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Kathmandu Impressions

NEPAL | Wednesday, 13 November 2013 | Views [1268]

Kathmandu Impressions

 I had forgotten how drawn I am to this city despite its chaotic feel.  The ride from the airport crossed the same dirt alleyways they had on previous trips and there were still mounds of trash in the streams and rivers, but there is a hypnotic energy that permeates this city.  Temples, chaityas, stupas, shrines of all shapes and sizes to deities of multiple religions are littered across the landscape.  Go twenty meters in any direction anywhere in the center of town and you are bound to see another sacred image of some sort. The entire valley is based on a Mandala with sacred protectors on the periphery of an ever-expanding urban area. Sacred and secular legends live and compete with one another on every corner. Sometimes the protectors seem to have been overwhelmed with their tasks as this is also an area that is prone to natural disasters in the form of numerous earthquakes and man-made ones in the form civil unrest.  Both are part of the ancient fabric of Valley life.

 I was told that I was coming at a good time because once the elections start in a couple of weeks, so will the bandas (national strikes) and boycotts.  It seems this may be inevitable in a country that still after three years of failed attempts does not have a constitution.  The election is to put a party, or coalition of parties, who will successfully draft one, in place.  So far the parties have been at a stalemate and nothing has been accomplished since the end of the Civil War.  The Maoists, who won by a fairly large majority (& many say was through terrorizing villagers to vote for them) never followed through on the promises they made and people now seem as frustrated with them as they were with the Congress Party a few years ago.  The general sentiment I heard was that all politicians are crooks, regardless of party affiliation, who are only out to line their own pockets and don’t really care about the plight of the people – who indeed are suffering and really do need the government to function for them.  There are now three Communist parties in the running, along with the Congress Party.  The three are the Maoists, a more conservative branch of that party that is protesting the election and has broken away from the mainstream, and the Stalinist-Leninist group that I was told is really more socialist than communist these days, but that the don’t want to upset their followers by changing their name.  The three main parties, the Congress Party, the Maoists and the Stalinist-Leninists are ones that are the main contenders in the pursuit for control of the government. 

Political propaganda lines the streets and posters are hung from the houses much the way they are in the U.S. during a Presidential election.  There are street demonstrations on the main roads, especially on the weekends, which shut down all traffic until the parade of flags has past, and cars with loudspeakers blasting political messages throughout the city and adjoining villages. It will be interesting to see what happens after the election and whether a good constitution will actually be enacted.

There are many issues that the government needs to think about, not the least of which deals with the health of the people, starting with the lack of sanitary conditions.  As in rural India, many people have no access to public toilets and simply defecate wherever they are.  Women still wash their hair and bodies in polluted refuse infected waters that comes out of spigots by the side of the dusty roads. Many of the roads connecting Pokhara and Bhaktapur have been redone thanks to Chinese, Indian and Japanese support, but much of the road system within town and beyond the one main artery is completely torn up. Road repair happens by individuals squatting on the ground with chisels in hand cutting out worn sections of asphalt while others cook new mixes of sticky black ooze and dole out the concoction into the newly chiseled hole from the shallow bowl it was cooked in.  This is all done one on one by hand. Yes, the country does have big asphalt rollers, but they weren’t in operation during my observations; the road laborers both male and female, however, were.

On the sides of the roads there are houses that are brand new and are freshly painted.  These beautiful new buildings are often next to those that are falling apart or were only half finished a decade ago with no subsequent construction occurring. From the state of the houses, it appears some people are doing fairly well to quite well, while most are still struggling.

My guess is that those who are in the tourist industry are the ones who are doing better than the farmers and laborers.  Thamel was always a backpacker haven, but during my three previous trips to this city, never saw it as crowded as it was this time.  Western and Chinese tourists have taken over this part of town. English, not Newari or Nepali is the linga franca in Thamel. The restaurants all offer Western, Tibetan, Chinese and Nepali cuisine and there are any number of decent German bakeries between the knick-knack and mountain gear shops. While I didn’t want an Äpfelstrudel from a Nepali cook at an Alpine Hütte, I was very grateful to find one in Thamel. Place does make a difference!

All of Kathmandu faces electrical blackouts on a regular basis, but I was also heartened that somehow most of the hotels had backup generators for their wifi routers, if not for the lights and elevators.  The Nepalis know that tourists can live by candlelight, but not without our communication gadgets.

 The other major change that I noticed was the increase in the presence of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.  They were here before, but their numbers and size have mushroomed.  This is changing Newari Buddhism (the original form from Nepal) as most of the scholars are Tibetan and not Newari.  When people come to study Buddhism in Nepal they are generally doing so at Tibetan monasteries. And it is the Tibetans that have the money for building and rebuilding, not the Newaris.  The Newaris are justifiably proud of their practitioner approach to Buddhism, but the legacy is passed on through scholarship as well and here the Tibetans clearly take the forefront.  While Tibetan Buddhism may be turned into Disneyism in Tibet and China, it is alive and flourishing in Nepal.  (Which is an interesting historical twist.)

 Kathmandu is a dusty city and at times the air is downright polluted, but after coming from Chinese cities, found that it was much clearer than there.  While it was always too hazy to see the Himalayas clearly, I could at least get an image of them as abodes of the gods hanging mid-way in the sky above the hilltops and haze. The mountains form a ring around the city and the Valley and perhaps it is their presence, even when they remain invisible that gives this place its strength and fascinating character.  This is a city to come back to time and time again. Each time it offers another glimpse of a reality that only unfolds to those who are willing to wait for the clouds to pass by.




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