Having made the epic trip across the Pacific Ocean, and then across a few more Asian countries, I landed in Kathmandu International with a runny nose and bag full of dreams, or something like that. I was so ready to explore the great capital of Nepal and had long held ideas about what it may be: chaotically fascinating, old meets new, extreme wealth meets heartbreaking poverty. I clearly had no really concept of what was in store for me, but I did know there were many reasons to visit Nepal. I was soon to find out how Kathmandu is one of a kind, and how exploring Kathmandu is the best introduction to Nepal in a way few capital cities are.
Living in Kathmandu Nepal – An Introduction
The wonderful Vanessa met me at the airport and off we sped in a little tiny car, also known as a taxi, while many people were still waiting in line for their visas. Welcome to Nepal!
Vanessa, my beautiful and brilliant friend from Fiji, had a two-bedroom apartment in the bottom level of a house in a neighbourhood called Lazimpat. So I got the second bedroom. The house is a little bit off the main artery that runs through Kathmandu, but it is amazingly quiet and with lots of trees it feels like you are in a leafy suburb somewhere.
Now, lets talk about Nepali homes. First, and most importantly, there is no central heating. So in the cold winter months, which just so happen to be the months that I was here, inside the houses can be frigidly cold. Thermal long johns, Smartwool socks, many layers, and hot water bottles are pure gold. We do have a propane heater that we run for a time in the living room, shutting off all the doors, but don’t want to run it all day…as to avoid suffocation and imminent death.
Electricity and Heat in Kathmandu
Also of note, due to the poor electrical infrastructure, there is essentially not enough electricity to power all of the homes, businesses and factories of Kathmandu, and the country, at the same time. Enter load-shedding. Load shedding is basically scheduled power cuts, meaning if you don’t have a generator or an inverter (a massive battery pack), you may not have power for between 12 and 16 hours of the day. You can get the schedules of the power cuts that may not necessarily be followed, to plan things like doing laundry, or blow-drying your hair.
We do have hot water and can use the stove, since those are both run on gas, so even when the power is out we can have tea, but then sometimes, because we are half a year gone since the monsoon season, water can run low, and we don’t have any H2O.
So to recap, we might have water, it can be hot, but maybe not, we might have lights, but normally only one in each room. And the wireless is shifty. And you are bound of be cold. Oh Kathmandu.
How Do you Get Around Kathmandu?
So after you get used to all of the quirks of daily life, Kathmandu is still quite the place. It’s an incredibly busy and bustled place, the main roads that runs through the centre is crazy with transportation of all kinds, and people making their way in all directions. Between bikes, motorcycles, scooters, cars, taxis, buses, minibuses, and these rickety looking three wheeled paddy wagon like things, there is almost every type of public transport in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is a truly fantastic city, and a few days simply exploring the city on foot and on public transport is a must. Check out this Quick Guide to Kathmandu to help get you started.
Most people wear masks when walking around, due to the fumes, and pollution, which can get to your lungs and your head pretty quick when you’re walking on those main roads.
For the first few days I was in Kathmandu, I basically wandered the streets, got to know my new ‘hood, and how to get back to the house. Streets were a bit more like alleys, none are named, most are not on any maps, and there are sudden dead ends around almost any curve. It’s always a mystery! It made me think of this building on UVic campus that was apparently designed to be a replica of how the brain functions. Which in reality meant that hallways went nowhere, doorways led to nothing, and room numbers made no sense. Way to go brain!
In our neighbourhood there were some fantastic restaurants, we were close to a supermarket, and had some good coffee places. We could be in Thamel, the touristy backpacker district, in about a 15-minute walk. So a pretty great location. And as I said, it’s a really quite spot, tucked in to a leafy area, so it’s normally quite peaceful. Except when the dogs bark.
Overnight in the Shivapuri National Park
My first trip out of Kathmandu was a night out of the city to a national park to stay in a ‘resort’ with a bunch of other ex-pats to celebrate a birthday. The spot was up at the crest of the Kathmandu Valley, so when it was relatively clear, you could see a great portion of Kathmandu, the surrounding valley, and the other hillsides that make up the valley itself. It really was a gorgeous spot.
