NEPAL: Trip Log, October 1994 (Short)

Copyright 1997, David Weinstein
This article appeared in the second issue of BigWorld Magazine.

This is the short version. For more traveler oriented details, read the long version.

NEPAL: Trip Log, October 1994

Nepal is rich in culture, colorful people, and fascinating architecture of holy sites and temples which artfully blend Hinduism and Buddhism. The way people live in the cities is very similar to India. However, unlike India, the people are much friendlier, less aggressive and unpleasant when trying to sell you things or bargain, and it's easier to get where you're going. Nepali's are also, for the most part, scrupulously and refreshingly honest and trustworthy. The plague in India put a damper on tourism for this time of year according to the locals but late in October things started picking up

My visit coincided with the festival of Desain which is their Xmas and New Years and lasts about 15 days. This was a good opportunity to witness many more religious rites at the major temples. However, I missed the big bull slaying bonanza that occurred on Durga Puja day in KTM. I won't gore you with the details.

I bought my air ticket from Govind at Himalayan Treasure and Travel (1-800-223-1813) who was listed in the Rough Guide travel agent section. He's a consolidator on the west coast and gave me a reasonable price of $1100 on Pakistani International Airlines (PIA). I also called the NYC consolidators but I liked Govind's easygoing manner. Fares on other airlines were from $1300 to $1500. PIA is a decent airline and I'd fly them again. Their security is tight, the food wasn't bad, and they fed us plenty. I liked the Muslim prayer they played on the PA before every take off. Whatever works; we made it back in one piece! On the way back there was an overnight stay in Karachi but PIA put everyone up in a seedy hotel.

Before I left I heard all kinds of stories about travel to Tibet from Nepal, the border situation, and whether you can go alone or in a group. I have to tell you that since the situation is subject to change at a moments notice, you will not know what the story is until you get there.

I went to Greenhill Travel in Thamel (next to Kathmandu Guest House (KGH)) and they were running 8 day tours every week in October no problem. They said the Chinese would probably close the border for the winter in November, and that currently they were only letting in groups and not individuals at the Nepal border.

There are various options for traveling into Tibet from Nepal. If you do the 8 day trip (bus in overland, fly out) with budget hotels it will only cost $560. The basic cost is $395 without the airfare. The visa is from 15 to 30 days at your discretion so once you go in with the group, you can be on your own for the rest of the time. The travel agents will tell you they need a week to get you a Chinese visa but if you go in up till 8am Weds morning for a Saturday departure they can still get you one.

Check the bulletin boards around Thamel and you'll see various travel agencies and independent people giving slide shows and talks on trips to Tibet and rafting and trekking in Nepal.

I, like most independent travelers in Nepal, used Lonely Planet Nepal. However I also used Rough Guide Nepal for complimentary information. While RG is very good and quite funny in places, I found that the maps and descriptions of places and sites in LP were more detailed. All the bookstores in KTM carry used copies of LP and other guide books.

The view from the plane as we landed at 4:30pm was fantastic. LP tells you what side to sit on for good mountain views however, either side is great.

The beginning of October was transition from the rainy to dry season and, as a result in KTM at least, the sky was cloudy or misty on the horizon obscuring the mountains for the first week or two. On October 12 I went to Pokhara where for the first couple days you could see the mountains between wisps of clouds from about 6am to 8:30am before they got clouded over. On the third day there it was crisp, clear, with blue skies, and on that day I made my ascent to Sarangkot where the views on the way and at the top were incredible.

The first couple weeks it was very hot and humid in the 80s and 90s. By mid-October onwards it got much cooler at night and was more pleasant during the day.

The exchange rate was 49.37 Rupees (Rs) for US$ travelers checks and 48.89 for currency. (about 73 Rs for British#.) I went to Nepal Bank Ltd. on New Road near Freak St. since they only charged 1/2% fee and were open from 7:30am to 7:30pm 365 days a year. The foreign exchange office is in a building to the left of the main bank. You can also change cash at restaurants, carpet shops, or from street hoods. Merchants will often take US$ in lieu of rupees so bring plenty of small bills.

