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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 30-day trip around the Himalayas is complete without a visit to Kathmandu.
And let’s be honest, Kathmandu just sounds cool. It simply had to be part of my Himalayan adventure…potentially-lethal water supply notwithstanding.
What is Kathmandu known for?
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 a flight from our last stop in Chengdu, my good friend and regular travel accomplice, Shannon, and I land in Kathmandu.
And it doesn’t take us long to begin to appreciate Clay’s advice.
The ride from the airport to the hotel helpfully provides 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’ve brought them, too (though we turn out to be exceptionally worthless at remembering to use them).
The Hotel Yak & Yeti
We check into the Yak & Yeti and while our first room is perfectly decent in appearance, the monsoon season has created a moldy aroma that will be tough to ignore for 3 nights.
Thankfully, the hotel is more than accommodating in moving us and even ends up upgrading us to a lovely (and un-scented) suite.
Despite its location right in the heart of the city, the hotel has a gorgeous pool and garden area that make it seem miles away from the traffic and smog.
The Yak & Yeti also has a top-notch water purification system that renders its water supply non-life-threatening. Which is all you can really ask for.
In fact, the only Kathmandu fact of life the Yak & Yeti is not immune to are the daily, unrelenting power outages. Luckily, their generator system is pretty effective. When the power does go out (which happens multiple times a day) it comes back on quickly.
Day 1 – A Mount Everest Scenic Flight
The #1 activity on our Kathmandu agenda is a scenic flight around Mount Everest.
We researched them a bit online but flights couldn’t be booked until we arrived. So the first thing we do after checking in is book a scenic flight at the helpful travel agency desk in the Yak & Yeti’s lobby.
Mount Everest flight options
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 fly 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 roll the dice.
Our travel agency books us with Simrik Airlines which has options at 6:30am and 7:30am. Since the 7:30am is sold out for tomorrow, we settle for the 6:30am.
Arrival at the airport
You only have to arrive at the airport to check-in 30 minutes before flight time so we arrive bright and early at the domestic airport after a decent night of sleep.
We are greeted by a dozen or so monkeys hanging around the airport entrance. Yet, surprisingly, I can’t get a single one of them to carry my bag or print my boarding pass. #worthless
Our 6:30am departure time comes and goes without comment from the Simrik Airlines gate agent. So we continue to wait patiently searching for any promising sign that we might actually board.
Around 7:30am they board the passengers for our flight and those on the 7:30am onto a shuttle bus and explain the conditions on the mountain.
A flight dilemma
Apparently, the cloud cover is significant today. And though the weather is good enough to fly, we’ll only be able to see the very tips of the peaks.
To their credit, the airline gives us three options: take the flight, get a full refund or come back tomorrow and hope for better luck.
The only catch is, if you still want to go, a total of 16 passengers have to go or they still have to cancel the flight.
There are hushed mumblings around the bus as everyone weighs their options. Shannon and I look at each other and quickly decide we’ll try again tomorrow. We still have two more mornings to give this a shot and aren’t ready to admit defeat on seeing the whole mountain range.
Plus, I do the math quickly in my head and realize the odds of 16 people still wanting to go are minimal. And we want to get re-booked ASAP so we can get seats on tomorrow’s flight.
We are the first off the bus and into the office to rebook and are soon followed by most of the other passengers (they did eventually cancel the flight).
No flight, now what?
With our Everest flight a no-go for today we are back at the hotel by 8:30am with a full day on our hands.
We haven’t done a ton of research on Kathmandu’s best sights. Luckily, the girl at the travel agency desk was pretty helpful yesterday sorting out all the sightseeing options so we already have a short list of a few places to visit.
Swayambhu temple (the Monkey Temple)
We have some breakfast (which we missed with our pre-dawn departure) and grab 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, that is.
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, they generally make a nuisance of themselves to the locals while at the same time providing numerous adorable photo ops for the tourists.
The weather is perfectly clear and sunny and we are treated to fantastic views on the walk up and back down.
After wandering for a bit, we return to the taxi and head on to our next stop, Patan Durbar Square.
Patan Durbar Square
It turns out Kathmandu has three “Durbar Squares” and we aren’t crystal clear as to which one we want to see. But the pictures of the Patan Durbar Square look enticing so we go with that one. We can 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’s exactly what I’d envisioned Kathmandu would look like and I’m immediately glad we decided to visit.
Dusty narrow streets wind like veins off the main artery of the square. Each one is packed with craft shops, art galleries and the usual assorted souvenir shops and travel agencies. We wind our way through the side streets in search of the Kumbheshwor temple, one of only two in the city designed with five roofs.
Eventually, we find it and spend some time watching the long lines of local worshippers come and go.
Back at the Yak & Yeti
After a busy afternoon, we head back to the Yak & Yeti hoping to escape the congestion of the city with a little quality time at their lovely pool. Sadly, our plan is foiled by afternoon rain showers that proceed to drag on into the night.
For dinner, we decide 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 starts out pretty much the same as the first.
We wake up at the break of dawn and head to the domestic airport in the hopes that the weather will be clear enough for our Everest flight.
We arrive about 40 minutes early for our 7:45am flight. Yet as soon as we check in at the counter we are ushered immediately to an already loaded bus. And then to a waiting aircraft (even though we aren’t scheduled to leave for almost an hour).
Apparently, they need two more people for the earlier flight and we’ve just lucked into the last two seats!
Within minutes we are in the air and approaching the Himalayan mountain range. The flight attendant distributes a map of the various mountains and walks around to each of the 16 seats identifying peaks for us out our window.
We are also invited individually to the cockpit to get the pilot’s-eye view over the mountains.
The visibility is about as good as you can expect for the monsoon season here in Nepal and the Himalayan vistas are truly spectacular. We score a clear view of the M-shaped peaks of Mount Everest soaring above the clouds at 29,028 feet.
It was the flight of a lifetime and one of my all time favorite travel experiences.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
Back on the ground & feeling incredibly fortunate
By 9:00am we are back on the ground.
Over the next few days I hear stories from other travelers who went to the airport as many as four days in a row and were never able to take the flight. So we’re both feeling extremely grateful for our good fortune. We were fully prepared to come back tomorrow 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 have another full day left to kill in Kathmandu.
What to do in Kathmandu?
We consider visiting another square or temple. But ultimately, we decide to shop for souvenirs (perhaps some local jewelry) and give the pool another try.
The weather has finally improved and it turns out to be a relaxing afternoon in our little hotel oasis in the midst of the chaos of Kathmandu.
What to eat in Kathmandu
Later, we try out the Red Carpet restaurant recommended by the hotel for dinner.
Earlier this week we discovered a fondness for a local dish called “momos” – steamed Tibetan dumplings filled with buffalo, chicken, pork or veggies. So we order one last round of momos and raise a toast to surviving our three nights in Kathmandu.
Neither of us got hit by a motorbike, bitten by a monkey, or waylaid by an intestinal disease or a case of the black lung.
A successful visit by any definition!
Honestly, I actually liked Kathmandu. If nothing else, it’s 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!