On the San Francisco to Seoul leg Singapore Airlines, I did the Berlitz Hindi interactive learning program, because Hindi is similar to Nepali. I did the whole thing twice, including numbers, days of the week, months, and phrases. The only things I remember are ek is one, and guruwai is Thursday, because gurus do their meditation on Thursday.
The traveling wasn’t as hellish as I had feared. I slept a solid four hours on the Seoul to Singapore leg. At Changi airport in Singapore I had eleven hours. There is everything you can imagine to make the airport comfortable for layovers. There are even two hotels in the airport, but the lounges are so friendly there is no need. After the shops opened at six, I got passport size photos for visa and hiking permits, a total of four needed but I had to buy eight.
When I landed in Kathmandu January 9 it was three days later than when I started in Phoenix. The traveling time including layovers was over 49 hours. The car from the Hotel Ganesh Himal was expecting me. Some guy who helped carry my bags a few yards seemed pissed that I only gave a $5 tip.
The Ganesh Himal is the lonely planet top choice for its price range. It has “endless hot water”. The short gated driveway is off of a back street and guarded by a guy in a kind of military uniform in a shack with a corrugated metal roof. It has a nice enclosed garden where they burn a plate of pine needles for incense. From the terraces of the next door Lai Lai hotel, Japanese women look down on the garden. From outside the walls can be heard people and animals yowling, yelling, barking, cawing, and chirping.
After I put my bags in my room, I called Pasang from the front desk. My plans to relax in Kathmandu for a couple of days had changed; I was eager to hit the trail as soon as possible. He came and got me; I was happy to have a guide to walk through the streets of Kathmandu. I needed a sleeping bag; they rent for a dollar a day. He didn’t have one, so we went up a stairway to a landing with people packed like sardines and rooms piled high with equipment in apparently complete disorder. However they managed to fish out a down bag that looked like it would be warm, and a stuff sack.
There is a 4% fee charged by the Nepal bank for credit card transactions. Next time I would probably take more cash in a money belt; the ATM also charges 4%. I found put later that my bank charges 3% on top of that. I would bring a couple thousand in cash.
Next morning Pasang brought my guide, Lal Sherpa to the hotel for me to meet. Then Lal took me out on the street to help me do a few errands. After changing my cash for Nepali rupees, at an open air pharmacy stand I bought (some of) the emergency medications recommended in Trekking Nepal 8th edition: ciprofloxacin, codeine, the antiprotozoan tinidazole, Oral Rehydration Solution (for diarrhea). I decided not to get worm medicine. My physician had written prescriptions, but I had taken the chance that they would be cheaper in Nepal. I paid less than $20, including some pills that Lal recommended for colds, less than what the copay would have been for even one of the meds at the Walmart pharmacy.
As I was paying for the meds, a woman tried to get me to buy baby formula for her small child. I resisted; but a few minutes later I walked by that stand and she accosted me again. I don’t know how she did it; she was very skillful in the timing of her approach.
The next errand was a haircut. The barber used a small room open to the street with no electricity or maybe he didn’t own an electric clippers. Without using a clippers, you get much less of the little pieces of hair all over you, because the barber pulls the hair away with his hand as he cuts. In the middle of the session he stepped out on to the street to converse with someone in an upper floor. After he was done he massaged my shoulders, wrung the flesh on my arms like a towel, bonked my head, and twisted the skin above my eyebrows. I declined a full massage because of time considerations.
Lal took me to a shop to buy some quick drying underwear for the trek. I bought some with a Calvin Klein tag, which was interesting because I was taking pair of real Calvin Klein briefs on the trek. They are stretchy and lightweight, great for hiking, and I think, despite the presence of cotton, fairly quick drying. But it looked like the waistband of the knock-offs was not as thick as the real ones. When I put them on the next morning, even though the tag said XL and I normally wear L, the small leg holes pinched the top of my thighs, but not so badly that I can’t wear them.
After Lal left me I rested briefly at the hotel then ventured out onto the street on my own. I retraced the path of the car that had dropped me off on the back street. At the intersection with a main drag there was no street sign, but high on a pole was a sign for the Hotel Ganesh. I tried to fix the appearance of the intersection in memory and turned right.
I was a bit intimidated by the street scene. In Chetrapati, south of the Thamel district, which is the tourist area, there are either no sidewalks or there are sidewalks at best maybe two feet wide, but they are likely to be blocked by wares from the shops, baskets of produce, cooking and hand warming fires in metal pans, legs of dead animals being butchered, a guy scraping meat off the decapitated head of a water buffalo.
The traffic rule of driving on the left breaks down as most of the streets are too narrow. Cars and motorbikes are constantly honking at each other and at people casually walking in the middle of the street (there is no where else to walk). When a car gets to where it is going it just parks. I possibly spent a total of four hours walking around in the streets of Kathmandu, on the day I arrived and the next day, and in that time I saw one person with a sign on his jacket that said “Traffic Police”. Maybe some jokester put the sign on him. When he got mad at an infraction, his method was to stand in front of the car to make it stop. Meanwhile, every second there is another infraction within yards of where he is standing.