Kathmandu (KTM) is a huge, sprawling city with almost every square foot jam packed with buildings, temples, roads, people and assorted traffic. I call it the NYC of the third world! I recommend that you get a good filter mask to wear since the air is quite polluted. I bought a strap on model at a pharmacy for about 35 Rs but I saw people with heavy duty ones they brought with them. A little compass is also very helpful. Namaste (Hello) is the daily mantra there as well as for the rest of Nepal.

You can rent bikes everywhere but only fools will actually attempt to compete with the crazy traffic in KTM. I saw a woman cyclist get knocked over when she tried to change lanes on Kantipath. People often ride over to Bhaktapur which takes about an hour. I preferred to walk or take autorickshas or buses for longer distances. Cycling is much more pleasant and advantageous outside the main cities or in areas like Pohkara which is more spread out with much less traffic. A mountain bike costs about 80 to 100 Rs a day in KTM.

Thamel is the tourist district with a large concentration of hotels, restaurants, shops selling every conceivable knick-knack and article of clothing and of course, tourists. I couldn't stand it and left after two nights; too noisy, crowded, and touristy!

I moved to the Thahity (pronounced Tity like Tidy) Guest House in Thahity east of Chhetrapati, about a 10 minute walk from KGH. The neighborhood is completely different, more authentic, and not many tourists. The first night I stayed in a box for $5. I didn't like it so moved to a very nice and clean double room with bath for $8. Like every building in KTM they had a roof deck with a wonderful view of the surrounding area. Its funny to see a city of eastern medieval architecture with satellite dishes and solar panels on the roofs.

The restaurant downstairs is called Cafe De La Cabine. The LP guide said it was quirky whatever that means. The decor was thatch and wood with soft lighting which lent a more authentic and relaxing mood, and the food was very good, fresh, and well cooked. I ate there often. Like many restaurants they play tapes of all sorts of music and will play your request or a tape you bring. If you go be sure to say Hi to Sambu, a waiter I befriended who took me to Dhulikhel on the Namobuddha trek. (See note on where he is now at end.)

Although I liked Thahity, I felt it was still a bit noisy and after I came back to KTM a couple weeks later, I stayed at a place near Freak St called the Himalayan Guest House which was in a quieter area and only $4 for a double room with bath. If you go down Freak St from Basantapur Square, make your first right and go down a narrow street about two and a half blocks. Its too new to be in the books. Also, don't eat in Shiva's or the Himalayan Coffee Bar nearby next to Basantapur Square or chances are you'll get sick.

Two great breakfast places were the ever popular and busy Pumpernickel Bakery which has a big notice board, and Mike's Breakfast/Cantina. If you don't get to PB by 8am when they open during peak season you may not get a seat for a long time. Its great food, cheap, and fast. Mike's (run by Mike, an ex- Minnasotan) costs a bit more but the omelets and scrambled egg concoctions are divine.

One of the big annoyances especially at night (and not just in KTM) are the barking dogs. What they bark about I don't know but they like to keep everyone up at night with their antics and the locals don't bother to shut them up! Earplugs are big plus in helping to get and stay asleep at night.

Most dogs lay around and sleep all day and cavort at night. Some of them appear healthy but many do not. Whatever the case I never touched any of them and I wouldn't advise you to do so either. A medical researcher from America I met in KTM told me that many dogs have worms which are deadly if transmitted to humans. For all their barking and fighting its mostly among themselves, they seldom bother with people. The few that do usually get kicked hard enough by a local to make them think twice the next time. I only saw one cat my entire trip.

The hotel I stayed at in Bhaktapur had an inner courtyard where some people kept a pet dog. One night he decided to go on a barking spree while everyone was trying to sleep. There was a dog barking in the distance and he would answer this other dogs call. I felt it's one thing for the dogs to bark out in the street and another for him to keep people up so close to the hotel. I thought about yelling at him to shut up but figured that would just be amusing. I then remembered the bucket of cold water I kept around for flushing the toilet. I too the bucket and stood out on the balcony, pinpointed his location from the bark, and heaved! He yelped and ran away.

