I left India a little disheartened. I didn’t want to leave the country I’d spent months in, travelling around, meeting amazing people, and seeing things I’ll never forget (for good and bad reasons), but by this point I was already halfway towards Kathmandu. I’d already crossed the Nepalese border, paid the $100 for a 3 month visa, and witnessed the start of the monsoon season- yes, it had rained ever since crossing the border; the scorching heat of Varanasi and India was well and truly behind me.
Winding along, following rivers on roads barely wide enough for a single coach, let alone two trying to race, we made our way higher and higher into lower lying mountains before dropping down into Kathmandu valley. Now, I’d always thought that Kathmandu was a single city area which made the capital of the country, but the valley is actually made up of three separate, distinct districts which form an agglomeration, which ultimately makes up ‘Kathmandu Valley’, or just ‘Kathmandu’.
I’m not going to lie here, Kathmandu isn’t a particularly nice place; one of the first things I noticed about it was the pollution in the air, made up of fumes, dust, sand, and general crap (there’s no waste management in Kathmandu); and so the majority of people you see walking the streets here are wearing dust masks and respirators. I think the general cause of this isn’t that there’s too much pollution, but the fact that the city is surrounded by a green wall; the hills that contain the valley are high and seen in every direction, and so the smog can’t clear (the airport being situated within the valley probably doesn’t help either).
Strolling around the city, you’ll also become aware of the ever present earthquake damage from last year which brought down countless buildings and caused a high number of deaths and casualties. Ask anyone in the city about it and they’ll have been-or will know someone-involved in the earthquake to some degree, with some stories being harder to listen to than others.
The main construction works going on within the city are repair works rather than new builds, and the roads are constantly being dug up and re-laid due to movements (one road has been replaced 3 times during my time here). However, the people of Kathmandu, as throughout the country, seem to have an unfaltering view of what has happened; this isn’t to say that they’ve not suffered, or aren’t still suffering from the consequences, but I’ve found them to be more than happy to talk, and always seem to find a way to smile which, given the circumstances, I find astounding.
If you’re heading to Kathmandu for tourist reasons, or to just stop whilst sorting out trekking routes, plans, and permits, then you’ll most likely either stay in Thamel, or near the Boudhanath Stupa; these are the two places more geared up for influxes of tourists and hippies. At a glance, Thamel seems like a great place to stay whilst in the valley; it has a wide range of world cuisine, many hotels, hostels, and guesthouses, a fair share of high street shops, and a generally happy, if ignorant, disposition to the rest of Nepal.
Thamel is the equivalent of staying in London or Bangalore: great places, but not representative of the rest of the country’s culture. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent many days in Thamel but, if you want to see the real Kathmandu, get out and go to Patan, and if you want to see the real Nepal, get out of the valley and find a quiet village somewhere.
The Boudhanath Stupa, which I prefer to Thamel, is about 8km north east of the centre of Kathmandu and is a haven for Tibetan merchants, Buddhist worshipers, and religious tourists.The area itself is set around the Stupa, which is one of the oldest in the world, and forms the heart of a largely Tibetan community, with many Gompas continuing to be built in the surrounding villages. In the direct vicinity of the Stupa lay many tourist friendly shops, cafes, and restaurants, as well as some of the older architecture of the city. The Boudhanath, like the Swayambhunath at the other side of the city, is a pilgrimage site for many Buddhists, and is adorned with prayer flags and rich colors, though extensive repair works are being carried out due to the earthquake damaging a lot of the structure.
From sunrise until sunset you will see Monks making their way clockwise around the Stupa, holding their prayer beads, muttering to themselves, and often spinning the prayer wheels as they pass (though not always). If you want to stay in Kathmandu but don’t want to be in the thick of it, tourist wise, then Boudhanath is the place you should go, and if you do decide you want a night out, just head to Thamel.
On entering Nepal, two things that I definitely wanted to do were trekking and volunteering, though I was unsure about which trek to actually do, and also what kind of volunteering to get involved in. Fortunately, one guy I met in Agra, and later spent time with in Varanasi, had done most of the Annapurna circuit, and so I did a bit more research into it and ultimately decided that as soon as I’d bought the necessary gear and attained the relevant permits (you can’t trek without a permit), I’d head off west to start the multiple week trek. Knowing that I’d be gone for at least a couple of weeks, I knocked the planning of volunteering back until my return, as I was sure I’d need a week or so to recover and relax from the trekking. So, I had a few days in Kathmandu-what to do?
Well, again, I was lucky in the fact that two friends I’d made in Dharamsala were already in Nepal and had just returned from their own trekking adventures, so we met up, caught up, and got acquainted with the nightlife of Thamel which, as I found out, more than rivals the nightlife of some of the worlds other capitals and is a fair place for any hedonists out there looking for a good time.
All in all, my initial impression of Nepal was one of beauty, the journey from India was filled with some of the nicest scenery I’d seen in a long time and, despite the relentless daily rain and pollution of its capital, I was looking forward to seeing the older parts of the country trough trekking, and getting to know the Nepali way of life through volunteering. Of course, I’ve not touched on the culture of the ‘real’ Kathmandu or the rest of Nepal as there’s too much to write for one post, but I can assure you that, whilst Nepal may be smaller and far less overwhelming than India, it is in no way less interesting or shocking, and I’ve perhaps learned more in Nepal than I ever did in India…