This photo essay explores how the old and the modern, traditional and international come together on the vibrant city streets of Kathmandu.
High above northern India the Gulf Air Boeing begins its descent to Kathmandu; now an urban sprawl of almost 700,000 people spreading out along the valley from its medieval heart. Through the window I can see Himalayan peaks slipping in and out of the monsoon clouds, below the foothills of Nepal rise steeply from the Indian plain.
Nepal is embedded in the western imagination as a land of mountains, temples, exotic peoples, adventure and daring do. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries, where the King has suspended democracy and rules as a virtual dictator, where one of the last Maoist movements is fighting a civil war, a place of medieval towns where tourists can send email and buy the latest Nikon cameras.
I am met at the airport and climb into an enormous but ancient Toyota saloon that chugs its way slowly into Kathmandu leaving a trail of blue smoke in its wake. We exit the main highway that encircles the city and drive into the web of twisting back streets. It is early evening and Kathmandu is pulsating with life. White shirted office and shop workers are making their way home, young women some dressed in the local bright red saris, others in more western dress, fill the streets. Cars, motorbikes, cycles and rickshaws compete for space. Neon signs advertise Nike, Fuji, Tuborg; other shop fronts advertise fresh baguettes, pastries, burgers, rafting adventures, treks to the mountains and trips to Everest. Groups of children, disabled men and women holding babies are begging on the street. Tourists run the gauntlet of shopkeepers and touts. The roads are rutted and as we leave the centre of the city the neon glow fades and the streets become darker, but no less busy. Eventually, the car swings into the courtyard of the International Guest House. It’s nice to be back.
Each morning I eat breakfast in the peace of the hotel garden and read the local English language newspapers. Self improvement is the main theme as the papers are full of advertisements for educational courses. The main news is the civil war. The BBC estimates that there are over 10,000 guerillas committed to establishing a Marxist peasant regime. In Kathmandu there are daily reports of strikes, arrests and protests but to the average visitor this is all but invisible. Each day I look for events, posters or wall slogans to photograph but apart from small groups of solders lounging around at major intersections, find nothing. Most tourists I speak to are unaware that anything is happening. Shopkeepers talk about loss of trade and a desire for a negotiated settlement.
Most tourists head for Thamel, the centre of the action since the old hippy communes in Freak Street were cleared out by the government. Thamel is a series of streets where everything you need is available. Tourist goods, handicrafts, T shirts, climbing and adventure gear; to bakeries, the inevitable Irish Pub, restaurants selling Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Mexican and the ubiquitous International Cuisine are all here.
Venturing further on, the architecture shifts from the new brick buildings of Thamel back to the traditional wooden structures. Street life reflects the needs the local community. For example the areas around Indra Chowk and Asan Tole sell basic clothing and household goods. Interspersed with the shop fronts are street shrines daubed in auspicious red powder and dedicated to manifestations of Shiva (both the creator and destroyer), Vishnu (preserver of the universe) as well Hanuman the monkey god, and the elephant headed Ganesh the god of prosperity and wisdom. Stone carvings depict the complete range of all possible existence from sexual acts to child eating demons. Small squares open out to the side of the main routes. Many of these squares contain further Hindu and Buddhist religious sites. They are also spaces for children to play, for cricket and soccer matches, where elderly people sit and talk and teenagers strut and pose.