KATHMANDU | NEPAL
WE HAD SURVIVED TIBET, AND AFTER ROUGHLY A MONTH I’D TECHNICALLY LEFT CHINA. ALL THAT WAS LEFT FOR THIS PARTICULAR OVERLAND LEG WAS TO SECURE TRANSPORT SOUTH TO KATHMANDU. LUCKILY WE WERE ALREADY SWARMED WITH OFFERS BEFORE WE HAD EVEN CLEARED CHINESE CUSTOMS.
Sometimes the difference between two countries is like night and day. Such is the case between the shining steel customs offices of Zhangmu on the Tibet / Chinese side, and the small ram shackle office in Kodari on the Nepalese. Our group had agreed with a local Nepalese guy on a ride towards Kathmandu. It was a “luxury 4×4 easily capable of seating nine people”. No worries. Firstly he was intent on collecting our passports in order to ease our way through immigration. I’m never comfortable giving my passport to someone – even behind a glass window – but after one look at the chaos inside the Nepal Immigration Office I found myself throwing my passport on top of the pile with the others. To his credit he skillfully navigated the throngs and got our passports back pretty quickly, and without any extra payment. The luxury 4×4 on the other hand…..
This is why I love traveling independently through countries like Nepal whenever I can. Every journey, no matter how mundane, or short can become a memorable epic. It amazes me the kinds of transport that people can invent with meager resources. The 4×4 wasn’t terrible it was just much too small for nine people. After securing our luggage to the roof I then secured myself into the front, right on top of the gear stick, purely because there was no more room anywhere else. After a few hours I felt like a pornstar trying to pay off a loan. The driver also didn’t speak any english, a fact I learned after the first hour of a very one sided conversation.
Many people believe that Bolivia’s Death Road is the scariest route in the world. If it is than the friendship highway between Tibet and Nepal can’t be far behind. The Tibetan side isn’t so bad. Sure, there are huge drops, sheer cliffs and waterfalls cascading onto slippy corners, but at least the road surface is excellent and there are barriers (which saved our lives after swerving to avoid a cow on the road. A cow). The road from Kodari continues to wind it’s way down from the Tibetan plateau but without the benefits of asphalt, barriers, or even a surface at all in certain parts. The road looked like it had been damaged in recent landslides or flooding. In parts it was barely wide enough for our jeep to cross, with full sections having slid off into the abyss below. Not only that but the jeep struggled to maintain traction on the narrow mud tracks, as full sized buses continued to try and whizz past us like we were on a motorway. I felt sorry for Jeff beside me, pinned against the window. He didn’t like heights, especially peering down heights with a with genuine sense of danger.I tried to break the tension by telling a joke, but my vocal chords didn’t have enough room to vibrate.
I lost track of how many times we broke down for whatever reason. It was at least four. We had at least two flat tires, one wheel had to be completely replaced. The radiator over heated, we pulled into a garage for an unspecified reason and then we stopped for lunch while our driver left with the jeep for more repairs.
We hobbled into Kathmandu that evening, tired and a lot smaller than we were before piling into the jeep like a bunch of traveling clowns. The drive from Kodari to Kathmandu usually takes between three and fours hours. Seven hours later we found ourselves in the hippy mecca of Thamel in Nepal’s capital city. We needed money, rest and a drink. We had several that night in The Purple Haze club, a rock venue named after Jimi Hendrix but populated by a Beatles tribute band. We celebrated a memorable trip across the Himalayas with some Nepal Ice and Everest beers.
Thamel is commonly known as the backpacker district of Kathmandu. It’s comprised of narrow, bustling streets populated with cheap bars, restaurants and hostels. There are stalls and small souvenir shops hawking anything under the sun. Every street corner has a trekking shop of some sort, most selling North Face gear ,or North Fake as it’s known around here. After pondering on buying a kukri knife (the famous gorkha weapon) I decided to hold out to see if I could bag myself a Yeti footprint cast. How awesome would that look on a mantlepiece? Surely if anywhere in the world sold something as crazy as that it would be Kathmandu.
As it turns out they don’t sell them. I looked. More times than I’ll admit.
The main thoroughfare leads down to Durbar square the old historical district of Kathmandu. It was packed with worshipers for the hindu festival taking place there. I realise I’m the worst travel blogger in the world. I don’t remember what the festival was about – something to do with wrist bands and……gods? I do remember the Shiva statue being thronged with people leaving offerings – smoke, incense and being cornered by an old dude in a temple and having a bindi thumbed on my forehead. A bindi represents divine sight. With this I blended in seamlessly among the local worshipers, like a clueless and culturally insensitive secret agent. Being practically invisible I enjoyed aimlessly wandering the endless alleyways and choks, soaking up the intoxicating sounds of bells and chanting, the crackling of fires and sparkles, breathing the aromatic smokes and incense, and dodging aggressive moped drivers who seemed to have no regard for anyone’s personal safety – or their own. It was eye popping fun.
