Flying east from Delhi to Kathmandu took just over an hour. As we neared the Nepalese capital we were treated to our first views of the high peaks of the Himalayas. They sat above the massive foothills and deep valleys of the lower land as if somehow suspended above the landscape, like intermediaries between the sky and the earth.
I had wanted to see these mountains and come to Nepal ever since I was a child, fascinated by the worlds highest peaks, the mountaineers that climbed them and the people that called this region their home.
After a week in Delhi, we were both looking forward to breathing some clean mountain air, yet Kathmandu was a smoky and dusty city, crowded and busy, and still visibly scarred from the earthquake that hit Nepal in April 2015.
We had booked a room in the home of a Nepali family who lived in Banasthali, just outside the ring road in the north-western part of the city, away from the popular central tourist district of Thamel.
For a fee, our hosts son had picked us up from the airport and driven us back to their home. I was immediately surprised by how many of the roads in the capital were dirt tracks; bumpy and dusty, strewn with potholes, alongside broken pavements and open drains. Above the roads, a mind-boggling tangle of electrical cables with no apparent order or adherence to standards connect infrastructure to the electrical grid. Rubble and rubbish litter the streets and manny buildings have either fallen down and been abandoned or are in the process of being rebuilt.
Our homestay was comfortable enough. It was cheap and included a home-cooked fruit and omelette breakfast and typically Nepali dinner of dal bhat. The mother who cooked all the meals, worked as the principal of a local school while her husband, daughter and son were involved with the tourism and trekking industries in Nepal.
They enlightened us on some of the scams in their business, particularly those involving helicopter evacuations and insurance claims. They tried to get us to fill out a form linking our travel insurance with their trekking company, assuring us that it would be the safest option should we run into any kind of trouble in the mountains. We declined their offer, saying we preferred to go it alone.
They respected our decision and despite our initial reservation about their intentions towards making money off foreign tourists, we got on quite well. We enjoyed their company and their hospitality. They were practicing Hindus, but regarded many aspects of Buddhism as integral to their daily life. Like many Nepalese, they had married young at the ages of 16 and 14 and didn’t actually look that much older than their son. Kindly, they helped us get our permits organised, booked our bus tickets and allowed us to leave some luggage at their home while we went off on our trek.
On our second day in Kathmandu we went for a walk into Thamel, which took us at least half an hour along the busy ring road. It wasn’t a pleasant walk. The route seemed loaded with hazards. Simply crossing the road was an exercise in skilful navigation between the endless stream of cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes weaving in and around each other along no definable lanes.
There was also the effort of breathing through the dust and pollution while every so often encountering the overpowering stench of raw sewerage or burning rubbish. There were the sights of people living in makeshift shelters, sometimes right next to the road, or groups of people huddled around small fires, warming themselves against the cold. It was common to see farm animals, ambling tired and aimless amongst the endless traffic.
Despite the earthquake damage, the poverty, the poor air quality, the complete lack of any form of waste management, and the shortage of suitable water for drinking and household purposes, Kathmandu is alive and bustling with energy. It took us a while though to find our feet and feel any degree of comfort with our surroundings.
Thamel and the Religious Sites
The tourist district of Thamel was a welcome respite from the rest of the city. There was a noticeable degree of order and cleanliness to the streets. You could buy familiar food, stay in hotels with western comforts, yet still be amongst a lively and interesting district. At least that’s how it was in December and January. I doubt it would be as pleasant during the peak tourist season in October/November or April/March.
At the southern end of Thamel we visited the famous Durbar Square area with its fascinating architecture and collection of palaces and temples, some of which suffered considerable damage during the earthquake.
We also visited the Amideva Buddhist Park and nearby Swayambhunath Stupa, also known as the Monkey Temple, on the ring road in the eastern part of the city. The Amideva Buddhist Park is clearly visible from the road and consists primarily of three large golden statues representing three different Buddhas, the central one being the largest Buddha statue in Nepal.
A short walk up the hill from the Park is the fascinating Swayambhunath Stupa, an ancient and important religious pilgrimage site for Buddhists and also for Hindus. While the site is primarily Buddhist, the presence of a small Hindu temple alludes to the harmonious intermingling of Buddhist and Hindu traditions in Nepal. The air was rich with smoke and incense as religious devotees made their way around the the various temples, shrines, and tantric and shamanistic statues that surround the stupa. The site is also the home of a large group of monkeys, always on the lookout for food. The ancient mythology of the hilltop and its stupa recognises the monkeys as holy and so they are allowed free reign about the complex.
Bus Ride to Besisahar
After several days in Kathmandu, we boarded a bus to the town of Besisahar in the Annapurna region, just over 200 kilometres to the east of the capital. The journey along the windy and often bumpy dual lane road through the foothills of the Himalaya took nearly seven hours, yet the view from the window along the way was endlessly fascinating. Aside from the grand scale of the scenery, the steep hillsides and deep valleys, the snow-capped peaks and the raging rivers along the route, there was the regular visual delight of Nepalese village life.
Outside, enjoying the sunshine, people could be seen cooking, cleaning their teeth, washing their hair, stacking bricks, fixing motorbikes, playing board games, bagging sand along the river bank, crushing rocks, building structures, carrying massive loads, herding farm animals, chatting in groups, walking to school, laying in the sun … a continuous visual spectacle of everyday tasks being lived by a tough and hardy people living under some very difficult conditions.