I’ve been struggling to write about Kathmandu for the last two weeks. I initially wanted to share a travel guide highlighting places to visit, where to stay, local foods to try and so on – basically, everything that goes into preparing for your trip – but after spending some time here, I feel like covering only that would sweep a lot of things under the rug.
Kathmandu is unlike any place I have ever visited and I spent my first few days here with bulging eyes and mouth agape. This is a city with beautiful treasures and some of the kindest people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting, but it’s also a city in extreme poverty that was ravished by an earthquake not too long ago. While tourists are out and about (though in lesser numbers than before), the city is still trying to put itself back together, and that makes it a bit of a strange time to find myself here.
These are just a few of my scattered thoughts from what I’ve seen and experienced in Kathmandu. I’ll start with some of the lighter stuff:
- Nepalis are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and I had so many conversations with people eager to share their personal stories.
- Prayer flags are streamed from rooftop to rooftop in bright reds, yellows, greens, blues and whites.
- Electric posts are a scary jumble of cables running out in every and all directions.
- The Newar wooden carvings on buildings will blow your mind.
- Air pollution is a problem. The city is naturally quite dusty and dry, and when you add the exhaust fumes from vehicles, it can be difficult to breathe. Many locals wear face masks and these are readily available for visitors as well.
- On that note, people are constantly sprinkling water outside their storefronts in order to keep the ground wet and partially combat the dust problem.
- The majority of roads in Kathmandu aren’t paved; some are, but most of the time you’re driving on compressed dirt roads. This is something I’ve never encountered in a capital city.
- Sidewalks also appear to be non-existent, which means pedestrians are constantly competing with cars, motorbikes, pedal rickshaws, and the occasional cow.
- There are hardly any street signs, which can make navigating a bit of a challenge. It’s a good idea to carry a phone and have Google Maps loaded.
- Traffic is bumper to bumper no matter the time of day and the city’s main arteries are often clogged.
- Dal bhat is the meal of choice. It features a lentil soup (dal) and rice (bhat) as well as an assortment of sides like vegetable curry, pickled greens, curd, and a round cracker (popadom).
- Momos, is the name for stuffed dumplings with Tibetan roots, and they are served on almost every street corner.
- There is nothing sweeter than the smell of cardamom, ginger, clove, black pepper and cinnamon wafting from your cup of masala tea.
- Yak wool blankets are a popular item judging from souvenir shops.
- Many call the neighbourhood of Thamel the ‘tourist ghetto’, but in a city that’s so overwhelming, it’s kind of nice to be surrounded by the familiar and I enjoyed staying here.
- If you’re in Thamel and you’re a man, you will likely be approached by local men whispering offers of weed, hash and opium in your ear. It happened to my husband all day, every day.
- Finding a working ATM can be a big challenge, but thankfully there are plenty of exchange houses across the city.
- The monkeys at Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) are not afraid of people.
- There are lots of stray dogs wandering around the city, but most of them are friendly and let you pet them.
- The side of the road is a perfectly good place for someone to get a morning shave.
- Hunks of meat can be found sitting on tables along the road or dangling from hooks on storefronts.
- Fresh produce is also sold on the side of the road, or sometimes you can find wandering salesmen with baskets on their backs.
- The sweet, overpowering smell of incense fills the streets.
- Many of the structures in Durbar Square were damaged during the earthquake, and that means that while you can enjoy certain buildings from the exterior, others aren’t safe to visit and are therefore closed.
- Many buildings and facades are being held up by nothing more than bamboo sticks.
- You also see a lot of people doing construction with inadequate gear. I was shocked to see one woman carrying rubble in a basket and then dumping it over her shoulder into a pick up truck while wearing nothing more than sandals on her feet. She was one of many people working construction in sandals.
- Pashupatinath Temple is not for the faint of heart – this is where cremations take place along the river’s edge.
- If like me, you thought leprosy was a disease of the past, let me tell you that it is very visible in this city.
- It’s heartbreaking seeing senior citizens and sometimes entire families begging on the street.
- Young teens will approach you asking to buy them chocolates or cookies.
- Locals will approach you to try and be your guide for the day.
- A service charge is added to all bills as a tip, but it’s still okay to leave an additional tip.
- There are lots of The North Face stores in the city – some fake, some real – since many come to Kathmandu to prep for Everest Base Camp.
- Sadhus are ready to pose for photographers outside temples in exchange of a donation.
- Prayer bowls make the most magical sound.
- You can see eagles flying over parts of the city.
Kathmandu is a magical place that will get under your skin. This is a city where you see the resilience of humanity, the kindness of people, and the strength to move forward. It’s not an easy place to visit – it’s certainly not somewhere you’d go for a restful holiday – but it’s a place that rewards curiosity, openness, and conversation. Right now, Nepal needs tourism to rebuild, so if you’re an adventurous traveller, I urge you to go and see it for yourself.
Have you visited Kathmandu?
What were your impressions?
Wow! What a description. It sounds like a fantastic and very interesting place to visit.
I have been planning a trip to Nepal since a very long time now, thanks for sharing the liabilities and difficulties that a tourist can face there.
Thanks for these insights, Audrey! I lived in Nepal for over a year during the earthquake and really resonate with a lot of what you said in this post. Nepal, in every respect, is exotic and stuck back in time. It is a country in which excessive foreign aid, corruption and a disadvantaged geography set limitations on economic development. There is a lot of disunity across political groups in Nepal, and a good example of this coming to fruition was when a supply crisis unfolded shortly after the earthquake. A time of unique opportunity for collaboration was instead met by a motivation to destabilize and undermine the “other side”. Nonetheless, people persist optimistically. In Nepal we often say “what to do?”. There is little faith that the political systems will reconstruct a better Nepal, and so people instead rely on themselves or foreign governments. What an interesting time to have visited such an interesting place 🙂
Thanks for this post Audrey,
I haven’t yet visited Kathmandu, but I was under the impression that Nepal was a little more organised than India! I’ve been to India and it’s crowded, dry, sandy, and sadly, beseiged with poverty and kids trailing you everywhere you go. And judging from your post, Kathmandu is similar!
I would like to go back to India again, and was thinking to start in Nepal this this time around and work in backwards, but perhaps, it doesn’t really matter, or perhaps, it’s the effect of that awful earthquake last year. What would you say?
I have spent a lot of time in Kathmandu and even met the man of my dreams and married him there, so I have a lot of love and respect for that place! Most of the time when I read an article or blog post about Kathmandu I kind of get a bit frustrated but I really like your article and I feel like you have given Kathmandu the respect it deserves!
The pollution and dust is such a massive problem! We’re taking our baby to meet her family in Kathmandu sometime in the next few months and I have to admit I’m nervous about how the dust is going to affect her!