It turns out that it’s a very long way from Portsmouth to Kathmandu. The flights were long but we arrived, safe and sound, a bit smelly and on schedule. Visa faff provided an interesting distraction. Evan wasn’t too happy at being described as the ‘small baby” but him being under ten saved us a whole visa fee so we didn’t mind. We arrived at baggage reclaim right at the same time as our luggage. Akkal, our lift to the £12 a night Hotel Premium in Thamel, was waiting at the arranged place and we were straight into the thick of Kathmandu rush hour. Health and Safety Sam had spotted violations too numerous to list, but the highlight was his first cow on a main road.
Our first impression of Kathmandu is that it’s much hotter and more humid than we remembered it. We’re clearly still in the monsoon season, and as I type this I can see some epic sunset clouds building up ready for tonight’s deluge. It’s also full-on manic. The traffic, the people, the heat, the “pavements” and the smells all combine to make this a full body experience. It’s very similar to Bangkok, but the streets are way narrower which makes it much more intense.
Either the earthquake has killed the tourist industry, or it’s too early in the season, but there are so few westerners here that we’re easy game for all of the street vendors. Evan has been close to being sold a Gurkha knife. Dez is constantly offered drugs or a shave (but never both at the same time). Floss is occasionally harassed by people peddling the “buy my baby some milk” scam. Sam is the favourite of the numerous “shoe doctors” wanting to mend his sub-standard hiking boots. We’ve spent no money on such fripperies (despite Evan’s pleadings on the knife), and have instead invested in a very handsome tourist shirt for Dez. It’s a thing of beauty and clearly marks him out as fresh meat. After four days, it’s almost sweaty enough to stand-up unaided back in the hotel room. Love travelling. #SoapIsOverRated
We didn’t want to be “disaster tourists”, obsessing about the earthquake, but personally, I’ve found it hard not to. In the tourist area of Thamel, there’s very little evidence of it. There are a few building sites on the main drag and the assumption has to be that these are the locations of buildings that didn’t survive. But they’re few and far between, and have been very thoroughly tidied up. The roads are like building sites full of potholes, but I think that they’ve always been pretty bad. Our walk out to the Swayambhunath Stupa highlighted much more widespread damage, but again, it had been pretty much tidied up and rebuilding was clearly underway. There are lots of buildings with obvious scars of the earthquake, but most of them seem to be still being used.
Durbar Square is an entirely different matter. The walk down there shows lots of buildings that have either been flattened or are likely to fall down of their own accord. The clearing up is still going on, with kids playing in piles of rubble and teams of men sifting through piles of bricks seeing what can be salvaged. It’s obvious that the older buildings have been worst hit by the earthquake. Some of Kathmandu’s ancient narrow streets are officially “closed” as they are too dangerous. We walked down one of them. Many of the buildings have been braced with large wooden struts and have clear signs of serious damage. Random bricks litter the street. People seem to be getting on with their lives though. Even though the road was shut, it was just as busy as the rest of the city. People were selling stuff on the streets and kids were playing – not all of them in the rubble.
Once we got to Durbar Square, the scale of the damage is completely different. We have very happy memories of the place from our last visit, and seeing it now is shocking. Many of the temples are just not there anymore. The brick plinths remains but there is no sign of the exquisite wooden temples that sat on top. Other temples are closed and popped up and some that aren’t look like they should be. One of the biggest temples (Kasthamandap – translates as wooden-house, and is reputably where Kathmandu gets its name from) has been completely destroyed. On the day of the earthquake there was a blood donor session running in the building. Eighty people died. The Maja Degu where we sat in 2002 while the original, and best, “shoe doctor” mended Dez’s shoes has also been flattened.
As we were the only westerners in the square we were mobbed by people offering to be our guide for a good price. We eventually gave in and employed one. Good education for the boys and the only way to stop being followed and hassled. We spent a lot of time talking to our guide, Rama, about the earthquake and how it had affected him personally. He spent three weeks sleeping in a park with his family until he felt safe enough to return home. His home is damaged upstairs but he can’t afford to get it mended or to move somewhere else. Repairs are underway at the square. Well, patching up really. The masses of wood and brick has been removed and piled elsewhere but, as Rama told us, people just don’t have the right skills anymore to put it back together, and finding skilled people from other countries is just too expensive. On the upside – the temple of the God of Alcohol survived in Durbar Square, proof positive that god really does love us.
That’s the earthquake covered. What else…
It’s brilliant here. It really does feel like a completely different world. We’ve all fallen into the travelling way of life remarkably easily. The people are dead friendly, even the touts seem happy when you politely refuse their kind offers of overpriced trinketry. Sam and Evan are treated like film stars. Everyone wants to chat, and they seem to have time to spare. The food is lovely. Beer is freely available. Cafe owners seem happy for you to make a coffee last two hours. We’ve purchased Evan some super-cool and completely authentic Ray Bans, which we know are completely authentic as we couldn’t haggle the price lower than £2. The sun is shining and the rain is warm.
Even though we’ve only been here a few days, it feels like we’ve seen much more of the place than we did the first time we were here. Trips out to Swayambhuath and Bouddhanath Stupas have shown us much more of the city than we saw before, and although I still get stressed about the hassle, I’m much more relaxed about it than before. I’d have never considered getting a guide previously, let alone entertained the thought of taking him for a drink after the tour had finished with the inevitable “exit through the gift-shop” experience. It’s all about having time and prioritising it. Sam in particular is coming out of his shell, and is getting very determined when it comes to ordering food. Evan is trying new foods voluntarily and was happy making small-talk with the tourist police this morning. Both of them are now completely relaxed when it comes to dodging the motorbikes down the narrow streets.
There don’t seem to be many visible mozzies but Sam was well and truly munched on the first night – we’ve had to use the first aid kit and everything. One bite on his foot has erupted into a huge blister which had to be bandaged for fear of it bursting and causing a tsunami.
We’ve had a lovely, relaxing start to the adventure. Jet-lag and humidity were a problem to start with, but the kids have been amazing. They have not been phased at all by the traffic, the noise, the dogs, the monkeys, the language, the smells, the food or the toilets – Evan has refused to use a squatter, but his time will come, oh yes… this time next week, we expect them both to be experienced squatterers. We can’t wait to get out of the city and see what else the country is going to show us.