The term “sensory overload” could have been designed for Kathmandu, a medieval hill city, dirt poor, rich in ritual, dragging its ass into the twenty-first century in a clutter of motorbikes and mass tourism, the air a rich soup of dust, vehicle emissions, riverside cremations and burning plastic, of incense, joss sticks, cardamom and, yes, sometimes, sewers.
Sometimes it feels that everyone in Kathmandu is either building a house or knocking one down, the dirt by the roadsides a welter of bricks and stripped-down labourers, metre-wide cafe bars springing up plastic in medieval squares, teetering tenements just waiting for their next storey…
It is, as Cat Stevens almost had it all those years ago, a strange, bewildering town.
In the backpacker ghetto of Thamel, where rolling blackouts make neon a blessed impossibility, signs clutter and scream between the tangling wires.
Every other storefront is an Everest Outfitters, knocking out counterfeit trekking gear, or perhaps a Himalaya Laundry or Sherpa Massage… There are vendors of tiger balm, flutes, pashminas, scarves, hippie pants, bangles and handicrafts, Tibetan restaurants, Nepali restaurants, burger joints, dumpling joints, yoga classes, pharmacies NOW, NOW, NOW…
And the dust! So much dust that even the locals wear face masks to walk the streets, and Zac and I, veterans of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, South-East Asia during the rice-stubble burning, are sneezing, snotty and cold-ridden within twelve hours of arrival.
“Yep,” he says, with the air of a hardened connoisseur. “This is definitely worse air quality than anywhere in China. Although we haven’t been to Chongqing…”
Yet, once we venture out, it’s fascinating. Street vendors sell the coloured powders used for Hindu ritual.
Sari-clad women shop for offerings, and decorations for the upcoming deepawali celebrations.
In the tourist centre, rickshaw drivers come as close as the Nepalese can to hustling. Between them and the tiger balm vendors, the flute merchants and the aspirant trekking guides, I’m saying “No thank you” almost as often as I did to the touts in Luxor – but there’s no aggression there.
We work our way through the narrow streets, choked with motorbikes, rickshaws, even vans – you’d think they wouldn’t fit, but they do – a chaos of hooting, moving sometimes to the centre, sometimes to the side, to let the vehicles pass.
Duck off the main street and there’s a medieval square, prayer-flags fluttering above a deserted stoupa, the tenements quiet and still.
Like all medieval towns, shops still cluster the same street: this one is where you buy your cookware.
One street is lined with dental clinics, neat with handpainted signs. The lump of wood with coins nailed in? A toothache god, whom the afflicted and yet-to-be-afflicted come to kiss.
Religion is everywhere, tiny, ancient shrines cluttering the pavements, tiered temples a place for vending sari cloths, a stoupa a place to take your rest.
We follow a cyclist, his bike laden with mineral water vats, pedalling bent double through a gateway so low Zac has to bend to pass it.
Another medieval square.
A glimpse of children, playing in the monastery courtyard… Families vend millet and rice in sackloads from the ground level of a tenement, its ancient woodcarvings half-decayed…
And we’re out again, into the glitter and glitz, the bangles, the sari stores, the perfume shops, the beauty stores, the small indulgences that pamper life in one of the poorest countries on earth.
And bead stores! So many bead stores!
On a musical instrument street we stop to watch a drum-maker at work, shaving strips off hides with a razor blade.
We admire the ragged remnants of carvings on a medieval building on a quiet square – another monastery, I’m guessing.
It’s hard work, though. Kathmandu is tiny, so compact, it should be workable.
But we’re not used to the traffic flow, the way pedestrians, motorbikes, even lorries merge and flow.
The food vendors cope, no problem.
Us? Snotty and cold-ridden, we’re struggling a bit.
“Here!” says Zac. “Stop here!”
He’s chosen a Tibetan restaurant. Hot millet beer, a sour soup of millet grains and yeast, feels like chicken soup for the soul.
Tomorrow, we agree, we’ll explore some more. Tonight is a night for momos, blankets, quilts and DVDs.