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 NEPAL

KATHMANDU, MAY 2001 - Upon arrival on the international airport of Kathmandu, after an exhausting trip of more than 20 hours and three connecting flights, the hills of Kathmandu valley and the country side housing welcomed me on my first encounter with the Kingdom of the Himalayas.  Inside the airport building, everything seemed like it was set up just last week , some signs were handwritten and  attached with ducktape to the walls, saying where to go for immigration or luggage.  Speaking of luggage, Kathmandu X-rays your luggage also when leaving the plane (something I've never encountered before in other airports), and the machines are not filmsafe, so better take out your film rolls and hand them over to officials to avoid coming home after your wonderfull holiday with nothing but pictures of 'Nepal by Night'... 

The luggage handling system is mainly manual and seems all too chaotic - fact is , I discovered at that point that my luggage was missing.  I had to explain to some of the airport staff around and he filled out a form and told me to call the airport tomorrow. 
'Who should I contact' , I asked ?  'Anyone, just ask and they will know', he replied.  I didn't take the chance and returned the next day in person, stepped inside some of the offices and finally got my luggage back (after all it had been delayed in Bangkok, so Kathmandu was not to blame for this).  But let's return to the taxi drive from the airport into town on the first day.   Upon leaving the airport building (after I changed some dollars into Nepalese Rupees, the woman behind the counter just couldn't figure out how the computer program worked and changed to the pen and paper method after ten minutes) , all of the drivers were outside waiting for the first 'victim' to come out.  I was approached by many men at the same time all wanting to drive me into town.  I quickly went along with the guy that seemed to walk the fastest and left the others behind. We agreed on the price of 200 or something Rupees and I got into his (very old ) cab.  It took some minutes before he managed to get the car starting, but after several retries we were on the road.  At first we took a main road, and I passed some very poor housing and the piles of garbage were everywhere, and there were cows in the middle of the road... After some 15 minutes, we took some small roads and were in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle of Kathmandu city.  Everyone was using their horns all the time, it was crowded and I just couldn't figure out if we were supposed to drive on the right side or on the left side of the road, this driver was switching sides all the time !

Then he stopped at a petrol station and asked me for money for the petrol.  I first didn't agree because I thought he would charge me at the hotel for the ride anyway and 'forget' about the money for the petrol. But he assured me I just had to pay in advance now for the taxi ride, so he could buy petrol and he wouldn't charge me twice for the ride. I had little choice anyway, we were out of petrol (later it turned out I could trust him, he kept his promise when at the hotel).  Finally we were back on the road and I reached my hotel in the Chetrapati  area.  All the noises, the smell and crowd was really overwhelming; the weather was hot and sticky - where had I gotten into ? 

Kathmandu housing near the river Kathmandu streetlife

The hotel was actually OK and tidy, far better than I expected based on the surrounding streets and the impressions I had sofar. I decided to wander around a little.  It turned out quickly that my city map was not very useful, most streets have no names and I was disorientated very fast.  I met some guys that told me to be students and wanted to practice English, they walked along with me for I while and I soon knew as they started explaining the history of the temples and other some stuff, they would ask me for money soon.  But at the same time these guys took me to several streets (that were very dirty with piles of garbage everywhere) few tourists would wander into, and I saw several lesser known Hindu temples. I enjoyed the walk but at some point I absolutely had no idea where I was into this maze of little streets.  Of course that was the moment they started to discuss the money issue, and I must admit I had to pay them far more than I had planned to give them in the beginning, but I was alone with these guys and I didn't know where I was... I insisted they 'escorted' me back to my hotel, which they did eventually.   Afterwards, the next couple of days I discovered that nearly everyone in Nepal pretended to be a student wanting to learn English... 'OK, they got me', I thought, I hope they do something useful with the money...  Of course there are all the time other people in Kathmandu wanting your attention : the beggars for money or food, the guys that want to sell you hash or tiger balm (nobody ever seems to buy this stuff but they go on trying to sell it to you), the mountain guides and porters trying wanting you to hire them,  etc...

Durbar Square, Jagannath Temple

I also visited some of the well known tourist attractions, like Durbar Square and the 'Monkey Temple'.  I saw the Kumari (the living goddess) inside the Kumari Temple, had lunch on a rooftop restaurant with a view on Durbar Square, and saw some Saddhu (holy man).  Everything considered this first impression of Kathmandu was an exciting experience.

Note : I was back in Kathmandu about three weeks later.  At that time the massacre on the Royal Family had taken place, and there was already a new king inaugurated;  everything was very quiet on the streets then, and there were curfews...  The Kumari I saw is since she reached puberty, now also replaced by another four year old girl.  How quickly places and situations can change.

For more on the Kumari, check out Ra Online Nepal : Kumari