Kathmandu, Nepal

I’m not normally one to take photos out of airplane windows, but my first glimpse of the Himalayas convinced me to make an exception.  My nose had been buried in a book and the mountains caught me by surprise.  I looked up and at first saw nothing but overpowering white as my eyes adjusted to the direct sun.  What are those light patches dotting the horizon?  Clouds?  Those can’t be…  Mountains?  And suddenly it was perfectly clear – towering ridges of rock and snow, each one seemingly higher than the next, forming a massive wall that extended as far as I could see in both directions.

 

First Glimpse of the Himalayas

 

Thirty minutes later we landed in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Kathmandu…  The ancient city’s name always sent my mind racing with exotic connotations.  At some level I think my failure to read about Kathmandu in my guidebook before arriving was intentional, a way of protecting the full intensity of my first experience of the city.  A driver from my hotel met me at the airport and careened his tiny, beat-up sedan through the dirty streets.  From 30,000 feet the sky above the Kathmandu Valley looked clear, but at ground level the smog hung so thick it stung my eyes and cloaked the horizon in a yellow-gray haze.

The heavily potholed streets were clogged with cars, bikes, people, animals.  Horns blared constantly.  Huge piles of trash tumbled down steep ravines into polluted creeks.  Men in turbans blew their noses farmer-style, holding one nostril shut while exhaling aggressively through the other.  Cows slept in the middle of the street, oblivious to the clamor around them and protected by their holy status to Hindus.  Small children squatted to relieve themselves wherever and whenever the urge struck them.

I arrived at my hotel around 9am and had breakfast before heading out to explore the city.  While I ate I eavesdropped on the table next to me, where a middle-aged American woman was talking to a Nepalese travel agent.  “I’m a very spiritual person,” she explained.  “And I need to develop my healing powers.  I need to, do you understand?  I’ve cured myself of cancer twice.”  The poor travel agent was just trying to sell this woman a standard trek, but she wanted him to help her locate a specific monastery she’d read about in a book.  It didn’t help that she couldn’t remember the name of the monastery and didn’t know the title or author of the book.  I gave the travel agent a sympathetic smile.

The impossibly narrow streets of Thamel, Kathmandu’s most touristy area, were as crowded as any I’d experienced in Asia.  Occasionally all traffic – pedestrians, rickshaws, motor vehicles – would collapse into total gridlock.  It sometimes took long periods of time for the crowd to decipher the puzzle of the interconnected moving parts and figure out how to unclog the jam.  Cars and rickshaws occasionally raced by too close and clipped my arm or leg.

 

Traffic in Thamel, Kathmandu (Video)

 

I made my way to a trekking agency with a good reputation, and I liked the people there enough to confirm my booking and hand over my money.  I didn’t have enough time to tackle either of Nepal’s two most popular treks – the full Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp, so I planned to try the Annapurna Base Camp trek.  But the agency talked me into something slightly different – a 10-day route that ventured into a much less commonly traveled part of the Annapurna region.  They said we’d sleep in tents instead of tea houses, we’d climb above 5,000 meters, and we’d have great views of Dhaulagiri, the eighth-highest mountain the world.

With my trekking plans set I wandered south to Durbar Square, a temple-filled plaza in the heart of Kathmandu’s old town.  The streets were full of amazing faces I desperately wanted to photograph, but I found it very difficult to take photographs in any of Nepal’s touristy areas.  Every time I asked permission to take a shot, the response was either a curt refusal or a request for money.  The Nepalese have been dealing with tourists for over 40 years and I don’t blame them for having an edge, but I hated to miss so many great opportunities.

Several “holy men” dressed up in colorful robes and face paint regularly work the Durbar Square area, asking people with cameras if they’d like a photo and then demanding money afterwards.  When one of the holy men approached me I said, sure, I’d like a photo, but for free.  No money.  “OK, no problem,” he said.  “No money.”  So I took some photos.  “Money!” he demanded as soon as I lowered my camera.  I refused and thankfully had the backing of a couple locals who had heard our exchange.

 

Money!

 

Durbar Square Panorama

 

Man at Durbar Square

 

Woman at Durbar Square

 

I spent the next day gearing up.  Kathmandu’s trekking stores sell cheap stuff (mostly North Face knock-offs), and – considering that my wardrobe consisted almost entirely of t-shirts and shorts – I needed to buy some warmer clothes for the trek.  By dinner time I felt as ready as I was ever going to be.  The next morning I would take the bus to Pokhara, a city in western Nepal that serves as a base for most treks heading into the Annapurna region.