Home > Travel > Kathmandu, the gateway to heaven

Kathmandu, the gateway to heaven

Or is it? I would say yes and no. With the only international airport in the country, Kathmandu is the only destination for all international flights to Nepal and so all tourists visiting Nepal and the Himalayas have to go to Kathmandu. Most tourists get settled in the infamous Thamel area in the center of the city, with its narrow streets, markets, trekking shops, and the nearby Durbar Square.

Kathmandu is the capital and, with almost one million inhabitants, the only metropolitan city of Nepal. The city is the urban core of the Kathmandu Valley in the Himalayas… (Source: Wikipedia)

To get there, one must endure a taxi ride from the airport through a city I would describe as the capital of dust. Getting a cab at the airport is an experience in itself as cabbies fight amongst themselves to get the client. Often, as it happens in the nature, the strongest survives. Observing the streets from the cab, one wonders how a human can survive in so much dust. The occasional face protection offers very little help against it. The visibility of the whole Kathmandu Valley from viewing points is poor: barely half a mile due to a thick haze of dust. That is the case even in the morning when the air is supposed to be a little clearer. And I noticed this time (2012) that it was much dirtier than during my first visit in 2010.

Although Kathmandu is at a relatively high altitude of approximately 1400m above the sea level, the heat can be scorching in summer months. Even in the winter, one is able to walk around sans a jacket or in short sleeves without getting cold. Other than the dust, the rubbish is the big problem: it is literally everywhere as it appears that the city has no communal garbage disposal or collection service in place. The people don’t seem to care as they throw cigarettes, paper, bottles etc around carelessly. And I have to mention the spitting as well. Everybody, including women, girls, and kids, spits in Kathmandu like it was the national sport. It happened to me several times where a guy just spat at my feet right before he offered me a rickshaw ride.

Especially in tourist areas, it is quite common that you will be offered marijuana or hashish or other kinds of drugs. Once, while waiting for my friend Agasta, I had three different sellers approach me in less than five minutes.

Kathmandu is very rich in historical and religious sites though. The main religions are Hinduism and Buddhism, and there are many temples, stupas, and shrines of all sizes scattered around the city. Buddhist sites are generally cleaner and better maintained. One of the biggest is Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the whole of Nepal. The other one is Swayambhu, commonly called Monkey Temple. Swayambhu is both a Buddhist and Hindu religious site, and in cases of good visibility, it offers a great view of the whole city and a big part of the Kathmandu Valley. These two are the most visited sites by tourists, with exception of Durbar Square.

For a photographer, Kathmandu is a golden mine. Sometimes it is hard to decide where to point the camera. Things are happening and life is unfolding right in front of you. If you walk away from the tourist strip of Thamel, you can get better idea how the Nepali live in the city. And you don’t have to walk that far. People are generally kind. However at tourist spots, they’ve learned to appreciate the tourist dollar and might ask you for money in exchange for permission to take their pictures, especially the very poor or the beggars. One needs to use common sense and good judgement about when to ask for permission or to just snap a candid picture. Generally, people are fine with you taking pictures as long as you don’t push the camera right in their face. I would advise waking up early and visiting the streets between Durbar Square and the tourist strip of the Thamel district. It is a fairly short walk, but in return you experience the morning “rush” which is quite exciting and also inspiring for a photographer. Generally, mornings are better since many tourists opt to stay in bed rather than go out. Also, the air is  a tad cleaner. As the first morning sun rays hit the streets, the whole scene turns more lively, and with the slight golden hues, they are perfect for taking pictures. Soon though, the sun gets stronger, turning the streets into really contrasty subjects, which is hard for the camera sensors to handle. Also, it is a good idea to use a smaller camera. A big DSLR with a huge lens may scare some or trigger the “asking for money” process. A smaller camera allows one to be unnoticed as a photographer in many cases.

If you stay in Thamel, avoid taking any transportation to Durbar Square as it is within walking distance. I was offered a rickshaw ride there while I was standing just few blocks away. When taking a cab, negotiate the price. Taxi meters are non-existent. Avoid using motorbikes.The traffic may be dense, and the ”loudest horn’ rule applies everywhere. Here and there, you might spot traffic police basically doing nothing. The air is so polluted and dusty that after a motorbike ride you will be coughing out dust for days to come and your dust-caked hair turns into concrete. I had one motorbike ride myself and I suffered all the aforementioned consequences. At the end, I was happy it was over even though I was riding with my friend Agasta.

When you come to Kathmandu, your aim is probably to trek somewhere in Himalayas, most likely in the Everest or Annapurna region. There are plenty of fellows in Kathmandu claiming to be guides, and while they are mostly very kind and helpful and can take you to places, they may also show you “Everest” in the Annapurna region. A tourist who does not know their geography may get the misguided impression that they saw the top of the world (as I witnessed  in Poon Hill, Annapurna region). Always check if the guide has a valid guide licence. I will try to get a copy from my friend Agasta for you to see what it looks like.

There is an abundance of guest houses in Thamel and also around Boudhanat. As I only stayed in one (Thorong Peak Guesthouse), I cannot really say anything about the quality of others. Check the room first before paying. Also, beware of electricity problem in Kathmandu. There is no way you can get power during the day. It is usually turned on in the morning and the evening for couple of hours. The better guest houses run generators which give you an hour or two extra, but that is it.

Food is still relatively cheap in Kathmandu, and you can find all sorts, from Nepali to European or Asian. I recently discovered a few German bakeries along a trekking trail in the Chomrong, Annapurna region which were quite nice. I didn’t really eat street food due to its exposure to all that pollution. Restaurant food is fine though.

Kathmandu is an exciting city and it has lot to offer. On one hand, it is dirty, with bad roads and dust; on the other, it is rich in cultural, historical, and religious sites. If you go there, just accept it as it is and enjoy. Remember, it is most likely a culture very different from yours. Just embrace it and enjoy.

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