Our hearts and minds are with you. We keep thinking of your beautiful cities and your lovely, warm people. We’re praying for you, hoping for you.
December 6, 2010
We slept long and hard. At 9 AM, Joshua grunted and slapped his arm in my general direction. ‘Wake up,’ he said, ‘we need to get moving.’
We changed and walked upstairs for breakfast. Ordering stuffed pranthas and eggs, we chowed down in the cool Delhi morning. Sun filtered weakly through the smog, and down below, we could hear horns honking like a fleet of cantankerous geese.
Back in our room, we packed a quick day bag and wandered downstairs to secure a taxi to the FRRO.
Now, before I tell you this story, I should tell you the backstory. Michelle, our friend we met crossing the border into Nepal, had gone with us to get the Permit to Re-enter India in Kathmandu. Like us, she planned on returning to India before two months had elapsed, but she was only going to be staying for three days in Delhi. After that, she was leaving for New Zealand. We also got the Permit to Re-enter, and we’re also only spending three days in Delhi. On the ninth of December, we leave for England.
However, when Michelle went to the airport, the officials there told her that she was not allowed to leave the country. Although she had secured a Permit to Re-enter, she had neglected to read the fine print. There, she would have found that she needed to register within 14 days of re-entering the country. When they threatened to make her reschedule her flight, she began to sob. One soft-hearted, flustered official finally relented and let her through, but not before he had admonished her to ‘read the paperwork better in the future.’
Hearing about Michelle’s near miss, we read the fine print, and although the print doesn’t tell us where we’re supposed to register, it does tell us to. From our Lonely Planet guide, we figure that we need to go to the Foreign Regional Registration Office, the FRRO.
Last night when we arrived in Delhi, the men at immigration saw our Visas and our Permit to Re-enter but said nothing. When Joshua asked them if we are meant to register at the FRRO, they wobbled their heads and mumbled non-commitally. Joshua asked again, and one of them cracked a smile. ‘So you already know, do you? It’s behind the Hyatt Regency.’
We walked away, astounded by their evasion. Not only had they pretended not to know what we were talking about (when they did), they also knew that most people re-entering know nothing about it. It’s almost like they want us to make a mistake.
To top it all off, the FRRO is on the opposite side of Delhi from our hotel. All in all, we were feeling pretty irritated by this new hiccup in our plans.
The taxi ride took 30 minutes. At the FRRO, we waited in line outside to speak with someone. There were no signs clarifying how we were to register, and when we finally got to the front of the line, the man behind the desk just wobbled his head when we asked him how to register. We asked again, and he head wobbled again. Then, he pointed into the inside of the building.
Walking inside, we came into a room filled with a hundred people. There were counters with officials all over the place, and one sign described the paperwork that we would need register: 3 copies of a registration form, 1 ‘C’ Form from your place of residence or hotel, 3 passport photos, and 1 re-entry form.
Except the sign doesn’t tell you that those are all the things that you need to register. It tells you a couple of them, and then you have to wait in a couple more long lines to talk to a live person who then tells you that you need a couple more things, gives them to you, and also gives you a number.
We filled out forms. We took more passport photos. Joshua went to make copies and get a ‘C’ Form faxed from the hotel. When he came back, our number was finally called and we went up. The guy told us that our forms were incorrect, shuffled them up, and then handed them back to us, telling us to come back after lunch.
Joshua steamed and frothed at the mouth. We waited for the fat official to eat his lunch, and at 2 PM, four hours after we had arrived in the office, we stood at the counter with our forms well organized, stapled together, and absolutely, totally filled out.
The fat official wobbled his head, grunted a few times, and proceeded to stamp and initial the forms. Unsmiling, he sent us off to the ‘Incharge’ counter where another fat official signed things and then gave us back our registration form, stamped and signed.
It took half the day, and although it was an unpleasant experience, we both agreed that it could have been worse. The room had been filled with Afghani and Pakistani nationals, waiting to be registered. A couple of other Westerners were there too, filling out forms for lost or stolen visas and passports. A large group of Nigerians and Congolese were frantically filling out forms, too. Everyone looked frustrated. Everyone looked overwhelmed.
Outside, we found a rickshaw, and for 150 rupees, the driver took us to Connaught Place. At a popular fast-food, Southern Indian restaurant, we had a short wait before we were ushered to a table. Ordering two onion masala dosas, we people watched. Middle class Indians in polos and sweaters, shalwar kameez, and mini-skirts spoke in Hindi and English and Hinglish.
The dosas were phenomenal. Enormous, crispy crepes with half a dozen sauces for dipping, they were savory and just a little bit greasy. Yum yum.
Outside again, we wandered through Connaught place, looking at all the fancy brand name shops with beggars outside. We walked to a cinema with the intention of watching a film, but there was nothing showing for a couple of hours. A big crowd of people were gathered outside of the doors to the cinema, and a number of people ushered out a gentleman, leading him to a nice SUV. Just before he entered the car, he poked his head above the crowd, flashed a white smile, and waved. The crowd went wild, and we wondered who he was.
We walked back to Paharganj through busy streets. The smog was thick, and by the time we had arrived in the narrower streets of the backpacker district, my throat and lungs felt scratchy. We walked through the streets with shops spilling over, and seeing an Internet cafe, we stepped inside.
Surfing jobs on-line, we both happened to find ones that looked good. We spent the next couple of hours filling out applications, writing cover letters, and sending out our resumes. Keep your fingers crossed 🙂
Back outside, we walked through the darkened streets back to our hotel. Feeling absolutely grimy from a day in the smog, we took showers, and afterwards, we headed upstairs for a quick snack of stuffed pranthas and water.
Now, Joshua’s watching TV (like a man starved), and I’m catching up on writing. Tomorrow, we explore Delhi.
December 5, 2010
Nepal gave Joshua a going away present. It arrived some time around 4 AM, and it was the sort of gift that just kept on giving and giving and giving….
By 8 AM, Joshua was cold and exhausted. He came in from his twentieth toilet tango, gripping toilet paper in one hand and hand sanitizer in the other. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him.
‘I need some rehydration salts. If I keep pissing out of my ass like this, we’re going to have some serious problems.’
I went in search of rehydration salts and more toilet paper. Joshua went back to the toilet.
Sucking down orange liquid that tasted about as good as it looked, Joshua knocked back first two Immodium, and when that didn’t work, three more.
I don’t know if you’ve ever taken Immodium, but I’ll have you know that just one of those little buggers stopped me up for one whole week. Joshua took five, and he was still, as he so eloquently puts it, ‘pissing out of his ass.’ He took a cipro for good measure.
I read while Joshua beat a path to the toilet, and after a while, I went off to secure a hotel for Delhi tonight. Unfortunately, the phone numbers in Lonely Planet were mostly non-functioning, but eventually, I managed to speak with someone from Hotel Amax. By the time I got of the phone, I was unsure. I may or may not have booked a double room with pick-up from the airport. For good measure, I sent a confirmation e-mail with all the pertinent details.
Back in the room, we packed up and checked out. In the attached restaurant, I ordered a bowl of soup, and Joshua sat across from me, looking worried and occasionally running for the toilet. He was considerably worried about our upcoming travels. He smelled strongly of cabbage.
When our taxi came at 1:30 PM, Joshua was feeling a bit more hopeful. It had been fifteen minutes since the last time he had run for the toilet, and even then, it had begun to slow down.
In the taxi, we sat as our driver navigated the streets of Kathmandu. In the distance, hills rose out of the smog, and behind them, white mountain tops revealed themselves between buildings and racing vehicles.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the airport. Looking out at the valley and the distant mountains, I felt sad to go. I’m not sure if we’ll ever be back, and when we’re traveling like this, we do it as if it’s our only chance. Maybe, someday, we’ll be back. Probably not.
Kathmandu airport is small. From outside, it looks a bit scruffy, and after making our way through a couple of pat-downs and metal detectors, we were inside a simple, unadorned space. Once we had checked in, we passed through another series of metal detectors, and on the other side, we entered a large room with hundreds of people. There are no gates in Kathmandu airport. There’s just one hall, and when flights come, an announcer comes over the loudspeaker and people line up to be driven to their airplane somewhere on the tarmac.
While we waited, we watched TV. None of it was in English, but the bright colors and dramatic expressions were easy to understand. We’re both looking forward to a Bollywood film in Delhi.
When our flight was called, we boarded a shuttle and went through another pat down before we climbed the stairs to our flight.
It takes little more than an hour to fly to Delhi, and when we got there at 6 PM, the sun had just set. In the terminal, our bags were the first ones off the carousel, and in the arrivals waiting area, a man stood with the name of our hotel and a sign that said, ‘ANDERD.’
Feeling much relieved, we followed the man to the taxi and then settled in for the ride.
When we first arrived in Delhi three months ago, the city was in the midst of preparing for the Commonwealth Games. I’m not sure what the city looked like before, but I’ve heard a number of people say that the difference is startling. Things are cleaner and tidier, and the metro system is both new and in good order.
From other sources, I’ve heard Delhi is a mess. It’s over-populated, polluted, and incredibly dirty. People go out of their way to avoid this busy city, but we’re here to see what all the fuss is about.
From the windows of our taxi, we could see wide roads with freshly painted traffic lines. On the sides, turned-up turf faded into smog. Our driver stradled the lane line and leaned on his horn.
