Wednesday 15th December, 1999. Varanasi to Kathmandu
Leaving India behind us, we’re off on a new adventure to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. The flight on Indian Airways is only fifty minutes and it’s all spectacular. The snow covered peaks of the Annapurna Mountains rise above the clouds and we circle our way down between rugged mountains surrounding the green Kathmandu Valley that stretches out below us. As we land at Tribhuvan International Airport, we’re 1200 feet above sea level and the day is warm with a brilliant blue sky.
The formalities are quick and soon we’re speeding away in a rusty old car which we’ve been told is the airport taxi. The driver and his friend are both street-wise young men who seem to be taking us on a wild goose chase. When I ask ‘are we going the right way’ the driver assumes we’ve been here before and we say ‘yes, many times’.
Now we’re back on what looks like a main road and are soon driving through the narrow crowded streets of Kathmandu. It’s different to India but similar, too. Like India, the buildings are all in need of a coat of paint and washing is hanging out from upper balconies. The streets are crowded but, because only a few women here wear saris, there’s less colour and there’s not a cow to be seen anywhere.
An inner area called Thamel is the backpacker district and where we have a booking at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. Thamel is like an oasis for people who’ve been in India for too long. Here are cafes, bakeries, pubs, souvenir shops and tourist agencies.
Despite this, Thamel still retains its Asian flavour with its dusty, narrow streets and cycle-rickshaws. Before long, our ‘taxi’ pulls in at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. After reading the Lonely Planet this was the only place we wanted to stay. As well as being in the centre of all the action, it’s the original hotel around here and the most famous especially if you want to meet other travellers.
There’s a large paved courtyard in front where tables and chairs have been set up under the trees. A bar is at one side and trekking shops and a bicycle rental place are along the alleyway to the street. Inside, the foyer looks like a postcard of a chalet. The walls and low ceiling are lined with dark panelled wood, there’s a copper and brass open fireplace with comfy lounges pulled up in front, Indian carpets, red velvet curtains and huge windows looking out onto an inner garden.
We carry our packs inside and then we’re shown to our room along a wooden panelled corridor. Small offices, an internet room, a beauty parlour, a massage room and information rooms lead off here. The whole place appears to be extremely organised.
Our room is on the first floor and entered through arched double wooden doors. Down two steps and we’re in a huge room with the bed at one end then lounge chairs, a dressing table, a television, wardrobes and the biggest bathroom we’ve ever seen. We have a long vanity, a toilet and a bath and a shower with the first shower curtain we’ve seen in Asia. To top it off, the toilet works and we have water – hot water – luxury!
Leaving the unpacking till later, we go out to check out the area. In front of an old Newari house, we sit in the sun near a buddhist monk wearing the maroon robes like those in Sarnath. Incredibly, the streets are empty of rubbish and there’s no smell – more luxury. Later in the courtyard of our guesthouse we order Carlsberg beers and then, after dark, we wander around to the Rum Doodle Bar, also famous as a traveller’s haunt.
The temperature has dropped and the atmosphere in here is cosy with an open fire and trekking paraphernalia on the walls. Although we’d only planned to stay for a beer, the fire is too nice to leave so we order dinner as well. It’s also hard to pass up the menu. Mark orders steak and vegetables while I order soup and garlic bread. More beers and then back to bed.
Thursday 16th December, 1999. Kathmandu
Mornings are foggy at this time of year in Kathmandu so it gives us a good excuse to sleep in. We don’t leave the room until 9.30am and have breakfast at Alice’s Restaurant. This is an atmospheric rooftop café and another well-known hippie eating place.
Across the narrow street are other sunny rooftop cafes packed with travellers and below us the street is buzzing. We decide to hang around Kathmandu today and start out by doing a walking tour of the old area.
Rickshaws are easy to come by and we’re soon being cycled through the crowded streets. The air looks hazy from dust or fog or both – very otherworldly. Our driver drops us off at Thahiti Tole which is a busy little square with lots of tiny temples around the outside and a large 15th century stupa in the middle.