Amazingly the system sort of works. I never saw a traffic jam. There is no frustration or road rage. People are courteous; the honking is for safety reasons that have become a driving habit. I never saw an accident, but I read that driving in Nepal is dangerous. In the city the speeds are slow.
There is trash on the streets, but it is not out of control, somehow. There are piles swept awaiting pickup. There are no bad smells. Although there are many dogs, the only dog poop I saw was on a piece of paper awaiting pickup. Public urination, which has been in the news as being a problem in India, pretty much does not occur in Kathmandu, although I saw some along highways.
My plan was to stay on the main drag, and eventually turn around and come back the same way. I ended up in a place I knew from my guide books and from signs as Durbar Square. There were temples of some sort with stepped stone foundations that people climbed up and loitered on. I didn’t know what I was looking at, whether they were Hindu or Buddhist. There was a cubicle building of stone maybe seven feet high with a very large tree growing on top of it; the trunk of the tree was almost as wide as the building, had vines growing up it, and the massive roots penetrated the building.
I wandered into the wooden and stone palace of the former King Bihendra, turned into a museum, not noticing the sign that you are supposed to buy a ticket. There are many signs in Durbar Square. There is a nine story tower that one can walk up and look out over Kathmandu. I kept taking the wrong turn and being told by a woman to go back, but none of them asked to see a ticket. There were the king’s clothes, weapons, hunting trophies, a map of his travels, his library, artwork.
On the way out I tried to head back to my main drag but was blocked by no entry barricades. A policeman asked to see my ticket. I told him I was just trying to get back to my hotel. He motioned me past the barricade.
Walking back I couldn’t resist the temptation to make a left turn down a side street into the twisting alleyways of residential neighborhoods. I was deviating from the logically infallible plan of returning the way I came, but now I resolved to make only right turns until I recognized the main drag. At small intersections there were small shrines. I finally came out on a different main drag that went over a bridge over a river whose banks were completely covered with garbage. Maybe it was flowing through a landfill. People were walking among the garbage. I turned right on this road and returned to the main drag and my hotel.
I ventured out onto the streets once more that evening. I had a map of Kathmandu that the hotel had given me. When I was out with Lal I had forgotten to get an adapter for my iPad so I could charge it during the trek. I also wanted a map of the Annapurna circuit. I found the adapter quickly. On the east side of the pass the power source that came with my iPad fit all the surge strips I encountered; while on the west side I usually needed it. In Kathmandu I did not need it.
At one point I was paralyzed in the middle of a circle, where I judged the road that forms the southern boundary of Thamel intersected my main drag, sort of the equivalent of Fresh Pond Circle in Cambridge with a Buddhist or Hindu shrine in the middle and no sidewalks, honking coming from all directions.
The Mountaineers’ guide says the road that forms the southern boundary of Thamel has shops that sell high quality western gear. But I couldn’t find any shops like that. I must have been on the wrong road. I went back to the circle and took another road, trying to memorize the appearance of a large blue and white sign for a trekking company that was on the corner. I may have become overconfident about my ability to not get lost. I went down the road, came back, found the sign, but wasn’t sure which way to turn. It was starting to get dark. I think I turned the correct way but missed the sign to the Hotel Ganesh Himal in the dusk. When I realized I was lost, the shopkeepers were pulling down the corrugated metal doors to their shops and locking up. I went into a small jewelry shop that was about to close so I could read my map in the light and ask directions. The manager of the Mount Everest Peace Jewellery (sic) Shop, Arjun Katiwada, offered to give me a ride on his motorbike. The speeds were slow so it wasn’t that scary. He had to stop and ask directions to the Ganesh Himal. He refused a tip but gave me three of his cards. I put one on the bulletin board at Ganesh Himal, and one wedged into a window frame in Manang.
The next time I visited Kathmandu, after the trek, I became more competent at finding my way around. Since there are no street signs, the thing to do is to get a map with landmarks like “Manang Hotel” marked on it, and use those to orient yourself. I used a free one from my hotel; for rs. 100-200 I could have gotten one with more landmarks.
I thoroughly enjoyed walking the streets of Kathmandu, even though the whole time I was thinking “I gotta get outta here.” I was fascinated by everything I saw. The air is terrible, thick smoke and smog as bad or worse than LA in the sixties.
On January 11, following Pasang’s recommendation, Lal and I took a hired car to Besi Sahar, about a five hour drive, the starting point for the trek. We stopped for lunch at a place that served only dal bhat of superb quality; it was the sort of place that I wouldn’t have patronized on my own, a false impression of not being clean, vegetables piled on cement stairs, the owners spoke no English.