27 May 2016

Kathmandu – Happiness, feelgood weather and rubble

My 2 months in the island paradise of Koh Phangan were done and I headed out to new adventures. The next stop would be a 21 day meditation retreat in Nepal, Osho Tapoban. A generous Indian friend thought I might benefit from such a thing and promised to sponsor a retreat, so who was I to say no to such a gift. Osho had been following me around since Arambol and the bhajan circle on the beach, and after reading some of his books I got more and more curious. I wanted to do the retreat in Dharam sala, India, originally, but since I had no desire to either leave Koh Phangan earlier or apply for a new Indian visa, I settled for Nepal.

So, off to Surat Thani, where I almost missed my flight even though I had planned a generous buffer of time between the ferry and flight. The lovely travel agency made me wait for a lift to the airport from the bus station for 1,5 hours even though I continuously pestered them and told them repeatedly that I needed to be there at 11 and not leave at 11 from the bus station. My mood swung between desperation, resignation and acceptance as the bus snailpaced towards the airport, stopped at seemingly all the traffic lights and even made a pause to fill up the tank. The check-in would close at 12 according to the ticket, and as we still had 10 kilometers to go at 11.50, I mentally prepared myself to shed tears (which wouldn't have been difficult in the mental state I was in) and plead my way into the plane. The bus finally reached the airport around 12.10 and I hit the ground running, or more like waddling with all my stuff. And lo and behold, there was no problem. No tears needed, there were still people at the check-in counter, nobody gave a second glance at my completely overweight carry-on bag or my ridiculously big „handbag“. So I checked in Mr. Osprey and then went to the restroom to have a slight meltdown/relief. Another hindrance averted!

Plane change in Kuala Lumpur revealed what I'd been told to expect: a long line of Indian men all pushing and shoving to get into the plane, as if worried that it would take off without them. I felt at home already! India, here we come. Oh wait, I was going to Nepal, not India. You could have fooled me...

After apparently some delay (I wasn't really aware of the time difference, apparently I was going to timezone UTC +5:45. Who knew there were 15 minute timezone borders! Not me.) we landed in Kathmandu, where all the Indian men promptly jumped out of their seats and started opening the overhead lockers the minute the plane touched ground, much to the (somewhat resigned) annoyance of the air hostesses. Busy busy, these Indians. Mr. Osprey arrived, I entered my details into a visa computer system, got a printed slip stating my application had been accepted and proceeded to pay for the visa at the designated counter. Newsflash: Nepal is super easy to get into. You can apply for a visa beforehand but there is no need, as you can get either a 15 day, 30 day or 90 day visa on arrival by using one of the computers and paying the fee. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. So, hello Nepal!

The hotel dude was waiting for me even though we were delayed, and we drove through almost pitch blach and very very quiet Kathmandu to Kathmandu Boutique Hotel. I was a little annoyed I didn't get a room like the pictures in Booking.com, but my room was huge, with two beds, a kitchen table and counters, so I didn't want to complain. I headed out for a late night snack and bought some interesting deep fried potatoes and mushrooms from a street vendor before calling it a night.

The next day was reserved for getting the lay of the land and doing some souvenir shopping. I was staying on the outskirts of the main (only) tourist area, Thamel. I spent the day walking the streets, stopping to eat at places I'd checked on Tripadvisor and just sniffing the (dusty, cough) air. I really like Thamel. Yeah, it's touristy and the shops sell the same same, but it's beautiful same same. Lots of the clothes I drool at on festivals are made in Nepal, so I could've bought half the merchandise that was on sale here. I didn't, since I don't have room in my bags, but boy was I tempted. Such pretty things!

And the people! Unbelievably friendly. And everyone speaks such good English! Imagine that I had to come to Nepal for that. I'd heard that Nepal was very backward and undeveloped, and that is most probably the case in the rural areas, but the capital (or the touristy part of it) really blew me away. Lots of young, well-dressed, beautiful people (not westerners but local looking people). And even in the tourist area and the surrounding older parts of the city where my stroll took me the general vibe was quite laid back despite the bustle of everyday life. People were smiling, the shopkeepers seemed genuinely friendly and not trying to push their wares at all cost and almost not letting you leave the shop like many times in India. I just sensed that people were happy and content, which made quite a difference to the hectic and competitive vibe of India. If India's energy was nervously busy, Nepal was mellow. I felt at ease despite the huge culture shock of being in a city after the peace of Koh Phangan.

And the temperature! After the sweltering heat of Koh Phangan, the cooler air was a very sweet thing indeed. It's hard to describe, but this exact temperature of around 25-28 degrees is such a feelgood temperature for me that it's ridiculous. It reminds me of the perfect summer days in Berlin, where you wake up, go shopping at Boxi for some fresh veggies, have an espresso from the espresso guy basking in the morning sun and then spend the day hanging out with friends, enjoying the balmy (for Europe!) summer weather. The never ending, blissful day that stays warm even when the sun sets, and you feel so alive, like all the amazement and joy of life was concentrated on this one perfect summer day. The air even tasted and felt the same here, somehow, even though I was kind of far away. It really is impossible to describe, but I felt so at home, so at peace, even among all the newness that was Nepal. A unique experience; I've never felt anything like this anywhere except in Europe. Brimming with gratefulness <3

I had 3 days in Kathmandu before the beginning of the retreat, and I used the time to walk around, eat (restaurant reviews follow later) and see some sights. I checked out Durbar Square (got bullied to take a guide which was a mistake), the Boudha Stupa (a huge onion shaped temple) and the Monkey temple, which was one of the most beautiful spots I've ever been at. There's just something deeply appealing about craggly trees adorned with millions of prayer flags and awesome views... I'm not usually one to enjoy temples, but if they are in amazing spots like this one and its namesake Monkey temple in Hampi, then sign me up. If you only have time for one spot to see in Kathmandu, do the Monkey temple. Seriously.

