu Durbar Square, even with its partial destruction, was still beautiful. The detail in every structure was magnificent and it was an extremely peaceful place, you could see a lot of quiet contemplation was being undertaken by individuals scattered around the structures. You could also see that recent efforts had been made to resurrect the area and fix up major damage promptly to not discourage tourism. After all, their economy was heavily reliant on tourism and the worst the world could do was to steer clear of the country throughout its rebuilding efforts, further exacerbating the negative impacts of the disaster.
It was beautiful seeing the pigeons flock, they had marked their territory it seemed and taken over the beautiful old structures of the square.They no doubt carried multiple diseases between them all so I didn’t get too close to them but they did add a sense of resilience and strength to the devastation in the square.
After my own contemplations – the usual “I’m so lucky to be here”, “this world is incredible”, “there’s so much beauty out in the world” and such – were complete, I meandered back to the hostel. I bought a new book along the way – at the awesome Tibet Book Store on Tridevi Sadak – and called it a day, extremely content with my discoveries. It was nice to calm down for a few days and take things at a slower pace.
The next day I decided I would check out the Garden of Dreams. Although my hostel had offered complementary breakfast, the gasoline crisis made this rather difficult with a gas stove used to cook the toast and eggs offered. Forgivingly, I often ended up at the Pumpernickel Bakery in Thamel. It had a great selection of eggs, porridge and pastries, good coffee and very good wifi – the perfect trio and all at a reasonable price. I did often stick around here for a couple of hours to book my accomodation, catch up on some writing or Skype the family back home, especially in the lead up to the hike to keep anxiety levels at bay.
After breakfast I headed to the Garden. I had heard a few great reviews so I thought it was the perfect way to fritter away a couple of hours, reading my new book, preparing my body before the gruelling hike in a couple of days.
Well the Garden of Dreams did not disappoint. Walking along Tridevi Sadak, the busy main road that leads to Thamel, horns blaring, beggars here and there, rickshaw drivers calling out “lady”, I was intrigued as to what magic could lie behind the big paved brick walls of the Garden. It was like I entered another world.
There was a small entry fee, but it was completely worth it for the immaculate peace that ensued. There was a huge grass covered amphitheatre-like area with various cushions for visitors and beyond that, the immaculate garden pictured above. I parked myself in the amphitheatre and sat reading my new book, totally content to read the day away. For dinner, I returned to what had become a hit (with myself) for lunch and dinner and any other meal between – Chick’n Falafal in Thamel. On a few occasions I had enjoyed momos (Nepalese dumplings) at Momo Star, complemented with a delicious banana lassi, however, I figured I would be sampling a large selection of nepalese dishes on the trek so opted for the wraps more often than not. There was definitely a day where I frequented Chick’n Falafal three times (it isn’t even open before 11am), but it was well worth it. Just remember light on the green (hot) sauce. You’ll thank me.
So yes, a slight but important segway: the gasoline crisis was becoming ever so real. At first I was completely ignorant and just thought restaurants were lazy, you see you’d walk into a restaurant, look at the menu, order something and they’d say they didn’t have it. You’d then choose another item, to which the reply would be the same. A waiter would then come and give you a roughly printed (sometimes hand-written) piece of paper which had “New Menu” at the top of it. Well, after discussing this at the hostel and doing a little of google research myself, I soon found out the issue was far bigger than just me and my local momo restaurant. You can read about it here, but basically, Nepal after much civil unrest finally published its own very first constitution, this was seen as unfavourable to the a group of Indian-Nepalese that live on the border of the two countries, protests then broke out at the border, well India supplies Nepal its gasoline so then India shut off most of its gasoline supply to Nepal. And there we were, unable to enjoy our favourite chicken and veggie momo’s or complementary breakfast from Happily Ever After Hostel. Yes, at first I was a little peeved to find out breakfast was not being included however after some research I did understand why and we did in fact get a small discount on the room price as a result.
After a very relaxing day, reading, eating and shopping – there are some very cool hemp backpacks, bumbags etc for purchase throughout thamel – I decided I would do a big long walk the next day. With the hike coming up it was definitely a good idea to get used to long days of walking – after all there had been minimal (no) training in the lead up to my departure.
So, I set my eyes on Swayambhunath aka Monkey Temple, hoping to come back to the hostel via Patan Durbar Square. It was about a 45 minute walk from the hostel to Monkey Temple, but this was definitely worth doing. Although I could speak very little Nepalese except “Dhanyabad” = thank-you, along the way I connected with a handful of locals, smiling into their eyes, the human connection as real as ever. The children especially were so warm, it was magical.
As I headed towards the temple, I was also climbing higher and higher in altitude. This meant I was able to look down over the valley of Kathmandu as I went, the houses shrinking smaller and smaller in size as I grew increasingly taller looking over their rooftops. Eventually, I got to the bottom of steps leading up to the top of the temple, a big buddha looking down on me with prayer flags swaying in the wind behind her.
