Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Kathmandu Valley

Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, is a city of contradictions: beautiful, alluring, even magical but also dirty, polluted and squalid. Its narrow streets, no more than lanes really, bend and twist and are lined with medieval buildings with window and door carvings of delicate beauty. Off them, accessible through unmarked doorways are small quiet squares and courtyards reminiscent of those in Arab towns. Yet the streets are permanently overcrowded: people are everywhere, honking traffic forms an endless procession, bicycle rickshaws and motorbikes weave in and out narrowly missing pedestrians, and the occasional cow is shooed out of the way. It is a kaleidoscope of colour, noise, bustle and all the more fabulous – and exhausting – for it.

We retreated to Kathmandu between our three treks, as well as at the start and end of our time in Nepal, to soak up some culture and enjoy the creature comforts unavailable in the mountains. We stayed in Thamel, the popular tourist district, which is packed full of restaurants, cheap hotels, and shops selling hippy clothes shops and outdoor gear. Lucky for us the supermarkets were stocked with tired, dirty and news-hungry trekkers in mind, with chocolate, Pringles, and even copies of the Economist available everywhere.

Historically, the Kathmandu Valley was split into three kingdoms, or city states: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Paptan, whilst the rest of modern day Nepal was a fragmented patchwork of almost 50 independent states. The country was unified, politically at least, in the late 1700s when Kathmandu became the capital and the Valley’s other Royal cities fell into decline. Luckily the medieval historic centres of all the three cities and their Royal (Durbar) Squares have been preserved.

We started our sightseeing in Kathmandu Durbar square, which houses 50 important religious monuments or shrines as well as the huge former royal palace. The monuments mainly date back to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, although some buildings are older, and are visually stunning, often shaped as stepped pyramids and adorned with intricate carvings of religious symbols and curiously erotic figures on beams and around doors and windows.

By day Durbar Square teems with life, with hundreds of traders and tourists dodging the traffic that incredibly hasn’t been banned from driving amongst the historic buildings, while other people relax on the broad stone stairways of the various monuments. The Square’s only permanent resident however is the Kumari. A small child deemed to be a living goddess, she shows herself to crowds of tourists, us included, at 4pm each day, until she reaches puberty when she is cast back to being a mere mortal.

In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur’s Durbar Squares are an oasis of calm, where thankfully traffic is banned. Patan has arguably the finest collection of palaces and temples, whilst Bhaktapur’s is the most intact of the three cities and also benefited from a German funded renovation project in the 1970s. Bhaktapur is also further from Kathmandu and is pleasantly set amongst fields, with hundreds of largely traffic-free narrow cobblestone streets and squares which wind round crumbling old red-brick houses with intricate wood carved doors and windows. Wandering through the lanes we felt a strong sense of how medieval cities must have been. Life in Bhaktapur is much quieter than in the capital but the small streets still teem with life: children playing, old men sleeping in squares and women collecting water from wells.

Until 2008 when the Maoists achieved a majority in Parliament and abolished the monarchy, Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom and religion, both Hinduism and Buddhism, remains an essential and highly visible part of Nepali life. Religious sites are everywhere in Kathmandu, ranging from the spectacular Swayambhunath, a 2000year old Buddhist stupa high which perches high on a hill overlooking the city, to small shrines and temples on almost every street, often neglected and almost ignored like the small 6th century statue of Shiva we saw in a niche of a wall in a unremarkable building housing a dental practice. Whilst the majority of Nepalis are Hindu (89.5% of the 24 million population), with only 5.35% Buddhist, many religious monuments are shared between the faiths and we were struck by the seeming religious and ethnic harmony that exists within the city with Hindus often worshipping at traditional Buddhist sites and vice versa. Religion also appears to be intrinsic to daily life and much celebrated, leaving the temples a wonderfully chaotic mess: in the mornings Nepali women flock to the temples and shrines to perform a puja, light butter lamps, scatter rice and daub yet more red tika paint on the statues, while around Buddhist homes and sites prayer flags flutter in the wind.

