I hit Kathmandu completely unprepared. Although the seed for my visit was planted ages ago, I had no time to explore the abundance of information available on the web and was enticed to Nepal by other travellers’ tales of unrivalled walking in stunning scenery and being bowled over by impressive remnants of long ago histories. Three months in the UK were whittled away with sorting out ‘my’ past and three months in India with trying to appease and combat the management of a school out of its depth. And the earthquake? That was never going to stop me in my tracks, unless of course there was specific advice that would make the trip too risky.
‘You will love Nepal,’ my friend L. assured me, when I went to see her at the end of May and was introduced to a family friend, Karnasher, ex-Ghurka and owner of a Trekking and Adventure company in Kathmandu. I left sorting out the minor – and major – details of my itinerary to him and only needed to book my flight and turn up on time. It sounded easy, and it was! I arrived in Kathmandu after ‘deplaning’ – I was flying with Air India so we ‘deplaned’ rather than disembarked – and an effective and swift sweep through customs and immigration saw me outside the airport within 30 minutes of touching the tarmac. My ride into town not yet there, but the rest of Kathmandu’s taxi drivers were… and within mere minutes, like swarms of bees to a honey jar, helpful men engulfed me trying to relieve me of my luggage, find the quickest route to my hotel and making phone calls to tell the manager of the adventure company that everything was taken care of…all at a price! Luckily, I did not have to wait long for my prearranged ride to appear and set off to town.
Being used to the melee of Indian traffic and its accompanying screeching and honking noises, Kathmandu, although in places equally bustling, seemed more tranquil and serene, until we reached the touristy Thamel part where impatient taxi drivers and rickshaw cyclists vied for customers and fought for tarmac space with unsuspecting tourists and locals on foot and the ubiquitous motorcyclists whose identities were obscured by pollution defying masks. ‘Are people wearing masks because of the earthquake?’ I asked Ashok, the Manager of the Trekking Company. Apparently not and people use them to protect themselves from the dusty air in Nepal. And if I felt the need to join in with the health conscious locals, I even found them on sale on a stand next to sun hats, clearly an essential item in this town.
How amazingly satisfying to explore a city for the first time! With the scenes of devastation still fresh in my mind, I expected a city pulverised and reduced to dust and rubble, all evidence of a grand rich past wiped out, World Heritage temples and palaces razed to the ground by the massive April earth tremor. But many parts of Kathmandu escaped the ravages of the earthquake and the touristy heart of the capital is one of them. My taxi weaved its way through the labyrinth of nameless ribbon roads crammed with touristy shops, colourful signs and advertising boards. Shopkeepers were peddling exciting adventures in the Himalayas and sold all kinds of trekking and walking gear; they were hawking colourful beaded bracelets and necklaces and displaying the muted coppers of mesmerising Nepali singing bowls and bells next to statues of Buddha and Hindu deities. Wooden mask dolls added vivid hues to rival the intense shades of the hanging decorations. Indian leaf teas from Darjeeling and Assam competed with Nepali Ilam tea; the teas, probably rated amongst the best, found interested customers from all over the world. ‘I have been buying my Darjeeling tea here for the last ten years,’ an English speaking passer-by explained. Ghurka shops offered special Ghurka knives bearing inscriptions which reflect the Ghurka’s maxim: ‘It’s better to die than be a coward.’ Local women sold vegetables on the pavement and fruit sellers on bicycles tried to attract customers; a tailor was busily working his sewing machine. I could not but succumb to the charms of the city and struggled to contain my excitement at starting the real tour the next day and getting first-hand experience of how the earthquake had affected some of the most famous landmarks of Kathmandu, and seeing what had been spared.
I finished my first evening in a Nepalese restaurant to sample Nepalese cuisine, a genuine delight: Dal Bhat. As I find out later during my visit, this is the Nepalese staple meal, often eaten twice a day: once for breakfast and again at evening time. Lunch is usually a very light affair. Strangely, the Dal Bhat is not that much different from the Kerala meals I cannot stomach, but they use a Basmati type rice which is so much more appetising and there are more vegetables on the plate…