Christmas Eve in Kathmandu
By Dave Fox
December 24, 2014
Landing in an unfamiliar city at night is something I try to avoid. Late at night is when tourists are most vulnerable to the unsavory characters who lurk in most big cities. But for logistical reasons too boring to explain, we landed last night in Kathmandu at 11 p.m.
Our car ride from the airport to our guesthouse was eerie. There were few streetlights. Kathmandu seemed unnaturally dark. Burma is the only other country I’ve visited in which I’ve encountered major cities so ghostly at night.
It’s cold here – something Kattina and I aren’t used to after three-and-a-half years in the tropics. Five degrees Celcius (40 Fahrenheit) is a shock to our systems.
It was past midnight when we reached our hotel last night. A porter led us to our room. He showed us how to open the padlocked door, how to open the second door to the balcony, how to turn on the TV and shower, and how to run the air conditioner.
The air conditioner! We were shivering in our multiple layers of clothes, and he was turning on the freaking aircon!
As soon as he left, I turned it off. I put on five layers of shirts and jackets, and a fleece cap, and crawled under the down covers, and shivered myself into a shallow slumber.
I awoke early this morning. I couldn’t sleep. Too cold. I opened the door to our balcony. At night, the view was black. Now, in the early morning, as an orange sun was rising, a struggling city of crumpled buildings unfurled below me. Through a smoky haze (many people here still burn wood to heat their homes), I could see silhouettes of mountains in the distance. From my balcony, I felt safe and detached – and anxious to throw myself into the uncertainty beyond our hotel.
When Kattina woke up, she agreed our room was too cold to stay another night. We asked after breakfast if they had any heated rooms. Otherwise, we had decided we would request a refund – and go elsewhere even if they wouldn’t give us one. This 30-dollar-a-night “boutique hotel” (as their website called it) was making us miserable.
The receptionist looked surprised when we asked her this. She asked why we had turned the heat off. The “air conditioner,” it turns out, is also a heater.
After breakfast, we spent several hours walking. The streets around our guesthouse were crumbling and hectic – potholed and muddy concrete, no sidewalks to speak of, with unpredictable traffic that made walking feel dangerous – particularly for easily distracted people like me.
But we walked for a long time, eventually reaching a long, quiet alleyway with high walls topped with razor wire on both sides. We thought it was a prison but it was the Indian embassy.
We got lost for an hour, and settled into the joy that comes with being lost if you don’t let your mind turn it into a reason for panic. We trudged for many blocks past cluttered shops, dodging low-key sales pitches from taxi drivers and street touts. We stopped at travel agencies and bike rental places to come up with a plan.
We have no plan.
We came to Nepal with little knowledge of what we will do over the next couple of weeks. The best deals, we have read, are obtained by showing up and booking locally rather than reserving in advance, so we’re winging it, with no itinerary.
We’ve got two more nights booked in our Kathmandu room, which is now tolerably warm with its feeble heater.
It’s Christmas Eve. Our plan for the evening is to wander into the travelers’ ghetto, a five-minute walk from where we are staying, and find a café, or a pub, a place where we can scarf down some dinner and meet other travelers, toast the holiday and squeeze them for travel tips.
Final first thoughts on Kathmandu: This city is different from any other place I’ve been. It is loud with honking horns and boisterous dogs. Its potholed roads, and falling-down electric wires, and rolling blackouts (we’ve had two power outages today; I am told they’re a regular occurrence) are indicative of a fragile infrastructure.
At the same time, it’s exciting here. The street hassles are low-key; at least 70 percent of random strangers who say hello to you are really just saying hello. The curries are energizing. The masala tea is festive on the tongue, and hard on the bladder.
Were it not for a Christmas tree in our hotel’s courtyard, and a cotton-ball snowfall on the bushes, I would have forgotten it was Christmas Eve in this predominantly Buddhist and Hindu country.
It is one of the most different places I’ve been. And that makes me happy.
Namaste and Merry Christmas from Nepal!