The deeper we drove into the Delhi, the more people we saw. Rickshaws and bicycles crowded the roads, and near the curb, homeless gathered around trashcan fires. When we turned off the main boulevard, we entered a street lined with signs that looked like they belonged on the Vegas Strip. Hotel Grand, The Palace, Krishna Hotel… All of the hotels had flashing lights and glittering lobbies.
Hotel Amax was off on a small side street. There was no flashing sign nor glittering lobby, but it looked relatively clean, and we were just glad to have arrived without major incident (including potty incidents). Once we had tipped our driver and filled out the paper work, we were led upstairs. Although we had set our expectations extremely low, the room was actually really nice. The bed is the softest we’ve had in ages, and there’s an attached bathroom and a TV. There are a couple of windows, and there’s even some paint on the walls. Fine living here in Delhi.
Settled in our room, we wandered upstairs to the rooftop restaurant. Looking a bit gaunt, Joshua ordered a couple slices of toast, and I ordered a vegetable prantha. We sat, chatting with a couple of odd, spacy travellers from Quebec and Belgium. Another woman from Australia came and joined us, and we compared our plans for Delhi. They asked us if we were headed for Agra, and I confessed that I had never been all that interested in seeing the Taj Mahal. They looked at me as if I had just farted.
Taking our cue to leave, we headed back to the room. Weary from a day of travel (to bathrooms, to Delhi), we fell asleep.
December 4, 2010
Joshua decided that we needed a change of pace today, so instead of following our well-trodden path to the German Bakery, we stopped in at another cafe in Thamel.
The inside looked just like a Starbucks, and once we had ordered, we sat down next to a bunch of other travellers. With sunlight pouring in, people speaking English everywhere, and cups of steaming coffee at every other table, it felt like we were back in Seattle.
When it came, the food was pretty good (but not as good as the German Bakery). We both had tomato-cheese omletes with toast, and Joshua supplemented with two chocolate croissants. In the back corner, a woman from Detroit loudly catalogued the flaws of India.
Once we had finished, we gathered our things and…
Conducted Super-Secret Business of Which You Can Know Nothing About
Four hours later, we made our way back to OR2K. We ordered another platter to share, and sitting cross-legged in the sunlight, we played some more cards.
We relaxed there for a while, recovering from our super-secret business and eavesdropping on other hippie – travellers who had likewise exhausting daily routines. One man was walking from table to table, trying to swap his biography of the Dalai Lama ‘for any good reads you have, man.’ We let him down gently, and he dejectedly continued on his search.
Across the room, a couple of Brits came in and sat down. Looking at the colorful menu, one of them said, ‘I’m so sick of this spiritual bull-shit. I’m like, ‘It’s a menu, man, not a fucking sutra.” Joshua quietly cracked up next to me.
At another table, two beautiful college students were talking about philosophy. Actually, she was talking, and he was looking at her boobs. The man with the Dalai Lama biography finally found a soul-mate in a Westerner-cum-Buddhist. Apparently, he’s here in Kathmandu, learning Tibetan and racking up some serious karma points.
After sharing another delicious dessert, we paid and headed for the nearest Internet cafe. I wrote a feel e-mails and then browsed Minnesota Council of Non-profits and Craigslist for jobs. There was nothing much, but I did spend a good hour or so filling out an application to be a paraprofessional for Woodbury schools.
Off in the corner, Joshua was filling out applications too. When I’d finished, I left him to continue while I headed back to the guest house for a shower.
Clean again, I retrieved Joshua, and we sat in Tashi Delek, slowly sipping tea, slurping soup, and reading.
Eventually, we grew tired and walked home in the dark, stepping over sleeping dogs and dodging rickshaws.
December 3, 2010
We spent another slow morning at the German Bakery, playing cards and sorting through photos. The morning rush came and went, and in the garden, little sparrows swooped down to clean up left over crumbs. They were brave, and every once in a while, one would venture over to our table, hopping and flicking its head curiously.
Finally, we gathered our things and headed for Freak Street.
In the 60s and 70s, hippies started coming through Kathmandu on their way East. The weird and the lovely gathered just South of Durbar Square, and although this street isn’t nearly as freaky as its legends, there are still a few guest houses, cafes, and bong shops holding strong.
Lonely Planet raves about the infamous chocolate cake from the Snowman Cafe, so we stopped in to try some.
It was an odd crowd. Inside, the walls are a bit dingy, but it’s a studied shabbiness. It’s dark, but a few hanging lanterns cast a cozy, yellow glow. At one table, a couple of travellers in dreads and crochet are reading about Zen. In a dark corner at the back, a young Nepali couple are discreetly dry-humping one another. At the counter, a middle-aged Westerner with a long, scraggly beard and gaged ears smiles, unspeaking.
We order two pieces of gooey cake, and while we’re eating, two Israeli girls come in and order the same thing. They’re blitzed out of their minds, giggling and eating everything in sight, and the man behind the counter suggests a couple shots of espresso to sober up. They agree.
Cracked out on chocolate, we pull out the Lonely Planet and begin another walking tour through the city.
True to its description, the tour takes us through the little traveled streets of Kathmandu, and for two hours, we don’t see another Westerner. While this tour isn’t as surprising as the first walking tour we took with Michelle, Steven, and Scott when we arrived in Kathmandu, it’s still pretty wonderful. All the things we loved about Kathmandu the first time are here too: peaceful courtyards through doorways and alleys, pagoda-like temples with curved eaves and wooden votives, colorful shops spilling with wares, and relatively clean, cobblestoned streets.
We take photos. After a bit of wandering, we notice that many of the people walking or going about their daily activities are actually gathering water. In the streets, they’re using pumps connected to hoses to fill big, gallon buckets. In courtyards, they’re gathered around spigots. Women are carrying water on their heads and in both arms.
Outside of one courtyard, we spy a small, barefoot girl in a ruffled, dirty skirt. Her hands pressed together in supplication, she is bent over an altar to Ganesh. She can’t be more than seven years old, and the sight of such youthful devotion is startling. She sees us watching her and quickly scurries off. Before she leaves, she grabs two buckets of water. Just one of them probably weighs more than her little body, but she improbably wrestles both down a narrow alley way.
What I really want to do is take pictures of the people. They are dressed in the loveliest colors, and they are all engaged in the most foreign of activities: picking scalps, beating mattress batting, carrying water atop their heads… But I feel rude. Instead, I hold the camera at my belly, and without aiming or focusing, snap photos of people as I walk by. It’s still rude, but at least people don’t know I’m doing it.
We finish in a square where men and women are selling fruit from bicycle stands and carts. Off to one side, three men are sitting on tarps, and in front of them, they are taking bats to mattressing. One of them is holding an instrument like a one-stringed harp. He wraps the matressing around it and then thumps it, making a sharp, twanging noise.
Back in Thamel, we find OR2K, an Israeli run cafe in the heart of the hustle and bustle. It’s a warm, cozy spot, and everyone takes off their shoes to sit on pillows, mats and rugs. When we get there, people are already eating and laughing, but after an hour or so, it’s absolutely hopping. We end up having to share our table.
It doesn’t matter, though, because the food is sublime. Joshua orders a platter of babaganoosh, humous, tahini, falafel, and naan, and I order the falafel. It’s so good, we wipe our plates clean.
Sitting in the warmth and fuss, we play cards, and after our stomachs aren’t quite bursting anymore, we order a chocolate crepe. It’s also amazing, and we divide it evenly in half, jealously guarding our corners of the plate.
A couple of groups at tables next to us come and go, and we eavesdrop on conversations in American-accented English, Israeli, and Nepali. We decide it’s time to go when the girls next to us compare just how ‘fucked up’ they really are. They try to sound enlightened, but they end up just sounding really, really fucked up.
Back at the room, we burrow under the blankets and encased in warmth and the glory of good food, we fall asleep.
December 2, 2010
With dead limbs and through still shut eyes, I registered my husband waking up, quietly gathering a book and the computer, and tip-toeing out the door. I kept sleeping.
A couple hours later, I sat up and took stock. I felt slightly fuzzy, but the rip-roaring headache was gone. I got dressed and went in search of Joshua.
I found him in the guest house restaurant. Sipping a cup of tea and taping business cards and tickets into his journal. He smiled and let me finish the tea. I asked him how long he’d been up and what time it was; it was eight, and he’d been up since six thirty. He’s an early bird, and five weeks on trail have formed a habit I suspect he won’t shake for some time.
We chat about the day and decide to spend it doing approximately nothing. Joshua wants to eat, and I want to work on my application for the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
We set off for our favorite German bakery, and once we’ve ordered, Joshua kicks my butt in a couple hands of Rummy. When breakfast comes, Joshua cracks a crooked smile and confesses, ‘this may or may not be my second breakfast today.’
Afterwards, Joshua writes a few e-mails while I work my way through the end of Holy Cow. This book is interesting and entertaining, and yet, it makes me glad that we truncated our second trip to India. Kathmandu is tame by comparison.
From the bakery, we stroll to the bookshop. Joshua trades in our books for Plainsong and Papillon, and we walk to another cafe. Somehow, Joshua is still hungry, so he orders another meal of stuffed tomatoes and naan, and I ordered a large pot of lemongrass tea. Back out on the street, my headache crept up on me again, and as I type, it gets worse and worse. Joshua begins his new book while I try to articulate why I want to be a Social Worker, what I think a Social Worker is, and why I think I would be good at it. I spend a few hours wading through my experiences in New Orleans, because ultimately, this is where my answers lie. In the end, I have something that works, but it’s still 700 words short.
