Getting around Kathmandu
A General Layout
Kathmandu is a small city by western standards, and getting around town is a lot easier if you have a mental map to help you out. So here goes a general layout of the land for getting around town
First off, there are two Kathmandus – one is the Kathmandu Valley, surrounded on all sides by xxxx meter hills. A quick word on the general geographic terms in Nepal – its not a mountain if its not covered in snow. Everything else, no matter how high, is just a hill. To the north (the top of the map) is the Shivapuri range, a good spot if you’re looking for single day hikes or cycling trips. Going clockwise along the valley circle, the Nagarkot and Dhulikhel hills make the valley borders to the east. Nagarkot is a hill resort, sort of weekend getaway for the local Kathmandu population with a lot of overnight tourists.
Accommodation ranges from luxury resorts to basic family run lodges. The main attraction of Nagarkot is the sunrise, where on clear days you get to see the sun lighting the far off himals (that’s the word for snow capped mountains) from the dawn grey to rose and fiery orange to the daylight white. Dhulikhel is a bit further off to the east, and you’ll pass through if you’re driving overland to Tibet or just going down to the Bhote Koshi for a rafting or bungee trip. Coming further down, at around 5 O’ clock, is the Phulchowki range. It’s a massive giant, but relatively unknown with no major tourist attractions and ill kept roads to the top. Further down towards the south west is the Chandragiri range, again with no tourist interest and nil on tourist attraction and infrastructure. Towards the west is the Kakani hills, a nice drive from Kathmandu and famous for its Japanese Trout farms, with wonderful views of the himals.
The entire valley is divided into five administrative districts – Bhaktapur, Thimi, Kirtipur, Lalitpur and Kathmandu. This Kathmandu, only a small part of the valley, is the capital of Nepal.
Kathmandu and Lalitpur are true sister cities, and make up the core city of the capital. The Bagmati river, which starts off as a sparkling Himalayan stream in Shivapuri, is a sluggish black stinking sewer by the time it reaches the city, separates the Kathmandu and Lalitpur districts. Chances are, every time you cross a long bridge, you’re going back and forth. Lalitpur is cleaner, less crowded and with less traffic jams than Kathmandu, but unfortunately there’s not much to do here as a tourist.
A Ring Road encircles this main city, beyond which are mushrooming residential buildings. Somewhere in the center of this circle is the ex-Royal Palace, now converted to a national museum. Take this as your reference point, and you’ll have a hard time getting lost in Kathmandu. Even if you do, try looking for the mountain tops, and you’ll have your north to get your bearings again.
Getting Around Town
The cheapest means of getting around town is the extensive microbus system, small white coaster vans that seat 11 but could be 15 inside, but it’s a tough task figuring out which goes where. If you plan on living in Kathmandu for a while, or are on a really tight budget, this could be a good choice for you. There are micros (the local slang for the buses) that keep circling the ring road, and others that snake into all the main arteries and smaller by roads. All you need to do is be brave enough to step into the middle of the road and flag one down by waving your hands. As for getting down, just ask the kid riding shotgun to drop you off at your destination. Chances are, once you’re in, all the passengers will be excited to see a foreigner traveling like they do and will help out any way they can. Most young Nepalis in the cities can speak passable English, so getting yourself understood will not be a problem.
If the crazy driving of the micros is too much adventure but you still want some local flavour, try the safa tempo. Safa tempo literally mean clean tempo (tempo is a three wheeler like the Thai tuk-tuks, but can seat about 8), because they run on electric batteries. It’s quite an experience driving around the noisy chaos that is Kathmandu traffic in a vehicle that hardly makes any sound.
However, unless you want to experience the real third world disorder, try not to use these means of transport in the evening rush hour that starts around 5, because this is the time when everyone just wants to get home after a long day and courtesies extended in the daytime might take a back seat.
Of course, the easiest and recommended mode of transport are the plentiful taxis cruising the streets. Seeing a foreigner getting in, chances are they’ll try to charge you a slightly higher fare. Good advice number 1 – ask your hotel the approximate fare, bargain with the taxi driver with a big grin, and don’t break your head for fifty rupees. Remember, you’re on vacation, you don’t want to spoil your day with nasty arguments, and the poor guy is just trying to make ends meet. Once the fare is settled, he’ll probably throw in a free guided tour of the sights along the way to your destination. Good advice number 2 – sometimes, there are petrol shortages in Kathmandu, which you’ll find out about (hope you don’t have to) when you see long lines of cars waiting patiently for their quota and creating massive traffic snarls. Taxi fares go up drastically in these times, with even locals forced to share cabs. If you feel they’re overcharging you then, yes they are, but they’re over charging everyone, not just you. This might be a good time for you to look for a shared ride yourself.
Most travelers to Kathmandu stay in Thamel, the tourist heart of Kathmandu. If you’re going to see the Kathmandu Durbar Square or Swayambhu (monkey temple with the Buddha eyes) from Thamel, take the rickshaws. Rickshaws are giant tricycles pedaled by guys with thighs of steel. They seat two passengers, they’re not very comfortable, and the driver may ask you to get down on steep inclines, but they’re a fun way of watching life go by in old Kathmandu. Please don’t feel sorry for the drivers, they’re earning with the sweat of their brows rather than begging or stealing. If you do feel sorry, just leave an extra large tip.
Political parties sometimes call for Nepal Bandh, which literally means Nepal Closed. As you can imagine, all shops and transportation is shut down. A variation, not much in fashion nowadays, in the Chukka Jam, which means Locked Wheels. This is a less severe general strike, where daily life is allowed without the use of wheels, so again no transport. For the adventurous, you can hire bicycles in Thamel to explore the city or outlying bike trails in the hills (depending on who is calling the Bandh, non-motorized wheels may or may not be allowed). If not, planning the day around near by sites, like the earlier mentioned Durbar Square or Swayambhu, doesn’t let it go to waste. If it’s the day of your flight out of Kathmandu, the government runs special tourist buses to the airport from specific pick up points, which you need to coordinate with your hotel. For the cautious, move to a hotel near the airport the night before your flight. A silver lining in the cloud – these strikes usually tend to peter out by evening, so taxis will run after 6, and you can make plans accordingly.
Hope you don’t get stuck in a bandh. Hope even more you don’t get stuck in a 3-day marathon bandh. Besides that, all you need is to open your eyes, open your heart, and open your wallet to have fun in this city of friendly people.
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