Searching for Kathmandu
Kathmandu is one of those cities that has a strange hold over Westerners. When I would tell friends I was going to Nepal, invariably they'd get wistful looks on their faces and whisper, "Are you going to Kathmandu?"
I made my first visit in 1998, a couple of days relaxation before taking a trek. About half the people on my trip were captivated by some aura of mystique. They called Kathmandu magical and charming. Hmmm. I'd been charmed by Vietnam, China and Yugoslavia (when it was Yugoslavia.) But the allure of Kathmandu escaped me. Obviously, I thought, I'd missed something. Perhaps my few days hadn't been enough to truly judge what the city had to offer. So when I made plans for a second trip to Nepal, I decided to take enough time to really explore and see if I could find the magic.
Flying into Kathmandu the second time around was as exhilarating as my previous trip. I was again in a window seat on the right hand side of the plane, the perfect place to view the Himalay as you fly into Nepal. And I loved the thought of winging my way over the Bay of Bengal. It sounded so exotic! As we reached the edge of Nepal, I saw the unending row of white peaks poking through the clouds, rising to nearly the same height as our plane. Finally, I spotted Everest.
What a difference two years makes - if not in the Kathmandu airport itself then at least in my perception of it. We landed and taxied toward the terminal -- the same brick building in what seemed to be the same state of semi-construction. But I've gotta admit - for some reason, the airport didn't look as underdeveloped as before. Maybe my view was colored by the fact that just six weeks earlier, I had flown into Durango, Colorado - on a much smaller plane, to a much smaller and more basic terminal. It's all perspective, I suppose.
Outside the terminal, the same crowds of people yelled at the arriving passengers - a crush of young men and boys jostling each other, asking to carry your bags or help you get a cab - all to earn a few rupees. This was where you got lesson number one in how to say "no" to the very persistent entrepreneurs of Kathmandu.
We weren't more than a few yards outside of the airport when I saw the familiar cows. Not a lot - just a few, every now and then - lying down, rooting through garbage, doing whatever it is that sacred cows do. None looked very well fed. But then again - none seemed to be ailing (not that I'd recognize an ailing cow if it was standing in front of me.) On my first trip, I realized that Kathmandu doesn't smell from garbage, even though it's tossed into the streets every morning. Between the cows and the packs of dogs that feed on it, there doesn't seem to be any leftover organic material to rot. Maybe not the cleanest way to dispose of garbage, but it appears to work for Kathmandu.
Kathmandu was exactly as I remembered it. It's not an orderly city at all. But then, neither is Bangkok. Kathmandu seems to sprawl haphazardly in every direction, with no rhyme or reason or thought to design. And while you might say the same for Bangkok, at least there you find jewels of Buddhist temples tucked away, street hawkers selling tantalizing bites of gastronomic heaven and a chaos that really does have its own rhythm. In Kathmandu, the roads and streets are dusty and dustier, barely paved. People keep to the side while vans, cars, motorcycles and diesel-spewing trucks fight for space on the narrow and narrower roads. All seem to drive the same way - one hand on the gear shift and the other on the horn.
On the way to the Thamel district, where I was staying, I spotted something new - an enormous neon sign for an ATM! Oh! My heart leaped! Civilization had come to Kathmandu! Unfortunately, no one I met could get the darned things to work!
Since my mission was one of discovery, I set out early the next morning to explore - so early that Kathmandu wasn't fully awake. Surprisingly, it's not a city that rises early. It's easily 9:30 or even 10:00 before things are in full swing. As I started out on my quest, most shops were still shuttered, although a few early risers were arranging their goods on tables or brightly colored cloths set on the ground. They carefully dusted their merchandise as they laid it out, and I wondered why? The streets were so dusty that as soon as the traffic started up, everything would immediately be covered in dirt. And if one more person hocked a lugie and spit, I was gonna scream! More than a few merchants halted in mid-hock when I walked by their shops.
I wandered into a part of town that was just the locals going about their daily business, something I love doing in any city I visit. An old woman was deep frying something in a wok. I saw some cauliflower under the small, low table on which the wok sat, and thought maybe that was what she was making. I motioned to the woman that I wanted some. She asked me how many, and I held up two fingers. I honestly don't know if I told her I wanted two of the things or two orders. She dropped four into a paper cone. I handed her a 20 rupee note - about 40 cents - and got 17 rupees change.
I walked away, biting into one of the balls. It wasn't cauliflower, but dough. Maybe this was Tibetan fried bread? (Thamel is a Tibetan part of town.) It was ok. I probably wouldn't go for seconds. But it wasn't bad.
I also managed to get myself completely lost among the twisted streets and alleys of Thamel - but I wasn't worried. I knew I wasn't far from home and would eventually find my way back. And honestly, this is the best way to get to know any city.
