Ahhhhh, Kathmandu…I have been here for over a week now and I can attest to the fact that it is indeed a very interesting place. The first thing one takes note of upon arriving is how the city is laid out. All the tourists congregate in a section of the city called Thamel which comprises of about 4 main parallel streets and a seemingly infinite number of little side streets and alley ways which turn a relatively small space into a sprawling metropolis. As you walk down the narrow one and a half lane street, old multistory buildings tower over you and people, taxis, animals, bicycles, and motorcycles flow around you like water. Horns honk, people yell, cars zip by, music blares from the many stores and street performers and people all compete for your attention in a desperate attempt to sell you anything from fruit to trekking tours to marijuana.
It’s a trip. Kids walk by you and whisper in your ear “HELLO! (then in a low trancelike voice) marijuanasmokehash?” and keep walking by. Rickshaw drivers ride along side of you and beg for you to let them take you where you want to go (they try to list all the major attractions – including the whore houses). Old women come up to you and show you bracelets, “good price!”, people come up with business cards touting their credentials as a tour guide, old men sit in the front of their shops and when they see you they smile and point inside – “have a look!” And then there are the people who have a scam, but don’t reveal what it is. They are just interested in you and say anything to get your attention. They might ask your name, where you’re from, what the print on your shirt means, where you’re going, the time (despite the fact that they have a watch), if they can feel the fabric of your shirt, how much something you have costs, or something to that effect. You get pretty good at blowing them off – i.e. answering their question then picking up the pace and leaving them in the dust.
It’s really bad if you have a huge backpack because everyone touting a hotel pounces on you. While trying to find my buddy’s guesthouse so I could move to it, a guy greeted me with the usual line. I told him I already had a guesthouse and he asked which one. I wasn’t sure where it was and he told me it was in the opposite direction. I didn’t believe him and told him so.
Once in Pokhara, I had all the taxi drivers compete for me by trying to toss a stone nearest to a bottle I put 20 feet away. The closest won. It was pretty funny because these guys just pounce on you as soon as you get off the bus and they all try to make you feel guilty for not going with them.
The next thing you notice about Kathmandu is that everyone seems to be throwing water into the streets from big buckets. Everywhere you go there is some guy tossing water on your shoes. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to escape it because the streets are so narrow and you’re too busy dodging taxis and motorcycles zipping by mere inches from you. Dogs wander and lounge around on the streets and usually become a lot more active once the sun sets usually playfully following you home on your way home from a pub. And then there’s the random stuff you see for sale.
Guys are set up all over the place selling all sorts of random stuff, from chess sets to piles of bright multi-colored powders (for God knows what). People come up to you with a polished wooden Buddha or elephant wrapped in cloth and offer to sell it to you like it’s some sort of nuclear weapon they have to keep concealed.
But the tourists are one of the funniest groups to watch. It’s got a mix not unlike Bangkok with everything from the first time traveler college kids, to the middle age guys trying to find themselves, to the half brain dead hippies. It’s not quite as diverse though, mind you, seeing as it takes a bit of a different type of person to come here despite the warnings of civil unrest and the like (which everyone finds out isn’t really much of a concern when they arrive).
Seeing as I’ve been here for a while now, I’ve had time to examine the city and am actually getting a bit bored with it. I’ve been sick for a few days (today is the first day I feel back to normal, but I’m still being cautious with my diet) and have been hanging out with my friends from the Annapurna trek quite a bit. I found out that I actually had already met one of the Israeli girls about 4 months ago in Vietnam. What a coincidence! I have full cable in my hotel room, which helps break the boredom. But more than anything, it’s nice to just relax. I’m here until Friday because I have to wait for my Indian visa, and then the race begins again. I found out something about myself and that I wasn’t really ready for, yesterday.
I suck at pool.
I grew up with a pool table and am all right on an American sized table with American sized billiard balls, but everywhere else in the world they have these tiny little balls and pockets. You would think that as much as I’ve traveled and played, I would have gotten good…but no. I suck. The good news is that most everyone else does too.
