In search of Kathmandu’s beauty two years after the earthquake

We arrived late to Kathmandu. We left the airport and negotiated with several cabbies before finding a price we were happy with—it’s actually best to find a cab outside the airport because those waiting inside need to pay a fee to enter, making the fare higher.

After several unsuccessful attempts at finding our hotel, the cabbie dropped us off somewhere he assumed was the correct area. No street lights were on, which greatly complicated things and we only had landmarks to go by, no exact address. We asked a man walking by for help, which quickly attracted the attention of several other guys and soon we were surrounded by about six men eager to give their opinions. One gentleman used his phone to call the number of the hotel. The hotel owner came and met us and it turned out we weren’t too far away. We were shown to our beautiful room, complete with a rooftop balcony. The owner brought us tea and wished us a good night.

We woke up with a job to do. We needed to print papers and make copies to bring with us to the Indian Embassy to apply for our Indian visa (our next destination). We made copies of our documents twice. The first time we paid 5 rupees a page and the second we paid three times that. The reason was because the second time the computer and printer were being run off of a backup generator. We walked to the embassy passing whizzing and honking mopeds, a cow lying in the middle of the street, piles upon piles of trash and several monkeys climbing on walls overhead. Welcome to Nepal! When we arrived at the embassy we learned that we could redo our application and apply for a multiple entry application instead of a single entry. This will make our travel much more flexible so we will have to return to the embassy again!

THAMEL, KATHMANDU NEPAL - OCTOBER 02, 2017: Unidentified people walking and buying in the streets at outdoors at night in Thamel. Thamel is a commercial neighbourhood in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. One of the popular tourist attraction in Kathmandu.

THAMEL, KATHMANDU NEPAL – OCTOBER 02, 2017: Unidentified people walking and buying in the streets at outdoors at night in Thamel. Thamel is a commercial neighbourhood in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. One of the popular tourist attraction in Kathmandu.

Our next stop was Thamel road, a busy tourist street lined with shops selling beautiful bright fabrics, Tibetan singing bowls, incense, bootleg hiking gear, Kukri swords and many other souvenirs. The street was buzzing with people and mopeds driving on the opposite side of the road. It’s very difficult to drown out the incessant honking (it literally never stops). Trash covered every surface, discarded carelessly all over the ground. Empty lots were filled with trash while some burn their trash to dispose it, only to contribute to the already monumental levels of air pollution.

We walked further down Thamel toward Durbar Square, mesmerized by the sounds, smells and colors of the city. Well, actually, aside from the brightly colored fabrics and dresses displayed in storefronts, the rest of the city was covered by dust and smog. The sky was a constant white-gray during our stay. To protect from the dust and high level of pollution, many locals have taken to wearing fun fabric-covered masks.

Load Sharing

Upon reaching Durbar Square we were immediately accosted by security and asked to pay USD20 to enter while locals just strolled right in. (I’m pretty sure they used skin color as the indicator for who pays and who doesn’t.) Durbar Square is home to the old Royal Palace and dozens of temples. The Kumari (princess), or Living Goddess, also lives in a building inside the square. She was a young girl believed to be a manifestation of the divine female energy Devi. When she had her first period she was replaced by another, Kumari.

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Durbar Square was a depressing sight—a shadow of what it once was— we hadn’t realized just how much the earthquake in 2015 had devastated Nepal until witnessing it firsthand. Piles of stones and bricks lay everywhere and temples were held up by wooden supports.

From Durbar Square we found our way to Freak Street, named for the hippies that descended up on the area in the 1960s and 1970s drawn by the cheap government-run hashish shops. Dreadlocked hippies can still be found in this area as well as dealers selling hashish in side alleys.

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We wanted to make use of the kitchen in our apartment-style hotel room so we went shopping for food. Not many stores use refrigeration, which limits what they sell. Those that do use refrigerators oftentimes use them for beer and sodas only. The power station cannot generate enough electricity for everyone, so they use ‘load sharing’ between different districts, allowing several hours of electricity per district during certain times of the day. Almost everyone uses back up generators to get by, even if only for their TVs. Needless to say, none of the meat was refrigerated. But if you’re adventurous enough you can find butcher shops with slabs of meat exposed to the sun, air flies. To get some protein we settled for eggs, which are sold in just about every corner shop (also not refrigerated.) They were not refrigerated in South America either. After collecting fresh carrots, beans, onions and chives for less than a dollar (the majority of the Nepalese live on less than USD2 a day) we headed to a spice store. The smell of the store was intoxicating. We randomly selected two spices to use with dinner.

