After lunch, it was off to Nagarkot, my poor, workhorse of a taxi wheezing its way around vertigo-inducing turns up to the top of the ridge, passing green-brown terraced rice fields and low lying houses. Apparently, winter is the best time to see the mountains, so as it was spring, I could barely make out the outline of mountains through the haze.
However, the complete quiet and the cool mountain pine-scented air made it an amazingly restful place to hang out. I quickly left the Niva Niwa Lodge, my modest but perfectly adequate guesthouse with its big bed piled high with blankets, and headed next door to the decidedly more posh Hotel Country Villa with its rustic lounges and beautiful terrace restaurant and happily spent the afternoon sipping hot chocolate while reading, every now and then looking up and just pinching myself to remind me where I was.
Just before sunrise the next morning, I rub the sleep from my eyes and join the rest of the guests out on the many viewing balconies to see the distant mountain peaks just barely visible. What was even more surreal was to wake up above the clouds. What was that city in Star Wars called, Cloud City? I almost had that feeling, watching the orange pinks of the rising sun play off the clouds as they slowly rose from the valley floor below.
If I ever have a chance to come back to Nepal, spending a week in the quiet beauty of the mountains is a must. A perfect spot to slow things right down and replenish…
All too soon, we were heading back to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu but not before making a stop in the nearby city of Patan, again strolling through the town square with its unique architecture. Patan is an easy taxi ride from Kathmandu, just across the river, but since I had a taxi and a friendly driver available, decided to combine trips. Patan Durbar Square is reported one of the most beautiful in the world and while small, it did not disappoint. Fronting the square is the Patan Museum which comes highly recommended. Just the door itself was a thing of beauty.
Talk to anyone who’s been to Kathmandu and they’ll tell you about the carpet sellers. It seemed like every fifth shop was a rug shop. “Am I really a rug person?”, I thought to myself. Cambodia is so hot and dusty, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a house that had carpeting, or even a rug at that. Also, I really hate putting myself at a disadvantage when buying things. That’s why I usually never buy jewelry or other high end items on holiday. My cynical self finds it hard to do business with someone you’re only going to see once… With rugs, I had no clue how to check for quality or even if something was handmade vs. machine-made.
Materials can range from silk to wool to blends (much less what kind of wool and from where – New Zealand vs. Tibet vs. India…) and the fascinating but bewildering choices go on and on. And what about price? I could be gouged for all I knew. A quick check on the internet wasn’t very helpful either. It reminded me of the time I was in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, famous for its pearls. Everyone had a theory and sellers were doing everything they could to sell me pearls, from rubbing them on their teeth to burning them with a lighter. I still felt I didn’t know nearly enough to gauge value or quality… So earlier in the week, I went into a few shops and asked about carpets I liked. Prices ranged from the ridiculous to the obscene and talk of knot counts, origin (Tibet vs. Nepal vs. Pakistan) had my head spinning. One place quoted me 1,500. I was thinking rupees (USD 20) and he was talking USD. Ouch.
But every new place I go, I like to get at least one meaningful (read: splurge) item, so a rug it was going to be. Guide books seemed to recommend Jawalakhel Handicraft Center, a gallery owned and run by Tibetan refugees – supposedly of high quality and fixed prices while providing a fair trade livelihood for the refugees. Passing through the work space where women busily hand-knotted rugs with intricate designs in rich colors, we went up to the expansive showroom, rugs in every size and color, neatly stacked from wall to wall.
I finally selected a gorgeous jewel-tone rug and despite all my bargaining skills honed over a decade in Cambodian markets, the seller stuck to her fixed prices. In the end, I plunked down a sizeable chunk of change for a momento of Nepal I will always treasure.
Travel tip: Bargaining in Asia or the Middle East is an art form. Everyone expects you to do it, but for the majority of Western tourists, it’s a non-existent skill. How many times have you gone into Best Buy and bargained down the price of a TV? A mix of inexperience and not knowing the true value of goods usually means tourists make a half-hearted effort to bargain (some websites / guidebooks say to offer 1/4 of the asking price in some places!) but can’t read the response / body language of the seller, either offending or afraid to offend and ending up paying significantly more than locals (who aren’t the ones buying souvenirs anyway!) I really can’t fault the sellers too much, especially when we’re talking developing countries. If they aren’t going to fleece tourists, who else is there? So. The bargaining dilemma. Guidebooks might be a good place to start but often times they’re out of date. Prices change on a daily basis, not to mention the 1-2 years it took from writing to printing your guidebook. Asking the workers (ie. the regular folk) at your hotel about general prices is another. Taking a local with you will inevitably mean s/he will get some kind of commission from the seller (after you leave). Here’s my advice. In most cases, don’t ever buy an item the first time you see it. Chances are other sellers in the same market will have similar items. (This can sometimes backfire, though, if you really don’t see the item anywhere else and have no time to return to the original seller. I saw a ring in Athens that I loved and regretted not getting it for the rest of the trip…) So ask the price by saying: “What’s your best price?” (Don’t try to negotiate at this point because negotiating is a sign of sincere interest and sellers understandably get angry when you negotiate for a price, get it and then don’t end up buying…) Follow up with “If your price is the best price, I’ll come back!” Sellers expect you to check prices. This may cause them to significantly lower the price. But be patient. Don’t buy yet! Keep checking around. Normally, I do go back to the first person who offered me a good price even if someone else matches it, just to be fair… Of course, buying multiple items from the same person increases your chances of getting a better deal. And once you’ve bought something for a price you’re happy with… just be happy, even if you see it somewhere else for less… Chances are, the little extra you paid means much more to the seller’s family than it could ever mean to you. Keep your cool, enjoy the process and think of the great story you’ll tell to friends back home on how you negotiated for three hours over a cup of apple tea with a rug dealer in the back streets of Kathmandu!