The first time I went to Kathmandu, it was a shock. I'd flown in from London through Abu Dhabi on a sparkling clean new jet with Qatar Airways, its antiseptic atmosphere and half-filled passenger compartment mirroring my romantic notion of the city as a clean-swept Himalayan Shangri La of immaculate temples and spacious plazas, with a vibrant commercial quarter where a small populace bartered for goods traded from Tibet left behind by noble mountaineering expeditions. Reality was completely different: Kathmandu was fundamentally just another corrupt, dirty, inefficient, smog-and-garbage-filled Asian city seething with shoulder-to-shoulder humanity. The press to pay visa fees and clear customs at the dilapidated, overly bureaucratic airport made a pow-day liftline in Creekside seem sane, and the choking air outside — a mix of cooking-fire woodsmoke, burning garbage and diesel — a stinging eye-opener.
That was in 1999, before travellers regularly conducted thorough studies of destinations via Google or checked out Trip Advisor. It was easy to have no real idea what you were getting into, to calibrate your expectations based on commentary in climbing books or the few photos you'd seen which, as images often do, took the measure of a place's best features. Sure there was Lonely Planet, but as my trip was last-minute, I'd had no time for information-dense guidebooks. Notwithstanding constant shocks to my system, however, I'd quickly fallen for Kathmandu's chaotic vibe. More than anything, I'd found its strangely polytheistic (mostly Buddhist and Hindu) art, architecture and culture wildly interesting, and soon simply stopped noticing the city's otherwise jarring affronts to my sensibilities and embraced its madding street life, where everything seemed to take place.
The first thing I'd needed to do was organize a guide for a planned trek to Annapurna Base Camp, and for that you headed into the narrow, raucous streets of Thamel district where, among other hallmarks, the '70s were still alive and well. An area once favoured by hippie travellers, Thamel had transitioned itself to Kathmandu's centre of climbing, trekking and rafting, a place where most westerners now found themselves at one time or another during a visit, whether for lodging, dinner, to book trips, or simply walk around agog at it all. Thamel was a place both stalled in time and reaching for the future. On streets thronged by pedestrians, pedi-cabs and motor scooters, vendors hawked all manner of mass-produced hammered, smelted and carved souvenir, plus anachronistic hippie clothing and bags featuring Nepali iconography. There was also the aforementioned gear discarded by passing mountaineering royalty — you could even buy "unused" oxygen bottles (though few would dare to be so foolish). Out of every second establishment blared music from The Doors, Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (invariably "Kashmir" or "Stairway to Heaven"). There were numerous guiding outfit offices and, this being the '90s, literally hundreds of Internet cafés where eager white faces lined up to check emails on rickety PCs with glacial-paced connections and constant power outages. There was no such thing as coffee to assuage the frustration — the only panacea being a cup of ubiquitous tea.
Beyond Thamel, Western tourists generally visit great stupas like Swayambhunath — the famous Monkey Temple — or the Pashupatinath Temple where wild-looking Hindi ascetics sit stoically beside monuments collecting photo ops and occasional alms while bodies burn in non-stop succession on the ghats across the Bagmati River. The latter is irresistible to foreigners; no matter how macabre the smell of a roasting body, you're hypnotically drawn towards it. Trying to divine the ritual behind the smoke, you realize it's all dust in the wind so to speak—you're either breathing what's left of the body and its orange wrap or its ashes are being swept into the Bagmati to make room for the next one.
Mere observation however, obviates the real history of the Kathmandu Valley and its main inhabitants, the Newar people, which dates to the 7th century BC. Kathmandu itself was founded during the Malla dynasty of the 12th century AD, when settlements grew up around the trade route to Tibet and resthouses of religious pilgrims. Originally called Kantipur, most of the city's superb temples, buildings and other monuments were erected during this period.
When I returned to the city in December 2015, I would learn that and more. This time, however, I was trekking to Everest, the mountain whose image and legend has held sway over the city since Ed Hillary and Tenzing Sherppa "knocked the bastard off" in 1954. I'd start my journey by staying with a Newari family, note the ways in which the city had changed, and see firsthand how recent stirrings of the Himalaya — the world's youngest mountain range at 70 million years — had affected everyone and everything when the earth cracked open in the great quake of Apr. 25, 2015.
Next time — Finding Everest II: Into the Himalaya
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.