Why I love Kathmandu
This city of 2.5 million, sprawling haphazardly across a smog-filled valley, does not crop up on the usual lists of the world’s most desirable destinations. From above it is a jumble of brick and concrete boxes, a turn-off for the more cocooned traveller. But coming from India – Calcutta no less – gave us a more sympathetic view. Kathmandu would prove far gentler, less filthy, and a lot less miserable. Those we encountered in Calcutta rarely smiled and almost always asked for tips; one Bengali at the hotel spoke to us rudely, with a clear sense of disdain.
The Nepalese, we find, are gracious to a fault. Even in the midst of a fuel blockade, with ordinary middle-class workers forced to spend an entire month’s salary on one canister of LPG, they face their challenges with patience, fortitude and humour. Power blackouts are frequent, but it is only the tourists who really complain. In many places, we are greeted with a warm smile and a Namaste, often with hands clasped in prayer position.
And we also find beauty in spades. If Kathmandu is not photogenic from afar, the reverse is true once you get up close. On the main roads, young and old clamber onto a ladder at the back of each bus for a free ride on the roof. Some bring bags and suitcases, others their confused goats. Shop fronts and roadside stalls are a blaze of colour; so too are the men wearing patterned Dhaka topi hats, almost always with a dominant shade of pink, and the occasional woman in a sari.
In the labyrinth of central Kathmandu, Bama and I take pleasure in each little discovery. To our right, a narrow street leads to a courtyard where flocks of pigeons and kids on bicycles circle a gilded stupa. We follow the paving stones, worn smooth by years of heavy use, to tread the ancient trade route between Tibet and Nepal. At each intersection we are greeted by the sight of small temples, where I imagine passing caravans would have prayed for safety on the arduous journey over the Himalayas.
Before war and revolution cut off the overland route through Iran and Afghanistan, Kathmandu was the metaphorical pot [no pun intended] at the far end of a drug-fuelled rainbow – or rather the ultimate destination on the Hippie Trail. My grandmother remembers seeing disheveled hippies when she visited with a few friends many years ago. She fell ill after drinking a cocktail and was confined to her hotel room for the next few days. One friend of hers commented on how lucky she was not to be born there, for both the people and animals were desperately thin. I want to laugh hearing these stories, because today’s Kathmandu is an entirely different place. We find its people well-fed and smiling; the women are naturally beautiful, the young men tall and well-dressed.
Dreadlocked wanderers in tie-dye no longer congregate at Durbar Square to smoke pot, though you might catch sight of a 21st-century hippie with bulging Aladdin pants in the streets of Thamel. That legacy persists in the name ‘Freak Street’, a small thoroughfare near the old royal palace, and the T-shirts that tell you the word ‘Nepal’ really stands for Never Ending Peace And Love.
That may not be true, but we both felt warmly received by the Nepalese, and were struck by their candidness whenever they spoke of the fuel crisis. Soon after I returned home, I sent a message to Kalpana, a Nepalese friend in England who I hadn’t seen in years. She was glad that I enjoyed her home country so much, and explained the charm of Kathmandu in her own words: “I got a similar impression of the Kathmandu valley – yes it is really dusty, noisy, dirty and poor but so old. I think it’s because Nepal is a country that hasn’t developed so rapidly that it has lost a sense of who it is – people keep their traditions and the cities keep their buildings, for better or worse.” ◊