Before I start this little rant I want to ensure there are mostly positive things to be said about our time in Nepal – please bear with me…
We entered Nepal at the border-crossing at Karkarvitta, and although we were initially in good time to make the bus, we got caught up enough to miss the last bus of the day by about 10-15 minutes… We weren’t impressed… The problems started with the taxi dropping us at the Nepalese side of the border, so when we came to immigration they went “where is your exit-stamp?” We didn’t realise we had to have an exit-stamp from the Indian immigration a 15 minutes schlep back down the road. They told us to catch a rickshaw – it should only be 10 rupees they said… And so we did agree with the rickshaw drivers… To our surprise when we got to the Indian Immigration they were demanding 20 rupees each (although why we were surprised, with all our previous experiences with rickshaw drivers, I don’t know…) We’d been shaken to the edge of our life for countless of hours already in jeeps from Darjeeling and was not in the mood for being taken for a ride – even for a measly 10 rupees (12 pence) extra each – and the battle of wills started. We tried to reason with them saying we agreed 10 rupees each before we got onto the rickshaw and they said “yes 10 rupees” so that’s what we’ll pay. The drivers wouldn’t budge and claimed to never have promised this. The discussion gets heated and the drivers start to engage the border guard officers – we start to feel slightly uneasy as we’re arguing in front of a heavily armed border guard – and the officer that is handling our applications for the exit-stamps needed to leave the country (HELP! LET US OUT PLEASE) – which of us will they take sides with? We start to fill out the paperwork with all the details of our entire life – twice for some reason… and this with the drivers hanging around arguing their case with the border guards – we’re getting more and more angry and stressed, but we hide it well and stick to our guns shouting out “you agreed 10 rupees before we got on – take it or leave it!” in-between filling out the countless lines of information that I’m sure is not really needed – especially in duplicate…? At some stage the guards have had enough of these drivers bickering outside and they tell them they’ll have to honour their promise and accept the 10 rupees we’re offering them – they take the money sheepishly and FINALLY bugger off to rip off someone else (the funny thing is that they could have made a couple of other journeys in the time they were hassling us and made much more than the measly 10 rupees they were trying to con out of us…). We get our exit stamp in the end and decide to walk back to the Nepalese side instead of having more aggravation from horrible rickshaw drivers from Hell – it’s a danger it could tip us over the edge and trigger a fight at this point… At the Nepalese immigration office more paperwork was of course needed, and a new unpleasant surprise of a quite expensive entry-visa was awaiting us. At the end of all this palava we finally got through to the other side and we were in Nepal. By this time, as luck would have it, the time was 17:10 and the last bus to Kathmandu for the day left at 17:00… We were followed around by numerous of touts as we were trying to decide of what to do, although we didn’t have much choice. The next bus would be at 04:20 in the morning and we needed a place to get some rest and some food. We were now really on edge after all the bother with the immigration scenario and the relentless touts as we arrived into the town. We started to ask around some travel agents to figure out which was a good price for tickets and accommodation. Thankfully we walked into the office of Batika Travels, and now feel sorry for the guy who turned out to be a top man – very helpful and welcoming, but being so on edge we didn’t trust anything he told us in the beginning and we ended up giving him a bit of a hard time. He didn’t have any room available in his hotel but he recommends next door – the two hotels are kind of interlinked and feels a bit like it’s the same place anyways. The room is cheap, clean and just what is needed for a bit of rest before our early morning start. We have a lovely dinner in the restaurant downstairs which funnily enough doesn’t have a menu, but they present us with a copy of a menu from some other restaurant and tell us they can try to dish up what we want from that one. We choose the traditional Nepalese equivalent of an Indian thali and a nice Nepalese beer called Everest. The food arrives with what seems endless top up of rice and sauce so there was no way we were going to leave the table hungry. After the dinner we get to use the Wi-Fi of Batika for free to see if we can check out a place to stay in Kathmandu, as we don’t have a guide for Nepal. We source one place that sounds lovely called Shree Family Guesthouse and send them an email to enquire about a room. It’s a bit late in the evening, so we don’t expect a reply before we leave on the bus in the morning. So with no idea of whether they have a room for us we decide to head there upon arrival and hope for the best. The bus journey is a gruelling 16 hours, but the fortunate thing about missing the bus in the evening before is that most of the journey is in daylight so we get to enjoy the scenery. The person in the seat in front of us is unfortunately not agreeing with the winding and bumpy road and quite frequently has to pop his head out the window to decorate the side of the bus with his breakfast and other snacks and food he tries to eat during the day… Our window gets some fancy horizontal yellow lines – thankfully we made sure it was always closed so none of the lines would continue on the inside of the bus and most important not onto us…
We finally arrive in Kathmandu around eight in the evening – a little ahead of schedule, and after getting our bearings decide to get a taxi to Shree Family Guest House. We had not been able to get access to any internet since we got onto the bus at silly o’clock in the morning, so had no idea wether or not they’d replied to the email we sent them with our enquiry the night before, and if they would have any rooms available. We were in luck though and they had received our email and reserved a room for us. We had a quick freshen up and on our way out to get some food asked the very nice gentleman at the reception about whether he could recommend some sights or activities for us. He gave us a few suggestions of what we could do. The guest house have one of their own vehicles with a driver they use for airport pick-ups and private hire and suggested a two day sightseeing tour for us. It was a good deal, but we were umming and erring a bit about it as we are on a tight budget and said we had to think about it over dinner. Hannah had spotted a nice little restaurant just down the road from the guest house so we went there for a very lovely meal. Over dinner we decided to go for the two day sightseeing tour suggested by the receptionist of our guest house – as we only had two full days in Kathmandu and arranging taxies or finding busses to take us around would limit the amount of time to spend seeing the sights, we thought it would be worth it. It turned out to be a wise decision and an excellent suggestion by our guest house receptionist.
