First Impressions of Kathmandu

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.

Stacks of bricks await construction, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Signs choke the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu.

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…”

Street vendors selling coloured powders, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Yet, once we venture out, it’s fascinating. Street vendors sell the coloured powders used for Hindu ritual.

Women shopping for offerings in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Sari-clad women shop for offerings, and decorations for the upcoming deepawali celebrations.

Rickshaws on a square in Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Motorcyclists and shoppers on a sari and bangle shopping street, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

And then…

Kathesimbhu stoupa, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Cookware and brassware shopping street in Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Toothache god, Sukra Path, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Resting on a stoupa, Kathmandu.

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.

Children framed in the gateway of a monastery courtyard, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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…

Bicycles, motorbikes and grain vendors in a medieval tenement, Kathmandu.

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.

Bead store, Kathmandu, Nepal.

And bead stores! So many bead stores!

Musical instrument street, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Medieval wood carved building, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Food vendor with bicycle-wheeled cart, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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.

Tibetan millet beer -- tongba -- served in gilded bamboo stem.

Tomorrow, we agree, we’ll explore some more. Tonight is a night for momos, blankets, quilts and DVDs.

27 Responses

  1. Rebecca says:

    WOW. Definitely going on my list. The pictures are gorgeous!

  2. what a different world. You son is the luckiest kid in teh world to experience this – minus the colds 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! He is very lucky. And luckier still that we hadn’t booked flights into the Himalayas before we got the colds….

  3. Kurt says:

    First off, excellent gallery of captures. Kathmandu is one of my favorite cities to explore and photograph. I hope to return sometime soon for trekking and to relax in the fresh mountain air.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes! I’m looking forward to some fresh mountain air myself. Although we’re in Pokhara now, which is pretty clear and breezy.

  4. Yvonne says:

    Hope you both get well soon! Beautiful pictures! Can’t wait to read and see more about it!

  5. Tanya says:

    Thank you! One of your most evocative posts recently. Really got a sense of this crazy town. Hope you get better v soon and much looming forward to hearing how you both get on on mount everest… Wish you happy and safe travels there. Xx tanya

    • Theodora says:

      Aww, thank you, Tanya. I need to do something on Ubud that kind of sums it up as well. We’re parking Mount Everest until we’re cold-free, which will hopefully be soon…

  6. Addison S. says:

    Wow, Kathmandu, so many memories. I could spend hours sat on the steps of a temple in Durbar Square just watching Nepali life go by. I actually walked from there to Nargakot – one of the highlights of my trip.

  7. ANGLO/Dale says:

    Kathmandu sounds, sorry, LOOKS incredible, but that it must be said that I don’t have dust filling up my eye sockets.

    Love the photo of the ritual colour powders, btw.

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! They’re also used to make offerings on Diwali, as well as for decorating the foreheads of animals as well as people, so it’s lovely to see them in action.

  8. Definitely a little strange and bewildering. All of those wires crossing the street are crazy!

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah, the electricity situation is pretty mental. Powercuts (AKA load-shedding) are so routine that there’s all sorts of secondary backup systems around. Fascinating place, though…

  9. stefanie says:

    Great article, I wrote a very similar one a couple of weeks ago 🙂 It’s in German, but I guess you’ll be fine with the pictures:

  10. Nepal is a lovely place, lots of colours, lots of crowd and almost chaotic. Its a mini version of India.

    • Theodora says:

      I think that must be right. I’ve not been to India yet — Nepal and Sri Lanka are the only South Asian countries I’ve visited so far, but Nepal feels very much like India lite. Although, that said, the influence not only of Tibetans but of Northern Chinese minorities is very obvious: there are lots of people here who look almost Burmese, and others who look very Chinese.

  11. mezzo says:

    That’s great! I also planning my next trip to Kathmandu. Thanks.

  12. Tash says:

    Oh wow, great post and a good overview – I have just arrived and was seeking some advice of what to do and see!

  13. Kathmandu is so totally overwhelming and jarring and amazing. I loved it there, although at the time I was more conflicted than ever.

    nice photos!

    • Theodora says:

      It’s odd, isn’t it? It completely did my head in second time around, although that really was more about the bureaucratic hassles and similar.

  14. Samantha M says:

    I absolutely love all of the colors!

  15. Wally says:

    First impressions of a new country are the very best. I live in Cambodia and can no longer see anything different than what i see in the neighborhood i grew up in.