Nepal / Travel

City Break: Kathmandu

Here’s what the flight itinerary looked like: TLH –> DFW –> LAX –> NRT –> SIN –> KTM.

After about 48 hours of travel, I was thrilled to finally be in Kathmandu. Flying in, you can see the peaks of the Himalayas puncturing a bank of clouds that look like fleece from a newly shorn sheep. The city seems to sprawl over the valley from a distance; closer in, I realized that the sprawl is really a squashed cluster, each hive of buildings crowded closer than the last.

It’s warmer than I expected, maybe in the mid-70s when I start my wander through Thamel, the central tourist area of Kathmandu. The streets are narrow, crisscrossed with prayer flags. Souvenir shops and restaurants abound, outnumbered only by the trekking outfits. Bicycles, cars and motorbikes vie for space; if Kathmandu were a sound, it would be the sound of horns. The traffic rules remind me of Vietnam: take a deep breath and step out, keeping a steady pace. There are few red lights and if you wait for the traffic to clear before crossing, you’d better not make plans for the evening. The city is dusty and my mouth seems to be perpetually dry. It’s hectic and crowded, but even with the dogs, cats and occasional cow wandering along, and the men’s proclivity for spitting, the shop owners take pride in their space and I have to skip out of the way of the brooms.

Thamel is a wonderful place to wander with no plan and no map. The architecture is a hodgepodge of construction where newer looking brick buildings seem to support ramshackle wooden structures with elaborate railings and shutters. A massive tree grows up between two brick buildings and it’s hard to determine which was there first. Stupas, statues, shrines and antiquities appear without warning. A glance into an alcove reveals a courtyard with a statue; women are rocking their babies on their laps, chatting, while the men perch on benches near the gate. I take one turn, then another, stumbling onto the veggie alley with the day’s tomatoes, greens and cauliflower spread on a sheet in the street. I inhale deeply near one of the spice sellers and recognize cloves and ginger, but am unable to place other unfamiliar scents.

There are plenty of patios and rooftop bars to sit, sip a Gurka beer and watch the sun go down, which is exactly what I did after my ramble. I ended up meeting up with two new friends for dinner: Kevin, an Aussie whom I met on the airplane, and Uttam, his Nepali friend. It’s Kevin’s birthday so we have dinner and end up at Sam’s Bar, a relaxed place where you can literally see the writing on the walls. Kevin lived in Nepal for about ten years, back in the “hippie days,” and returns often. The two have some amazing stories (Uttam was part of the welcoming crowds when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay returned to Kathmandu after summiting Everest; he was four years old) and they regaled me tales until the bar started flicking the lights. It was a great evening.

I head to Pokhara tomorrow with my trekking group from Active Himalayas: Vic and Karen, two ladies from North Carolina, and our leaders, Dan and Gokul. I’m ready to hit the trail!

 

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