Durbar Square looks like a place that is either in the process of being built, or in the process of being torn down. It contains the palaces and temples of the ruling Malla and Shah dynasties of Nepal. The Newar designed architecture resembles a unique blend of Indian, Chinese and south-east asian, interspersed with piles of rubble and red brick. I think it’s where pigeons come to die. Every roof is covered with the winged rats and walking through an empty part of the square results in you parting a sea of grey and white.
And it’s fantastic.
There’s a rawness and ruggedness here which you don’t really get in the polished marble, and flawless gold statues of other asian cities. You climb to the top of a temple and you’ll raise dust as a small part of brick tumbles from a wall, or a small splinter of wood comes away in your hands. It’s not sustainable obviously, and many parts are in dire need of restoration, but in a strange way it adds a sense of realism. These places are old. And it’s plain to see the effects of the centuries here.
It’s worth paying a visit to the five acre Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace here. Residence of the Shah’s until the 1880s’ there is a richly decorated statue of Hanuman at the entrance. Hanuman is the hindu monkey god that Durbar square is dedicated to. He is dressed up in a bright orange cloak and umbrella like a garish Mary Poppins. Part of the Palace is the Basantapur Tower, a large brick and wood building which was said to be used as a “pleasure house”. From the top of Nepal’s Playboy Mansion there’s a nice view of Kathmandu, albeit one which is obstructed by the ornate wooden windows. Like most of Kathmandu the tower is old, worn and dusty. Climbing the steps to the top is kinda like exploring your grandmother’s attic, but finding great views and interesting history instead of broken chairs and soiled mattresses.
Across the street from the palace is arguably the most interesting building in all Kathmandu. It is the Kumari Ghar, residence of the living goddess. In Newari Buddhist tradition certain young girls are chosen as the host for the goddess Taleju. They are taken to this lavishly decorated mini-palace where they are locked away from the world, save for audiences with worshipers. Eventually the goddess will leave the body to find a new host, but until then the girls are kept quarantined from everyday life. I entered from a small doorway into a lavish courtyard. At the top level of the building were beautifully ornate window boxes, the one that was straight ahead was golden and decorated with carvings and representations of goddesses. This, the creepy men who hung around the place assured me, was the abode of the
Kardashian Kumari. I could visit her – for a price. Hats off to these guys. My favourite people are always those who take advice from Ghostbusters literally: “Ray, next time someone asks you are you a God you say YES!”
Kathmandu is an easy place to make friends. Several times I was accompanied by a young guy, eager to impress me with his knowledge of capital cities. They don’t take no for an answer, no matter how polite you are, or how unflatteringly you refer to their mothers. One guy followed me all over town, even waiting for me outside places I’d ducked into to avoid him. I eventually lost him at a small square. I dived into a crowd of people, before walking the opposite way back into a restaurant. I needed lunch anyway, and the hot and sour soup more than made up for any guilt I was feeling. Then I had a milkshake to celebrate the fact I still had my wallet. But as easy as it is to make friends, it’s even easier to make enemies. Several times I created a ruckus between rickshaw drivers by talking to the first one I seen in the queue. By making the mistake of only talking to one person at a time, instead of say, all six of them, it’s like throwing meat into a lion cage. Time to drop to the ground and crawl away, whistling so that I could stay incognito.
Later on that day I ran into one of the sadhus (or babas) chilling out near Durbar Square. These are the hindu holy men and usually they have some sort of gimmick, whether it’s the guy in India who kept his left hand in the air for years, or the dude who twists his penis in a knot. This guy was great fun. He’d been growing his beard for ages. It had reached a point where it grew to the ground and he had to carry it with him to avoid tripping himself. If I were a Sadhu I’d probably pick the hair thing to do too. It seems like the easiest thing to do, the only drawback being you’d eventually have to shave it for work. It’s one thing to hang around temples all day but when you have to drive to work and your hair is constantly being caught in doors it’s gonna start getting annoying if it hasn’t killed you already. I gave him a few rupees for a photograph and for a guy who’s supposedly renounced worldly materials he seemed very happy and eager to get more.
Kathmandu is situated in a valley, and the best ways to view the city and the surrounding foothills of the Himalayas is to climb up to one of the many rooftop bars and restaurants here. There are plenty around Thamel and Durbar Square. After the sensory assault that is Kathmandu it’s a great way to unwind and watch the chaos unfold below you. Like a pigeon with a Fanta.
It was time to leave the safety of the ground behind. From Kathmandu airport I’d be boarding my first flight on the trip. Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia would be the next port of call. From there I’d be trying to organise my travels to Burma and a brief trip to Borneo. I hope I don’t mix them up.
Next time : Expensive late night taxis, organising a visa for Burma, and I sleep in a closet.