So Kathmandu, where to begin? From the second we stepped off the plane it was mind-blowing. The temperature was much milder than expected, sunny yet cool with a slight chill as the wind blew across the tarmac but nowhere near the big freeze, Kristina was clearly expecting! Well, that was for the time being anyway, we were soon to find out that us desert dwellers aren’t quite cut out for a December trip to Nepal, despite the frantic last-minute shopping trip for hats, scarves, and jackets.
Anyway enough about the weather (I’ll bore you with more whines later), and more about the experience that was our airport pick up. We were greeted by a hotel representative outside the small airport terminal and guided, in between traffic, to our mighty carriage; a small indefinable car with rugs on the backseat and a distinct lack of passenger seatbelts, never mind, “when in Rome” as they say. Then again, Rome has traffic lights, lane separators, and traffic laws, which are clearly lacking across Nepal. The drive through busy Kathmandu to even busier Thamel was pupil dilating; roads filled with buses, trucks, scooters and bikes dashing this way and that to avoid pedestrians and the occasional cow (yes, you did read that correctly), since sidewalks and pavements were filled with Nepali locals selling everything from clothing to your fruit and two veg.
Arriving at the hotel, we were thrilled to find out we had been upgraded to a suite room and having been assured this was one of the best in the hotel we eagerly climbed the several flights of stairs to reach our room. This was where the real fun began… FREEZING!!! The room was absolutely freezing, despite the almost balmy outside temperatures, we had entered an igloo, cue using the AC unit as a heater and blocking all sources of a draft with excess bed sheets. Yes, we did stuff the window vents with a comforter to block out the cold air and nope, this was not an excessive measure.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the local area and coming to terms with the absolute lawlessness that is the roads of Thamel. I would not be exaggerating if I mentioned almost dying on more than one occasion, motorbikes and taxis do not slow down for dithering, unfamiliar tourists, neither do rickshaws for that matter.
Once we’d done a little exploring, we made it back to our igloo for a nanny nap only to find ourselves being serenaded by the sounds of Bob Marley coming from the ‘Irish bar’ across the way. Nonetheless, we did manage a little shut-eye before donning all of the layers and heading out to explore Thamel by night. Since the Irish bar was so close by we decided to give it a go only to find ourselves emerging onto a half built rooftop (no sign of a bar) and in the company of around 10 hippie-types surrounding a trashcan-esque fire; now that explains the Marley family soundtrack! Giving this party a quick swerve we found ourselves heading deeper into Thamel ending up on the rooftop of the Reggae Bar accompanied by a great sounding Nepali band, shisha, and decent local beers… result!
We began day two with a trip to Kathmandu Durbar square; one of the major tourist attractions of the city. Having come to terms with the traffic (sort of) we found it much easier to negotiate our way through the small and sometimes rubble-filled streets. One thing that struck me whilst walking through the streets of Thamel was the sheer energy that filled the atmosphere; whether it was street sellers vying for our attention, taxis and rickshaws squeezing through the narrow alleyways, kids making their daily commute to school or people evidently rebuilding their homes and businesses in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake, there was a constant buzz.
Durbar square was a humbling experience; the history within those streets is overwhelming, despite the vast amounts of damage inflicted by the earthquakes. We were given an excellent guided tour through the history of the square, a lesson on Buddhism and even caught sight of the Kumari; the living goddess. The story of the Kumari is fascinating, a young girl who is selected to be the town’s living goddess until she reaches puberty. Selection is based upon the belief she is a reincarnation of Kali, possesses 32 specific features and shows fearlessness and courage tested by her ability to face the decapitation of 108 buffalo alone amongst other harrowing tasks. Seeing this young girl in person and knowing her story was slightly unnerving yet equally awe-inspiring and experience that will live with me for a very long time.
Thus, even though we were suckered at the end of the tour by the guide’s “request” for payment despite paying an entrance fee, all in all, we enjoyed an educational and interesting experience. Later that afternoon it was time for the Swayambhunath or the Monkey Temple as it is now more commonly known.
Starving, we jumped out of the taxi and headed to a local street seller for a samosa and a couple of other interesting looking Nepali treats, much-needed fuel for the 365 step steep ascent to the top of Swayambhunath. We found a nice spot below a tree to enjoy our snacks unsuspectingly stumbling upon monkey feeding territory. Before we knew it, the cheeky little buggers had snatched the food straight from our lips, not once but three times! Samosa, GONE, indiscriminate sweetie thing, GONE…Pretzel type thing… yup gone too! Oh, how we laughed and were laughed at! Failing to feed, we started our ascent only to be faced with dodging a cascade of monkeys (who may or may not have been responding to a feeding call from their thieving friends) running and swinging 60mph down the stairs towards us; what an experience, incredible and one I definitely won’t forget in a hurry.
Swayambhunath is shrouded in history, and despite obvious earthquake damage its beauty in architecture is absolutely evident. It stands just outside Kathmandu, aloft, with spanning views across the city, surrounding areas and the far-off Himalayas. Everything from the prayer wheels, carvings and brass monuments captivates the imagination of even the least religious souls. After exploring, taking snaps, and being possibly a little too enthusiastic about the monkeys (guilty as charged) we climbed through a tiny gap into a café which rose even higher above the Stupa. Sat together, huddled in our scarves and jackets it was the perfect place to watch the sunset and enjoy a hot lemon and honey, customarily served in a glass (yes, 3rd-degree burns are all part of the experience).
