| Image by photos by Uli Loskot
I arrive in Kathmandu as the first rays of sun dissolve the morning mist. The humid hot air of Kolkata has given way to brisk mountain air. Kathmandu, with a population of 700.000 Inhabitants, lies in a valley in the southern foothills of the Himalayas at 1400 meters altitude. Since the valley is shaped like a bowl it does not only drop morning mist, but also a lot of air pollution. The streets of Kathmandu are usually jam packed with honking motorcycles, cars, bicycle rickshaws and pedestrians, wiggling their way through the narrow, old streets that were not built for modern traffic. More and more motorcyclists are wearing breathing protection, because the air is so bad. It´s sad knowing yourself so close to one of the worlds natural wonders and yet be trapped in the worst smog.
I enjoy the peacefulness of the early morning hours and find a clean and cheap hotel on the edge of the tourist trap area Thamel. The Hotel Down Town with the friendly staff Satram and Dinesh is going to be my home base away from home for the next couple of months.
One who never leaves Thamel does not get to see Kathmandu. The area of Thamel was created over two decades ago for the sole purpose of catering to trekking tourists. It's a loud and crowded maze of streets filled with travel and trekking agencies, clothing stores, jewelers, bootleg music and DVD stores, trekking outfitters selling fake brand name outdoor gear, Thanka stores (hand painted Tibetan Buddhist paintings), Kashmiri shawl vendors, German bakeries, juice stands, bars with Nepali bands blasting out cover versions of western hits and restaurants that satisfy the craving of anyone's taste buds. Besides that, one is constantly hustled by bicycle rickshaw and taxi drivers, tiger balm and weed sellers and people who want to lure you into one of the countless trekking agencies to get you to sign up for a group trek. Thamel could be almost anywhere in the world and my first impulse is to see what's beyond this bubble.
It's surprisingly easy to escape the Thamel ghetto. Just by wondering a view blocks I find myself in old Kathmandu with its beautiful and crumbling Newari architecture (a unique mix of Hindu and Buddhist styles), temples, hidden squares and open markets selling everyday needs.
I stroll aimlessly and curiously and bump into a political demonstration of the Maoist Party. Historical elections are coming up in April. Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual country. Its population is predominantly Hindu with a significant presence of Buddhists. The royal family has been ruling Nepal as the only Hindu Monarchy up till now with the king being cherished as a godlike figure. Since the mid 90ies though the Maoist party has been gaining strength, especially in rural areas, and aiming at abolishing the monarchy in order to establish a people's republic. This has been causing a lot of instability and scaring tourists away.