We passed our last few days in Pokhara relaxing on the terrace, reading in the sun, doing a little shopping and enjoying the food. Oli kept himself busy doing little (but important) jobs and making numerous lists of tasks, such as polishing our abused motorbike boots. All too late, we discovered a brilliant Japanese restaurant opposite our guest house, simply named Japanese Lunch Ready. For about £1.50 a head, we got a soup and a meal, which changed every day. We discovered they also offered the best drip coffee in town, which went down a treat when accompanied by sweet karintos. It was so good, that we ate there every day of our remaining time in Pokhara. Whilst the food was very reasonably priced, it may turn out to have been a false economy, as it has firmly set the idea of a Japan trip in our minds.
Politics wise, the strikes and travel bans continued, and are set to do so until the election on the 19th. Getting solid information was difficult, but most people advised that although the tourist buses would probably be running, local services and private vehicles would not be able to travel. Luckily in our ignorance, the period we had hired the bike had been sandwiched between these embargoes – the day before we took it the roads had been blocked, and the problems continued shortly after we returned it. Seeing as the rental Enfield had a local plate, we could well have found ourselves stuck somewhere.
We rose on our last day reluctant to leave. We had actually developed a bit of a routine whilst staying in the town, albeit a ridiculously undemanding one. We were going to miss our sunny mornings, slow breakfasts and Japanese lunches. The sunrise over the mountains was stunningly beautiful, and as we journeyed to the bus station, mist was rising from the lake. It was enough to make us wish we had actually gotten up this early on a day that we didn't have to go anywhere.
We arrived at the bus station in good time, where the tranquility was lost slightly in the chaos of passengers and vendors. Our carriage for the day was the Swiss Bus, proudly proclaiming itself an 'Excellent Supper Deluxe Bus'. Without wishing to be cruel, I would say that the word 'deluxe' is definitely thrown around too liberally in this part of the world. Adding to the experience, somebody in Nepal has had the bright idea of all tourist buses leaving at the same time, which did not strike us as the most sensible way to operate things. When the departure time arrived, all the coaches dived for the exit. Due to the travel embargoes they also had to negotiate a road block, and it was almost an hour before the scrum cleared and we were on the road.
Although the journey was long, it was impossible to get bored. As well as the beautiful scenery, life happens on the side of the road in Nepal, and there was always something to look at. As we climbed higher, the bright sunny day disappeared into heavy mist. There must have been some rain in these parts, as all along the road huge spiders had woven vast webs in the trees, the architects themselves sitting fat (and sometimes mouse sized) in the centres of their creations. Whilst impressive, it was not a pretty sight for me, and I was glad to be safely within the confines of the bus.
We stopped along the way for a toilet break, and everyone eagerly poured off the bus. Unfortunately we arrived at the same time as several other coach loads of tourists, and the resulting queue at the ladies had to be seen to be believed. Eager to solve the problem, the restaurant owner told a few of us at the back to follow him, and led us into the depths of the kitchens in order to use the staff facilities. Now, before we left England my Auntie Miche had prophetically advised that there would be “toilets that will stick in your mind”. Six months on the road have proved that she was not wrong, and this was definitely one such example. Situated in the corner of the kitchen behind a just high enough wall, the squat toilet sat behind a door that did not close properly. Worst of all, one wall was a window that looked on to another section of the kitchen. Thankfully this section was unoccupied, as the modesty guarding cardboard that had been stuck there had fallen down. Business concluded, I skipped back upstairs just as the coach was ready to leave, cheerfully telling Oli that now I had seen the kitchen there, I was glad we had not sampled the food.
The rest of the journey passed without incident. We slowly trundled past more beautiful scenery, interspersed with a few road blocks and political demonstrations. Due to the absence of lorries on the road, we actually made pretty good time. As we approached the capital, there was more general traffic on the road, and the travel ban seemed to be largely ignored. The roads in the main city are truly chaotic, and not particularly due to the volume of traffic. Bad road layouts, a total lack of traffic lights at busy intersections and an absence of pavements means that the streets are often unnecessarily gridlocked.
