Kathmansee, Kathmandu

I’m not quite sure what to say about Kathmandu. It’s like nowhere I’ve been before, yet reminds me of so many cities I’ve ‘met’ on my travels. It fascinated me immediately; the drive from the airport to the hotel was a particular eye-opener (especially given that I had to get out of the taxi and walk part of the way due to roads being blocked by Maoist protests). It’s as grimy as you’d expect and there are only a handful of tarmac roads; the rest of the streets are just mud and dirt. I have a permanent acrid taste in the back of my nose and throat from all the dust and vehicle exhaust. There’s an overwhelming volume of humanity; people everywhere, all the time, slipping past and around each other, merging and then separating back out again, broken up only by vehicles, buildings and animals. When you leave a car or building it feels like you’re just entering a slipstream – part of the mass and yet not – and then disengaging when you reach your destination. As with all Southeast Asian cities, the scenery draws from an incredible palette of colours, and the tourist area (Thamel, where I’m staying) is alive with rows and rows of bazaar-like shops, traditional music blasting out and the usual orchestra of car horns. The people are remarkably friendly, quick to smile and tell you about their country or religion. But somehow, if I think of it as looking into the eyes of Kathmandu, all I’m being met with is a glassy-eyed stare. There’s no feeling of community to this place, and everything feels like it’s there by accident, as if shops and homes and people just landed somewhere and got stuck. For all its spirited inhabitants, Kathmandu seems to be lumbering about in search of a soul, and not finding one.

Like I said, though, it’s an interesting place, and it’s certainly worth dropping by if you’re in the area. The climate is far less aggressive than that of other countries in this part of the world, which made arriving jet-lagged and sleep-deprived yesterday morning much less of a mindmash. There are some incredible sights, too, not least the thousands of prayer flags fluttering at the ‘monkey temple’ (Swayambhunath), atop a hill to the west of Kathmandu. As to be expected, there is a quite a simian community at the temple; after seeing only two or three monkeys over the course of half an hour, suddenly a whole crowd pitched up – with reinforcements arriving every 5 minutes. They entertained the tourists, and seemed completely unconcerned at people getting up close to take photos. Very cute, and very, very human. Just goes to prove the saying – put enough creationists in a room and they’ll write a complete load of crap. Meanwhile, the monkeys at the temple have just turned in their first draft of King Lear…

Anyway. To provide notes and answer queries from the first couple of days… My flight was fine, and from Doha to Kathmandu I sat next to a charming elderly Nepali couple who offered me sweets (by thrusting them at me – they didn’t speak a word of English). I smiled and shook my head, then made a ‘wait’ gesture with my hand, before reaching into my pocket and pulling out a fistful of sweets I’d acquired on the flight from London. They grinned in understanding – it really was a delightful exchange. My jet-lag has mostly worn off now, although I was starting to freak out by about 7pm yesterday. The food is very nice, and I’ve found a packet of Dorset Cereals and some flavoured milk in a local supermarket so I can start the day properly. Durbar Square is interesting, although full of professed ‘sadhus’ who want you to take their picture. Despite there having been a light drizzle for most of the day, I’ve caught the sun on my nose, yet amazingly have not yet received a single mosquito bite. So all in all, so far this trip has brought the change of pace that I hoped it would, and of course Tibet (I’m flying to Lhasa tomorrow) is where it’s going to get really interesting.

So to the city in the sky – Shangri-La’s heady delights await…

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