The Thamel distict has been my base in Kathmandu. This tourist area has developed since the 1980s (replacing the smaller ‘Freak Street’ area further south that was popular in the days of the hippie trail). It consists of only two main streets less than 2 kilometres long but it is packed with hundreds of shops and trekking agencies. I spent over a month in Thamel during my last trip to Nepal, each day discovering new nooks and crannies. You can buy all kinds of trekking gear here, mostly Chinese fakes with badly-sewn North Face logos that will only last for one trip, but occasionally some authentic imports or new Nepali brands that compete on quality. There are innumerable stalls selling hippie cotton clothes from India, pashmina wool sweaters and Tibetan paintings. Naturally the part of Thamel that kept me here so long is that the district has many English-language bookshops, of which Pilgrims Feed’n’Read here is one of the best in South Asia, boasting many esoteric publications in its labyrinthine building.
On this trip, however, the magic has worn off. One is aware of seeing everything through a haze of smog, and diesel soot covers some of the wares on display outside shops. The air of the Kathmandu valley is exponentially more polluted than three years ago. The long walks I used to take outside of Thamel to eat or sightsee are no longer pleasant or even particularly bearable due to the oppressive fumes. It took some effort to get down to Durbar Square, where the former royal palace is located along with several shrines. This is one of Kathmandu’s several UNESCO World Heritage sites.