Rudely awakened by my alarm at 4 am, I shuffled around in a zombie state, packing, before my minibus pickup at 5 am. I’m really not a morning person, especially after 3 hours sleep! Planes shouldn’t be allowed to take off until after midday in my opinion, then I’d never have to get up early again. At least I was finally wearing some dry clothes! The mini bus hurtled to the airport in record time, the roads were dead. I checked in and tried to sleep on a sofa, and then a chair, in vain. I accidentally picked up someone’s similar jacket to mine at security, when I went back to hand it in, the guy just told me to keep it! Very professional! I gave it to him anyway just in case, though I am guessing his daughter’s now sporting a nice black fleece….
The first leg was to New Delhi, India. I managed to get a little sleep and watched the vastness of India pass below as we got close to our destination. Delhi from above seemed a random mix of high-rises in clumps, slum areas and a lot of open ground. After landing I had to go through long queues to get through immigration and baggage check, even though it was just a transfer. Some Indians were living up to their reputation for queue etiquette and barging in ahead of everyone else – thankfully the staff were having none of it and sent them to the back of the queue. I also noticed that the Indian people at the airport had a different idea of personal space to us westerners, often standing extremely close to me. I guess that’s just how things are in this country.
Security seemed pretty tight in this airport, I got a second body check entering the gate, presumably just because I’m so sexy. Through the airport windows you could catch a glimpse of Delhi and a mix of ancient and new vehicles outside. An army truck was loading soldiers on board and all their packs were getting carried onto the roof. The Indians’ in the airport were almost all dressed smartly, something I like about their culture, and the colourful saris the ladies wore were a feast for the eyes.
After more failed attempts at sleep, it was onto plane two. I got stuck into Lonely Planet Nepal. I hadn’t done any research at all on my destination until now, only buying the book yesterday. I’d traded in my beloved Lonely Planet Travel Photography book for a pittance, as it was too heavy. Check it out if you’re into photography, it’s great.
Sadly no mountains were visible as we approached our destination, though there were some awesome cloud towers which must have been above some of them. We descended quite steeply and as we came down to Kathmandu we were getting a lot of turbulence rocking the plane. Even on the final descent the wings were swaying alarmingly and just before we landed it was rocking like crazy. We landed with a big bump but we were ok. In the news yesterday a small plane in Nepal had crashed just after takeoff with everyone aboard killed, including a number of Brits. The current thinking is that it was a bird strike. Actually in Nepal fatal air accidents happen every year or two, the conditions and small, dodgy aircraft aren’t a good combination.
Kathmandu airport is a very small and basic affair. We hustled into the visa area where the queues were long and slow as 2 or 3 flights of people applied at just two desks. I tried to pay with my Scottish pounds and got laughed at as usual. Take this as fair warning, nowhere outside of the UK will take Scottish bank notes. It confuses and scares them, even though it says Pounds Sterling on it. I’d arrived with a load in Thailand, not having time to change them in Edinburgh, and now they were travelling with me, unable to get rid of them. Twice in the visa queue there were brief power cuts, causing cries amongst the tourists. I’d already read about Kathmandu’s power problems – the city often has power cuts and the electricity is rationed around the city, called load sharing. Some places have backup generators, like hotels and restaurants.
After getting the visa at last, baggage collection was a free-for-all. Finding your luggage was hard as there was no information, and it was stacked up randomly around the area. Eventually I found mine randomly lying in a corner with the rain cover lying nearby. I went outside to be greeted by the usual mayhem – a wall of shouting people waving cards and offering taxis. I hate this part of travelling, it’s stressful and you’re always knackered when you step off a plane to get harassed – having to decide who you can trust. I was supposed to be getting a free transfer to my hotel and so I waddled along the row until I found my guy. He’d been waiting for over an hour, which sounded about right due to all the entry delays. In the distance I could see the sun setting over the shambling outline of Kathmandu city and birds of prey soaring above it. A little kite was being flown above the roofs. Big hills surrounded us miles away. I was piled into a taxi and the guy who’d met me demanded a tip, showing a 20 euro note. I was damned if he was getting 20 quid (after all I could have just got a taxi normally) but I didn’t have any small money on me, aside from some dollars, so I gave him the smallest, five dollars. He demanded another and as I was tired and stressed, I just wanted rid of him so I gave him it. Afterwards I felt annoyed for buckling and learned another lesson, keep small change for when you arrive so you aren’t scrabbling around for tips!
