Letter from Kathmandu
by August Cosentino
As someone who’s visited over 50 countries, I knew somehow that Nepal was not the kind of place you decide to visit last minute. Like any country off the beaten track, it required time and thinking about what my priorities here would be. Would I prefer to stick to medium-to-hard-core hiking in the Himalayas? Or might I also be interested in experiencing something about Nepalese culture?
I chose the latter and found Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, was far more interesting and complex than Bob Seger’s catchy rock-and-roll hit “K-k-Kathmandu” would suggest.
Getting around town can be a killer.
For first-world residents, Kathmandu, once known as a hippie hangout, may present somewhat of a culture shock. In a city of over 5.5 million residents, for example, you would expect some sort of modern, high-speed transportation system. Not so in Kathmandu. In the entire metropolitan area, there’s a grand total of 12 working traffic lights. Yes, 12. And according to one local resident, these working lights don’t really work anyway.
The only things high-speed about the city’s transportation system are the cab drivers. They are so adept at dodging pedestrians and navigating the city’s narrow, often unpaved streets, they would put New York cabbies to shame. You shake your head and wonder how they learned to drive like that.
So, first rule of thumb: do not try and drive in Kathmandu. Instead, hire a driver and guide from an operation like Basecamp Tours (basecamptours.com) and leave the driving to them. Their guides can also introduce you to the pleasures of a culture that is a little bit Hindu, a little bit Buddhist, and not at all rock-and-roll.
Kathmandu: a Buddhist and Hindu nirvana.
Ancient temples abound in Kathmandu, from World Heritage sites such as Swoyambhu Mahachaitya, where monkeys roam free and wrestle with each other, to Pashupatinath where you can get a blessing or chandon (a dot on your forehead) for about 70 cents US. Pashupatinath also serves as a place to witness Nepalese funeral rites, whereby the deceased are first embalmed by their loved ones, wrapped in a cloth, then burned on an open grill next to a river, where their ashes are scattered.
Other must-sees in Kathmandu include Kumari Gar in Darbur Square, where an 8-year-old girl who was selected to be worshipped as a living goddess resides until she reaches puberty. Other temples are still being restored, after an earthquake struck the country in 2015 and killed over 9,000 Nepalese.
Close encounters of the third-world kind.
While visiting these historic sites, you are likely to encounter people who you assume are homeless. Some of them are; please smile politely and shake your head no when they ask for change. Other times you will be confronted by locals trying to sell you anything from a tiny carved elephant to a singing bowl. Don’t recoil from them; they’re only doing their job and trying to survive till the next day.
Is it safe to eat the food or drink the gin?
Yes, but it’s important to first understand what Nepalese food is like. The closest relative is Indian cuisine, but Nepalese dishes are even spicier, often using plentiful amounts of chilis, sharp cheese, and lentils.
Thankfully, the beer in Nepal is more than serviceable. So whether you’re a meat-atarian or a vegetarian, feel free to to wash down your lunch or dinner with the local lager. Note: if you don’t order a beer named Everest in Nepal, you definitely have unexplored issues.
My take on Kathmandu after two days? My experiences transformed a city which at first appeared nightmarish into a town that ultimately turned out to be a find. Fortunately, we’ll be returning after four dream days in Bhutan. I can’t wait. Until then, you’ll have to. Ciao.