Monday, August 5, 2013

First Impressions......return to Kathmandu!

I’ve been asked a few times for my first impressions of Nepal, returning now, 15 years since my last visit and 23 years since I last lived here.

the market in Durbar Square, Kathmandu hasn't changed in centuries.

What to say? It has definitely changed, I mean where could you travel to that hasn’t changed after 25 years……but at the same time, and in many ways, it hasn’t changed a bit.

Baba smoking chilums at Pashupatinath, boom shiva, this will never change!

I was sniggered at when I first suggested this on my second night in-country, that it hadn't changed much but now after two months and gaining several more ‘first impression’ reference points, I’d say it is actually pretty accurate and the sniggerer a result of the expat bubble phenomenon I will write on another time. 
This will never change, the kora around the stupa at  Bouddnath.

I use the goldfish bowl to describe the Kathmandu Valley experience over 23 years, bearing in mind that over this period the country had in 1990, a quiet revolution that ushered in a constitutional monarchy and diminished the role of the royalty in government. Then through the '90's came the build up to a harsh, acrimonious civil war that lasted through the 90's into the 00's and in the middle of which came the sudden shocking loss of nearly all the Royal family in a mass assassination in 2001. Here is a nice 'light' account of what may have happened, an event equally as surrounded by conspiracy theory as the assassination of JKF just not as well-publicized in Western mainstream media.

The Royals were revered by many and despised by many but were very much a part of the national identity, it is only in 2008 that the remaining Royal, King Geyandra was removed from any active political role and a Republic declared. The effect that the loss of the royalty has had both at the time of their mass assassination and when Geyandra was removed is like taking away the back-ground color on the national flag; they Royals provided a common reference point for an ethnically and politically diverse and divided population, religiously the King is believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and so it is hard for Hindus not to revere him. ! the risk of over-stepping I reserve further comment leaving the subject to better informed pundits.

So I liken the valley to a goldfish bowl. The difference between now and 23 years ago is that the number of fish in the bowl has more than tripled, many of those kitch ornamental and whatnot aquarium thingys have been added  to some very old ones, some of the dominant fish are gone, but others remain.... and sadly it seems the fishbowl water hasn’t been cleaned in all that time. Fortunately there are still the same fish, still the same miraculous way that things function (like the very busy airport in the middle of the city!), still the same ‘namaste’ greeting with a smile and bow, still the same chaotic street level activity, the same things for sale, the same touts...same monuments many of which are now World Heritage Sites. If memory serves there were 800,000 people in the Valley in 1987, today there are estimated to be more than 3 Million with the same number of roads many of which have not been maintained or repaired since they were built. And now you can even build vertically upwards (apartment buildings have sprouted!). This was previously forbidden lest you be able to 'peek' into the Royal Palace grounds.

Thing is, the Valley and the whole country has changed significantly and in many ways. The rise of the Maoist insurgency following the political changes in 1990 (the year I left) has changed the character of the people. This was a nasty war, one that rose with unexpected stinging hostility, where people had X’s marked on their doors and were later killed, where men and children were taken in the night to fight at the front line. The ensuing conflict between the Maoists and the State cost 13,000 lives That sort of thing cannot go without affecting the national psyche and I sense a lack of community trust and a very much more dog eat dog, like a hunger, kind of attitude amongst the people. Having just come from Beirut, another war-affected nation, I recognize in any monetary negotiation, a grasping desperation in the people, a tendency to grab today what may not be there in an uncertain tomorrow. This is reflected in an abrupt approach to foreigners in the market place, in Nepal, that wasn't there before, bargaining was friendlier, funner and now there is a taste of acrimony once the deal is done.

Another clear knock on effect of the war has been the enormous influx of rural people into the Valley, the building that has gone on here in especially in the past 9 years (peace was declared in 2006) has been incredible. People displaced by the war didn't go back home once it was all over, they had established themselves, become comfortable and they are here to stay. This is ironic because as a direct consequence of the war (according to some long staying expats), a 'people's war', is that things have actually improved considerably in rural Nepal, from whence the insurgency rose, but in the capital…..the improvements are harder to achieve and therefore harder to see. Out in the country-side there are more roads, more schools and more clinics, more access to essential services and markets. In the Valley it is choked with traffic every day, access to services? well, there is access if you don't mind sitting in traffic half your day.
you might call Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) an 'inner city airport!
...that is something that has changed significantly, the traffic and associated particle (dust) and gaseous  (exhaust emissions) pollution. A huge problem when because of weather patterns and the geomorphology of the Valley pollution gets trapped particularly during winter months apparently to suffocating extents. While there is much press about 'most polluted cities' Kathmandu ranks 29th on the WHO 2013 survey (many Chinese cities either do not monitor or report). It remains to be seen for us, how bad the pollution really is, I mean we were living in downtown Beirut for 3yrs! And...3 million people do live in the Kathmandu Valley, thriving and it may be polluted but it is highly inhabited!

What the Valley clearly hasn't lost is something that no amount of people-made pollution or confusion will ever change. The Kathmandu Valley still has the Vibe; one of the most amazing spiritual vibrations of any urban area in Asia, perhaps the world. This vibration is carried forward hourly by the devotion of the people be it at their home altar, at the multitude of temples for morning and evening puja (prayer), walking the clockwise kora at Bouddanath or Swayambunath for the Buddhists or bringing your dead ones to be burned at the ghats at Pashupatinath for the Hindus. The Vibe is what brought the hippies to Kathmandu through those heady days of the '60's (and the black hashish), the Vibe continues to draw people to the Valley and is amplified by the plethora of festivals that occur year round.

The Valley has a fantastic climate; at 1300m+ altitude, even the monsoon heat has been a tolerable 31-33C and in winter it doesn't go below 5C so a bit uncomfortable for 2-3months/ year, the rest of the time it is fantastic with views (from September to May) of the Himalayas stretching along the East-West axis to the north of the Valley. There is amazing trekking in the Valley at Sivapuri National Park or the Queen's forest, biking, hiking, bird watching. And then there are the opportunities for personal and spiritual development in yoga (ex., Buddhist studies, Ayurvedic medicine, Shamanic plant medicine ceremonies, Hindu philosophic name it and its here.

Pashupatinath, burning ghats on the banks of the mighty Bagmati River

So that Vibe hasn't changed either and is part of what makes Kathmandu such a place that global travellers must not miss. I am teaching yoga here both privately (email: and at the studio mentioned above and will be open for Elemental yoga therapy clients in September and will be leading a yoga-trek in November, hopefully the first of a few that I will lead. 

Flower of Life
Certainly I am happy to put together trips for people who are interested in bringing a group over, yoga, retreats, treks, all are doable in collaboration with professional Nepali colleagues. If you want to join November's trek, let me know in advance and I'll pave the way... 

And so with that subtle yet cleverly inserted commercial plug(!) the journey continues, something else that never changes. I am sure Kathmandu will reveal herself even more as time and experience in the Valley goes on, through the people I meet and my explorations and as personal processes unfold....

oh and did I mention I'm getting a new mo'bike to help enhance the experience? Check it out... 

Namaste eh!

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