It’s really funny to watch a bunch of guys around a pool table. Everyone tries to make their intended shot and when it doesn’t make it, they hang on to the pool stick and watch the balls like there is some other secret shot they were actually trying to make even though anything that actually goes in is an accident. It’s so funny. I just want to look at them and say, “dude…just give me the stick.” I have a buddy Tim back home (one of the most talented and modest guys I’ve ever met) that would give you the stick if he made a ball in that he didn’t intend and just admit that he didn’t intend for it to go in.
I did some sight seeing today and went to see the monkey temple and the cemetery. The monkey temple wasn’t anything spectacular and I was actually pretty disappointed by it. Unlike most temples, this one just had people selling stuff in little stalls everywhere you looked. It got put on the map because it’s got monkeys everywhere, which although it’s interesting, it’s nothing spectacular. All the religious stuff was behind bars. The cemetery was a little more interesting but not by much. The tourists go there because they cremate bodies right on in the open in fires next to a little river (in case you were wondering, the burned bodies smell a lot like barbeque). After the bodies have been sufficiently burned, they dump the ashes and stuff into the murky and stinky brown water. Kids walk through it with wheel barrows and scavenge the unburned wood and monkeys swim around in it looking for stuff to eat. Down stream, women wash dishes in the water. I’m beyond the stage where I would be disgusted or in dismay. I just made sure I didn’t eat anywhere near the river.
So I get my Indian visa tomorrow then it’s off to India. If you think what I just described about the cemetery river was something, wait until I tell you about the Ganges!
So I last left off with me just about to leave for two weeks of trekking in the Nepalese Himalayas. In the morning, Zach and I grabbed some coffee and went to look for our bus. We eventually found where it was supposed to be, but soon realized that it wasn’t there. Some other bus guy put us on his bus and said our bus was “all gone”. We didn’t ask. I went to use the bathroom and found the most disgusting toilet in all the world. Right here in Kathmandu. It was a little shack with a battered up door that you had to pry open. When you got in, there was no electricity so you couldn’t see in the depths where the toilet was. Apparently, I wasn’t the first one to have this problem. From what I gathered, people couldn’t find the hole in the back of the shack, so they just went #2 all over the floor. Upon stepping inside, I saw a present waiting for me in front of the sink. After nearly puking, I went outside and took a leak on the back of the shack.
We set off on our 9 hour bus ride through the mountains of Nepal. Let me tell you, the countryside is incredible. It’s like something out of another world. Beautiful snowcapped mountains and rice terrace filled valleys with brightly dressed people planting rice and riding water buffalos to till the flooded soil. I can assure you, you have never seen green until you have seen a freshly planted rice field. The neon green is enough to almost hurt your eyes. After arriving at Pokhara, Zach and I wandered around town. I went in search of cheap and fast internet (which seems to be an impossible combination in Nepal) and ended up getting lost and wandering the streets. I wound up playing a senile old man chess on the sidewalk for a few hours. He won.
The next day, we set off for Besi Sahar, which is the starting point of the trek. The bus ride was incredible. It was kind of like being drunk and trying to stay on one of those bucking broncos in a country bar. The seats were rock hard and my knees were smashed into the seat in front of me. They never shut the doors and people hung on to the outside as we went. Zach and I met a Canadian guy who I soon found out was in Bangkok when I was and saw the same fight I saw before I left (see previous post). He told me that the guy got punched because he stole some money from two guys or something. Crazy. After passing two buses that had smashed into each other head on, we eventually arrived. We checked into our hotel and got dinner. The Canadian guy was a trip. He was a pot head, first off. And he tried very hard to tell everyone how generous he was. He told us stories of his travels and what not. We argued for hours about corporations and the free market (for which I am a staunch supporter, but this guy is a Canadian, and he and an English guy had gotten into the argument – and the Canadians and Europeans are usually protectionist). He said that it was corporate greed and greed in general that would destroy the planet and how he was disgusted by it. He told us how religion wasn’t necessary to be moral. Then he told me how he was going to get an MP3 player like mine. How? He was going to commit insurance fraud. I listened to his explanation quietly.