We get a very nice driver at our disposal – quite funnily as he doesn’t speak much English, so some of the answers to our questions have some unexpected answers – not matching the question at all, but probably matching the question he though he heard. The first day of sightseeing covers some of the main sites of Kathmandu – it includes a World Heritage site spread over three different locations within the city. First site is the Pashupati Temple one of the holiest Hindu temples in the world, and with our impeccable timing in the midst of a Hindu festival so the site is ram-packed – many worshippers have made the journey over from India to come here to worship and get blessed. We also get to see the Hindu tradition of cremating their dead on large fires on the bank of the holy river that runs through the site. In the river there are remains of offerings floating about everywhere, and we see poor kids in the midst of it all sifting through all the debris looking for anything valuable or useful to sell on. Many of them have huge magnets on a string they use to dredge for coins that have been thrown as offerings into the river. It’s a sad sight to see children in such a deprived situation, and this water can’t be healthy, polluted with all the debris and rubbish from all the offerings being thrown into the river.
We move on to the next stop on the tour, Boudhanath (Boudha), which is a very important Buddhist shrine. This site is quite strikingly amazing with its white-washed dome with the golden roof and the painted eyes watching over the site. The shrine is surrounded by shops selling handicrafts, art, clothes and souvenirs, but surprisingly no tacky tourist paraphernalia really as far as I noticed. We have a walk around on the shrine, and it’s a very tranquil, peaceful place with all the prayer-flags waving in the wind. We start to notice quite a few European tourists in their “authentic” clothes you find in the shops for tourists walking about with their prayer-beads and paying respect to all the different points around the shrine, and some on mats around the periphery meditating. We find this a bit odd, and we’re not alone – the locals who walk around look at them in disbelief and sometimes point and quietly laugh to each other about the sight of these tourists. After we’ve done our circling of the shrine we have a stop for a cup of coffee at a restaurant where they have a rooftop terrace with view of the shrine. From here we can study from afar this influx of tourists that seem a bit too much into their newfound religion – some seem completely zoned out as if they’re tripping on some drugs, walking around in a daze touching all the walls and “bathing” in the prayer-flags, really touchy-feely like… We can’t help it but laugh about this and wonder if they all came in on the loony-bus, or should we call it the “tour-bus of lost souls” (I’m being very cynical, I know).
Next stop is the Durbar Square in the Patan area of Kathmandu, a part of the ancient city which is very much intact. The architecture is quite amazing with very intricate wood and stone carvings. Some of the buildings are in use as art galleries, and there is a museum in one of them as well, and some are temples that are still in use. We meander around and lose our sense of time as usual… We also get the driver to wait for a bit extra to have a look at a couple of temples outside of this World Heritage site. This site together with Pashupatinath and Boudhanath are three sites that make up one World Heritage site in the city centre of Kathmandu.
Our fourth stop on the list is the Swayambhunath (Swayambhu) where we get an excellent view of Kathmandu, and the light up at this temple is beautiful as the sun is setting on the horizon. Everywhere there are monkeys stealing food from the offerings left by the shrine – it’s quite fun to watch.
