I thought 1.5 hours between flights was plenty of time, but after a stop at the restroom and one more to grab bottled water I find myself quickening my steps through the transit area, realizing to my dismay just how far apart the boarding and arrival gates are. "750m ahead", says the sign. I break into a run.
I reach the gate 20 minutes before departure, gasping for breath, shoelaces undone on one foot. The plane isn't parked at the boarding gate. I am ushered to a minibus full of passengers, and the bus ferries us to a plane waiting on the tarmac. Kathmandu, here I come!
After a bumpy car ride punctuated with honks coming from every direction, I arrive at my hotel in Thamel. I'm still trying to work out the currency but already I've tipped too much to the guy who loaded the luggage into the car at the airport (and then said, "Ok, you can pay me tip now"), as well as to the guy who drove me to the hotel. I make a mental note to break down my money into smaller denominations.
At the hotel I gulp down a cup of too-sweet masala tea while trying to memorise a map. With all that honking I'd just experienced I'm afraid to even cross the street. I leave the hotel anyway, hoping I now know the way to Durbar Square.
One left turn and one right turn later, I am gloriously, gloriously lost. Oh well, at least I'm getting used to the honking.
Walking along the streets of Thamel is an assault on your senses. There's almost too much to see, hear and smell all at once. I duck into a compound where it's much quieter. It houses a Buddhist stupa and an arts school. People are lounging about in the afternoon sun, chatting and laughing.
These are the grounds of Kathesimbhu Stupa, a replica of Swayambhunath Stupa (also located in Kathmandu) built in the mid 1600s. History goes a long way back in this country, which, apart from its mountains, is most famous for being the birthplace of Buddha.
Time to leave the refuge of Kathesimbhu Stupa and continue exploring Thamel. The honking resumes as I walk along the street, keeping as close to the shops as I can. There's no differentiation between pavement and road here, and the larger cars can literally scrape you by as they pass.
I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going, but it isn't long before I find myself at what resembles a shopping area - "BISHAL BAZAR", reads a nearby sign. A superficial observation of the area is that there aren't any familiar brands at all - no McDonald's, no Starbucks, and most definitely no Forever 21 or Apple stores. Everything is 100% Nepali. Also the motorbikes lining the street are parked impressively close to each other. They seem to be daring me to tip them over like a line of dominoes.
Across the road, I spy a facade that looks strangely like images I've googled of Durbar Square. I can't believe I've just found the place by accident! Taking care to shadow a couple of locals in order to cross the road (honk honk), I head excitedly in the direction of Durbar Square.
I'm at Durbar Square which is famous for... I'm not sure what. Can't access the Internet on my phone and there doesn't look to be a ticket or information booth as far as I can see. Hahaha I'm such a lousy tourist.
I wander around to observe what people are doing. It's crowded not with tourists (except for the odd Chinese tour group and their giant flags), but with locals sitting on the tiered steps of a few pagodas. The architecture of the buildings in this area is stunning and regal.
According to Wikipedia (see, I'm so honest), Durbar Square houses the palaces of ancient kings who ruled over Nepal. The square continued to be the site of important ceremonies like the coronation of Nepali kings, up until the monarchy was abolished in 2008.
Spot a cafe called Himalayan Java which has a sign advertising free wifi. I remember reading positive reviews on it - may not have researched tourist spots but I'm always on the ball when it comes to food.
I order a honey latte and a slice of apple pie. Both are serviceable. The guy at the counter tells me the electricity's out (which I'll eventually learn is a very common occurrence) so there's actually no wifi. Oh well :/ Fingers crossed I'll find my way back to the hotel.
As I am trying to re-trace the route I'd taken that afternoon I am approached by a sadhu, or a Hindu holy man. He gestures at my camera and asks me to take a photograph of him. I should've known, really, but I oblige anyway. He holds out his hand expectantly for a tip, and I am unable to find any notes smaller than 500 rupees (slightly more than USD5, which is about twice an average day's wages in Nepal). I give the note to him reluctantly and he beams at me, imprinting my forehead with some colored powder as a "blessing". A few locals standing nearby are wearing bemused looks on their faces. How easy it is to fleece Asians, they must be thinking. Sigh. And I thought I was a savvy traveler.
I walk away unhappily but run into a rickshaw driver who urges me to hop on the rickshaw, leaving only after I refuse repeatedly. All this touting can be annoying, but I suppose it's a way of life for them. Just gotta deal with it smarter from now.
Eager to try some dal bhat for dinner, I explore the vicinity of the hotel. Most restaurants serving Nepali cuisine look devoid of locals, which can't be a good sign. Finally I spy a little Tibetan restaurant called Sherpa Cafe near Gaia Restaurant. It looks more like a shack than a cafe and the lighting is dim, but from what I can tell the patrons are Nepali men, which should be a positive indicator for good food.
I enter with a little bit of trepidation but the owner of the restaurant, an elderly lady, greets me warmly. She hands me an English menu ("No dal bhat?" I ask disappointedly. She shakes her head.) and I order thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and a plate of vegetable momos, or dumplings.
All the other patrons in the restaurant are drinking something out of a metal cylinder. It looks fascinating, so I get one too. The guy sharing a table with me, Badri, tells me that it's called a tongba. I take a sip and wow, it tastes exactly like warm beer. "Is this alcohol?" I ask Badri. "No no, millet juice," say the guys at the next table. They seem to be very entertained by me. Also, it's alcohol. I checked later on. Haha.
The food here is great and I have a great conversation with Badri, who works at a local broadcasting station. For a country that sees so many travelers it's sad that most of its people don't have the opportunity to explore the rest of the world.