Getting to know Kathmandu

Travel Journal Overview: Two friends showed up a day after the riots. I didn’t know anything about Kathmandu, there was no better time to explore the ancient city.

A Sadu in Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)
A Sadu in Kathmandu, Nepal (click to enlarge)

Nobody seemed that concerned with the riots I had been in the middle of the day before. As I rushed to get the photographs to the BBC, others merely wondered if the stores would be open today. Sangita was more annoyed about no public transport due to the blockades than the fact that the newspaper headlines said the rioters targeted journalists and medical teams.

“I was there, it’s not true!” My witnessed statements got no more than some shrugs and some sighs.

Newspapers in Kathmandu told a different story the next day (click to enlarge)
Newspapers in Kathmandu told a different story the next day (click to enlarge)

The French girls Monique and Stephi brought about my next worry. Stephi turned the page of the riot filled newspaper, “And, your friends. Dhey arrive at what time today?”

More newspaper headlines in Nepal (click to enlarge)
More newspaper headlines in Nepal (click to enlarge)

It hadn’t escaped my mind that this afternoon Maeve and Alex were arriving. I had thought it more prudent to find out if the riots were going to happen again to day?!! No one knew, nor did they seem that worried.

Madu, the second in command at the KTM G GH added to my thoughts, “Maybe the airport is closed too.”

“Because of the riots?” I returned.

He shrugged and unleashed a goofy smile. “Maybe. But the roads. They are being blocked too.”

I remembered my own trip into Kathmandu. He was right. They were flying in at 1pm and had although I had sent them a very exact email with instructions on how to get tote guest house it would do no good if the airport was blocked. Still Madu promised to send a driver out to meet them, so that at least would help.

I went for a look around outside. It was as closed up as it had been the day before. I wonder over to the ring road saw that the tire burning was still in full swing. Riot police marched up and down the main roads. I groaned at the thought of Maeve arriving in the middle of all this. She was not accustomed to roughing it, let alone landing in the middle of a country that I had depicted as idyllic, relaxing and a good place to get away from it all.

The Monkey Temple in Kathmandu
The Monkey Temple in Kathmandu

By lunchtime both Maeve and Alec had both called. Luck was back on track. Their flight had been delayed due to weather, they had bumped into a a chap at the airport who explained about the ‘fuel delays’ and according to a radio report the strike was officially off.

I sat calming myself in the guest house with a beer when they arrived. All smiles and oblivious that for the last two days the city had been in a lock down.

Being new to the city myself it was the perfect excuse to head off with Maeve and Alec to see what was on offer. Though I had only been there myself for two riot filled days they seemed to make a great deal out of me going with them to all the tourist sights I must have seen already. No problem.

Kathmandu was as close to an ancient living city as I have come across. No where else have I seen a place where 1000 year old plus buildings en masse are used for everyday purposes in the same way they used to be. Couple that with smoke churning rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, narrow lanes and shops overflowing with metal curios and you can easily feel lost here. Thamel is not Kathmandu, its a part of it. And I found Thamel to be the least likable place. It was full of tourists, and tourist centered items. Not that I wasn’t partial to a porterhouse steak in the evening while listening to modern music or a just released Hollywood blockbuster. It was the lure of the old world still alive and bustling on the roof of the world that I enjoyed the most.

Durbar Square's markert, Kathmandu, Nepal
Durbar Square's markert, Kathmandu, Nepal

Where else in the world could you find a Living Goddess hidden amongst a mini city of ancient Hindu temples. Sadu priests making blessings, praying and at the same time taking gullible tourists for extortionate photographic privileges. The temples were awash with people, either selling flowers or other such paraphernalia, or just taking it all in. Hunched men with backs filled with stacks of carpets, singing bowls and even plastic chairs battled through crowds of neatly dressed students. And this was just Dubar Square.

Along the modern new road was the new version of commercialism. Watch vendors, game boy hawkers and camera salesmen all did battle for your money. Stores of electronics lined the road, Sony, Motorola, Panasonic, Dell, they were all represented in some fashion. Then a Royal Palace with a King present who’s brother killed his whole family.

House of the living Goddess, Kathmandu, Nepal
House of the living Goddess, Kathmandu, Nepal

Outside beggars would ask once, or maybe twice for money. Their clothes and skiing more dirty from the polluted streets than any other I have seen. Street kids would lie in clusters along the roadside. Either emancipated from the night before or resting for this nights plea to fuel their drug centered addictions.