With my ripping headache running at full tilt, I close the computer and tell Joshua that I need a change of pace. He agrees, and we walk out the door to run some top-secret errands that you can’t know anything about, including two last gifts and a couple little gifts for me. In a shawl shop, I sift through a hundred different shawls while a sweet, rotund Nepali man explains the difference in quality. With a lighter, he burns the fringe of one, snuffs out the melt between his forefinger and thumb, and then motions me to smell. It’s rich and earthy, and it smells a bit like burnt dung or wood. This is the sign of a better Pashmina.
Real or not, I’m put off by the price, and I haven’t really found something that captures my fancy anyway. Then he pulls out an orangey-red number of middling quality, and I’m ready to bargain. From 950, I drive him down to 700 rupees, and he smiles. He didn’t fight that hard, but he tells me that he’s sold these pashminas for over 3000 rupees before. ‘But you are a teacher, I know,’ he says, ‘you’re young and no make much money.’
It’s cold in the street, so before we make our way to another cafe, I browse through some knit hats. Settling on a green one with no puffs or balls or frills, we bargain the man down from 450 to 250. It’s still too much, but I’m cold and I don’t feel like looking for more. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spy a little knit pin. It’s a red rose for 25 rupees. I pin it on my hat, and I have an ensemble for 14 dollars. Not bad.
In Tashi Delek, we sit down in a dark corner and order chips chilly, vegetable pakoda, potato momos, tongba, and a big pot of hot lemon-honey-ginger tea. By now, my headache has evolved into a creature of mythical proportions. I tuck my cool fingers into the cups of my eyes and press hard. Even the candle light hurts.
Though I’ve told him it won’t help, Joshua goes to the shop next store to buy me some extra-strength Ibuprofen. When he comes back, I reluctantly take it. Our food comes, and for the moment, my headache lessens in an appreciation of chilies and fried things. It resumes full stop when I am done.
I try to read, and eventually, I can. Apparently, the drugs did help. We both read for a while, Joshua finishing his fermented millet and me sipping lemon-honey-ginger goodness. When I finish my book, we head to the internet cafe.
December 1, 2010
We wake up on our last morning with sore backs. This was the hardest bed yet, but at least it was a double. I was warm all night because my husband expells heat as if he were a bonfire.
Once we pack up, we head downstairs for pancakes. They arrive on-time, and once we’re finished, we head out on the road. At the Shivapuri National Park Office, we pay our 250 rupee entry fee, and then we walk in the direction of Kathmandu.
I have a bone to pick with Lonely Planet. They’ve served us well, and good knows I’ve sung their praises, but somehow, the bastards let us down in the last inning. For miles, when there was nothing but a narrow valley and one trail, the descriptions were detailed and precise. We knew when we had to turn, how many guest houses there would be, and which views were where. Now, in the last stretch, the description is simply ‘follow the first half of the Helambu trek backwards.’
This wouldn’t be a problem if there was only one trail with signs, but it’s not. There are side trails everywhere, and only a few have shallow arrows that have been carved in the dirt. After a bit of dithering, we find the right trail and head up.
Before the crest of our last hill, we turn around to look at the stretch of mountains for the last time. This place is beautiful.
On the other side, we begin to make our way down. I get a headache, and we take a couple brakes for me to close my eyes.
After a couple of hours, the sun comes out, and we shed our layers. We keep walking, and eventually, we hit a road and a village. We get a bit lost again, but a man redirects us, and we make our way down a thousand stairs, watching women washing their hair with hoses, families eat dal bhaat in the sun with their hands, and new-born goats test out their wayward limbs.
Near the bottom, Joshua bestows his trekking poles upon a sweaty pair of uphill hikers, and we get lost again.
Wandering around next to a rushing river that quenches the thirst of Kathmandu, I swear and curse Lonely Planet. I just want a shower and a decent meal. A chance to get off of my feet and nurse my aching head would be nice too.
We eventually find our way, and for the last 30 minutes of our trek, we greet a hundred women carrying heavy loads up the stairs. The grin and sing-song Namaste.
When we hit Sundarijal, it’s a sudden transportation to a place with cars and horns, shops with Lays potato chips and cable TV. A bus hustler hustles us, and we end up paying 200 rupees more than the local price. I sit in the front seat, close my eyes, and don’t care.
The hour long busride into Kathmandu is tame compared to any other. We start and stop and let people on and off. I doze. Joshua and I split a Snickers bar.
In Ratna bus station, near the Annapurna Permit Office, we disembark and walk back through Kathmandu to Thamel and Packnajol. At the Tibet Peace Guest House, we snag one of the last double rooms and retrieve our bags from the dark, dusty storage room.
I take a hot shower. There’s a smelly dookie in the toilet right next to me, but otherwise, the shower’s hot, and the water never runs out. Soaped and shaved, I’m a happy woman.
Back in the room, I help trim the goatee you’ll never see. We both agree it’s no great loss. Joshua quotes Shakespeare, ‘I want a man who can grow a beard, but doesn’t.’ I agree.
Once Joshua is clean and fresh-faced (and cute!), we head out on the town. In a little cafe, we order two pizzas and a beer, and when it comes, we chow down. Opening my computer, we flip through pictures and make slideshows of the best ones. It’s nice, and it feels like we’re closing out our journey with good memories.
Afterwards, we go to an internet cafe and catch up on e-mails. I research Masters of Social Work programs and discover that although Augsburg and St. Thomas offer degrees, they’re much more expensive than the University of Minnesota. It takes me nearly two hours to search through their websites and find their tuition rates, and by the end, I’m deeply frustrated. I don’t know if I can respect an institution that isn’t upfront about their costs. The University of Minnesota proudly displays their price under one of their first headings, and they have far more opportunities for scholarships. It seems I’m destined to be a gopher, after all.
My headache finally gets the best of me, and we walk back to the guest house so I can put a shawl over my eyes and fall asleep. The room is warm, and Joshua lays next to me. It’s good to be back in Kathmandu.
November 30, 2010
For breakfast, we eat pancakes. It’s still early in the morning when we set off, and we’re in hats and mittens to ward off the chill.
Up above the village, we stop for a wee and to admire the view. From here, we can see a panorama stretching from the Annapurna to the Khumbu, and it’s spectacular. It’s an uninterrupted Himalaya horizon.
The day is full of climbs and descents, and although we gain another 1000 meters, we descend 1000, too. In Chipling Bazaar, we see a cute little guest house and wish that we could stay. It has a dining room of windows and orange trim.
On the other side, we enter rice terraces and guess which path is ours. Luckily, we choose the right ones, and we see a couple of trekkers heading in the opposite direction. They stop, puff, and ask us how much further to the next village. We mercilessly tell them it’s a long way up.
It gets warmer, so we shed our layers. The sky is blue, and the terraces are bright green, even after harvest. Baby goats sleep and gallop through the grasses near the trails, and tall stands of bamboo provide shade at regular intervals. It’s a beautiful day.
In a little village nestled between two hills, we stop for lunch. With little more than a table and a couple of benches sticking out into the road, it’s not much. The woman who takes our order repeats it back slowly with emphatic gestures. We nod our head, not quite sure what will arrive on our plates.
As we play cards, the woman chats to her neighbors as she peels potatoes. We suspect our meal may a long time coming, but thankfully, there’s someone else in the kitchen, and our food arrives within the half hour.
After we eat, we pay and head back on trail. We cross a road and both a bus hustler and sadhu offer us things we don’t want. We continue on, and when we turn off on a badly washed out dirt path, we’re followed by a yellow dog with a sneezing problem.
The path climbs and climbs. The air cools, and behind us, we can see the path we’ve traveled, and behind that, the Himalaya stretch from one end of the horizon to the other.
Before we know it, we’ve arrived in Chisopani, an odd hobble of guest houses on a 4WD/ATV track. Most of the tall, cement lodges look the same, and we settle on one the color of bubble gum, with a room on the fourth floor, a glorious balcony, and plenty of windows. It even has an attached bathroom. The only drawback is that it reminded us of the set from Children of God, the one where Armageddon has come and no more children are born. It’s like a circus hall of mirrors, except there are no mirrors. Tarps hang from mysterious doorways, and there’s a water drainage problem. It smells of mold.
We hole up in our room and read, watching the sunlight play across the mountain tops and drinking tea with coconut cookies. At dinner time, we wander downstairs for a mediocre encore of dal bhat. Flipping through pictures on my computer, we accumulate an audience. Afterwards, we dart through the spooky stairs and corridors to our room, where we safely lock ourselves in.
Even though I’ve been battling a headache and general achiness all day, I read until late. Like a good hubby, Joshua cracks his eyelid, squints against the glare of a bare light bulb, and asks me if I shouldn’t go to bed. I snarl and get squirrelly, and then I apologize. He’s right. I turn off the lights, but I can’t sleep. I poke Joshua, and we stay up even later talking. We finally fall asleep with my face pressed up against his warm back. I’m the luckiest person in the world to be doing all of this with my best friend.
November 16, 2010
We had 4 days off trail. During two of those days, we endured epic bus journeys. On another, we navigated Nepali bureaucracy.
So this morning, there was no mumbling or groaning or complaining when the alarm went off at six. In fact, we leapt out of our sleeping bags, our feet itching to get on the trail. We packed up, ate Tibetan bread with eggs, slurped piping hot tea, and then got out of town.
At the permit checkpoint, we glanced at the ledger. Yesterday, nearly 30 trekkers had passed in and out of Langtang. That about 150 less than in the Annapurna. We were the first trekkers today.
