Kathmandu is definitely the craziest city we’ve ever been to! Just the taxi ride from the airport to our hotel was an adventure. We quickly learned there are no rules of the road, stoplights/signs don’t exist, lines in the road seem like vague suggestions, and if you’re not an aggressive driver, you’re not getting anywhere. A layer of pollution hangs over the city and coupled with cars kicking up dirt from the road, just breathing seemed like a chore at times. As far as we can tell, there are no street addresses in Kathmandu; only districts. Thankfully, our driver was able to locate our hotel easily enough. We had a decently spacious private room with an attached bathroom and were located right near the tourist district, Thamel, for only $10 a night.
Our first night we ventured outside to wander the streets and were quickly approached by a seemingly friendly Kathmandu local. He told us we were lucky as there was a festival going on that day and it was only right down the street. He asked if he could lead us there and practice his English with us along the way. We had our guard up but decided to follow along and figured we could turn around at any point. As we were walking down the street, he asked if we would like to see the art school that he went to. We said sure and he led us there and turned us over to his “teacher” so he could tell us about all the wonderful art pieces they made. At this point there was clearly no festival going on. We listened for a few minutes, but when the teacher started trying to get us to buy a piece, we quickly said, “no thank you” and walked out. During our time in Kathmandu there were a couple people that tried this on us again, but we just started to ignore them and carry on with whatever we were doing.
We spent a lot of time wandering through Thamel, just taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells. All the while trying to not get hit by a car, motorcycle, or bike that is streaming its way down the road. Thankfully, some of Thamel is blocked off to vehicles. One day while walking, we stumbled upon the Garden of Dreams. For $2 entry, one can escape from the clouds of dust in the streets and relax inside a small park area. We chilled here for a bit, and while it unfortunately still wasn’t a breath of (literal) fresh air, it was nice to lay back.
The main thing we wanted to do in Nepal was trek through the Himalayas. We had decided on doing the trek to Annapurna Base Camp in western Nepal. During springtime it was supposed to be especially beautiful with all the rhododendron flowers in full bloom. We had the intentions of doing this trek by ourselves with no guide or porter, as we had seen loads of stories of people doing it alone and saying it went well. One day as we were roaming through the streets of Thamel, we were approached by a man trying to sell us a tour. We quickly said no and told him we were just looking for somewhere to eat, not looking for a tour. He told us that he knew of a fantastic place. Seeing as how we had been wandering for some time already and were quite hungry, we went along with him. He took us to a restaurant owned by his cousin (of course) and it was actually pretty good! He waited for us to finish eating so at that point we felt we should go along and see what tours his agency had to offer. After chatting with the people at the agency for a while and explaining to them what we wanted to do, they offered us a great trekking package that included a guide. We accepted and it turned out to be a great decision.
The trekking package also included a free city tour of Kathmandu. We started our tour the next day at 10am sharp and had a lot of ground to cover. We met our guide, Kapil, and took off for our first destination: Kathmandu Durbar Square. Kapil was super knowledgeable and a fun guide to have (and loved taking pictures of us). After driving through the crowded streets, we arrived at our first stop. A lot of the Square was damaged in the 2015 earthquake, but what was left standing was still impressive. It was sobering seeing what damage the earthquake had caused in and around Kathmandu. Kapil told us more about the earthquake and the devastation it brought, and he also mentioned how his family was from one of the hardest hit regions; Gorkha. Thankfully, his family all survived the quake. Among the ongoing re-construction (the $10 entrance fee goes towards the effort), Durbar Square still contains many notable sights. We couldn’t go inside many temples, but they were still cool to look at it. One such temple was where the Kumari lives. This is the Nepal tradition of worshipping young (3-15 years) girls as manifestations of the divine female energy. The girl is selected from the Shakya caste or Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community. She isn’t allowed to have her feet touch the ground outside of her residence and rarely leaves. When the girl hits puberty, she is thought to be no longer ‘pure’ and a new girl is chosen to take her place. The current Kumari is 3 years old and we were able to see her make an appearance at her window (no pictures were allowed). Seeing the Kumari is believed to bring good luck. We weren’t sure how to feel about the whole situation, but after reading more about it, we learned that the girl is allowed to stay with her family and isn’t taken away by random people or anything. We also read about some past Kumari’s and how it affected them. Thankfully, they seem to grow up to still have normal lives. A very different culture indeed.
The second part of the tour brought us to Swayambhunath Temple (aka Monkey Temple). The temple was high up on a hill and there were 365 steps leading up to it. However, we cheated and went the back way and drove up. On the hill was a giant stupa with peace flags all streaming down from the top. Running down the walkways and climbing over the stupa itself were, you guessed it, monkeys! While they were everywhere, they didn’t really seem to bother people (unless you had food on you). We also had great views of the city from up there, which was nice since it was a clear day. We had lunch at Boudhanath, the great Boudha Stupa. The stupa was impressive and there were loads of stores surrounding it selling all sorts of souvenirs.
The last stop of the day was Pashupatinath, located on the Bagmati River. We weren’t allowed inside the main temple since we’re not Hindi, but we could still walk the grounds, which was an experience in and of itself. The Bagmati is important to Hindus as the deceased are cremated on the banks of this holy river. “According to the Nepalese Hindu tradition, the dead body must be dipped three times into the Bagmati River before cremation, so that the reincarnation cycle may be ended. The chief mourner (usually the first son) who lights the funeral pyre must take a holy river-water bath immediately after cremation,” (Wikipedia). The holy river is said to purify people spiritually. We were able to see some cremations taking place while we were there. It was quite an experience to see such an intimate ritual being done out in the open, with both locals and tourists looking on. The Nepali people are used to it however, as long as one is respectful.
We spent the rest of our time in Kathmandu stocking up on supplies for our trek. Seeing as how we really only packed for warm weather, we needed to get gloves, warm hats, down jackets, etc for when we got up into the mountains. Everything was pretty cheap and even though we paid “tourist” prices it still wasn’t bad – can’t really argue with renting a down jacket for $1.50 a day. The night before we were supposed to leave Cory unfortunately came down with a case of food poisoning and we had to postpone our trek by a day. It was only a matter of time before one of us got sick. We were able to move the date no problem and had an extra day to mentally prepare ourselves for it. We will be doing a several part series to cover our trek to Annapurna Base Camp, since each day had so much going on. Stay tuned…