“Yeah, it’s great. I’ll get free stuff, and I get to fuck over a big corporation. HAHA!”
Irony aside (speaking of greed), I asked him who was really going to suffer. The corporation would report a loss and the premiums for everyone would go up. Not only that, it would cut into profits and the share price would go down, which would mean old ladies would lose money on their retirement IRA’s. The corporate bosses would continue to get paid the same. He tried to argue for a little while and then stormed off to go smoke some pot. In addition, a religious person would have a hard time justifying behavior like that in the face of God. As unreligious as I am, it has its virtues in that it puts forth an unquestioning moral code. I highly doubt that all the Catholic priests that molested all those little boys thought that what they were doing was right. But the human brain can justify any number of things if there is no concrete reference.
So the next day, we headed off to start the trek. I like to hike alone so I got a late start and set off. It was a hot day. I wondered if I would see any Maoists. But the thing about Nepal is that there is military everywhere. Guys with guns are everywhere you look. They seemed to have a pretty good control over the situation in the cities.
The scenery was beautiful. You follow a river through a massive valley with the snowy Annapurna mountain range up ahead. You climb your way each day further up the valley to the pass (the highest point after which you start descending each day). The scenery changes each day to something different and the best thing is that you don’t need to carry any food or equipment as you stop in little villages along the way for lunch and accommodation. Even better, you usually don’t have to pay to sleep as long as you eat at your hotel. They really take care of you and the food is great (and blody cheap). You meet people and make friends along the way. Zach and I ended up teaming up with a group of Israelis, an American girl and a girl from Guyana (yeah, it’s a country). It was a lot of fun and even more interesting seeing the Israelis in the group. They really are an interesting people and a lot of fun to boot. They are really social and love putting on music and sharing their food (and yours) with everyone. The ringleader was a guy named Kobe, one of the most alive people I have ever met. He always has a huge smile on and is always joking and laughing with everyone. It’s incredible to watch him in action. We all played chess together and joked around each evening and would then tackle the hike during the day separately (or at least, I would). I really enjoy being alone in my thoughts as I hike.
The transition each day is dramatic. You climb from the lowland valley, past healthy crops of wild marijuana up to the pine forests and then to snow filled mountain tops with frozen waterfalls and yaks along the way. Parts of the trail had to be blasted out of the faces of mountains and sometimes you are scrambling over gravel from a landslide before winding up a narrow trail over a mountain. I could try to put the experience into words, but it would be impossible. Just take a look at the pictures – I took more than enough (Pokhara). One of the most interesting things was the huge Tibetan influence. Seeing as I was no more than 10 miles away from the Tibetan border at one point, you can understand how this would be so. At the entrance of each town is a huge wall called a mani wall with prayer wheels along it. A prayer wheel is a cylinder with inscriptions on it that you turn clockwise with your hand as you walk by. It supposedly says the prayer as it spins. There are also brightly colored flags and stuppas everywhere. The wind blows the prayer into the air from the flags which are inscribed with buddhist prayers. It was fascinating to learn about this. The pictures show all of these as well as the traditional Tibetan architecture – a building made from stones piled high and a flat roof with firewood piled on top.