Crossing a suspension bridge, we looked up at the different valleys. One takes you to the Tamang Heritage Trail, another takes you to Langtang, and the other goes up to the Gosainkund Lakes. We’ll do all of these trails by the time we’re done, but for now, we’re headed to Langtang.
On the other side of the river, old Syraphru Besi looks like a town out of a western filmset.
There’s smoke coming out of the chimneys, chickens and cows in the street, and women coming out of swinging wooden doors with buckets of water that they toss onto the gravel road that runs through the center of town.
We crossed another suspension bridge and began heading up through thick, green undergrowth. The air smelled like wood. There weren’t pines around, so it wasn’t that, but it had the same tangy, woodsy smell. Around us, the trees are starting to change colors, and the whole place is just on the edge of summer and fall.
We felt great. It sounds silly, but for some reason, finding out that Red Wing is a 20 minute drive from Ellsworth and then reading that it was ranked in the top 100 of historical destinations in National Geographic put a whole new spin on things. I started to get excited about going home and exploring it. I’m not even as worried about jobs. I’ve been kicking around the idea of waitressing, and also of getting my masters in Social Work. I’ve got all these new ideas, and I’m not feeling so anxious. The trail helps, too.
We passed through a number of small little villages with guest houses. Each of them sat on the same river, rioting past over enormous bolder the size of buses or buildings. We saw a few trekkers descending from the other direction, but otherwise, not a soul passed us (except for a weird Dutchman. He tried to walk with for a while, but I was so put off by his awkward/competitive vibe that I hardly said a word to him.).
After four and a half hours of hiking, we hit Upper Rimche. Stopping at Hotel Ganesh View, we sat at a picnic table overlooking the valley. We ordered a couple plates of veg chowmein, played a few hands of cards, and just generally marveled at our good fortune. This place rocks.
From Rimche, it was a 20 minute walk to Lama Hotel, the village where most Langtang trekkers stay on their first night. Hoping to avoid the ‘crowds,’ we decided to head on to a lone guest house, about an hour away.
The air started to cool off, and low, misty clouds rolled in and then out again. I stung my hand on a mean set of stinging nettles and had to take a Benadryl, but mostly, it was wonderful. Up ahead, we could see our first glimmers of snowy mountains.
At Riverside Hotel, a small string of rooms sits next to loud, white water. A beautiful red tree hangs over the path. The guest house keeper invited us in, and we took off our packs.
Before we lost the motivation, we ran out and did 60 push-ups and 60 sit-ups. Joshua’s training to be a policing bad-ass, and I don’t need any such excuse. Afterwards, we layered up and sat by the river. For 50 rupees, we ordered a thermos full of hot water, and feeling very thrifty, we added in our own tea bag. We saved 5 dollars. (Tea is more expensive than food here.)
We read, looking up and enjoying the view at the end of every page. At five, our guest house keeper brought out tons of Dal Bhaat, and we ate until we were stuffed. We finished the thermos of tea.
When the light went down over the hills, we moved into the kitchen where the fire under the stove was still burning. It’s warm in here, and the guest house keeping, Ukchi, is very friendly. I’m typing, and Joshua’s reading. In a bit, it’ll be bedtime.
Once I’d finished writing, Ukchi, our guest house keeper, asked to see some of our photos. I showed him our little slide show from the Annapurna. Although he’s never been there, he seemed pleased that it wasn’t too different from his Langtang Valley. He told us that his wife runs a lodge in Langtang while he runs Riverside. They spend the tourist season apart, and his three sons are all in a Kathmandu boarding school. The come home two months a year for the holidays, during Deshain and Deuwali. He seemed lonely, and he told us that life felt hard here.
Like others we’ve spoken to, he’s not impressed with the government.
We talked for a little while, and when the fire started to die out, we all said goodnight. In our sleeping bags, Joshua and I scooted in close to catch each other’s warmth, but it was a long while before we were warm enough to sleep.
November 15, 2010
Have you heard of those gravity simulators? I haven’t personally seen one in action, but I get the impression that you sit in one and then it whips you about and you feel your cheeks flap back towards your ears. Ok. Maybe that’s a bit abstract. Have you ever seen a rock tumbler? They’re the sort of craft novelty that sounds like a really great idea at the time, and I’m sure that there’s someone somewhere who has put this appliance to really great use, but the for the rest of us, once purchased, it sits on the shelf and collects dust.
Well, anyway. Imaging that you’re sitting in a little cockpit, and by whatever method, that cockpit is taken through motions one part gravity simulator and one part rock tumbler. It’s bumpy; it’s bone-jarring; and it’s one hell of a ride. Now, imagine that you are in that little cockpit for 10 hours.
Actually, I’m beginning to think that this metaphor doesn’t really do our bus ride yesterday any justice. A ‘little cockpit’ sounds quite cozy and sterile, and the bus – I assure you – was neither of these things. For a vehicle containing 30 tightly packed seats, there were an astounding number of passengers. Every seat was full, there were people standing in the aisle, the driver’s cab was bursting, and there were over a dozen perched on the roof. I would estimate that there were nearly twice as many passengers as there were seats.
There was some screaming (more on that later), some vomitting, quite a bit of dust, even more exhaust, and the distinct smell of body ordor. It was a bouncing, heaving, breathing mass of humanity that crossed mountains and teetered over the edge of chasms that seemed to fall forever. More than once, our back tire met the loose gravel on the edge of cliff face, and I watched as those little stones fell down, down, down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We woke up at 6:15 and quickly scrambled to pack up the last of our things and make it to the dining room for breakfast. After a short wait, our toast, eggs, and tea arrived, and we gobbled it all down. Outside, our taxi driver was already waiting, so we hurried to pay and check our big bags in their storage room.
The taxi ride took less than 10 minutes. Our buses stood in the street, and they already looked full. A bit apprehensive, we double and thrice checked that this bus was, in fact, headed to Syraphru Besi. Judging by nods and gestures, we boarded.
Our tickets said seats 7 and 8, and while Nepali bus rides tend to be life-threatening, chaotic ventures, the Nepali are very serious about people sitting in their proper seats. We sat.
Looking around, there were perhaps eight other Westerners who appeared to be trekking-bound. A few of them had guides, but others seemed to be going it alone, like us. Gradually, the bus became even more packed, and at 7:30 – our estimated time of departure – the bus driver started the engine and began to inch forward. Joshua was shocked. Starting on time is unheard of.
But not so fast. One irrate Nepali man stood over a couple of Westerners two rows ahead of us, telling them that these were his seats, and they need to get out. The money collector got involved, and somehow, he decided that where they needed to be sitting is where we were sitting. We looked behind us. We looked in front. There were no more seats.
Showing the money collector our tickets, we explained that these seats, in fact, were ours. We would not be moving. He disagreed. He told us that we should take ‘those seats.’ By way of explaining ‘those seats,’ he gestured to the back of the bus. There were none. Now, you might think that perhaps this was a large bus and maybe he couldn’t see ‘those seats.’ Maybe he didn’t realize that they were all full.
Nope. This was a tiny-ass bus, and I can most certainly assure you that every bleedin’ passenger could see for his or herself that there were no such seats available. The man was quite clearly trying to screw us over.
In my firmest terms, I politely availed this man of his notion. By now, the situation had escalated. There were people screaming. The man who believed that the two Westerners in front of us had taken his seats unjustly was getting in the woman’s face and gesturing angrily. I took my cues.
‘Do you see seats back there?’ I asked. ‘No, you don’t, because there are no seats back there. You are lying to me, and you know it. I bought tickets. These are mine, you see? We’re not moving.’
I could feel the blood pumping in my ears. I was pissed. Joshua, unsure of what had gotten ahold of me, put a warning hand on my arm. When the man once again tried to tell me to get out of our seats and go back to ‘those seats,’ he restrained me from, as my students would say, ‘clicking out.’ That’s right. I was about to go New Orleans on his ass.
So there was some more screaming and more gesturing. It went on like this for about 30 minutes, and then, when it became clear that our asses were rooted to those bus seats, the bus driver started the bus and made his way out of Kathmandu. The horrible, rotten-toothed money collector man tried once more to tell us to move to ‘those seats.’ I didn’t respond to him; I just gave him my meanest possible mean look. He seemed to get the idea.
It was hostile for a bit, the locals hating the tourists for taking up bus seats and the tourists resenting the locals for feeling like we’re all just money trees and as long as we hand over our rupees, they don’t give a damn what happens to us. It was the start to a fine ride.
A couple of hours later, the bus came to a stop in front of a little road-side cafe. People stumbled off to use the restroom and load up on snacks, but I stayed put. You had better believe I’m not falling for that one. Sure enough, as soon as everyone had disembarked, the Nepali man with double-booked tickets came on the bus, moved the bags from the seats, and deposited his mother and sister. He had been thoroughly awful to the Western couple, screaming and spewing spittle in their faces, but now I felt a little bit bad for him. He had paid for the bus too, and his mother was very, very old. His sister sat on the floor with her face on the seat, clutching her stomach and groaning. It was a bad situation all around.
When everyone came back on the bus, there was surprisingly little fuss. Two people volunteered to sit on the roof, and everyone who insisted on seats had them. I drowsed off and on for hours. The bus bounced over potholes and switchbacks. I took a dramamine.
At one of the stops, I hopped off and purchases a couple of mandarins and some bananas. We ate them slowly, trying to pass the time. It was only noon.
