The Air China flight from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal took approximately 2 hours. This was a direct flight and it departed on time. Business Class on Air China has large comfortable seats with a pillow, blanket, and slippers provided. The seat next to me was unoccupied. Thus, I spent most of my time peering out the window. Apparently, we flew over the Himalayan Mountain Range because I could see several peaks poking through the clouds. However, most of the flight was above the clouds. Not until we approached Kathmandu
were we able to have a clear view of the Nepalese terrain and the city of Kathmandu. I was glad that I had my Nikon SX 50 pocket camera with me because I got some good shots of Kathmandu from the air. Even from the air, I could tell there was a striking difference between Lhasa and Kathmandu. These differences would be even more apparent on the ground.
As soon as we landed, we were instructed to set our watches back 2 hours and 15 minutes. Yes, you read that correctly. Kathmandu time is 2 hours and 15 minutes behind Lhasa time. This is due to a time offset from the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) of +5:45 all over Nepal. There are only 3-time zones with a 45-minute offset from the UTC. The other 2-time zones are UTC +12:45 in the Chatam Island Standard Time Zone and the UTC +08:45 in the unofficial Australian Central Western Time Zone. The full explanation of why this occurs deals with meridians that travel through Nepal, its relationship to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and other factors that would take the length of this travelogue to explain. Simply put, upon arrival in Kathmandu, I was informed that I need to set my watch back 2 hours and 15 minutes to have the correct time. Accepting this as fact, I complied.
The Kathmandu airport was not as modern nor as clean as the Lhasa Airport. It was hot, crowded, and noisy with an air of chaos. Customs and immigration were a slight ordeal as the pathway to obtain visas was not very clear. I, like other tourists, had to ask for directions and assistance. Nepal was one of the countries where a visa could be purchased upon entry. When purchasing the visa, I had to disclose where I was staying and my length of stay. My situation was slightly unique because in a few days, I would fly from Kathmandu to Bhutan. Three days later I would leave Bhutan and return to Kathmandu for a brief overnight stay. Then, I would fly to Shanghai. Thus, I had to factor all these situations into my visa request. I ended up getting a 3-week visa to cover any and all possible problems.
Once through the Kabuki Dance of Immigration, the customs inspection was a comparative breeze. All I had to do was show the agent my luggage tags and I was on my way. Once again, I can’t express the wonderful feeling of having a driver waiting for me at the passenger terminal holding a sign that read “Mr. James Thomas!” We immediately connected, and he took my luggage cart and led me to the car. Although I had informed the tour company that I was traveling with 2 large suitcases plus carry-on baggage, they apparently didn’t understand or ignored my warning. The car they sent barely held my luggage and me. I sat in the front seat with the driver. Also, the cars in Nepal are not made for people who are 6 ft tall and weigh 220 lbs. I felt like I had to be a contortionist every time I extracted myself from either the front or the back seat. Having loaded my luggage and me into the sub-compact car, we sped off for my first wild ride through the dusty and dirty streets of Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is the capital city of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. With a population of over 1.5 million people in the city proper and over 3 million people in the surrounding area, Kathmandu is the largest metropolitan area in Nepal. It is also the largest metropolis in the Himalayan Hills Region. The city is located at an altitude of 4,600 ft. Thus, it was a welcome change from the 12,000 + altitude of Lhasa, Tibet. Kathmandu is both the cultural and religious center in the country and Hinduism and Buddhism are the two major religions. Cultural and religious festivities play a major role in the lives of the citizens of Kathmandu.
Kathmandu’s economy is based on manufacturing and tourism and it is the financial center for Nepal. The rich cultural aspects of the country and the magnificent grandeur of the Himalayan Mountains create an obvious draw for tourism. However, religious pilgrimages make a significant contribution to the important tourist industry of Nepal.
