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Kathmandu, Nepal

by Max Lent.  © 2003 Max Lent

Dirt, filth, rotting garbage, sick dogs, black clouds of exhaust fumes, incessant car and motor scooter horns blaring, smog, open sewers, feces everywhere, polluted streams, hucksters, hawkers, frightening driving, dangerous food, and even more dangerous water accurately describe one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  It also describes a place that I would rush to return to if ever I have the chance.

Delhi to Kathmandu

I am cursed with the desire to see something new, to look around the corner, never to be happy where I am.  So, having been in Delhi only for a few days, I was planning an escape to Nepal.  I wanted to see Mount Everest.  For more than twenty years I had read about expeditions to Mount Everest.  During the 1970s I met Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, the first climbers to reach the top of Everest, at a lecture at UCLA.  The scale and the mystique of the Everest enthralled me.  The thought of actually seeing made me giddy with expectation.

My sister-n-law, Hilary, put us in touch with the Inter Sky Links travel agency.  The process of dealing with an Indian travel agency was a pleasant surprise for us.  They asked us what we wanted to do and said that they would take care of us and they did.  Flying from Delhi to Kathmandu was hard to arrange on short notice.  We were traveling to Nepal in December, the busiest travel season of the year for India and Nepal.  Inter Sky Links performed the impossible and got us immediate airline and hotel reservations.  We would learn to depend on them.  We were booked on India Air from Delhi to Kathmandu and back.  While visiting Hilary’s office we asked a colleague of hers from Nepal if there was enough to see in Nepal to keep us busy for a few days.  She smiled that smile reserved for the extreme naiveté and suggested that we might find a few things to amuse ourselves.  We would soon learn how stupid our question was.  She suggested that we try a regional food called momos while we were there.  Momos are excellent steamed dumplings that were the best regional food we found in Kathmandu.

Tip:  Visas are required for Nepal.  You can fly to Nepal without a visa, but you can't get one there.  If you do fly to Nepal without a visa you will be held at the airport until you can fly to somewhere outside of the country.  We heard several horror stories about travelers who didn't know about this strict rule.

Our trip to the airport was in sharp contrast to our trip from the airport.  We were leaving in the morning, hours before the flight departed as required for international flights.  The streets were full of traffic and the airport was filled with people.  The land around the airport looked blighted and grayish beige.  I imagined that a post industrial toxic waste area might look like the land around the airport.

The hours spent at the airport were wasted.  The planes never seem to leave on time.  Few seats were available in the terminal.  Smoking is permitted only in sections of the airport.  In reality, smokers smoke everywhere.  The floors are dirty even though there are people who go through the motions of cleaning them constantly.  Banks of chairs are moved, the floors swept with a mechanical sweeper that doesn’t pick up dirt, and the chairs are moved back over the dirt.  Finding gates at the airport is tricky.  The gates are often labeled incorrectly and the announcements over the PA system are unintelligible. 

The India Air airplanes were old and well worn.  The seats were as small as could be can be and still seat humans.  The décor of the plane we were on was circa 1960 or earlier.  The windows of the plane were so badly scratched from years of wear that it was impossible see anything but large objects by looking through them.  The flight attendants were run ragged by the Indians aboard.  For some reason, the Indians seemed to need something, anything, every few minutes.  Americans and Europeans required almost nothing by comparison.  Just before takeoff, the flight attendants passed out cotton balls for our ears and a small cheap unpleasant candy.  The cotton balls were, of course, worthless and did nothing to stop ear pressure.  They were, after all, very porous to air.

A passenger with a serious cough sat across the isle.  I expected that I would have the same symptoms as soon as the virus could infect my body.  I was right.  Within days I had the same symptoms.

From the air, all of India looked like it was covered in a blanket of smog, which it was.  The combination of the scratched windows and the smog made it impossible to see the ground from the plane.

As we approached Kathmandu we could just barely see the Himalayas through the abraded plastic windows.  From what we could see the mountains were beautifully grand in scale.

