We didn’t know what to expect as our plane landed at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal. We had been traveling through Europe for the last 3 months and would be entering our first Asian country ever. We knew it would be a big change, but as we were leaving the dusty airport in an equally dusty car we realized we were in another world. We swerved around cows standing in the middle of the road, saw monkeys jumping in the trees at the roadside, and dogs rummaging through trash on the remnants of sidewalks. Then our driver sped around a few cars, honking the horn with about as many times as I would take a breath. Then when I would hold my breath as we would speed past cars and motorcycles on the wrong side of the road aiming head-on into a “Tourist” bus, all I could do was close my eyes. Eventually we made it to the homestay we had booked on Airbnb and I could finally breathe. Whitney and I knew we had taken a new direction on our round-the-world trip and we were excited.
To begin, our homestay was about an hour walk from Thamel, the center of the tourist district of Kathmandu. Staying with a local family gave us the opportunity to ask questions and ease into the culture more easily. We would eat breakfast and dinner with the family each day and even got to celebrate a birthday with one of the older children. I’d definitely recommend a homestay unless you are really keen on staying in the center of Thamel or will only be there for a couple days. From here, the most important thing we needed to do was get a bit of gear for an upcoming trek on the Annapurna Circuit. However, we ended up spending a total of 10 days in Kathmandu allowing us to see a lot more of this rugged city.
So, as I said, our first mission was to visit Thamel and do some shopping to prepare for our 20 day trek. This area is filled with innumerable shops for souvenirs and trekking gear as well as many restaurants and guest houses. Our first few days, we walked into the city to get started on our short yet thorough shopping list. First thing to know about shopping in Nepal is that everything is up for negotiation. It’s a culture of bargaining and no one gets offended with any offer, so we had to learn this new skill very quickly. Also, all the stores have pretty much the same gear, so no matter where you go it’s all knock-offs of brands like “North Face.” I think I heard one salesman say, “It’s made with the same sewing machines as the real thing.” Anyway, we did our best to get the best deals and over a couple days we had everything we needed. I do think we paid fair prices for gear even with our very weak negotiation skills. Next, we needed to see the sights.
One morning we set off for Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. Similar to most of the cities we have visited, we decided to walk there rather than cab or bus. This took us through areas of the city hardly touched by most tourists. We passed by so many buildings that were barely standing or even collapsed reminding us of the devastating earthquake that Nepal suffered from in 2015.
Soon we arrived at the square and were ushered to the ticket counter by one of the locals to get our tickets. There wasn’t actually anything blocking visitors from entering, but we are clearly not from around here, so the first person we passed sent us in the right direction. Next, one of the many Nepali tour guides that wander around in the area decided to cling to us hoping to give us a tour of the area. He was a bit pushy and it was our first time with this sort of thing, so we said “ok” and on we went. He walked us through the square, past all the temples and buildings providing a decent description of each one. He was even nice enough to take us to some of his “favorite shops” to meet his “good friends.” We didn’t want any souvenirs nor did we have room in our backpacks. Eventually the tour ended at a small rooftop restaurant overlooking the square. This is where it got interesting as we had not negotiated a price ahead of time. We paid the equivalent of about $20 and offered thanks for the tour. Cornered in the restaurant, he immediately began with “well most people give me X.” After a little back and forth we reminded him that this amount is very fair for an hour tour as it was more than the tours had been in many parts of Europe over the last few months. The New York attitude had not been lost and we parted ways amicably. Lesson learned, negotiate price before taking the first steps on a tour.
Later that afternoon we had plans to meet our friends Ed and Dean for some Tibetan tea and momo’s at a restaurant in Thamel. It was very refreshing to see some familiar faces after being on the road for so many months. Following a small lunch, Whitney, Dean and I decided to check out Swayambunath, also known as the Monkey Temple. We took a number of small streets on our walk then arrived at the base of the hill looking up at the trail of stairs to the top. We began our trek up watching as monkeys climbed through the trees around us and scrambled across the pathways. As we arrived at the top of the hill we saw the large stupa surrounded by many small shrines and temples. When we weren’t watching the monkeys run around the area we were looking out over the city of Kathmandu.
For one of our final days, we were able to hire a car for the day to see Bhaktapur, Pashupatinath and finally Bhoudanath for $35 for the 2 of us. Our driver first took us to Bhaktapur, a town about 25 minutes outside of Kathmandu. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this town has well preserved palace courtyards and old city center. Similar to our arrival at Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, we were initially sent directly to the ticket counter and approached by a local guide ready to take us on a tour. We were not really interested, but felt it would be nice to have someone show us around. After having this happen before we were ready and negotiated a price ahead of time for only about $10 for us both. Then off we went to see the city. He walked us through the city center pointed out and gave details of all the sites. He did lead us to a few shops, but we let him know we were not interested. One of the most interesting parts of this city is the pottery it creates as part of its role in Nepal’s caste system. Whitney even had a chance to get her hands dirty creating a small bowl with one of the elderly villagers.
After touring the town we headed to Pashupatinath. This is a sacred Hindu temple most well known as a place for Hindu cremations along the Bagmati River. We wandered through the sprawling temple checking out all that it had to offer. We discovered the full spectrum of Nepal’s animals roaming around the area. We did turn down a few tours by local guides, but looking back it would have been nice to have someone show us around. Either way, we saw the sights and took some great pictures to read about it all later.
Our final stop was the Boudhanath which is not too far away from Pashupatinath. It is actually one of the largest Buddhist Stupas in the world and always surrounded by worshippers. It was still undergoing renovations after the earthquake at the time of our visit, but it was still quite impressive to see. We walked the long clockwise circle around the stupa before stopping for some tea at one of the restaurants nearby. We headed home from there to begin to prepare for our journey to Tibet.
Later, we returned to Kathmandu after an 8 day tour of Tibet completely exhausted from the journey and extreme elevation of that entire region. On this second visit to this busy city we wanted to catch up on life with what limited internet we could find, do our best to update this blog all while relaxing in preparation for our upcoming trek. We again chose a home stay with the owners of HappyHimalaya.com, Dili and Susan, who would be arranging our trek on the Annapurna Circuit. We had breakfast each morning on the balcony and enjoyed dinner with the family each evening feeling at home with the family.
The rest of the time was spent in a small café in Thamel with decent internet. It was a much needed time of rest that even included a massage at the Seeing Hands Massage Clinic where blind masseuses with a heightened sense of touch provided us with a much needed pre-trekking massage.
Kathmandu itself is a very crowded and busy city. The streets are narrow, rocky, very dusty and dirty. Sidewalks are nearly nonexistent or when they do exist they are covered with market items for sale. Its rugged appearance is softened by very kind and helpful people. We felt very welcomed everywhere we went and even when encountering individuals looking to sell to us or take us for a tour, they did it with true appreciation for our visit to their country. It’s apparent that the people are trying to build a better place and everyone shares hopes for a better life for all.