In the main cities like KTM and Bhaktapur, in addition to the larger temples, every block has little temples, shrines, or stupas where people perform pujas or aratis at all hours. In KTM, if you just get lost and walk the streets south of Thamel on the way to Durbar Sq. and beyond, you will be amazed and fascinated at the people and temples and all kinds of goings on. You will be treated to scenes no camera could ever capture. LP has a few good walking tours of this area but I ended up walking those places anyway just at random. Look for the two mini-Swayambunath Buddhist Stupas that are tucked away on side streets in courtyards.

Stand in the traffic circle booth at Chhetrapatti circle at around 9am and watch the world go by at a dizzying and frenetic pace. Parents walking little children to school, Newari merchants with baskets attached to poles on their shoulders selling vegetables and eggs and all kinds of things to the local merchants, affluent young women in colorful saris strolling by, tourists in incessantly honking taxis and rickshas scrambling through, beggars and Sadhus with snakes plying their trade.

Durbar Square, especially if you've never been to one, is jam packed with temples and quite confusing. LP explains it but it doesn't hurt to break down and employ one of the numerous young people begging to be your guide especially if they speak English well. A very nice, well dressed and spoken young fellow of about 20 named Gokul Rana approached me while I was reading LP. After a short conversation and considering he spoke English very well and was quite pleasant, I decided to let him show me around. We agreed that I would pay him 200 to 300 Rs depending on how I liked his presentation. I liked his hour tour and he told me a bit about Nepal and its politics and people. If you want him to guide you just ask around the Square or go to the Himalayan Coffee Bar where he hangs out sometimes.

Duhlikhel is a little town east of KTM, south of Nagarkot. My waiter friend Sambu took me there on his day off. We rode a local bus for 10 Rs from the main bus station in KTM that took about two hours. It was an experience. I banged my head on the way in since the ceiling was so low and could barely fit my 6' frame into the seat. (Nepali's are much shorter, thinner people than westerners.) It was holiday time and the buses were crowded with people, goats, roosters, and many others sitting on the roof.

We decided to do the Namobuddha trek. LP said it was a 3 hour walk there and back through the hills to this little Buddhist Stupa. What LP doesn't tell you is that it's a brutal walk with constant up and down little mountain after mountain to get there. Take food with you as there's none to be had when you get there.

We went to the start of the trail which is a gulley straight up the mountain that seems to have been made from years of people walking through. The local village people take this route even though it is harder than just taking the road that goes to the villages because it is shorter. It's about a one and a half hour walk up this path, down a steep ledge on the side of a big hill to the nearest village where the road can then be used.

On the way up two little girls Subita, 12 and her sister Kubita, 9, with their father came alongside and the oldest girl began talking to me in quite good English. Subita asked me all the usual questions about where I was from and what I did. I asked about her and her family. It turns out she has an American sponsor which enables her to go to a boarding school (Hostel) in KTM most of the year. The two girls were carrying small wicker baskets on their backs supported by the rope around the forehead. Subita told me they have a two hour walk each way up and down the mountains to their village so they can get food and other supplies. Subita invited us to come to her village, Kabril, which was on the way. I figured I was up on all my inoculations so what the heck!

At one point we were coming down a steep hillside path when we saw about 6 people coming the other way. They were carrying a sick person on a makeshift blanket stretcher to town. From there they would have to catch a bus or taxi to the nearest hospital. Oy!

The views of the surrounding mountains with their terraced rice and corn fields were very good. The drop over the edge of the path was a long way through underbrush and bushes. Sambu told me the other villagers were saying how some tourist went over the edge a year ago and was killed. Lovely!

We came to the main road and then climbed up a steep dirt bank that was used for farming, then walked along a narrow path behind small houses through dense foliage to Subita's home. I met her other sisters and brother. Her mother was away for the day at Banepa. After Subita put her "groceries" away, the three of us continued what was now mostly a road up into the hills.

