Surviving Winters in Kathmandu

We were warned by locals and seasoned expats that surviving winter in Kathmandu will be one of the toughest parts of this experience. I am a spoiled San Diegan, a true desert creature – I grew up in a climate where they said the local weatherperson had the easiest job in the world. It was consistently “sunny and 70°” almost all year around! I spent a decade in mild North Carolina where I got used to wearing a coat, gloves, scarf and hat in winter. I found winters difficult, but managed and eagerly anticipated the arrival of spring. Upon hearing the warnings for Kathmandu, I knew I was in for a BIG challenge. The difficulty here isn’t outdoor temperatures, but rather INDOOR temperatures. There is NO centralized heating in residences, schools, offices and most commercial establishments.

Winters here are significantly milder than conditions in latitudes and altitudes higher than here. These are the average stats:

• Outdoor daytime highs: 55 – 65° F (12 – 18° C)
• Outdoor nighttime lows: 32 – 40° F (0 – 4° C)
• Indoor daytime highs: 52 – 55° F (11 – 12° C)
• Indoor nighttime lows: 50 – 53° F (10 – 12° C)

I’ve had to readjust my lens of “normal winter behavior” to survive winters here. What is considered “normal” is so foreign from winter back home, but so ordinary here…
• I wear a ski hat, gloves, scarf, sweater and jacket all day long.
• I only bathe about 4-5 times per week because the bathroom is so cold and I don’t feel dirty or generate much sweat in between.
• I drink hot water instead of room temperature or ice water (as we did in the US).
• I sit outside in the sun for hours in the daytime. I make sure the laptop is charged up in advance, and sit outside with any work that is portable and can be done outside – soaking up the natural, reliable, consistent heat from the sun.
• I avoid going to the toilet unless absolutely required because the seat is so cold.
• Changing clothes (nighttime into pajamas or morning time into day clothes) is painful, like putting layers of iciness on top of my warm skin.
• Prakash and I usually sleep by 8 or 9pm because it is too cold to stay up chatting, watch a movie, or playing a board game.
• The floor in our house is so cold – it is uncomfortable walking barefoot or even with a layer of cotton socks. House slippers are a necessity in Nepal (outdoor shoes are not worn inside the house in Asia). Many people even come with their house slippers in tow when invited over to a friend’s house!

Kids getting ready for bed - footsie pajamas, woolen hats, fleece jumpers, and warm Nepali felt house slippers.

Kids getting ready for bed – footsie pajamas, woolen hats, fleece jumpers, and warm Nepali felt house slippers.

At the coldest point in winter, we could see our breath as we exhaled while inside the house, and steam emanated from the toilet while the boys did their business! We live in a 50 year old house with single pane windows with up to ½ inch gaps and wooden doorways with up to 1 inch gaps. Even the thickest of curtains block only some of the draft.

Ah, centralized indoor heating – what I currently miss most here in Nepal… Oh I remember the days I could walk over to the thermostat on the wall and adjust the gauge to 65, 70, or even 75°F (when I really wanted to warm up!) and the temperature would quickly adjust – I really miss that. Given that there is no central indoor heating, we have several other devices to keep us temporarily warm indoors:

• Our family’s current best friend is our wood stove… Now, I understand why SO many locals’ jaws dropped in awe when we mentioned that our house has a wood stove (not a common feature). We can temporarily heat our formal dining room (aka eating room, sitting room, playing room, computer room, work room, nap room… we do everything in here except sleep at night!) up to 80° F (26° C) ! Toasty, warm, temporary bliss… Firewood is relatively plentiful because in the last few months, Tika Dai trimmed several trees in our yard, removed a bamboo wood fence and dismantled an old dog house. We are slowly eating through our supply of burnable wood. In general, we light a fire at breakfast time for about ½ an hour and again at dinner for 1-2 hours. Prakash despises the smoke and pollution we are sending out, but takes comfort in the fact that it’s only for a couple months.

Sitting next to it now as I type this blog post!  The most effective indoor heating device, our wood stove.

Sitting next to it now as I type this blog post! The most effective indoor heating device, our wood stove.

• We purchased 3 gas heaters from the previous tenant of our house. However, at this time, we are not using any. Unlike in the West, there is no constant government supplied gas supply piped into each house or business. EVERY residence and business uses large, heavy gas cylinders and changes them out as the supply depletes. Every winter Kathmandu suffers from a gas shortage. Midway through the season, poor families who have run out of gas turn to kerosene for cooking. It is nearly impossible for the average person (i.e., one without personal connections) to get a cylinder of gas at this time. To meet the extreme spike in demand in wintertime, there simply isn’t enough supply (it maybe actual supply or what the government chooses to provide… however, that is another topic). Given the extreme shortage, we don’t use gas for heating the air. We do use gas for cooking and heating water for bathing (solar heated water is tepid during winter, but I like REALLY hot water and am willing to splurge for it!).

Truck getting loaded with gas cylinders - people hold their's in queues for days, sometimes weeks!

Truck getting loaded with gas cylinders – people hold their’s in queues for weeks!

• One of the 3 gas heaters we purchased is dual-featured and runs on electricity, too. This is our family’s second most prized possession at the moment. It has 3 parallel rods and can heat a closed room up to a comfortable 65 degrees (18 °C). All 5 of us are sharing the single bedroom where this heater is located. The main issue in using this heater is that, in Kathmandu, the government supplies electricity for only ~12 hours per day during winter. If there is no electrical current, our invertor/battery system can power the lights, computer, TV, refrigerator and wall outlets. However, heating devices (electric heaters, irons, hair dryers) cannot be powered. We hear a BEEP when the electricity switches on and off – either excitement or disappointment follow each of these beeps 4 times a day.

