Sunday, May 6, 2012

Namaste!


 Surat Thani, Thailand to Kathmandu, Nepal: Ten hours on a second-class bus to Bangkok.  Two nights in the big, bad city.  Five-hour flight from Bangkok to India.  19-hour layover in the New Delhi airport.  One last 2-hour flight in to Nepal.


It was a taxing and tedious journey but after 96 hours of travel we had reached our destination and the real adventure could finally begin.  I stepped out on to the metal stairway connecting the exit door of the plane to the airport tarmac.  The cool Kathmandu air was a refreshing change from the damp, sweltering heat of summer in Thailand.   I eagerly made my way through the airport, collected a visa stamp from customs and some Nepalese rupees from the currency exchange counter, and started to search for a taxi. 
I should’ve known that I wouldn’t have to look very hard.   My three friends and I were immediately swallowed by a crowd of competing cabbies.  Cab drivers in Asia never cease to amaze me (especially at airports), but this was by far the most aggressive group I’ve ever come across.  Usually I have to haggle for a bit to get a good deal on the fare, but I didn’t even have to open my mouth this time because the driver’s kept elbowing each other out of the way and undercutting one another.  For some reason they thought by changing the currency they were offering a more appealing price.  

“Where are you going?  Thamel district?  800 rupees!  Ok?”
“No.”
“Where you fly from?  Thailand?  300 baht!  Ok?”
“No.”
“Oh, you’re American?  8 dollars!  Ok?”

For fear that a fistfight might break out in competition for our business, we decided to choose the driver with most teeth, push through the disappointed others, and pile into the compact, corroded, car he used as our transport.  As an evil spring poking through my seat stabbed me in the back with every jerk and turn of the cab, I stared out the window at another new city. 
Kathmandu canal filled with trash.
The typical chaos of an undeveloped country filled the streets around us.  Honking horns and barking dogs.  The smell of burning.  Street-food vendors setting up for the evening rush.  Rivers of trash, literally.  Swarms of people making their way through the grind of another day.  Every new place I visit, it’s always different but it’s always the same and it’s always exciting.
We arrived in Thamel, untangled ourselves from our luggage, and happily stepped out of the tiny taxi.  Thamel is the area of Kathmandu popular for tourists and backpackers and is full of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops.  The four of us made our way through the congested streets taking in the new environment surrounding us. 
One of the first things I noticed was the heavy Indian influence in everything: the architecture, the attire, the accents, and the people in general.   I’ve been able to travel pretty extensively over the past year and a half: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia.  Though all of these countries are unique, they are all distinctly south east Asian.  It was exciting and refreshing to be in an entirely new place, completely different from anywhere I’ve ever been before. 
Tired and eager to put down our backpacks, Peak Mountain Guesthouse, a minimal but cheap accommodation option, turned out to be where we would stay for the night.  We dropped our bags in the rooms, sampled the local cuisine, and Mike and I enjoyed our first bottle of Everest beer.  After that, we walked up and down the streets scouting stores for the trekking gear we’d need to purchase for the upcoming two-week climb to Everest base camp, the reason we’d come to Nepal in the first place.  But the shopping could wait until tomorrow. 
Brittany and Leanne retired to the rooms while Mike and I grabbed some more beers and found our way to the rooftop of our hotel.  The sun had just retreated behind the mountains in the distance and the darkness of our first night in Nepal began to creep in.  The guesthouse sat on top of a hill and was tall, giving us a widespread view of the city below.  We appreciated the fact that we’d made it to Kathmandu as we drank our beer, watched the people in the streets below, and looked out at the silhouettes of the neighboring buildings.  Windows lit up one by one across the cityscape as people illuminated their homes and businesses for the evening.  A light rain began and for seconds at a time lightning would fill the sky as if someone turned on a giant black light over the city, then quickly turned it back off.  We sat there, beer in hand, as Kathmandu was momentarily frozen in electric purple.  It was better than TV, but with the frigid air of the Nepali night biting at us, we decided to call it a night.

Over the next two days, we all woke early to hit the trekking shops and run errands to prepare for the upcoming trek.  If you need anything hiking or trekking related, Kathmandu has it.  Most things are knockoffs, but of excellent quality and available at only a fraction of the price that it would be back home.  After looking around and negotiating with several shop owners to get good deals, I’d purchased everything I would need for the next two weeks in the Himalayas.  Check it…

(If the sound cuts out at the end, I'm just say that I bought everything for UNDER $120 USD, TOTAL!)

We booked our flights from Kathmandu to Lukla ($275 USD roundtrip), where we’d be starting the trek.  Then, with Leanne as our trusted guide and navigator, we gave ourselves an unintentional (but interesting) walking tour of the city outside of Thamel while we tried to find our way to the Tourism Authority to acquire our TIMS cards (mandatory registration permits required for trekking in Nepal- $20 USD).
After two nights in Peak Mountain we decided to try some place new.  The staff had been friendly but the place was dirty, the water barely ran and was cold, and just next door there was a late night spot where clinking bottles and howling drunks made it difficult to fall asleep. 
Traveler's Home Guesthouse- Kathmandu, Nepal
Luckily, from her prior travels, Brittany knew of a friend of a friend- a Spanish guy our age named Toni- that had recently opened a guesthouse nearby.  We checked in to Traveler’s Home Guesthouse on our third day it Kathmandu.  I’ve stayed in hostels and guesthouse all over Asia and Traveler’s Home is by far one of the best.  The staff is friendly and the rooms are new and clean.  There’s a hot shower, garden with tables and hammocks, rooftop porch, a bar, and a kitchen where “Mama” (Toni’s mother) cooks delicious Spanish and Italian food alongside local Nepali and Indian dishes.  Best of all it was less than $5 USD/ night.  If you’re in Kathmandu, stay here.  [OK, that’s my plug…] 

With time to kill, we spent our last afternoon walking the streets of the city, dodging rouge rickshaws, denying beggars, and making our way to historic Durbar Square.  This was a great opportunity to see the real Kathmandu outside of touristy Thamel.  I wasn’t too happy about paying the 750 rupees (about $9 USD) for admission, but it turned out to be worth it.  Durbar Square was bustling when we arrived.  The age-old architecture was an interesting marriage of Oriental and Indian influence like so many other aspects of the culture in Nepal.

Me, rallying with the crowd... "Power to the People!"
Noticing a mass of people and dozens of heavily armed policemen, we made our way over to a huge crowd where thousands of locals were attentively listening to a speech.  It turned out to be the country’s Prime Minister that was speaking and he was addressing the recent changes in their newly found democratic government (Nepal has struggled with a corrupt and derelict political system for centuries).  This was an historical speech and we just happened upon it… pretty cool experience.  We made one more quick stop to see the “Virgin Princess” (or something like that) stick her head out a window for a few seconds (this, for some reason, is a big draw each evening), then went back to Traveler’s Home.

Back at the room, I was excited as I crammed my new gear in my new pack and prepared for the epic adventure that I would set out upon early the next morning.  There’s only one way to spend your last night before being thrown into the mountains for two weeks and that’s eating good food and drinking tall beers… maybe too many tall beers.  And with that I stumbled to bed a few hours later to grab some much needed and deserved sleep.  Although I thought I knew what was in store for the upcoming weeks, I had no idea.


Durbar Square



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