Friday, November 15:
Goin' to Kathmandu...

The plan for the morning was somewhat sketchy - we were flying to Kathmandu, to be sure, but when exactly was a matter of contention. Our original tickets said 10:15am, but out printout of our reconfirmations said we left at 12:50pm. To take no chances, we'd have to be at the airport for the 10:15 time, and with the two hour advance required for international flights, we'd have to get there around 8am. This meant checking out of the hotel no later than 6:30am. Easy enough.

When I got up, I felt like hell. My throat still had a weird lump in it, and I was beginning to feel a massive head cold settling in. No matter, though. We left the hotel and caught a boat to taxi us and our bags to Desaswamedh Ghat one last time. At the ghat, all of the barbers were calling out to me, "Shave, mister?" The fact that I was speedwalking to a taxi with my backpack was of no consequence to them. We walked up to Gaudalia and hoped to find a taxi, but few cars would fit on the streets, so we had little choice but to hail an autorickshaw. In retrospect, I'm sure the ride did little to help my deteriorating health, as we speeded along in an open cab on an unusually chilly morning.

The driver stopped a couple of times to get gas and to relieve himself along the side of the road, but we reached the airport on time, just after 8am. It was deserted. We saw a sign that listed our flight at 12:50pm, so we had the entire morning to kill. One of the few workers that were there said that there was a restaurant upstairs, so we dragged ourselves to the second floor for some tea and toast. It was a clean, pleasant place, but even though Susanne and I were the only customers present, the service took 30 minutes, as the entire waitstaff kept conference in the corner over who knows what.

Around 9:30, we returned to the terminal and found another dozen travelers waiting for their flight. We sat with them for awhile until I realized that we were actually at the wrong gate (the Varanasi Airport had more than one gate? I thought), and that these people were going to Bombay. I didn't see another gate, but after a little wandering down some long dusty corridors, we discovered a large group of Japanese tourists sitting by a desk that had a large 'customs' sign in front of it. This must be the right place. We settled in and observed the steady trickle of other passengers arriving, most of whom were Europeans, with handful of Americans scattered in for good measure.

We got our seating assignments (on the left side of the plane, in order to see the Himalayas) and I began the anarchic process of Indian customs. A customs agent asked me how much money we had. I said around $2000. Big mistake. He asked me to count it and show it to him. I counted $1600, because of course, we had started with more, but had spent a few hundred dollars in the days we had been there. That little fact may have been obvious to me, but Mr. Customs Man didn't like it one bit. He demanded to know where the missing four hundred dollars was, and I said we had spent it already. "Then you lied to me," he said. "No, I misunderstood the question," I responded, trying to keep myself from losing my temper. The agent then refused to continue processing us, for he seemed convinced that we were probably putting our money through the black market or something. At this point, I got uncharacteristically vocal with him, and soon enough, he got sick of my ugly American routine and let us pass.

After being metal detected and frisked, I was asked to re-identify our luggage as it sat out on the tarmac. We then boarded the plane and waited for everyone else to complete the same process. It probably took another 20 minutes. I had hoped to work on my journal, but I still felt pretty ill, so instead I flipped through the Indian Airlines magazine. Half of the articles were in English, the other half were in Hindi. Unfortunately, all of the articles that looked interesting to me weren't in English. We eventually took off, and within a few minutes, I could see the Himalayas off in the distance. It was cloudy outside, so the view wasn't exactly a spectacular one, but as we began our descent into Nepal, the skies cleared and we could easily see the mountains and green terraced hillsides below. Just as the sights were getting interesting, though, the plane landed, a 45 minute flight in total. Well worth the $60 we paid for the flight, for the land journey would have taken us two days in a bus.

Immigration and customs at Kathmandu Tribhuvan airport were a cinch. We arranged our visas in advance back in Washington, so this probably cut the wait time down from about an our to no more than 10 minutes. In the exit lounge we found an information desk that booked hotel reservations for stays of more than two days. I pulled out my list of recommended hotel and went down them one by one to see if they could help us out. First, there was the Tibet Guest House, which was well suggested by Lonely Planet. They didn't participate in the reservation program. Next choice: Shambala Guest House. Full booked. Then, I remembered the conversation we had with that couple from DC in Varanasi - they suggested the Hotel Utse. Yes, they had rooms, deluxe doubles at $20 a night. That amount of money was a fortune by Kathmandu standards, but after having stayed in that infested pit in Varanasi, we looked forward to some comfort and pampering.

The Utse had a driver outside waiting for us. It took about 10 minutes to get there. The streets of Kathmandu were immaculate compared to Varanasi - no gargantuan piles of rotting rubbish on every corner, no one pissing in the streets. I know Kathmandu has a reputation for being one of the most polluted cities in the world, but it's a bad rap considering the filthiness of some of the cities of India. It almost reminded me of a Middle Eastern city like Cairo or Amman - there's poverty present, but people are at least making an effort to keep up appearances. Smog and noise, yes. Garbage dumps in the middle of the road and children wallowing in filth, no.

