Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Kathmandu, Nepal: Part 1

It's taken a while, but Angela and I finally made it to Nepal a couple of weeks ago. Southeast Asia was the six-month-long centrepiece of our journey around the world, and there wasn't a single country there that we didn't enjoy. Now, though, we were ready for something a little different, and that meant moving on to the colourful delights of southern Asia.

We took a plane from Bali to Kathmandu via Kuala Lumpur, a journey that took about 26 hours. We were a little wary of Nepal, mostly because it was new and unknown in a way that many of the previous countries weren't. We had only stereotypical images - snowcapped Himalayas, prayer flags, monasteries - to go on, and knew little about the political situation or the general safety of the place. Like most impoverished parts of the world, though, it turned out to be a lot more safe and accessible than our western minds instinctively imagine.

We spent about five days exploring Kathmandu, a city we soon fell in love with for its mystical ancient architecture, colourful shops and delicious food. It was not without its faults though. Nepal's capital is chaotic, disorganised, and dirty with a whole extra layer of grime compared to the cities of Southeast Asia. It also has a pretty dismal infrastructure, with most of the roads as bumpy as miniature himalayas, and power-cuts occurring several times per day. Yet at the same time, out of all the dirt, chaos and deterioration, it somehow emerges as a surprisingly beautiful and relaxed place. The crumbling old houses are topped with flowerpots and marigolds; the potholed roads and alleyways are lined with Hindu offerings, apple baskets, and mandalas; and during power-cuts at night, the restaurants glimmer with makeshift candles and lamplights. Even when you're not wandering among its stunning old temples and stupas, Kathmandu is a remarkably pretty city.

Perhaps our favourite area was Thamel, the backpacker district where we stayed. Wandering its labyrinth of pashmina shops, bakeries and trekking stores - where every other shop has a name with Everest, Yak, Krishna or Yeti in the title - you are bombarded by a thousand sights, smells and sounds at every turn, whether it's the splash of passing rickshaws, the smell of sheesha cafes, or the deafening honk of the loudest car-horns on the planet. You are drawn to the cashmere scarves you never thought you'd want to wear. You find yourself ogling through the window of a store selling gurkha knives. You become accustomed to saying "no thanks" to the hundreds of street merchants selling pendants, tiger balms and tribal flutes (perhaps most ubiquitous though are the shady whisperers offering cannabis at every thirty paces). It's a lively place with a lot of character, and half the fun of this city can be found in simply exploring these colourful streets and alleyways.

And then we come to the food. Not since Tanah Rata have we encountered a town or city with such delicious gastronomic offerings. Not only does Kathmandu have varied restaurants specialising in the likes of Chinese, American, Italian, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Korean, and Tibetan cuisine, but the local Nepali food is so damn good you might even want to skip the international fare. We've had dozens of variations of dal bhat, all of them surprisingly delicious for a meal based around lentils. Then there are the yak-cheese balls and the dumpling-like momos, which depending on what sauce you dip them in can range from yummy to divine. Almost every meal we had could be served in a banquet for the Hindu gods and they would not be disappointed.

Needless to say, we liked this city a lot, and we'd return to it several times, using it as a hub during our explorations of Nepal. We saw a lot of cool local sights, but for now, this post will focus on our explorations of Thamel and the courts and palaces of Durbar Square.

Our route from Bali to Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu via plane, courtesy of some cheap Air Asia deals.
Bali's main airport is located in Kuta, and must be the most aesthetically pleasing part of that armpit of a town.