We were glad to have made it back without problems, and also pleased to note that despite the elections, life seemed to be going on pretty much as normal in KTM. We did however check the updated FCO advice, and discovered that there had been some attacks on tourist buses the previous day. We were glad indeed that we had picked a good departure date! The strikes and travel bans are driven by the opposition, a thirty-three party alliance (out of the 120 parties), and are aimed at disrupting the upcoming elections. Bizarrely, the travel restrictions also appear to be enforced by the military and the police, presumably due to safety concerns. Whilst many people do ignore the embargoes, the risk of travelling on these strike days is real – on Wednesday, a local bus service was attacked with petrol bombs, injuring nine people. More detail on this can be found here http://tinyurl.com/ntxtb26, and here http://tinyurl.com/pv49kte.
The political situation here is currently very fragile. These are the second elections since the end of the civil war, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. Political parties are numerous and split down into narrow interest groups, including several iterations of the Communist / Marxist / Leninist party. The various political supporters we have seen appear extremely passionate, but seem to support parties as if they are football teams. There is a lot of chanting, shouting and flag waving, and it is sometimes easy to imagine that violence could break out between opposing groups. Many of the election posters we see pasted onto walls are torn and defaced, suggesting that reasoned discourse is losing out to heavier tactics. Earlier in the week, we had also read that an election candidate had been kidnapped by an opposing group in another region of Nepal.
Political strife aside, we decided to spend the next day relaxing and doing a little exploring. We set out from our hotel after a hearty breakfast, for which we had been accompanied by a Georgian couple who saw the fact that it was only 10 a.m. as no reason that they should not get stoned. Oli and I obviously did not partake, but still enjoyed chatting with them about their home country, which we had so much loved visiting a few months before. Our walk took us along quiet back streets and busy roads, where we were alarmed by low hanging power cables but enamoured with the interesting murals painted on the walls. As we wandered along, we were approached by two 'holy' men coming in the opposite direction. We had been warned about these guys, who apparently try to bless you with some red dye and a flower, then demand payment. Sure enough, as they got closer they lunged towards us, ignoring our no thank yous. I actually had to duck and dodge one, whilst Oli managed to avoid the other. They did not look pleased! The remainder of our day passed without similar excitement.
Determined to make the most of our last few days in KTM, we planned to do some actual sightseeing the following day. A quick check of the map revealed Swayambhu (aka Monkey Temple) to be a few kilometres stroll away, and we set off in the general direction, negotiating the many narrow and confusing small streets with surprising ease. It was interesting to see a less touristy part of the city as we walked, and our route took us past numerous temples and shrines. KTM is more like a giant village than a capital city and, even this close to the centre, many people still grow crops and keep livestock. We had also been surprised to see from the bus en-route to Pokhara that animals are still brought to the butchers for slaughter, and we saw several unsuspecting goats patiently tethered outside such establishments. It was unexpected, as even in countries which might be considered 'poor', the capital has usually proved to be relatively modern and developed. This is not really the case with KTM in general.
After an interesting and mostly enjoyable walk, we arrived at the base of the temple steps. I was expecting somewhere peaceful and conducive to reflection, but this was definitely not the case. There were seemingly infinite vendors, as well as very visible poverty in the form of families begging at the base of the steps. However, it is still a beautiful location, with a steep staircase rising dramatically up the hillside. Everywhere we looked were statues or stone artwork, and our eyes were constantly drawn to new details. At first I was excited to spot monkeys running around, but quickly got a shock when two burst out from behind the monument I was photographing, chasing each other and shrieking. As cute as they appeared from a distance, Oli and I were keen to keep away from them as much as possible!
As we reached the top of the steps, we saw a sign denoting the entrance fees for entering the temple grounds at the summit. The tourist price was four times as much as for SAARC countries, but still cheap. Oli went to the desk and cheerily said “Two overpriced tourist tickets please”. The joke was lost on the ticket seller, who looked puzzled and asked Oli if he wanted five. Confusion politely resolved and tickets purchased, we continued up the final few steps into the main area.
Despite the crowds and monkeys, it was utterly worth the climb. Intricate details abounded, and many parts of the monument were covered in gold, which was set off dramatically by the clear blue sky. We enjoyed taking in the beauty of the art works, whilst simultaneously watching the monkeys peskily raiding the shrines for food. Whilst they are amusing, we thought it would be fairly common sense not to approach them. However, as well as several people feeding them, we witnessed a woman try to pet one of the babies. Although it ran away, she was spotted by its mother, who ran at her with alarming speed before jumping on her back and trying to bite her throat. Luckily for her she was wearing a coat with a thick collar, and a local bashed the monkey off before it could do any damage. Whilst it had not been an unprovoked attack, it was still pretty alarming. The monkeys are pretty hefty, so I hastily constructed myself a neck protector from my fleece.
