Kathmandu is a chaotic city – a metropolis by number (with a population of 975,000 within city limits, and 2.5 million in the surrounding area) it is absolutely bustling, seeming like it grew out organically from the center. With densely crowded streets mostly lacking pedestrian sidewalks, navigating the streets and alleys in the Thamel district is initially harrowing.
The average tourist is initially completely overwhelmed by the sights and sounds on the street – mostly because you are right there in the middle of it, and has likely never experienced such sensory overload. Just trying to walk to the nearest restaurant or shop will entail squeezing by street vendors and their wares, veering around other pedestrians and tourists, and having to quickly get out of the way of honking cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks. You scramble over trash piles and potholes in the street as there are no sidewalks. Wave after wave of food, animal, sewage, and mysterious smells wash over you. There is a constant, grating onslaught of honking as cars and motorbikes veer around pedestrians in the narrow streets. You come to realize that the honking is not meant in the aggressive American language of “Get out of the way!” but more of a kind of constant “I’m here…Here I am…Coming by!” which means no offense but actually is a safety precaution, given the complete lack of strict traffic laws. And in all the time that we spent in and around Kathmandu, we saw only one accident (where someone had, inebriated, driven off a bridge and into a drainage ditch). Granted, there are less busy, more peaceful areas of the city, most of which tourists never venture out to see.
We landed in Kathmandu pretty late at night – around 10 pm, which then was followed by the process of filling out and paying for a temporary visa, which took about an additional hour and a half. First we had to wait in a long line to pay for the visa, after which we entered another long line to wait for the actual visa to be entered into our passport. We applied for the 30-day visa, which cost $40 (recently raised from $25) – and you better have exact change. Finally, after getting the visa, we walked out with our baggage into the arrival area where we were met by my mom, who had been there for two weeks already, and her helpful acquaintance Ram who had arranged transport for us to our hotel. Needless to say, it was such a relief to see my mom who had been in the country alone for a few days.
The ride to the airport was dark, dusty, and gave us a preview of what Kathmandu was like. It felt so unreal to be there, in another beautiful, raw foreign country. I was thoroughly tired from the long journey, but excited down to my core. My mom knew we would be hungry and so she had bought some bread and yak cheese for us to snack on – and it was delicious.
The ride from the airport to the Thamel district was about 30 mins, and the streets were completely dark, dusty, and empty. Dogs were roaming and fighting around trash piles, and the city looked abandoned. A dystopian paradise.
We were staying at the Kathmandu Prince Hotel, in the Thamel district.
The hotel was adequately comfortable – and we were staying in a room on the first floor, which we later learned was typically where the worse rooms were located, with quality increasing on upper floors. The mattress and pillows on the bed were pretty hard – i.e. no collapsing onto the bed after a long day! The room was poorly lit, with a single dim bulb hanging from the ceiling, and other lights in the room would not work at all. The bathroom was a bit of a tricky place, and this was another thing we got used to. Plumbing is a kind of tricky aspect of living in Nepal, as all of the pipes seemed to have some sort of issue. The water coming out of the sink would spray about in all directions unless fine-tuned slowly and carefully. Taking a shower was not really a possibility as the water was incredibly cold and took a long time to warm up even slightly, and then oscillated wildly. However, these observations are NOT in the slightest complaints about Nepal – simply things that we got used to and came to expect as we traveled throughout the country. Others who are unaware of the reasons for such minor inconveniences come to judge the country harshly from a rather shallow viewpoint.
Our first day in Kathmandu we spent exploring the areas within walking distance around the hotel – the busy streets filled with small shops and restaurants geared mostly towards tourists. Several shops were filled with outdoor adventure gear for the people that would be going trekking in the Himalayas. Here you can purchase down jackets, sleeping bags, waterproof stuff sacks, fleeces, flashlights/headlamps, hats, gloves, rain gear, duffle bags, packs, hiking poles, etc. Be warned that most of the gear are knock-offs, primarily labeled with a The North Face brand, although there were also Mammut, Mountain Hardwear, and various other recognizable brands. The classic Nepali knock-off of Everest Hardwear (complete with an image of the MH bolt) is pretty awesome and makes a good souvenir. A lot of these knock-offs were convincing to a large degree, although I would be careful with purchasing the more important gear items like down jackets, sleeping bags, packs, and hiking boots. You might want to purchase boots and packs (and other essential gear) at home to be sure that the quality can hold up and be comfortable. You definitely don’t want to be stuck in the Himalayas with painful boots, faulty gear, or an ill-fitting pack. One of the things I purchased was a lightweight “Mammut” fleece for 800 NPR (about $8). I have to say that I am absolutely in love with it – the quality is comparable and it has adequate zippers, pockets, and even a breast pocket and thumb-holes. All the Mammut labels are on (just don’t look at them TOO closely) – from front to back. I was looking for something exactly like this, and really wish I had had the space to send more home. Another great purchase was a duffle bag labeled with “The North Face Waterproof Bag”. We got a large size for about $12 and sent it home packed with our souvenirs and excess clothes after the trip. We inspected the seams and the handiwork all seemed legit, and in the end it held up perfectly. Works great and makes for a special souvenir!
I would recommend saving money on hiking poles and buying them in Kathmandu or Pokhara. They are in every gear store, and the ones back home, while you can get quality titanium ones, are upwards of $80. In Nepal, you can buy an adequate one for around $4. For that price, purchase two if you have the room – just in case one breaks.
After exploring and trying to fight our jetlag – the time difference between Los Angeles, CA, and Kathmandu being 12 hours and 45 minutes forward – we relaxed for a while at the hotel, waiting for my dad and my brother to land in the city. When they did, we all relaxed, happy to have made it together after being in such different parts of the world. We were all incredibly excited to be there, and looking forward to our great adventure in Nepal, and the upcoming trek to Annapurna Base Camp.