Note: Courtesy of my Blog Guru Jan, I have now worked out how to re-include links to the bigger-sized photos, so if you click the images you’ll be able to see ’em all in much more detail, if that’s your thang. Though please don’t download them for commercial use without talking to me first (not that they’re in top quality JPEG).
I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post recently that I’m not much of a city person. I still think that stands. I’m happiest when I’m in the great outdoors (and the outdoors doesn’t get a whole lot greater than in Nepal). That said, a bunch of cities do make it onto my list of places I don’t mind spending time, and for all its faults (and not getting a mention in my previous post) Kathmandu is one of them.
On the surface, Kathmandu doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s a congested, sprawling city with no discernable pattern to its road networks, and far too many people on motorbikes and in decrepit little cars to make the streets a fun place to spend time. On top of that, it’s a chronically poor place. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia (usually competing for bottom place with Bangladesh), and at last tally stood at 145th out of 179 countries worldwide on the Human Development Index. That puts it slightly better off than countries like Sudan (146) and Haiti (148), but below nations such as Mauritania (140) and Burma (135). It’s dirty, and the air-pollution that gets trapped by cool air in the valley bottom gives rise both to chronic chest infections and eye- and sinus- irritation, as well as frequently obscuring any view of the mountains that ring the city.
But I lucked out. The flight landed mid-afternoon on a clear blue-sky day in mid-November. The sun was strong but the air was mild- mid-twenties perhaps- and before people were even off the rolling stairways and onto the apron, they were blocking the Airbus’ exits snapping lame [sorry, but it’s true] shots of white-capped Himalayan peaks, partially obscured by the air-traffic control tower […].
There’s no way around the traffic, of course. Kathmandu was virtually carless as late as the early fifties (for a fascinating insight into what was a deeply isolated kingdom, read Maurice Herzog’s fabulous account of the 1950 ascent of Annapurna, unsurprisingly entitled “Annapurna“), and so the sprawl and the old-town has a distinct higgledy-piggledy feel, with steep narrow streets navigating gullies and valleys, and ramshackle brick apartment-blocks leaning unconvincingly into oddly-angled and gridlocked intersections. Headed to the hotel, and the driver navigated shaded back-alleys where monkeys scattered from the garbage they were scavenging. We slowed at a complicated confluence of roads and watched in sickly slow-motion as a taxi glided serenely into an unsuspecting motorcyclist who was sent sprawling across the asphalt. Unhurt (and uncharacteristically wearing a helmet), the rider picked himself up, walked up to the cab window, and firmly and deliberately punched the cab-driver in the jaw before retrieving his mount and driving back into the flow.
For me the most interesting portion of the city (and I admit I didn’t venture too far afield) was the bustling hub of Thamel- the old town. Connaisseurs of Kathmandu, and those who had the opportunity to visit the country in the seventies or eighties (when, tragically, I was otherwise indisposed) will probably scoff at this comment, and for a good reason. Once a historic district surrounding centuries-old temples and oozing with character, Thamel is now the Vegas of South Asia, a network of narrow winding streets overhung with top-heavy buildings looking for an excuse to crumble, and hung with as much neon and tourist sign-boarding as their architecture can support. The narrow strip of sky between the congested three- and four-storey shop-house blocks is a tangled web of wires and cables. There are restaurants and cafes and backpacker hostels and hotels and shops selling pashmina textiles and outdoors gear and backpacks and souvenirs and paintings and handicrafts… pretty much every square inch of available real-estate revolves around the backpacker industry. And it really is horrendous.
Perhaps this is what makes it interesting. It’s a tremendous clash of civilisations. On the one hand the clutter and artchitectural chaos of what was once a bustling Hindu city in the foothills of the world’s highest mountain range, full of charm and character. On the other, capitalism in all its merry mirth, run amok among the rambling side-streets and gaping shamelessly from every darkened stoop and entranceway. Down the muddy footpaths, rickshaw runners and tiger-balm touts mingle with gore-tex clad Europeans and scraggly western travellers on some gap-year kick (often looking far less washed than the impoverished children in grubby clothes sitting on their concrete doorsteps where they empty onto the street).
