Big Shots: The Surreal Sites of Varanasi

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap heads to the Taj Mahal

Kathmandu, Nepal (a brief introduction to a confusing city)

Kathmandu is more of a labyrinth than a city.  There are cities within cities.  The new city is built on top of the old.  The old feels ancient and the new feels dated.  Tiny doorways made for dwarfs lead to secret inner courtyards.  Like a video game, the further you go and the more keys you hold, the more you unlock the hidden realms of this boxy maze.

Kathmandu retains the chaos of an Indian city, but with a more delicate balance.  Everyday life has a funny way of playing out just fine, despite a complete lack of order.  Power lines are mixed and spliced like webs – power itself comes on and off at will.  Urban cows, typical of the subcontinent, parade through the streets by day, while dogs roam the night as trash collectors.  In a powerless city, street side fires light up the midnight dark.

Nepal is not India.  You can’t compare the two – Nepalese won’t let you.

If there is one thing that every Nepali likes to reiterate, it’s that he is not an Indian.  Nepalese are softer around the edges, less confrontational, more amiable – or so they say.  They’re more used to tourists.  They cater to each generations Cat Stevens wanabees and mountaineering hopefuls.

The old city of Kathmandu is fringed by a newer, more modern metropolis.  Yet, even in this modern mix there’s barely 14 hours of power a day and the ATM still cuts out when power is shifted to a different part of the city.  Lose your card to the machine?  “Come back tomorrow when the power’s back,” is the disheartening response.

For some reason I always imagined Kathmandu to look something like Vail, Colorado – a quaint town dwarfed underneath behemoth mountains.  It’s not that there aren’t mountains nearby (Nepal’s got more than its share of those), but the haze of this incredibly polluted city doesn’t allow for any noteworthy views.  In fact, much of lower Nepal is a jumbled, overcrowded mess of human activity.

The tourist map kathmandu is split in two sections.

The gortex crowd, preparing for their mountain escape, lounge away the afternoons with topographical maps along Thamel as countless travel agencies hawk their offers.

Back in Kathmandu’s original tourist haunt Jochen Tole (aka “Freak Street”), the leftover, strung-out relics of a bygone era are found cloaked in local garb, sitting in circles and shaving their heads.  This was, after all, the end of the hippie trail for many and the Shangri-la gushed about by the Beatles.  Today, groups of tourists congregate outside of dingy cafes staring at each other with a distant, mildly euphoric, slightly empty look as they listen to their guru pluck the sitar.

Kathmandu is full of Western kids seeking to fix the problems of their perfect existence by diving into the very real problems of the East – reveling in a break from the monotony of Western perfection and seeking the antithesis of the “American Dream.”  These wanderers come to Nepal to escape predictability while subconsciously wishing that their life had more hardships, more to complain about, more guilt love.  They voice all of their insecurities to the ears of eager Eastern magicians.

The traditional heart of Kathmandu is Durbar Square, which is surrounded by spectacular architecture that vividly showcases the skills of the Newari artists and craftsmen over several centuries.  The square was once where the kings of Nepal were crowned, legitimized, and ruled their people.

The Kathmandu Valley has been occupied since the 7th century BC and played an important role in trade with Tibet.  Kathmandu itself dates to the 12th century AD, with the rise of the Malla Dynasty.

A surprising amount of erotic elements and phallic statues can be found sprinkled about the fringe of this imposing square.  Beyond Durbar Square, the city overflows with shrines draped in red candle wax.

Smells shift from powdery incense to pungent Newari spices as you pace by the colorful alleyways and rummage through the daily markets.  Merchants set up shop right on top of ancient structures, draping fabrics over 500-year-old pillars.  The line between historic relic and everyday street corner is blurred in Nepal.  The past and present are weaved together tightly as physical history is enveloped by a modern culture without barriers.

Eastern practicality trumps a Western sense of “importance.”

2011 is the “year of tourism” in Nepal, though political instability has scared many tourists away from the country in the past decade.

A long-drawn out and messy insurgence of Maoist rebels plagued the countryside while equally violent military retaliation resulted in hundreds of deaths.  The country teetered between monarchy and democracy while going through spills of having no effective government whatsoever.  Perhaps, the most shocking event happened back in 2001.

The tale of the 2001 Nepalese Royal Massacre is straight out of a Hollywood movie.  At the grounds of the Narayanhity Royal Palace, Prince Dipendra, heir to the throne, killed nine members of his own family, including King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya (his father and mother).  While in a coma, the unconscious murder was named the new king of Nepal and reined the country for three days until his death.

The killer’s unpopular uncle became King Gyanendra and dismantled parliament, assuming direct control over the country by 2005.  By 2007, monarchy was officially abolished by a new parliament, but the country’s instability remains a daily topic.

Like everything in Nepal, old and new clash fists, but can never quite shake hands.

As for the Kathmandu I saw and loved, in the words of Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam):

“Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you
And your strange bewildering time
Will keep me home”

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap heads into the Himalaya on a trek towards the Tibet border