Hotel Utse is really a lovely place. It's run by a Tibetan man who's been a successful player in the Kathmandu hotel and restaurant scene since the early 70s. The restaurant was especially well-known for great Tibetan and Chinese food, not to mention the friendliest service in town. I was very excited that this was going to be our home for a week.

Susanne settled in and took a nap while I decided to go for a walk in Thamel, the area around our hotel, best known for its souvenir shops, trekking outfits, and laid-back restaurants. Our driver from the airport offered to show me to one of the local trek operators. I had planned to do just that anyway, in order to see how much a three-day mini trek might cost, so I figured I might as well have some company. Down the street and around the corner, we were in the heart of Thamel - a congested collage of western tastes and Nepalese capitalism, with merchants hawking prayer wheels, Gurkha knives, sweaters, tickets to Tibet, Kashmir rugs, cheap jewelry, hash, Indian rupees, and anything else you could imagine. It was a black market paradise gone trendy, with a carnival-like atmosphere to boot. I kept thinking of Grateful Dead tailgate parties and Amsterdammer head shops. And music was everywhere. Our music. I could here Jim Morrison singing "Peace Frog" coming from one shop, while another was blasting some Alanis Morrisette. I think I even heard, god forbid, a song from Tom Waits' Bone Machine album. Toto, I don't think we're in Varanasi anymore.

We spent awhile at a trekking office, discussing potential routes and costs. The trek manager offered a three day package for the hill country east of the Kathmandu Valley, but I found his pressure tactics to be distasteful and unnecessary. I told him I'd think about it, but I figured that we could get a better deal at one of a dozen other trek shops that were in the vicinity around the hotel. Besides, Susanne and I were both pretty sick, perhaps getting sicker, so a spur of the moment decision to go on a trek seemed rash. I just felt bad for our driver, who was truly a nice guy, but lost any chance of getting a commission thanks to my indifference.

I returned to the hotel to try and stir Susanne. She insisted on resting, which seemed smart considering her earlier condition, so I decided to go back out for an extended walk. As I headed out the door, though, our friendly driver started to follow me and joined my walk, probably hoping to take me out for another potential commission somewhere. I just wanted to go for a short walk and told him so, be he insisted on joining me "to practice English." Fine, whatever, but I'd make it a short walk and wouldn't pay him a cent. We walked over to the Kathmandu Guest House, the original and infamous home of wayward trekkers and lost hippies. It was a huge place, at least by Kathmandu hotel standards, probably the size of a small Holiday Inn or something. I also found an email parlour, so I sent my dad a quick message just to say hello and happy anniversary (glad I got their anniversary card in the mail before I left the States).

We returned to the hotel, and once again, I checked on Susanne to see if she felt up for heading out, at least for dinner or something. We struck a compromise - I would return in an hour while she napped a bit and got herself awake. So I ordered some tea, headed up to the rooftop terrace, and wrote postcards to friends while enjoying the marvelous view of the Kathmandu Valley. Clouds obscured the biggest of the Himalayan peaks to the north, but I figured I'd have a full week to get to see them. Directly to my west, perched on a steep, forested hill was a large Buddhist stupa. Swayumbunath, I thought, one of the most famous and picturesque sights in Nepal. It would have to be our first stop the next morning.

For dinner, we ate at the hotel restaurant. We both started with a big bowl of hot and sour soup, which was by far the best we had ever tasted. I stuck with the same theme and enjoyed a sweet and sour chicken as my main course, and Susanne chose a piece of grilled lemon chicken. After awhile, we both decided that we actually liked the other's meal better (even though they were both good), so we swapped plates. This, of course, broke every rule in the Nepalese book of dinner etiquette - one should never eat off of someone else's plate once they have 'defiled' it with a used fork or their hands. Well, as far as I could tell, there were only Americans, Australians, Germans, Japanese, and Tibetans there, so I didn't concern myself too much. If we ever ate in a more traditional Nepalese restaurant, though, that would be a different story altogether.

We then decided to take a stroll around Thamel to work off some of the many calories we had just absorbed back at the hotel. And just like clockwork, our driver appeared out of nowhere and started to follow us. I was at my wit's end, so I finally turned to him and said, "You've been very nice in helping us, but we would like to go for a quiet walk on our own." He looked totally dejected. I hope he really wasn't. So we headed off for Thamel and began what was to be our first attempt at some serious shopping. There were some great wool shops, so we tried on a few sweaters and caps, and then hit some of the local Kashmir merchants. Many Kashmiris have moved to Nepal to flee the separate violence of the last six years, so numerous specialty shops have popped up in Thamel. Since we weren't going to make it to Kashmir this time around (I wouldn't to, but I didn't have a death wish), I figured we'd have to live vicariously through some Kashmiri souvenirs from Kathmandu. We'll see.

By 8pm, we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel. Our bodies still needed to recover, and we weren't going to argue with them.

Next Entry: Swayumbunath and Durbar Square

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