I traveled in Nepal for eight days with my colleague William Chan. When I got the idea from a TV program about Nepal (and the movie Little Buddha), I thought of only Mount Everest and hiking. Nepal turned out to be much more than that, both in good and bad ways. Except for the special mountain flight we took, it was a very different experience from what we imagined.
For the first few days, we stayed in the capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu. We were at first very excited by the city's many gods and many temples. Although Nepal is now 90 percent Hindu, it was once dominated by Buddhism. In the course of many centuries, it developed a fascinating mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism. We were simply overwhelmed. There are so many gods, and each of them has different names. It was also very exotic to us. Being from China I knew a little bit about Buddhism, but I was not prepared to see burning bodies on the bank of a sacred river.
We stayed in the tourist section of the city. Nepal first opened to travelers in early sixties, just after Tibet was closed following the Dalai Lama's escape to India. Years of tourism have made this section almost absurdly different from the rest of the country. Tourists from all over the world get the things they are used to at internationally competitive prices. A candy bar costs as much as what an average Nepalese makes for a day.
After the first few days and the initial excitement, a few things started to bother us a lot. The first is pollution. Constant traffic produces black exhaust that makes walking or taking a taxi a miserable experience even in the morning (drivers insist on keeping windows open because cars don't have air-conditioning). The hygiene condition in the city is appalling. Many temples are practically garbage dumps. We thought Nepalese religious practices are partly to blame. People leave their offerings on the temple grounds, things like half-cooked rice and flowers. Holy cows and goats come and lick the offerings. "Holymen" take their shares too. These men are supposed to be respected because they gave up their secular possessions and became followers of the gods, but for all practically purposes they are beggars.
The other thing that bothered us is non-stop hassling. Everywhere you go, kids and young men volunteer to be your tour guides. Small kids want to shine your hiking boots. Street vendors try to sell you everything at rip-off prices. I was asked quite a few times whether I needed drug, twice by kids under 10. The worst part of this hassling is that they follow you around town and won't just give up if you keep saying no. Once we had to pay a would-be tour guide to keep him from bothering us.
Then there was also the exhausting experience of negotiating prices for just about everything you buy. Some taxi cabs have meter, but drivers don't want to use meter and always try to strike a deal with you. We figured that the incentive schemes for drivers must have been wrongly designed---if the taxi company gets a fixed proportion off the meter, say, the driver will avoid using the meter whenever he can. At first, we sort of enjoyed talking to the local people, but quickly the whole process started to get into our nerves. The worst part was bargaining with souvenir vendors. I must have paid outrageously high prices quite a few times, but there was no way we could figure out how much of our money was ripped off.
The neighboring cities are better. There are fewer tourists and people seem friendlier. But the differences are just in degree. After a few days in the cities, we were desperately trying to get a later flight out of Kathmandu so that we could have more time to arrange for a trek in the mountains. In the end we got the confirmation, but it was too late to make any arrangement. Fed up with the city, we took the original flight out of Kathmandu instead of staying for a few more days in Nepal. We spent three days in Bangkok; it was like back to civilization again.