Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"Katmandu, I’ll soon be seeing you"

There were two Katmandus.

The first was a dusty, dirty, smog-ridden city with erratic vehicular traffic. The roads made a Peenya or a Pahar Ganj or a Lower Parel seem like a walk by the riverside. The milling haphazard crowds gave the ones in India a run for their congestion. The high rises didn't really kiss the sky and all in all it was a dreary sight. There were some residential localities on the outskirts and palace areas that embraced some amount of green with the hills and mountains in the distance mocking the city dwellers.

The airport was another comedy of errors. In this day and age of extreme paranoia, there were no x-ray machines and bags were scarcely checked, if ever. Security check guards made friendly demands for chai paani tokens. Hell, you could've smuggled in a ton of contraband and only spent 10 Nepali rupees to appease the guards enough not to want to check you. There weren't any conveyor belts either, luggage being handed out individually to passengers. Merry times, merry times. Then on to a cabbie who will con you. It doesn't matter what you know or what research you've done. Somehow you will end up paying enough to elicit sniggers from your local friends. Luckily its one of the only places in the world where the Indian rupee is worth more than the local currency. I was so happy I ended up spending way too much.

On to Thamel, that den of vice, that cradle of firangi backpackers, that shoppers bliss, that hotbed of dance bars. A casual walk down from my hotel (thankfully on a quiet street away from the madness) to grab a quick bite meant turning down at least 20 propositions from various seedy looking men and garishly made-up women to join the festivities. Laser lights spill out onto the streets, along with loud tasteless pumping music and any attempt to photograph is met with a stern gaze from a nearby bouncer. But hey, its all part of the deal. Even the Nepal Tourism Board offers this advice, "Don't forget to have a drink at one of the local dance bars, where beautiful Nepali belles will dance circles around your pals."

The other Katmandu is a 20 minute walk away from this, quite incredibly. The sardined neon shops, night clubs, hotels and cafes in the narrow streets of Thamel relent to older building complexes and rabbit warrens, with wooden shops that have been around for centuries. The true face of Katmandu emerges as you near Basantapur Durbar. Once there, you're transported to another time. The huge pagoda styled buildings and temples line up around neat paved streets. I would ignore the cars and bikes, the coochi cooing couples and roadside romeos and gently blur my vision till it felt like I was walking through a Katmandu of the 18th century. I like that feeling of phasing out the modern fracas. A simpler life indeed. I wandered through Basantapur and Patan, the other big Durbar for hours on many occasions and not always to take pictures. Sometimes it just felt like I was in a different place far away from the city in a mystical Katmandu only I could see. Talk about delusions of grandeur. :)

The only commonality between the two Katmandus were the beautiful Nepali girls. Even New York in the summer can't hold a candle to the sheer numbers. You don't even feel lecherous or at least I didn't. I was in awe mostly. Made a young man want to brave the city and settle down here. The laws of probability would take care of the rest. I left like a good tourist but in the words of Cat Stevens (when he was indeed Cat Stevens), Katmandu, I'll soon be seeing you.

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