This walk gives one a good perspective on village life as you pass many little houses and farms on the way. People put out their grains and corn on wicker mats to dry and animals like chickens, goats, and a few water buffalo may be tied up or running around. Little kids wave and say "Hello!" as you pass.

We were hungry and tired when we got back but what an experience! My feet were blistered and I had to patch them up and rest for a couple days.

I took a tourist bus to Pohkara and flew back. I'm glad I did that cause the bus ride, even though a tourist bus is a step up from a local bus, was quite long and uncomfortable. Besides, the views from the plane on the way back are great. The bus takes the road from KTM to Pokhara that goes up and down mountain sides and if you're scared of heights don't look out the window, especially when the bus has to get over to allow another vehicle to pass on those narrow roads!

The Pokhara airport is a small bunch of one story buildings next to a gravel strip. The planes are old and most are prop driven. Its an experience but they work. I flew on Necon Air and they even have two attractive and well dressed Nepalese flight attendants serving drinks and a snack on a 30 minute flight.

In Pokhara I decided to stay on the landside because I did not want to deal the more touristy lakeside. LP mentioned what sounded like a great place called the Hotel Pokhara View (20189). I made reservations and since they knew I was coming they picked me up at the bus station. It's a small two story hotel and they put me in the best double room #511 ($10) with bath which had a partial mountain view and a view out the back into a field. The manager was a very nice, young guy named Amrit Gurung.

The view of the Annapurna range with Machupuchare was fantastic. Every morning I sat out on the patio with an American guy named Sam and had breakfast while admiring the view.

Although lakeside is a 20 minute walk or 5 minute bike ride, down the street were plenty of restaurants and bookstores. Next door was a guy who rented mountain bikes for 60 Rs a day and let me keep it overnight at the hotel if I wanted.

Down the street from the hotel was a very good restaurant called the Rodee. You can sit on a terrace overlooking the lake. The chicken tikka was the best I've ever had and the chicken pulou (a fried rice dish) was very tasty. I ate there often.

I biked up to the Bindhe Basini Temple near the bazaar area. As you approach the temple on the road there is a little sign pointing to the path to Sarangkot. The day I went was another big festival day and the temple was quite busy with worshipers. It was also a big day for sacrifices and I saw numerous people carrying around headless goat bodies and a man designated to decapitate chickens at work.

Behind the main temple area there was another temple with a roomy interior that people would go into to visit the local sadhus. One was seated in a corner reciting verses from a holy book into a microphone that was broadcasting throughout the area.

On the first clear day I rode my bike back to the temple to take the path to Sarangkot. I brought water with me but it was a hot day and a hard climb so I had to buy more. I also added a rehydration packet to one liter I drank since I was sweating profusely and had had semi-dehydration problems earlier.

About a 1/4 way up the path I stopped to admire the view of the valley and the mountains. There was an older western couple with some kids and a guide stopped to look also. I began talking to the man and it turned out they were Americans "associated with the embassy." More to the point, the US ambassador and her family on holiday! I continued on ahead of them. In fact, after I had gotten to the top and then come down a bit and stopped for a snack, I saw them just getting there.

The climb to the top was brutal and took me 2 1/2 hours but I was taking it slow especially towards the end where it was mostly steps and very steep. The path goes by many little villages and farms. The view at the top was incredible although some clouds had started to move in and obscure the peaks.

I love Bhaktapur; it's a wonderful little town. You cannot do it justice with a day trip from KTM. You really need to spend a few days and nights there like I did soaking in the ambiance, walking the little, winding streets, observing the people at work, play, and worship, and interacting with the people and kids. A native friend in KTM told me that Bhaktapur is the way KTM used to be 15 years ago, clean, unpolluted, and less crowded.

I stayed at the Golden Gate Guest House. The staff there gave me the top floor room (#11 or 110?) which was a double with bath and a toilet on the balcony for $10. It was a big sunny room with windows and a great view. The roof deck also had good views. The plumbing was not so good though as often there was not enough cold water to balance the hot water and it was difficult to shower.

