Kathmandu is an interesting city. When flying in, be sure to grab a window seat because you never know if the haze will lift and you’ll get a glimpse of the spectacular Himalayan range behind the hills that surround the city. Navigating the airport is a challenge, not only because the customs/on-arrival visa process is lengthier than one would expect, but once you leave the airport, you are besieged by “helpful” locals who want to grab your bag and direct you to taxis that lack any sort of uniformity and are often the most stripped down late model cars you have ever seen! Dear Kathmandu, the 1980s called and they want their cars back. Be prepared for your friendly bag handler to be waiting with his hand out for a tip. Taxi costs are very negotiable in the city, and I’ll talk more about that, but expect the fees to be around 600-700 Nrs. to a hotel in the city. Also be prepared for the wildest taxi ride you’ve ever taken! What I quickly learned was that, what seemed like 90% but more like 70% of the roads are torn up and under construction – apparently a stalled project started by the former Prime Minister that (maybe because of corruption) probably won’t be finished for a long time. So when my taxi driver took a turn off the main road into a single lane, unpaved back road full of pot holes, you can imagine my extreme concern. I think he was most likely just taking a short cut to get around the congestion on the good roads. Finally, we reached the hotel in one piece – nothing unique, just a Radisson that was recommended by a friend in the U.S. Embassy, but is apparently one of the “ritzy” places.
My friend wasn’t due to arrive until the next afternoon, so my first night in the city was spent relaxing, preparing for our upcoming mountain trek – trying to get my two bags down to a combined 15 kg weight limit, and going to bed early in anticipation of an early wake up call. Before I left the U.S., my mom connected me with a photographer in the Seattle area who is very familiar with the India/Nepal region, as he leads small photography tours there several times a year. I spent a few hours with Peter Carey
talking about his experiences and how to strategize for getting positioned to capture some great photographic opportunities. One of the suggestions he had was to make sure I made it up to the Swayambhunath Stupa at sunrise. This stupa is one of the two major Buddhist stupas in Kathmandu city center, and getting there at sunrise is advantageous for many reasons. First, it’s one of the photographer’s dream times of day for lighting. Second, in the morning is when you get less tourists and more locals, so you get a more realistic experience. In this case, sunrise is the time when the Buddhist monks come to the stupa for daily meditation and when the local people are out catching their morning exercise and performing their devotional activities, circling the stupa in a clockwise direction. The scene I witnessed in the morning was infinitely more interesting than when I visited the stupa again later in the day with my friend. And as a bonus, there was no entrance fee for foreigners early in the morning, nor were the chotski vendors out in force waiting to harass you. I mentioned earlier about taxi bargaining. I got a general idea of how much it should cost for a one-way trip up to the stupa from my hotel doormen, but since I knew I needed a way to get back, I was able to bargain with the taxi driver for a roundtrip plus waiting deal. Total cost was a little higher than normal, which was expected because of less taxis competing for my fare at that hour – total 1000 Nps. or around $12. This negotiated exclusive taxi for the day arrangement was one I ended up doing for most of my subsequent transportation needs. (Note: I’m not sure why some of my photographs are uploading with a lot of “noise” in them. I swear they are much clearer in my Lightroom library.)
I spent the rest of the morning, before my friend’s arrival, wandering around the Thamel district. This is a prime location for tourists, as it is where the majority of the trekking and outdoor adventure tour companies are based, there are many budget friendly accommodations, and the streets are lined with souvenir shops, small food establishments, and bars. I was happy because I found a t-shirt for my nephew who had specifically requested something with a yeti on it. Always remember to bargain for things! After my friend arrived, we went out and did another bargaining arrangement with a taxi to take us back to Swayambhuynath, then drive us across town to the other major stupa complex: Boudhanath Stupa.
Our city tour had to be paused after this day because we left the next morning for Lukla to start our trek to Namche Bazaar to see a Mt. Everest viewpoint. When we returned to Kathmandu, we headed back to Boudhanath for lunch because there are several rooftop eateries that allow you to relax and observe the activity around the temple. This was another suggestion by the Seattle photographer because it provides a different perspective on the popular tourist site. After lunch and a little shopping, we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out Durbar Square – former site of a royal palace complex with great examples of centuries old Nepalese architecture. I say “figuring out” Durbar Square because when we got there, all of the ticket booths were strangely closed due to some sort of strike, so we didn’t have a map or guide brochure to tell us what we were seeing – but we saved 750 Nps. each! Fortunately, we were approached by a man who explained that he was a licensed guide (showed us the license) and said he can give us a tour and we can pay him what we think it was worth. To be honest, we were approached by another tour guide before this one, but instead of showing us his license, he started hitting on my friend and she shooed (more like verbally shoved) him away quickly. My point is, you can potentially be approached in one way or another. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but we happened to be in Durbar Square on on of the days when they were doing animal sacrifices, so we had to be mindful of pools of blood around some of the religious statues. Yuck! Also, my friend was not nice in saying “hey, look over there” when she knew I had no interest in seeing the corpse of a decapitated water buffalo. Thanks, friend!
Once we had our guide, things became more clear. He walked us through the major temples and pointed out interesting details, including the tantric carvings on a fertility temple. At one stop, we went to an interior courtyard of a building where our guide explained that a young girl lives there. She is the Kumari Devi, or the Living Goddess, and is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Kali, Siva’s wife. This girl, I believe at the age of 3 or 4, was chosen from a Buddhist family based on horoscopes and tests to see how she reacts to horribly violent acts (e.g. animal sacrifices) – the true goddess is calm and indifferent to the acts. She was taken to Kathmandu and raised as the Goddess, where she is kept in the upper floors of this building for her childhood, homeschooled with no friends, dressed up in traditional Goddess attire, and never allowed to set foot on the ground, lest she lose her devine powers. At certain times of the day, she will come to a window in the courtyard to look down on the people who have come to worship her. Once this girl completes her first menstruation, she is no longer the Goddess and is returned to her family. As the former Kumari, it is believed that she is bad luck when it comes to marriage, so the remainder of her life she will remain alone and most likely devote herself to public service while living off of the lifelong monthly stipend she receives.
There are other sights in Kathmandu, some outside the city center, but we ran out of time to visit them, or in the case of Pashupatinath, my friend had no interest in observing bodies being ritually cremated out in the open by their grieving families. Confession – by “running out of time” I mean we had to make it back to the place where we had booked our post-Himalayan trekking massages. If there’s one thing I love about Asia, and don’t turn down an opportunity to do, it’s cheap foot massages!