Rickshaw drivers in colourful hand-embroidered skullcaps are lounging around in the sun and in no obvious hurry to find any customers. From here we keep walking through narrow streets to visit more temples and an old monastery and later to the tiny Ugratara Temple which you visit if you have sore eyes.
Next to this is a lump of wood onto which you nail coins to get rid of a toothache – seriously. If this doesn’t work a whole street nearby is dedicated to dentists. We can’t read the signs but it doesn’t matter as over each doorway hangs a hand-painted pair of smiling dentures. My Buddha, don’t let us get a toothache.
Further on, we climb a wooden ladder to reach a tiny shop not much bigger than a closet. Here we buy an embroidered wall hanging from two men who are sewing other hangings just like it on old treadle machines. Sewing is the done thing here in Nepal and we’ve seen people using these old machines all through the streets.
This area is incredible as the shops are either down one step through a baby-sized doorway or up one step to a cupboard-sized room. I can’t see why this is. I mean, the Nepalese are a small people but they’re not pygmies. These shops definitely aren’t made for tall Westerners especially like Mark and we both have to bend our heads to get through the doorways.
As we keep walking, Mark buys a pair of red zip-off pants with embroidered edges and I buy a navy woolen coat with maroon trim – very Nepalese. It’s actually cold enough here at night to wear a coat and I just have to get the ‘look’ even though we’re not going anywhere near mountains or snow.
I swear we must be the only people in Kathmandu who aren’t trekking – already been or about to go. We just haven’t got the time and besides that we’re so stuffed from our India stint we can barely walk down the street. That’s my excuse, anyway.
We soon find our way back to Thamel, pick up our photos and have lunch in one of the sunny rooftop cafes we saw this morning from Alice’s Restaurant. The cafe is above a bakery that makes fresh bead rolls and cakes all day and, consequently, is always packed.
Now we decide to ask if we can get a cheaper room at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. We don’t need our huge room that’s costing us too much money. We’re in luck and not only can we get a cheaper room but we like this one even more. It’s on the next floor and we have a window at the back that looks out over trees and an old Newari house and a balcony at the front from where we can see snow-capped mountains. The sun is streaming into the bedroom and the bathroom and our verandah overlooks an inner garden and pond.
By now, it’s three o’clock and just enough time to cycle to the hilltop temple of Swayambhunath. We hire mountain bikes near the guesthouse and set off through the busy streets. Mark’s a good rider but I haven’t been on a bike in years so I’m hopeless – and scared.
There’s so much traffic but I go screaming (literally) through the first few streets being totally amazed that I’m still on the bike. At a chaotic intersection we both get off and push our bikes across and then jump back on them again as the traffic thins. After crossing a wide bridge we start the climb to the temple. This area is only a few kilometres from the centre of Kathmandu but already it’s taking on a more rural atmosphere. We can see terraces and green fields and always the snow-capped mountains (love saying that) in the distance. The road is unpaved now and full of potholes, which are really hard to miss. Near the top we pass a school and then at last the temple steps are in sight.
Here are the usual stalls and shops all trying to tempt the hundreds of tourists that visit the temple every day. Although it’s a popular tourist destination, there’s no tourist buses or hordes of people like we’ve seen in some places in India. I guess that late afternoon is a good time to miss the crowds. The majority of people here are Nepalese either making their way up the stairs or just hanging around. It’s quite peaceful which is just as it should be.
Tall trees shade the whole area and are growing beside the steps all the way to the top. Two huge buddha statues painted orange and yellow sit on either side of the base of the steps and coloured prayer flags are strung high up in the trees across the path. A man passes us carrying two huge bundles of dried twigs from a pole across his shoulders and two girls are grooming each other’s hair looking for bugs, I suppose.
At the bottom of the stairs is a huge prayer wheel inside a small doorway and outside is a row of smaller prayer wheels. Mark walks along the row spinning each one to send off prayers to Buddha ‘heaven’ – lovely.
After chaining up our bikes we start our climb of the three hundred and sixty steps to the temple. Not having one iota of fitness it’s a hard climb. I take it slow and Mark doesn’t mind waiting. There’s so much to occupy us on the way up anyway.