The bus kept going. Below us, the gorge dropped so far down that it went out of sight. The edge of the road crumbled away into nothingness. I tried not to look. When we hit bumps or holes so hard that our butts flew out of our seats, I wondered how the people on the roof were managing to hang on.
At 3, we arrived in Dhunche. Checking in at the permit office, we all stretched our legs for a bit. The air had gotten much cooler since Kathmandu, and everyone took out extra layers.
Back in the bus, we rode for another two hours, stopping to pick up and drop off locals along the way. This part of the road was one of the worst yet, and people began vomiting from motion sickness. I kept my eyes closed. As long as I can pretend to sleep, I’m ok.
About an hour from Syraphru Besi, I started to have that I’m-going-to-absolutely-lose-it-if-I-don’t-get-off-this-godforsaken-bus-very-very-soon feeling. By the time we got to the village, I was already half way out the door. I stumbled out onto solid ground and thanked whatever diety it was that had decided we were fit to live another day. This was our last bus ride in Nepal, and we lived to tell the tale. Now, I can tell you that Lonely Planet tells travelers to use the bus system as little as possible, because there are more bus fatalities here than anywhere else. That was my little secret that I was going to wait to tell you until it was all over, and now it is.
In Syraphru Besi, we found the first guest house, Hotel Peaceful, and immediately dumped our packs. Joshua went to order Dal Bhaat, and I went to go take care of a problem that only a course of anti-biotics can take care of.
The rest of the trekkers seemed to all lodge themselves at Hotel Peaceful too, and within minutes, the place was full. It took them a while to churn out that much Dal Bhaat, so while we waited, we played cards in the candlelight. With frequent power outages, candles are always nearby.
Dal Bhaat was delicious, and we scarfed it all down, barely coming up for air. When it was all said and done, it was nearly 7. We looked around, and no one seemed ready to head off to bed, but we reasoned that it’s trail-time. We led the way.
In our room, we laid out our sleeping bags on one of the narrow twins. It’s funny, because although we technically met and began dating in high school, I wouldn’t call us ‘high school sweethearts.’ We don’t reminisce about the good old days or all the teachers and friends that we had who were the same. Sometimes, we’ll start a story and we’ll realize that the other actually does know who we’re talking about, but it almost always comes as a surprise. We didn’t have the same friends in high school, and although we met on the school bus and we had crushes on each other for a couple of years, we didn’t start dating until the very last semester.
Sometimes though, it’s fun to take out those old stories. We tease each other about what we were thinking and when. We debate who really asked out who. We talked for a while, thinking about old friends that we haven’t seen or heard of in a long time, and then, when our eyes started to close, we learned over, kissed cold noses, and fell asleep.
November 14, 2010
After a day and a half back in Kathmandu, I know that we’ve made the right choice. We’ve been travelling for five months, and we’re tired. Our defenses are weakened, and we’re having a harder time maintaining low expectations, staying patient, and keeping a positive attitude.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Kathmandu. Even when I’m tired and impatient, I can still see those old medieval courtyards and corridors, and I know I’m someplace special. This is like no-where I’ve ever been before: it has a little bit of everything and yet, emulates nothing. This place isn’t trying to be anything but itself.
But I’m tired. Haggling over taxi prices and necessities leaves me irritated. Ignoring touts makes me feel both rude and frustrated. The honking horns make me draw in my shoulders and cringe. We’ve run a dozen errands in the past three days, and with every shop and meal, I watch the rupees drain away. Part of me wants to hibernate, but our room is dark and a little bit smelly. The bed is hard, and when I open my book, the words blur on the page. I’m distracted and anxious.
Between errands, we seek out internet, wanting something familiar. I browse through job search engines, and the blank pages bring me to a fevered pitch. I am, as ever, frantic about the prospects of finding a job and being happy while doing it.
In the state I’m in, four more weeks of wandering through India might have felt more like an obstacle than an adventure. I feel a bit embarrassed that I’m not the unflappable, come-what-may sort of traveller that I admire. I wish I could compartmentalize my fears about the future and focus my energies on the moment. I wish I weren’t tired and only excited. I’m across the world, and I’m getting to see and experience the most incredible things. Why do I feel so thread-bare?
The truth is that I’m relieved that we’ll be trekking in less than 24 hours. I’m already craving the quiet hours on trail and the bed times that come with darkness. There’s never any question of ‘what shall we do next?’ The map tells us. There are no errands, and there is nothing to buy; there are no shops. The money we spend is for food and shelter, nothing else. We’re never bored, and hopefully, in Langtang, we’ll never have to worry about the guest houses having enough room.
So there’s some guilt that we’re not stepping out of the familiar and taking India by the horns, but there’s also quite a bit of relief.
This morning, the plank of wood beneath our thin mattress threatened to bruise my hip. I told it to shut up. When Joshua threw in the towel and went off to read in the garden, I rolled over and slept another hour.
A little after 8, we walked through Thamel. Kathmandu is early to bed and late to rise, so most stalls and shops were still closed. Some school children were tugging at their collared shirts and rubbing sleep out of their eyes as they walked to class. We made our way to the German Bakery.
Sitting at the same table we sat at four weeks ago, we ordered the set breakfast and nursed cups of hot tea. The weather has gotten a bit cooler, and while we’re comfortable wearing pants and long sleeve shirts, it’s nice to warm our hand with a steaming mug.
Once we’d finished breakfast, we headed to the nearest pharmacy and loaded up on some trail basics: ibuprofen, anti-biotics, foot powder, and water purification tablets. It was one of those rewarding experiences where you ask, ‘how much?’ and the man behind the counter informs you that two courses of anti-biotics will run you less than three dollars, while fifteen tablets of ibuprofen will cost less than 20 rupees (that’s about 30 cents).
With our first aid kit refreshed, we hailed a taxi and asked him to bring us to the National Park Permit Office. He named an outlandish price, and we bargained him down to 200 rupees. We got in, but less than five minutes later, he drove us up to the wrong place and told us that he couldn’t turn around. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘it’s only a one minute walk to the office.’
We’d already been to the office, so we knew that this was the wrong place and we knew that walking there would take about 15 minutes. Too irritated to argue, we gave him 150 rupees and got out. He didn’t even complain when we told him we wouldn’t be paying the full fare; he knew he was screwing us over.
We walked the fifteen minutes to the office, and when we got there, we filled out the paper work for a Langtang National Park Permit and a new TIMS card. We showed the men behind the desk our passports, and for 4,800 rupees, we secured all the neccessary paperwork. As we left, we wondered why Nepal is the poorest Asian country. There are so many tourists here, and they make a fortune off of things like permits and visas. Where does it all go?
Following our map, we walked another ten to fifteen minutes to the Immigration Office. We filled out another form for another fifteen day extension, and then we paid an additional fifteen dollars to get the extension in fifteen minutes. Otherwise, they ask you to leave the passport and retrieve it after 3:30 PM. It would take almost that much time to walk to Kathmandu and back, and it would cost almost that much to get a taxi three ways, so we bit the bullet.
As we were waiting for our extension, a British couple asked us where they could find the permit office. We told them that we were headed back in that direction, and we would walk with them. The two were from Brighton, and for the next 28 days, they planned to hike in the Everest region. Last year, they hiked the Annapurna Circuit for the second time. In 1987, they had hiked it the first time, and although they had found the area much changed, they still loved Nepal enough to come back for more.
While we walked, we asked them a bit more about their lives. They travel every winter for four to six weeks, and although they can’t be much past their mid-fifties, they’re retired. They bought property in the 90s, and after the housing boom, they were pretty much able to live off their rental assets. They have two allotments, and they grow all their vegetables. They train and race in triathalons. They travel. Helen, the woman, smiled and said, ‘we have a pretty wonderful life.’
At the permit office, we said goodbye. On the walk, Joshua’s flip flop had broken, and although he tried to convince me that he could walk through Kathmandu barefoot, I told him to stay put. I had seen an open-air market down the road, and I thought I might be able to find another pair of sandals.
Sure enough, after a five minute walk, I found a little market filled with tables of shoes, jeans, and other odds and ends. It was the sort of place where everything has a brand name, but nothing costs more than five dollars. It was also the sort of place where absolutely no Westerners ever come. People looked so surprise to see me there, they didn’t even harass me to buy their wares. When I finally found a table with flip flops, I picked out the largest pair and offered the woman 150 rupees. She shook her head and told me that she wanted 250 rupees. Feeling irritated, I said, ‘No. I pay 150 rupees. That man,’ I gestured toward a Nepali looking at another pair of flip flops, ‘pays 100 rupees. See? I’m already paying tourist price.’
The woman looked at me and laughed a little. ‘Okay,’ she said. I handed her 150 rupees. She handed me the flip flops.
I walked back to my husband who was standing on the corner of a busy street, looking out at the racing autorickshaws and holding his broken flip flops in his hand. A dog came over and sniffed his bare feet, as if to say, ‘dude, that is SO unsanitary.’
Handing him a new pair of ‘Nike’ flip flops, we made our way back to the heart of Kathmandu. Joshua went to go see if one of the ATMs would let him take out more than 10,000 rupees, and I waited on the other side of the street, watching a man weild a sharp peice of wood like a samurai. Other Nepalis watched too. It was clear that he had a few screws loose, but he looked like he could do some damage anyway. When Joshua walked out of the ATM alcove, I gestured for him to make a wide detour around the crazy samurai. A couple Nepalis standing next to me noticed our sign language and nodded in approval. I felt like I got an ‘A’ for street smarts.
