“And when you walk around the world, babe,
You said you’d try to look for the end of the road,
You might find out later that the road’ll end in Detroit,
Honey, the road’ll even end in Kathmandu.
You can go all around the world
Trying to find something to do with your life, baby,
When you only gotta do one thing well…”
Cry Baby by Janis Joplin
The streets of Thamel are strewn with Tibetan prayer flags. The roads are pitted and rutted. Dust lies thick and heavy on buildings and in the air. After just a few minutes of walking around I feel my throat is covered in the thick, yellow dust and I need a sip of water to clear it away. The narrow streets are thronged with tourists wandering around and packed with shops selling everything from yak wool rugs to singing bowls to fake North Face hiking gear to T-shirts with the slogan “Daal Bhat Power 24 Hour” on them. Gentlemen appear from the shadows muttering requests like “marijuana?” Street vendors thrust their wares in my face. I politely decline and keep walking along, looking for a place to eat.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to Kathmandu. When I travel, I frequently do a little bit of research but then wait until I am there to wander around and absorb what is going on and work out what I am going to do whilst out on foot. That often involves me walking around for a bit and then sitting down for a bit to get a coffee and browse the “What to do in…” places and work out from Google Maps how far I am from such places and how I can walk there. I sometimes feel I should have named this blog Misanthropic Traveller because I don’t really enjoy doing group tours or accompanying other people – I’m much happier when I walk around taking things in and taking pictures and doing things my own way.
Thamel, of course, is the tourist enclave of Kathmandu. It’s where a lot of the hotels and restaurants are, and where all the souvenir shops and travel agents are. I hear later from a Nepali man that most Nepalis shy away from Thamel because everything is three times more expensive there. I booked a hotel here because it’s what I read about and for the convenience of being able to book things and find places to eat, etc.
Beyond the vehicle-restricted enclave of Thamel the streets are seething with dust and activity and motorbikes parping along blowing their horns. Everywhere there is still signs of damage from the 2015 earthquake that devastated the city and other parts of Nepal. Buildings with large cracks in their facades are propped up with wooden sticks to stop them from toppling over. Roads are pitted and rutted and have huge holes in them. I also later hear from a Nepali that the government just simply had no money at all to help people fix their homes and their shops and their properties and that whatever relief money was received from foreign aid barely made its way down to the people in the streets, so even three years on people are still working as hard as they can to get money to fix up their homes.
I’ve had a couple of days of milling around Thamel while working on some editing work I have been commissioned to do, so I don’t yet feel as though I have explored Kathmandu fully yet. Good job I booked five days here, and I now have three of those days left to explore the wider city. This Sunday morning I’m off to find Durbar Square and see the (now ruins) of the iconic complex. It’s about a kilometre or so away from where I am, so I set the directions on Google Maps and then I head off.
I find the narrow streets and activity really interesting. I’m used to the throng and the hustle, having lived and worked in Asia for so long, but this is somehow a bit different. Different architecture, of course; different people; a different feeling and excitement. I love the bright colours of the buildings and the shapes of the doorways, as well as the colourful items like shoes and puppets and fabrics for sale. All the buildings have interesting carvings and structures, which I will later find out is the typical Newari style of Nepal. Everywhere there are temples and statues and splashes of colour from tika that has been daubed on the statues and temples. I’m immersing myself in the activity and sights and enjoying myself.
I’m standing at a street corner when I hear a “Hello” behind me. I smile back. The man asks me where I’m from. “England,” I reply. He’s very interested to her that. He keeps talking to me. Do I know the significance of the temple I’m standing next to? I don’t, and I’m immediately suspicious. He doesn’t want money, he assures me. He just wants to talk in English and share what he knows with a curious traveller. Fair enough. I try to keep the conversation closed down. He tells me about the tooth temple I’m standing next to and explains the tika, which is daubed on the forehead for good luck. I am duly red-dotted and I feel a bit of a fool walking around with it, but I’m too polite to rub it off just yet. He accompanies me as I walk along the road, drawing me inside temples and explaining the rituals and symbols, all while declaring that he doesn’t want money. I begin to relax and let my guard down – perhaps I’m being too dismissive and wary. I begin to engage with him more, and learn about his family. We keep walking through the markets and stopping off a little temples and then I find myself outside a general store. He wants me to buy some rice for his family in return for the knowledge he has shared with him. Fine, I think. I’m kind of annoyed now, but oh well. We go into the shop and large bags of rice appear, and then ghee, and then vegetables, and suddenly I’m being faced with a bill amounting to roughly $50 for this man’s shopping. I decline to pay the $50. I pretend I don’t even have that much cash on me. I tell him I’ll buy one bag of rice and pay the roughly $10 it costs and then leave, feeling a bit stupid and duped.