Last Minute Supplies

Our attraction for the next day was the Boudhanath Temple. Because it was several kilometers outside of the city, we decided to catch a taxi. Traffic on the way to the temple was horrendous in our eyes, but routine according to our driver. Other drivers were constantly honking, cutting others off and squeezing between lanes—it was truly every man for himself.

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The temple was under construction because of the earthquake and the top stupa was closed off. This temple, like many others, had its splendor stolen by the earthquake. It was really a sad sight. Nonetheless, the square around the temple was busy with tourists shopping along the souvenir stalls.

We had planned to also visit the Swayambhunath Temple but opted against it. We’ve read that many of the monkeys that inhabit the temple are infected with rabies. Even though we would likely be safe if we kept our distance we didn’t want to put a wrench in our plans by getting rabies. Instead we walked around getting last minute supplies.

First we picked up a bunch of pens, coloring pencils, stickers and notebooks for the children at an orphanage (more on this below). We bought some suntan lotion and bug spray. The bug spray was hard to find since the trekking stores in town cater to trips into the mountains, an area where there are no bugs. We were able to locate one small bottle with 20% DEET (this is Nepal’s highest legal limit for DEET). Oh, and I can’t forget about the port wine we picked up!

At one pharmacy we picked up a couple of weeks supply of Doxycycline (anti-malaria) and four Azithromycin tablets (traveler’s diarrhea). We inquired about a certain type of anti-anxiety medication, which is oftentimes used by travelers during long bus/train rides to help sleep through the noise and smells. The first pharmacy said that we needed a prescription, however, we chatted up the second pharmacist we went to and were able to get two-dozen pills, much easier (and cheaper) than in the US.

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After a long time shopping for the perfect Tibetan singing bowl, which involved stopping in many stores, comparing prices and trying out bowls for the perfect sound, we ended up at a wholesale store slightly off the main street. We were unimpressed with the bowls on display, so one of the employees took us up several flights of stairs to their back storage room. Up here the shelves were lined with hundreds of them. We used the flashlights on our phones to examine the bowls (the power was out, no surprise there).

After much scrutinizing we narrowed our choices down and finally asked the price. He quoted us USD150 for the first bowl and USD70 for the smaller one. The prices were too high we told and that we had seen them for cheaper elsewhere. He lowered the prices, asking if we were satisfied yet. We were not and he asked us to name our prices (this is usually what the negotiation process comes down to), we said USD90 for both. There was a long awkward silence. Finally, he said he would give us the bowls but under two conditions, we had to put the bowls in our backpack and leave in another direction not passing the store, and not to come back into the store again. He was afraid his boss would find out. His plan was to pocket the money and never tell his boss about the sale. Despite the shady circumstances we were stoked by the deal and paid. Later we met a hippie on the street who spends five months in India and Nepal every year buying items to sell back home in Canada. He informed us that he gets these medicine bowls for about USD25 a kilo (wholesale).

We also bought a table runner made from scraps of saris. Our next destination was the post office to mail home our goodies. After a long walk there it was closed, open again 2pm the next day, delaying our arrival at the orphanage.

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Two days later we left Kathmandu on a public bus towards Pokhara, got off at Mahadevbesi, which is in the Dhading District. Here we helped build an orphanage for children who lost their parents during the 2015 earthquake. Mornings and nights we worked alongside the children but during the days, while the kids were at school, we continued to build.

We stayed with a local family but had our own rooms. There were no showers and we had to bathe in a nearby river. Also, there was only one outdoor toilet for everyone to use. We returned to Kathmandu after three weeks to extend our tourist visa then we were off to trek the Annapurna Circuit. Nepal is slowly recovering and reconstructing its past glory, the country desperately needs tourism money now more than ever so put it on your travel list this year.

We met a hippie on the street who spends five months in India and Nepal every year buying items to sell back home in Canada. He informed us that he gets these medicine bowls for about USD25 a kilo (wholesale).

We also bought a table runner made from scraps of saris. Our next destination was the post office to mail home our goodies. After a long walk there it was closed, open again 2pm the next day, delaying our arrival at the orphanage.

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Two days later we left Kathmandu on a public bus towards Pokhara, got off at Mahadevbesi, which is in the Dhading District. Here we helped build an orphanage for children who lost their parents during the 2015 earthquake. Mornings and nights we worked alongside the children but during the days, while the kids were at school, we continued to build.

We stayed with a local family but had our own rooms. There were no showers and we had to bathe in a nearby river. Also, there was only one outdoor toilet for everyone to use. We returned to Kathmandu after three weeks to extend our tourist visa then we were off to trek the Annapurna Circuit. Nepal is slowly recovering and reconstructing its past glory, the country desperately needs tourism money now more than ever so put it on your travel list this year.