A Low Point in Kathmandu
This was our third day in Kathmandu and hopefully our last, the next day we planned to leave by bus to the Langtang Valley.
The first task on our list was to go to the bus station and buy the bus tickets to Syabrubesi. We could get the hotel to arrange the tickets but that would be 700 Rupees (£4) each, as opposed to the 40 minute walk and paying 340 Rupees for the tickets. With not many things left to do we weren’t in a rush and this might allow us to see more of Kathmandu. The tourist area of Kathmandu is Thamel, almost as soon as we left this area the surroundings became worse. There are no footpaths and the road is just wider than two cars. Add a ton of motorbikes constantly attempting to weave through the traffic and the result is a terrifying walk down the side of a busy road with cars, buses, bikes and trucks narrowly missing the pedestrians. All this traffic made a lot of pollution, the vehicles are generally knackered and emit far more emissions than Western cars. Anything large just belches thick black smoke! The road was very dusty too. When the dust and the smoke mixed everything was just a haze. Our mouths tasted of grit, our eyes hurt and it was starting to affect our chests. The highlight of the walk was the river, a dark grey sludge filled with rubbish. The smell was bad, really bad.
We finally reached the bus station. A small metal shelter with two men sat inside. We bought the 7:30am bus tickets for the next day and headed back to the safer, cleaner more sanitised view of Kathmandu. The walk back was just as unpleasant. Walking through areas where every building was in some state of collapse. It reminded me of photos I’d seen of European towns and cities in 1945, a building standing then a hole or pile of rubble next door, followed by another building in some state of disrepair next to yet another pile of rubble. We had seen enough of Kathmandu for one day and hurried back to Thamel.
We ate lunch then went to the supermarket to buy snack food for the trek and food for the 9 hour bus journey. The supermarket knows its audience well and is filled with Western brand foods, at a hefty markup. Lindt chocolate can be bought for £2.50, Milka is a little cheaper at £1.45. Mars bars and KitKats are also available. We bought a small amount of chocolate, plenty of granola bars, mints, washing powder and Diamox (an essential drug for altitude sickness forcing you to breathe deeper). I think upon returning to Kathmandu we’ll be more willing to buy the chocolate at that price.
Back at the hotel we started to empty our rucksacks and sort through what we would be taking for the trek. Although it didn’t like a lot of items, more and more small items kept getting added to the pile. It was at this point that I decided to buy some thermal long johns for the night-time, at Langtang it’s about -5′c at night so best to keep warm. I had dithered for two days on this decision and it was the chilly hotel room which finally convinced me to buy some. A combination of late afternoons in the shade, in Kathmandu, during a power cut (no heating) had left me feeling cold; Up in the mountains and it would be colder!
It was also time to collect our laundry from the previous day. We has agreed the day before to collect after 5:30pm, but upon arrival we were told it hasn’t been washed yet. The power is due to cut out at 6pm and we leave at 7am the next day, so there’s some tension when we ask what she’s going to do about it. The woman promises that if we are back in 30 minutes it’ll be back. In hindsight we think the washing was done but still at the launderette, rather than not washed, which is what we thought at the time.
It was getting dark and most of the shops were going to be closing soon. We set off quickly to find some long- johns. The first shop sold a Sherpa brand of merino wool underwear, really warm and soft and comfortable, although a little pricey. But they had sold out. Further up the street I saw a shop selling SIM cards and I remembered that I wanted a SIM for my phone. To buy a SIM card in Nepal you must hand over a copy of your passport, a copy of your Nepalese visa, a passport sized photo, give a thumb print and then wait ages while someone cuts a normal sized SIM card into the size of a micro card. We got 1gb of data and an hour or so of talk time. Happy with my purchase we started hunting for the long-johns again. The next three shops had none, so we started walking to a shop we had been in the day before, it was a 5 minute walk and we had promised to be back at the launderette in about 10 minutes time. I went into another shop, but they only had thick tracksuit bottoms. Then another shop. They had the same as the long-johns Annemarie had bought. A quick haggle later and I had the thermal long-johns which I had resisted from buying for 3 days.
We quickly walked back to the launderette to collect our washing. It was ready but the bag we had handed it in with was gone. In many places we handed the washing in in a cotton bag and it gets washed too. A week ago we had been given a nice wash bag to keep and so we used that instead. Not any more! We complained and left. Back in the hotel room we found that one of my socks was missing, I quickly ran out the door to get back before the woman closed for the day. When I asked where the sock was she asked if it had been in the wash, had it fallen out of the bag, had I not seen it, etc. Obviously not, it was lost at the launderette! After stating it was most likely my fault I told her we were leaving the next morning but when we get back in a week’s time I’ll be back to collect the sock. I had to leave before I lost my temper with her. I stormed back to the hotel in a furious mood. The sock was an expensive sock designed for hiking. In Nepal almost all clothing is fake and is also of a poor quality and I doubt that even most of the stuff sold as authentic actually is. The day before leaving for a 10 day trek is the worst time to lose a very good sock and Nepal certainly isn’t a place I feel comfortable with buying replacement walking gear as critical as a good pair of socks. I stamped up the stairs and by the time I reached the room I was livid. I slammed the door hard enough to shake the building. Annemarie listened to my angry rant then also stormed out of the room to the launderette. It turns out that the washing was so poorly washed it looked like it had sat in a bowl of dirty water for a few hours. So, dirty clothes and a missing sock, not really value for money.
