January 27-30, 2017
Kathmandu was exciting before we even landed!
During the 5+ hour flight from Singapore, the crew of Silk Air was more than happy to pump Chris and I full of free whiskey. I look past Chris in the window seat to see it’s pouring rain as we make our descent. The Nepalese guy next to me was a jittery mess the whole flight, and as the plane starts violently lurching from side to side, he glances out the rain-drenched window and with bulging eyes, he says “NOT GOOD. NOT OK”, in a panic and shaking his head in despair.
The wheels touchdown and the plane lurches forward, careening from side to side, speeding down the runway. Chris and I look at each other with a smirk, in agreement that the free whiskey was worth whatever may happen next.
It’s the only appropriate attitude when embarking upon an adventure– be open to what may come and enjoy the present. We made it!
The first questions people ask when I mention a visit to Nepal are, “Did you hike Mount Everest? Did you go to Base Camp?”
No. If you are looking for a post about that, you’ll have to find someone who doesn’t live on the equator at sea level. Sorry! Evidently living in Singapore with no preparation is a dis-qualifier for attempting Everest*, as is not having $10k to spend on a helicopter tour around the mountain. Bummer!
[*Side note: I think the “Iceman” Wim Hof would say otherwise…]
The next question is usually, “Did you find the Yeti?” You’re gonna be real disappointed to hear that he doesn’t roam the streets of Kathmandu. So was I, but there’s plenty to keep you entertained other than a legendary, unsocial, snow creature.
We only had two full days there, and we spent it eating and drinking our way through the foothills of the Himalayas. We stayed at Hotel Shanker. It is a beautifully updated former palace in a quiet spot on the outskirts of town (which means away from the noisy and incessant horns).
The first day we went to the Boudhanath Buddha Stupa. Outside the world heritage site, endless scooters whiz by and people shuffle back and forth. Inside the circle is a quiet haven of prayer wheels, monks, and a rainbow array of prayer flags strung from the golden spire. Along with many areas of Nepal, the Stupa was devastated by the April 2015 earthquake. The impact of the quake is still seen all around town– piles of bricks along sidewalks, buildings propped up by wooden poles, and others in complete shambles– but not here. This sacred temple took priority in the cleanup and restoration efforts and looks nearly perfect now.
Unfortunately, not every place has been restored. For a fledgling economy frequently bottle-necked by political change, the earthquake was particularly devastating and ruins of historic buildings are common. Visiting the three Durbar Squares (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) show the extent of what was lost. Rebuilding efforts are underway but the population largely seems unaffected. The Nepalese are resilient and happy. Centuries of tradition continue on, with layers of modern conveniences overlapping custom. The narrow dusty streets are the same pedestrians and horses have padded down, now bustling with scooters too. Coffee shops with wi-fi dot the streets, still serving the food of their ancestors and cooked using the same traditional methods.
The introduction of electricity has perhaps made some tasks easier, but unlike western cultures which seem to evolve with the adoption of technology, Nepal simply squeezes innovations into wherever they may fit. The best analogy I can conceive is thinking about every TV you’ve ever owned. Imagine your old box TV set. You still have it. But with each newer TV, you simply stack one on top, or in front, or push to the side. They all stay plugged in. Life just stacks on top of itself in Nepal.
The Durbar Square of Bhaktapur is a beautiful ancient masterpiece.
Located just outside of Kathmandu, you could easily spend days getting lost in the winding alleys admiring the art, pottery, and handicrafts peddled by the locals. I highly recommend stopping by Shiva’s Guest House in the heart of Durbar Square. The oldest guest house in Bhaktapur, Shiva’s looks out to the Yaksheshwor Temple built in 1472. Have a cup of the masala tea and you MUST TRY the Juju Dhau– the “King of Yogurt”– which originated in Bhaktapur. It’s delicious. Sweet, like cheesecake, but the same smooth texture of yogurt. It’s made with buffalo milk following the same recipe for centuries. Take a moment to drink the tea, enjoy the yogurt, and imagine all the millions of people throughout time who have walked these same streets and ate the same things you are today.
You also have to try the momos. We could not get enough momos! They are tasty little dumplings filled with your choice of chicken, veggies, or buffalo. There are so many different varieties and they make a great snack. So please eat them every opportunity you can so I feel better about myself. I just couldn’t resist!
The momos go down even easier with one of the local beers. While there are a few, my favorites were Everest and Gorkha beers. Beer is cheap and easy to find. There are numerous cafes and restaurants offering shisha and ice cold beers. Don’t miss out!
Trust me, you will be thirsty. While the weather was cool in January, the streets are dusty and you will do a lot of walking. You can hire a driver to take you to the main sites and they will happily wait for you. Our driver was so kind to “warn” us there was a “short, five minute walk” to the monkey temple (Swayambhu). In reality, it was a hike up 365 stairs. Ha! We already knew what we were in for (thanks Google!) but maybe we didn’t realize what bad shape we were in? Kidding. OF COURSE it was the elevation change we weren’t acclimated to yet. Yes, yes, that’s it. I swear.
Perhaps one of the most poignant rituals we experienced was at Pashupatinath Temple. A sacred Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River, which winds its way to the holy Ganges River, is where devout, elderly Hindus travel to near their end of days. They want to die here, be cremated on the temple’s banks, and have their remains float down to meet the Ganges. A solemn ceremony to see, you cannot help but be thankful for your current good health and fortune to witness this, but also stand in awe of this ancient and raw ritual. In Western cultures we do our best to separate ourselves from the sick and dead. Our sick are quarantined away in hospitals; our dead sent to a ‘creepy’ place to be made ready for either burial or cremation. But we don’t face our mortality like the Nepalese. At the Pashupatinath Temple, you will see the pious pay their respects as the clothing is removed and bodies are wrapped in vibrant orange, then lifted to be cremated, and after adorned with golden orange flowers to be sent on the final journey to the Ganges. For Hindus, no matter your grievances in life, if you are cremated at Pashupatinath you will be reborn again as a human.
While this may sound dismal, I assure you, the atmosphere is not. Respects are paid, but no tears are visible in the crowd. The grounds are full of playful monkeys and tourists like us out to see how others live.
If you’re looking for something a bit more uplifting, the streets of the Thamel district– particularly at night– will not disappoint. Packed with shops selling trinkets, trekking gear, and more you could window shop all afternoon. There are plentiful cafes and bars for people watching, drinking, and of course, smoking from a hookah. Once the sun goes down, don’t be surprised if a guy surreptitiously ducks from the shadows to discreetly ask if you want to buy some hash. After all, this is Kathmandu.
Spending two full days in the Himalayas is an incredible experience. We continue our trip along this splendid mountain range– on next to Shimla, India!
C + J