Kathmandu is something of a middle-ground.
With the stark intensity of traversing Indian terrain crisp in our recollections, a refuge from the inescapable animation of our most recent holiday destination was appealing (read about it here). Whilst we had no desire to entirely leave behind the seductive draw of barely controlled chaos, the opportunity to travel a country allowing a moment to catch our breath was a welcome one.
Don’t get me wrong, Nepal’s capital is unlikely to be topping anyone’s recommendations for a relaxed getaway. The landscape remains an enviable array of startling hues, the heat retains its oppressive persistence and the bartering boasts a familiar frustration. Rather, Kathmandu succeeds in striking a balance where many Asian localities find themselves on a tipped scale. Spend an afternoon haggling for dust-coated wares in the twisted alleyways of Thamel but do so sheltered from the stifling obstinacy of a crowd of merchants. Find yourself savouring the simple pleasure of a Diet Coke in Freak Street’s backpacker cafés, enjoying the unique allure of the travelling community in absence of more dreadlocked-harem-wearers than locals. Revel in the nearly indescribable atmosphere of a working city Ghats but do so with room to move between the bearded men dressed in orange. Hell, even the monkeys in Nepal appear to have had a dose of the docile, with the lazing of the Nepalese creatures a far cry from the thieving antics of their Malaysian counterparts.
I cannot deny that the backpacker bubbles of cities such as Bangkok and Hue are potent in their wonder. Just as the pull of 50p local beer with bedraggled strangers in a hostel bar is difficult to resist, the allure of the mayhem of countries like India is one I will continue to succumb to. As such, I will not conclude that the tempered version of these qualities Kathmandu provides is necessarily an advantage. Instead, I would emphasise the unmissable rarity of an Asian city that succeeds in combining these characteristics in an artfully distressed culmination leaving you appeased rather than overwhelmed. Naturally, even with this backdrop of stability, our family holiday would be incomplete without its fair share of mishaps…
As it turns out, ‘to be or not to be’ is rarely the question.
Instead, with another family holiday to the globe’s most intense locality in its early stages, my father should have perhaps taken the time to query the sense of relying solely upon the wisdom of TripAdvisor to dictate his eating habits. With the inconveniently sensitive disposition of dear old Dad’s reaction to Asia’s cuisine no great secret, one would have thought he may have tempered his consumption. Alas, no such luck.
Whether one too many momos or more likely the shameful excess with which we English place all our orders (seriously, you’d have thought we’d learn our lesson as another waiter awkwardly shuffles yet another plate of food onto our table whilst we diligently avoid eye contact), it wouldn’t be a summer getaway without this family tradition. A self-diagnosis of cholera, a tear or two and some rather choice words later and my mother thought it time to take it upon herself to offer assistance to my bed-riddled father.
I can understand why others might be concerned by a tale like this one. As each day brought with it another symptom, hallucinations included, kinder soles would likely have become increasingly troubled by such complaints. The thing is, with years worth of memories of the ‘life-threating’ diseases my father contracts abroad, one finds oneself becoming somewhat desensitised to his insistence that ‘the walls are made of rubber!’ (honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up). One sudden recovery at the sight of a mojito-offering executive lounge is a miracle, eighteen and things start to look a little suspect. As such, the remaining members of my family choose to adopt their own approach to this little hurdle. My brother simply refuses to engage, I remind myself that its moments like these that will eventually become humorous titbits of a future blogpost and my mother attempts to help the only way she knows how, with a fake smile and Vaseline.