We walked back through our favorite part of Kathmandu. It wasn’t as busy as it had been during Deshain, but there were still wares spilling out of lovely wooden door frames and women selling spices on the curb. Although we had agreed not to buy anything, we spied one of the thermoses we love so much and broke down. Every Nepali family owns a lovely thermos. They are in all sorts of gorgeous colors, and they have pretty, flowered designs. They’re much to big to even consider bringing back with us, so we went inside and bought one. Joshua reassures me that he’ll be able to make it fit. I’m pretty sure that there’s not a chance in hell, but I loved it so much, I conceeded anyway. For only 300 rupees, at least I could say it was ours until we left Nepal.
Back in Thamel, we conducted some super-secret errands that I’m not allowed to tell you about, and then we bought our bus tickets to Syrubesi. In the Lonely Planet, they say that the worst part of the Langtang trek is the bus ride to get there. Ours leaves tomorrow at 7. It takes 10 hours to get there and only covers 117 kilometers. I can’t wait.
Seeking a little bit of refreshment and respite from the honking horns, we went to the Organic Green Cafe. There was free internet, and Joshua sat with me as we searched for jobs. At this point, it’s a bit too early to apply, but I want the reassurance that there are jobs out there. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much reassurance to be had. Fortunately, we discovered that Ellsworth is 18 minutes away from a ‘Top 100 Historic Destination!’ named by National Geographic – Red Wing, MN. And you know what? We can’t wait to explore. They even had a cross country skiier on the front page. Sounds like our kind of city.
With nothing much else to do, we moved on to another cafe and ordered another pot of tea (actually hot chocolate) and a plate of our favorite, chips chilly. Now, I’m writing and Joshua’s reading. Like every other man who loves to read, he’s currently falling in love with Cormac McCarthy and All the Pretty Horses.
November 13, 2010
This is the seventh bus ride that we’ve taken in Nepal, and I can say, with a small degree of expertise, that they stink. The ‘highway’ from Pokhara to Kathmandu may be Nepal’s central artery, but most other people would think twice about traversing this stretch of road with a hardy, four-wheel drive Jeep, much less a 30 passenger bus.
To bake a Nepali busride, first add switchbacks. Next, whip in multiple rest stops when all you really want to do is get the whole thing over with. Add a pinch of motion sickness, a dollop of heart-stopping cliff-side drops, and a healthy serving of dust. Serve it all up with a bus driver who has a death wish, and a radio station blaring non-stop Indian pop.
I can’t read on buses, so I sleep, sort of. By the time I’m done, my hair always looks like a rat’s next, and my neck is smarting from whip-lash. Joshua is cranky, and the two of us want nothing more than a shower and a bed.
When we arrived in Kathmandu, it was nine hours after we had left Pokhara. Once we retrieved our bags, the taxi drivers set upon us like hounds who’ve had their first smell of blood. Joshua growled and snarled back at them, but we eventually selected one who was relatively benign and agreed to drive us to Tibet Peace Guest House for a reasonable price.
Arriving at a little guest house tucked away on a side street, we happily deposited our bags in a double room. While Joshua sat down to calm his nerves, I ran off to the shower. It was the first truly hot shower I’ve had in a very long time.
Feeling a bit more human, we went in search of some food. At an Indian restaurant, we ordered curry and rice, and Joshua decided to be adventurous: he ordered the Special Taj Mahal Cold Drink. The woman taking our ordered looked dubious, and when the drink came, we understood why. It had crushed mint, salt, and savory masala spice mixed in with lemon soda. It was absolutely disgusting. The curry, however, was wonderful.
Back outside, we wandered around for a bit. In a little shop, we purchased tea and tang for the trek. I loaded posts onto my blog for the first time in a long while, and then we headed back to the guest house. Sitting in bed, we looked through our photos from Annapurna and selected the best ones. Then, absolutely weary, we fell asleep.
October 13, 2010
Kathmandu means ‘Wood City.’ Intricate carved timber lines the doors, eaves, and windows of both humble residences and beautiful temples and palaces. Some of the woodwork retains its natural brown and grey hues, but others have been painted black, red, and jewel-bright blues. I love this city. Everywhere I look, there’s more color and another lovely detail. It has personality; it’s photogenic.
Before we got here, I had set very, very low expectations. Unlike most of the other cities that we’ve visited, I have read and heard about Kathmandu. In a couple of mountaineering books, the authors had written of Kathmandu with distaste. For them, it was a polluted cacophony of noises and smells. The people were conniving, and the streets were filthy. Still others have mentioned Kathmandu’s modern edge and voiced a discontent with the not-quite-Asian, not-quite-Indian or Western city.
Joshua and I aren’t big fans of cities as a rule, so after a few bad reviews, we fully expected a neutral response. Instead, we’re in love. People wear face masks to cut down on the pollution, but when you compare the air quality to other highly populated and polluted places like Lima, Varanasi, Quito, Istanbul, or even Alicante, it’s really not that bad. There are cars and motorcycles, and some of the busier roads are very dusty and crowded, but the air hear is cooler, fresher. As far as the noises are concerned, this place can’t hold a candle to India, and the streets are comparitively pristine. For me, the draw is its vitality: it’s thriving, and although there are beggars, it seems like people here are making a living. There are so many beautiful shops set in lovely wooden, carved alcoves with copper pots and pans spilling out into the road, pashminas, saris, and fabrics piled high, and in the markets, baskets filled with bright purple eggplants, sugar cane, papaya, bushels of greens, and everything in between. There’s an abundance here that I haven’t felt anywhere else.
Tomorrow, Deshain, a festival for families and animal sacrifice, begins in earnest. The city is packed with bodies, and people are buying new outfits and foodstuffs for the party. In the park, we passed a field filled with ducks and hundreds of goats ready for slaughter. Our Nepali friends warned us that the streets and temples are going to be slick with the blood of water buffalo and other unlucky animals.
We’ve spent the last two days wandering the streets. Lonely Planet laid out a wonderful walking tour, and we poked around all these hidden passageways and courtyards, finding a street filled with beauty salons, another with dentist shops, and still more for wedding beads, fabric, and spices. Today, we explored Durbar Square, an enormous complex of temples and the House of the Kumari, the living child goddess. After two days and miles of walking, we’re still discovering new and impossibly lovely things.
This morning we woke up at 9 AM and went downstairs to meet up with Scott, Stephen, and Michelle. For breakfast, we walked into Thamel and stopped at the Weizen German Bakery for a breakfast of eggs, toast, potatoes, and tea. We relaxed for a bit, talking about plans for the day and taking advantage of the free wifi, and then we headed towards Durbar Square.
On our way to the square, I spotted a gorgeous piece of white fabric with a bold red pattern on top hanging from a shop window. When I asked the man how much he wanted for it, he told me 600 rupees. I offered him 400. He screwed up his nose, nodded his head, and said, ‘done.’
With six yards of beautiful fabric in my day bag, I was cooking up all sorts of plans: curtains? Drapes for a canopy bed? Pillows? Both Joshua and I decided that we should buy more. Nepali rupees are 70 to the dollar, so I had just purchased six yards of fabric for five dollars. With a new farm house and lots of windows to dress, buying fabric here is not only cheaper than anything we could find in the US, but the fabric is also far more beautiful.
In Durbar Square, we purchased our tickets. The complex of temples is enormous, and we spent the next three or four hours just wandering. Most of the temples were elevated on platforms like pyramids, so we could climb the steps and look out over the hustle and bustle of people getting ready for Deshain Festival. Men were carrying great bundles of fresh surgar cain on their backs, and the holy men were out in full force, blessing people with marigolds and red paint, and then demanding a fee for their holy generosity. Although we tried to avoid them, I was unavoidably blessed by one such orange-robed man in the street. He demanded 200 rupees in payment. I gave him 15.
In the meantime, we spotted the most bizarre looking animal: it looked like a goat with its horns and muzzle, but it had floppy ears and it was enormous – almost the size of a cow. With long, glossy hair, it was truly bizarre. Standing tied up to a meat shop, it didn’t look like it was long for this world.
In one of the temple courtyards, Michelle and I stumbled across two Nepali men lighting a couple of spliffs. One of the men asked us where we were from, and hearing my voice, the other man said, ‘oh, she’s American.’ I laughed and told him he was right. As we admired the temple front, the man explained the significance of the paintings. We got to talking, and he told us all sorts of things: about the meaning of Kathmandu, the Kuwari goddess and why she’s a child, the Deshain Festival, Nepali People, and the hippies and beatniks that used to come here in the 70s. They were so friendly, and when Scott and Stephen ducked into the courtyard to say that they fancied a cup a tea, we invited the two Nepali men, Pudyup and Corban, to come and join us.
We made the right choice, because Pudyup and Corban knew the best place to have a cup of tea: a little cafe hidden on top of a seven story building. From our little table, we could see all of Kathmandu valley, Durbar Square below, and little children flying their paper flags. While we drank tea, Pudyup joked that Nepal stands for ‘Neighbor en peace and love’ while India stands for ‘I’ll never do it again.’ He taught us how to say ‘thank you’ in Nepali – dhanyabad, and he also explained that Nepali don’t say ‘goodbye,’ they say faerie lan bai, or until we meet again. He said it was part of their philosophy; they don’t cut ties, they don’t say goodbye, they share of themselves, and they care for one another. Before Pudyup and Corban left, we took a picture, and Pudyup split his fingers in a peace sign for the camera.
