I landed in Nepal close to midnight and was now in a tiny car being driven to my hotel. I was sat in the front seat, staring out into the streets which was surprisingly full of people. Despite the late hour, everywhere I looked there was dust, heavy equipment doing road repairs, and street vendors. All of a sudden, the car swerves to the right, haphazardly avoiding a cow which was sat in the middle of the road. After noticing my white-knuckled grip, the driver of the car looks at me and laughs before saying in a distinct deep voice, “Welcome to Kathmandu!” By dawn, I was itching to explore the city which was just coming to life (admittedly, it was probably the jetlag!)
Having flown into Nepal for the Himalayan Travel Mart Conference organized by PATA, I had a few days to get situated before I was set to begin hiking the Ghorepani-Poon Hill trek. I left my hotel, the lovely Hotel Shambala, eager to make it to the backpacker laden district of Thamel. I hailed a few cabs who all tried charging me an arm and a leg, starting with exorbitant amounts like 800 rupees. Since I knew I wasn’t far, I started walking towards what I hoped was the right direction. Shortly after, a man sticks his head out of a minivan and yelled out a string of places I couldn’t pronounce before mentioning my destination. I caught his eye and asked how much. 20 rupees he said. Done. With one quick motion, he slides open the door and reveals about 30 locals who were packed in the van like a tin of sardines as he motions me to come in with a huge smile on his face. I took a deep breath and squeezed my way inside this van, knowing my adventure had just begun.
I spent the whole day wandering around (okay, fine, I spent more time getting lost but for travelers, there’s no real difference) I walked past the main tourist areas and soon, the endless string of outdoor gear shops ended. The streets started getting narrower, the pavement soon became uneven. I found myself completely lost in a labyrinth of street intersections with the faint smell of exotic spices and street food lingering in the air. Although I was utterly lost, my curiosity got the best of me and I carried on walking through this narrow alleyway until I reached a little town square.
I stood there, completely mesmerized by the chaos around me. The sizzling sound of samosas frying, the woman who was fervently bargaining with the man who sold spices, dogs running, pigeons flying, and holy men…looking pretty damn holy. Away from the tourist laden streets and commercial stores, this was the real Nepal. Somehow, that specific moment perfectly encapsulated what Nepal was. An overload to your senses. A place that was authentic to its core.
Despite my fascination, I found myself a little bit exhausted from all the chaos and endless stream of motion around me. Some people who were in the city for the conference with me suggested a visit to Boudhanath Temple, home to one of the largest spherical stupas in Kathmandu. The ride there was bumpy and chaotic. Our taxi driver expertly weaved his way around cars, cows, people, and motorbikes until we finally reached our destination. Having grown up in the Philippines, I was used to chaos…but the roads in Nepal was a different level. To me, it was a beautiful symphony and was amusing to watch (although it’s a different story when you’re sat in the front seat).
As soon as you enter the temple, you will instantly forget the busy street where you just came from. A strange sense of calmness took over me. I took a step back to take it all in. This tall beautiful stupa stood there quietly as if watching the entire city go by. The prayer flags that were hung blew gently with the wind. The giant gold eye, glistening in the sun, the faint sound of the Buddhist people chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” as they walked around the stupa saying their daily mantras. It was beautiful and was definitely one of my favorite places in the city. Around the square were loads of shops and rooftop restaurants where you could sit down, grab a masala tea (or some momos) and watch the sun go down.
Other places that we visited in Kathmandu included the Swaymbhunath Stupa, otherwise known as the monkey temple which was located in the Northwestern part of the Kathmandu valley. Here, you can see incredible views of the city below you. When you enter the stupa itself, as with many of the temples in Nepal, people are just going about their own way. Candles are lit, prayer wheels are spun, monkeys, dogs, and cows linger around. In my few days in Kathmandu city, walking around and people watching had easily become my favorite activity. No matter how busy it was, everything seemed to move in one fluid motion.
No traveler should ever leave Kathmandu without paying a visit to the Pashupatinath Temple. Famous for its significance to the devotees of Shiva, Pashupatinath is the largest temple complex in Nepal and is considered as a sacred place for Hindus. Here, you can bear witness to multiple cremation ceremonies where the last rites of Hindus are carried out. As this place is the equivalent of Varanasi on the Ganges River, the Bagmati River is a sacred place which carries out the ashes of devotees straight to Nirvana. Bearing witness to this incredible ritual gives you a sense of admiration for their faith and is incredibly humbling and fascinating.
While most people tend to breeze by Kathmandu, immediately escaping its chaotic streets in search of mountains, peace, and some tranquility, for me, this place was electric. Yes, it was busy, dusty, and downright mental, but amidst all of that, I found little pockets of peace as I walked around temples. I was made to feel welcome by the friendly smiles of the Nepali people as I curiously walked around narrow streets and poked my head inside random alleyways. If you’re traveling through Nepal, admittedly, other parts such as Pokhara are much more picturesque, however, I urge you to let your curiosity run free and to wander around the incredibly fascinating city of Kathmandu.