We arrived in Kathmandu during a power outage, a regular occurrence since the earthquake in 2015 that killed over 8500 people. The country is still rebuilding and recovering, and that includes the power grid, which cuts out occasionally to help manage the load – particularly at night.
While the airport was on generator power, the rest of the city was dark – no streetlights and very few lights coming from the surrounding houses.
As our taxi wound down narrow dirt streets, past shadowy buildings, I couldn’t help wondering just what we had gotten ourselves in to. Was I really ready for level 9 roughing it?
We had chosen a guest house in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu for our first two nights. The main road in Thamel, draped in bunting and prayer flags was dark and dusty — the headlamps of the odd taxi or motorbike piercing through the dust to outline dark figures walking down the street, framed by tall buildings on either side. It was eerie, just seeing the shadows of people in an unfamiliar place, while arriving at night.
That all changed when we got to our hotel, and were greeted so warmly by a small crowd of twenty something year old Nepali men working at the front desk. We were each greeted with Namaste and a small bow with the hands brought together in front of the face as if in prayer. Namaste literally translates to “I respect the god in you”, and I can’t think of a more welcoming greeting that exists anywhere. We were sat down for a tea and a chat while they arranged the check in, and carried our bags up to our room.
Austin was an instant superstar in their eyes, and over the next three days, he would charm each and every one of the hotel and adjacent Rosemary cafe staff until they were just melted butter in his hands.
The next morning, we stepped out from our generous breakfast in the pretty little garden courtyard to the daytime chaos of Kathmandu.
What had been a deserted street at 8pm the night before was now lined with one shop after another selling knock off North Face gear, embroidered bags, rugs, and all manner of bohemian clothing. It was a riot of colour, sound and space — all crammed together.
People, motorbikes and taxis competed for space, and took whatever inch they could get. Nepal drives on the right, but are no rules of the road – if you can take the space, you take it. The air was thick with dust, and people all around wore face masks to keep the pollution and dirt out. It was nearly impossible to breathe without it.
Shopkeepers fought a losing battle to keep their wares clean of the ever present dust, and resorted to keeping a dusty display item out, and kept the rest of their goods wrapped in plastic.
We had tasks to complete in Kathmandu to get ready for our trek, and the first was to get our trekking permits and the permits that would allow us to enter the Annapurna Conservation area. The Nepal Tourist centre was not far from where we were, but the walk took nearly an hour.
We wound our way through increasingly narrow market streets that transitioned from selling tourist and trekking paraphernalia, to the goods needed for life in Kathmandu. Vendors sold brightly coloured powders and rings of marigolds and other flowers for the upcoming Diwali festival, and the daily festivals in the surrounding week. Spices, nuts and dried corn were available alongside meat markets, sari shops and many many items in between.
There was no single inch of space that wasn’t occupied by one thing or person or animal. People crammed into tiny doorways of tiny shops to do their trading.
The pollution and dust choked the back of your throat, and the riot of colours, sounds, scents, motorbikes and bodies should have been overwhelming. But it wasn’t.
It’s difficult to explain, but in amongst of the chaos of Kathmandu lies a quiet underlying peacefulness. The people are kind and hospitable beyond what our minds think is genuine. There is a Nepalese tradition of treating your guests like gods, and we experienced this everywhere we went. I had an anxiety attack in Istanbul in a much less crowded space, but I never once felt as though things were getting out of control in Kathmandu.
But we weren’t here to stay, and after a few days of admin and touristing around historic sites (more on that later), we met my cousin, Beth and her friend Beth, who were joining us from Delhi to go trekking with is. We were ready to get out of the city to hit the trails.
Permits in hand, our little group of five boarded a mini-bus with 17 of our new closest friends and headed out on the road of terror and dust for the six hour bumpy, winding ride to Pokhara, Nepal’s second city, and the gateway to the Annapurna region.
The road was so bumpy that I managed to clock my 15,000 steps for the day after just 2 hours of riding in the back of that bus. We paid $4 USD each for those seats, and, well, we got there!
There were times when we had to slow down to a crawl to navigate holes in the (main) road so large you could lose a horse in them. Other times the driver accelerated like crazy to make up for lost time, even if it was only for a 300m stretch. We passed brightly decorated ten ton trucks on narrow curves, and big local buses on blind corners. It was a white knuckle ride, and we arrived in Pokhara dusty and weary, but the major accomplishment that day was that we arrived. Alive. Ready to get up and start travelling by foot the next day.