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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Postcard from Kathmandu



Undated 2023


The dusty, dishevelled, quirky and traffic-congested city of Kathmandu, the sprawling capital of Nepal with a population of some 1.5 million resting in a valley in the Himalaya mountain range, is eccentric, charming and frustrating in equal measure. At first glance one might be forgiven for imagining that it is akin to one of the less developed state capitals in India, a sea of humanity going about its daily chaotic business amidst circumstances of poor infrastructure and dilapidated buildings. Nevertheless there are many differences.


Although predominantly Hindu in religious beliefs, the Nepalese have also been substantially influenced by Buddhism and many of them will call themselves Hindu-Buddhists. The sort of more fundamentalist Hindu nationalism sometimes encountered in India is not obviously present in Nepal. Attitudes towards religious belief are quite tolerant. The Lord Grand Buddha himself was born in Nepal to a Royal Family before renouncing his wealth and connections and embarking upon a life of what the Ancient Greeks would have called Stoicism: abandonment of material needs and finding satisfaction in the incidents of daily life without recourse to desire for wealth and hedonism. This attitude is reflected in the cultural tranquility of the Nepalese people, who on the whole are relaxed, friendly and welcoming.


Due to a civil conflict in the first decade of the twenty-first century, an infamous massacre that took place amongst Nepal's Royal Family, and a devastating 2015 earthquake, Nepal has suffered from some political instability. The essential political division is not amongst the country's various ethnic groups so much as between city dwellers and those who live in rural areas. Like many developing countries, Nepal has stark contrasts between rich and poor and these are accentuated by rural poverty. As a result, there has been substantially less foreign investment and domestic economic development in Nepal during the twenty-first century than in some of her neighbours such as India and China. The country's road network is abysmal. There are no train lines. The country's domestic airlines are universally derided as unsafe due to poor maintenance standards - but there is no other practical way to travel around. Tap water is routinely unsafe to drink. Half-finished construction projects litter the Kathmandu valley. Only a smattering of international hotel and restaurant chains have made it to Kathmandu, and none have emerged outside the capital. Nepal feels distinctly behind the times.


On the other hand, personal safety is not an issue. Unlike in India, both foreign and local women are free to move around as they wish, even on their own, without fear of harassment or worse, at virtually all times of the day and night. Nepal is a good destination for solo female travellers. Although Nepalese society is conservative, men and women are free to wear anything they want except in religious buildings where a number of traditional strictures apply. The weather is relatively temperate, because Nepal is a country at altitude. Although Kathmandu is chaotic, the rest of the country is very calm and natural beauty exudes from the landscape at every turn. Avoid April and May of each year, when Nepal is awash with mountaineers with dreams of ascending Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks and there is a fervour of tourist activity, particularly in the central Kathmandu tourist district of Thamel, a lively but essentially safe neighbourhood packed with hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs of every description but predominantly down-market, seedy yet good-natured.


The entirety of Kathmandu appears very safe; the biggest danger is being involved in a road traffic accident as swarms of motorbikes and other unroadworthy vehicles, such as cycle rickshaws and other unusual forms of private hire vehicle. The streets are poorly lit at night and there are potholes in the roads. A visitor should not attempt to drive a car or ride a motorcycle in Kathmandu. The city is not very densely populated, being spread across a valley; but for precisely that reason, the air is polluted as the mountains retain the city smog within the valley. Kathmandu urgently needs international investment in green and carbon efficient technologies. There are questions about the institutional capacity of the Nepalese government to absorb substantial foreign investments but the reality is that much of the capital has not been adequately rebuilt since the earthquake in 2015 that toppled multi-story buildings in Kathmandu and killed 9,000 people and injured over 20,000 more people.


Kathmandu earthquake damage, April 2015.


Nepal appears reasonably politically free. She classifies herself as a secular state with a corresponding democratic constitution. However Nepalis do not seem overly interested in politics. This author has not seen any Nepali reading a daily newspaper or overheard them discussing politics. The country seems to have a functioning legal system, although by all accounts its prisons are in an atrocious condition. The Police are ubiquitous, present on virtually every street corner, particularly after dark and particularly in areas frequented by tourists, to maintain order and public security. After an extended period of civil strife in the country's past, our impression is that Nepalis want to move on from internecine political infighting and focus upon business, making a living, improving their lives for their families and living tolerably comfortable, normal lives. Nepalis are remarkably practical people, interested less in some of the ideological and political infighting regrettably omnipresent in the politics of some other countries in the region, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and more in building their lives on a day to day basis. Wars and conflicts are for past generations, and young Nepalis are remarkably optimistic given the variety of tragic events in the country's recent and not so recent history.


Finally, Nepal is undoubtedly popular with foreign visitors and it is not just a matter of the determined trekkers seeking to hike to Everest Base Camp and ascend the summit of Mount Everest. (Incidentally, both these are seriously formidable propositions, the former taking two weeks round-trip and the latter taking two months and with a substantial death rate. And if you die up there in an accidental blizzard, your body stays up there; no undertaker will be coming to bring it down in such hazardous circumstances.) Nepal has a variety of other attractions, and Kathmandu itself is very popular with all sorts of tourists from across the world. Even though the city can feel disorganised, with occasional power cuts and bumpy taxi rides across town, there are sites aplenty, unusual and eccentric tourist souvenirs, friendly people and honest guides (although the Nepalis have a habit, while being rather honest people by the standards of the region, of telling you that other Nepalis are all dishonest). The city is also awash with alcohol, unusually for a Hindu metropolis, but it is rather expensive. You can spend virtually the entire weekend uninterrupted in nightclubs, or other less salubrious venues, if you are really so inclined. Just find a good map (the interlocking streets with inadequate signage are terribly confusing, particularly in the evening) and, most importantly, a good guide. Guides are reasonably priced, plentiful and enormously accommodating, and will add to your experience immensely.


There may be little business to be done in Nepal, and the international community is without doubt giving insufficient attention to the country in her urgent needs for financing and investment for post-disaster reconstruction. The world's international investment banks should be politely reminded that Nepal remains a priority and a prime candidate for their attention. In due time, those international funds will surely arrive and Nepal will be transformed, as have a number of other countries in the region. Until then, Nepal remains primarily of touristic interest and is thoroughly recommended as an exotic, safe and friendly vacation destination.


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