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“Wear a mask, brush your teeth with bottled water and don’t open your mouth in the shower under any circumstances” offered my friend Clay (who did the Everest Base Camp climb a few years ago) when I solicited advice for my upcoming visit to the congested and notoriously polluted Nepali capital.
But despite his warning (which would make a lousy motto for the Kathmandu tourism bureau), I was undeterred. After all, no trip around the Himalayas was complete without a visit to Kathmandu.
And though I didn’t know quite what to expect, I have to admit I was drawn by the mystique of such an exotically gritty city. I figured it would be similar to my visits to neighboring India and Sri Lanka.
And let’s be honest, Kathmandu just sounds cool. It simply had to be part of my Himalayan adventure…potentially-lethal water supply notwithstanding.
Once thought to be the fabled Shangri-La, today’s Kathmandu is the eclectic gateway to Mount Everest for thousands of intrepid climbers each spring. But this Himalayan capital is more than just a means to an Everest-sized end. In fact, most visitors to Nepal don’t come for the climb, they come for the culture.
Tourism is sometimes called the “third religion” of Nepal, after Buddhism and Hinduism. And despite Kathmandu’s trekker/backpacker reputation, the city actually boasts several 5-star hotels including a Hyatt Regency, a Radisson and our hotel of choice, the historic Hotel Yak & Yeti.
Aside from the obvious colloquial charm of the name, the Yak & Yeti is a Kathmandu institution. It’s the primary base from which Everest-bound trekkers begin their journey. If it’s good enough for people about to summit the world’s tallest peak (like my friend Clay), it’s good enough for me.
After landing from Chengdu, it didn’t take me long to begin to appreciate Clay’s advice. The ride from the airport to the hotel gave us our first sense of the sweltering crush of humanity that is Kathmandu. Traffic jams are a way of life. There are no actual lanes on the roads just a swarm of battered cars, motorbikes and rickshaws all jockeying for position and displaying a blatant disregard for personal safety or marked pedestrian crossings.
The air is thick with exhaust fumes and the entire city seems covered in a persistent layer of dust. Foreign particles assault your eyes and your throat within hours of arrival. A walk down the street leaves your skin coated with an invisible layer of grime and after a few days, you begin to feel like your lungs could use a good vacuuming.
Many of the locals wear facemasks and we’d brought them, too (though we’d turn out to be exceptionally worthless at remembering to use them).
The Hotel Yak & Yeti
We checked into the Yak & Yeti and while our first room was perfectly decent in appearance, the monsoon season had created a moldy aroma that would be tough to ignore for 3 nights. Thankfully, the hotel was more than accommodating in moving us and even ended up upgrading us to a lovely (and un-scented) suite.
Despite its location right in the heart of the city, the hotel had a gorgeous pool and garden area that made it seem miles away from the traffic and smog.
The Yak & Yeti also had a top-notch water purification system that rendered its water supply non-life-threatening, which is all you can really ask for. The only Kathmandu fact of life it was not immune from was the daily, unrelenting power outages.
Luckily, their generator system was pretty effective and when the power did go out (which happened multiple times a day) it came back on quickly.
Day 1 – A Mount Everest Scenic Flight
The #1 activity on our Kathmandu agenda was a scenic flight around Mount Everest.
We’d researched them a bit online but flights couldn’t be booked until we arrived. So the first thing we did after checking in the day before was to book a scenic flight at the travel agency desk in the Yak & Yeti.
There are three airlines that do scenic flights around Everest known locally as “mountain flights” – Yeti, Buddha and Simrik (and yes, those are real airline names). The one-hour flights are scheduled first thing in the morning when the visibility is often best. This time of year, the flights only go about half the time due to poor visibility but we knew we’d get our money back ($185) if the flight was canceled so we decided to take our chances.
Our travel agency booked us with Simrik Airlines which had options at 6:30am and 7:30am. Since the 7:30am was sold out for the next day, we settled for the 6:30am.
You only have to arrive at the airport to check-in 30 minutes before flight time so we arrived bright and early at the domestic airport and were greeted by a dozen or so monkeys hanging around the airport entrance. Yet, surprisingly, I couldn’t get a single one of them to carry my bag or print my boarding pass. #worthless
Our 6:30am departure time came and went without comment from the Simrik Airlines gate agent so we continued to wait patiently looking for any promising sign that we might actually board. Around 7:30am they boarded the passengers for our flight and those on the 7:30am onto a shuttle bus and explained the conditions on the mountain.
Apparently, the cloud cover was significant and though the weather was good enough to fly, we’d only be able to see the very tips of the peaks. To their credit, the airline gave us three options: take the flight, get a full refund or come back the next day and hope for better luck.
The only catch was, if you still wanted to go, they had to have 16 passengers willing or they’d still have to cancel the flight.
There were hushed mumblings around the bus as everyone weighed their options. Shannon and I looked at each other and quickly decided we’d try again tomorrow. We still had two more mornings to give this a shot and weren’t ready to give up on seeing the whole mountain range.
Plus, I did the math quickly in my head and realized the odds of 16 people still wanting to go were minimal and we wanted to get re-booked ASAP so we could get seats on the next day’s flights.
We were the first off the bus and into the office to rebook and were soon followed by most of the other passengers since they did eventually cancel the flight.
