Arriving in Kathmandu for the first time was a nightmare.
“Off! Off! Off!” screamed the bus conductor as I grabbed my backpack and was pushed into the night. Marina hopped down behind me and said something that I couldn’t hear over the roar of diesel engines.
We’d been dropped on Kathmandu’s ring-road — an eight-laned highway that was actually a river of gravel. Vehicles rumbled across it like tanks through no man’s land, bouncing violently on the rough surface. Dust floated in the air so thick you could scoop it up with your hands.
I grabbed Marina and we crossed the ring-road, weaving around vehicles stuck bumper-to-bumper. Headlights were at full beam, horns blared, toxic fumes spewed from all exhausts.
With the ring-road conquered, we headed into Kathmandu’s centre. The streets were menacingly dark, the roads lit by the headlights of passing motorbikes.
It felt like a city under siege, all energy being diverted to vital functions. Shops were barricaded behind steel doors, the walls of homes were ringed with barbed wire.
Coming to Kathmandu seemed to have been a huge mistake.
This feeling increased as we arrived in Thamel, a tourist warren where every building was either a hotel or trekking shop. My long curly hair was a beacon for the city’s drug dealers, who accosted me at every corner.
Marina and I found a place to stay, a dingy hotel with dark rooms below street level. The shower had only cold water and the bed was so dirty that I slept in all my clothes.
We spent a single night there before leaving for a guesthouse on the auspiciously named Freak Street. And that’s when everything changed.
As if we’d walked through a magic portal, Kathmandu transformed before my very eyes. The trekking shops vanished, replaced by stores stacked to the ceilings with Buddhist prayer flags. Men stood on the corners, hawking clay cups of fresh lassi. Flower vendors lined the footpath, sitting beside piles of marigolds.
The road opened up into a square. In the middle was a Hindu shrine, tikka smeared on its statues while incense billowed from its inner cloister. A holy man stood outside, offering blessings to passing believers.
The city was talking, telling us not to judge it based on our first impressions. Thamel’s modern buildings had vanished, we were now in an old town, everything built from bricks. The road narrowed into a maze, branching off in all directions, an invitation to explore.
Down one lane would come a motorbike, hurtling around a blind corner. The next would have a dead-end, an ornate wooden door barring the way. The alley after this would reveal a Buddhist stupa, an old lady circling it while praying under her breath.
There was only one other place where I’d felt the same amount of awe and wonder as I explored its streets: Rome. Just like the Eternal City, Kathmandu had the inescapable feeling that every corner possessed something ancient and beautiful.
As we plumbed deeper the roads turned to dirt and mud. Bricks were being hoisted aloft to repair the carcasses of buildings. On one plot of land an entire temple lay devastated, its wooden roof turned to matchsticks. The next street along had a temple standing in all its glory, a sign of the gods’ arbitrariness.
There were characters everywhere I looked. An old lady nursing newborn puppies; the guy cleaning his ears with freshly dropped pigeon feathers. The men lugging cement on their backs; the women carrying babies. Workers were casting bronze statues, while a girl fetched water from a well.
People were packed into Durbar Square, sitting beneath the intricate wooden temples, clutching cigarettes and chai. Around them stood the splendour of the old royal palace, beautiful specimens of Newari architecture.
The exploring continued. Down one street, kids played games among a ruined apartment. On another, they stared uncertainly at the head of decapitated buffalo that had been ritually sacrificed.
Marina and I made it to Boudhanath, where a giant pair of Buddha’s eyes watched us perambulate the giant white stupa. Tibetan chants rang out from the surrounding temples, haunting prayers that floated through the air and mixed with the sandalwood incense.
The surrounding streets were crammed with monks with shaved heads and maroon robes. Craftsmen were making woolen carpets, ceremonial horns, metal prayer wheels. Young and old, rich and poor, all came to the stupa to bathe in Kathmandu’s mysticism.
Night fell once again, the darkness halted by the glow of a thousand flickering butter-lamps. More prayers were spoken, while a bell rang out. Kathmandu’s centre had a gentle calm as we stood in the eye of its storm. Somewhere, far away, the ring-road roared.