A short guide to getting around, Kathmandu edition

I’ve written about the challenges of crossing the street, but of course, you may need a ride sometime. Assuming you can’t afford to have a private car and driver standing by (we can’t), you still have options.

First, you could go native and take a bus. There are many public buses, and they go many places, including out into the mountains and villages. It is the cheapest option available.

And city buses are going to different neighborhoods. The way this works, some young man leans out of the side door of the bus and calls out where the bus is going. He also collects the money. These buses don’t actually stop—they slow down and people hop on and off. All the buses are very crowded.

Even if the buses had signs on them, saying where their destination(s) were, I couldn’t read them, and even if one of the young men was calling out the name of a place I wanted to go, I wouldn’t understand him. So, I haven’t ridden one of these buses. Yet. It’s on my bucket list.

Your next option is a taxi. If you are going to a noted landmark, or well-known office or hospital, this will work, provided you negotiate a price before you get in. If you can’t explain where you are going, or at least name a landmark nearby, this will get complicated quickly. The price will also change, depending on how long they have to drive around searching for the place you want to go and can’t explain. Taxi drivers are eager to help, but difficult to understand. But if I know and can communicate exactly where I would like to go, I’ll take a cab.

Keep in mind, there are no street addresses. Often the place you are looking for is just near a street but not on the street, tucked away in some maze of alleys or paths. Once we were standing on a street, and the Google map said we were at the right place. If the owner had not happened to walk by and ask what we were looking for, we would have never found it, even if we had asked a shopkeeper on the street. A taxi frequently complicates this search, since the driver may be from an entirely different neighborhood.

Finally, there is Pathao, an Uber-like app that knows where you are, and you can pin the place you want to go on a map. The price is set—no haggling—and I’ve found it reliably cheaper than a taxi. The price, however, is the only thing that is reliable.

Here are some of the challenges:

  • You may need a Nepali phone. Often, especially when you are not in the tourist district, the driver will call you and if you don’t answer the phone he won’t come. If you don’t have a local phone (we don’t this trip) he may text you through the app, but probably in Nepali. Or he may just not show up.
  • You may need a local translator. I’ve regularly needed a guard at the apartment or my friend where I’m going to talk on the phone to explain where to pick me up or where to take me, even though my location and destination are both clearly indicated on the map in the app. The driver may not understand the directions the app is giving, which are read out loud in English, just like we might experience it on such an app at home.
  • You may have to wait for your car. Even if the app shows the car is nearby, the driver may finish his coffee or get out of bed before he comes. The app tells you how long the ride will be, It doesn’t tell you when the ride will get there.
  • You may have to read Nepali, or at least numerals in the Nepali script. The app tells you the tag number in English, but the actual license plates are in Nepali. While you wait, other cabs will pull up, asking if you need a ride, and they may even claim to be your Pathao driver when they are not.

Despite these limitations (it’s a work in progress), I have found Pathao to be the most dependable way to get where I’m going if I would rather not walk there. And it has improved little by little, so I will keep the app on my phone. There are now competing products I may try on another trip.

Bonus— You can also use the Pathao app to have a motorcycle pick you up, which is much cheaper. You have to be braver, but I did get a ride to the university once this way. And all these Pathao cycles are also available to pick up food from over 600 restaurants and bring it to your office or apartment. Delivery is about 75 cents. We’ve done that too.

Finally, I did mention Google Maps, which works better here than Apple Maps. I’m truly grateful for the satellites whirling around, showing me where I am and even where I want to go. I can use my phone for walking directions and also following my progress in a taxi into some unfamiliar neighborhood.

At least I can do this when internet is available, which is not always.

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