My car made its way through the crowded streets of Kathmandu. I have been in other countries where basic traffic rules and “etiquette” were ignored. However, my first impression of traffic in Kathmandu was some of the worst I’ve seen. Traffic lights and even traffic officers were ignored. There was no rhyme nor reason to the flow of traffic. If there were traffic lines on the road, they were ignored. I saw a 4-lane road turned into 8 lanes! Horns were used constantly. The traffic would completely stop for an extended period lasting as long as 10 minutes. Moments later, we were racing down the crowded road only to be stuck in traffic, again.
While the roads of Lhasa, Tibet were clean, modern, and in excellent repair. The roads of Kathmandu were crowded, old, dirty and in total disrepair. They were worse than the Illinois Toll Roads! Sprinkled among the cars were hundreds of mopeds and motor bikes. Also, occasionally walking in the middle of traffic were unattended cows! They had total freedom to roam as they pleased and had the right of way. I remembered that in the Hindu religion, the cow is most sacred! Thus, I realized that while in Kathmandu, I wouldn’t be having beef steaks or cheeseburgers for dinner.
After about an hour of fighting Kathmandu traffic, we arrived at my hotel, the Crown Plaza Kathmandu – Soaltee. It was a lovely hotel with a very friendly staff. Also, parts of the hotel were going through renovations. I also noticed there were several armed guards with automatic weapons on the grounds. I asked why the guards were there. However, the response I received was very vague. Exiting the car, the guard gave me a proper military salute which I returned, to his surprise, in the same fashion. He grinned, and I had an instant friend.
In 2015, Kathmandu had suffered a devastating, 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Prior to the earthquake. There were two top hotels in the city of Kathmandu. However, according to my driver, the earthquake destroyed the other hotel. That left the Crown Plaza Kathmandu – Soaltee as the top hotel in Kathmandu. It was an excellent hotel, but the Crown Plaza Xi’an had it beat.
Once at the hotel, with the assistance of the concierge, I planned to meet my guide for the full day tour of Kathmandu. It was scheduled to begin at 08:00 in the morning. I also changed my U. S. dollars into Nepalese Rupees at the hotel desk. This was not the ideal place to do this because of the unfavorable exchange rate. However, it was the only option available. I found out, later, that other countries won’t exchange their currency for Nepalese Rupees. I couldn’t find a good reason why other countries boycott the Nepalese Rupee. However, Trip Advisor was filled with stories of people who got stuck with their rupees. Thus, I exchanged what I had back to other currencies before my final exit from Nepal. If going to Nepal, you should remember this warning.
After unpacking, I had an early dinner and went to bed. Although we were at an acceptable altitude, I still felt the residual effects of my visit to the high altitudes of Lhasa, Tibet. Thus, I decided to call it an early evening. There was a full day planned for the next day. I checked my camera gear and made sure I was ready for the day’s events. Weather was warmer and more humid. Thus, I dressed accordingly.
I was waiting in the hotel lobby when my guide Kumyd arrived with his driver. He was early, too, which was always a good beginning. I crammed into the small sub-compact which seemed like the standard car for Katmandu and is well-suited for the local populace, but not a man 6 ft tall. As the day wore on I became more adept at entering and exiting the cramped vehicle.
We began to navigate the crowded, dusty, dirt roads of Kathmandu toward Swayambhunath, an ancient religious site on a hill top in the Kathmandu Valley. Located west of the city, it took about 45 minutes in the crazy traffic to reach the Stupa, which has a variety of shrines and temples. There were also a Buddhist
Monastery, a museum, a library, and a small grouping of souvenir shops. Hindu Shrines also intermixed among the Buddhist shrines. Swayambhunath is a Tibetan name that means “Sublime Trees.” It is also known as the “Monkey Temple,” for reasons that became very clear upon our arrival.
As we climbed up the long stairway to the main complex, my eyes fell on a huge Stupa, or white dome, that contained religious relics. On top of the Stupa was a gigantic golden cube with the eyes and brows of Buddha painted on each side. The eyes seemed to pierce into your inner soul. I chose not to stare back at it. Topping off the Stupa was a huge Vajra or thunderbolt scepter. It was an impressive greeter to the Swayambhunath after the long climb up the stairway.
