Set in a valley amidst the soaring peaks of the Himalayas, Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal and was the starting point for my 5th trip with travel company Intrepid. I am fortunate to have already experienced excellent Intrepid adventures to Central America, Southern Africa, Jordan and Italy so I was excited to be in Kathmandu in readiness for trekking the Himalayas.
Following a stopover in Abu Dhabi I finally arrived in Kathmandu at around 8 pm on a Thursday evening. Thankfully although seated near to the back of the plane, the rear doors were opened and I was able to de-plane quickly. I say ‘thankfully’ as proceeding through the arrivals was a drawn out process and this meant I wasn’t at the back of the queue! These were the steps:
- Queue at electronic passport scanning machine and manually add details for your visa. Of a long list of options I selected a 30 day tourist visa. As my passport was scanned by the machine I didn’t need the additional passport photos I had brought with me.
- Queue to pay for your visa. They were only accepting cash although would accept several currencies including pounds, euros, UAE dirhams and dollars. I paid something like £42 I think.
- Take your visa payment receipt to the immigration queue where the visa is stuck and stamped in your passport.
- Collect your hold luggage.
- Queue to have all luggage scanned.
- Queue at customs
When I was at last free to set foot in Nepal the driver from my pre-booked transfer was waiting for me. As we drove for around 20 minutes to the hotel, Kathmandu was pretty much as I imagined it would be… chaotic traffic with vehicles weaving in and out of each others way, mopeds taking second priority as taxis barged in front beeping for them to move, vehicles pulling out at junctions…
Dusty shops with dusty goods hanging outside and a tangled spider-web mass of black cables draped above the streets. (The above photo was taken the following day).
Upon arrival, the staff at the Jampa Hotel were super friendly and proudly showed me to my room pleased to have accommodated my request for a quiet room. It was indeed quiet, located on the top floor, up some steps, across a roof terrace, down some steps, along a little corridor and in the back of beyond! But a clean, comfortable and welcoming hideaway!
Scenic Everest flight
For my first morning in Kathmandu I had pre-booked an Everest Scenic Flight hoping to take the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the worlds highest mountain. This meant an early start with a 5.30 am pick up. The driver was on time and after a short detour to collect a somewhat flashy, though friendly Malaysian couple who turned up in their full designer gear, we headed back to Kathmandu airport, this time to the domestic terminal.
Unlike the previous night the process was fairly quick as I presented my passport at the Shree Airlines desk and collected my boarding card and a map of the important peaks.
After a short wait, along with about 30 others we were taken by bus to the plane and eagerly sat in our seats. The plane was half full and everyone had a window seat.
We sat and waited… and waited… then eventually there was announcement to inform us the trip was cancelled due to poor visibility…
We duly returned and as I was driven back to the hotel I re-booked for the same time the following morning… and to cut a similar story short, exactly the same thing happened. To the point of sitting waiting on the plane to take off again… so unfortunately after two failed attempts, I never got to see Everest. Never mind, I was privileged to be in Nepal at the start of an exciting adventure, something denied to a great many people.
I had booked the scenic flight with Viator for £153, a quick and easy online process. And Viator were also super quick in giving me a full refund for the cancelled flights.
With the rest of Friday and Saturday at my disposal I set about exploring the vibrant city. I was based in the bustling Thamel district, overloaded with fellow trekkers and backpackers of all nationalites. Other than the odd dreadlocked elephant pant wearing hippie, they mostly wandering around in their familiarly branded trekking clothes.
Garden of Dreams
The Garden of Dreams was a short walk from the Hotel Jampa and provided a quiet little oasis in the midst of the mayhem outside. The entrance fee is 400 Nepalese rupees (under £3) and the gardens contain a couple of pleasant and relaxing cafes, ideal for a cool and refreshing drink.
The gardens were built in 1920 and were restored recently with thanks to assistance from the Austrian government.
People were strolling around, taking photos or just laying on the grass reading books. The weather was warm and sunny and around 24 degrees.
Durbar Square (means ‘Royal’ square in English) is located in central Kathmandu, a short walking distance (around 25 minutes) from Thamel, where I was staying. This unique, atmospheric and fascinating place is home to several ancient monuments, courtyards and temples which surround the old Royal Palace.
There is an entrance fee of 1000 rupees (just under £7); as you enter you may have a local guide offering their services although I was happy to just wander about looking at the Hindu and Buddhist temples by myself.
Nepal suffered a major earthquake on 25th April 2015 and many of the historic Durbar Square buildings collapsed. Thankfully most have since been rebuilt, although over the years, many have been rebuilt several times due to natural causes and neglect.
Many of the temples have intricate wood carvings, crafted over hundreds of years by artists and craftsmen. Above is the Courtyard of Kumari Bahal, home to the Kumari, the living goddess. This is a girl who is held in captivity and appears at a window for about 30 seconds a day. (I didn’t see her). Girls are only three years old when they are appointed as Kumari’s and return to their families and to society when they are about 12.
Above is the 6th century carved sculpture of Kaal Bhairav, an ancient Hindu God. Many locals regularly visit the colourful statue to worship and pay respects.
Mandala Street is a vehicle free zone and contains some interesting shops and cafes, an ideal place to relax and wander about at leisure.
At the 2 pm Intrepid welcome meeting, our guide Hari presented us with a list of essential kit and a large orange Intrepid kit bag. I had most of the kit with me already but there is no problem if you forget anything! Every other shop in Thamel sells trekking gear, fake North Face jackets, trousers, tops etc as well as essentials such as water purification tablets.
This was also the opportunity to meet my fellow Intrepid guests… I was surprised there was only 4 of us! I was anticipating around 10-12 which had been the case on previous Intrepid trips. So I met Rianne and Mr & Mrs X for the first time. Rianne, a warm and friendly mid thirties lady from the Netherlands and a mid 60’s couple from the UK who wish to remain anonymous for blog purposes!
After the meeting I ventured back out outside and while dodging mopeds and rickshaws stocked up with snacks to take, snicker bars, kit kats and some kind of oat and honey cereal bars. And toilet rolls. And some ‘North Face’ water-proof bags to keep my clean clothes in, to go inside the large Intrepid kit bag.
I was able to leave my suitcase and un-needed items in the left luggage of the Moonlight Hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon carefully packing my Intrepid kit bag and day backpack. With porter health and safety in mind our kit bag weight limit was 10 kg. Handy scales were available in the hotel.
At 6.30 pm, Hari led Rianne and I through the Thamel bustle to a great Nepalese restaurant where we were treated to local food including vegetable momos (steamed dumplings popular in Nepal), Raksi, a local alcoholic drink made from millet and my first taste of dal bhat, the Nepalese lentil curry staple also washed down with Everest beer.
We watched Nepalese cultural dancers as we ate our dinner, a bit touristy but fun and interesting all the same. Rianne and I finished off with a cocktail on the Hotel Moonlight roof terrace, and a lovely way both to conclude my Kathmandu visit and to toast the start of our Himalaya trekking.
Next up: Trek Nepal Part 1: Tamang Heritage Trail, a post to document my experiences of the first part of a two week Himalayan trek.