Sorry for the delay in getting to this final city from our Indian & Nepal adventure. It’s somewhat surreal to me that it’s been just over six months since we boarded a flight towards this amazing part of the world. And it really has taken us almost this long to sort through not just our actual photographs, but our memories and impressions and figure out how best to explain it all. So far we’ve covered Delhi, Jaipur and Kolkata; here, finally, is Kathmandu.
Last but certainly not least, the final leg of our India/Nepal adventure: Kathmandu. The flight from Kolkata to Kathmandu itself was uneventful, or at least what we came to understand as typical for India: numerous physical inspections of both bag and person (the latter being quite intimate on occasion, but always behind a curtain) and once on the plane, a general lack of adherence to rules (literally everyone but us stands up and opens the overhead bins the millisecond the plane touches ground).
Arrival in Kathmandu means obtaining an entry visa upon landing. We had read up and knew the drill, but there seemed to be many who had no idea this was part of the process for getting into the country. The large lobby was filled with would-be trekkers, backpacking hippies and the occasional run of the mill traveler like ourselves gathered around kiosks and lined up against counters filling out the visa application, which exists in several languages and takes some searching to find an English version among the slips of paper scattered over every flat surface. (Travel tip: make sure you have your own pen!) After answering questions about our past and onward travel plans, our location while in Nepal, and our monetary resources while here, we joined the queue. Signs everywhere proclaimed “cash only”–and they seemed to accept virtually any type of currency, including US dollars–yet of course we were in line behind a couple of young guys who, when they got to the counter, were perplexed when they were pointed in the direction of an ATM machine.
The line took a while but the process was efficient, with three people behind each window handling a micro-step in the process: reviewing forms, taking cash, stamping passports. Finally we reached the outside and located our ride to the guesthouse we were staying at in Thamel. The hotel itself was great–an excellent recommendation by our friend Rick in Delhi–and a perfect location for exploring Thamel, the acknowledged tourist center of Kathmandu with an abundance of restaurants, bars and shops selling everything you could need, whether you were a hosteller on a $25-a-day budget, or an expert climber looking to outfit yourself for a Himalayan trek. The streets were full of people of all ages, nationalities and lifestyles, and it was fun to just walk around.
It was evening by this time, and we stumbled upon a picturesque restaurant called “New Orleans”, which we took to be a good sign (if you don’t already know, that’s our favorite city in the US). All outside seating and an oddly eclectic menu, with everything from Spaghetti Bolognese to Pad Thai, Jambalaya to Chicken Curry. They are, however, apparently well known for a good burger, which did not disappoint. After dinner we discovered what would become our end of the night place each night: Pub Maya, a funky little bar and restaurant tucked into the upper levels of a building next to our hotel, with a really friendly manager who stopped by our table for some conversation each night.
The next day we hired a car to get us to some of the bigger sites that were not within walking distance: Swayambhunath, Patan Durbar Square, Pashupatinath, and Boudhanath.
Swayambunath was a bit of a climb, but we were rewarded with great views over the surrounding countryside. Not nearly as many monkeys as we saw at Galtaji in Jaipur, but the ones we saw were quite playful.
Patan is one of the three most famous Durbar Squares–plazas near the old royal palaces of Nepal, when the country consisted of small kingdoms–and while not the most extensive (Bhaktapur is larger in area), it was gorgeous and lovely to walk around.
Pashupatinath is one of the most significant Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva in the world, and is quite a sight to behold. One of the most striking features that visitors see as they approach along the banks of a river are the ghats directly across, bathing spots for pilgrims as well as the site of numerous cremations, a fact impossible to ignore as you see the smoke rising from each.
I think I can say that our favorite sight this day, though, was Boudhanath, whose stupa is the largest in Nepal and one of the largest in the world. Passing down a narrow alley from the main street, you enter an enormous round plaza, dominated by this impressive temple. Even more impressive, though, were the hundreds of people making a perambulation (exclusively clockwise, we discovered quickly after walking against the tide for a few seconds) of the temple. Monks, children, old people, friends, couples, some in prayer or meditation, others just walking, all taking in the final light of the day as the sun set behind the buildings.
Our second day we had arranged, through the hotel, our big splurge of the trip: a mountain flight over the Himalayas, which would get us as close to Everest as we’re ever likely to be again. The 6:30AM flight meant that we needed to leave our hotel around 4:30–quite an early morning for us but with something this exciting it’s pretty easy to get motivated to get out of bed. The airport for this flight was different than the regular airport, and served, in addition to our tourist-excursion flight, dozens of other flights heading to various base camps, so the airport itself was jam packed with serious climbers awaiting a whole different type of adventure than ours.
Morning fog meant that all flights were delayed (apparently this is quite common) until the clouds cleared, so it was a tedious extra couple of hours, first on hard airport seats and then in the shuttle bus out to our particular plane. Each plane is small–maybe 20 seats total–and everyone gets a window. Our group included a few other couples, and one happy and boisterous group of 7 or 8 Buddhist monks.
Finally, takeoff. Words cannot describe it, and really, photos don’t either. We took about 200 pictures of these mountains, but none really convey the breathtaking beauty of what you see with your own eyes out the plane window.
The whole flight is about an hour, and it was still only around 10:30 by the time we got back to the hotel. We decided to have a relaxing rest of the day in town, so after a snack of momos at the hotel (freshly made, and the best of our trip), we walked to Kathmandu Durbar Square, another beautiful area filled with impressive and gorgeous buildings and an easy walk from our hotel. We found a cafe to sit outside in the sun for a while, then went back to the hotel for a nap.
Dinner that night was a traditional Nepali meal at Thamel House Restaurant, where we each ordered the 11-course set meal (I went veg, Rob got non-veg). Although 11 courses sounds like a lot, most were small dishes served around a large portion of rice, brought in turn by servers carrying large dishes from which they scooped onto your plate. Along with two appetizers, a delicious yogurt dessert and a bottle of wine, this was a really delicious and fun meal, and a bargain at only about $35 for both of us.
Our final day, we slept in a bit and booked a car for the afternoon to go out to Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The most impressive, in my opinion, of the three Durbar Squares we saw, it’s really an extensive area made up of several squares. We spent the afternoon exploring, having lunch and purchasing a few souvenirs.
Our final night back in Thamel embodied, for us, the vibe of the place: drinks at the Phat Kath, a very laid back bar with a decidedly hippie vibe, low cushions for seating around tables filled with travelers just back from a trek or planning one, or just planning how many cans of Nepal Ice they could buy with the few coins in their pocket; and then dinner at a small walk-up joint called Yangling, where we shared a platter of extremely spicy buffalo momos, a giant bowl of fried rice, and a beer for five bucks.
Before our trip, when we told people we were including Kathmandu in our itinerary, the response would often take the form of a Bob Seger lyric. Despite the fact that yes, there are quite a few hippies and stoners that make their way to Kathmandu, there is so much more to be found in this city, both beautiful and complex. Captivating architecture, a laid back vibe, walkable streets, and truly delicious food.
In the morning, too early, too soon, we would be heading back to Delhi for one final night, and then home.
“I think I’m going to Katmandu
That’s really, really where I’m going to
If I ever get out of here
That’s what I’m gonna do”
— Bob Seger