I walk back along the streets and head down to Durbar Square. Foreigners must pay a 1,000 rupee ($10) entry fee to enter the square, with the money (reputedly) being used to pay for earthquake damage recovery. (Locals and ASEAN country members pay 250 rupees.) The ticket is valid for that day only, although if you take your passport with you then you have the ticket extended for three days. Any time you want to enter Durbar Square you will have to present a ticket to staff at the barrier.
I get my ticket at the desk and decide I want to sit and take it all in before I dive in and walk around. Immediately, I am approached by a tour guide. Do I want to be shown around? Feeling a bit burned by my experience earlier, I decline. He says I will never be able to learn about and understand all the significance and history of the buildings if I don’t take a guide. I tell him I’m fine with that. All I want to do right now is sit and not be bothered and walk about at my own pace. He won’t let it go. He grabs the ticket out of my hand and starts talking about the buildings that are listed on the back, giving me dates and facts and figures. I’m annoyed by now. One thing that pisses me off is when you say No definitively and get ignored. I lose my rag a little bit and take my ticket back and walk away, telling him to leave me alone. Why can’t I just have a little bit of time to myself to take things in? I stomp off around the complex, glancing at the buildings but he follows me. I walk faster and then stop in a cafe. It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry and I keep seeing samosas for sale on the side of the street and I really want one, so I sit and sulk and eat the samosas and stay inside for a bit.
Back out onto the street and heading back towards the square. I see a little courtyard so I drop in there. The guide I have been avoiding is in there, talking to a group of tourists. I really hope he doesn’t see me. Turns out this is the kumari house. A kumari is the living embodiment of a goddess – usually a prepubescent girl whose tenure ends when she reaches menstruation. Apparently it is extremely good luck to see the kumari, though as I am still in a bit of a mood and not wanting to be seen by the guide I swiftly walk around the courtyard and take some photos before exiting.
Durbar Square was, of course, damaged heavily in the 2015 earthquake, and a lot of the buildings are still damaged today. Many were under repair when I was there, and there was a lot of scaffolding and signs detailing which countries had donated aid for the reconstruction. I walk about the stupas and take in the temples and shrines. Pigeons are abundant. I enjoy the colours and the sights and the candles and the tika. Across the square I spy a saddhu, or holy man. One of the things I have been interested in seeing and perhaps meeting was a holy man, having seen some incredible photos and portraits of them on (where else) Instagram. I discretely take a couple of photos and keep walking around. I’ve come to the end of the complex and toward a thronging street, but I decide to walk back a little bit. The saddhu sees me with my camera and beckons me over. Here we go, I think. He wants to take a photo with me. Hmm, alright. A couple of young Nepalis sitting near him offer to take the shot. I hand them my camera. Suddenly I’m thinking shit, what if this is a ploy and the kid runs away with my camera. I have a quick picture and then I’m back on my feet, getting the camera back. They all want to see the picture. I quickly wind the strap around my wrist and show it to them. Then the holy man’s hand extends and the word “money” comes from his lips. The word “no” comes from mine in response. A holy man is a priest who has reached enlightenment and rejects all worldly possessions and commodities, I tell him. (I’ve read this on Google.) A holy man does not ask for money. My wallet stays firmly closed on this occasion.
Back to Thamel through the thronging streets, stopping off at more temples and shrines and enjoying the sights and the sounds. I find an interesting stupa in a square, and get lost on the way back cos I take a wrong turn. I’m not unhappy about this, however; there are lots of photo opportunities along the way. I do keep wondering why I keep seeing a picture of Janis Joplin on walls and buildings – having been an uber fan in my youth and having read almost every book on her that I can find, I cannot recall any time she went to Asia at all. I remember that Freak Street somewhere in Kathmandu played host to a significant number of hippies and “freaks” during the Sixties, and I make a mental note to try and go there at some point to see it. I stop for a quick google about Janis and Kathmandu, and then the connection comes to me: there’s a line she added to her version of Cry Baby about ending up in Kathmandu. Later, when I’m eating a delicious curry and having a beer next to a fire pit (the nights are cold in February), this will explain why I hear a rock band pumping out a version of Joplin’s Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) – a song I have never heard outside of my own record player/Walkman/CD player/iPod/iPhone, but which I listen to a few more times that night back in the hotel room.