Nepal 17: Shopping in Thamel

Kilroy's of Kathmandu

The trek from Jiri to Everest Base Camp seemed too long to contemplate in my shell-shocked state. When I considered the prospect of trekking through rural Nepal for three weeks, alone, it sounded insane, bleak, and lonely. Not to mention, the trek would take at least 21 days, and I only had a 30-day visa. I’d eaten up a few of those days already, and I still needed to outfit myself almost from scratch. I’d been in the tropics for the past five months: I had only a single piece of the I equipment needed to venture into the high mountains — my hat.

Gloves, hiking boots, trekking poles, a backpack, down jacket, a sleeping bag, water bottles, long-sleeved layers… all of these and more needed to be acquired before I could set out. I also needed a TIMS permit from the government, and an independent trekking card if I wanted to go without a guide.

A motivated person could have accomplished all that in a day, and been on the bus to Jiri tomorrow. After all, every second shop in Thamel sells cheap trekking gear, and every third is a trekking agency which can arrange the paperwork. In my heart of hearts though, I knew I wasn’t motivated. I didn’t really want to trek. I wanted to go home.

My family is nothing if not stubborn though, and I refused to come all the way to Nepal only to turn around and head home, my tail between my legs.

Even if I came home, Holly wasn’t going to forgive me for booking the ticket in the first place. And honestly, I don’t think I would have forgiven myself if I went all the way to Nepal and didn’t see the mountains.

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I would plod on, I knew.

There was no other option.

But still, if I didn’t get moving on prepping for the trek, my window of opportunity would close.

My belly was full for the first time since Hong Kong, and the rest of my body was on the edge of serious caffeine jitters. I paid my tab, stuffed my computer into my bag, and headed back to the streets of Thamel.

It was time to buy my trekking gear. I could sort out the route later.

Thamel was just as chaotic as it was yesterday. My senses could hardly keep up with the whirlwind of colors, scents, sounds and touches of the crowd. The touts and drug dealers still cried out to me today, but I walked with a little more purpose, and found them easier to shake. Instead, I looked at the shops.

Trekking shops dominate the Thamel neighborhood. Not surprising, since Himalayan tourism is the big thing in Nepal. The sheer volume of these shops can be shocking though: there seems to be a shop selling identical-looking goods every second or third business. The names run together the same way the goods do: Namaste trekking, Western Light Trekking, Eastern Light Trekking, Good Karma Trekking, Adventure Tours, Adventure Eco Tours, Good Karma Tours, Mother Earth Trekking, etc…

Every shop looks the same: a narrow, deep storefront. The stores are maybe ten feet across, but most of the spaces drop forty to sixty feet back from the street. Goods are stacked floor-to-ceiling, from the back of the store to the steps out front.

There is a stack of North Face duffel bags out front of every single shop. The biggest duffel sits on the bottom, then the next-biggest, and so on. Most shops display five sizes, ranging from “Himalayan Expedition” size to “weekend trip.” The bags themselves are coated in thick layers of dust, which causes the bright colors to dull and dilute. The North Face branding is prominently tilted towards the street. The iconic logo is usually visible through the dust, although not always.

It’s not just the bags. Everything sold in Thamel is North Face. Or so it appears.

My research at the coffee shop had told me to expect this. Everything, the commenters online said, is fake.

When I’m home, I spend a lot of time outdoors. Prior to setting off for Asia, I’d lived in a ski town for a year. I’d skied 70 days last season, and climbed for maybe a dozen over the summer. I camp and hike and know how to layer for the weather above 4,000 meters. I own a snowboard, a set of skis, and a mostly-complete trad-climbing rack. This is all to say, I’m familiar with quality outdoors gear.

In fact, I owned everything needed to trek in the Himalaya. Unfortunately, my real North Face gear was at home, packed into boxes and stuffed into storage. It was no good to me here.

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I’ve never missed real, overpriced outdoors gear as much as I did in Nepal.

That fact rankled me as I walked into my first trekking store. I wasn’t happy about having to buy a bunch of things I already owned, but what else was there to do?

The first store I walked into was dark and dusty. It was so dark, I didn’t even see the woman inside at first. I jumped six inches when she came up behind me and greeted me.

“Trekking?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“What do you need?”

“Down jacket,” I said, first. This would be the most important item if I wanted to trek to 17,000 feet. It gets cold at that altitude, and a down jacket is the warmest and most packable form of protection. Again, I had a much-loved version of this item at home. It had seen me through many summits, powder days too good to yield to the chill, and long cold nights camping in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

The owner took me over to some jackets. “1,000 rupees,” she said, handing one to me.

I could immediately tell it wasn’t down. The texture and feel wasn’t right. I put it on just to check, and waited. When I wasn’t sweltering after two minutes, my suspicions were confirmed.

“That’s not down!” I told the shopkeep.

“Yes, is down,” she said.

“No, it’s not.” I returned.

“Yes, down!”

“No. Not warm enough.”

“Not warm enough?” she asked. “Where you going?”

“Everest Base Camp.”

“Oh no, that one not warm enough,” she said, taking the jacket off me, and hustling over to another area of the store.

I rolled my eyes as I followed her.

She handed me another, thicker jacket. “Three thousand rupees.”

I put it on. While it was undeniably warmer, this one didn’t seem to be down, either. Not to mention, it was extremely bulky. It wouldn’t leave much room in my pack for other things.

“Not down,” I said.

“Yes down!” she exclaimed, stamping her foot.

“No, down is small,” I said, indicating compression with my hands. “Small, light, warm. This is too big. Too cold.”

“Yes down!” she repeated again. “North Face, see?! North Face good quality. Down!”

I sighed, and prepared myself for a long day.

***

This is a serial feature. You can read the previous chapter here, or start at chapter one, here.

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8 thoughts on “Nepal 17: Shopping in Thamel

  1. I feel your pain. Buying cool overpriced gear in the US is a great experience. When you are at the mercy of other shops besides your neighborhood outdoor retailer, or an REI, this can be a very disquieting experience. Adding on to that the fact you know you have this stuff at home, can make your day down right miserable. Of course, that is one of the reasons my family always accuses me of overpacking! (Dad, do we really need inflatable kayaks to climb Mt. St. Helens?)

  2. So where might you trek now? the Himalayan Java gal was right – Annapurna is a great option, and Pokhara is much nicer than Kathmandu. Langtang would also be an interesting option. Was devastated by the earthquake but the trekking route is reopen.

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