The taxi was a little van with a back seat. The driver set off at a roaring pace and we hurtled around, outside the airport the road was bumpy and I lurched around in the back. The traffic was chaos with cars, taxis and motorbikes all over the place, horns beeping everywhere and random dangerous maneuvers taking place. On the streets outside, loads of people were walking. The roads were more like tracks, reminding me of my time in Africa, though I later found out this part of Kathmandu is undergoing road reconstruction and the normal roads are much better. All along the street were little stalls and food sellers and everything including the buildings seemed quite old and shabby. The air was hot, smoggy and dusty. Everything was noisy, with horns beeping, engines roaring and the hubbub of people outside. It was quite stressful. We wound through some incredibly narrow streets, passing people and other vehicles by inches. My driver was determined to get me there as fast as possible, forcing his way into tiny gaps. There didn’t seem to be a rule for sides of the road, in fact in most places the road was barely wide enough for two cars anyway. As we got further into town the buildings rose in height and the roads were torn up, looked like some work was being done. Signs were everywhere, displayed in vertical stacks, and wires hung all over the place between buildings. I started to see tourists amongst the throngs of locals. The locals had a load of different stlyes, from women in colourful saris, men in suits and Nepalese hats, younger people dressed in jeans, t-shirts and black jackets, Tibetan people in colourful robes, the occasional monk – you name it, it was all there.
The streets here were also full of rickshaws (bicycle taxis), food carts and people carrying big loads on their back using straps on their head. I noticed a lot of old people with amazingly weathered faces and people with disfigured faces, wonky eyes or sporting skin problems, alongside pretty girls and well-kept men. My senses were overwhelmed and it was hard to take everything in. We arrived at Potala Guest House in the heart of the tourist area, Thamel, somehow without crashing or taking anyone out.
Bhupen was waiting for me in the lobby. He’s one of the owners of Fantastic Nepal, the travel agency that was assisting me. He’d been waiting for ages and wondered what had happened to me. Bikrant, his marketing manager who I’d been in contact with had been worried when I didn’t show up at the expected time at the airport. I was lucky because Bhupen had been about to leave. I left my stuff in the hotel room, quite a basic affair but with a nice bed, and went off with Bhupen for a drink.
We wandered through the mad streets of Thamel, the tourist area. It was almost dark now. The streets were very narrow here and motorbikes, taxis and rickshaws were constantly passing by you by inches, honking in your ear. The streets were rammed with open-fronted shops of all kinds, souvenir shops, clothe shops, food shops, travel agencies, bars, hotels, but each front was only a few meters wide. It was a riot of colour and light. Owners stood outside, sometimes trying to entice you in. Hawkers roamed the streets with little instruments, Gurkha knives or tiger balm, asking you to buy. Rickshaws and taxis shouted out at you for a ride. Sometimes men muttered “hashish, cannabis” or “need something?” as they passed you. The buildings towered above us on either side with shutters open, signs everywhere and upper floors visible, sometimes with bars or restaurants up there. After visiting an ATM (4 quid to withdraw L ) we went down a side alley to a great little restaurant in a courtyard, an old building rose above us with lighting projected on it, and a tree shaded the courtyard. It was much quieter here and the tables bustled with people and lit candles. A nice atmosphere.
We ordered dinner and chatted about Bhupen and his company. They’ve only been going for a few years, taking their hobby into a job, and are steadily building their business and differentiating themselves – in a city of thousands of travel agents they need to! We talked about his plans for the future and discussed places and things I might like to do in Nepal. He was good company and understood my independent nature, being a bit like that himself. He was honest with me about costs and recommendations, saying he wants to build his company’s reputation on honesty and service – relying on word of mouth for promotion. I thought it’s a good approach and his attitude was refreshing. The challenges of his line of work in Nepal were interesting, because of the infrastructure it can be hard to provide a reliable service to tourists who expect set times for things to happen – in Nepal things happen when they happen. Things like hot water or power can’t easily be guaranteed, so his company’s spent time to find reliable places and people so they can guarantee a certain standard. His job sounds challenging and hard work, but he seems to enjoy it. I recommend their company, I’ve used them for quite a few things now, they’re honest, reasonably priced and very helpful, you feel well looked after. You can find Fantastic Nepal Holidays on Facebook or I can put you in touch with Bhupen – and no, I’m not being paid for this!
We chatted the evening away and after a tasty steak he walked me home. The streets all look the same to me so I was glad of the assistance! I thanked him and we parted ways. I had some problems getting to sleep, even after midnight the beeping of taxis and motorbikes were still going.