Header image  
"East best, home West"
   HOME Bhutan Kathmandu Doha


"Academy of the sacred hearts: admission open"*


Arriving in Kathmandu is a totally different business than arriving in Paro, Bhutan. Whereas in Bhutan one has the impression of having arrived to the ideal setting for the perfect mountain picnic, arriving in Kathmandu gives the feeling that one has arrived in a big Monopoly-game city, where money and cars move fast and random and you keep paying baksheesh before you throw the dice. The place is murky and formalities will take you some time for sure, but just as you begin to think that this is going to get easier from there on, things get more complicated. People with official badges approach you and you are not sure what this is: police, customs officers, or hired killers. Actually, they are just luggage porters. They will carry your luggage almost by force, and this is probably the safest way to pass the customs, because you'd better not be stopped by the customs guy that checks your luggage in the ray machine (he will let you pass aside if you are using a porter...) The paper you just filled in the airplane is so restrictive (laptops for example have to be declared) that getting out of the airport quickly is the best thing you can do...

And of course as soon as you set your foot one meter out of the entrance, a crowd of very aggressive porters and taxi drivers jump on to you. This may make you just want to sit down and cry, or turn around and go home now, but you know you have to appear at least firm and find the people who (theoretically) are there waiting for you.

Anyhow, once you have settled in your nice hotel and distributed some one dollar bills to people that carried your wheel-luggage one meter each, you are now free to wander off and discover the city that wakes up in you a big question mark, a dark mystery that you wish will come out colorful and spicy.

And it does, in a way. Discovering a place is usually best done on foot, and this is no exception. You need of course to be extremely careful while walking, to keep your eyes on the road, but also on the pavement or whatever this thing is called you are walking on. Distances are not big, but for me the most frustrating thing was never ever being able to find a precise address I was looking for, when I was actually looking for it. Absolutely no signs on the streets, or they may just be buried under a thousand other commercial signs of Academies of all sorts, or tons of electric cables, and of course no one or almost speaks English and certainly no one will understand the way you pronounce the place you are looking for. Very few people will be able to orientate themselves on the map you carefully brought with you, and this will go on for some time until you realize this is not a map city. This is a random city, where you will have to orientate yourself more with your feeling and your nose than “scientific” means. And having the Lonely Planet saying your street starts south or north of some other place you are not sure you are in is really not all that helpful. In Kathmandu I got lost upon being lost so many times that in the end I had really no idea where I was and had to come back following my steps, dog-wise... I vaguely saw from time to time young Europeans on bikes , entering international organizations buildings (the UN have a base there), which gave me the reassurance that I had not crossed illegally some unknown frontier, but that was all. I found all the nice places, cafes and restaurants I had been looking, without exception, during my last afternoon stroll. It made me almost angry to see happy people enjoying espressos, tapas and beers relaxing on real chairs, but how many coffees, or pizzas can one have in an afternoon?

While in Kathmandu, or rather the Kathmandu valley, chances are you are going to spend some time visiting the three kingdoms of Kathmandu, Batan (practically in the city of Kathmandu nowadays) and Bakthapur. Of the three, Bakthapur is by far the best preserved. Keep more time for it, and concentrate your shopping on Thamel, after a noisy, polluted and chaotic day lost in the backstreets of Durbar square. This will give you the opportunity to relax a bit in a place with a good coffee and mild food that will not irretrievably burn your tongue with chili.

There is almost no criminality in Kathmandu. As long as you keep some basic precautions, things are going to be fine. Shopping is good, but probably limited to fake North Face (North Fakes) gear and mountaineering equipment that may give you blisters for the rest of your trip, Buddhas of all colors (my favorite, a Red Buddha tea pot peeing tea, but the people I offered it to did not seem to appreciate) and 3 % of interesting handicrafts, almost all rough wool clothes ware.

Do take a taxi at least once. It will make you see your life under a very different angle, if you survive. Agree the price beforehand, and know that even so you will pay 4-5 times more than the locals. If you are a stingy Westerner trying to thin out your price to the local one, think how much you earn compared to them. Or else, have a bumpy ride, you deserve it!

Enjoy your visit to Kathmandu and may Hanuman guide your steps while in it. And if he doesn't, bear in mind that I know exactly how it feels like...


* This academy really exists in Kathmandu!







Kathmandu: : shopping for prayer wheels