By this time, though, more merchants were putting out their wares, and pretty soon, I was looking at brightly colored saris, some with beautiful patterns, others in deep rich hues. The owner of one stall invited me to step inside, and I did, thinking that I really didn't need more fabric, but what the heck! It never hurts to look. Besides, stuff was very inexpensive.
The man in the stall began showing me saris, and I knew I was hooked. I pointed to colored fabrics that teased me, and he pulled them out of the neatly folded stacks. Now we were doing business. We went through a number of saris until I found two that I liked - one was teal with a wide iridescent border and the other red chiffon with a white hand-beaded border. We sat down on small wooden stools to negotiate the price.
The owner pointed to each of the saris. 150 and 175, he said. I was flabbergasted, absolutely speechless! I knew prices where good - but this was downright ridiculous! I hardly felt like bargaining, but protocol demanded it. I offered 300 for both. The merchant was a little surprised, but agreed. I pulled out 300 rupees, and he said no, not rupees. US dollars! I nearly fell off my stool trying not to laugh! Oh, he must've thought he had a live one! Did he think I was so naive that I'd just fork over $300.00 for a couple of saris in a stall? Well, obviously the answer was yes!
I told him he was much too expensive, that in the US this would only cost about $25.00 (which is true.) I offered him 2,000 rupees (about US27.00), and he countered with 2200. Too much, I said, and left, laughing to myself.
Back on my travels, I stumbled on a shrine - a huge one. Actually, every few feet, it seemed, there was a shrine of some sort. Many of them are in the guide books, so they're of some note. People stop and say a prayer, anoint a statue or light incense. Cows eat the offerings left by the faithful. Unfortunately, many of these monuments are neglected and in great disrepair. At one, I stepped over piles of dog stuff and garbage to get a closer look.
Having missed Durbar Square on my first trip, it became a must now. It was walking distance from my guest house - left out the door, left at the corner and a 15-minute walk through streets jam-packed with people, stalls and shops. I stepped into the square with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation. The various buildings and temples were fascinating, even beautiful, each one different. The wooden Kasthamandap was impressive. The triple-roofed Shiva temple known as Maju Deval was imposing, almost majestic. I probably could have spent hours there, examining each structure. I could have, except for the hawkers and hustlers and the young men who offered everything from Tiger Balm (five for a hundred rupees) to their services as guides. I was polite, but firm. I wanted to do this on my own. But it was hard to keep my cool while saying "no" to the same people three or four times within a few minutes. One young man even got angry with me for refusing his services!
My frustration level up, I decided to leave Durbar Square and follow one of my walking tours. I found my starting point - Makhan Tole, a crowded street that leads toward Indra Chowk, a busy marketplace full of all kinds of wonderful goods.
Almost as soon as I started my tour, I discovered most of the points of interest (mainly temples and shrines) were quite rundown. Some were sandwiched between stalls. Others seemed to pop up out of nowhere. It was interesting to see so many ancient and valued relics mixed in with everyday life. But it was depressing to see that they're not cared for.
I was soon distracted by the great shopping possibilities. I was in heaven! At Indra Chowk, I visited the glass bead alley. In stall after stall, young men and women sat cross-legged, stringing the tiny beads on the strands that make up the carefully shaded geometric designs woven into the necklaces. Others beaded evening bags, hair ornaments - you name it. A little farther on, I found the corner that made up the shawl "department." Shawls had been on my list, so I carefully checked the products at each stall, looking to see who had the best selection. The merchants, mostly men, would lean over stacks and stacks of folded wraps, calling down to me, "You like? I have many colors." Most of the stalls carry the same basic inventory. But as you search, you'll find that one might have slightly better variety or colors more to your liking. I found mine, and a young man helped me up a huge cement step so that I could sit comfortably behind the displays while he brought out shawl after shawl. He showed me how to pluck a few fibers, roll them between your fingers and burn them so to see if the fiber content was pure wool or a synthetic mix. (If it burns cleanly, it's all natural. If some of it wads up into tiny black balls, you've got a mix.)
I bought two cashmere wraps in natural colors and one of lamb's wool dyed in deep blues and gold. I could have easily bought a dozen more. And what I paid for all three could only be described as a steal.
Also on my shopping list - tea and spices. Since I live in Los Angeles, I can get nearly every spice I need. But I followed my nose to a stall where I found a delicious smelling bright orange blend of garam masala. Having stocked up on saffron in Thailand, I passed on it here - especially since the stall owner told me it really wasn't that good. But I took two packets of the garam masala - about 8 oz each - and knew I'd wish I'd bought more.