Since there was no access to the balcony from outside, I left the windows and doors open for ventilation. One morning with my back to the balcony I heard someone outside in the window. I whirled around wondering what the heck was going on and there was a big monkey sitting in the window! I got up and watched him as I walked over to the door in case he decided to come in further. He sat there watching me (with a guilty look on his face!) while he/she reached in behind the curtains and took the bananas I had sitting on a shelf next to the window. He then went back out onto the balcony to eat them and I can only guess he smelled them since they were not visible behind the curtains. I kept the big windows and doors shut after that!

There are several main squares. First is Durbar Sq where they filmed Bertolucci's Little Buddha although you cant really tell to look at it. A short walk from there is another big square called Taumadhi Tole which contains the enchanting and exotic Nyatapola Temple which is the largest Pagoda temple in Nepal. The steps to the temple are bordered on either side by wonderful stone sculptures of elephants and other beasts and gods. Its a local hangout in addition to tourist site and often many young people are sitting high up on the steps at all hours.

The other big square is a ten minute walk away and is called Tachupal Tole. This is the woodcarving center where you will find many shops selling and making wood carvings of all sorts and there is also a woodcarving museum (with very low ceilings!).

I tried to follow the walking tour in LP but its hard to given the terrain. Even so to walk anywhere around the vicinity brings one to all sorts of fascinating sights whether its temples and stupas or people working and going about their daily chores. Everywhere you go in the town much of the open space is used for rice processing. Women rake through nice circular or square piles of the grains or hold up round sieves which they shake to sort out the grains from inedible material.

I met one kid named Bishwa who had a scam for extorting money from tourists. He spent a lot of time going around telling tourists that he was a student and wanted to become a doctor. Then he'd ask if you would go with him to a store to buy him a school book. He'd take them there and try to get them to buy an expensive Oxford English Dictionary for 337 Rs ($7) for him. I was told by the other kids that he then goes and sells the book back to the storekeeper and gets a cut.

The other kids were all very nice some offering to take me around, others being more official guides but talkative even if you didnt have them show you around. One evening I walked up the Nyapatola and there was a big westerner clowning with the kids. After he left they told me he was a Frenchman who lived in a house 5 months of the year and helped out at the school sometimes.

In the large cities they turn off the electricity two nights a week in different areas from 5:30 to 7:30pm. This occurred my first night in Bhaktapur and at around 6:30 I heard bells and drums outside and decided to investigate. I stepped out of the hotel courtyard to the small street into another world. It was some sort of celebration with men in white turbaned costumes and women flitting about over masks and statue deities doing arati and puja. They were using gas lanterns for light but other than that it was dark and moonlit which created a mysterious, eerie aura over the proceedings. I hovered over their shoulders to watch their rituals and played with the kids who asked for one rupee.

I walked down the street into Taumadhi Tole and it was magic. By only the soft but bright white glow of the full moon I saw people milling about, old men performing rituals and playing instruments next to the Bhairbnath Temple. Amidst the temples and medieval buildings it was like being back in time hundreds of years. I walked into the main Durbar Square and marveled at it all the temples, shrines and statues silhouetted in the moonlight.

The food in the restaurants was basic but good and only a few stay open late enough for dinner. I mostly ate in the Marco Polo which is in Taumadhi Tole. The Nyapotola Cafe has a fantastic view on life in the square but aside from a very good breakfast, the food is pricey and only fair.

I went to a culture show (Nepalese Dancing) at the Hotel Vajra in KTM and it was the best exposition of Nepalese/Indian Dancing I have ever seen. The dancers were part of the Nepali Center for Performing Arts and had been dancing since a very young age. It showed in their movements which were perfect and sublime in conjunction to the music. The movements as part of the dances depict gods and deities bringing to life everything you see on temples, shrines, and paintings.

Basantapur Square in KTM is the last place you want to buy anything. They give you a hard sell and overprice all the goods and everything there can be found elsewhere for less. Take for example little black/brown yak bone Buddhas. In Basantapur Square the initial asking price was 700 Rs. The same statues in Bhaktapur Taumadhi Tole started at 400 or 500 Rs and I bargained the price down to 250 Rs since I bought a whole bunch for gifts.

