April 17, 2012

#Nepal #Travelogue Part One - #Kathmandu arrival

This is the first of several posts about our recent totally awesome family vacation to Nepal. We worked with the fabulous folks at Geographic Expeditions to plan and book the trip.

Yes, we're insane. We went 7,500 miles for an 8-day trip. That's 15,000 miles there and back.

On April 5th, after school ended, we bustled off to San Francisco airport to begin our epic journey: SFO to LAX (1 hour), LAX to BKK (17+ hours), and BKK to KTM (3.5 hours). All told, from leaving our house to arriving at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu, we traveled 29 hours. Or so.

Thanks to the terrific equipment, outstanding food, and unparalleled service of Thai Airways, 21 of those hours were actually quite pleasant. The rest were spent bored in the sterile confines of LAX or astonished by the grand scale of Bangkok airport, or stuffed into a United Airlines seat.

Our eight-day itinerary comprised three mini-vacations:

  • April 7-8: Kathmandu
  • April 9-10: Chitwan National Park
    (April 11: Drive from Chitwan to Pokhara)
  • April 12-13: Pokhara
    (April 14: Head home)
We arrived in Kathmandu a little after midday on April 7th. Immigration took about an hour to get through, then we collected our luggage and were met by our super friendly guide, Kiran. He swept us into a van, and we were on our way to the Yak and Yeti Hotel.

I've never been to a third world country, which Nepal certainly is. Less than half of its nearly 30 million citizens are literate, and on average Nepalis that go to school complete nine years. The Gross Domestic Product of the country is about $1,300 per capita, and the 2008 estimated unemployment rate was a staggering 48%. Three in four Nepalis are in agriculture, and from what I saw that basically means subsistence farming.

The country was a monarchy, closed to the outside world, until the 1950s. It wasn't until 1990 that a multiparty democracy took hold in the country. Following a period of civil war/rebellion, 2008 saw the first nation-wide election that led to the abolishment of the monarchy for good. The country considers itself a federal democratic republic, but all the elected parties have "Communist" in their names. Interesting. I didn't know any of this before our flight touched down in Kathmandu. (I just now read it all in the CIA's World Factbook online.)

There are lots of things you notice right away about Kathmandu. First, it's not Beverly Hills. Poverty is ubiquitous. The roads are crumbling at the best spots and nearly impassable everywhere else. Bright, cheerful colors shine everywhere--advertisements, shopfronts, homes, outfits, and even the buses. The whole place teems with people and their activities. I was told by our guide that the Kathmandu metro area (really three merged cities) is home to 3.9 million people.

Approximately 80% of the country is Hindu, and another 10% is Buddhist. Our guide told us that red is "the most auspicious color" in these religions, and most women dress in red when possible. Cows roamed the streets like stray dogs, often lying down and sleeping right in the middle of traffic. While small cars and vans fill the roads, the vehicle of choice is clearly the motorcycle. Although people mostly drive on the left side of the road, that seems just a friendly suggestion, and in crowded areas the only traffic rule appears to be "whoever gets there first has the right to that spot." Fortunately, traffic moves slowly in the city (the roads and tight space make speed impossible), so if there is ever a crash (we never saw one), it's unlikely to cause major injuries.

A view from the van window near Kathmandu airport, as we drove to the hotel.

The whole city is dry and dusty. The river is choked with litter and garbage, and the water level is extremely low. Most buildings are two or three stories tall, which is good because earthquakes do happen here, and building codes are only slightly more rigorous than traffic laws.

Sam stands at the corner of Tridevi Marg and Kantipath, at the beginning of the Thamel district.

This city has a few motorbikes. If we saw this many together in the US, we'd think there was some event or convention. After eight days in Nepal, however, I realized the caption for this photo should be, "Traffic is really light right now!" BTW, there are no traffic lights or stop signs, and pedestrians become just another thing to beep at if you're a driver. So crossing an intersection like this is an adventure. Ribbit!

The front of the Yak and Yeti hotel in Kathmandu.

The hotel is probably six miles from the airport, and it took about 20 minutes to drive there. This is a very nice hotel. If you compare it to, say, the Willard Washington hotel, you'll find the Yak and Yeti lacking in elegance and splendor. It is a little dated, but it's clean, comfortable, and utterly sufficient. The grounds are beautiful, and the hotel itself has a lovely look to it. Wifi is $12 a night and spotty (but then, so is the electricity citywide, as we learned from a letter from the hotel manager). But the amenities are solid, and the service is extremely friendly and attentive. The breakfast buffet offered an interesting diversity of foods, and the hotel was centrally located, just a short walk from the ultimate tourist shopping district, Thamel.

