With a stop through Delhi for the second last time (with a grand total in the end being 5 times) we landed in Kathmandu as the sun was setting, early enough to get the jaw dropping panoramic views from our 6″x6″ window. The dramatic landscape that lay thousands of feet beneath us was enough to get our adrenaline flowing and get us pumped up for the 2 weeks to come in Nepal.
We landed in the Kathmandu airport and were excited to get through customs and back to the airport to greet the friends and family that were there waiting for us. We hurried through the crowds and got into the customs lobby only to find throngs of people EVERYWHERE! This wasn't going to be easy, or fast. Immigration required $25 USD only of course, along with forms filled out, and 2 passport sized photos. As we took turns standing in-line, we raced around to get everything we needed to enter Nepal.
In line we met a very friendly Australian couple on our same flight from Delhi. They only had three days in left on their trip and instead of spending their time in dirty and chaotic Delhi, they made the trip up to Nepal. Just a tease, if you ask me - but better than nothing. We passed the 45 minutes in line chatting and planning to meet up for drinks the next day.
Finally, we were all through. Boom! The 2 weeks in Nepal has begun. We grabbed our backpacks, had a stop in the first of many unpleasant Nepalese toilets, and were soon out the door to find our new friend and guide from Varanasi, Sanjay and he brother/cousin Narayan. Taxi drivers and guides shouted, hollered, and pulled at us in every direction, as were meandered through the barrage of travelers, hustlers, and unsavory types. As if an oasis emerged in the midst of a dry, arid desert; Sanjay, with his unconditional happiness, appeared before us to put us in his awaiting van and bring us swiftly to our hotel where our friends waited our arrival.
As we pulled up to the Royal Penguin Hotel, we spied out of our window Selma and Bryan just about to dive into their first Everest. (This will be referenced many times moving forward. To be clear, Everest is our favorite of Nepal's offerings to the beer world.) We greeted them with hugs all around. We checked into the hotel and looked on as the hotel staff lugged our bags up the stairs to our triple room. The room was well appointed with fine furnishings. They even went to the trouble of providing each bed with a nearly life-sized feline; lioness, leopard, tigers; all were accounted for. Strange, but quite amusing to us.
We reconvened in the downstairs lobby within minutes of our arrival. Sanjay was downstairs waiting for us with our new compadre, Narayan. They wanted to take us to dinner at a local Nepalese joint to welcome us and to discuss everything necessary for the upcoming trek we were to embark on in 2 days time.
We wound our way through the busy streets of Kathmandu in nearly single-file order so that we wouldn't be taken out by impatient taxis. The store fronts were filled with bright colored textiles, knock-off trekking gear, and every piece of jewelry, handicraft, and souvenir imaginable. This was sure to be a shopper's heaven when we had the time. But for now, it was time for dinner and drinks.
Our first choice was closed, but as far as I'm concerned we were better off. The second place we came across served a heaping and delicious meal of Daal Baht (you will certainly be hearing more about this dish as well). Daal Baht Consist as you would imagine, a bowl of daal (lentils), along with a heaping scoop of rice. With it comes, sautéd greens, pickled and spicy veggies, curried potatoes and veggies, and finally a dash of spicy fire sauce. BOMB!
Maybe the best and worst part about it is that the meal costs roughly $2 and it is ALL YOU CAN EAT! Maybe Nepal wasn't the place to lose our India pudge.
As we washed down our daal baht with iced cold Everests and (Philippines' own San Miguels) we discussed what we wanted to do on our trek, what our Nepalese itinerary would look like, and what we would need to bring along and acquire before hand. Sanjay and Narayan seemed very much on top of it, which eased our minds a bit, because we were winging it a bit more than we would have normally. Sanjay surprised us by taking care of the bill as a welcome to Nepal, which was of course a very kind gesture; one of many to come.
We bid Sanjay and Narayan goodnight, with a plan to meet at 10am the following morning for a tourist trip around Kathmandu. We weren't exactly ready for bed, however. We wandered down the bustling streets until we found a sign that peaked our interests; Shisha!
We climbed the several flights of fire escape stairs and ducked under the low clearance doorway into our shisha heaven. A local band was performing various western hits as tourists and locals sipped beer and cocktails and puffed on fruity flavored tobacco out of oversized hookahs. Looks good to us!
We slipped off our shoes and took our places at the low tables. Two Everests for the boys and a bottle of their best white for the girls, along with a mint/apple shisha for the table. We quickly settled in and caught up on everything, from Winter in Wisconsin to our bizarre tales of India. Before we knew it the band had wrapped up, the shisha had burned out, and the second bottle of white had been cashed. Things close down pretty early in Thamel (11pm) but it was probably for the best. We had a long day of playing tourist in the morning. And so we headed back to the Royal Penguin for an attempt at a game or two of cards, before calling it a night and heading to bed.
In the a.m. most of us had battled in some fashion, poor sleep due to jet lag or frigid a/c conditions, or both - and were therefore up relatively early. We took turns in the closet-sized gym feigning an attempt at a workout.
What was REALLY awesome, was the breakfast offering at the Royal Penguin Hotel. Fruit, Yogurt, Coffee, Hard Boiled Eggs, Toast… pretty much anything you could think of was on offering. Even if it wasn't, they were too polite to say 'No'.
Sanjay met us at exactly 10am, if not 5 minutes before, and had forms for us to fill out in order for us to receive our trekking permits. We pulled ourselves together and headed over to his office. 5 more passport sized photos and $517 worth of Rupees were required in order to get this show moving. We took care of the necessary biz and were eventually ready to get our day going.
