Turns out, second time’s a charm!
Ah, Kathmandu. You are much like I left you a decade or so ago… dusty and crowded, but with pockets of undeniable charm. Yet there is one thing that has changed, and it is my perspective. Like many who come to Kathmandu, I was here for just a couple of days all those years ago as a starting point before heading out on a trek through the Everest region of the Himalayas. At that time, Kathmandu was the first large Asian city I had ever been to, and I thought it was the most chaotic, disorganized and intense place imaginable. Alas, a decade later, after numerous trips throughout India and Southeast Asia, Kathmandu suddenly seems fairly mild by comparison.
This time around, I am also in Kathmandu as a jumping off point, and although I will be trekking, it will not be a traditional trek. I am here for a pilgrimage to a sacred place in Tibet, but there will be more on that in future posts. Meanwhile, I have several days here on my own before I meet up with my group, and since the first few days of that program will take us to some of the main holy sites in and around this city, I am using my solo time beforehand to just relax and reacquaint myself with the vibe of Kathmandu.
I say reacquaint, but in reality, I feel as if I’m meeting Kathmandu for the first time. I am staying in Thamel, known as the backpackers quarter of the city, and although I had no recollection of what part of the city I had previously stayed in, I immediately recognized the area, which is easy to understand… it definitely has it’s own vibe and because it is such a vibrant area, there is no shortage of cafes, craft shops, spas, art houses etc, and the range adapts to meet every budget… but most of it wonderfully inexpensive.
There are literally countless cafes and restaurants, many of which have the low tables and abundant floor cushions that I love so much, and I spent a fair amount of time hanging out, writing, drinking tea and nibbling food at a few of them. And then there is the shopping. Even if you’re not in the market for anything (which I’m NOT, since I’m traveling for six months and have absolutely zero space to spare!) walking the streets here is a visual feast, with stall after stall full of colorful trinkets, art, trekking supplies, yak-wool and felt clothing, scarves etc.
It did take me about or so a day to re-establish the armor required to fend off the incessant badgering of the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, but in all fairness, compared to other places they usually leave you alone rather quickly if you don’t bother to engage in any way.
On the list of must-do activities is the sunrise tour to Nagarkot. The 3:45am wake up call would have been painful, but jet-lag is having her way with me, so since I wasn’t really sleeping anyway, meeting the driver for a 4:30am pickup wasn’t much of a problem. The tour starts with a dark hour and a half car ride out of the city and through the hills of nearby Bhaktapur. Be aware, like most places in this part of the world, the roads, once you’re outside the city proper, leave something to be desired, and if you’re starting the day with little or no back pain, you’re probably not going to end that way after this ride! But a little discomfort is totally worth it. As day breaks and the sky begins to lighten, we end up in the little mountain village of Nagarkot with one of the most spectacular panoramic views of the Himalayan range.
The jagged, snow-capped mountain peaks jut through the lower cloud bank as the sun begins to make it’s way up and through the mist. If the weather is cooperating, you are privy to the entire view of the Langtang range and perhaps parts of the Ganesh Himal as well. Annapurna was obscured and you are not high enough for Everest, but none of that matters. Working with just my iPhone, the distant detail of the mountain range doesn’t quite shine forth, but I think you get the idea. These mountains are spectacular, and just watching the dance of clouds and sun as they shift and morph before the backdrop of some of the worlds most beautiful mountains is stunning.
I have to admit, given that it is officially monsoon season right now, it’s a little hard to plan anything without the knowledge that there is a pretty good chance you’ll be accompanied by a torrential downpour, and I was concerned that inclimate weather might impede the view, which is the entire point of this tour. But thus far (day 4) my plans haven’t been infringed upon even once. I’m going to chalk it up to good karma, but also came prepared with all my rain gear.
We stayed here for some time just watching the scenery change and then drove a little way down the road to eat breakfast, which came with the same view. From there, the tour then takes you on about a 3hr “easy” hike. I use the quotes because while I didn’t find it terribly strenuous, I was also aware that this would only be considered easy by trekking-in-Nepal standards. For non-serious hikers I would put it more in the moderate range, remembering that you are at about 7000ft and there is a good uphill climb at the beginning. Once past that, things did ease up considerably, and you get to enjoy the beautiful countryside, seeing up close the simple day to day lives of those living in the Himalayas.
The last part of the tour brings us to Changu Narayan temple… an off the beaten track Hindu temple dating back to the 4th Century. It’s fair to say that at this point in my travels I’ve probably been to hundreds and hundreds of temples (yep, a bit of a geek that way) but this might be one of my all time favorites. The aesthetic here was just beautiful, and although the temple did sustain some damage in the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake, they have taken exquisite care to repair things in the most authentic way possible with minimal intrusion to the original structure and style.
One of the things I love doing in an old city is a walking tour, particularly one that takes you out of the tourist traps and into the more authentic parts of the city… which you can always tell you’re in if you’re the only Westerner around, as I was today. The organization I found is called ‘Love Kathmandu’ and it was such a great way to see the cultural diversity and religious history tucked away in every corner of this city. And of course the food… according to my guide we sampled “the very best” lassi and “even better” samosa that the city has to offer, and judging by the throngs of locals hanging around eating at both places, I’d say he’s probably right. He certainly got no argument from me!
Sightseeing is of course a must in a historically rich city like Kathmandu, but sometimes you just need a break that is nothing short of luxurious relaxation. Kathmandu wasn’t really a place I would expect to find such a thing, but ya just never know. This was an incredible way to spend the afternoon after a morning of sightseeing!
I’ll add this pool to the ever-growing Kathmandu self-care list, which also includes one of the best massages I’ve ever had (for $27) and some yoga and sound healing meditation at one of the local yoga studios. Kathmandu, I’m really beginning to like your style!
Aside from the ancient countryside temple I visited as part of the Nagarkot tour and the small temples I saw on the walking tour, the large temples in Kathmandu are one of the main tourist attractions, not to mention a staple of life for the locals. Because these places are such a visual treat (and I love to photograph them!) I decided to chronicle my time at the major temples in another upcoming post. Meanwhile, I will leave you with this beautiful display from inside one of the temples:
If you’re planning a trip to Kathmandu, here is a list of places I enjoyed and would highly recommend!
- Himalayan Healers. Seriously one of the best massages of my life. Get the 60 minute Ayurvedic massage!
- OR2K Cafe. Big vegetarian and vegan menu with a middle-eastern influence, and great place to hang out and just read, write, chat etc.
- Electric Pagoda Cafe. The food isn’t to die for, but it’s not bad either. The big draw is the ambience. Gorgeous, large outdoor space that’s tucked away from the noisy hustle and bustle.
- Forest and Plate Restaurant. Super-duper yummy fresh vegetarian and vegan dishes (primarily salads) served in a really quaint open-air dining space 4 floors up.
- Oasis Hotel. Perfect location down a quiet street but still only a 2 minute walk to the heart of everything Thamel has to offer. Clean, functional room with a/c, good wifi and decent hot water pressure and overall excellent value for a good price.
- Love Kathmandu walking tour. Excellent way to see the more authentic parts of the city.
- The Infinity Pool at Hotel Mulberry. For a reasonable fee you can spend several hours here enjoying the pool. Food and drink is available. Towel, locker room (includes shower and steam room) and a free beverage are included in the entrance fee.
- Mandala Yoga Studio. I took a very decent Hatha Yoga class here as well as a singing bowl/sound bath that was amazing.