Our last stop for the day is Basantapur Durbar Square where we say goodbye to our driver for the day and make our own way to the hotel after wandering around another amazing historic site. It’s now starting to get dark and it’s really busy around the buildings with market stalls setting up for the evening. Most of these stalls are selling their fruit or vegetable produce, and range from actual stalls to someone with a couple of carrots on a carpet. It’s a very lively atmosphere along the whole way back to the guest house – the road is lined with all sorts of little shops, and wherever there is extra space there are temporary market stalls. Being a shopaholic here can be very expensive indeed.
Our second day of sightseeing has a very early start to enable us to get to the Nagakot Tower Viewpoint for the sunrise. We leave from the guest house at 05:00 and the drive to the viewpoint takes about an hour. We’re with the same driver as the day before and he’s clearly tired but very happy, enthusiastic and chatty. The journey goes by very quickly and we get to the viewpoint in good time – about 30-40 minutes wait before the sun appears. It was fairly cloudy and misty but the view was still magnificent as we got to see the sun rising over the Himalayas, right next to Mount Everest.
At first we were the only people up there, but closer to the time of the sunrise two more couples arrived – much more quiet and relaxed than the very crowded sunrise at Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, where unfortunately there wasn’t much to be seen because of the heavy fog – it was also nowhere near as cold as when we were waiting for the dawn at Tiger Hill. After witnessing the sunrise we go down towards the car and have a nice breakfast cooked for us in one of the small huts next to the parking lot. Quite nice to sit by the little fire outside of the hut warming our hands and feet, although afterwards we reeked of bonfire smoke of course. From Nagarkot the trip went back in the direction of Kathmandu with a few hours stop in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, another World Heritage site. If you go to Kathmandu you should make sure you get to visit this city, only 20-odd minutes outside of Kathmandu by car if the traffic isn’t too bad. I’m sure there are plenty of busses one can take as well, which would be a lot cheaper than a taxi. The whole city is a museum of old buildings with their very intricate carvings. It’s still very much a busy city even though it’s a World Heritage site. People still occupy the houses and live and work within the city. How good that is for the preservation of the buildings I don’t know, but they’ve obviously been taking very good care of it until now. It’s a slightly difficult place to manoeuvre even after we get our bearings on the map we get together with the entrance ticket – it’s not the most accurate map, with black-spots where they insert small pictures of monuments covering essential info about which exit to take out of a square or which alleyway to head down to get in the right direction. Even so we are able to get back to our driver at the right place and on the agreed time. From here we head back to the guest house and say good bye to our driver who well deserve the tip we give him for showing us around for the last two days, and hopefully he’s able to go back home for a well earned rest after the silly early start. We spend the rest of the day walking about the shops and market stalls and generally taking it easy as we’re a bit tired after the early morning start. Not much shopping done in the end, save some music from a lovely little music-store down the road from the hotel – a couple of CDs with relaxing music from Nepal and India.
It’s the last morning in Nepal before we fly to Bangkok, Thailand via New Delhi. We have a fairly early flight so have to get to the airport by taxi without the opportunity of having a breakfast. We arrive in good time at the Kathmandu airport, so it all looks like it’ll be a smooth journey without any stress – our dreams of a stress-free day start to crumble as we find there is security checks for what seems like every step you take and every move you make (did The Police train these security personnel?). By the time we get through to our gate. We’d had six security-checks… and it wasn’t over just yet – we have one more pat-down where they check our boarding-pass, and then yet another pat-down and bag-check down on the runway inside some strange temporary wheeled container-tunnel vehicles before the stairs up to enter the aeroplane – the flight was already delayed before all this extra time-consuming but completely pointless exercise of the “secure boarding” and our two hours of time in-between our flights at New Delhi airport was diminishing rapidly. We finally take off about two hours after schedule and hope we won’t have more hassle with the transfer. When we land at New Delhi it’s already past the time when we’re supposed to be boarding the next flight… the taxiing of the plane from the runway alone feels like an eternity… As we come to a halt there are a few people in the back who are running down the aisles to get ahead of other travellers to the exit – I’ve seen stressed and/or impatient people on flights before but this really takes the biscuit… We’re in the rear of the plane ourselves so have a long wait before we’re able to move and exit. By the time we’re out it’s only minutes before our next flight is about to take off. We scramble down trying to get past all the slow people in our way and to our surprise get a bit of priority through the transfer process and the security-check – the people working the x-ray and body-search seem to revel in their power to make the travellers suffer, so I’m fearing the worst, as unpacking and re-packing my bag with the camera-equipment is a longwinded process. We’re in luck and pass through the check without problems and get another bit of good news – our flight is a bit delayed, so we get on the plane breathing heavily after our marathon run, but very happy to be on the last leg towards Bangkok.