Descending into Kuala Lumpur at night.
It felt good being back in one of our favourite countries in Asia: Malaysia. Our next flight wasn't until morning so we slept in a capsule hotel at the airport.
As man and woman, we had to stay in separate capsules. So, while eating Subway for dinner, we chatted online via Skype. Take that, gender segregation!
The next morning, we travelled cloudward in search of Kathmandu.
After a safe landing, we walked through a dingy little airport that looked like a dilapidated gymnasium from the 1970s, got our visas on arrival, and hopped straight on a taxi to Thamel.
Nepal has a lot of festivals. Like two or three every month, if not more. Today was Teej, a day that sees Nepali women wear red clothes and pray for marital happiness. All along the streets there were these women in red heading to the temples.
There were also some slightly less celebratory events taking place, like this demonstration march.
According to our taxi driver, these protestors were casino employees marching in response to the government's disabling of the gambling industry.
Away from religious festivals and political troubles, a simpler day-to-day scene: boys playing cricket on a local sports field.
As far as we can tell, Nepal has yet to invent the traffic light, and so must make do with ambidextrous gesture-artists at every intersection.
We had a pretty view from the top of our hotel. This city has very few tall buildings, but it must be one of the most pleasing skylines to look at, with its multicoloured houses, balconies and flowerpots, all backdropped by the hills of the Kathmandu Valley. We would see some even nicer views later on at Durbar Square. 
First order of business: explore the mazelike streets of Thamel! We were in Nepal at the tail-end of the monsoon season, and that day there'd been some rain, which made the streets quite puddled and muddy.
Shops, restaurants, travel agencies, pizzerias, currency exchanges, spas, schools... Thamel has everything.
If you want souvenirs, you've come to the right place.

Back on our hotel rooftop for a pretty sunset.
Thamel is just as alive by night as by day.
Our first Nepali meal. The photo makes it look like the leftovers you'd throw out for the pigs to eat, but let me tell you, this meal was nothing short of foodgasmic. Just take a gander at those breadcrumb-coated treasures in the middle. Those right there, matey, are cheese pakodas, and if I hadn't been told they were made from yak's cheese, why, I would have guessed they were made from the milk of Vishnu's most sacred of cows. That's how lifechangingly yummy they were. And when you dip them in that spicy dust stuff in the little dish, well, that's a religious experience in itself. My tongue became a believer. But enough about the pakodas. The dish in the foreground is a Chicken Khaja Set, a miniature feast consisting of various mixed vegetables, chillies, soybeans, spices, and pan-fried chicken. The stuff in the centre of the plate is rice that's been flattened and dried so it looks and tastes more like cereal than rice. That took some getting used to, but was actually pretty good in the end. Angela's meal was a Chicken Thali Set, which again had several different curries and salads and colourful somethings spread around a treasure trove of rice. We each dove in and out of each other's plates, sampling dozens of different flavours, mixing them together, drenching spoonfuls of one food in the juices of another, so that every mouthful was a magical concoction never-before-tasted. It might have been the best meal we've had on this trip. Except for the tandoori chicken set in Tanah Rata, of course, but nothing's ever gonna top that, come on.
The next morning we switched hotels, since the last one employed a rather nightmarish bellboy who gave Angela a scare. It's unfortunate, since most Nepali people we've met have been very friendly and likeable for the most part. In any case, this new hotel was run by sufficiently non-creepy staff, and offered us another nice view, this time one of prayer flags and overgrown vines.

For breakfast: chicken lollipops! Don't worry, I'm not going to write a massive paragraph about how delicious these were. They were pretty good though.
The sun was out, and we explored the streets of Thamel some more.
There were travel agencies everywhere, and we decided to use one to arrange our visas for India. It would be a somewhat expensive option, but seemed a lot more hassle-free than dealing with the embassy ourselves.
We went to a little office to fill out some forms for the India visa. While there, we noticed these young men playing a board game that involves flicking small counters across a table. It seems to be popular across Nepal, as we've seen men in the countryside playing it too, often surrounded by engrossed crowds of spectators.
Some of the many fabrics available in Thamel.
Angela haggles with a shopkeeper while looking for a new skirt. She's been trying to find some more conservative clothes to wear for when we finally go to India.
Mandala Street is one of the few pedestrianised streets in the city, though sometimes a stray scooter or taxi will still drive through here. There's really no escaping the traffic for very long.

We took a taxi to Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with stunning architecture.

The red statue of Hamuman, the monkey-god, guards the gates to the palace.

Hindu Babas, or priests, chilling by the palace.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2!

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