I enjoy the life and vibrance of the place. People who talk about ‘genuine’ and ‘culture’ and how Western capitalist intervention has ruined the world are frankly up themselves. I mean, sure, in many ways it has. It’d be lovely for us to be able to enjoy the way these people lived traditionally and soak vicariously in their experiences, preserved pristine forever. Lovely, and a tad patronizing, no? Cultures change. Sure, I’d love to be able to brag that I was here before everybody else was. But I wasn’t. And Thamel’s fun. At night-time the streets blaze with neon and hum with music tumbling from a hundred different eateries. I was told there are quite literally thousands of travel agencies set up in the area. During the day you can’t go fifty paces without being offered a ride in a rickshaw, a pot of stinging-hot tiger-balm, or a surreptitious baggie of hashish. Young backpackers wear an expression of studied absence, as if to say “I refuse to see other white people”. Insence drifts thickly from shrines in shopfronts and mingles with the smell of rotting vegetables from alleyways and sidestreets. It’s colourful, and life and energy hangs from the place in thick, tangible folds.
A little walk away from the commercial hub- which is really just half a dozen criss-crossing streets over a couple of square kms- and the exploring becomes fun. Once you get away from the touts, the Nepalis are graciously accomodating, and strangely the white faces start to thin out. The noise in the narrow architectural canyons becomes a little quieter. The air is damp and cool. Life bustles. People rinse out stainless-steel cookware on front steps and empty grey waste-water straight into ditches at the side of the road. Motorbikes, horns blaring, carve a path between pedestrians and work their way around handcarts being pulled by young men and often boys. The odd sacred cow meanders along in search of food-scraps lying in heaps in dim corners, unmolested. Little temples are dotted about in alcoves, statues draped in yellow marigolds, purple clouds of incense almost overpowering as you walk past, while offerings of what I guess must be paan stain the stonework in visceral blood-like stains.
I wander down an alleyway that turns into a corridor. It is so dark I can barely see where my feet land, and I have to stoop my head to avoid banging it on the roof. When I emerge a few seconds later, I am in some courtyard deep within the tangled array of buildings and passageways. Families are gathered in corners, eating and washing and living their lives. I smile and wave awkwardly, realising I have blundered into their privacy, and they smile and giggle and wave back in a manner far more gracious than I would have done, had some tourist waltzed into my living room (and as has happened to some of my fellow students while studying at Cambridge University when they failed to lock their doors while stepping out for a short break…).
One of the aspects of the culture I enjoyed most was the respect towards animals, a refreshing change from the often vicious habits of people in Africa, where donkeys and dogs seem to bear the brunt for being the only creatures consistently in a lower station than humans, and are reminded of the fact with vigour. While I am usually leery of dogs in third world countries (and having had my own fair share of trouble), the dogs throughout Nepal were healthy, friendly and contended things, with furry coats and feathery tails. They reminded me of my own parents’ dogs, Zac and Zena, who as Tibetan Terriers and therefore Himalayan dogs themselves are no doubt distant cousins.
An enduring image I have while walking the streets of Thamel is of a little girl, a teeny little thing who was still probably as old as four or five, with straight black hair tied in two tails on either side of her head and a grubby brown face. She emerged from her front door straight onto the street, and there on her doorstep she found herself nose-to-nose with a happy-looking mutt, its tail held high in curiosity. For a moment they stood their looking at each other in the morning sunlight, and then the dog’s tongue loped out and smeared itself across the girl’s face in a gesture of tail-wagging affection, and the girl chortled happily and wiped the slobber off with the back of her sleeve. It was a simple image, but one which spoke tomes of the gentle spirit that Nepal tries hard to embody- political turmoil notwithstanding.
The tourist-sites interest me a little less. I cruised through the historic Durbar Square (the one on the edge of Thamel) in half an hour, enjoying the architecture, but like the cultural heathen that I am, eschewing both guide-books and tour-guides in favour of exploring the nooks and crannies myself. Likewise Swayanbhunath (the Monkey Temple) is a bit of a grotty place, jammed with tourists, although well worth the visit not so much for the monkies (wretched, diseased and bad-tempered little animals, wherever in the world I go) but for that fantastic staircase (a must-do for trekkers getting themselves ready for a walk in the real mountains) and for the fantastic views of the city on a clear day. Watching airplanes slip past the crest of the towering foothills, and the angle of the sunbeams gradually flatten until the sun is lost below the distant horizon, is all rather spectacular.
All up, I’ll take Pokhara and the hills any day over Kathmandu, but as cities go, it’s a pretty intriguing one, full of life in all its unfettered and unsanitary glory. When the air is clear (and I confess we had a string of really beautiful days, so we were lucky) it is quite simply thrilling to look out and see the world’s highest mountain peaks looming just a few dozen miles away, saw-toothed and impending above the charming ramshackle sprawl. Nepal, as I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, was a place I had been trying to get to for more than a decade, and when I finally did, it still exceeded my expectations.
Go before you die.
See my other posts on Nepal here:
In the Foothills
The Faces of Fishtail
Annapurna Base Camp South
An Annapurna Panorama
Flags in the Sanctuary