A foreboding grey sky and a slight mist hung in the air to mark our arrival at Kathmandu’s airport, as if to remind us that we were suddenly far removed from the beaches of Southern India. An extensive search for a working ATM and a prolonged haggling session with a throng of cab drivers brought us straight into the streets of Thamel, the city’s backpacker hub.
Multi-colored prayer flags formed a dropping ceiling across narrow muddy alleyways, officially welcoming to one of the world’s trekking meccas. Within a 500 foot radius we could suddenly find everything necessary for a long trip into the high Himalaya. Shops were stocked full of faux North Face gear, sleeping bags, and water purifying tablets. Souvenir shopping was also abundant; items as eclectic as kitschy t-shirts and meditation bowls lined every visible shelf.
The clientele was especially diverse. My ears perked up at more than a few American accents and we both caught glimpses of French, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Korean from voices that ranged from 16 to 60. Kathmandu is Nepal’s most populous city and the streets seemed to swell with traffic of bicycles, motorbikes, cars and busses. This influx of population combines with the natural weather patterns to produce a horrid side effect; a haze of particles hangs in the air and most inhabitants sport masks to filter out the dirt. By the time we took one lap around the compact traveller’s district and enjoyed our first dinner in Nepal, we were both absolutely decimated and ready to hit the hay.
On Wednesday morning we awoke to explore the wild streets of Kathmandu. A long walk to the famous Durbar square was peppered with detours. With three weeks of trekking just two days away, we stocked up on essentials like sunscreen and paracetamol, but also purchased water bottles, rented sleeping bags, and tried on plenty of hiking boots.
Once breaching the barrier of Thamel, the content of the shops and the demography of the pedestrians was a seismic shift. Suddenly we were walking by women frying large batches of onions and shops bursting from the seams with spices while we navigated narrow alleyways with buildings that seemed to converge above our heads.
It’s difficult to overstate how tiny some of the shops were, or how full of objects each one was. Stefje and I agreed that neither of us would last an hour in one without suffering from claustrophobia.
The backstreets were so rocky and riddled with puddles the they seemed barely fit for walking, so I was beyond shocked when an intrepid cyclist of motorcycle loaded with gear came rumbling past on either side, indifferent to the hubbub. In perfect proportion to the cramped streets were the tiny doors. Each one was so low that even the shorter Nepali people had to stoop to enter, so any hope of me squeezing through would require tremendous effort.
Yet within each open door we could glimpse brief snippets of a calmer life: children playing marbles, women chopping vegetables, stray dogs curled up into tiny balls with just a single eye peeking open, and shopkeepers rearranging their inventory.
I thought for sure the streets were the apogee of chaos, but little did I know another level was attainable. Eventually we stepped into a square and were instantly blown over with impressions.
Roads and walkways mixed like milk into coffee; it was a huge surprise that I witnessed only a single accident. With a buddhist temple affixed in one corner as a reminder of inner peace, an outer frenzy engulfed us.
Men walked by with entire cupboards strapped to their heads, pigeons swooped low overhead, buildings were supported by wooden buttresses rendered necessary by the most recent earthquake, and low rumbles of thunder threatened in the distance. Just standing in one place and turning in a circle yielded hundreds of ever-changing views of daily life.
Finally we chose an exit to the square and walked down one of the city’s main arteries. Colorful saris bursted from over-packed shelves, kitchen wares spilled out into the streets, and huge sacks of spices overwhelmed my nasal passages. Amidst all this, shopkeepers scrambled to hoist plastic covers over their outside displays, a warning of what was to come.
Dark clouds rolled in above us, a light drizzle turned into a steady rain, and we took cover inside a tiny temple complex. Accompanied by a stray dog and an old man, we crouched beneath carvings of microscopic details as the skies opened up and a torrential downpour ensued.
I couldn’t have dreamed up a better hiding place from such a violent storm. The beauty of the temple’s doors, walls, and ring of surrounding prayer wheels was evident through symmetrical alignment and gorgeous craftsmanship. The fact that this was merely a temple we ducked into and not one of the main tourists sights cemented my belief that Kathmandu holds a treasure trove of secrets and a multiplicity of beauty for any wandering soul.
Further along in the afternoon we finally made it to Durbar square. Kathmandu’s large outdoor museum is full of temples and impressive buildings dating back to the 12th century, but it has changed drastically since the 2015 earthquake that threw the country into chaos.