Our electric heater - kept in the bedroom as much of the night, the electricity is on and we can use it!

Our electric heater – kept in the bedroom as much of the night, the electricity is on and we can use it!

• We purchased a few hot water bottles before coming to Nepal. Locals recommended placing them underneath the bed covers about an hour before sleeping to alleviate the pain of entering an icy cold bed. We tried it for a day or two, but simply weren’t organized enough to boil the water, fill the bottles, go upstairs and place at least 5 of them (one for each of us) in our beds – and getting all of this done around dinnertime.

The streets of Kathmandu are noticeably different during winter too. Shops are now inundated with warm-weather-gear. Every morning and evening, lower-income residents light fires in front of their homes and shops and in vacant lots. Burning everything from wood and dry leaves to egg cartons and newspaper, the air fills with a thick smoke. Although early mornings are the best time to walk or jog in the absence of vehicle traffic, the pollution that has built up overnight creates toxic unpleasant conditions (later in the morning, afternoons and evenings are better times to exercise outdoors).

Puffer jackets, and anything you can imagine made from fleece or wool -- jumpers / sweaters, shawls, scarfs, hats, gloves, wrist warmers, leg warmers, socks, pants... the list goes on and on...

Puffer jackets, and anything you can imagine made from fleece or wool — jumpers / sweaters, shawls, scarfs, hats, gloves, wrist warmers, leg warmers, socks, pants… the list goes on and on…

Prakash finds the ICIMOD building quite cold too, where a central heating system exists but operates very infrequently. The late mornings are pleasant as the sun shines through his office window for a few hours, but gets very cold in the afternoons and evenings. When Prakash’s fingers get too cold to use the keyboard, he exhales on them, rubs them vigorously, and occasionally visits the bathroom to use the hand dryer. There are gas heaters scattered throughout the building, but he opted not to get one for his office. The conference rooms are SO cold that they often have meetings up on the terrace in the full sun! The cafeteria dining area is also frigid, so they eat on the roof terrace. His morning commute is reminiscent of the early spring in North Carolina, with temperatures in the 40s (< 10°C). He wears a balaclava mask, thermal leggings, and lobster gloves. His evening commutes are in complete darkness (streetlights are rarely operational), so he has a flashing red tail light, handlebar headlight, and fluorescent reflective jacket to make himself more visible.

In the kids’ school, each classroom has one gas heater. Thankfully, The British School has access to sufficient gas to keep the kids warm at school. Overall, our kids have dealt with the cold very well… they seem more immune to small adjustments in temperature than I am – they live in the present and are able to focus on their current activity and remain unaware of their cold fingers or ears.

Janani wearing a "head warmer" I crocheted for her.  She also learned and made a few more!

Janani wearing a “head warmer” I crocheted for her. She also learned and made a few more!

We often feel like this is one long CAMPING trip. It has been a true challenge although we have acclimated well. The other day, I was reading in our unheated living room after the kids went to bed and looked up at the clock (thermostat read 55° F / 13° C) and was taken aback at how oddly comfortable it felt.

One of the coldest mornings this winter - 50.9 degrees Fahrenheit in our upstairs living room.

One of the coldest mornings this winter – 50.9 degrees Fahrenheit in our upstairs living room.

Keep this in consideration when you plan your visit to Nepal… We’ll visit YOU at Christmas time and ya’ll can come here during a different season!

6 thoughts on “Surviving Winters in Kathmandu

  1. Wow!  makes me grateful as I sit here in Starbucks, by the fireplace, sipping coffee in 75 degrees….if it makes you feel any better, its about 36F outside today!  🙂 What a great post, thanks for writing, will help us appreciate some things we take for granted here…like central heat, carpeting, insulation…warmth! The engineer in me cannot help but offer some suggestions, although Prakash may have thought of these already, have you tried sealing the windows off with Plastic, to prevent cold air from entering the house? Also sealing off the cracks in doors and windows.   I guess there’s not much in the way of insulation, but maybe putting some heavy rugs down on the floor to keep heat in….be careful about leaving those heaters on at night before you go to sleep.  It does seem reading your story like a daily camping trip, but I’m sure this being your 1st winter, your bodies are still adjusting….by January next year, the kids will be prancing around in shorts I’m sure!

    This is an extraordinary experience!  Your descriptions are very colorful, (esp. comment about “steam emanating…”) trying to forget about that one… Well, now we know what to get you for your birthday, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NITA (better late than never! :=) Good Luck staying warm… regards, DS

  2. Best post yet. We are going to share it with the kids. I’m glad to see that they nighttime/sleeping time electricity finally has its benefit! Didn’t anticipate that as a good thing when I first read about the electricity hours last spring. Know that you are loved.

  3. That is brutal. Let us know if we can ship you guys anything to help. Disposable hand warmers, goretex headwear/footwear, wet-suits!

  4. Oh Wow Nita! My first thought as I started reading was electric heater, but we in US take electricity for granted. Cannot even imagine life without it, even though I have lived in India with unreliable electricity. The wood stove looks interesting.
    Your kids are awesome, they take life as it comes, enjoy and move on! The crochet head-warmer looks good on Janani!
    Well, we’ll keep this mind when we plan our visit….

  5. It seems to be worse than what you feared when we visited in November. Maybe you can ship the kids to Pune on an exchange program next winter or all of you can take a long break next Dec/ Jan, come over and stay with us. We would love to see you both and the kids again. With so many relatives in Pune, you can time-share among them should you/ kids get bored (which I doubt).
    In the meantime, bundle up!
    It’s already 35/12 in Pune. Oh, forgot to mention that we measure the temp in Celsius around here!
    – Ashwin

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