This morning we left the remnants of our group deciding on what to do with their time in Nepal and lugged our backpacks to the hotel that would serve as our base in Kathmandu - the rather awkwardly named Hotel Encounter Nepal. It's a nice enough place, not quite as flash as the last one, but set around a pretty little courtyard that is a perfect sun trap. It's efficiently run by the most hands-on general manager in the world, constantly hen-pecking the staff, hurrying them along and greeting us personally at reception, asking us about our thoughts on Nepal so far and ordering us Nepalese tea - an almost undrinkable concoction made from whole cardamom pods.
The room itself is the most rough and ready I've seen so far. The beds are bowed alarmingly and the furniture has a kind of 'house clearance' feel. Most worryingly, there's a live electrical point directly under the shower. Needless to say, we'll have to be careful whilst we're charging our iPhones.
Kathmandu is a really interesting place, touched more by Indian culture than I'd have imagined. The smells of cumin, coriander and cardamom provide a constant, fragrant backdrop to the shouts of stall owners, the bartering of shopkeepers and the incessant whine of mopeds as they careen down packed streets. It's hot here at the moment and the sun bakes the streets, making them yellow and dusty. We have four days in Kathmandu and we fill them by walking, shopping and just watching the daily chaos unfold from shady street cafés.
The walking takes me past asymmetric collections of Hindu temples, set in massive squares that are being encroached on by the ravenous shophouses spilling over from the surrounding streets. The squares are pigeon strewn and encircled by people with no set agenda, men sit crossed-legged whilst making odd objects out of wire and women just sit, talking and laughing.
Something odd to comment upon on, but the electrical infrastructure here is crazy. Wires are strung wherever they can be tied, and create a spider's web of black cables that disappear and reappear from buildings almost at random. To drill a hole in a wall here is really taking your life in you hands, as wires must only be inches away at any given time. This system exists as demand for electricity here far outstrips supply, as we discover when the routine power cycling plunges our hotel into darkness for a few minutes before our private generator kicks in. It looks like anybody who needs a supply just climbs a ladder, splices into an existing cable and hopes for the best. I'm amazed there aren't more charred bodies littering the streets.
Incidentally, the wires make a great playground for macaques, who whip along them like tightrope walkers or use them impromptu nests.
Shopping is an interesting experience. The shops are narrow but deep, as tends to be the case in crowded commercial areas, and spill out onto the already jam-packed streets. Umbrellas, canopies, carts or even velvet roping are used to mark out just one more square metre of selling space. Most of the shops in the tourist area sell textiles, which the sellers work on whilst you're browsing, jewellery or *ahem* antique souvenirs. They're cheap and the quality seems respectable - although I'm glad I didn't wash anything with Kate's newly purchased orange skirt - but far more interesting are the local shopping streets that sell food, hardware and household necessities. Some of the alleyways have a distinctly 'Harry Potter' feel, although with fewer owls, more calf carcasses and about the same amount of cauldrons.
Bartering is just as commonplace here as it was in China and Tibet, but less frenetic. The encounters are more one-on-one, usually in the safe confines of a shop or under an awning, so there's nothing to distract you from turning the screws. I'm getting quite good at it now, and when paired with Kate, we have quite a sweet system going. I play the angry boyfriend who's worried about getting to the airport and deny Kate access to anything other than a paltry amount of rupees. Kate plays the pleading girlfriend, desperate for just one more souvenir. It combines the power of my 'walkaway' (the WMD of the bartering world) with the subtle feminine wiles of Kate's puppy-eyes.
We also stumble across the sumptuously named 'Garden of Dreams' - a pay-to-enter private garden, with restaurant, lusciously laid out in a strange mix of colonial and classical stylings. The ruckus of the street dissolves almost immediately and as we sip cappuccinos and recline on cushions scattered over an amphitheatre of grass it's easy to feel like you're living in the last days of the Raj. Except with Oakleys, iPads and wireless internet access. It's a beautiful spot, nonetheless.
Our days pass quickly and this is the first place I've been where I wish I could have had more time. Several guys from our old group are doing exciting treks into the Nepalese side of the Himalayas, and I wish we'd allowed more time to tag long. It's not the end of the world, but it makes Nepal a place I'm adding to the 'must return' list. Before I know it I'm in a cab taking an unremarkable journey to the remarkably efficient Kathmandu airport to board my first flight since I left Heathrow. I've seen two continents, five countries, the world's tallest mountain and deepest lake and been on both the world's longest and highest trains, after taking only one flight. It feels particularly civilised. Other than the cows on the street of course.
Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Bangkok we go.