You are climbing a lot each day though. More than 4000 feet on some days, in preparation for the pass (close to 17,000 feet). The big worry is mountain sickness, which can strike at any altitude above about 9,000 feet. We spent a day to acclimatize at 11,000 feet in Manang which was a nice place and then took our time as we climbed higher (one day only walking for 3 hours). The symptoms are intense headache and loss of appetite and if you don’t give your body enough time at different stages to get used to the altitude. Luckily, I only got a slight headache the night before the pass and it was gone the next day. The girls we were with were having a few problems making it up (it’s really hard to hike at such a high altitude as there is not enough oxygen and it makes your bag really heavy) so I took their sleeping bags over for them. I was really surprised at how fit I was. I was able to leave last and beat everyone each day (not that I was trying, though) and I was able to race up the pass without any problem. People had porters and stuff and I was fine with my pack. I remember hiking Machu Picchu (when I nearly died of exhaustion) as I hiked. What a world of difference. If you are in shape, you can just walk and not worry about your pack. You are never exhausted and are never tired and can just keep walking without any problems. It was great! I’m really happy that I was able to maintain a certain level of fitness since New Zealand and didn’t get all out of shape. After making it over the pass, we saw the same scenery again in reverse, but it was still a bit different. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much beauty packed into 13 days in my entire life. The cold was a challenge though. One morning I woke up and my water had ice in it. The toilet water was frozen too. You just piled the blankets high and curled up to get to sleep each night. When it was all said and done though, I had hiked about 230 miles and nearly 4 vertical miles up into the atmosphere and back down again (not counting all the ups and downs).
When we started getting near the end of the trek though, we got word that there was a Maoist strike in Nepal. They were setting up a 10 day road block on the day we would arrive back to civilization. We weren’t sure if the porters were just trying to convince us to go the long way back to Pokhara (thereby getting a few more days of work out) or if it was true. We hiked back to the nearest town and found out that there really was a roadblock and everyone was afraid to drive on the roads. We couldn’t convince anyone to take us (the Maoists let tourists pass so we were going to make a big banner that said “tourist” for the side of the bus or jeep). But eventually, after sitting around the town for a while, we convinced them to let a bus pass and we all piled in. After push starting it, we were on our way and the only evidence of a roadblock that we saw was some smoldering wood in the street. We drove around it. When we got back to Pokhara though, we realized that it would be very hard to get back to Kathmandu with the strike, as that was there the main roadblocks were. I read in the paper that 7 buses had been flipped and burned. That convinced me to take a flight, which I booked immediately. Since I’m a lucky guy though, I ended up spending the entire next day waiting at the airport for my flight to leave before it was canceled and we were all told to go back home. Many people didn’t even have luggage because the airline had sent it on another plane to Kathmandu to save on the load, like the Japanese guy and Mexican girl I spent the day hanging out with. I had my luggage though, so I went back to my hotel and got laughed, at by all my friends. They had a ticket for the next day, and I changed my flight for the next day as well and after another night of partying and playing pool in Pokhara, we all got in to Kathmandu. It could have been worse. Some guys took the bus, which would only run with Army convoy. It took them 12 hours to make it to Kathmandu. I think the $60 dollar air ticket was worth every penny and I didn’t even have the risk of getting shot (I asked them if they saw the burned and shot up buses. They said yes).
And so here I am back in Kathmandu. It’s nice to have some time to relax again and I’ve got a really nice hotel. I decided that I am, in fact, going to go to India now. It’s one of the countries I’ve most looked forward to and I think I will go to India for a month, come back to Nepal, do the Everest trek and then go to Tibet. That way I can avoid the monsoon in India. But the problem is that I have to wait 7 days for the India visa and so I’m stuck here in Kathmandu for a while. I had a bout of food poisoning yesterday, but I’m okay today so I’ve got to figure out what to do. I’ve got all my friends here though and they are waiting for a Tibet visa, so I’m sure I’ll keep occupied. India is going to be cool. I think I’ll do a quick northern loop and cross over land back to Nepal.
I’ll do a post on Kathmandu soon.
Hi everyone. I leave for the “Around Annapurna” trek here in Nepal in about 15 minutes and it will take me about 17 days to complete. I won’t have any updates until then, but when I do, expect the pictures to be incredible (and for me to have a big beard).
Until then, watch your backs.
