December 14, 2014 – December 16, 2014
Kathmandu, the sprawling capital of Nepal situated in the muggy Kathmandu Valley, was our first and one of our last stops in Nepal. A city of contrasts, with ancient temples butting up against modern coffee shops, crowded streets and pollution nestled up against the rugged Himalayas.
We actually visited Kathmandu on three separate occasions. The city, being centrally located in Nepal and home to the country’s only major international airport, lent itself well to being a base for our many side trips in Nepal. We visited Kathmandu when we first arrived in Nepal on November 14 for two days while we handled preparations for our Annapurna trek. And again on December 8, for a couple days while applying for our Indian visas. And finally for the last time on December 14, after we returned from nearby Bhaktapur to pick up our visas and start heading south towards India.
No visit to Kathmandu would be complete without a visit to Thamel, this neighborhood of Nepal’s capital city is the highly touristic district where most of the westerners hang out. Filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes and of course hundreds of outdoor gear stores selling and renting everything you could possibly want for your next outdoor adventure. Browsing through the shops looking for good deals can be quite a lot of fun, but be aware that most of it is fake.
Fake goods abound in Nepal, nearly everything you see and consider buying should be looked at carefully and viewed as a possible fake. One Chinese tourist we spoke to told us that even the alcohol is often fake. Bottles are collected and refilled with dyed water, one wine bottle he purchased was fake and filled with what he described as ‘toilet water’. So we tried to be as careful as possible, particularly with consumables. We always checked water bottles carefully before buying them or accepting them at restaurants, occasionally the seals for water bottles would look broken or just not right in some way and we had no compunction about sending them back.
Most of the outdoor gear is fake unless you go to one of the few real brand name shops in town, such as the North Face store. You won’t find any real deals there though, the prices are the same as back home. Though the hundreds of shops are undoubtedly selling counterfeit goods, that doesn’t mean that they are no good. A counterfeit T-shirt, is still a T-shirt after all. So if you don’t mind that some of your purchases are fakes, then it’s no big deal. Just stay away from items which could be a safety concern, such as climbing gear, is a fake rope still a good rope? I don’t want to find out.
A short walk from Thamel you can find the old center of town, Durbar Square. Filled with traditional temples and the palace once used by the city’s rulers.
The Boudha Stupa
Stupas are temples or shrines which are the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist community in Kathmandu. The largest of which is the Boudha Stupa, a large white domed building with large eyes painted on the top. Hundreds of Buddhists and tourists make the pilgrimage to this stupa to preform the ‘kora’ – or to just take pictures of it. The kora is a personal ceremony each buddhist monk, or devout buddhist performs when visiting. It involves walking clockwise around the stupa ringing the many bells and spinning the many barrel shaped prayer wheels.
One of our first impressions of Kathmandu was shock over the surprising amount of pollution, particularly the air pollution. One of the sad but unavoidable realities of this massive city is its growing pollution problem. Wholly unexpected from our ideas of Nepal being a pristine mountain paradise, the reality is that massive population growth, particularly in the cities as the nation’s rural population abandons the farm in search of more opportunities, along with the growing demand for commercial goods and all the plastic packaging that entails, have contributed to a massive pollution problem. Nepalese do not dispose of trash properly, instead they dump it alongside the roads and try to burn it, leaving piles of half burned trash and smoke everywhere. The crowded streets are filled with motorcycles, taxis, and ancient buses all spewing clouds of thick black smoke into the air. At times the smog was so thick that it was hard to see more than a few blocks down any given street. The local population has started wearing face masks when outside and many western visitors as well. It is said that anyone visiting the city for more than a few days runs a serious risk of developing a respiratory issue. Krista purchased a face mask and I wrapped a scarf around my face, to little benefit. The smell of smoke and chemicals is everywhere, particularly this time of year as everything just hangs in the cold unmoving air.
The air quality changed day to day and we did have a few days where it was clear enough to take pictures of the nearby mountains, though the smell of smoke was still strong in the air.
Despite the less than perfect air quality, we both really enjoyed our time in Kathmandu and all of Nepal. The Nepalese people are extremely welcoming and friendly. The food was also amazing, the options available in Kathmandu were the widest so far on our entire trip. Any type of cuisine and just about anything you could want to shop for can be found in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is known for several other popular tourist sites such as the Swayambhu “Monkey” Temple, Pashupatinath temples and ghats, and Patan’s Durbar Square, which we opted not to visit for various reasons including some cold and rainy weather.
Now that we had our visas for India in hand after three visits to the Indian consulate, (first to submit the application, second to turn in the passport, and third to pick up passport with affixed visa) we were heading south towards the Indian border.