Kathmandu is this place that a lot of people just seem to hold in their minds/hearts/memories as this ephemeral, almost mythical Xanadu where you can drink the milk of paradise – where ‘milk of paradise’ could mean either ‘copious amounts of hash’ or ‘mango lassi’ – and undertake a journey of enlightenment in a spiritual land far removed from all the commotion and luxury of our modern day lives. I lost count of the number of people who told me how much they absolutely loved it, found themselves there, and desperately wanted to go back.
Allow me to translate what most visitors to Kathmandu actually mean when they say those things. Marijuana is plentiful and cheap, and if that is your thing, you’ll love Kathmandu because stoners abound not only amongst the tourists, but even the locals, and it’s not generally thought of as a drug. If finding yourself means smoking weed like it’s a life saving medicine and you’re on your death bed, you will definitely find yourself there.
I’m not criticising – you get to meet some really chilled people, and there’s a lot of groovy paintings and art and some seriously excellent psytrance – which tend to go hand in hand with that influence. Not to mention the very colourful and quirky sadhus – holy men devoted to the Hindu god Shiva, who wander around getting high all day and chanting ‘Bam Shankar’, which means ‘I am Shiva’. You sometimes run into them gambolling around jovially in the streets, handing out flowers that they’ve just picked. It’s a trap – don’t accept the flower, because they then expect you to give them money.
That’s all amusing and a little whimsical really. Aren’t I just making it sound like a beautiful, strange, kind of otherworldly place full of naughty, colourful characters and unorthodox ideas? That was the impression I’d been given too, before I got there. I expected to find hippies who’d run away from the rest of the world after the 70s to come find a last refuge in the land of the Himalayas and Buddhism and prayer wheels. It totally sounds like the kind of place you’d want to retreat to so that you could spend some time living the simple life, away from modern conveniences and the constant interruption of your cellphone.
Part of that is kind of true. Nepal still runs on a load shedding schedule, so the power will only be on for a little while each day, and the chances are that a lot of those hours that it is on for, you will be busy going out and doing things and will have your phone/camera/whatever with you, instead of leaving it plugged in alone at your hostel/hotel.
I stopped using my phone except in emergencies and cut down on my photo taking because it was always on, like, 3% charge. Plus most public places with free wifi have such terrible connections that you spend ages trying to get onto the network, and then once you do, each page takes so long to load and keeps cutting out so that you have to be really dedicated and put in a lot of time if you want to upload/view things online. You end up just giving up for the most part.
So if you came to Nepal with your hair dryer, phone and other modern conveniences, chances are you’ll probably end up leaving them in your room for the most part – although some hostels/hotels do have backup generators.
Did I mention they also have water shortages, some places turn the water off for part of the day, and that some places don’t have hot showers, just cold water?
I know what some of you are thinking. That actually sounds quite nice. It makes you appreciate scarce resources, and you can be so much more present without all of those distractions. I actually quite liked that too.
But you can get that all over Nepal, and if you’re after getting back to the simple life, Kathmandu is going to be one big, rude surprise for you. You can forget nature and wide open spaces – Kathmandu is crowded and loud, and you can never escape the sound of traffic constantly stopping and starting as cars, rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, and the occasional cow all try to negotiate their way around each other through two-way streets that are as narrow as a single one-way lane in Sydney.
How do they avoid crashing? By honking constantly. I mean that literally, not metaphorically, and not hyperbolically. They honk constantly so that everyone is aware of everything around them because you might not be able to see it, but you can definitely hear it.
As if all those exhaust fumes aren’t bad enough, the diesel generators and the fact that Kathmandu is nestled in a valley caused Nepal to be ranked 177th out of 178 countries for air quality in the 2014 Environmental Performance Index. There is a huge incidence of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, the kind smokers get, because the air quality is so bad. It kind of feels magical sometimes because the air gets so hazy that it actually looks pretty and mysterious, until it starts to make you cough – and then it seems less cool.
Also public garbage bins aren’t a thing, so if you’ve got anything to chuck out, you just pop it down by the side of the street. Or in the middle of the street.
Little less cool now, right? Here are some of the other things that shocked me about Kathmandu:
- It’s not full of hippies, and Freak Street in Basantipur, famous for being this hippie haven back in the 70s, now just looks like any street in Thamel. The only hippies you really see there any more are a few old American men with thick American accents and white hair down to their waist, the last vestiges of a bygone era.
- There’s a bazillion shops and hawkers and beggars trying to sell you things and buy things from you. You never get left alone.
- They’re pretty conservative. Even when it’s baking, all the women wear long pants and long skirts and you’d be hard pressed to see any singlets or tank tops on the local female population. One girl pulled me aside and told me I was having a wardrobe malfunction because my dress was ripped just above the knee and she was embarrassed by how much thigh (about 2cm, literally just above my knee) was showing.
- Caste and status are also still a thing for a lot of them, and people are generally really religious.
- It has ridiculous urban sprawl. Green spaces aren’t really a thing. Generally though it just seems like a disorganised maze, and it’s really hard to tell where you are unless you have a point of reference, like the Pashupatinath Temple.
- Addresses aren’t a thing either. I’m not kidding. You can read more about it here:
The absence of a proper address for houses in pre-modern towns is understandable. In these areas, the quality of space was traditionally subordinated to social units and the various functions of a dwelling—religious, economic, and social—merged. As a matter of fact, people living in these tols do not feel the need to give every street a name. They have a clear mental map of the area and a good network of nearby relatives and neighbours, which compensates for the lack of names for roads or lanes. Such a situation parallels many other former pre-industrial towns throughout the world. Nevertheless, the lack of a proper address is more surprising and—to put it plainly—irritating in the suburbs where ancient spatial features have been lost and where old landmarks have disappeared.
– Cities WIthout Addresses, The Kathmandu Post
Having said all that, there are some wonderful things about it too that might surprise you. Kathmandu is super religious, but they’re also super tolerant. Buddhism and Hinduism are the main religions, but they get kind of mixed up here so that a lot of people worship a combination of the two, and sometimes integrate bits of other religions into their beliefs as well.
There are also these gorgeous ancient temples and buildings everywhere, but they’re just part of the city, and they’re still used and completely accessible. Sure, the city is a huge disorganised mess and you’re almost guaranteed to get lost, but Thamel at least is also quite cosmpolitan – you can find really nice restaurants, decorated beautifully with art all over the walls and cushions everywhere and plush carpets, that serve food from all over the world.
There’s amazing Mexican and Lebanese and, of course, Indian food. It’s especially good if you’re vegetarian – and if you’re not, this is a really good place to be temporarily vegetarian anyway, as you’ll notice a lot of the meat sold on the side of the streets where it’s just left open in the heat for ages and gets covered with dust and flies. The locals are semi-resistant to most of the bacteria that results from this, but travellers most definitely are not – I found that out the hard way.
Kathmandu was not at all what I expected – it’s not full of hippies, it’s not easy to find raves, and if you’re too attached to your internet connection, it will definitely be a struggle. It’s crowded, polluted, and loud, and if you want to do the touristy thing and visit the temples and museums, everything is going to cost you. But it is an interesting place – the kind of place you’ll get lost, see some beautiful architecture, while away days reading books and chatting to people in cute cafes and restaurants, and maybe shell out for the myriad yoga classes on offer around the place. My favourite thing about it was Fireflies, of course, but that deserves a post all to itself, so I’ll have to tell you more about that later.