Trip Journal - Kathmandu

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Kathmandu -- 20 November 1998

The alarm didn't go off. My little credit card-sized travel clock is getting too old for this kind of life. We woke at 6:45 instead of 6:00 as we'd planned and things felt a little hectic. The generators were still on from last night and there was no hot water. We were downstairs by 7:25. We'd arranged for a taxi to the airport the night before, although of course the man at the front desk, with whom we had arranged it, claimed to know nothing about it. There was a panicked flurry while we found our receipt (packed away in the pants had worn yesterday) and "proved" we'd ordered a taxi. All of a sudden, the transaction was recalled, the taxi would be here any minute.

No wonder the price had seemed so "reasonable", we were to share a minivan with another guy. I'll bet he was angry when he found out about the detour. It took a half hour to get to the airport. We had to show an airline ticket in order to be able to enter -- whoohoo, no touts. We waited "in line" before a closed counter. Two other people were ahead of us. By 8:45, the Shangrila Class (Business) people were really upset because they'd been told to be at the counter at 8:30. There were apologies and promises that one of the several employees who seemed only to be milling around and drinking coffee in the office behind the counter, would be there in ten minutes. In the meantime, Paul and the two ahead of us put our luggage through the x-ray and got security stickers while I guarded our places in line with my life. One a body showed up on the other side of the counter, everything was easy. Of course, we found out when we got to the departure lounge that the flight was delayed, the lazy shmoes down at the counter probably knew that all along and were taking advantage of a little holiday from work. we had nescafe (with steamed milk), tea, two cheese pastries that we'd been told were chocolate and a roll of Polos, all for the price of our huge breakfast yesterday (with room service.)

The flight was uneventful, with good curry for lunch. We had to get a visa at the airport when we arrived. There was a sign on the glass door as we walked in that informed us we were not allowed to work, either paid or voluntarily, in Nepal on this visa. Why would you prohibit people from volunteering while they're here?

The visa form was long, printed on pink tissue paper, and straight forward. There were three lines to stand in once you'd finished filling out the form: one to hand in the form and a photo, one to pay your $25.00 (US dollars only) for the visa, and a third line to receive your visa. (There's apparently lots of redundancy in the system, this way, three people have to agree on how to take a bribe or rip off the government.) Everyone was very nice and kept asking us if this was our first visit to Nepal.

There was a Tourist Information counter inside the airport, which was quite impressive. They gave me a map of Kathmandu and a brochure with important information on it. Next door, we changed $20 into Nepali rupees. Had we looked at our brochure with important information on it, we'd have changed more, as everything closes at noon on Friday and stays closed until 10:00 a.m. Sunday. There are no ATMs in Nepal, so it turned out to be a very cheap weekend, easy on the budget anyway.

A woman standing with us at the Exchange counter asked if we wanted to share a taxi to Thamel, the tourist quarter, but the pre-paid taxi stand wouldn't allow her to get off there and us to continue on, so she went with a hotel tout who offered a ride to Thamel for 100 rupees. We'd already decided to stay out of Thamel and stay in a neighborhood hotel where Nepalis and Indians stay, the Journeyman.

The pre-paid taxi was a marvelous joke; we paid 200 rs. to the office, and then a man went out into the flock of taxi drivers and haggled for us. He kept the difference. In India, the pre-paid taxi office had its own fleet of taxis. A man driving an ancient Toyota Corona won us. His was just a regular car, no taxi sign or anything. But just as in India, there was the ubiquitous "other guy" riding with us. He spent the whole trip attempting to scare us off from staying in the Sundhara neighborhood. To hear him tell it, it was a den of thieves. There was no security like there was in Thamel, and we wouldn't meet any Westerners, only Nepalis and Indians. And what was wrong with that, we asked. We could meet Westerners anytime, we were in Nepal to meet locals.

The Other Guy was pretty convincing, or persuasive. It's easy to tell yourself that this guy is a local and you know nothing about the area, and you've only been in the country for 20 minutes, so what do you know? I admit I was getting nervous, especially since I'd chosen the place. But as Paul reminded me, the worst that could happen was that we'd not like the area and we'd go check out another place, maybe this guy's, maybe not. Which is of course why the other guy was there, and what made us suspicious, he was a tout for the Panda Hotel in Thamel.

But the Journeyman was great, pretty reasonable at 320 rs. a night, with hot water and a phone in our room. Okay, the phone turned out to be a bust, as it didn't actually work, but everyone in the place was so enthralled with the computer that we were able to do most of the web site work in the lobby for local phone call rates. The manager, Shyam, was a really nice guy. There were also two or three boys (real boys) who also worked there, and slept on mattresses in the lobby at night. The place had a restaurant so we'd be able to eat on the weekend -- Shyam said we could pay him on Sunday. There was also a TV in the restaurant. The weird thing about the place became apparent when we were walking up or down the stairs. Landings always seemed to come before or after we expected them. I felt really uncoordinated until I started counting the stairs. We were on the third floor and each had two sets of stairs divided by a landing. None of the flights had the same number of steps. It was uncanny. I can't imagine how they managed to build all the floors a different height, or what it took to make the stairs come out as well as they did.

