Another striking difference of Nepal and China is how easy-going and effortless it is despite all the materialistic problems. English is widely understood and people are magically friendly. The friendliness of Nepalis became apparent right at the Kathmandu airport with a visa counter clerk that looked and sounded like a cartoon character being more friendly than anyone we met in China. Even touts in Thamel are nice enough and understand that no means no. Same goes for rikshas, who are like sweet angels comparing to Indian colleagues.
I found out that I could explain all kind of strange random things to locals and it was totally fine. No confusion arisen and my random act of weirdness were met with equally bizarre responses. Some of my most memorable shopping experiences took place in Kathmandu. In particular on Buddha Purnima (the date of the Buddha’s birthday) I somehow ended up reciting the “Buddham saranam gocchami” mantra to a shop owner and immediately after that we got a heavy discount on the original price. Another time a singing bowl merchant just kept saying “Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, ok” to my every propositions. Heavy discounts ensued.
The nature of Nepal is magnificent and the poor state of infrastructure only makes it more pristine. Mountains are simply unreal and makes you wonder whether something like this can really exist. I have seen some amazing landscapes, but the Annapurna massive is easily one of the most stunning so far. Nepal feels like the true Shangri La (unlike its faux Chinese counterpart). Roads are scarce, which means that walking as the only option to reach many destinations. Indeed, trekking is a number one tourist activity in Nepal and there is a whole industry around it. Guides, porters, mountaineering and trekking gear, maps, everything is available for rent or sale. As a a bonus a walking white man does not draw any attention from locals too.
From Kathmandu we continued to Pokhara, a picturesque city not far away from the Annapurna mountain range. Even though it is only 250km from Kathmandu, thanks to landslides the scary minibus trip took over six hours. Situated near Phewa lake and equipped with proper tourist facilities, Pokhara is a nice enough place that warrants spending at least several days, if not weeks. We stayed in Pokhara for four days doing pretty much nothing in particular. Strolling along the lakeside in the hours of sunset was enough of an activity. Time flew quickly and it was almost a shame to leave so early. It is beautiful, tranquil and easy-going. What else do you really need? Food options were versatile and not bad by any accounts. No food poisoning either. Pokhara is definitely one to visit again.
In short, Nepal is awesome. Easily a highlight of five months of travelling. After China, Nepal felt like a totally different world. It is poor. Like really really poor. Nepal makes even Myanmar look rather prosperous. Almost half of the population lives under poverty and unemployment is rampant. Infrastructure ranges from half-assed to non-existent. Signs of construction are all around, but they appear more like unfinished business than work in progress. Roads are abysmal and traffic jams can occur anywhere and anytime. Travelling is truly slow – covering a distance of 100km may easily take up to 6 hours. Power cuts occur daily according to a load-balancing schedule. Even Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, gets only around 12 hours of daily power. During the three week stay in Nepal, we have not been to a single air-conditioned space. Indeed it is hard to maintain air conditioning with scarce electricity. As a reference every ATM in Indonesia has its own AC unit, probably to make you feel rich whenever you withdraw cash.
However, the biggest problem of all is piss-poor hygiene. I had managed to avoid any stomach problems for four months, but after three days in Kathmandu diarrhoea got me immobilised for several days. A major advertising point for many tourist restaurants is hygienic food. Eating out is a gamble, whether your next meal results in a bad stomach or even worse a full-blown food poisoning. Meat is best to be avoided altogether, as refrigerators are not necessarily connected to backup power generators during power black-outs. Tap water is outright poisonous and even locals advise against using tap water for brushing teeth or rinsing vegetables, let alone drinking. It is wild world out there.
Kathmandu has got all the signs of a terrible city: dusty and dirty, noisy and polluted, full of traffic jams and just plain chaotic. When it rained, streets were covered with mud. On the other hand, when it was hot, mud turned into dust and rose into air by strong winds. I could not decide which scenario was worse, while pondering a whole new born appreciation for cities made of concrete and stone. But despite all this Kathmandu is surprisingly enjoyable and does not scream “GET OUT OF HERE NOW” on every corner. Thamel, the main tourist ghetto, is pleasant enough, although a bit hectic for my liking. It is an excellent place to shop for pashminas of dubious quality, yak wool products, singing bowls and trekking equipment. If you prefer quieter environment, hotels on Paknajol Street not too far away from Thamel are the way to go.
Tourist sights of Kathmandu are interesting enough, although at this point of the journey we had little interest to go see them. Additionally a dual pricing scheme was a major turn-off: free for locals and $10-15 for tourists. Especially when a sight in question was just a public area, where locals lived (such as Kathmandu Durbar Square as well as Patan and Bhaktapur towns). We spent a lot of time discussing that concept of fairness and put much effort into finding alternative ways to get in. All in good faith.