To many, Kathmandu is a city of bohemians, a semi-mythical place which by virtue of its association with the so-called ’Hippie Trail’ of the 1960s and ’70s remains the preserve of creative types and establishment drop-outs. The truth is though, 21st century Kathmandu is a fervently active, overcrowded city which is beset with chronic air pollution and manic traffic. Moreover, the creaking (yet improving) infrastructure and all-too frequent power cuts help to make it a somewhat frustrating place to be a resident in.
Despite all this though, there is still something esoterically charming about Kathmandu. It still has an essence of bohemia running through its streets (most notably in Thamel, the city’s backpacker ’ghetto’) which makes you feel like you’re walking on hallowed ground.
If you’re a freelance writer who has a passion for for truly bohemian locations, then Kathmandu is a place you simply cannot afford to miss. Here’s how to get involved when you first arrive:
Step 1: Get Settled
It is fair to say that practically every single budget traveller arriving in Kathmandu finds themselves staying in the now infamous area of Thamel, the city’s main tourist district. As well as all manner of hostels and guest houses, Thamel’s warren of narrow streets is home to shops, restaurants, travel agents, bakeries and bookshops, all of which are incessantly patrolled by persistent richshaw drivers and tour hawkers. Although it may not sound like it, Thamel is a hugely enjoyable place for writers to stay for a while as the area is incredibly cheap, enjoys free district-wide Wi-Fi, and isn’t plagued with heavy traffic, noise, or pollution.
Away from Thamel you’ll find larger guest houses, many of which provide free Wi-Fi as standard. In addition, rental flats and serviced apartments are also pretty easy to come by these days, largely due to the fact Kathmandu has experienced something of a boom in Gated Community Housing concepts in recent years. Although it is possible to find rental accommodation on websites like Apartment-Kathmandu and HolidayLettings, checking things out for yourself is often the best strategy as the properties featured online don’t always live up to expectations in the flesh and prices tend to be lower when you deal with property owners directly. Tenancy agreements are normally pretty flexible in Nepal. In general, you can negotiate a contract length to suit your own specific requirements and, more often than not, you won’t have to hand over any kind of deposit.
Step 2: Get Around
Few cities in Asia can be enjoyed on foot to quite the same degree as Kathmandu. As well as being able to walk up to, in and sometimes even, on, some of the city’s most magnificent shrines and stupas, you can easily stroll to the outer edges of the city in less than an hour if you are able to maintain a brisk pace. Naturally, exploring a city of this nature on foot does require you to be vigilant at times, most notably when you’re crossing the street (you do NOT have priority) and whenever there is building work going on above a pavement (bricks can and do fall without warning).
If you want to get from A to B that much quicker then you’ll need to opt for one of Kathmandu’s two main public transport options: the microbus or the tuk-tuk.
Microbuses are not small buses, but nippy little 15-seater Toyota vans (that manage to squeeze in up to 30 passengers at a time) which can usually manage to get pretty much anywhere in the city within half an hour. Catching a micro is dead easy as you don’t need to wait around at a bus stop, you just have to make eye contact with the driver, wave your hand, and they will stop for you, regardless of where you are.
The tuk-tuks here are pretty similar to those in other parts of Asia - hazardous-looking and perennially overcrowded. Fortunately, accidents are pretty rare on Kathmandu’s busy streets as most people here get around by bus, scooter or low powered motorbike (250cc max), so the lack of cars keeps average speeds down and keeps severe traffic jams from being anywhere near as problematic as those that bring places like Bangkok, Manilla and Jakarta to virtual standstills.
Most taxis in Kathmandu are Suzuki Marutis, tiny little cars which can just about accommodate two grown adults and their luggage. All taxis are metered although you may need to remind some cabbies to turn it on. Journeys within the city limits are pretty cheap and most drivers will be happy to negotiate a good price for you if you want to get out of town for a while and explore a little further afield.
Step 3: Get Wired
Connecting to the Internet isn’t a problem in Kathmandu these days, especially in and around Thamel as the district was the first in all of Nepal to become a ’full Wi-Fi zone’ so getting online here, either in the local cafes, bars and restaurants, or in your digs, is a breeze. Unfortunately, maintaining a decent connection – even in Thamel - can be a bit of a challenge at times as power cuts and variable speeds often make working online for prolonged periods of time a less-than-straightforward affair. When the Nepalese branch of the InterWeb is behaving itself though, and there are generators on hand to mitigate the effects of yet another power cut, you can normally expect to get your typical online work done without too much fuss. It should be noted that computer viruses are commonplace around Thamel so you should exercise caution when using memory cards/sticks.
If you’re lucky enough to rent an apartment with Wi-Fi included then you can expect your Internet to hover somewhere around the 512kb – 1mb mark. This tends to be better than what most hostels and guesthouses are able to offer: their efforts to increase Wi-Fi performance have only served to hamper progress, as most guesthouse networks are unable to keep up with demand, thus engendering slower speeds. Suffice to say, you should ensure the building/complex your rental apartment is located in has a generator if you’re going to rely on your your domestic Wi-Fi to upload articles/research assignments/download briefs.
As well as being home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet; the evocative shrines, stupendous stupas, bomb crater pot-holes, spiteful monkeys, cartoonish tuk-tuks, techni-coloured prayer flags, and pitch black streets which give Kathmandu its character resonate with a history and heritage which - on a good day - you feel sure you can taste and touch.
Bohemian enough for you..?
Are you living and working in Nepal right now? If so, leave a comment in the box below and tell us what you love most about being a freelance wordsmith in this wildly engaging part of the world.
Image: author’s own photo