The Kathmandu airport is smaller than the Delhi airport, a fact that was not unexpected.  Because we were entering a new country we had to fill out customs forms when we landed.  The forms were available from at counters in the airport.  I never successfully filled out one correctly, but my attempt was close enough to be acceptable.  One requirement that seemed impossible for me to obey was to fill out the form using only uppercase characters.  I knew I was supposed to and I kind of wanted to be agreeable, but my fingers just wouldn’t cooperate.  I hate forms and purposely lie whenever I believe I can get away with it.  Filling out customs forms in foreign countries is one area where I don’t get sarcastic.

Air India requires its passengers to reconfirm their confirmed tickets when they get to their destination.  We attempted to reconfirm our tickets at the airport, but were informed that we would have to confirm our tickets in person at the airline’s downtown office.  This was the start of a minor misadventure dealing with India Air and leaving Nepal.  We picked up our bags and headed out into the taxi area.  Our travel agent had arranged for transportation for us from the airport to our hotel.


The sights we saw on our drive into town were even more exotic and foreign looking than what we had been impressed with in India.  The people looked more Asian and many were very handsome..  They seemed to smile a great deal and joked with each more than we might have expected considering the conditions in which they lived.  The trucks were even more extravagantly decorated than in India.  Their clothing was different, the architecture was different, and the smells were different.  This would be just the beginning of our discoveries of how different Nepal is from India and how different the regions of Nepal are from each other.  We were thrilled.View of Katmandu, Nepal from the Royal Singha hotel

Inter Sky Links booked us at a luxury hotel named the Royal Singhi.  We obtained an excellent room rate through Yeti Travel, a local travel agent associate of Inter Sky Links.  Based on the fact that we never saw another American or European in the hotel or its restaurant we concluded this was a hotel primarily for Asian tourists.  Our stay at the hotel was enjoyable.  The hotel was much nicer than we had been led to expect from reading travel narratives of the region.  It was clean, modern, new looking, and nicely appointed.  The staff was helpful, courteous, and efficient.  The food at the hotel restaurant was generally adequate.  The wonderful exception was the tasty momos.  We quickly became addicted to these small steamed dumplings and kept the kitchen busy making them daily and at odd hours.  The wait staff was quick, attentive, and anticipated our needs.  During some of our meals we had all four of the wait staff hanging out at our table.  We were becoming quite impressed with ourselves until we discovered through conversation with them that the wait staff were interested in trying out their English language skills and that we were the only English speakers that had shown up in a while.  It was a pleasant experience and we learned a great deal about life in Kathmandu from the perspective of locals.  The young woman who insisted on waiting our table told us that she was going to school, working at the hotel something like 10 hours a day, and was the sole wage earner for her family.  She had a husband and children at home which she also cared for.  We were told this story without a hint of complaint.  Her long days at the hotel and at school didn't dampen her enthusiasm.  Her husband had lost his job.  She seemed, like most people we met in India and Nepal, upbeat and convinced that if she worked hard enough she would succeed.  We had not doubt that she would.

Our room, high in the hotel, had a wonderful view of the city.  Even through the haze and smog we could see interesting architecture everywhere we looked.  From our window we could look down into a walled courtyard and house where we watched the everyday happenings of venders and workmen coming and going.   The ever present and constantly barking dogs of Kathmandu were far enough below us that we were not disturbed by them when we slept.  We imagined that guests other hotels with fewer stories were less shielded from the barks than we were.  In Kathmandu, as elsewhere, always ask for a high floor when booking a hotel room.

We developed a love/hate relationship with Kathmandu.  We loved touring the temples and hated being hustled at every turn.  We loved the crafts, but tired easily from the intense haggling over price.  We loved the richness of the city and disliked dealing with its high population density.  Our emotions constantly seesawed from elation to disgust. 