We walked into Thamel, to confirm that all the banks were closed and that no ATMs had opened after our guidebook had been published. They were and none had. We went back to the hotel, which is on Pipal Street, so named for the huge banyan-like sacred tree that lives there. While Paul was downstairs checking the email, he met Rajish, a Nepali of Indian descent, seven generations back, who nonetheless speaks Hindi and Rajastani as well as Nepalese and English. Nice guy. He's an engineer, a consultant, and also has his hands in a few other side businesses, water filters, for one. Rajish and Paul really hit it off. I had a beer with them in the restaurant while they drank Challenger Whiskey (a Nepalese product). I went upstairs about 11:30. Paul and Rajish drank a bottle of two more, and had a great conversation about God and spirituality. Rajish wanted Paul and me to come and stay with him and very pregnant in the South of Nepal, but we weren't sure whether we'd be able to or not. It all depended on whether we could get a flight up to Lukla, the beginning of the Everest trek.

Kathmandu -- 21 November 1998

The day was to be devoted to sightseeing, which meant a lot of temple viewing. We began in Durbar (Palace) Square, where the royal family lived in a gorgeously-carved wooden palace until late last century. There's also a pretty forgettable Neo-Classical wing that the Prime Minister added in 1908. Now the family live North of town in an impressive ultra-modern palace. I wasn't prepared for the fact that Durbar Square is chock full of temples. Except for the old palace, that's all there are. We walked into the Kasthamandap, a big, wooden pavilion-like building said to have been built from a single tree, although I rather doubt it. It may be the oldest building in Kathmandu; it's at least 600 years old. It was once a Dharamshala, or rest house for Hindu pilgrims, but now it's a Ganesh temple and a place for beggars, hawkers and would-be tour guides to lurk, ready to pounce on tourists. The pigeons are poised above, ready to do their worst, which it is, trust us. Up until now, we'd been feeling pretty good about the lack of hawking going on. Granted, we'd only been on the edge of Thamel and hadn't hit any of the tourist areas yet. Still, it seemed like the Nepalis took the whole business a little more lightly than the Indians. They seemed to accept "no" at face value, and no one was really hassling us. Okay, the tour guides at Kasthamandap were annoying, but elsewhere, our initial assessment held true. Don't get me wrong, there were still a lot of hawkers, but nothing can beat Delhi, so it seemed so much easier.

We skipped the Royal Palace and museums. It costs 10 rs. for Nepalis to enter and 250 rs. for foreigners, which is way too big a tourist premium, in my opinion. I have to admit, I'm still museum'd out (what's going on right now in any place we are is always more interesting than what was) but we skipped the Palace on principle.

There are so many temples in Durbar Square that they all began to seem alike. Two in particular stand out: the Kumari Bahal and the Pipal temple. Kumari is the living reincarnation of the goddess of Kathmandu. The Bahal, a Newari word for house or monastery in a quadrangle with a central courtyard, is where Kumari lives. She is always a young girl, who stays there until she sheds blood in some way. The Bahal is a beautifully-carved, diminutive wooden building. Maybe it's so tiny because the Kumaris only live there as little girls. The Kumari's feet must never touch the ground so she is carried everywhere. She is one spoiled little girl. When she sheds blood, she becomes a mere mortal again, which must be quite a shock. They say ex-Kumaris have a hard time finding a husband because they're so high maintenance. Outside Kumari's Bahal, little Kumari wannabees act shamelessly cute selling postcards. Paul was completely taken in by their adorableness.

I don't know anything about the historical significance of the Pipal temple. It's not described in the guide book. It's a small white Shiva temple and a pipal bot (tree) has grown completely around it. It's wonderful. People are worshipping at each temple, in some, only Hindus are allowed inside. Some people also use the steps of the temples as markets. Sadhus sit with their long braids and rags, smiling for photos and demanding a donation for posing. The whole place is a big jumble. The roads northeast of Durbar Square make up the Indra Chowk market. Wares of all sorts are sold here, from produce, Tibetan wool jackets, and Indian spices to combination locks and pots and pans. The stores are on the street level (or below, in cases where the roads have been paved many times -- some temples are now below street level as well) and what's being offered for sale is hung on the balconies of the floors above. It was my favorite place in Kathmandu, all color and noise and exotic scent.