As day two came to a close, it was another eventful trip back to the hotel getting slightly lost on the way. Noticing the increasing throb in my knee (Dr had advised no stairs, no long walks etc…ooops) we decided to jump into a cab in which the driver seemed equally as confused. Low and behold, tourist fail number 2 of the day! Finally, when we appeared to be approaching Thamel, it was time to ditch the cab and make our own way back. An early night was in order after another hectic day and an imminent 4 am alarm, and so we grabbed dinner across the street at the lovely Blueberry Kitchen, sank another Nepali Beer; Nepal Ice this time (delightful, I may add) and headed straight for bed.
Day three began with a less than welcomed pre-dawn alarm forcing us, bleary-eyed to stumble out of bed and embrace the deep freeze that was the outside world. Yes, 4 degrees may not seem so bad to my fellow Brits but having spent a considerable amount of time basking in the desert heat it definitely froze the bones. We were picked up by our guide and driver at 4.45am and taken to Nagarkot ahead of the sunrise. The trip down was filled initially with interesting facts from our guide and inevitably, snores from the backseat as we napped before our hike.
As we arrived at Nagarkot, about 1 hour 30 minutes outside of Kathmandu it was already daylight, yet the sun was nowhere to be seen as we climbed to stairs towards the viewing tower. The view from the hill-top was outstanding, even more so when we made the climb up the viewing tower ladder. From there, every aspect of the Himalayas was prominent including the shadowy peaks of Mt Everest on which the sun began to rise. It was an unforgettable experience, a moment to be present and just enjoy and one that can’t be captured in even the finest of photographs (even though I did try!). After carefully descending the tower, it was time for a warm by a roaring barrel fire with some Nepali tea (excessively sweet and milky, much to our delight) before beginning our 4-hour hike back down through the mountainous villages.
The hike was something else, initially beginning on road-like terrain before crossing over fields, gravel and crumbling rubble (much to the delight of my own crumbling knees). This was real Nepal. There were women trekking through the forest and jungle areas carrying huge loads of vines, leaves, and grass on their shoulders for farming, men rebuilding their homes in the wake of last year’s events and kids making the daily hike to school. It was eye-opening to see and a world away from the modern existence I have grown used to in Dubai and the western world alike. The views again, were breath-taking, farmland, forests and mountain tops disappearing into the distant clouds. We passed through farms where goats and cows roamed free, passed a yard of water buffalo waiting for sale and certainly intrigued the young locals who didn’t hesitate to say hello.
Once the hike came to a close, we headed back to Thamel in search of some well-earned lunch finding solace in the form of Vegetarian café OR2K (yes, I was very sceptical beforehand). The food was amazing, though, traditional Dhal-Bat and a not so traditional veggie burger to share. The café has a definitive Hippie-like vibe, with floor cushioned seating, low lighting, and interesting wall art, a sure favourite of our trip.
We spent our final evening back at the Reggae Bar from the first night after a brief stop at the Purple Haze rock bar (a little put off by the not so rocky boy-band crowd). This time we chose inside seating avoiding a couple of luring locals asking for pictures with us (only the 3rd request of the trip!). The band was great again, the drinks also very good but after a 4 am wake-up call we were both beginning to lag a little. That was until two local guys joined us at our table; being typical tentative tourists, we attempted to shrug them off before realising they were actually really bloody interesting! We shared experiences from our lives and learnt a lot more about the area; what to see, what not to see (would have been really useful on our first night actually, sod’s law, I believe) and before we knew it, it was 2.30am. We turned down an invite to a local club (Thamel has clubs, who knew?!) and headed home after an awesome night; one of the best things about travelling is not only the places you see but also the people you meet along the way (gotta love a cliché).
Our fourth and final day began with a later start than originally planned as we headed to the Garden of Dreams on the outskirts of Thamel. This place was a great way to spend a couple of relaxing hours guarded against the hustle and bustle of the outside city; seemingly a place where local couples meet due to its romantic feel and tranquil atmosphere. The gardens only take a little time to explore but the chipmunks there kept us entertained for much, much longer; so playful and intelligent. Whilst feeding them was not advised, they were happy to play around us inquisitively and were the highlight of the visit!
Unsure how to spend our final few hours in Thamel we decided to snoop around for some token souvenirs (a shot glass and postcard for my growing collection) and search for traditional Nepali Momo (steamed dumplings), to round off our trip. We found the latter in a cute courtyard restaurant after a very frustrating GPS failure that led to walking round in circles in search of a specific Momo café. As a reward (or consolation) for our 3rd tourist fail of the trip, our Momo’s were joined by a very welcome glass of mulled wine and a buttered rum punch (interesting, to say the least).
The sun was starting to set on our Nepali adventure but with an 11 pm flight we still had ample time to escape the cold and cuddle up on the cushioned floors of OR2K ( yup, we went back, creatures of habit) with some spiced cider and apple pie to round off the day before our airport transfer.
Overall, our 4-day escape to Kathmandu was a trip I most certainly will not forget; the bustling streets of Thamel which descended into nothingness after dark, the sunrises and the sunsets, the culture and the wildlife, and the history surrounded by the steep guard of the Himalayas. Although Kathmandu only provides a small insight into Nepal, it is as a vibrant and intense as one could imagine and provides an experience that is both humbling and captivating. This city has captured our hearts and minds and left us keen to explore everything else Nepal has to offer…Everest base-camp, we’re coming for you… eventually!