A week previous to our flight to Nepal there had been a crash on the runway at Kathmandu airport and 50 people had died. This was a rather somber and scary background to our trip and we and all of our loved ones were relieved when we arrived safely in Nepal. It was one of the bumpiest landings we have ever experienced. Even Caro, who is the most chilled of flyers, was gripping the arms of the seat as the wings tilted perilously close to the runway.
Getting in to Nepal sounds more complicated than the reality and even though most of the people on our plane required visas we still got through the process in about 30 minutes. There do seem to be an unnecessary number of different desks that you have to go to but again this moved pretty quickly. Four pieces of advice to make the process go smoothly:
- Have a pen in your hand luggage because none of the desks are equipped with one to fill in the forms
- Know the address of your first hostel/hotel in Nepal
- Have a vague idea of how long you are going to stay for so that you don’t have to come back and reapply later
- Have cash in dollar, sterling or euro to pay for your visa. It says you can buy with card but the man behind the visa counter wouldn’t let us. (We had the most bizarre experience in Delhi airport: We were already airside and went to the currency exchange to try and withdraw some dollars to pay for our visas at the other end. The man told us that they didn’t have facilities to allow us to withdraw money, we could only exchange actual cash and then asked us where we were travelling to. When we said that we were flying to Kathmandu he informed us that it was illegal to provide any currency to passengers flying to Kathmandu, even Indian rupees. We looked at him incredulously: “to be clear, no one is going to give us any money because we are flying to Nepal?” He nodded and said “Yes, it is illegal because Nepal is part of India”. Cue gormless expressions and stunned silence followed by extricating ourselves from the situation very swiftly. We have googled it since and not found anyone else who has had this experience… lucky us.)
Kathmandu airport is delightfully dated; along one of the walls the back plates and wiring from a bank of old school payphones are still in situ. Once we made it through, the non-prepaid taxi drivers were a bit pushy and followed us around as we went to the ATM and the prepaid taxi desk but in general it was easy going and we were soon whizzing our way towards hotel through the streets and permanent haze of Kathmandu, our driver giving us a mini tour along the way. At this stage, our most prominent observation was that the air was cool, it was a comfortable temperature for the first time in 2 months and it was awesome.
We had had another early morning and so restricted our first day to wandering around the tourist area of Thamel. Whilst it is completely aimed at tourists, we really liked Thamel. For one thing, it is largely pedestrianised so you can walk about in peace, for another it is wonderfully bright and vibrant and active and there are so many excellent clothes to look at. We did find ourselves wondering what exactly people do with the prayer flags that they buy and take home, string them up around the lounge perhaps. We managed to resist buying anything on day one in Nepal but the wish list grows longer by the day.We had our first momos, steamed dumplings usually filled with chicken or vegetables which are a staple in Nepal. We had lunch at Green Organic Café and Farmers Bar, which was excellent, and the momos were made from buckwheat which sadly spoiled us for the rest of Nepal, being as they were far superior to regular momos. We have vowed to go again on our return journey through Kathmandu. This experience has also lead to the creation of a very annoying chant about Caro’s love of momo.The following morning, we went out in search of breakfast and ended up at French Bakery which is run by a Nepali guy who spent 25 years travelling the world before setting up shop back home in Kathmandu. Between him, the well-travelled Filipinos sat next to us and the excellent enormous breakfast it was a thoroughly enjoyable morning. Armed with our trusty Lonely Planet we commenced a walking tour of Kathmandu. There are two in our version, one from Thamel south to Durbar Square and one south of Durbar Square. The latter wasn’t particularly good but the first was great for giving you a taste of the sights and sounds of Kathmandu. We bought face masks at the start of the walk as Kathmandu is very dusty, mainly from all the building work going on to repair the earthquake damage.The streets between Thamel and Durbar square are busy, clean, colourful and packed full of shops selling cloth, beads, spices and shining brass bowls and kettles. The roads are cobbled and this twinned with the wooden houses leaning this way and that lends the pace a romantic historic air.You come across earthquake damage everywhere with sudden gaps between buildings were a structure has completely collapsed to the ground, but there is widespread evidence of repair and a general atmosphere of moving forward and getting on with life. The walk was a real pleasure as we wandered through archways and ducked under low doorways the opened in to quiet courtyards with temples and stupas.The route lead us towards Durbar Square which, sadly, has borne the brunt of the earthquake. Quite a number of the temples are now just piles of rubble with signs showing drawings or pictures of their former glory. Despite this, it is still well worth wandering around and taking in, but perhaps get a guide or download a better guide than the one in the Lonely Planet. Once we had figured out the order it was taking it was ok, but was pretty frustrating to start with. There are massive restoration efforts ongoing in Durbar Square and we imagine that with every year it will become more impressive.You are meant to buy a ticket to visit but there is no defined entrance or exit, so it is largely based on an honesty system of buying a ticket from one of the huts. We did get checked by two security guards while walking round and entering two of the buildings and you’ll want to buy a ticket anyway, the money all goes to restoring to site.With an early morning ahead of us for our bus journey to Pokhara, we decided to eat at our hotel and have an early night, but James still managed to start sampling the local beers, which it turns out are generally pretty punchy; the first one that he tried had a 7% alcohol content.We chatted with a couple of other chaps who were staying there, one who had been airlifted off the Everest Base Camp trek because his knees had had enough of climbing up and down. Apparently this is a pretty common occurrence and the knowledge made us a bit nervous about our upcoming trek with its 2000m of ascent. For the most part, however, we were just excited.