On top of the world

And so to Kathmandu, where I have been for the past four days…

The capital of Nepal, and a city worthy of the much used phrase “a melting pot,” Kathmandu is breathtaking.  Breathtaking in every sense of the word.

The city has a population of 5 million, and is situated at the foot of the Himalayas, in a valley so enclosed by mountains that all flights coming in and going out are forced to perform spiralling ascents and descents, so as to successfully avoid giving their passengers too close a view of the snowy topped peaks.

There is no grass in Kathmandu.  That is, there are no parks and lawns.  In terms of other grass that one might smoke, there is plenty.  In fact on Monday when I arrived, it was the god Shiva’s most holy day of the year.  The temples were inundated, as were the local pot dealers, because Monday marked the one day of the year when smoking dope in Nepal is fully legal (I heard this from a colleague you understand, rather than from experience….ahem…)

What Kathmandu lacks in (actual) grass it makes up for in dust.  A thin film of which covers the entire city, and every object in it.  The traffic is mind bendingly bonkers.  At least in Saigon, when you walk out in front of two hundred scooters you can feel confident that they will skilfully navigate around you.  In Kathmandu, following the same tactic will almost certainly land you in hospital.

Where the Vietnamese flash their lights to indicate that they are not stopping (unlike the practice in the UK, where the same gesture means a vehicle is allowing you to go first) in Kathmandu there is a tendency to dispense with any such gesturing all together, instead drivers use maximum speed at all times, whilst routinely squeezing their vehicles through perilously tight spots.

The motorbikes in Kathmandu are akin to the low slung Harley style.  They come complete with large bars fixed onto the front to protect the driver’s legs (presumably from naïve tourists walking on the zebra crossings) and with Nepalese riders wearing thick biker helmets, leather jackets, jeans and then, bizarrely, more often than not sandals or flip flops.

Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu

The buildings here are mesmerizing.  With jaw dropping views of the highest mountain range on the planet glimpsed at the ends of the city’s winding streets, you will find Buddhist “stupas” – temples – dotted about everywhere.  Each draped in lines of coloured square flags, with intricate wooden shutters, and usually adorned with the famous “third eye” livery, butter lamps, prayer wheels and cloaked monks dressed in oranges and reds.

These temples have stood for generations.  Today’s buildings under construction in Kathmandu look as if they’d be lucky to see it to the end of 2012.  They stand so precarious, skewed, and splintered, as vulnerable to the region’s major threat – earthquakes – as a pack of cards would be in a draughty room.

There was a sizeable tremor here last year, and many people at the time feared the “big one” – expected approximately every 100 years – was about to strike.  Fortunately, for the residents of Kathmandu that time, it didn’t.  However, many commentators fear it is inevitable that a more destructive quake is due, and the consequences of that, in terms of humanitarian disaster, would be profound.

Such is the city’s dramatic context, visually as well as meteorologically, that you cannot help be swept up, not literally just by the chaos of it all, but by the spirit of the people who live here, and their infectious approach to life, despite the challenges the country endures.

Politically, Nepal’s recent experiences are in a league of their own.  There have been four prime ministers in the past four years.  Up until 2008 the country had been in civil strife since the 1990s, in a struggle for democracy which resulted in the royal family being ousted.  Corruption is rife at many levels of society, and the result of this continues to deprive the country of healthy international trade relationships.

Nepal imports heavily and hardly exports a thing.  It’s manufacturing output is minimal, its economy surviving instead on informal sector trading, remittances sent by Nepalese working overseas (which accounts for over 20% of GDP) and of course the lucrative investment made by the annual hordes of trekkers and white water rafters, who flock to this most famous of playgrounds for the outward-bound community.

With eight of the world’s fourteen 8,000 metre peaks found here, the country’s topography is unique.  Nepal is shaped like a jagged cylinder, nestled as it is between the borders of China and India, it is a contorted heap of mountains along the northern stretch and flatlands along the south.  Experiencing as a result, icy cold and desperately hot climates, depending on where you are.  For some of the hilltribes in the north west, it takes 5 days to reach their communities from the capital – an hour’s flight, a 3 hour drive and then a 4 day hike.

These statistics all contribute to the underlying social and economic pressures to which the people here are prone, and hence why organisations such as CARE persist in our efforts to change the status quo.

This week the CARE Nepal team and I have been discussing the role the private sector (by which we refer to both companies and to markets) can play in addressing some of the access related issues which account for so many of the problems across the country for marginalised communities.  Despite the challenges linked to this, there does exist many opportunities for rural producers and entrepreneurs, in particular, to leverage the private sector in new ways.

Helping farmers and traders better organise themselves using a cooperative model is one strategy CARE is pursuing in this regard.  As, too, is a more meaningful engagement with the financial institutions of the country, to improve the way in which financial services are provided for those people in society most vulnerable and excluded.

Kathmandu and the Himalayas, courtesy of Thai Airways and my iphone

It’s a long – and very possibly dusty – road to pave, but I left the meetings excited and inspired by the ideas and aspirations shared by my colleagues about what could be done in Nepal.

And as the wing of my Bangkok bound plane dips low, pinpointed towards the centre of Kathmandu so that we can make a final sweeping rotation around the city, I find myself having to blink several times to take it all in, thinking back on my trip, and wondering what could unfold from here.

The rays of the midday sun reflect back at me, as if in response, from the thousands of corrugated rooftops below, up into the blue ether, over the rugged mountainside and on to the summits of the snow-capped Himalayas.


3 thoughts on “On top of the world

  1. CCC February 24, 2012 / 9:36 am

    Tim sounds like you learned the one traffic rule to survival here in KTM: “go.” When I first got here, someone in all seriousness said, “if it gets to be too much, just stop where you are (in the street) close your eyes and meditate.”

    • saigonsays March 1, 2012 / 8:50 am

      Thanks CCC – I will be practising my mandalas for the next visit just in case of such a situation!

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