We went to a no-name place in Thamel for lunch, its complete absence of anything was exactly what we wanted after all that stimulation. After lunch, we walked to svayambhu Mahachaitya, or the Temple of the Self-Made God, known by the tourists as the monkey temple. It might be a 30 minute walk from town but it's probably less. We walked West over the Vishnumati River, where an ascetic accosted us, putting marigold petals in our hair and putting the traditional sindur, red paste used as a Hindu offering, on our foreheads. It was all great until he started really badgering us for donations. Ten rupees was not enough (in the beginning, his chant had been, "no money, no money, just for luck.) He wanted 200 rs. We were completely disenchanted. He put us off all the rest of the (probably) legitimate ascetics and sadhus who came our way after that. Little boys practicing English accompanied us on the walk -- until we passed the store and declined to buy their little brother milk. They quickly ditched us and latched onto the next group of tourists.

The temple is up a hill of impossibly steep steps. These are flanked by people selling all manner of crafts: silver bracelets (five for a dollar, Madam), wood and bone carvings, stone manis produced on the spot, etc. And, of course, the monkeys who give the place their name were everywhere. Only foreigners had to pay ot get in, the guard was fairly cunning at shepherding even Indians in. Rajish is Nepalese but looks Indian. I wonder if he'd have to pay.

The temple is a jumble of shrines, craft and drink sellers, and it appears that more than a few people live up on this hill. The most impressive part of it is the huge central stupa with the Buddha's all-knowing eyes painted on it in bright colors. Below his eyes, the Nepali number one is painted (which looks like Buddha's nose), symbolizing the unity of all things. There are prayer wheels around the four sides of the main stupa, which we turned. Monkeys climbed all over them and ran around pedestrians, chasing each other. While we were there, sipping Cokes in the shade and looking out over the view, we heard the distinctive Buddhist horns in the distance and sought out their source. Behind the huge golden Buddha in the gompa, monks were seated on the floor playing Buddhist chant music, with deep voice, horns, clarinets and drums. It was powerful and moving stuff. A few foreigners were being allowed into the room, but we stayed and listened from the window.

Back at the Journeyman, we hung out with Shyam and Rajish in the lobby. Rajish was interested in making beer, so we dictated the standard recipe and procedure to him from Tamino, which he converted into skillfully drawn schematics on a scrap piece of paper. Shyam had made chang (the Nepali word), or yang hungh (in Newari), which literally means red alcohol. It's the moonshine of Nepal, and this version was from his home village, about 10 km from Patan. To make it, you soak wheat in water for a while (it's unclear how long -- the whole process takes four months), then lay the whole thing out on a packed dirt floor and cover it with rice straw. You then take everything (including the straw), make a paste out of it, then add water and store. I didn't love it, it's tastes like foamy wine, but I drank it to please Shyam, who was quite proud of it.

Later, I went upstairs to have a shower (solar water is warmest in the afternoon) and shave my legs. This was a very big deal, as I had quit doing them when hot water became so scarce. Paul had also quit shaving his face, and we'd taken to calling ourselves Mountain Man and Pony Girl. You probably don't want to think too hard about my nickname.

One last interesting note: the Nepalese calendar, the Vikram Sambat, named for King Vikram Aditya, started on Feb. 23, 57 BCE. April 12 of this year (1998) marked the New Year of 2055. Anyone who's sick of Millennium Fever could adopt this calendar and avoid all the fuss.

Kathmandu -- 22 November 1998

We got up early and had breakfast at the hotel: eggs, toast and chiya (milk tea). We were beginning to suspect that the extensive menu posted on the wall was just for show because no matter what we asked for, all they seemed to have available were toast and eggs.

Grindlay's Bank opened at 9:45, where we could become pocket solvent again with a cash advance. The Immigration Office opened at 10:00, where we needed to pay $5.00 hard cash for a trekking permit to go outside Kathmandu, at which point we'd be allowed to pay 650 rs. at the Sagarmatha (Everest) Park entrance. Our goal was to arrive as early as possible for both and stay out of any long lines.

