Himalayan High: Kathmandu – Gateway to the Himalaya

Whether you’re headed to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or continuing your journey on to Bhutan or Tibet, you’ll invariably have to go through Kathmandu, the colorful, chaotic, and at times confounding, capital of Nepal. It is truly the gateway to the Himalaya, offering travelers, backpackers, and climbers access to a host of adventure opportunities, with the world’s most spectacular scenery as a jaw-dropping backdrop.

From the time you leave Tribhuvan International Airport, the city is an assault on the senses, with the constant noise of traffic, the smell of incense (often used to counter the smell of trash), and the sights of the busy market places, awash in a myriad of bright, garish colors. The narrow, twisty streets are clogged with cars, the sidewalks are teeming with people, and air is thick with smog. But despite all of that, there is a certain allure to the place. An undeniable energy that hints at the adventures that lie ahead.

For more than 2000 years, Kathmandu has been a crossroads of trade and culture, and that is still reflected in its make-up today. Hindu and Buddhist temples are a common sight throughout the city, and the population is a very cosmopolitan mix of Nepali, Tibetan, and Indian people, with a healthy dose of ex-pats from around the globe thrown in as well. Walking the streets of Kathmandu, I heard a dozen different languages being spoken, and saw people representing cultures from around the globe, which only further enhanced the city’s reputation as a destination for globetrotters and adventurers alike. A visit to Kathmandu is a bit of an adventure in and of itself actually, as even before you head to the mountains, you’ll have to learn to deal with discomfort. In the spring, when the climbing and trekking season begins, travelers descend on the city in droves, over taxing an already strained infrastructure. As a result, rolling blackouts are a daily occurrence, and worse yet, the hot, dry, and dusty conditions, prevalent in the months before the arrival of the monsoon, can have an adverse effect on the water supply. It was not uncommon to turn on the faucets or shower in my hotel room, only to find that the water was a lovely shade of brown.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to travel in Kathmandu are the Maoist rebels, who frequently call for general strikes in protest of the current government. These strikes are a disruption to both commuting and commerce throughout the city, bringing the place to a standstill, while Maoist supporters rally to their cause in large numbers. The strikes can last for days, and be crippling to business. Worse yet, they can strand travelers in their hotels and prevent them from departing the city as planned. While I was in Kathmandu we received word of an impending strike the morning we were scheduled to leave for the Himalaya, and as a result, we were up ahead of the sun in order to catch a bus to the airport, before the streets could become clogged with traffic and protesters. That bit of planning put us in the terminal hours before our flight to Lukla, but allowed us to get out of the city on schedule.

The city isn’t just a series of challenges for visitors however, and no trip o Kathmandu is complete without a visit to Thamel, a popular area for travelers looking for good places to eat, shop, and take in some of the local culture. This popular tourist district is a maze of narrow streets, but offers up all kinds of unique experiences, including local bakeries, street vendors, and shops selling hand crafted items of all kinds. You’ll want to be wary of the beggars and pickpockets that frequent this part of town however, and I was approached on more than one occasion with offers to sell me hash as well.

Thamel is a great place for climbers and trekkers to pick up that last piece of gear they need before they head out to the mountains, as gear shops line the streets, offering cheap prices on authentic and knockoff equipment from North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Patagonia alike. You’ll also find plenty of prayer flags, statues of Buddha, and replica prayer wheels mixed in with the backpacks and trekking poles, and when you’re finished shopping, you can grab a bite to eat from a variety of restaurants with cuisines from around the globe. I’d recommend stopping by the Rum Doodle, which is famous for its steaks, and the fact that Everest summitteers eat for free.

A short walk from Thamel is Durbar Square, a perfect place to soak up some of the history of Kathmandu. There are over 50 temples and palaces in this district alone, each with its own unique architecture and character. And for a bit of tranquility in the middle of this noisy and chaotic city, stop by the beautiful, and blissfully quiet, Garden of Dreams, which is also not far from Thamel, but feels like it is a million miles away with its carefully groomed lawns and colorful flower gardens.

But really, all of these experiences in Kathmandu, both good and bad, are just a prelude to what really brings you to Nepal. A Himalayan adventure of a lifetime. In my case, that meant a trek to Everest Base Camp and a once in a lifetime hike through the most incredible scenery on the planet. Soon, I would trade the heat and smog of the city for clear blue skies, roaring glacial rivers, and incredibly thin mountain air. Something I was more than ready to experience after two days in the Nepali capital.

Next: Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport