Kathmandu – a city of contrasts

Kathmandu is the capital city of Nepal and like many large cities it is a mix of peoples, styles and cultures. It is a sprawling metropolis of over a million people, Nepali and displaced Tibetans living side by side in apparent harmony.

My first impressions of Kathmandu were definitely positive. After the hectic pace of India it was like a breath of fresh air to be amongst people who live a calmer, more peaceful way of life. Even the drive from the airport was calmer – no racing in and out of traffic, no loud obnoxious horns blowing at every second. I don’t mean that people stay in their lanes and drive calmly but compared to what we had just left it was a step closer.

We stayed in the old part of town known as Thamel. It is a maze of streets lined with shops of all kinds, restaurants and bars aplenty, and in random spaces would be a shrine or temple for daily offerings. In some ways Kathmandu reminded me of Rome. I was lucky enough to go there a few years ago and the thing I remember most was the feeling of awe when you turn the corner of some random street and there is a remnant of ancient times, melded into the modern city. Kathmandu felt the same.

We would wander past some shops of comparatively modern age, only to find them nestled up against a building that was built in the day of ornate balconies and glassless windows. A small doorway off the street may lead into a house or it may take you through to a courtyard with shrine and statues for people to thank their God. And often it was not just one God. There could be Buddha and Ganesh (the elephant God of Hindu beliefs) sitting side by side in one space.

Wandering around we came to Durbar square. It is a large space that holds over a dozen temples and sacred buildings and is one of the most amazing spectacles. In 1934 a massive earthquake all but demolished much of Kathmandu and certainly most of the buildings in Durbar square but the people recovered the broken pieces and rebuilt the temples, paying homage to the craftsmanship of the original builders of the 14 and 1500’s and celebrating their reverence of their Gods.

One of the buildings is home to a living Goddess that we were fortunate (?) enough to see. A young girl is chosen and lives her life until puberty as the real life incarnation of the Goddess Kumari cloistered in a small temple where she pops her golden head through a window several times a day to greet her adoring public. I would have to say that the spectacle for me brought forth very mixed feelings. It seemed quite a sad thing to lock a young woman away for 10 years then expect her to return to “normal” life. I would have to say that I am glad I am not in line to be a living Goddess, not my cup of tea.

We hired a scooter and took to the streets to see what the rest of Kathmandu was like. I would have to say that it is such a city of contrasts. The streets are relatively clean and the people are certainly some of the friendliest you would ever meet but the living conditions and infrastructure are mind bending at times. The river that flows through the heart of the city is unlike any other I have seen before. The water is literally black. It seems that the best place to use as a city dump is the river. I guess that the theory is that the rubbish will be washed away every year by the monsoon flooding but Oh My Goodness, in the interim it is the most filthy polluted piece of water I have ever seen.

The buildings on the whole are in pretty good condition and there was a lot of construction going on but the traffic is chaotic and the pollution on a whole new scale. After a few hours of riding we both had faces covered in black from the exhaust of trucks and cars. Unlike India with dust and dirt Nepal’s air is just filthy with brick factory kiln smoke, diesel fumes from generators used to combat the daily 12 hour power shortages and vehicle pollution. It struck me as a wonder that the people are so healthy (looking).

And then just when your heart is sinking a bit we would come across something amazing. One ride took us up into the mountains just outside of the city and we were in dense rainforest listening to the deafening calls of cicadas. Another day we discovered the Garden of Dreams, an oasis in the middle of the city where a man had built a special place for himself and his family. Now open to the public it is a place of calm and beauty, manicured gardens and beautiful fountains and pools. It felt like nirvana on a hot and tiring day to pop in for an hour of quietude.

So, what of Kathmandu? I liked it. It is a mess undoubtedly but the spirit of the people, the beauty of the temples and the unexpected little surprises when teamed up with the convenience and accessibility makes it a winner in my book. We had planned to stay for a while but the monsoons are coming so we are reviewing the plans – again. Before we leave Nepal though there is another treasure I want to share. I’ll save that for the next blog though 😉

The last few blogs have been a bit light on photos but this one I think goes the other way. I tried to cull these shots thinking there were too many but in the end I liked each of the pictures enough that you get them all 🙂 Hope they don’t bore you 😉

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe streets of Thamel, crowded with people and scooters with the occasional taxi squeezing through.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlopped down in the intersection of a couple of streets a large temple.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADurbar Square. (We weren’t allowed to photograph the Goddess so nothing to show for her I’m sorry 😉 )

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis cat just cruised a long the lintel of a temple and thought that the window was a perfect vantage point.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPotter making jars.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWeaving.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rubbish dump!!!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Garden of Dreams.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA typical scene.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKathmandu!

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3 Responses to Kathmandu – a city of contrasts

  1. Vikki says:

    Oh Augustine, you have brought back some awesome memories of my trip to Kathmandu – 12 years ago now. There was little air pollution but the river was a dump even then. We walked everywhere while there and the locals thought we were crazy. My first overseas adventure and I loved every second xx

  2. Cath says:

    Augustine – we know we are hooked when on a Saturday afternoon (y’day) we asked “where’s Augustine’s blog this week?”. I’m not sure what motivates you or how it does but I am bloody pleased it does. Your honest, “tell them how they are” stories are so well written that we devour each episode. The images are breathtaking in the main and vicariously it feels like we get to travel with you. Thank you for that privilege. Perhaps being away from home sometimes feel tough but hopefully this connection to your readers and friends, electronically and through the shared love of lens reduces any negativity. Travel well, safely and smartly. Life is Good.

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