Pashupatinath and Bodnath are two of the most important Hindu and Buddhist sites in Nepal. Pashupatinath is the country’s most visited Hindu temple and when we were there was full of sadhus, Hindu ascetics who have renounced all their possessions for a nomadic life and eek out a living from begging or donations in return for posing for tourists’ photos. Pashupatinath is set on the banks of the Bagmati river, a tributary of the Ganges river, and thus considered sacred by Hindus, although we found it hard to see it as more than the open sewer it resembled, filled as it was with fetid garbage. For Hindus however it is the cities most sacred cremation site: those approaching death are lain on the banks with their feet in the water until life drains out of them whilst dead bodies are cremated on open slabs of stone and then rather unceremoniously, to our eyes, dumped in the river.

Bodnath is an immense 40m high white Buddhist stupa, the most important Buddhist site in the city and the heart of the Tibetan exile community. The stupa itself is surrounded by a circle of monasteries, houses and shops selling Buddhist paraphernalia, reminding us of Lhasa in Tibet, and as in Lhasa we spent several peaceful hours just watching people making slow circuits of the stupa, spinning prayer wheels as they walked.

For our last week in Nepal we headed back to the mountains for a few last days walking, this time in the lower slopes of the Himalayas (just 2000m-3500m) to the north of Kathmandu. To get to the trailhead took a short but heartbreaking taxi ride from central Kathmandu, out through the city’s rapidly expanding northern suburbs. Here the worst effects of rapid, unplanned, unchecked urban development were all too obvious: the landscape littered with poorly built, often unfinished dwellings of bare breezeblocks, all built without the necessary infrastructure and surrounded by the detritus of construction. And so abandoned piles of cement, gravel, sand competed with the usual urban litter of plastic bags, tin cans broken glass food wrappers all stretching out as far as we could see through the smoggy haze that envelopes the Valley. And in amongst the new buildings and their squalor were still just hanging on the remnants of an old and dying way of life: villages of one or two storey brick buildings surrounded by small fields of barley or potatoes, all disappearing under a tide of concrete and plastic bags.

Luckily – for us if not for the residents of the Kathmandu suburbs – the trail quickly climbed away from and out of sight of the Valley and for the next six days we walked through small villages and beautiful terraced fields and of mustard and potatoes, separated by forests of pine, holly and rhododendron covered in bright red, white and pink flowers. While not as dramatic or spectacular as the mountain scenery we’ve seen elsewhere in Nepal the landscape in this region was still very beautiful. Even for the first half of the trek when we were surrounded by thick mist the mixture of woods and farmland appeared beautiful and for the last day we had wonderful views out across the terraced slopes and populated valleys.

Being at lower altitudes we also saw more birds and wild animals than elsewhere, and unlike in the Everest region we had the trails to ourselves for most of the day, providing a tranquillity we’ll no doubt crave in a few days when we’re back in urban China. In several places at lower altitudes, our narrow and steep path cut across new roads that are being driven through this landscape. While these roads remain un-surfaced for now, and in six days we saw just one aged bus using them, it is clear that they will transform life in these villages previously only accessible by foot, and outside many of the wooden houses already stood gleaming new motorbikes – still unseen in the other areas we’ve walked through.

We’ve had a wonderful time in Nepal both in the cities and in the mountains. It is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture yet it remains desperately poor. Infrastructure badly needs improving: the roads, waste management and the energy system particularly. The traffic in Kathmandu is almost at breaking point, while the pollution means the city is constantly covered in a smoggy haze. To save the electricity grid from meltdown power is turned off for more than 16 hours a day in the city and the valley. It seems unbelievable that a capital city must survive on only 8 hours of electricity a day, with five of those typically in the middle of the night. Amazingly villagers in the remote countryside with small scale community hydroelectricity plants often fare between than their city counterparts with more reliable electricity. Large parts of Kathmandu and the surrounding valley are also squalid. Yet despite these problems the Valley’s cities remain beautiful and vibrant and we hope desperately that something can be done to preserve their charm and alleviate the problems that afflict them.

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