In a rare moment of good health, we decided to venture to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. This bustling epicentre still bears the scars of 2015’s earthquake, the severity of the devastation evident in the damage endured by the stoic structures that surround the open space. In spite of the tangible impact, the area remains a vibrant demonstration of the gems of Nepalese culture. Vast wooden buildings house historic mementos and the city’s very own Living Goddess exists within the orange stone walls. Whilst the morning vanished in a blur of exploration, as ever the day can be characterised by a series of instants. Picture my 4ft brother sprinting into a crowd of pigeons, pursuing the perfect Boomerang and his newfound love of Instagram with a resolute abandon. Imagine the blank stare on my father’s bright red face as he attempts to maintain his Russian façade, determined that his dodgy accent will be sufficient in dissuading the hordes of English-speaking guides honing in on the sweaty westerner. Can you hear my mother’s childish giggles as she edges closer to the cow lazing in the centre of the cobbles, selfie stick in hand? Trust me, as the beast dares to turn its head, you and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere would be hard-pushed to avoid her shriek. She really is something of an enigma; pocketing salt sachets from aeroplane meals in the event that she is required to detach a leech from a limb (the same sachets that find themselves on our much-needed french fries 3 days later) but shattering windows with her screams at the very notion of contact with a sleepy looking cow.
Most that visit Kathmandu will find a day to pay heed to the Northface shops that line the streets and attempt a trek. Some will even find themselves venturing to the heights of Everest basecamp, treading the trails where so many have tread before them. Unsurprisingly, with a family that wields walking as a threat designed to ensure good behaviour and flip-flops the order of the day (though I have no doubt my mother would attempt the summit in her favourite summer footwear), we left the physical exertion to the experts, or in reality, everyone else but us. Having said this we did, as is so often the case, find ourselves reluctantly participating in something of an accidental trek…
I’m yet to find a self-respecting family that will readily admit to a public blow-out dramatic enough to leave even the most obtuse amongst us cringing, yet this does little to change the fact that familial conflict lies at the heart of many (if not most) summer holidays. With the annual brawl yet to be realised, it felt only right that tensions should come to head on yet another of my mother’s flying-goose-chases. Having been dropped in the hills by a very bemused looking taxi driver (who had just moments ago resorted to asking us for directions to our mystery location), the search for the ‘Kopan Monastry’ began.
Maps.me is an app that enables travellers to track their location without the use of Wi-Fi, allowing weary backpackers on every corner of the globe to map their way to the nearest golden arches without inciting some rather devastating roaming charges. Whilst I cannot recommend this software enough (seriously, download it right now), it seems even its magic was not equipped to deal with the remote landscape of the Nepalese mountains. As the little arrow pinpointing our whereabouts continued to spin in a manner bearing concerning resemblance to the movements of my irate little brother, what was supposed to be a 5-minute walk to a ‘well-known’ sight was quickly turning into a disaster. With my mother resorting to approaching some rather unfriendly looking (armed) guards for directions, hands in the air and nervous giggles emitting from her slowly advancing form, our sweaty crew of four eventually reached our destination.
‘Monastery closed for mediation course. Come back seven day.’
This it seems, was the final straw. With my father’s already crimson cheeks turning a dangerous shade of red, his very face an omen for what was to come, we found ourselves seated in a café at the top of the hill. As his breathing became (even more) laboured and his furious demand that any more exertion would undoubtedly result in a trip to the hospital, my brother was becoming increasingly irritated by the gentlemen sat in the corner. As the 11-year-old’s hideously unsubtle criticisms of the dreadlocked, barefoot, flute player persisted (it seems he has something of a grudge against ‘clichés’, one that he did not hesitate to make known to the perpetrator in question), my mother chose that moment to spill the second drink of the holiday. As I sat, my dust-coated clothes saturated with an unfortunate mix of perspiration and sticky orange Fanta, the barely controlled bickering of my companions growing increasingly deafening, even yesterday’s ominous wait for my A-Level results didn’t seem so bad.
Even as my dad relayed yet another detail of his digestive system, my brother devoured an entire tandoori chicken with his hands in the centre of a hotel restaurant, my mother’s legs flapped as a rat scurried past and the two Indian boys ‘befriended’ at the pool made rather threatening gestures at my smirking, chicken-coated sibling, I wouldn’t change the experience. For cobbled-streets lined with colourful prayer flags, remarkable architecture and some of the most impressive Buddhist Stupas I’ve seen to date, Kathmandu is an unmissable locality. Perhaps just watch your momo count, for your family’s sake as well as yours…