We took a visit to the local school, which was empty of kids as it was a Saturday, but the teachers were there, doing marking, which shows it’s not just teachers in Canada who are expected to volunteer their time to do marking. Then we walked down to the local orphanage, which is where most of the kids who go to the school came from. We got the grand tour, I was proudly led around by a girl with a Katniss braid and woolen gloves.
Then we played sports. And by sports I mean sport balls of various kinds were flying around one concrete courtyard and different people were playing different sports across each other. I played rugby, and then shot some hoops, because both my rugby and basketball skills are those of a true athlete.
The rugby game went pretty well, but during basketball, despite me sinking shots as if I did not ride the pine in grade 9, I was a bit worse for wear when I got hit in the face by a rogue soccer ball.
Not one person noticed.
Not even the kid who must have kicked the ball at some point.
So I was super tough and pretended it didn’t happen, but secretly wanted to cry and really hoped it wouldn’t bruise the entire left side of my face.
It didn’t, you’ll all be relieved to know.
So the orphanage was great fun, about 40 kids with crazy energy. It’s always a fun time to spend some time with kids who just do their thing and keep trucking, despite what they have been through or what is yet to come. They’re just enjoying hitting white girls in the face with soccer balls! And really, who wouldn’t love to do that.
The day after we came back from the resort, I fell somewhat ill, just low energy, some tummy quirks, so I laid pretty low, and then that night both Vanessa and I got legitimately sick. We spent the next day supporting each other’s woes and watching Harry Potter. It’s always better to be sick with someone, and then you can actually make it fun!
Visiting Durbar Square and the Old City in Kathmandu
After I recovered from my 48-hour plague, I hit the city again and visited Durbar Square and the Old City of Kathmandu. Durbar Square is the ancient Royal Palace complex where many temples, shrines, and landmarks are all clustered. The Royal Palace is still there too, since Kathmandu itself used to be a kingdom all of it’s own, independent from nearby kingdoms of Patan and Bhaktapur, both of which also have equivalent Durbar Squares.
Visiting Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is also visiting the old city, with narrow windy alleys, old wooden buildings built on angles, and the people who live there. You can get lost in the twists and turns pretty quick, especially since you can’t see the sun. Everything is so narrow and built up, and it all kind of looks the same.
So I spent some time just wandering around the Old City, tripping over naked children and trying to subtly peek into dark doorways, as they didn’t have power! A lot of candlelight in the Old City at mid-day.
Swayambhu Temple, aka Kathmandu’s Monkey Temple
After the Old City, I walked out to Swayambhu Temple, which is in an eastern neighbourhood and is home to a hilltop stupa that looks over the whole city and has monkeys running around. I hate monkeys. I figured I could get up the hill, check out the stupa and it’s adjacent temples and shrines, actively avoid the foul creatures, and get out of there. Oh Emily, rookie thinking.
I did get up there, and I did check out the stupa and the temples, and then I was sitting in the back, just reading about the complex, innocently, when I decided to get up and walk back to the main area.
As I was starting to walk, there was a massive monkey sitting on a ledge. I gave it a very wide berth and it paid me no attention. Until some little shit head teenager came out of his house and jumped at the monkey.
As we all know, every action results in an equal or greater reaction. Which meant that that unevolved version of human was terrified into a physical reaction away from aforementioned shithead, in the direction of, you guessed it, THIS girl!!!
Now I don’t like monkeys for several reasons: they are gross, they have little hands that are like human hands but creepier, they scream, and they have fangs.
They are the worst. And when one landed on my upper right arm in the Swayambhu temple in Kathmandu I went Hulk.
I let out a gutteral groan of contempt and disgust, and physically writhed in horror.
After the monkey had been terrified yet again into an opposite direction, I turned to the shithead who started it all and scolded him, in English, so it probably didn’t sink in that well, “Don’t do that!! It’s BAD!” and stomped off to process being the landing pad for a vile character from the Wizard of Demonic Oz.