Back down in Durbar Square, we ducked into another courtyard and met another character. Dressed in a suit and a Nepali cap, this man followed Michelle and I around, asking us where we are from and telling us that we have lovely eyes. He explained that he used to be a Casanova when he was young, but now he’s too old. He’s almost forty! He laughed and shook his head, gesturing at the beautiful Kumari living quarters behind him: ‘usually, I explain all this stuff to you. I tell you all about why it looks like this, but you know? Today I’m stoned, and right now, I’m just in the mood to make friends. Hello! How are you?’ We laughed and told him that everyone needs a vacation every once in a while, and he agreed. ‘Happy Deshain!’
After we saw the Kumari palace, we wandered through the Durbar market, looking at hundreds of antique and handmade crafts from the mountains. There were wooden dolls, bone carvings, gilt frames and masks, gorgeous mountain coral and torquise… At one counter, I sat down with one of the craftsmen to admire his earrings. I picked out five pairs, and we dickered a bit for a good price. In particular, I fell in love with a pair of earrings that look like prayer wheels. The spin just like the real thing, and they have ‘om mani padme hum’ written in Tibetan.
After a bit of market wandering, we looked through the last of Durbar Square and then parted ways for a few hours. Joshua and I had to go down to the permit office to retrieve a couple of Annapurna Trekking tickets, and Scott, Stephen, and Michelle decided to go back and explore Thamel.
To get to the permit office, we headed past Kathmandu Mall and a large park. The place was absolutely brimming with people, and everywhere we looked, there were people selling things on the sidewalks, in the streets, in the grass, and out of shop windows. I salivated over the sculptural fruit salads (papaya, apple, coconut, and pineapple skewered down with shards of sugar cane).
At the permit office, the men behind the desk were in a flurry. Festival is tomorrow, and they’re closing early. At first, they told us to come back in a couple of days, and then they finally relented. After filling out a bit a paper work, submitting our passport photos, and paying a couple of fees, we got our permits, and a few thousand rupees poorer, we wandered back.
Before we got back the more touristy part of Kathmandu, we stopped to do some shopping. There wasn’t a Westerner in sight, so we figured this might be a better place to get some good deals. On a blanket over the sidewalk, we purchased a couple more long pieces of gorgeous fabric with very retro, bold floral designs, and then in a sari shop, we dickered with a very stiff salesman for four more lovely pieces. In another shop, Joshua bought a knock-off North Face day pack for the Annapurna trek, and in another shop, we bought even more fabric: 8 meters of the most beautiful ochre, handwoven silk. In all, for eight pieces of fabric – and not a one of them less than 5 meters – we spent a little less than 90 dollars. The most expensive was the handwoven silk (30 dollars for 8 yards), but if you saw it, you’d understand. Josh’s new pack was 2000 rupees, and with 50 liters of space, it will hold some of our newly acquired booty 🙂
Back in Thamel, we met up with Scott, Stephen, and Michelle at a Tibetan-Mexican restuarant. Joshua and I both ordered enchiladas which were delicious, and Scott ordered a tongba, a traditional hot millet beer, with his meal. The beer is actually a refill sort of deal, so we all had a try, and it was delicious – hot and yeasty, and very, very strong – you drink it with a straw, refill it with a thermos of hot water, and inside the mug, there’s a ton of fermented millet.
After dinner, Joshua, Stephen, and Scott went to the Internet cafe, and Michelle and I wandered back to the guest house. Right now, I’m catching up on my writing, listening to the sounds of the street below.
October 12, 2010
The bus pulled into Kathmandu at 6:30 AM, and a man came onto the bus to corral the five of us. Stuffing our bags onto the roofrack, we all bundled into his car and took in the still-silent streets of Kathmandu as he drove to Hotel Peace Night. Once at the guest house, we unloaded our stuff in simple rooms and parted ways, planning to meet up again around 11 AM.
Joshua finally had his appetite back, so before we took a nap, we wandered over to the Yak Restaurant in Thamel for a little breakfast. I ordered a banana pancake, and Joshua had a filling potato, egg, and toast plate. While we ate, I scrambled to catch up with a little writing, and Joshua perused the Lonely Planet, thinking up a grand plan for the next few days.
Back at the guest house, we took showers and laid down for a couple of hours. When we woke up, we met up with Scott, Stephen, and Michelle and walked over to the Indian Embassy to work out the Permit to Re-enter. The walk to the Embassy was about a mile, and on our way there, we gained our first introduction to the city. With cycle rickshaws shooting through the streets and beautiful, old buildings with lovely woodwork lining either side, it had more personality and detail than most of the Indian cities we’ve seen so far. I’m not sure what it was, but I was already starting to love it.
At the Indian Embassy, we filled out another visa form, a permit to re-enter, and then we hopped over to a photocopy center to copy our Indian visa, our enter and exit stamps, and our on-going flight out of Delhi. Back at the Embassy, we dropped off our passport with instructions to come and collect them at 5 PM. In all, it took about 45 minutes.
By now, Scott, Stephen, and Michelle were absolutely famished. We high-tailed it back to Thamel and using LP as our guide, we found Thakali Restaurant, a place known for its Nepali food. Inside, the place was bustling with a lunch hour rush, and although most of the tables were full, there wasn’t a Westerner in sight. Feeling like we had discovered a well-kept secret, we ordered Thalis and drinks, and then ate until we thought we would burst.
Once we were done eating, we still had a few hours before we needed to be back at the Embassy. Deciding to stick together, we followed Joshua as he used the Lonely Planet walking tour to guide us through the city. We walked for three hours, and during that time, I fell completely in love. The buildings, shops, people, food, spices, temples… This place is wonderful. In particular, I loved this hidden passageway that was just filled with glittering wedding beads.
Just before 5, we headed back to the Embassy. There were a couple dozen other people there, but it didn’t take long to get our passports back, and when we did, we were all granted a permit to re-enter. Voila! What a relief 🙂
Although we weren’t starving, we were tired, and we decided to stop for dinner before we headed back to the guest house. At Chang Cheng, we found a really authentic Chinese Food place, and we all ordered the most fabulous meals: Szechuan chicken, Lemon chicken, braised tofu, and braised eggplant. It was an amazing meal.
Back at the guesthouse, we went up to the rooftop to play cards and drink beer, but we ended up just talking. We’ve been so lucky to run into these guys – they’re very laid back and extremely friendly. It’s a comfortable group to sight-see with, and we really enjoyed talking to one another. We stayed up for a bit, but we were all exhausted from the bus ride, so we said goodnight after a bit, with plans to see one another tomorrow.
October 11, 2010
We woke up at 6:30 AM to catch a rickshaw to the train station. When we got there, we wandered through the crowds until we found a digitized schedule that said where our train would depart from. Finding the correct platform, we took off our packs and sat on them to wait.
For breakfast, we grabbed a couple packs of biscuits, and while we nibbled, we watched baby monkeys wrestle and play on the opposite platform. They’re so adorable, I could probably watch them for hours.
While we waited, I watched people. Varanasi is the busiest city we’ve been to so far in India, and it’s also the poorest. Everywhere I looked, there were beggars. One man was just wearing underwear, and he was standing near the tracks, peeing. Shit was running down his legs. Another man was leggless, begging for food. Old women were starving and missing limbs.
One boy came up to me, and the sight of him turned my stomach. I’ve never seen a more emaciated human in my entire life. He was so thin, I could see every vertebrae, the sharp angles of his scapulae, each outline of his pelvis, and his knees looked almost oversized. He was just a child. My throat closed up and my eyes welled with tears, but it felt inappropriate to cry. He’s the one in pain. It was so awful. He held out his hands to us, and although he wanted money, I gave him cookies. He sat down to eat them, lowering his bones painfully to the floor, and once he was sitting next to us, I gestured for him to stay. Down the platform, I ordered a few pieces of naan and dahl, and then I brought it back to him. He was so malnourished, he could barely eat half of it.
After the boy left, an old man in rags and crazed eyes approached us. He started talking loudly, and then he knelt and touched our feet over and over again. We asked him to stop, but he continued. At one point, he hawked and spit right in front of us, and then prostrating himself, he rubbed his forehead in the spit and muttered. Sitting back upright, he touched our feet a few more times and then, blessedly, moved on. Joshua and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘what the fuck was that all about?’ We both bust out laughing.
Less than five minutes before we expected our train to arrive, a woman’s voice came over the loudspeakers, and everyone standing near us picked up their bags and walked over to another platform. We followed suit, praying that we were about to get on the right train.
When the train arrived, we spent a few frantic, harried moments trying to figure out which sleeper car was ours, and then finally, we found someone who spoke a little English and was able to direct us to the right place. For the next three hours, we laid in our sleeper seats, reading. I finished Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, hankering for a good bottle of wine and some roasted vegetables, and then I started Michael Pallin’s New Europe.
Half an hour before our train arrived in Gorakhpur, we moved our bags to the open space at the end of the sleeper. There, two English men were sitting, enjoying the breezes coming in from the open doors. Scott and Stephen are both from Canterberry, and the two of them have been traveling for about ten days. Apparently, Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi absolutely wore them out, and now they’re headed for a little rest and respite in Pokhara, Nepal. We chatted for a little bit, comparing travel notes and plans, and then Scott recommended that we hold onto the side bars and hang out the door to catch a breeze.
If I wasn’t already in love with the trains, I am now. Hanging outside of the train made me feel like I was in the old west, except there were rice paddies and banana trees in the scenery. I hung out there for a long while, feeling the wind cool me down, and enjoying the beautiful green things rushing by.