My flight to Nepal entailed a one night layover in Bangladesh. Jesus, what an experience that was…
A quick hint: Never fly Biman Air (Bangladesh Airlines). I have never seen such and inefficient and chaotic business in my life. I am sure they only stay alive because they are subsidized by the state. After several hours of delays, we finally got to board the airplane. Then we waited around for another hour. The chairs were soooo small that my knees smashed into the chair in front of me. There was no movie – only cheesy Bangladesh karaoke shows and people started yelling and getting irate because we weren’t leaving and they wouldn’t tell us why. When we finally arrived, I got into the terminal and had no idea where to go – and neither did any of the staff. I finally made it to the transfer desk where they took my ticket, gave me a token and told me to wait. They forgot about me and after 30 minutes I asked them if they were going to take me to the hotel. They then rushed me to the passport officials where they confiscated my passport and gave me a coupon. They then whisked me away to the outside where they left me. I had to walk around and show my token to a bunch of guys and finally one told me to get in a van with a bunch of Indians. We waited around for nearly 2 hours and then were finally taken to the hotel. The ride over was insane – it was 10:00PM and the streets were still packed with thousands of rickshaws, taxis, vans, buses, people and everything else you could imagine. We spent 45 minutes zipping through, slamming on the brakes, randomly accelerating and nearly rolling over a few times. Some old middle eastern guy next to me was flipping out and I thought he was about to lose it. He kept running his hands through his hair and stomping his feet.
Once I was at the hotel, I was forced to share a room with some weird Indian guy who later told me that he didn’t like being alone (ooookay…) and so he was happy he was with me, and dinner wasn’t ready until around midnight. In the morning, they brought me from the hotel late, but no matter, because they flight was delayed a few hours. I was abandoned at the airport by the hotel staff and I walked in and showed my token. They made me wait for 30 minutes while they got my ticket and then I had to wait another 30 minutes while they looked for the key to the box where my passport was. I had to wait another 2 hours for the flight to leave and the food was ice cold when they finally served lunch after boarding.
What an experience that was!
So I’m in Nepal now. After arriving, I made my way to the town and checked into a hotel. I then met up with my buddy Zach with whom I’ll do the “Around Annapurna” track – which is around 18 days long. We met in Laos and decided to do the trek together. I spent yesterday wandering around Kathmandu and am now pretty settled. Tomorrow we will catch the bus to Pokhara where we will start the trek. Nepal seems pretty quiet and as usual, it reminds me a whole lot of Cuzco, Peru in that it is kind of in the mountains and is made up of a bunch of winding alley ways with touts and beggers everywhere. It’s not anything like Bangladesh, though. As you walk through the narrow alleys, old buildings tower above you on either side and the store owners stand outside with big smiles asking you to take a look at their wares. Guys sit on rickshaws and ask you where you want to go. Cars and motorcycles zip by and nearly run you over as you walk down the narrow roads, but it’s not nearly as bad as I imagine India would be. It’s quite cool, especially at night – which is a welcome respite from the unbearable heat and humidity of Southeast Asia.
As you walk through the streets, the aroma of smokey and musty incense fills your nose. Ahhhh, Kathmandu.
All the news reports of mass protests and civil unrest are blown out of proportion. I’m sure there were a few protests in isolated regions of Nepal, but they were short lived. There are probably more anti-Bush demonstrations in LA.
I will, however, ensure that I take only tourist buses. The Maoists target government entities, so I’ll have to be careful about that. Other than that, I’ll be in the mountains for the next few weeks.
I’m a bit frustrated that I may end up missing out on India. I did a calculation of my schedule and it seems that I’ll make it to India in the middle of the Summer monsoon. India would be a challenge in cool climate and I don’t know if I want to be walking around in 120 degree heat and 100% humidity while beggars and touts attack me everywhere I go. Would you? That frees up a few months so I’ll have to decide what I want to do. Maybe I can add a bit of Europe onto my trip. I can zip through a few countries and meet up with some friends. Or maybe I can drive across the US on my motorcycle for a month or two. We’ll see. I guess I can do India during subsequent vacations from work. After all, I have to leave some of the world for the future!