The Nepalese women are so colourful in their traditional clothes and on every landing are stalls selling jewelry and trinkets. Swayambhunath is also called the Monkey Temple and there’s a tribe of them here playing in the trees and on the handrailings. We’re nearly there but going up the last group of steps I’m almost on my hands and knees – pathetic.
At the top at last to find the whole area crammed with temples, a monastery, carved pillars, bronze statues and stalls selling prayer wheels and other religious curios. Of course, dominating it all is the huge central stupa where the eyes of the Buddha look out from the four sides of the base of its golden spire.
Best of all are the fabulous views of the green Kathmandu Valley with snow-capped mountains (sorry) in the distance. On the hillside behind the top platform are other stupas and shrines and monkeys everywhere. These ones are small and incredibly cute to watch.
Before heading back down the stairs, it’s my turn to spin the prayer wheels. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Nepal was to do just this. Half way down the stairs we stop to buy silver bangles and rings from a smiling local lady and have fun bartering. At the bottom we pay the little man who watched over our bikes even though we’d chained them up.
Apparently if someone doesn’t keep an eye on them, kids let down the tyres and then you have to pay them to pump them back up – ingenious really. Riding back into Kathmandu, I’m feeling more confident and only manage to sideswipe one little boy. It’s starting to get dark by now so we’re glad to get back into Thamel and the guesthouse.
Hot showers and a change into our ‘good’ clothes. I wear a beautiful black shawl I’d bought in India and we have a posh dinner in the courtyard sitting next to a wood fire. A few beers and then we find the dingiest little bar down the street. It’s down a tiny alley and up a ladder-like set of wooden steps, very dark inside, posters of Bob Marley on the wall, candles on the low tables and sixties music coming from behind the bar.
We sit on the floor on cushions and order cocktails with strange Kathmanduish names – very hippie. Of course, we love it and should have stayed instead of going on to the Irish Pub further down the street. No atmosphere here and feeling drunk anyway so we spend the rest of the night watching a crappy movie on the AXN station in our room.
Friday 17th December, 1999. Kathmandu to Patan to Bhaktapur
Another sleep-in and again we don’t leave the room till 9.30am. Along a side street we find an interesting café where we sit on cushions in a cosy corner for a good breakfast of omelets and toast. Today we’ve planned to visit some of the other towns in the valley so we barter for a taxi to take us to Patan and Bhaktapur.
Patan is the closest and only takes us half an hour to get there. All three towns of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan have a Durbar Square which is situated in front of the palace. They’re all surrounded by temples and great places to buy Nepalese souvenirs. In Patan’s Durbar Square, we buy a prayer wheel, buddha masks and a silver ganesh.
Bhaktapur is another half-hour away and situated amongst greenery, cultivated terraces and with snow-capped mountains (sorry again) close by. The town dates back to the 14th century and looks it. We’re dropped off in a square surrounded by ancient looking shops and houses then walk down the hill to where women are busy working in vast vegetable gardens.
Mark is buying mandarins but the stall owner is ripping us off so he tells her to shove them. Back up in the main part of town we watch people washing clothes in the street, tying together bundles of straw and, everywhere, women sewing or knitting. We wander through tiny winding alleyways and in every doorway people are sitting in the sun talking or playing with children.
We take photos of two little boys whose eyes have been rimmed with black kohl. It’s a relaxed town but there’s no-one being terribly friendly. I think they see tourists here all the time and although it’s incredibly interesting, we decide to head back to Kathmandu. By now, I’m also feeling sick again and can’t wait to get back to the room.
The trip back is horrific. As we come into the outskirts of Kathmandu it’s bumper to bumper traffic and every vehicle is spewing out buckets of black shit. We thought India was polluted and we’ve been looking forward to the fresh air of Nepal. What a joke. Back to the room for a sleep then salad rolls for a picnic dinner on the bed.
