Work brought me to Kathmandu in the dead of winter this year.
Last year, I went there thrice—in the spring, summer and autumn. The weather was typical for those seasons, as you’d expect them to be.
Even summer in Kathmandu was pleasant because of its altitude.
But this time, coming to Kathmandu in January, I had no idea what it would be like.
Just to be sure, before packing, I did an online check to get the weather forecast for the next 10 days.
Temperature would range from -1°C-16°C, it said, and the days would be sunny. So now I knew the weather picture. But was I really ready for the experience?
Tropical me focused on the bright side. 16°C I can handle, I thought. Anyway, I’d be asleep at midnight when it would be—1°C, so I’d just slip under the blanket and sleep off the cold. How naïve I was.
The winters of my life have passed (you can count how many of them I’ve had with the fingers of both hands) with the blessing of central heating. So I packed with central heating in mind.
Ah, central heating. Here in Kathmandu, there isn’t any, so now I know for sure how much of a blessing central heating can be.
I knew where I was staying, a Newari house restored and repurposed into Newa Chen, a lovely bed-and-breakfast. It was traditional enough not to have any central heating, despite its having been a Unesco Cultural Heritage Award Winner.
Checked into my room at Newa Chen, I prepared to spend my first winter night in the deep freeze.
Divendra, my thoughtful host, brought a hot-water bottle to my door at bedtime. Never having had one and not being too sure what I was supposed to do with it, I thanked him and instinctively tucked the hot-water bottle under the duvet covering the bed.
A Nepali duvet is a different thing. It’s not of those feather-light down duvets of the Western world, but is solidly packed with fiber, whose weight bore down as I slept, comforting me while keeping me warm.
But the savior of the night was the hot-water bottle! I was cold everywhere, so I spent the night repositioning the hot-water bottle to wherever heat was needed. It didn’t work as well as a warm body would have, but the hot-water bottle was all I had to see me through the night.
Jet-lagged, I woke up every hour from 3 a.m., stayed under the blankets (I added still another blanket on top of my duvet) until dawn broke.
After breakfast and many cups of hot coffee, I went for an early morning walk down the road to Patan Durbar Square, the former royal square of the Kingdom of Patan, now a World Heritage property.
Temple bells were ringing. People crowded into ornate stone temples for early-morning devotions, entering with heads bowed over lit sticks of incense, smiling as they came out after prayers with a red dot on their foreheads.
In the summer, Durbar Square moves with color. Women in saris walk from one end to the other. The saris that fill the square with summer color were muted now, weighed down by blanket-size shawls so large that only a bit of silk swirled around the ankles, close to the pavement.
Men wore winter jackets over either sweaters or sweats. Scarves wound around their necks, and knit woolen beanies covered heads and ears.
When I went indoors to a friend’s house, he was dressed this way, as if he was outdoors, still wearing jacket, scarf and beanie. That was how it was done, I found out, how to keep warm without central heating.
So I went shopping to get all the things that I saw the locals were wearing.
Vodka for the freeze
Now inside my hotel room, I keep my jacket on, also my sweater, and put on sweat pants. I wear my new, fuzzy wool slippers, which keep my toes warm while walking around the room. But before sleeping, I pull on my woolen socks.
I permanently keep my black wool beanie even when I sleep, with my hot-water bottle keeping me company. I am learning to live with the cold. It’s my second night. I’ll do better.
Here’s another thing about the cold. I’ve heard about vodka keeping Russians warm on long, sub-zero winter nights. Believe me, it works. There’s nothing like a shot of vodka in temperatures like this.
I’ve got a bottle of vodka in my room, plus my hot-water bottle. Both bottles make winter bearable for a tropical person like me.