Next to the red brick and wooden pagodas were piles of rubble. Scaffolding was being assembled alongside signs that the rebuilding effort was sponsored in part by both the Chinese and American governments. A wide open square was lined with women selling works of art and the standard souvenir fare, framed in the background by wooden supports which kept the walls of ancient buildings standing.
Many of the brick structures had frighteningly long cracks in the sides, but others stood solidly and defiant amidst the troubles. With a series of showers of coming and going, we were two of the only tourists in sight. This provided us with plenty of time to observe the local life: young schoolgirls paused beneath erotic carvings for selfies, guides persistently offered their services, and old women squared beneath awnings, unfazed by the weather.
On the way back the rain persisted, forming treacherous puddles on partially paved streets and ruining every clean shoe left in the city.
We dodged in and out of the downpours, eventually uncovering a courtyard adorned with a stupa. Whereas previously the object of my affection had been the city’s doors, now it was the windows. Out of the top floor of an impossibly tall and skinny building, an old lady peered down on us with abject curiosity. In the first floor window of an apartment, a toddler tried to fit his whole fist in his mouth. A teenage girl leaned outside to send a text, her mother creeping over her shoulder.
Despite the fact that many buildings were run down and most inhabitants on the verge of poverty, many windows featured extravagant designs that filled every available inch.
As the minutes ticked away, our blood pressure dropped and my brain forgot what year it was. It seemed as though this tiny little side street has transported us to a different century and a different way of life.
By the time we returned to Thamel for some more shopping, the persistent precipitation turned the dirt roads into primordial soups of mud and rock. Every step was treacherous, every street crossing an epic adventure. With absurd traffic in this neighborhood, the only way to cross a busy intersection is to follow a local. They step out into minuscule openings a few inches at a time, grouping together in thin lines for support like a communal game of frogger.
We ended our delightful yet exhausting day with two Nepali comfort foods. Thukpa is a thick and spicy noodle soup chalk full of vegetables that felt comforting in the rainy weather.
But the real winner of the evening meal was a plate of steamed momos, little pockets of veggie goodness that left us feeling deeply content with our first full day in Kathmandu.
On Thursday we enjoyed a slow morning on a sun drenched terrace, eager to rinse off the mud of the day before with sum warmer weather. Fully recharged with sunshine and coffee, we set off for one of Nepal's holiest places, Boudhanath Stupa.
This incredible circular shrine dates back almost a thousand years and is a pilgrimage destination for buddhists from all over Kathmandu valley and beyond. The crooked alleyways around it are home to 25 monasteries, meaning the streets are peppered with monks that give the neighborhood a calm and sacred feeling.
Upon setting our eyes upon the Stupa, it was instantly apparent why the site is so revered. The sloping dome rise high above the city and a penetrating set of eyes were painted on all sides of a rectangular attachment, making it feel like Buddha himself was watching our every move.
We proceeded on the slowest possible circumambulation, pausing to admire the red, yellow, white and blue prayer flags fluttering in the wind and the 108 sculptures carved into the base.
Despite the attraction of the stupa, my eyes kept getting drawn back to the joyous signs of life which encompassed the shrine. Artists composed endlessly detailed meditation paintings with painstaking precision, pilgrims prostrated themselves on wooden planks, and pigeons flocked by the hundreds.
Eventually we found a monastery which offered mind-blowing artwork on every door, window and balcony, gazing in wonder at the gigantic prayer bells and peering out over the scene of abundant life from a serene perch.
Every angle seemed to offer up a new perspective: small shops and rooftop restaurants backed right up against the stupa and minuscule crevices flowed into busy pedestrian walkways that mixed Nepalis, Westerners, and monks in a beautiful display of humanity's diversity.
All the while, the circular walkway abounded with more and more visitors until we opted to depart. A short walk through the busy outskirts of town yielded a decidedly different feeling. Instantly the incredible mix of traffic, construction and pedestrians returned, reminding us of the overwhelming pollution and chaos that locals must navigate on a daily basis.
Our feet led us to the one of the town's bus stations, where was purchased tickets to Salleri, a village in the Himalayan foothills, while a butcher chopped the head off a chicken just a few feet away. Dozens of other birds were caged up nearby in miserable filth, too busy pecking at their lunch to glimpse a preview of their eventual fate.