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A morning in Kathmandu

by FarEasterner Sun Mar 28th, 2010 at 12:57:12 PM EST

This is personal photodiary on how I spent the Sunday's morning and what I thought about.

A quiet morning in a temple on the way to Swaymbhunath stupa.

It is late afternoon and I just returned from Anjuna's café (Anjuna and her political views I described in earlier diary) where I ate dhal-bhat (traditional Nepali food, a tray of rice, lentils and vegetables) and talked with one American girl Kaydi. She said she is here on research for writing (as a ghostwriter) memoirs of a man who spent some time in Nepal. Lovely, I never met ghostwriters before, what do they feel when they see their books without own names. I can assure you it's written by me with my thoughts and feelings which I channeled in the afternoon sun on the rooftop garden towards poverty and development. The one book I purchased in Delhi, "How rich countries got rich and why poor countries stay poor" by Erik S Reinert was aiding me.

PS Unfortunately photobucket is not working properly today so please visit the diary later when I update and put more photos. Also you can see some photos in my photoalbum.

I'll return to it later but first things first. After weeks of delay due to the unending business of scanning (I try to digitize my vast library of books on Indian subcontinent), a visit to foreigners registration centre to get extension of Indian visa (which I was lucky to get despite a lot of shouting on me by immigration officers), changing airticket date after paying fine and losing others (like bus ticket to Delhi) I finally landed in Kathmandu few days ago. Initially I was going to stay in Kathmandu's tourist ghetto Thamel just for a day or two but today in the morning I realized that it will be a mistake to go for trekking to Annapurna Base Camp so early.

Rooftop cafe in adjacent to my hotel building

It seems unlikely that I will meet any mountaineers who come for a climb usually in the end of April at the earliest. Though with a little help of locals I might be able to locate the grave of famous (or infamous) Russian mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev who died on Annapurna in avalanche in 1997. I am planning to write about his life (maybe in magazine article, full blown biography would take much more time for research and contacts but who knows). He was taking part in tragic Mountain Madness expedition to Everest in spring of 1996 as a mountaineering guide and was painted as a villain in very popular book "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer. However before his death he managed to publish an autobiography "The Climb" (with assistance of G Weston DeWalt) refuting allegations raised by Krakauer and was subsequently hailed as a hero who saved many lives.

On noisy Chhetrapati chowk

This change of plans I discussed in the morning with a manager of hotel where I stay, Raj, my long time friend. (I knew him from my two previous visits to Nepal) Perhaps I would need some transport, maybe bicycle, to explore the Kathmandu valley. There are so many interesting sights, little towns full of temples, Patan, Bhaktapur, Nagarkot etc. They are quite spread out but mercifully the area is mainly flat. He suggested we could share the cost of purchasing new bike, this way I would use it whenever I am in Kathmandu, otherwise it will be used by the staff. I was a bit surprised by the price of new one - 150 dollars, no less. For such sum here I can rent a car for full day sightseeing for about two weeks. (for comparison flight to Delhi costs just 100 doll).

Swayambhu stupa as seen from Kathmandu

Meanwhile I decided to visit Swayambunath stupa which is perched on a hillock to the west from Kathmandu. It is said that emperor Ashoka paid a visit there in 3rd century BC. In guidebooks this Buddhist establishment is described as monkey temple because of many rhesus macaques taking toll from tourists. Otherwise it is welcome distraction from polluted city and it is maintained now by Tibetan refugees, a sort of second Bodhnath (only smaller). In my previous visits to Kathmandu I preferred to stay there in Tibetan colony where there are many lovely guesthouses and restaurants but since my plans are to explore the cultural and historical heritage of Nepalis I thought that centrally located Thamel suits better.


From Thamel it's just 15-20 minutes walking to the stupa stair, climbing takes the same time. There were not many monkeys in sight, few present ones were outnumbered and photographed from ears to tail by hordes of mainly foreign tourists. The stupa itself was in repair and eyes of Buddha were looking on Kathmandu and hive of activity below rather sadly. The ticket's (contribution towards development of the Swayambhu area) price has gone up from 75 Rs in Lonely Planet guidebook to 200 Rs. Tibetans and Nepalis alike were busy selling tourist and Buddhist paraphernalia from oil paintings and stone carvings to prayer beads and wheels. There is cheaper Tibetan Didi's teashop tucked on the backside between art shops and opposite Café de Stupa with inflated views and prices in their menu.

Next to Cafe de Stupa

Nevertherless I spent a couple of hours taking pictures and circumambulating the stupa three times (I thought it is necessary thing to do in such auspicious place). There are many legends about the Swayambhu stupa but you'll find them elsewhere. The one I particularly liked says that Kathmandu valley was once a lake (geologists here agree) and Swayambhu hill arose itself like a lotus leaf risen from the lake. I believe the lake was quite shallow for the hill is not strikingly tall. However views are excellent, everywhere you look you can see buildings, buildings, swarms of low rise buildings. It seems that Kathmandu will soon reach the boundaries of the valley up to Nagarkot and Dhulikhel (two hill stations in 32 km from Thamel).

