Kathmandu: Initial Impressions

The trek was only 10 of the 14 days we were in country. This allowed for an arrival day and some sightseeing (i.e., shopping) the first day, touring the second morning before an afternoon flight to Pokhara, the 10 actual days on trekking, a travel day back to Kathmandu from Pokhara (allowing an open afternoon in Kathmandu), and a departure day.

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First shot in Kathmandu. Security is tight when the route has previously been highjacked.

While the trek was obviously the primary reason for the trip, I had always wanted to see Kathmandu and was excited to spend some time in the city. All the climbing books I’ve read (i.e., “Into Thin Air,” “The Climb,” “View From the Summit,” etc.) describe Kathmandu as a quaint, mystical village on a hill where climbers gather to provision their trip, hire porters, and enjoy a few beers before beginning their expeditions. Well, I’ve got news for you Jon Krakauer and Ed Visteurs – it’s not. It’s crowded, it’s polluted, and it basically felt like a less developed version of India (Note, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (unless you like to breathe without coughing), it just wasn’t what I expected).

One advantage Kathmandu has over India is that they actually import outdoor gear. We had had issues finding any sort of equipment in India and asked a rather large favor of a co-worker and had him bring a duffel bag of gear from REI when he visited in mid-March. In hindsight, we could have purchased everything in Kathmandu but didn’t want to take that chance. Needless to say, there were some final items we still needed (primarily trekking poles, headlamps, and Nalgene bottles) that we had left off the REI list that we were able to purchase at the local Mountain Hardware and The North Face store in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. In addition to the “official” stores, the market stalls were littered with knockoff gear that we elected to stay away from.

Your Friendly Corner Currency Concierge

Kathmandu wasn’t all negative, but when your most treasured memory of a city is illegally negotiating the exchange rate of Indian Rupees at a street side currency exchange, it’s probably not a city where you need to spend a lot of time.

For some reason, larger denomination Indian Rupee notes (specifically INR 500 and INR 1000) are illegal to bring into or take out of the country of Nepal. We had heard they weren’t easily accepted but no one mentioned the legality issue, which I found out only after my little exchange. We weren’t sure what currency we needed to exchange but figured a mix of US Dollars and India Rupees with our ATM cards as insurance would suffice for the trip; however, our ATM cards wouldn’t work for some reason (our fellow travelers didn’t have the same issue) and I quickly saw that INR wasn’t listed as an exchangeable currency on any of the boards on the street. While we had enough US currency for the trip, we really didn’t want to deplete our US currency unnecessarily. Without the dollars, it was going to be close (credit cards are accepted at legitimate stores and hotels) and it immediately caused unnecessary stress on the first day of a two week trip.

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Thamel

I finally decided to just ask a currency exchange if they would exchange Indian notes for Nepalese Rupees (NPR). The girl looked me over, asked what denomination, questioned someone in the back of the kiosk if it was OK to exchange, and offered me a rate of 1.45 NPR per INR. Not realizing I was negotiating on the black market, this seemed low to me (the rate on Google’s exchange rate search prior to the trip was around 1.60 NPR / INR). I politely declined and moved to the next exchange a short distance down the street. I went through the same exercise with the next dude and received an offer of 1.50 NRP / INR. While this sounded better, I asked what rate I could expect to get at a hotel. His response was basically, “Look retard, the hotel won’t exchange them. Those notes you’re carrying aren’t exactly legal tender in this country.” Surprised by his response but still not wanting to take a 6 or 7 percent hit on the offer but was going to need to for stress reduction purposes (especially considering the first place was looking for 10 percent).  Regardless, it was time to bargain. I offered 1.55 and he actually came up to 1.53. The lesson? It makes for a less stressful vacation when you have enough local currency in your pocket and an even less stressful negotiating session when you don’t realize that what you’re negotiating is illegal.

One final comment on the whole currency thing:

India, if you want to be a world economic power and truly are the “rising elephant” that you plan to be in the coming decades, it’s kind of necessary that your currency is accepted throughout the world; if for no other reason than it’s kind of a status or a respect thing. While there may be very good reasons why Nepal doesn’t want your high denomination notes (maybe it devalues their currency? maybe it’s easy to counterfeit?), you need a currency that people want to exchange. Period.

Leaving Kathmandu

After our night in Kathmandu, we were ready to get trekking but didn’t fly out until later in the afternoon. We had a morning sightseeing trip to Bhaktapur, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was actually cooler than expected; it’s a working Nepalese village on the outskirts of Kathmandu that was the previous royal palace grounds. While a little touristy, it was much more authentic than a place like colonial Williamsburg. After the morning tour, we returned to the Yak & Yeti for lunch before heading to the domestic airport. Sanjeev, the lead guide on our trek, took care of everything at the airport; as in, I literally didn’t show identification when walking through security (though Sanjeev had presumably used the passport copy to get the boarding pass). While this seems odd given security measures at most airports, my luggage was still scanned, my carry-on searched, and my body frisked, so I guess they worry less about who they let on the plane and worry more about what they let on the plane.

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Our Buddha Air flight was delayed by an hour or so, which apparently is expected with domestic travel in Nepal (more on the return flight), but soon enough we were in the air for a short 25 minute flight to Pokhara. Sanjeev, not one to miss a detail, made sure everyone was on the right side of the plane to ensure we had Himalayan views. Unfortunately, we never climbed out of the haze (or “mist”, depending on who you ask) that constantly envelopes the lower elevations of Nepal (ignorantly, this was also a surprise to me; shame on me), and we would be forced to wait a couple days to see the monster peaks that draw people to the country.

Note: All posts from the Annapurna Sanctuary trek were written shortly after returning from that trip in April 2010 and originally published on my expat blog, Mr. (and Mrs.) Luth Go to India.

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