First stop, Monkey Temple or Swayambhunath. Getting to this temple requires a windy drive through hillside villages to an incredible Kathmandu lookout point. As we stepped out of the van and paid our 500 rupees or so entrance we first noticed several beautiful Buddha statues and a water feature that held a greenish-brown water, but served as a fun game in seeing who could throw a leftover Indian rupee into the center canister. (For those of you curious, I - Gina - did manage to sink a rupee).
The next thing we noticed was the army of monkeys that surrounded the place. As if out of nowhere, monkey of all shapes and sizes emerged from the trees. They were the adorable and very mischievous species known as macaques. After snapping many photos it was time for the climb up to the true wonder and spectacle that makes the Monkey Temple one of the most Holy of all Kathmandu's temples; the huge stupa that is perched on the peak of the grounds.
The large dome-shaped structure is white-washed and painted with a saffron-colored lotus, niches surround it with likenesses of many deities. On top is a spectacular golden umbrella that has 13 different levels representing the 13 levels of enlightenment to achieve Buddhist Nirvana. One must circumnavigate the stupa in a clockwise fashion, all the while spinning the seemingly endless displays of prayer wheels that surround the structure. It was a sight that left an impression on your heart. Truly Magical. Another noteworthy element to this stop was the spansive vista opposite the stupa. Kathmandu spread throughout the drastic valley almost as far as the eye could see. We snapped photos from every angle until it was time to start the walk down. We finished off our visit with a walk through the opposite end of the temple grounds, where we spun a few more prayer flags, lit a candle, were given waxy, metallicy bindis on our foreheads or '3rd eye' and finally made our way back to the van.
As we were piling in the car, Kyle spotted a momo stand along the street and with little encouragement, threw down the 85 rupees for 20 bite-sized momos (essentially curried dimsum with an awesome spicy sauce). I unfortunately was unable to join in what seemed to be a heavenly momo session as there were no vegetarian momos available, but something told me I would have my chance.
And with that we were off, heading across town to Patan; a suburb of Kathmandu known for it's historic and decretive square, it's many Hindu and Buddhist temples, and the gorgeous artisan craftshops that line their cobblestone streets.
We found our way to the south gate of Old Patan. We would be taking a Lonely Planet recommended walking tour of all the notable sites throughout Patan, however explaining this to our van driver proved difficult. Eventually, after several attempts, we all felt we were on the right page and that our driver would leave us here and pick us up at the end of the route in 2.5 hours. Waving goodbye, we walked up through gates of the old town only to be welcomed by a booth and a woman chasing us down to by tickets. "Tickets just to walk through town?" We could understand if we were entering a temple, museum, or one of their many sacred sites, but we were just trying to make it to the other side of town. On top of that the cost for this was completely out of proportion for what everything else cost in town. To simply walk through town we were looking at $53 USD for the 6 of us… This wasn't happening. We turned around walking back through the gates and found our way around the outside of town until we located a side entrance with no ticket takers.
I won't lie, it took us several minutes to find our place in town and to locate where this walking tour was leading us, but eventually we did. During the tour we wandered past ponds, huge colorful Hindu statues, old historic libraries, beautiful golden Buddhist temples, monks in rich, red robes, children at play at a very resourceful-looking pingpong table and finally to a most appealing looking lunch stop.
We dined on organic avocado salads, creamy hummus with pita, mezze plates, and an ice cold bottle of chardonnay. Our inner California nature was finally at peace with this meal.
It seemed we enjoyed ourselves so much that before long we realized it was time to meet our driver. We paid up and stepped outside, and it didn't take us long to realize something had developed during our lunch time-warp. A rather large festival had gathered and we were stuck smack dab in the middle of it, with no van driver in sight. It appeared that due to the festival, automobiles were not being allowed into the town. (This might have something to do with the ticket lady?!)
We walked to the edge of town and found a local establishment to make a call to our driver. As it turns out he was on the other side of town and we would therefore need to make the trek through the festival to meet him… and so we did.
We met him a good 30 minutes later and were relieved to jump in the van and make tracks back to Kathmandu. Being the good tourists that we are, we had our driver drop us at Durbar Square in the middle of town, with hopes to get some nice shots as the sun sank behind the red painted buildings. As luck would have it, they too were charging to walk through the square. This time, it was about $6.50 per person, but we were still not having it. We skirted the booth officials and managed to get a few quality shots of the square, but in the process lost track of our path back to our hotel.
By this point the ladies were good and ready to end the day of walking and to take in sunset on the rooftop of the Royal Penguin Hotel, the men were a bit more ambitious; or more correctly a bit more stubborn. The ladies piled into the next cab we saw and bid farewell and good luck to the fellas as we pulled into traffic. The drive back took nearly 20 minutes as our driver seemed lost, couldn't speak English or read a map. We finally pulled up to the hotel and were greeted by two large, smug smiles on the balcony of our rooms overlooking the street. Attempting to have us believe they made it back on their own accord, Adrian and Bryan soon admitted that they, in fact, took a bicycle rickshaw. In any case they were there, we were there, and beers were necessary.
We went up to the rooftop, opened one of the fine reds Selma brought from Wisconsin and hung out until our hungry tummies demanded they be attended to. We found a recommendation for a great momo spot, called Yangling, in the tourist area of Thamel. We got ready and headed out. We found the place with little effort and pulled up some chairs and popped open a few frosty Everests. Hungry and interested in this new found dish, we ordered just about every option on the menu. We proceeded to eat to our hearts content, cashing 60 momos between the 6 of us… Good Showing!
When we couldn't conceive of another bite, we paid our bill and made the journey back to the hotel stopping to pick up a few essentials for the ride out to Pokhara the following day. It was to bed early for a breakfast in the morning and long, grueling 6 hour van ride. We had just scratched the surface of what Kathmandu had to offer, but luckily we would be back for another stint in roughly 10 days.
Until then, the adventure continues!