Only now, was it was well understood why the temple had taken on the name of Monkey Temple. Hundreds of territorial monkeys ran up and down the 350 or so steps, jumping in front of the tourists making the climb themselves. The humanness of these creatures was breathtaking.
As was the temple and the atmosphere upon climbing the 100s of steps.
Truely breathtakingly beautiful.
It was like nothing I had ever experienced. Intense burning, Buddhist chants crying, it was serenely peaceful even among the group of tourists alongside me. It also produced the most incredible outlook onto the whole of Kathmandu with prayer flags stripped across the landscape, it was a sight I will never forget.
After exploring the beauty of Swayambhunath I headed towards Patan Durbar Square. Now, in an effort to not get ripped off by a taxi – and with the growing gasoline crisis this was becoming increasingly apparent with prices skyrocketing – I decided to walk also to Patan Durbar Square. According to Google Maps this was another 1.5hours, but I had the time so why not. When I’m in an unfamiliar city I love to walk aimlessly around anyway, taking in the sights, and smells, exposing my senses to it all, so it was much the same just with more of a purpose.
By being on foot I was also able to witness the crazy ring road local “bus” that was a popular mode of transport for the locals. I could have opted to jump on board for a couple of kilometres but I figured they were crammed enough as it was and I better not risk my life…literally. Do take note of the number of people squished in by the one open window and the struggling tyres of the vintage vehicle…
It was a Sunday, so as I passed by houses along the river, there were many families and especially kids playing out the front of their houses. Rocks and marbles and sticks were being thrown about amongst the family’s cows. Children in every direction called out “HELLO”; it was the extent of our ability to communicate but it was heartwarming to feel connected to them. It was also striking to see the pure joy these children received from such basic objects. There were no mobile phones, no technology whisking these kids away from nature.
Unfortunately as it was a Sunday, as I made my way closer and closer to the square, nothing was open. Usually an extremely bustling area with shopkeepers keen to get a penny from tourists passing through, the day of rest meant doors were bolted up with only the ill-informed tourists traipsing the alleyways.
Eventually – 1hr and 45mins after leaving monkey temple to be exact (according to the time stamps on my photos) – I arrived at the second Durbar Square. Similar to the Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square had large red brick temple buildings with intricate dressings made out of stone and adorned with ribbon.
I guess it was worth going to, but it was slightly underwhelming a) being so similar and b) being so quiet. Plus, I was now starving, not having eaten since breakfast that morning, and with not a single food store open in sight, slightly disgruntled I made my way back towards Thamel. Luckily I stumbled upon a family with a small fruit stall quite close to the square so bought myself two nashi pears which I hoed into right away. Once I was back in Thamel (quite a few hours after I had left that morning) I popped by Momo Star and bought myself a take-away banana lassi. Well the novel concept of take-away hadn’t quite made it to Nepal or at least Momo Star – see picture below – #fail. I think I ended up getting myself a wrap at my trusty favourite and called it an early night, by then it was 5pm anyway.
I now had only two days before departure. They were both spent quite relaxed in anticipation for the hard work ahead, well at least that’s how I justified it to myself at the time – plus there wasn’t too much more I really wanted to explore around Kathmandu and did have a couple of days after the trek back here. I visited Garden of Dreams again and stumbled upon a nice cafe/bar in Thamel Square where I spent hours drinking peppermint tea and doing some writing and reading. It was fabulous. I had dinner at OR2K – definitely worth the hype (but I still prefer Chick’n Falafal) and that was about it before the Trek!
I will do a separate blog post about the trek, but once we were back in Kathmandu after an enduring 11 days (8 days up with only 3 days back), we were dying for some western food. So we splurged on pizza and cocktails at Fire and Ice and with our new altitude fitness the alcohol hit us hard. The pizzas were delicious – we’d heard they were some of the best in Kathmandu so we were definitely keen to try – especially after a devastating attempt at pizza near the end of our trek (read about it in my next post). I showed my new friends all my favourites and we hit up the burgers at Big Daddy Burgers – absolutely delish after all the fried rice, momos and noodles…
We also made the trek out to Pashupatinath Temple. With the gasoline crisis still in full swing, walking was really our only option so we set out for the hour-long walk. After all our hiking this literally felt like a “walk in the park” as they say.
The air around the temple complex was ominous. You could feel the spirits flying around you. People lined the river, mourning their loved ones, watching on as they were wrapped, carried to the edge and cremated before being left to nature, swept away by flowing waters transporting them to the afterlife. It was an incredible atmosphere and a morning I will never forget. We had a guide thrust himself upon us, but it was well worth it to hear of the history and meaning of this magical place. People come from far and wide to give their loved ones this prestigious send off that they hope will mean they will be reborn into a better life.
Kathmandu had far out done itself. The love of the local people, the beauty of the temples and the power of religion to continuously unite people even after experiencing great hardship just months earlier. Nepal, I will no doubt be back at some point, you are just too beautiful to resist.