Greeting me also were swarms of monkeys of all ages and sizes. There were babies being carried by their mothers and young ones who seemed to have a total run of the complex. The elderly monkeys found a shady spot to sit and watch the whole scene from a very comfortable place. Once there, they didn’t seem to move. Kumyd, my guide gave me two warnings of caution. Do not feed nor even show food in the presence of the monkeys for fear of being overwhelmed. Also, I should hold on to my cameras because the monkeys have been known to grab, steal, and run away with them. I wondered if they had a place to fence the stolen goods?
Walking through the entire complex, Kumyd, who was Hindu, tried to explain some of the Buddhist and Hindu customs and beliefs. Once again, the familiar smell of yak butter candles and incense filled the air. While Swayambhunath was a predominantly Buddhist location, there seemed to be many Hindus visiting the site. I was amazed at how much Nepal, and particularly Kathmandu, reminded me of India. At one point there was a group of Hindu tourists from India that was trying to take a group photo. I offered to take the photo for them so that all could be in the picture. Once the photo was taken, I asked if I could take a picture of their group. While the men were hesitant, the women were eager. I was glad because I wanted the picture of the women in their beautiful dresses from India. I’ve attached the photo in this travelogue.
The weather was beginning to cloud over as we made our way down the long staircase of the temple complex to our car. We traveled in a southeasterly direction toward the center of Kathmandu. Our destination was Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dunbar Square once held the palaces of the Malla and Shah Kings who used to rule over the city. The entire area seemed to be under renovation and was one massive construction site. We walked through the area and I took a few photos. Unfortunately, the area wasn’t very photogenic, and I doubted if any of the photos would be a candidate for a Pulitzer Prize.
Kumyd had a need for a coffee and knew the perfect shop that also had clean restrooms…a definite consideration in Kathmandu! The shop had a shaded rooftop level that afforded a decent view of Durbar Square. As we drank our beverages in the relative tranquility of the roof top café, Kumyd gave me a relaxed tour of the square and explained what was being renovated. To be blunt, everything was being renovated and the whole area was a venerable construction site that was turning into a muddy mess as the rains arrived. Although the weather created a disappointing experience, the renovation caused the visit to be the real bust. After our coffee, we returned to our car for the trip east, across town to the Pashupatinath Temple, the famous and sacred Hindu Temple located on the banks of the Bagmati River.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, The Pashupatinath Temple is a collection of Hindu temples and serves as the seat for the national deity. Encompassing an area of over 652 acres, the Pashupatinath Temple complex has 518 temples and monuments. As we entered the complex, we were greeted by a unique, dare I say
strange, holy man. I’ve included a picture of him. However, in order to get the picture of him, I had to make a “donation” to him. You be the judge.
We also encountered something else that was unique and strange. Aside from the air being filled with the aroma from incense and burning candles, another, more pungent order was added. I had encountered that odor before on rare, unpleasant occasions. It smelled like burning flesh. To my shock and surprise, my nasal suspicions were confirmed. The Pashupatinath Temple, along the banks of the Bagmati River was where the Hindu burial rite of cremation took place. Across the river, we were observers to the three bodies being cremated in various stages of the process. Sitting on bleachers were family members and friends witnessing the whole process. It was a classic example of how cultural customs and rituals can differ. Oh well, I wasn’t all that hungry for lunch, anyway.
Leaving the three funeral pyres still burning and emitting their pungent orders, we crossed the bridge of the Bagmati River and walked toward the Western entrance of the Pashupatinath Temple Courtyard. This was a huge, ornately decorated entrance that only practicing Hindus and Buddhists of the Nepali Diaspora were allowed to use. While I was permitted to take pictures of the beautifully decorated gate and to walk up to take a peek inside, I was not permitted to go beyond the entry. From what could gather, on the other side there were several temples and of course the area along the river bank used for the cremation ceremonies. The slight drizzle of the rain gave an eerie effect to the whole scene. The rain also helped to clear the air of the combination of candle wax, incense, and burning flesh.