The shops in Thamel are also expensive. However, you can get good deals in Thamel or in the streets on the way to Durbar Square on T-shirts and pants if you shop around. The average price before bargaining for a t-shirt with just a Swayambunath face is 150-180 Rs depending on size. The price also depends on how much embroidery is on the shirt. Some of the shops will customize what's on the front of a t-shirt but then they don't bargain. I found a place next to the Clay Oven Restaurant and Globe Books called S. Devkota's Store (but there is no sign) which did a great job making custom t-shirts.

I bought a couple wonderful Thangkas from a shop in KTM called Kumari Thangka, Shop No. 11, in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Sq across from the big bell. The shop's proprietor, Ratna Kazi Shakya,. is a very nice, cool, young guy of about 32 who used to be a Nepalese hippie back in KTM's hippie days, and knows how to deal with westerners and what they want. (He's so western he's the only Nepali who told me to have a nice day. ) If you tell him you were referred (by me for example) he will see you as a special case and not a regular tourist off the street and give you his best price. Now you could say oh, this is just marketing hooey. So before you go to him shop around and learn what prices, types and quality of Thangkas there are and then go see him and you will see what I'm talking about.

I wanted Tibetan carpets so I went to Jawlakhel where there is a Tibetan carpet factory and many shops surrounding it. Its interesting to see the carpets being made but the prices in the factory shop are more than the shops outside. A lot of the Tibetan carpets are not made in Tibet. Given this if you go into a Nepali carpet shop they'll tall you their carpets are the same since the so called Tibetan carpets are really Nepalese carpets. Whatever. Carpets are made from yak, sheep, or lambs wool and may have 60, 80, 100, or 150 knots per square inch. The more knots the better the quality and the higher the price. Yak wool is rougher than sheep's wool with lambs wool being the softest.

When you leave the factory, check out the first shop to your right up the street for some very nice 150 knot sheep's wool carpets. Further up on the right I bought two old tibetan design (dragons, phoenixes, lotus flowers) 80 knot yak wool carpets from a Tibetan named Gedun Gyatso at Unique Carpet (no sign). He's a nice guy and has a fax which you can use to order from the states and he will ship it to you COD.

For woodcarvings you will find many unique and interesting (and cheap) kinds on Pujari Math (the street where the Peacock window is) in Bhaktapur. As you approach the street from the Square, check out the first shop on the left. Its called Puppet Work Shop and run by a very nice guy named Puspa Raj Pradhan. His prices are so reasonable I didnt even bargain. He does his own work and had some cute little temple carvings. Down the street on the right is a shop called The Peacock Shop run by Ram Narayan Prajapati with many interesting wood and stone carvings.

I spent time in Patan in numerous shops lookingfor the perfect copper and gold buddha. The statues differ in size, colors, quality, and price. I found a shop called Shakya Art Gallery run by Y. R. Shakya (no sign) which had for me the right buddhas at the right price. The shop has blue shutters (as do a few) and can be found on a street next to Patan Durbar Square, directly across and up the street from the Cafe Pagoda View and the Bhimsen Temple.

I bought a bunch of 5 inch buddhas which were copper with gold paint and gold dust painted faces. The faces are wonderful and the detail and precision of painting is excellent. Since the statues are made from molds and each mold is slightly different, the painted expressions on the faces are also different so each statue is unique.

Shakya was a very nice, humble man, who has a son taking computer classes at a college in LA. He told me his prices, would only come down a couple hundred Rs, and told me exactly how much he paid for them and what his profit was. He was remarkably open and honest but very firm about his final price. He's the type of merchant who only takes a modest markup but does not bargain unlike those who have huge markups expecting to bargain a lot. He also sells very nice prayer wheels at reasonable prices.

Note: Jan '97, If you want to say Hi to Sambu, he now works as a waiter at the Les Yeux Resturant in Thamel. He also now has a small tea shop somewhere in Thamel.


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