In a shop, I found tea. Actually, I found a number of stalls and shops selling tea. And it's packaged in everything from silk brocade purses with the eyes of Buddha embroidered on them to little wooden boxes that are a pain to pack! As a real tea drinker, I didn't care about the wrapping. I opted for bags of Ilam, Kanyam and Tibetan teas. The tea from Ilam is said to be on a par with that of Darjeeling - just without the famous name.
There are no real street signs in Thamel. From time to time I'd spy a small sign marking small areas or tiny districts within Thamel, all of these consisting of just a few "streets." But you'd almost have to know where the signs were in order to find them. In spite of that, it was relatively easy to get around, and pretty soon I was zipping back and forth like a native.
The next day, I decided to escape Thamel and explore Durbar Marg, a new, modern street that was supposed to be full of upscale shops and antique stores. As soon as I stepped out of Thamel's claustrophobia, I felt as if I'd made a prison break -- but to something no better. Traffic was horrendous, with no apparent rules. I took my life in my hands crossing several four-lane streets and roundabouts between Thamel and Durbar Marg. I just closed my eyes and ran!
Durbar Marg was a disappointment. It was more of the same - clothing stores, jewelry stores, souvenir stores - just spaced out a little more and with fewer people. I found the antique shops I'd gone in search of - and each had beautiful Tibetan pieces. But the prices were high, so I opted for Plan B and a return visit to the stupa at Boudhanath. The desk clerk at the Potala Guest House told me a taxi ride should cost about 100 rupees (or about $1.30.) The first two taxis wanted double, so on principal I said no. But a rickshaw driver approached me and said he'd take my price. I asked him if he was sure - the Stupa is several miles away from Thamel, and part of the trip is uphill. Yes, said the driver. It's ok. So in I jumped, ready for an adventure, even if it took all day!
We hadn't gotten more than a few blocks when the driver had second thoughts. He pulled over and negotiated with a motorized rickshaw driver to take me the rest of the way. I climbed into the back of this - this - thing, this contraption that makes a Thai tuk tuk look luxurious!
The driver took his own backroad shortcuts, over a lot of unpaved, very rocky roads. On second thought - most of the roads in Kathmandu are rocky and unpaved. But in this motorized thing, I felt - really felt -- each bump, each stone, each jarring bounce! And we were definitely taking a route I didn't recognize. I bounced and slid and looked desperately for something to hold on to. We finally got there - rattled, but in one piece!
Boudhanath had been one of my favorite stops on my last trip, even though I remembered it as being much cleaner than it now appeared. I did catch sight of a man repainting the eyes of Buddha that stare out from the base of the spire. I guess even Buddha needs a little cosmetic touch up once in a while.
The base of the Stupa is a fascinating place to watch people. I spotted a monk in his crimson robes, running shoes and Nike backpack spinning the prayer wheels as he circumambulated the Stupa. And a group of men, sitting on small stools, playing some sort of card game. Later in the day, toward afternoon, at least half a dozen women presided over tables full of butter candles that you can light to honor Buddha. The dozens of burning candles added something to the spiritual atmosphere.
I found the prayer bead shop I had discovered on my first trip. The owner sells beads in every size, shape and material you can imagine. But you have to bargain hard with him and stand your ground. Rather than come down in price, he'll try to sell you something lesser. After I started to walk out of his shop, he finally met my price for five strings of beads. Clutching the striped fabric Tibetan pouch he had put them in, I climbed five flights of stairs to the terrace of the Stupa View Restaurant, another find from my first trip, and was happily slurping my way through a Tibetan noodle dish called thoka until I noticed a few dead weevil-like bugs mixed in with the veggies. Oh well. You've gotta expect a few bugs in Nepal.
And no trip to Kathmandu is complete without a good chunk of time set aside to spend at Pilgrim's Book Store. It's not just a book store - it's an experience. It's two floors of every kind of book you can imagine - out of print, hard to find books, current books, books on history, geography, philosophy, religion, cooking. Borders or Barnes and Noble pales in comparison! Pilgrim's also carries cards, handicrafts (although very expensive) and cds, and has a small café at the back. I bought a Ganesh coloring book for my nephew. And since cooking is my thing, I loaded up on Nepali, Tibetan and Indian cook books for myself - books I could never get back in the United States.
I spent four and a half days exploring every inch of Kathmandu. I went to the guide book sights and prowled the local marketplaces and neighborhoods and suburbs. I tried to tap into the city's tempo, looked for some special vibe. But in the end, I realized that I was on sensory overload from all the stuff for sale, all the beggars, the hawkers and the men who stand in front of their shops and pick their noses. When all is said and done, I didn't find the magic - but I did manage to stuff my suitcase full of great bargains!
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Published on 8/2/05