Saturday 18th December, 1999. Kathmandu
We’re both feeling slightly better today but so very tired. We stay in bed till ten o’clock – our longest sleep-in yet. Breakfast is in a leafy courtyard café near our guesthouse. Neither of us eat much and we have constant dashes back to the room for emergency toilet visits.
Christmas is only a week away and the foyer of our guesthouse has been decorated in red and green and Christmas carols are being played outside – getting homesick now. Ring the girls from a small place near the guesthouse and this makes me even more homesick. Had enough of travelling, sightseeing, guidebooks, changing money, taking photographs….
Nevertheless, we can’t help ourselves and take a cycle-rickshaw to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. More stupas, shrines and temples – ‘same, same’. It is pleasant here, though, and we buy more souvenirs, climb the steps of the temple of Maju Deval and have some laughs with a couple of sadhus.
Sadhus are Hindu wanderers usually on pilgrimages from one spiritual centre to the next. The sadhus here follow different gods. One is wearing bright yellow robes and has three vertical lines (tilakas) on his forehead indicating that he is a follower of Vishnu. The other very jovial sadhu wearing red robes follows Shiva since his tilaka is three horizontal lines and he’s carrying the symbol Shiva on a long staff. I sit with the jovial sadhu on the steps of Jagannath Temple and for a small donation for his journeys I’m given yellow marigolds to wear around my neck.
Durbar Square is also the place where locals like to be seen or just to hang out reading or playing musical instruments. I should say it’s where men hang out as there are no women sitting around doing nothing.
Around the outskirts of the square are flower sellers, women selling fruit from big cane baskets, and hundreds of spices being sold from big canvas bags.
Another rickshaw ride takes us back to Thamel. Lunch is the beautiful crusty bread rolls with salad at our favourite sunny rooftop café. The afternoon is spent shopping for presents for home – had a gut full of shopping, too. We are very happy, though, with some ethnic looking cushion covers and a brass and silver urn.
By late afternoon we’re doing all the last minute things like picking up the last rolls of photos and final gift buying and Mark buys a huge bag to carry all this extra stuff home. After a few beers in the courtyard, Mark goes back to the room to pack while I go out to buy more rolls for tea – can’t stop eating them. An early night.
Sunday 19th December, 1999 Kathmandu to Singapore
We’re ready to go in plenty of time, so we just have to buy salad rolls for breakfast/lunch. Mark packs all our gear into the back of a taxi and off we go to the airport. At Departures there’s stacks of people so there must be a few planes all leaving at about the same time as ours at 1pm.
As we line up for baggage check-in, an airport ‘official’ hints that he can get all bags through without having to pay an excess. There’s lots of winking going on suggesting that we’re somehow special and he’ll look after us. We go along with the charade but the joke’s on him. If he thinks he’s going to get money out of us he’s out of luck because we haven’t got any left.
No money also means we can’t buy anything to eat in the Departure lounge. We’ve got a few coins so Mark tries to get the guy serving to let us buy a drink with only half the money but he looks at him like he’s an idiot.
To occupy ourselves we look at everything in the duty free shops but then just have to be bored and both sit there staring into space. In a moment of mindless delerium I have a sudden flash, ‘can you imagine India hosting the Olympics?’ This somehow sends us into hysterics and keeps us amused for the rest of the day.
We leave an hour late but the take off is great as we have our last glimpse of Kathmandu and the snow-capped Annapurnas. We make up some time but at Singapore’s Changi Airport we literally have to run to catch our connecting flight to Sydney. Of course this means that there wasn’t enough time for our bags to be transferred over but we don’t realise this till we get to Sydney.
Definitely not happy but we’re reassured that they will come on the same flight tomorrow and will be delivered to our home. Also not happy that we fly through a storm on the horrid little shit-box Aeropelican plane on the way back to Newcastle.
Please God, if I’m going to die in a plane let it be somewhere madly exotic and not, please God, in a mangrove swamp fifty kilometres from home. No problem, and I’m incredibly happy when I see my darling Dad, Angie, Lauren, Jacky, Emily and Alex waiting at the terminal at Pelican. Home, then, to see my beautiful Mum and all is well.