In the tourist hotbed that was Thamel, nationalities from all over the world dined on rich and well prepared foods. Shopped for cheap yet beautifully ornate jewelery, Kukri knifes and counterfeit DVD’s. Or be seen spending many times less on fake North Face jackets that would normally cost 100’s of foreign currency back home. It was here after night had fallen and the day time tourist touts looking to sell a chap tour had packed up you would find a grim scene. Street children would en masse for the few evening time hours that they knew the tourists would be out.

Flower stall, Kathmandu, Nepal
Flower stall, Kathmandu, Nepal

They were street children hooked on glue. Plastic bags would often cover their faces as they huffed in the toxic fumes that gave them a brief high before their eyes would glaze over. They would prey on tourists leaving restaurants, or new comers, their lost expressions giving them away. Full bellies and quite early evenings meant tourists were easily persuaded to part with some cash. And for the smart tourist what didn’t want to give cash but offered food instead came another crash of reality.

Coming back one evening from an evening with the French girls and a new Italian Daniel who had lived here before I came upon a small girl selling embroidered purses. Colorful and ornate they would make a nice gift. The girl was about 7. Her face was smeared with oily soot, and her clothes tattered. All of the street children were boys, and it was unusual to see a girl out and about.

“150 Rupees.” she claimed.

I laughed back, “Really, so much? It’s too much.”

“120.” She fired back with a knowing smile.

“120? My dear I live here, I know the cost. Tell me the truth?”

She didn’t frown, but I could see her weighing me up. “Last price 50 Rupees.”

I nodded towards a group of boys ahead of us as I took a note out. “You’re not going to do what they are doing are you?”

She shook her head frowning. “No, I not bold and stupid. They use glue. I sell purses and go to school.”

Glue sniffing is common amoungst the street children in Nepal (click to enlarge)
Glue sniffing is common amoungst the street children in Nepal (click to enlarge)

It flickered past my mind that she would probably be more educated than the man she would be arranged to marry at some stage in her young life. The group of boys were following a large American looking tourist into a supermarket. I had seen this before. The tourist in good intentions had refused to give the kids money, knowing they would directly buy glue with it. Instead he was asking them to pick something out from the store that would directly feed them.

“He is stupid too,” continued the little girl, following my eyes as the tourist left with a large bag of rice cakes. “He should open it first. The boys will take back and get money for it for drugs.”

She was right. Once the tourist had left the group of boys charged back into the supermarket and exchanged the food for money. People were surviving here by any means necessary, so long as it did not interfere with the greater good.

With Maeve and Alec we stood idly by in a Gurkha knife store as it was held up by a youth

The effects of drugs on the street children in Nepal is very evident (click to enlarge)
The effects of drugs on the street children in Nepal is very evident (click to enlarge)

with a sword like Gurkha knife. Never once were we threatened. Instead the thief got away with the 800 Ruppess knife. No police were called. No one chased after him. A call was made to the local Maoist group. The thief was a member. Later the knife would be returned by a bloodied ex-thief.

This was Kathmandu. A world of old and new. Of safety and danger. Poor and yet rich. Dependent yet independent and unique. It represented so much to so many. It intrigued people, scared them, compelled them and yet offered a safe haven to them. People went to India for spirituality, yet here in Nepal it seemed more genuine. The people were friendly, open to all. No jealousy nor crime was evident nor directed at tourists. Even the drunken ones stumbling home alone along darkened lanes seemed to make it back in one peace.

Mother begging with her Children, Durbar Square, Nepal (click to enlarge)
Mother begging with her Children, Durbar Square, Nepal (click to enlarge)

Maeve and Alec were aghast with Kathmandu, and regretted not having more time in Nepal. I helped them courier things home through a contact I had made at the London Cargo Company. And then waved them off in Madu’s taxi. Their visit had been a success. It felt good to have friends visit me while I was traveling myself. It felt even better that they had enjoyed themselves. Now I was alone again to head into China. Though I would have liked to have stayed longer, it was time to move on.

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Nepal)

Stories: Talika the twelve year old miner from Nepal

Stories: NGO’s in Nepal & Developing Countries

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Resources: How to hire a guide in Nepal

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