Fortunately, our driver had moved the car to a spot near the temple’s main entrance. Thus, we were able to quickly escape the on-coming downpour. As we drove off, I reflected on what some would consider a totally bizarre scene. Yet, for members of another culture, that was a very serious religious ceremony that payed homage to their beliefs and the person(s) to whom they were paying their last respects. For them, it was very real and meaningful.
The rains turned the dirt roads of Kathmandu into muddy tracks that slowed the flow of traffic even further. I was surprised that the rain didn’t seem to reduce the number of mopeds on the roads nor diminish the craziness of the drivers. The rain also increased the humidity. I was grateful that the small sub-compact had a decent air conditioner.
We proceeded to our last stop of the day, The Bouddha Stupa. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located northeast of the center of Kathmandu, it is one of the largest Stupas in the world and dominates the surrounding skyline. The huge white dome was similar in design to the Swayambhunath Stupa, except this one was much larger and more colorful. The color was provided by hundreds of beautiful prayer flags that were strung on ropes hanging from the top of the Stupa to the ground. The Bouddha Stupa was literally surrounded by these vibrant hangings on all sides. I have included a picture of this Stupa in this article. The Bouddha Stupa is surrounded by a small community of shops, hotels, and cafés that cater to the visitors of this Stupa.
Unfortunately, not being Hindu, I was not permitted inside the Stupa. However, my guide Kumyd, gave me a brief explanation of the interior of the Stupa. He explained that the interior ceiling of the Stupa was covered with a beautiful mandala. A mandala is a symbolic work of art in the Hindu and Buddhist religions that depict the universe. These magnificent masterpieces contained vivid colors and characters.
We walked around the Stupa taking several photographs. I saw people on their knees or in the prone
position praying at various locations around the stupa. Soon, we climbed down the steps of the Stupa entrance and walked around the village, visiting its many shops. At one of them, I noticed that there were prints of the Mandala inside the Bouddha Stupa. After I viewed several of them, I chose one that would be a lovely souvenir of my visit to Nepal. Of course, after making my selection, we began the sport of haggling about price. I think I got a fair price because of the usual indicators…he didn’t offer to sell me another one at that price; he wasn’t smiling; and he didn’t ask me to return real soon. Of course, my guide, Kumyd, stayed out of the whole negotiation.
This was our last stop and the rain was giving no indication that it intended to let up. We made our way back through the muddy, crowded street to my hotel where I finally got my appetite back and was ready for a late lunch/early dinner. Although I had another exciting tour planned for the next day, Kumyd was not going to be a part of that tour. Instead, we would meet again the day after tomorrow for a tour of the Katmandu Valley via cable car.
I was truly excited about the next day’s adventure. I had scheduled an airplane tour around Mt Everest! The next morning, after a large breakfast, my driver picked me up and we made our way to the Katmandu Airport. I was traveling light with only my cameras at the ready. Unfortunately, upon arrival, we were informed that our flight was delayed due to weather conditions around the mountain. We waited almost two hours until the determination was made that the weather was not going to improve that day and the flight was cancelled. While I was really disappointed at the loss of my opportunity to view Mt. Everest up close and personal, I could not find fault with their decision to cancel the flight for safety reasons. I am reminded of the old flier’s adage, “There are old pilots and bold pilots. However, there are no old bold pilots.” Thus, I live with the decision with only a slight regret. Besides, we received a full refund. My driver had heard that the flight had been cancelled and was waiting for me. And, now I had a much needed and welcomed day off after many days of touring and traveling at a very fast pace.
The next part in this travelogue will cover my last full day in Nepal, my flight to Bhutan, a fantastic view of Mt. Everest, and my tour of Bhutan where happiness is legislated! I hope you enjoyed my first three days in Nepal. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.