We managed to find a monkey and crowd free corner, and could then relax enough to take in the scene and enjoy the place. The setting really was amazing, with so much to see that our eyes hardly knew where to settle. Added to this, the views over the city scape on such a clear day were a welcome reward. Sadly though, even in this relatively quiet corner it was not a place conducive to relaxation (despite the speakers gamely blasting out 'peaceful' music), so we decided to call it a day and head back to Thamel along the dusty streets. The rest of the day was spent doing what we do best these days – chilling out in cafes. After the chaos of the temple, Thamel actually felt relatively peaceful.
We now had only two days left in KTM, and were pleased to receive a HUBB (Horizons Unlimited) message from fellow overlanders Frances and Pete, who are doing a similar journey to us but in reverse. We agreed to meet for a pint later that afternoon, and Oli and I decided to go and do some more touristing in the morning. Our destination for the day was Durbar Square, one of KTM's best known sights. We slowly wandered in the correct direction, pausing frequently to admire the old buildings lining the street, rickety but intricate. The route also had many historical temples, hidden away in recesses or unassumingly sat between buildings. They were fairly devoid of tourists and fascinating to behold.
We arrived easily at the square, and were surprised to see that there was an entry fee. This was very expensive for Nepal, and what made it more ridiculous was that local people could just wander in and out as they pleased. We accept that we will often pay more than locals for attractions, and can see why it may be seen as fair sometimes, but the expense of this was too far for us. Instead, we walked around the edge like stingy gits, hoping to find an alleyway to via which we could sneak in undetected. Sadly we had no such luck, but didn't mind at all. It was still beautiful from the outside, and there was such a plethora of interesting sites to see for free in the surrounding streets, that we did not feel we had missed out.
The day passed quickly, and before we knew it, it was time to meet Pete and Frances. They turned out to be a great couple, and whilst we chatted and exchanged stories the hours quickly passed, with 'one beer' turning into many more. We ended up unwittingly being part of a lock-in. Due to the elections, the bars and restaurants have to close by 10 p.m., and they were supposed to have stopped serving alcohol at eight. The first we were aware of this was when one of the waiters came over to our table and blew out the candle, whispering “Police” by way of explanation. We took this as a good cue to leave, but had to wait a few minutes until the staff told us the coast was clear. Pretty much everything was closed, but thankfully we found a bakery over the road, and munched down half price doughnuts by way of dinner. Liquid dinner and baked goods... what a winner.
Surprisingly we woke up today not feeling hungover, and had very little planned other than getting our stuff sorted out and meeting Frances and Pete again in the evening. There was nothing much to report from the day itself, but we were a little early to our meeting spot on the street. Whilst stood still we fended off the usual drug offers from a surprisingly friendly and polite dealer. We were also approached by a random local, clearly off his face, huffing solvents from a paper bag and proudly brandishing a piece of wood with a massive live cockroach on the end. He stopped, apparently keen to show us his unusual friend. We thanked him, which seemed to do the trick as he shuffled off in the other direction. It was a surreal moment indeed, but happily the remainder of our evening was far more pleasant.
Like many visitors to Nepal, Oli and I are both nursing slight colds, not helped by the fact that winter is approaching here and the temperature seems to drop a little more every evening. Whilst we have enjoyed KTM, after the peace and quiet of Pokhara it can sometimes get a bit much. Like every capital, it has a dark side, and it is hard to stay polite and patient when we are offered drugs for the tenth time in a day. Whilst there are plenty of nice things to see, there is also very visible and heart breaking poverty – on our way to the temple we had seen fairly young kids openly huffing glue by the riverside.
Still, we cannot forget the many wonderful, kind and friendly people we have met whilst in Nepal. The good parts of visiting this country are almost certainly the ones that we will most strongly remember, as they have far outweighed any negative aspects. Hopefully we will make it to the airport tomorrow, as apparently taxis will not be allowed to run, and we will have to rely on the emergency tourist shuttle bus. Presuming we get there, it will be the first time in Thailand for both of us, and we are very much looking forward to it.