We were a bit early and the guard wasn't allowing anyone into the Grindlay's compound. We bought an Everest Trek map on the street (a copy) and then went to stand in the queue forming outside Grindlay's. Apparently we weren't the ones ones caught short on Friday. Finally we were allowed in. I couldn't see why a cash advance should take more than 15 minutes if you were among the first couple of people in the door, but it did. One woman, who admitted that she enjoyed being difficult, took the credit cards, passports and forms. She swiped the cards for authorization and two other women slowly counted out the cash. At 10:15, I left Paul at Grindlay's and headed to the Immigration Office around the corner to see if I could get a head start on the forms for the trekking permits. The book had warned that lines could be very long, but I didn't see anyone as I rounded the corner. In fact, the office wasn't opened yet. The metal security doors hadn't been raised. What was going on? Predictably, there were no signs posted telling the hours of operation. And nothing saying the office had moved. My moment of confused introspection ended as I reached the office. Travel agents and taxi drivers swarmed around me and a Chinese woman who had arrived at the same time. It appeared that the office had moved, and quite recently, to a neighborhood pretty far out of town, called New Baneshwar. It looked to be about halfway to the airport. The taxi drive would be happy to take me there for 200 rs. Yes, I'm sure he would. The travel agents would gladly get the permit for me, for a mere $10 handling fee. The Chinese woman asked me if I wanted to share a taxi with her. Paul arrived then and we checked at the National Parks Office across the street to verify that the information we'd been given was true. It was. The guy at the counter told us not to pay more than 70 or 80 rs. for an auto-rickshaw. We'd slowly learned that the best way to get a taxi is to select one and go, and just avoid the ones who get in your face trying to offer you outrageous "bargains." We settled on 70 rs. and the three of us got in. It was in incredibly bumpy ride, and a bit painful. The driver only gave Paul 20 rs. change for his 100 and I was upset with Paul for accepting it and upset with the driver for seeming to agree when he probably didn't understand at all.

We were greeted at the entrance by a young civil servant who offered us "expedited" service for a $12 dollar fee and $5 dollar service charge. We opted to wait in the long line instead. We filled out the forms and I got in line, while Paul took an auto-rickshaw back into town. It was getting late and we'd said we'd meet Rajish at 2:00. He would try to get us a flight to Lukla, then meet Rajish if it was that late. I'd stay and get the permits. Paul brought me a Coke from across the road, then left.

I was in line with three Israeli guys and a New Zealand/Australian couple. The conversation was good, I wasn't a bit bored. At one point, I asked one of the Israelis what he thought about the first 250 Palestinian prisoners being released as part of the Wye Accords. I found his answer to be typically Israeli: "I don't like it, because, you know, they are all murderers. But if it will bring peace, and I don't think it will, I guess we have to do it." A Nepalese man wearing a suit told me that he thought I must be a dancer or a singer because my gestures while talking were so graceful. Yeah right. He turned out to be a hawker for travel insurance.

The Israelis had all kinds of hassles when it came their turn in line. The men behind the counter didn't like that their two photos didn't match, and in some cases, showed vastly different hair lengths. Then there was a dissatisfaction because they didn't have correct change. Neither did I, but for some reason, I didn't get hassled. I had read that sometimes you could get hassled if someone from your party didn't show up in person to get the permit, but that wasn't a problem either. I had our passports back by 12:30. Paul showed up in an auto-rickshaw just as I was exiting the line. He'd gotten Royal Nepal flights to Lukla the next day, so there was no possibility of visiting Rajish in his town. We took an auto-rickshaw back to Thamel, and bought ten packs of Polos to take with us to Lukla (We'd heard that everything gets progressively more expensive the higher you trek. No wonder, someone has to carry it up on his or her back.) Then we went back to meet Rajish and say goodbye. He wasn't back yet. We had chiya up on the roof to relax. Later, we went across the street to the coffee stall to see about some food. We hadn't had lunch and were starving. But the nice woman there only had tea, coffee and cookies, which would have to do. Two local guys came in and started a conversation with us. The one, Sanjay, was a teacher. We gave them our card and Sanjay gave us his address and asked us to write.

It turned out Rajish wasn't really leaving until 7:00 and he had a meeting at 4:00, about a joint venture in water filters he's trying to start. I have to admit, I was disappointed that even Rajish, whom we liked so much, was slippery with the truth. why tell us you're leaving at 2:00 when it's really 7:00? (Note: Paul thinks that the reason I was so upset about it was that Indians and Nepalis were so personal, so open and giving of information about themselves, but slippery with time, facts, etc., whereas we Americans are less forthcoming with our true selves, but demand accurate information and facts. It's really a cultural difference, and not that all Indians and Nepalis are liars. Probably true, but at the time, I was quite disappointed.) As he was leaving, Rajish gave me his tape measure/calculater/white board to give to my Dad, which was really very kind.

At 4:20, we took an auto-rickshaw back to the Immigration Office to pick up our permits. I'd been told to come back after 4:00, but thye place was dark. I started to panic. What if we couldn't leave on our flight? Our tickets were for 8:00 a.m. the next morning. We went to the second floor, along with a Japanese man who seemed to be in the same predicament. We found a lone man in a dark office at the end of the hall. He could give us our permits but he couldn't give the japanese man his visa. I felt like there must have been some divine intervention on our behalf. We could go!j It was okay! I felt silly to be so grateful.

Back at the Journeyman, we uploaded phots, had fried rice for dinner, and watched the X-Files on TV, like any other Sunday.