It turns out travelling by land from Varanasi to Kathmandu takes a while! Mind you, the flights back to Delhi and then on from there would have too, and that would have been more expensive and a lo less exciting.
Step One: Train (first class – we had our own cabin!) for 12 hours
Step Two: Walk around for 30 minutes trying to find the right bus to the border where nobody speaks English. Then sit on one bus for 20 minutes going nowhere before swapping onto another that left immediately without anyone appearing to understand why.
Step 3: Hop off the bus, stamp out of India, walk over border and go to Nepalese visa office.
Step 4: Be told that your perfectly acceptable US dollars are not in mint enough condition to be accepted by Nepal so try to find an FX office nearby for some acceptable ones.
Step 5: Discover that not one of the 20 or so FX offices is open due to the ongoing festival (Nepalese version of Diwali) and go back to the VISA man to find out what to do.
Step 6: Go back to India (nobody appears to care) and find the one man who was trying to sell you Nepalese currency on that side of the border. Realise that your earlier smugness about already having it and not needing to get stung by his dodgy exchange rates is about to bite you on the bum.
Step 7: Get screwed on exchange rate, but achieve goal of gathering $US 40, mint condition.
Step 8: Wall back to Nepal, pay visa fee, enter Nepal legally.
Step 9: Get on only bus/van that is going to Kathmandu that whole day due to aforementioned festival.
Step 10: Spend 8 hours on the bus, the first 5 of which included at least 40 people on a bus with about 12 seats. Note that some of these people are so squished in that they appear to be sitting on your lap.
Step 11: With 2 hours still to go, realise that being sat there in shorts & t-shirt is not enough clothing to be remotely warm and it is only getting colder.
Step 12: Shiver.
Step 13: Arrive in Kathmandu absolutely freezing, get to hostel, immediately fall asleep wrapped up in duvet.
We woke up the next morning knowing that we had to get shopping having arrived with no appropriate clothing at all. It’s a lot colder in Nepal than anywhere else we’ve been, and my 1 pair of chinos and 1 thin jumper were a long way from meeting requirements.
First, we needed permits so went to the permit office to buy those. We then set about walking around Thamel (the tourist area of the city) and looking in the shops to find our gear. We started in a couple of generic ones just to get a feel for the prices, before heading to Shonas, a heavily recommended one. We found Shonas more expensive and more limited in choice than expected, but the staff do know what they are talking about and explain things to the many tourists of varying experience levels with an entertaining and comical bluntness.
A few more shops later (there are more kit shops than its possible to count, or visit) we decided that was enough research and it was time for lunch. OR2K became our restaurant of choice, its platter of middle Eastern dips and breads a particular winner. Claire then started feeling unwell. She then started feeling really unwell. Then we moved out of our dorm into a proper hotel with a bathroom just for us, rather than the 1 per floor in the hostel. Claire then spent the next 2 and a half days in bed recovering – not part of the plan, India had managed to catch us after we thought we had made it out illness free!
That left me a couple of days to shop and shop and shop and shop and shop. The kit is of varying quality and price and size etc so it was quite a painful process that culminated with a few purchases in clumps after an appropriate price for each item had been calculated and something of decent quality found. I then found my new favourite shop which had decent quality at great prices, you just had to sift through the giant bins full of clothes to find what you wanted. The fact it was constantly teeming with locals was a good sign (as it is with restaurants) and we ended up getting loads of our kit from there. With a down jacket costing me the equivalent of £28 (at home a similar thing would cost at least £150), it was hard to find better value!
So after 2 days of walking around, negotiating prices and doing more shopping than I usually would in a year, I had almost everything I needed (apart from the fairly key item of a pair of boots) and knew where Claire could get the last bits she needed. She was by now out of bed so off we went to pick up the last few items. This did not include boots or down jacket as those had been posted from the UK and we had to go to customs to pick them up.
That was a saga of its own. The package arrived in Nepal no problem, but when we went to pick it up we were told we had to pay £160 to release it, which was plainly ridiculous. It turned out that because there was an invoice on the package stating the value of the goods, it was deemed as taxable. We argued there was no difference between posting them and carrying them in our backpacks so didn’t see why we had to pay. After eventually getting to the boss, explaining again and telling him if we had to pay he should just send them back where they came from. This made him realise we were just trying to get some used boots and stained jacket rather than selling them so the invoice, it turned out was never there (so long as it remained in a pocket, it was fine). For a small ‘fee’ paid in the parking lot, everything was then sorted out for us and we received the package after a slightly annoying 5 hour wait.
The customs itself was interesting to see in action – there were hundreds of boxes coming in, mostly full of outdoor gear destined for the shops and it was a super busy place.
Now to the next challenge. I have big feet, and Nepalese people do not. The biggest size in the shops was EU45, I needed EU48. During my shopping exploits, I had asked every single shop if they had any but was unsuccessful, so was starting to get worried. By chance, I noticed a shop next to the camera repair shop that was trying to fix our camera that was no longer working and by some miracle he had 2 pairs of big boots. They were second hand but fit nicely and were exactly what I was after. But he wanted US$200 for them, which is more than they cost when new. After a long time of trying to get him to a reasonable price, I eventually gave up on the basis they clearly weren’t going anywhere so were a good option as a last resort.
When something is meant to be it is meant to be, and as it happened there were a pair of big boots on a shoe rack in the hostel we were in at first. I had left a note in them essentially saying I’d buy them but had had no response, and they looked very abandoned with a few tears in them and plenty of dust. There also were no boys, let alone big-feeted ones, on our floor. By this point I was fairly desperate, so after a quick morality check with someone who was in our dorm, decided the best option was to take the boots. Problem solved. (I really hope I didn’t steal them from someone, I remain pretty sure they were abandoned!)
So with everything now bought, we went to book our guide for Island Peak – we were planning on the Everest Base Camp trek followed by a relatively non-technical summit by that name – before dinner of Momos and a final beer. It had all been a bit of a mess up to this point, but we were now all sorted and able to be calm for a moment. We were then up until past midnight packing despite a 4am start to catch our flight to the mountains.
After a very short sleep, we hopped in a taxi with just our trekking gear (the rest stayed in the hotel) and set off for the airport for a 7.30am flight. The airport was simple enough, but at 12.30 we were still there. Our flight was the only one to be delayed, which was very frustrating. Given we had a 3 hour walk after we landed it was getting a bit worrying too. There was a total lack of announcements but after an eternity they called our names over the speaker saying we needed to board, despite the flight never having been called! Now, finally, we were ready to hop on our 12 seater plane and set off for what is claimed to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world…