Annemarie got back after telling the woman that the washing was a disgrace and we continued to pack the bags, albeit in a much worse mood. Whilst Annemarie sorted the bags I plugged in the SIM card. It didn’t work! Oh, just great, now I have no SIM card either! We decided to go out and eat and visit the SIM shop on the way, but… the shop was closed! It was almost the only shop on the street which was closed. Typical! Now I had lost 1,500 Rupees (£9) on the SIM, a missing sock and a stolen bag. We went to eat in a rather depressed mood.
This was a real low point for us. Just a few small things going wrong put us in a rather depressed mood. What’s really annoying is the attitude of the people. They will always do their best to prove that it is our fault. This is the attitude we’ve experienced in many shops in Nepal. If we don’t want to buy something they demand to know why, in an aggressive manner, acting like we are at fault.
After eating we continued sorting the bags. My bag was done first (by Annemarie) and felt good. It was balanced and didn’t pull back, the weight was sitting on my legs exactly as the bag is designed to do. I thought I could carry it but with a small niggle of doubt. I’d never carried a bag of this weight all day (except once when we had attempted to walk Hadrian’s Wall and quit on the second day). I’d also never carried a bag that heavy to such an altitude (in fact a day bag to 2,800m is my limit. And we’d eaten all the food to make the bag lighter.) Annemarie packed her bag and tried it on. It felt heavier and pulled back lots. We emptied it, removed a few non-essential items and packed it again. It felt the same. The bag pulled back and didn’t distribute the weight into the hip belt properly. Already in a low mood this made Annemarie feel even worse. She couldn’t carry that bag for 6 hours a day, let alone whilst climbing over 1,000 vertical metres a day too. In a final desperate attempt the bag was emptied again and packed in a slightly different way, but to no avail, it still pulled and felt wrong. Annemarie now realised that carrying the bag was impossible. It was 11pm, we had bus tickets for 7:30am the next morning, the hotel was full the next night, in addition to the SIM card and sock. The icing on this shit cake is the knowledge that I made a mistake having stuff posted to Nepal. My shoes aren’t great for gripping, although I can’t see a huge amount of wear on the soles, so I had had my walking shoes posted from the UK to the hotel in Kathmandu. Along with more of the good suncream we use. Annemarie then read just how bad the Nepali postal service is. Basically, any post to or from the West is almost certain to not arrive. The packages are all stolen! It just felt like the whole world was against us and making everything into an unpleasant experience.
It was pretty obvious what we had to do. Find another hotel for a few nights and arrange a porter. This would also give us the next day to sort out the SIM card and find the missing sock. We looked up a few hotels in the area and worked out a shortlist and a plan of attack for the next morning. Then, at 2am we went to bed, tired, depressed and angry.
We woke late (surprised?) and ate breakfast then walked down the street to our first choice of hotel. It is literally a stone’s throw away. We were shown a nice looking room for $35/night, then a really nice room with four poster bed, balcony, TV and settee area and a small kitchen for $45/night. We picked the $35 which is quite a lot more than we were spending and much more than we would usually be happy with. But, they had 24 hour hot water, the generator powers the sockets and the air con (for heating rather than cooling) and it was cleaner. These are important features in a city where there are daily blackouts lasting between 8 and 16 hours. We also told them about how we now needed a porter and they leapt on the chance to arrange a porter for us, agreeing a reasonable rate ($15 per day is what almost everyone charges) and verifying that everything was included. Before we knew it the porter had been called and was on his way to the hotel for us to meet him. We sat outside in the bright sun, drinking coffee and waiting for the porter. We felt so much better than the previous night.
By midday we had swapped into a much better hotel (it cost more, but at least the walk-in rate was lower than the online rate), we had a porter and we had a new departure date set for two days time. Feeling better we went to the launderette. The woman was slightly surprised to see us but didn’t have the sock. We told her we’d be back before closing time to check again and headed for the SIM card shop. At the shop the guy in charge was a little aggressive with his questions. Where did we buy the phone? When? Was it locked? Is it on a contract? I don’t want to be condescending, but… the phones I own are bought unlocked from an independent retailer specifically so I’m never locked into a contract. He kept demanding explanations and with each answer he would ask something less relevant. Even explaining that I had bought SIM cards around Asia didn’t satisfy him. Was the phone GSM? Oh, go to hell, these phones will work anywhere in the world, on any network, with any mobile company! The women in the shop then decided to be helpful and put the SIM in her phone and it worked. Dammit, that just makes it look like my phone is at fault. I request that she puts her SIM in my phone, luckily that works, proving to them that my phone is capable of handling a Nepali SIM card. Because the card had been cut to size from a standard SIM to a micro SIM our guess was that it didn’t sit correctly in the phone, the guy was shaving the edges a little more with his knife. A couple of attempts and it didn’t still work. Finally he got another SIM card, cut it down and slotted it in. It worked first time. He put the 1gb data plan onto the card and handed it to us. He never once admitted that they had damaged it or badly cut it the day before. That took almost an hour!
After lunch we wandered to a garden in Kathmandu. It was OK for a sit down but unlike everyone else we didn’t have a book so after a while just relaxing we left. We were tired so rested in the room for most of the afternoon. We had power so the heating was on (in the sun it’s very hot but in the shade it feels cold). The warmth made us sleepy so it was a lazy and unproductive afternoon, followed by going out to eat around 7pm. Things were looking much better although the launderette still hasn’t found my sock.
Posted from Kathmandu, Central Region, Nepal.