After I calmed down a bit, and checked my shirt of rips signaling any bites or scratches, and adjusted my thinking to knowing it would eventually be a funny story, and would be a Facebook status update sensation. Which it was.
It was less funny that night when I was trying to go to sleep and all I could think about was that I had contracted rabies and then I Googled rabies and found out how awful it would be to die of rabies in 2-10 days from monkey exposure.
The Google questions were mainly: “Can I get rabies from a monkey in Nepal?” “Can I get rabies from a monkey if it did not bite me?” “What is it like to die of rabies?” and What do I do if I have rabies?”
I was up until 4am watching Harry Potter as a way to take my mind off of my imminent death by neurological zombification. But I will remind you all, that I was neither scratched nor bitten, so I did not then, nor do I now, have rabies. I’m like 98% sure. I have also made a vow to never go to another place knowing that there are monkeys just wandering around in close proximity.
Day Trip to Patan Durbar Square Nepal
I also visited the Patan Durbar Square, which is similar to the Kathmandu Durbar, but less busy, and more artsy, as Patan is the adjacent town know as the City of Fine Arts. Patan is home to many trade artists, like metalsmithes, carvers etc, and while walking the streets, you can see into many workshops men welding, sculpting, widdeling or what have you.
I had a great lunch on a rooftop and enjoyed looking out of the Patan Durbar Square from above. I also went to the Mahabuddha temple also called the 9,000 Buddhas Temple, as there are like, I would ballpark 9,000 Buddha figures built into it. The temple sits in this random courtyard set back from the road that you have to walk through this low ceilinged tunnel to get to. Very impressive.
There was also signs everywhere saying no smoking, but then there was an ancient old many sitting in one of the windows of the courtyards second story smoking hukka. I’m sure he was exempt, he looked pretty down with Buddha, maybe even 9,000 of them.
I visited a few more temples around the Patan area, most of which are very detailed with bronze/ gold work, reminiscent of being from the City of Fine Arts, so not all too surprising, but a nice break from the craziness of Kathmandu, even though Patan is just over the river. So it’s still pretty crazy.
Kathmandu Travel Tips:
I joke about gastro-intestinal issues, but they are no laughing matter. I wouldn’t put them on the same level as rabies, but being a recent sufferer of both, they are both lame. But if you’re planning on coming to Nepal, get used to it!
Thamel is the Kathmandu neighbourhood that is the true hub of backpackers, hostels, shopping, and dining. Thamel is where most travel amenities can be found, and if you need to prepare for your Nepal adventures, you can get all of the trekking gear you need in Thamel.
I had been doing a decent amount of yoga, and by decent amount I mean several times a week. It’s very different here, much more ‘authentic’ yoga experience, as opposed to massive classes of Lululemon wearing divas trying to out bend each other in Downtown Vancouver. My favorite class had very little to do with being bendy, as it was restorative. There was a lot of relaxation and laying on bolsters. I love that. Laying. I’m very good at corpse pose.
Buying a SIM card and setting up a Nepali phone number cost me $1. That’s right, $1. So when our North American carriers tell us the SIM is $15 and the activation fee is $30 and the administration costs blah blah blah, yup, complete crap! Nepal for the win!
Crossing the street in Kathmandu is similar to crossing the street in other insane Asian cities, walk slowly across, the motorcycles will probably go around you, and hopefully nobody in a car hits you. At night, this is especially dramatic.
I brought 3 boxes of Kraft dinner. Vanessa and I ate the first one on a Sunday afternoon while watching Pitch Perfect. ‘Nuff said. Despite the yoga, we are both Fat Amy’s at heart. And that’s what’s important.
The house we live in has three levels. We are on the bottom, there is an Indian couple on the middle and the Nepali landlords are on the top. The landlords love pigeons. So they have actually made a pigeon house… landing… roost… On the outside of their level of the house. Right over Vanessa’s bedroom window. Let the symphony begin. It also happens to be right above the clothesline. Where we place clean laundry to dry. After drying, sometimes clothes need to be rewashed. Coo.
For more adventures in the Kathmandu Valley, check out part 2 of this post, Day Trips in in the Kathmandu Valley