Kathmandu like other Third World cities suffers from growing pains.  The basic services infrastructure does not support the needs of its ever expanding population.  There are too many people and not enough resources.  People urinate and defecate in the streets and parks, but only because they have no choice.  The single public restroom we saw we smelled first from half a block away.  It was so disgusting that only a few men used it.  Given a choice, I would have defecated in a park with everyone else rather than attempt to brave the public toilet.  Unlike other countries we have visited there seems to be little and little difference in the level of modesty between genders when it comes to public toilet practices.

The streets were lined with garbage.  People take their garbage to the curb and toss it.  Dogs soon show up to dig through and disperse the garbage.  After that, small children, go through and disperse it even more as they look for food and salvageable materials.  Periodically, women show up and sweep the garbage into new piles that eventually end up in trashcans.  The problem is that the garbage is generated faster than it is cleaned up.  On walks from our luxury hotel we frequently had to hold our noses or just not inhale as we walked around piles of garbage.  After dark, we had to step around children burning the combustible parts of the garbage for heat.  We found what we saw hard to deal with at an emotional level.

The cold viruses that I was exposed to on the flight across the Atlantic and again on the way from London to Delhi and from Delhi to Kathmandu finally caught up with me.  I was sick.  Not terribly sick, just enough to make me desirous for American cold remedies.  My customary American made cold remedies were not available in Kathmandu.  Instead, other, unknown to me, remedies from European drug companies were available from little hole in the wall pharmacies that looked more like newsstands than pharmacies.  They did sell magazines and newspapers, so my observation was not unfounded.  I bought whatever seemed to have ingredients I was familiar with and tried them.  The prices were cheap and you could buy as few as one foil-wrapped pill at a time if needed.  Some of the pills I bought were extremely effective, but I can't remember what they were called.  Most of the drugs I bought would have required a prescription in the U.S.Durbar Square Katmandu, Nepal

On our first afternoon in Kathmandu Tina wanted to take a walk to Durbar Square.  Being sick from a viral infection, I voted for taking a cab or just resting at the hotel.  We had two maps and both agreed that Durbar Square was not far away, so we decided to walk.  The first thing we discovered was that few of the streets were labeled with street signs.  The second thing we discovered was that our maps gave misleading clues to distances between places.  Everything was farther away from everything else than the maps showed.  We started toward Durbar Square and immediately became disoriented.  I was in bad mood from being tired and ill, so I wasn’t much help.  By examining the maps without thought to actual distances I was able to guess where we were.  We crossed a huge park called Ratna Park and entered the commercial district.  During our walk to and through Ratna Park we saw more street vendors than we had seen anywhere in our travels in India.  These vendors were not selling traditional crafts to tourists.  What they were selling was cheap low quality western style goods like nylon underwear, poorly made jeans, flimsy sweatshirts, thin socks, and crudely made bras.  Some vendors were selling watches that were submerged in plastic basins filled with water.  Submerging the watches in water was a means of demonstrating their water resistance.  There were thousands of vendors lining the sidewalks and pathways in every direction.  Everyone was ready to play the bargaining game and they were good at it.  Tina looked a wool shawl and decided she didn’t want it.  As she was walking away the vendor lowered the price to about a couple of dollars.  Tina couldn’t resist the offer and bought it.  It is now a prized possession.

I was hot and sticky with fever, but having committed to find Durbar Square I walked on.  We strolled through the commercial district and picked up some cues about our location and headed more accurately toward our destination.  Light was fading and we wanted to see it in daylight, so we picked up our pace. 

Durbar Square at last.  What a surprise it was to turn a corner and walk into a square that looked so ancient and Asian.  The pagoda architecture of the temples was definitely Asian inspired.  Venders of tourist trinkets populated the center of the square and the storefronts surrounding part of the square.  The venders in the center of the square sat on oriental rugs and blankets.  All kinds of metal ware, antiques, fabrics, and other merchandise were piled high on the ground and on makeshift tables.  The scene was breathtaking.  By the time we reached the square daylight was fading to night.  The pagoda-like temples slowly turned from red to black as they became silhouettes against the sky.  There were no electric lights in the square, so the venders started lighting oil and kerosene lamps to light their wares.  Most were dressed in traditional clothing.  As night descended over the square it looked even more archaic and exotic.  We imagined that the scene we were seeing had been repeated without much change for more than a thousand years.

