I’m a mountain person – you can keep the beaches if I can have the mountains – so given I wasn’t trekking, my absolute top priority for Nepal was the “mountain flight” out of Kathmandu. On a clear day – the flights don’t go on any other – you fly parallel with the Himalaya range towards Everest, and then the passengers take it in turns to gaze through the cockpit window at the world’s highest mountain. On my first day I arranged with Pujan at the Courtyard to go the next morning, and kept my fingers crossed for fine weather.
I was lucky. I had a ticket for the 7:30 flight, but my taxi got to KTM in time for me to be moved up to the 7:00, before the clouds rolled in. I couldn’t have asked for a better view – just for more time to enjoy it! But while I marveled at the mountains, I could see how much effort was involved in merely reaching their feet, never mind actually climbing one. Personally, I’m quite content just to look. (In fact, I find what has happened to Everest, with “tourist” climbers and a trashed Base Camp, tragic).
That was my second morning in Kathmandu. My first, I took a rickshaw (mindful of my still bad foot) to Durbar Square. Wow, wish I’d made it back there later – I could spend hours just watching the passing parade. Tourists and locals. Old and young. Sellers and buyers – or at least lookers. Sadhus. Cows. And let’s not forget the buildings. Dusty red brick and carved wooden beams, rising amid the swirl of activity. I climbed the steps of one of the taller buildings and settled down to watch the show. Later, I found a ceremony under way, with two rows of seated men, garlands round their necks and flowers and lamps in front of them.
That afternoon I took a taxi to Swayambhunath, one of the iconic Nepalese stupas with the all-seeing Buddha eyes. The proper approach to the temple is up a great many steep steps, home to a horde of monkeys. No way would I have made it all the way up, never mind down, so I was glad my taxi could take me to a parking lot near the top. The stupa, impressive on its own, is surrounded by statues and shrines that could keep a devotee occupied for quite some time. After admiring a selection I made my way up to the Cafe de Stupa to check out the views – alas, mostly lost in haze. I could see, however, that the Kathmandu valley, once filled with water, then with fields, is now almost completely filled with buildings. The owner of the cafe said that much of the building had happened in the last twenty years, and that land prices were crazy. I can attest that the resulting traffic is more than crazy.
Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, now essentially one big city, were once separate kingdoms, each with its own durbar, or palace, square. The square at Patan was much more sedate than Kathmandu’s, although with similar elaborate buildings. I spent some time in the museum (the one in Kathmandu had been closed) and then went for lunch in the museum cafe, where I had been assured I would find a quiet oasis. Not any more. A buffet had been set up for the several tour groups already present. I did find a table somewhat removed from the groups, and ate (not very well) off the menu, but it wasn’t the atmosphere I expected. Bhaktapur’s square isn’t really a square, with buildings scattered over a wider area. Seeing it third may have affected my response, but I found it less interesting than the other two. I did find a good place for a good lunch – the Watshala Garden Restaurant.
Aside from the square, and traffic jams, what I mostly saw of Kathmandu was Thamel. The closest equivalent is probably Bangkok’s Khao San Road, but Thamel is bigger, and louder. A maze of tall buildings, hung with signs proclaiming the businesses crammed into all three or four stories, its streets packed with pedestrians, rickshaws, motor bikes, cars, it exists to make money from foreigners. Whatever you need to trek, or to travel, in Nepal, you can find in Thamel. (You can surely find some less legal things as well, but I didn’t go looking for them.) Although raucous by day, it quiets down surprisingly quickly at night, as the action moves indoors.
The time to have visited Kathmandu, of course, was back in the sixties and early seventies. I did wonder, winding my way among the crowds in Thamel, how my life might have turned out if I had headed for Nepal forty years ago, instead of going to work for IBM.