The view out our window, of the hotel's grounds and other wings.

In the back, this elegant and imposing shrine of some kind rises between the pool and the pond. I wish I knew its significance. It was, however, very pretty.

A footprint of a yeti, I suppose. How the footprint was so well etched into this granite boulder, I'm not sure. I guess it was a heavy yeti.

Saturday afternoon and evening we went into Thamel for the first time. It's a tight, crowded labyrinth of shops so crammed with goods that their touristy merchandise spills out into the street. Blankets, pashminas, bronze Buddhas and singing bowls, paintings and tee shirts and everything else from handmade greeting cards to enormous khukuri knives. This is also a district where trekkers come, apparently, and it's stuffed with backpacks and outdoorsy clothing like North Face and Patagonia. Guest houses, inns, and little restaurants--a surprisingly large number of which have Irish names--are packed between the shops all up and down the tight little streets.

There's so much for sale, and most of it is pretty inexpensive, that I have no idea how these people make a living. We didn't buy anything that first day; we were simply too astonished, and frankly a little put off, by the sheer volume of things for sale. We had no idea whether we'd get a bargain or get ripped off. So we just window shopped, marveled at the people, and dodged wave after wave of autos, motorcycles, and rickshaws.

Although most writing is in Nepali, English is everywhere. Most of the people we interacted with in Kathmandu spoke reasonably good English. (This was not the case in the countryside, however.) Despite being a clear foreigner, I rarely felt out of place or uncomfortable. That said, even with the rampant Coke and Pepsi ads on every wall, Kathmandu is every bit as foreign a city as I found Tokyo--far different from European cities I've been to.

Maria had read our Lonely Planet book and had a few restaurant suggestions for dinner. I liked the one with "Beer Garden" in its name, so we went looking for it. Dechenling Beer Garden and Restaurant hides down an easily-missed alley off Tridevi Marg, right near the Garden of Dreams, which we didn't pay to enter because it looked like a tourist trap from the outside. The web site makes me think maybe we should have checked it out.

As we searched for Dechenling, we passed a tiny baby, maybe 8 months, sleeping naked on the sidewalk. No mother or siblings in sight. Just left there, under a sad, little tree. It was unclear whether the baby was sleeping or dead. We did not stop to investigate.

Later, we asked our sightseeing guide about social services available to the very poor. She looked befuddled. We tried to explain, thinking it was a translation issue, about what we meant by soup kitchens and shelters and other services. Our guide looked at us and asked, "Why would people do that? Sometimes religious groups might give free food to the very poor on holy days, but there's nothing like that here. In Nepal, if you have money you live. If you don't, you die." Doubly interesting now that I know the duly elected party in charge of the government has Communist in their name.

Anyway, we found the alley and walked down it. It's one of those alleys that lets you know right away you've stepped off the tourist path. Thirty yards down, it goes mostly deserted. Fifty yards down, you're sure you've wandered into a place you might not want to be. Seventy yards down, you find the beer garden.

Dechenling is a haven in the middle of Thamel's chaotic pace and visual cacophony. The menu offered diverse options from Nepal, Tibet, and India and was easy to understand. The beer was cold, and the food was outstanding. The atmosphere was so serene that Sam even fell asleep waiting for our dinners to arrive. (Serenity, plus the slow service.)

What's not to like about a beer garden, in any country?

Hey, remember I said we traveled 30 hours, followed by three hours of walking through Thamel. Give the kid a break, OK?

That concluded our first day. We went to bed at about 7:30 p.m. local time, which was 6 a.m. back home.

Our second day, Sunday the 8th of April, began with the breakfast buffet and then meeting our guide for the day at 9:30. We were to visit four sites and spend a shocking amount of time in the van during the day, but it was wonderful from beginning to end.

1 comment:

J P Hannan said...

I think I would have been very unnerved by Kathmandu. I expected the chaos, the poverty, the far-reaching hand of Coke and Pepsi but I think finding a naked (and possibly dead) baby abandoned like that would have freaked me out. I wonder how the boys reacted?

Your travelogue feels very real and the kind of truthful depiction that so many travel books, sadly aren't.

Thanks Peter.