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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
On our first afternoon in Kathmandu Tina wanted to take a walk to
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
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
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
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
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.
More Nepal information.