One of the Durbar square temples
Memories of the earthquake
Boudha Stupa
Stairway to heaven (or Monkey temple)
Ok, restaurants. If you're not into foodie business, skip ahead now. I had quite a tight schedule as I wanted to try as many of the highly rated places as I could. The first day I started by having lunch at Gaia Restaurant. Their menu looked really yummy but I wasn't that hungry, so I settled for veggie momos (steamed dumplings) and a fruit smoothie. Super super good! And the place was really cute, tucked away at a back alley, very quiet and beautiful, with the mandatory prayer flags and even a library, so one could spend the day there, easily, grazing through the menu ;).

Momo nomnom
For dinner I headed for an Israeli place OR2K. Very beautiful and the menu is an artwork. Sadly most of the Israeli stuff is always very wheaty, and even though I was in an indulgence mode, I opted for a a veggie sizzler. I hadn't had a sizzler since Hampi and the long wait was rewarded: the veggie patty was really yummy and the accompanying thinly sliced raw veggies wonderfully crisp. But what was even more amazing was the dessert: a chocolate souffle to die for! A bowl of smooth, warm chocolatey goo, topped by a thin crisp cake layer. And vanilla ice cream. One of the most amazing desserts I've had on this trip, for sure. A sure sign that this is indeed a benevolent Universe. I can't sing the praises of that dessert loud enough. Go and eat it, if you're ever in the neighborhood! It's so worth it.

Until I go back for a second helping, you will have to do with a picture of empty plates
Next day I did sightseeing, so lunch was had at Boudha. I went there with a local bus, helped by an amazingly nice local guy who guided me to the right bus among the turbulent mass of vehicles and noise. Local buses are such an amazing way to get to see the real life and even have chats with locals. I sat with a friendly Nepali girl and we traded Facebook details. After arriving at the Stupa (and being somewhat underwhelmed... I mean yeah, it's a huge white onion surrounded by prayer mills and flags, but not my cup of tea) I looked for a place to have lunch. What is my cup of tea, though, are conscious food cafes, and I was amazed to find one, Bliss Raw Cafe, tucked away in the inner courtyard, amid all the touristy same same restaurants. I had their set lunch menu, which was pretty but taste-wise nothing to write home about, but the raw cake I had for dessert really was a jackpot. A coconut goji berry raw cake, the likes of which I've never ever tasted before. I so need to try and recreate that. A wonderful find, this cafe <3 

Since you ask: No, I have no idea what that alien thingie on top of the cake was. I ate it, I didn't die.

Dinner after marvelling the Monkey temple was had at Rosemary's kitchen, another Tripadvisor recommendation. A beautiful place with seating indoors and outdoors at a inner courtyard, which was sadly already full, so I had to settle for a table indoors. The staff was super friendly and attentive, and in no time I had a delicious butter chicken masala and a homemade mint lemonade in front of me. Yummy, but not ├╝berspecial. Dessert: an ok fruit salad. Nothing amazing. But the other, heavier, menu items, like the speciality rosemary chicken sounded really good as well, so maybe next time I'll try something else. They also had all sorts of cakes and yummy sounding desserts, but I was on healthy mode and chose the fruits.

The last day of the Kathmandu stay I went trekking. A guide for the day plus a taxi there and back cost 80 USD, which is apparently quite an ok rate for such a package. I didn't do that much research, but at least one website advertised the same thing for 100 USD, so I don't think I was ripped off. We drove to Changu Narayan and checked out the oldest temple in Nepal and then headed up towards Nagarkot. The weather was cloudy like it is almost all the time now, so close to the monsoon, but the views were still pretty decent. The trek meandered through forest and small villages and it was very interesting to see how basic the living conditions outside the city really are. I'm talking sheet metal and plastic here. And there were Oxfam and Red Cross tents still around, remnants of the earthquake.

Oxfam shelters still very much in use
Red Cross was here
Either I'm in worse physical condition than I thought or the altitude (around 2 km) did its duty, but the 3,5 hour trek was quite demanding. I was huffing and puffing and my muscles screaming as we finally reached Nagarkot. Lunch was had at a cute restaurant called Berg something (a tradtional Nepali daal bhat, which is the equivalent to Indian thali. It wasn't really that good, to be frank.) and then we took our taxi to a nearby viewpoint before heading back to Kathmandu. The only view that was to be had were the milling locals who seemed to be enjoying themselves despite the light drizzle and the fact that there was absolutely nothing to be seen of the view because of the clouds. But I enjoyed seeing the locals have fun :)

Thali Nepali style
The view on the viewpoint consisted of locals

Back in Kathmandu I tried to find a sister restaurant for the Cookie Walla in Arambol as I didn't get to try their over the top desserts in India, but I never found it :(. But I did find the next best thing, one of the cutest restaurants I've been to: Places. I treated myself to a fruit salad with ice cream and a mint lassi. Yum! 

The last supper was had at Green Organic Cafe: a huge portion of grilled veggies and cheese with tomato sauce. Not super amazing, but very good in a basic kind of way, and it was really nice to get some organic veggies for a change. And the paneer type cheese was really nice and salty. Plus they give you a stamp card where you get a stamp for every 500 rupees you spend, and after 3 stamps you get 20 % off your next order. Sweet!

So, that was my Kathmandu! Next stop: meditation in Osho Tapoban. And now for some more photos

More Monkey temple

...and more

Monkey temple monkeys

Dinner and dessert? :P Well, it IS a weed, so makes sense it grows like one...