Finally, we arrived in Gorakhpur. As we left the train station, another English traveller, a woman named Michelle, joined us. She was headed for Kathmandu, so the five of us banded together to find a bus to the border. As we walked through town, a number of touts bombarded us with outrageous (and some not-so-outrageous) offers for taxi rides, but we eventually decided just to take the bus.
Placing a great deal of trust in the goodwill of our fellow Indian travellers, we relinquished our packs to a man atop the bus. I don’t even think he strapped them down, but before we knew it, we were abroad an intensely crowded bus. Once again, the seats were crammed in close, and our knees knocked heavily against the seats in front of us.
It cost 70 rupees apiece for a two and a half hour busride to Sonauli, on the border of India and Nepal. I dozed off and on, and every time we stopped, I worried about our bags. The men and women packed into the isle starred at us. A couple of them leaned over us to the window, horked loudly, and then spit with gusto.
In Sonauli, everyone got off the bus, and thankfully, each of us received our packs unharmed. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Then, not really sure where we were headed, we walked in the same direction the bus had been going. Before long, a man came up to us, and not trying to sell us anything, explained to us that we each needed 7,000 rupees for a Nepali visa, and that we also needed to secure an exit stamp from Indian immigration. Leading us across the street, he deposited us at the Indian immigration office where we each filled out a couple of forms and had our passports stamped. When we asked about the mutliple entry/ permit to re-enter debacle with our Indian visas, the men explained that we would need to go to the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. They would be able to issue us a permit to re-enter there, and it shouldn’t be a problem. They were sure that it wouldn’t take any longer than a couple of hours, so we all felt somewhat reassured.
The only other border crossing I’ve ever done by land was from the US to Canada and, I suppose, England to Scotland. Although the US gets in a right huff about stamping passports and checking cars and what not, Canada couldn’t seem to care less, and we were just able to drive right on through. Scotland just had a road sign. As for India and Nepal, I’m not sure what I expected, but it was sort of surreal to carry our packs under the sign that said ‘Indian border’ and then a few meters later ‘Welcome to Nepal.’ People were crossing the border on foot by the dozens, and all around us, there were relaxed military men watching people come and go. On the other side, we walked into the Nepali Immigration Office, and there, the men allowed Joshua to run off to get some money from the ATM while I waited with our packs and passports (thank god). Apparently, when he got to the bank, he asked the military guard how much he was allowed to take out of the ATM. The max was 10,000 rupees, and when the ATM shelled out the bills, the guard threw his hands up in the air, wiggled, and shouted, ‘10,000 rupees!’ like he had just won the lottery. When Joshua pulled out 10,000 more, the man did it again, beside himself with glee. Joshua decided right then and there that he loved Nepal.
When Joshua got back, we filled out a few forms, paid 7,000 rupees each for a 30 day visa (we’re going to have to get a 15 day extension in Pokhara – the man said it’s very easy, and it’s just 3 dollars more a day, so we’ll save about 20 dollars each by doing that instead of buying the 90 day visa). When we finished, the five of us loaded our packs back on and went in search of a bus to Kathmandu. Although Scott and Stephen had initially planned on just heading to Pokhara, they decided to stick with us and head to Kathmandu because they also needed to get the permit to re-enter.
A few meters down the road, a bus tout found us and led us to his bus. I love the buses and carrier trucks here; they are decorated with bright, colored lights, intricate gold and silver foil, paint, and little altars to Hindu gods and Bodhisattvas. After we agreed to the bus, the man led us to the ticket office where we each paid a couple hundred rupees for the 12 hour (!) bus ride to Kathmandu. The man at the office was really helpful, and when he told us that he also owned a budget hotel in Kathmandu and that he would be happy to arrange an early check-in plus transportation from the bus station to the hotel, we all agreed.
Back outside, we waited for the bus for about 30 minutes. While we waited, we purchased a couple bags of chips and cookies – it was already 5:30, and we hadn’t eaten anything except a couple of cookies all day. As we munched on our snacks, a couple of Nepali men came up to us and gave us the 411: in Nepal, it’s 15 minutes later than in India. Oh, and it’s also 2067 – Nepal’s a good 57 years and 15 minutes ahead of India. The bus? It should be about 10 minutes late because it takes more time to run businesses and also be friendly. The money’s different; the language is different; the people are different. Welcome.
We laughed, and all of us agreed that we had already noticed the difference between India and Nepal. In the immigration office, it was all smiles and advice on how we can save money. In the bank, it was like we had won the lottery. The bus ride was inexpensive, and everyone was helpful. We were already in love.
Stowing our packs in a little locked luggage space below the bus (so I could breathe easier), we headed onto the bus and found our seats. Although it was a little cramped, the seats reclined, and we spent the first hour of the ride talking to our seatmates, a man from Agra, a Nepali man, and a couple more Himalayan cowboys. They were all incredibly friendly, and they wanted to know all about our trip. By the time the lights went out, my face hurt from smiling so much.
That said, the bus ride was a little ridiculous. We stopped a dozen times, and although I slept, it was one of the more unpleasant night bus rides we’ve taken so far. Apparently, I slept through a police check in the middle of the night, but the men just questioned Stephen on behalf of all of us. They were uninterested in our visas or passports or even in the fact that we had just met less than 12 hours ago. They just wanted to know if we liked Nepal. Stephen said he was fairly sure that he could speak for all of us: yes. Emphatically so.
The 411 on Indian Visas, Nepali Visas, and a land border crossing between India and Nepal:
I’m including this in the post because, although I searched high and low for this information before we left, I was unable to find any solid information. Hopefully, this helps.
1) Joshua and I have 6 month, multiple entry visas for India; however, India stipulates that there be a two month gap between an exit and re-entry into the country. When we arrived in Delhi, the man at immigration said that this didn’t apply to neighboring countries, but that’s not entirely true. You do need a permit to re-enter (Travisa, the private company that filed our visas in the states, also said that this wouldn’t be an issue, but they’re also mistaken.).
*Note: I recently discovered that Americans can get longer Indian visas. I think Derrick and Aubrey said that there are 2 and even 10 year visas. I never saw these, but they have them, so it is possible to get them. They just cost a bit more.
2) In order to re-enter India before the two month gap, you need to go to the Indian Embassy. In Nepal, the Embassy is in Kathmandu (and nowhere else). If you have a Lonely Planet, the Embassy is clearly marked on your map, and although it’s a little bit of a walk from central Thamel, it can be done in less than 30 minutes.
3) Once you get to the Embassy, you need to get two pieces of paper work: one looks exactly like the visa application form you filled out to get your original visa, and another is a half sheet of paper requesting a permit to re-enter. Next, you need to make copies of your Indian Visa, your passport, and the India entry/exit stamps. In addition, you need proof that you plan to leave India (a copy or print out of your plane ticket is fine). Finally, staple a passport photo to the documents and hand it all in. It’s probably best to do this all before noon. Once you’ve handed it in, they’ll take your passport and tell you to come back at 5 PM. At 5 PM, you’ll have to wait in line for a bit, and then they’ll give your passport. Inside, you’ll have a stamp that says you’re allowed to re-enter before the two month waiting period.
4) In all, it takes about 45 minutes to go through the whole permit process at the embassy, and then it takes about 30 more minutes to get your passport back at the end of the day. With a 30 minute walk there and back a couple of times, it’s a few hour ordeal, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.
5) For a Nepali Visa, you can just acquire one from the immigration office as your crossing the border. They don’t accept 1000 rupee notes, so you’ll have to get a currency exchange for 500 rupee notes (there’s a currency exchange across from the Indian immigration office). Otherwise, they’ll accept Indian, Nepali, or American currency. The visas cost a different amount depending on how long you want to be there, but no more than 100 dollars for a 90 day visa.
6) It’s possible to get a shorter visa for less money and then get an extension at one of the immigration offices either in Kathmandu or Pokhara. I haven’t done it yet, but apparently, it’s relatively easy, and it can save you some money.
7) To cross the border into Nepal overland, there are a number of different ways (all listed in Lonely Planet). Here’s how we did it: 1) We took a 3 1/2 hour train ride from Varanasi to Gorakhpur. This cost about 275 rupees per person. 2) We found a bus to Sonauli from Gorakhpur (this was a little tricky, but you could just as easily just take a cheap autorickshaw ride and ask them to bring you to the correct bus). They leave about every hour, and they cost 70 rupees a person. It should take less than 3 hours to get there. 3) In Sonauli, you need to first go to the Indian Immigration Office to fill out some paperwork and get an exit stamp (a small, open air office that sits right on the road), then you walk across the border and go to the Nepali Immigration Office to fill out more paperwork and pay for a visa. 4) From the border, you’ll be able to find buses to either Pokhara (6 to 8 hours) or Kathmandu (12 hours). The bus to Kathmandu costs 550 Nepali rupees per person.
Annapurna Conservation Area Entry Permit and Trekking Information Management System (TIMS)
1) You need to pay an entrance fee to get into the Annapurna. It requires some paperwork, two passport photos, and 2,000 Nepali rupees per person.
2) You need to register with the governmnet in order to trek, and that’s why you get the TIMS. It requires some paperwork, a passport photo, and 1,500 Nepali rupees per person (Lonely Planet is wrong; it’s not free.)
3) To get both the Permit and the TIMS, you can go to the Trekking Permit Office in either Kathmandu or Pokhara. Details are listed in Lonely Planet, but the hours are a bit off: make sure you show up before 3 PM. They close earlier than the listed 5 PM. You can walk to the Office from Thamel; it’s about a mile and a half.