Where once was lake now there is ocean of humanity, Kathmandu is 1.5 mln strong which is much for a country of 24 mln people. Nepal is a landlocked state and beside natural beauty of highest mountains on Earth - Himalayas it is not particularly rich in resources except people. So scores of Nepalis headed for foreign countries where they find not only jobs but also abuse and discrimination, local newspapers regularly report on their miseries. Nepal is sandwiched between mighty India and China so it is bound to follow them on the path of development. Such neighbourhood is both blessing and curse. Blessing is that Nepal can benefit from quick pace of development out there, curse is about being playground of outside forces. Unfortunately Nepal was never homogenous country and due to decades of political turmoil, royalist tyranny, corrupt and ineffectual democratic governments, Maoist uprising there is surge in parochial feelings which feed political instability and put brakes on the peace process.  

Only prayers will help

Political upheavals and permanent apathy in government which failed to deliver even basic services coincided with natural calamities like draught. There was simply not enough water in reservoirs to move wheels of hydroelectrical stations and Nepal has been suffering acute power shortages for years. Last time I was here electricity was available for only 8 hours a day. Now situation slightly improved - newspapers report that there are plans to reduce blackouts from current 12 hrs to 10 hrs a day because of little better than usual snowfall this winter and subsequent glacial melting. I was wondering whether drinking water situation would improve - now more than 7 mln Nepalis lack access to potable water and for achieving Millenium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015 the government has to provide water to 11 thousands additional households every month.

Water is everything

Yet the shaky coalition government of Madhav Kumar Nepal, it seems, does not have any time to think about it. Here is a crashcourse on Nepali politics - there are three principal political players, Nepali Congress, which was headed by Girija Prasad Koirala (who died on March 20) and two Communist parties (one from old establishment called United Marxist Leninist and MK Nepal belongs to this party, another is Maoist led by the Fierce or Prachanda who was shortly PM after the end of insurgency). Together these three deposed king Gyanendra in 2008 but could not agree on anything more than that, be it sharing of political power, reintegration of former Maoist guerillas into society or army and even adoption of Constitution of Nepali Republic. The deadline of 28 of May is looming yet political bigwigs right now are attending yoga classes of celebrated Indian yoga guru Ramdev. (Swami Ramdev by the way has just launched new political party in India and was immediately criticized for that by likes of Mayawati).  

Local boys are raiding the shrines

What kind of lessons yoga master and political neofit Ramdev can give to Nepali politicians I don't know. Hopefully it's about peace and seeking consensus. At best politicians will stop squabbling and will finally adopt Constitution. International community is losing patience, UN mission in Nepal is at loggerheads with MK Nepal government, today in newspapers I saw an article "Winning the peace" by two UK ministers Lewis and Foster who maybe rudely but timely asked Nepali politicians "to demonstrate their seriousness about the peace process".

Are you serious?

Besides political developments politicians should be thinking on how they can rid their country out of vicious cycle of poverty. For now they have only option - exporting labor, i.e. people to other countries which are ready to accept and exploit them. That's why such important news here is MRP (machine read passports) agreement with India signed by daughter of GK Koirala Sujata (she is a foreign minister in Nepal's cabinet). According to the deal India will provide 4 mln passports within three years. Immigration officials on foreign shores should know how many Nepalis they can expect.

Looking for other shores?

The other option which was explained in earlier mentioned book "How rich countries got rich and why poor countries stay poor" by Erik S Reinert is much more difficult to contemplate. Essentially he says that poor countries should not listen to what Washington Consensus institutions like IMF, WB and other donor tell them to do, they should read history books and try to emulate the rich countries. In a sense it is neomercantilist economics which is proved to be quite successful by BRICs and other emerging countries. Neomercantilist countries after South East Asian financial crisis of 1998 and Russian debt default have started to pile the hard currency warchest. It was easier for them to do since previous governments have created at least primitive engines of growth, industries with rising returns (unlike agriculture which is normally providing only diminishing returns). Then more ambitious like India and China have started to emulate developed countries in other respects, like space and military hardware. Their appetite for sensitive technologies is enormous, that's why Russia (as one and readily available source of such technologies is so popular with governments of the third world countries). That's the Western governments which limit or block transfer of technologies are so unpopular. Reinert reminds "The Sputnik" which in 1957 shocked the West. USA under Eisenhower did not follow what they prescribed to the third world (open and free trade, using comparative advantage etc). They did not start to export food to the Soviet Union and import satellites, they advanced institutions to emulate and rival Soviet Russia in space. Of course theoretical treaties are good read but in practical terms Nepal is not in danger of losing out in hi-tech competition of 21st century because it never entered 20th century of industrialization. (How they could enter without electricity and other basic services). But Nepal rulers should be ready to prepare to the rise of China and India, otherwise it will be a sort of failed state, a source of headache for all its neighbours.    

Young Nepalis need better government

by FarEasterner on Sun Mar 28th, 2010 at 01:05:22 PM EST
Very nice and informative diary. Thanks, FarEasterner!

"Ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience." René Char
by Melanchthon on Tue Mar 30th, 2010 at 03:14:36 AM EST

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