We couldn’t tolerate the hucksters for more than a few minutes at a time.  Some of the hucksters tried to sell me drugs.  My guess is that the drug sellers were probably undercover cops.  Getting busted for buying pot in Nepal or any other foreign country can result in lengthy unpleasant prison stays.  I opted to stick with my over the counter cold remedies as drugs of choice.  When we became overwhelmed by the hucksters we ducked into nearby shops.  One shop at the corner of the square had a huge collection of antique fabrics.  I walked in and was shown around by candlelight.  Within a couple of minutes I found the most expensive fabric in the shop.  It was an antique bedspread covered with mirrors and a large amount of hand embroidery.  The starting price was about $500.  I loved it and thought we should have bought it.  Tina disagreed.  I still regret not bargaining for and buying it.  Over time the memory of the bedspread has taken on mythical proportions.  With each retelling of the story it becomes more beautiful and more priceless.

Leaving the square, we walked back toward our hotel.  We now had a better idea of where we were and selected a different route.  Following the recommendations of our Frommer's Travel Guide we walked to an "authentic" Nepalese restaurant next to a Hindu Shrine.  The restaurant was overpriced and catered to tourist groups that arrived by the busload.  Our dinner was not worth writing home about and we couldn't see the ethnic dance performances because they were part of the show put on for the tour bus crowd.  Like luaus we had seen in Hawaii, this was a pseudo ethnic experience created just for tourists.

Along the way back to the hotel, I stopped into a convenience store to buy facial tissue.  My nose was running and tissues are hard to find.  I bought some whenever the opportunity arose.  I noticed that the store's cash register was actually a computer with a cash drawer so I started a conversation with the proprietor about computers.  During the conversation I asked if there were any Internet cafes nearby.  He said that there was and gave us directions.  Unfortunately, I asked the wrong question.  I should have asked about Internet access which would have brought forth a different answer. 

We didn't find the Internet Cafe that night.  We found it on a different walk through the neighborhood.  It had been closed when we walked by the first time.  What we found by accident was what I should have asked about in the first place, a shop offering Internet access in addition to copying, faxing, typing and other services.  These shops are ubiquitous throughout India's and Nepal's cities.  They are often small and lit by bad fluorescent lighting.  The computers are often old and using old versions of Windows.  Most of the time their Internet service is a dial-up connection using a slow modem.  The telecommunications infrastructure was primitive at best.  The demand for broadband exists everywhere, but corporate and government entities have remained unresponsive to the demand.  I negotiated the use of a computer at 6 cents per minute.  At first this may seem inexpensive, but using an old computer with a slow modem takes more time than you might expect.  I emailed greetings to a couple of friends and colleagues using my Microsoft HotMail account.  The messages were well received and unexpected.  Primitive and the futuristic technologies coexist throughout Nepal and India.  We experienced the contrast often and were amazed with every encounter.

What the Internet shops and Internet cafes did not have was a means of transferring data from a Palm Pilot to their computers.  I asked as several places if I could temporarily install the Palm synchronization software to upload my notes to their computer and email them home.  No place would let me install software on their computers.  The way I solved the problem was to upload my notes to my notebook computer every night and then copy them to floppy disks so that I could have redundant backups.

One of the secrets of traveling well, especially in foreign countries, is learning to adapt.  Being stranded can either make you crazy because of lost time and disrupted schedules or it can open opportunities for new unexpected experiences.  When we travel we never schedule our time too closely.  We often try not to schedule our time at all, except for leaving and return dates.

With a few days on our hands we managed to go on a flight to Mount Everest, a tiger safari, and tour the Kathmandu Valley.  We were not impressed with the way we were treated by India Air, but we owe them gratitude for providing us with opportunities to see Nepal in greater detail than we would have under any other circumstances.

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