Well that’s something I didn’t read about in the Nepal travel brochures: air pollution. Turns out Kathmandu is 5th on the scale of world’s most polluted cities as of 2017, having dropped from 3rd place the year before.
I’ve actually cancelled this morning’s outing because of it, and I’m not just being a wimp. I’ve been gestating some kind of ear, nose and throat lurgy over the past 48 hours and last night it was fully born, so to speak. Or maybe it’s an allergic reaction to the dirty air. It got worse as we drove back down into the Kathmandu Valley from the mountain yesterday afternoon. It was bad enough that Ajaya – I’m going to use the proper spelling henceforth – took me to a tiny little hole-in-the-wall store where I bought some cold tablets and a facemask. Which were ridiculously cheap – 50 rupees, which was one-fifth the price of the fridge magnet I bought on Friday. When I remarked on this to Ajaya he laughed and said ‘Only foreigners want fridge magnets.’
I thought at first it was just pollution-related irritation, because on my first day of wandering about Bhaktapur and ChanguNarayan last Friday the traffic and air weren’t noticeably bad and I had no problem. I subsequently learned from Ajaya that Friday’s the good day because it’s a half holiday. Saturday was up the mountain where the air is naturally better, and it’s also a holiday – their one full day off in the week. Yesterday, Sunday, the start of the working week, was back to normal, with greater Kathmandu just as traffic-congested and brown-hazy as any other dirty sub-continental city.
So here’s a gratuitous pic of motorcycles parked up. I must say the air isn’t as bad as in Saigon or other southeast Asian cities because the motorcycles don’t use two-stroke fuel, so Ajaya tells me. And I also owe the place an apology because the city streets here are not as badly trashed as are the roads and fields in the countryside. Ajaya said that in fact visitors from India often comment on how clean the streets of Kathmandu are, and it’s true of some of the major roads and tourist spots. Building rubble and dust from continuing post-earthquake reconstruction are everywhere. (About 9000 people died in that earthquake, incidentally.)
You do see evidence of rubbish-collection – bins, trucks, recycling depots where you see mountains of huge sacks stuffed with plastic bottles, of which there must be millions discarded every day because no one who can afford it drinks tap water. It’s all privately run, according to Ajaya. Here, the man drives along blowing his whistle and the people bring their rubbish to him.
Anyway, back to ME. It’s all about ME after all! When I woke up this morning I realised that whatever this malady was, it was at peak horribleness and and I really shouldn’t be going out in that filthy air. In cancelling the morning’s sightseeing I missed the Swayambunath Stupa with its hundreds of scampering monkeys, but Ajaya will pop in about 1pm to take me to lunch (already paid for – I’m not missing that!) and to see if I’m up to the afternoon’s outing.
But for the moment I’m staying put in the dear old Shangri La. I’ve asked them to move me to a room on the quiet side of the hotel, away from the barking dogs, tooting and sirens audible from this street-facing side. It’s the least they can do for me after waking me two and a half hours too early the morning after my sleepless 24-hour long haul last Friday. If I get the new room I’ll forgive them and shut up about that…
But I quite like the Shangri La. It’s one of the older hotels in Nepal, which really only opened up to visitors in the ‘fifties. Ajaya told me a funny story yesterday. After the conquest of Everest, Nepal started getting lots of international attention and the then King went for a jaunt abroad to various countries. He was impressed by the flash motor cars he saw and ordered a fleet for himself to be delivered to Kathmandu. Only trouble was there were no roads at all in the country, and when the cars arrived at the border from India they had to take the wheels off and the King’s peons carried the cars overland on foot on stretchers!
Ajaya was telling me this as we drove at maddeningly slow pace down the new(-ish) multi-laned main highway through the Kathmandu valley between Nepal and India and built by and ultimately connecting to…..China, of course.
Anyway, the hotel has an old-fashioned elegance about it: a marbled lobby with potted palms and a pianist, art deco light sconces, carpeted corridors, dark polished timber parquetry. It lacks somewhat in technological modcons but with a bit of ingenuity and grunt you can get around that. I had to pull the desk out to get at this one power point which has to be shared by my device-chargers AND the kettle!
I wondered how old the Shangri La was. Shangri La, incidentally, is a mythical place imagined by the English writer James Hilton in his 1933 book The Lost Horizon. It’s a kind of unspoiled Himalayan Utopia said to have been inspired by Nepal and/or Bhutan. I doubt Nepal would fit the bill these days what with the state of things. Bhutan perhaps. We shall see.
This photo of Sir Edmund Hillary is at the end of my corridor and the caption says it was taken at the ‘inauguration’ of the hotel in 1979. The hotel’s design and decor suggest an older origin to me, but disappointingly I couldn’t find anything online about the history of the place, or whether Hillary ever stayed here. Sadly, all the online information is to do with present promotion and selling.
I was gazing at the photo, which is just by the lift, when a young Nepali or Indian man came up and started chatting when he saw me taking a pic of it. He hadn’t heard of Edmund Hillary, but when I explained about him being one of the two first men to climb Mt Everest, the other being Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, he said that oh yes, of course he’d heard of Tenzing Norgay!
I roused myself from my sick bed this afternoon to visit this stupa, biggest in Nepal. It’s called the Boudha stupa, and those are the eyes of Buddha, but they aren’t the same word. It’s in Little Tibet, home of refugees who fled when China took over.
That’s it for now. Tomorrow a leisurely departure for the airport to continue my journey to Bhutan via on overnight stop in Delhi tomorrow. I’m going back to bed now, dosed up on ridiculously cheap cough syrup which I hope will put me into a pleasant – ahem – stupa. Nighty night.