First encounters with Kathmandu

The mountains seemed to open at the end of my four-hour flight from Doha, Qatar into Kathmandu late last week. We entered from the south-west, and flew through the Mahabharat Range mountains, also known as the Lesser Himalaya.

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Unlike their snow-capped cousins, the Himalayas (which I got my first glimpse of in the north), the Mahabharat mountains are a lush green, their narrow tops and slopes dotted with terrace farms and switchback paths. I had my forward pasted against the window, with 48 hours of travel leaving an oily mark of curiosity. At the altitude we were flying (less than 3,000 metres on the descent), I loved thinking that several of the mountain peaks now reached higher than we were flying. Forget flying over the mountains. Nepal is about being humbled by their size, while flying through their majesty.

Once in Kathmandu, I wasted no time in heading out to explore. I quickly showered away my sleep, sterilized a litre of water (Steripen + Hilary = BFF), and set off on foot.

It’s difficult to summarize what it’s like walking through the streets of Kathmandu. It’s a cliche over-used by travellers, but the phrase “an assault to the senses” is not so far from the truth. The city is a cacophony of sounds – not noises, as some may classify, but a collision of new experiences layered in an intricate aural soundscape. At the base, there’s the never-ending stream of honking, from taxis, colourful public buses, and mopeds, weaving in and out of the crowd. Percussive additions fill in what could be silence, as transmissions rumble and engines subsequently stall. The streets themselves are an amusing and incredible example of organized chaos, with each vehicle knowing just how much space it will need to pull around stray dogs, wayward walkers, and each other.

On top of the street sounds, there’s just the general buzz of life – Buddhist monks chanting outside temples containing giant prayer wheels, people calling back and forth across the street in Nepalese, and the occasional political campaign bus (elections in Nepal are being held in just over a week) amplifying its message through two gramophone hood-esque loudspeakers chained on the front and back of the vehicle.

Finally, there’s the sound of animals. There are a huge amount of stray dogs in Kathmandu. Their lean bodies stretch over every surface of the city, slumped and asleep under benches and in the middle of roads. Domestic animals look unusually out-of-place, with their clean bodies, fluffy fur and leashed necks. Across the street from my hostel, a dog sits within a cage, within a fence. Freedom, I feel, is not a familiar sensation for these pets.

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And what would initial encounters with Kathmandu sound be without mentioning the monkeys? They’re everywhere – perched on power wires like pigeons, begging for food in people’s front gardens, and eating popsicles on the road up to one of the Buddhist temples. On my first night in town, I was sitting on the main staircase up to Swayambhunath, one of the most sacred Buddhist temples and stupas in Kathmandu. As I sat there scribbling in my notebook, two monkeys started to quibble, and at least 20 more soon joined in, their shrieks ringing off the concrete idols on the stairs. I jumped to my feet, and did everything I could to stop from showing the panic in my eyes (probably didn’t do a very good job). What was a seemingly shocking experience for me turned out to be quite normal, and people watched with amused eyes as the monkeys’ hairy backsides turned from bound to blur.

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Now, just two days into my stay in Kathmandu, these things have started to fit into my idea of everyday life. Isn’t it incredible how quickly we’re able to normalize experiences, and have them adapt to become our new base level norm? For the past few mornings I’ve started taking hour-long walks, both to re-align my senses after sleep, and remind me at the outset of my day how lucky I am to be wandering around a new place.

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On Sunday morning my walk twisted me around orphanages and international schools, across a ring road and past a military compound. I felt alert and alive, my nostrils filled with equal parts incense and burning garbage. The morning smog settled over the crumbling backyards like golden hour light.

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A few other notes: While out for a walk earlier in the week, my new Australian friend, Nickki, and I passed by a mango tree. We were, I guess you could say, surprised by its presence. We’ve both eaten mangoes plenty of times, but have never seen where they come from. What does that say about the disconnect we have with the food we eat? In Kathmandu, there’s much more of an immediacy with food. Wandering down stony back lanes, many of the yards have medium-sized garden plots, where leafy greens sprout out of the dirt. Shopkeepers sell vegetables in front of their small storefronts on overturned pieces of plywood. Nepalese men carry buckets of momo (dumpling) filling up steep stairways, on their way to temple restaurants.

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Finally: the people here are so lovely. Everyone I’ve encountered so far has been so accommodating, patient, and positive. From taxi drivers to hostel staff to people on the street, there’s a feeling of ‘make-the-best-of-it’ mentality. People are so curious about Canada, too, and one shopkeeper told me the other night that he visits the country in his dreams.

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A successful first few days in Kathmandu. There’s far more to write, but I’m not sure there’s time right now. My life takes a jump in another direction as of Monday (tomorrow) morning at 5 a.m. – I’m headed out for three weeks on a trek to Everest Base Camp! Outdoor adventures and childhood dreams, ahoy!

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4 comments
  1. Cheryl said:

    I hear such excitement in your words. Keep taking all you can from your adventures.

  2. Can’t wait to read and see you experience at base camp! I trekked the Annapurna Circuit exactly a year ago and arrived in Kathmandu right in time for Diwali, Festival of Lights.

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