No flight, now what?
With our Everest flight a no-go for the day we were back at the hotel by 8:30am with a full day on our hands. We hadn’t done a ton of research on Kathmandu’s best sights but the girl at the travel agency desk had been pretty helpful the day before in sorting out the sightseeing options so we’d already decided on a few areas to visit.
Swayambhu temple (the Monkey Temple)
We had some breakfast (which we’d missed with our pre-dawn departure) and grabbed a cab to the Swayambhu temple, more commonly known as the “Monkey Temple.”
The Swayambhu stupa is one of the largest and most sacred Buddhist sites in the country and has panoramic views over the city…once you make the steep climb to the top.
In addition to the colorful and beautifully ornate stupa, there are a wide assortment of monkeys of all ages gallivanting around the grounds, swiping bits of food from the intended temple offerings and generally making a nuisance of themselves to the locals while at the same time providing numerous adorable photo ops for the tourists.
The weather was perfectly clear and sunny and we were treated to fantastic views on the walk up and back down.
After wandering for a bit, we returned to the taxi and headed on to our next stop, Patan Durbar Square.
Patan Durbar Square
It turns out Kathmandu has three “Durbar Squares” and we weren’t crystal clear as to which one we wanted to see but the pictures of the Patan Durbar Square looked enticing so we went with that one figuring we could probably take in the other two later.
About 5 miles (and a lot of traffic) south of central Kathmandu, Patan is known as the “city of fine arts.” The square is full of ancient monuments, temples and shrines but its central feature is the ancient Royal Palace with three main chowks (or courtyards).
It was exactly what I’d envisioned Kathmandu would look like and I was immediately glad we’d decided to visit.
Dusty narrow streets wound like veins off the main artery of the square and were packed with craft shops, art galleries and the usual assorted souvenir shops and travel agencies. We wound our way through the side streets in search of the Kumbheshwor temple, one of only two in the city designed with five roofs. We eventually found it and spent some time watching the long lines of local worshippers come and go.
Later that afternoon we headed back to the Yak & Yeti hoping to escape the congestion of the city with a little quality time at their lovely pool but we were foiled by afternoon rain showers that proceeded to drag on into the night. For dinner, we decided to take a walk over to the nearby Thamel neighborhood.
Thamel is known as the “traveler’s ghetto” and I’d describe it as a dustier, grittier version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Perhaps a poor man’s Khao San, if you will. It’s a latticework of narrow streets and alleys crisscrossed with strands of faded prayer flags.
All of the usual tourist necessities can be found in Thamel – hotels, hostels, restaurants, travel agencies, souvenir stands, silk shops – plus a few extras like blinding dust clouds, speeding motorbikes, honking horns and the occasional goat on a leash (no, that’s not a typo).
It’s Kathmandu straight out of central casting and probably what most people picture when they think of the legendary Himalayan capital.
Day 2 – Back to the Airport
Our second day in Kathmandu started out pretty much the same as the first. We woke up at the break of dawn and headed to the domestic airport in the hopes that the weather would be clear enough for our Everest flight.
We arrived about 40 minutes early for our 7:45am flight yet as soon as we checked in at the counter we were ushered immediately to an already loaded bus and then to a waiting aircraft (even though we weren’t scheduled to leave for almost an hour). Apparently, they’d needed two more people for the earlier flight and we caught the last two seats.
Within minutes we were in the air and approaching the Himalayan mountain range. The flight attendant had distributed a map of the various mountains and walked around to each of the 16 seats identifying peaks for us out our window. We were also invited individually to the cockpit to get the pilot’s-eye view over the mountains.
The visibility was about as good as you can expect for the monsoon season here in Nepal and the Himalayan vistas were truly spectacular. We had a clear view of the M-shaped peaks of Mount Everest soaring above the clouds at 29,028 feet and it was the flight of a lifetime.
By 9:00am we were back on the ground and over the next few days I heard stories from people who’d gone to the airport as many as four days in a row and never been able to take the flight so I was extremely grateful for our good fortune. We were fully prepared to come back the next morning and try one last time but I’m so glad we didn’t have to.
With our main Nepal objective now knocked out, we had another full day left to kill in Kathmandu. We considered visiting another square or temple but ultimately decided to shop for souvenirs (we wanted some local jewelry) and give the pool another try. The weather had finally improved and it turned out to be a relaxing afternoon in our little hotel oasis in the midst of the chaos of Kathmandu.
That night we tried out the Red Carpet restaurant recommended by the hotel. We had earlier discovered a fondness for a local dish called “momos” – steamed Tibetan dumplings filled with buffalo, chicken, pork or veggies – so we ordered one last round and toasted to surviving our three nights in Kathmandu without getting hit by a motorbike, bitten by a monkey or coming down with an intestinal disease or a case of the black lung. A successful visit by any standard!
Honestly, I actually liked Kathmandu. If nothing else, it was certainly unique. Loud, crowded and dirty, yes. But also spiritual, friendly and (in places) beautiful.
I’m not sure if I’d go back to spend more time there but I’d definitely return to Nepal to visit some of the more remote towns that really define the country. From what I could see on my flight over the Himalayas, there is a lot more to Nepal than its chaotic capital.
Next stop, Bhutan!