Climbing Into Kathmandu

A temple in Kathmandu's central old district.

A temple in Kathmandu’s central old district.

Workers work freehand on bamboo scaffolding to keep construction going in the city.

Workers toil freehand on bamboo scaffolding to keep construction going in the city.

The South Asian country of Nepal is perhaps most notorious for its sherpas, which shepherd (usually Western) climbers through the treacherous passes and across snow-laden peaks to reach the zenith of Mt. Everest. This is but one world contained within this incredibly diverse country, however; Nepal boasts over 120 languages and 100 ethnic groups. The various cultural identities of these groups developed independently due to the hills and mountains that prevented integration until the country’s unification in the mid-1700’s. Although many of these groups work to preserve their culinary, artistic, linguistic, and cultural traditions, others have begun to melt into the broader Nepalese cultural identity. The rate of urbanization in Nepal–among the fastest in Asia–has further fueled this assimilative process, with astonishing effects on the environment, experience, and pace of life I witnessed in the capital city.

A famous Buddhist and Hindu temple sits atop a hill outside Kathmandu.

A famous Buddhist and Hindu temple sits atop a hill outside Kathmandu.

Kathmandu combines a mix of styles, ages, and classes.

Kathmandu combines a mix of styles, ages, and classes.

Kathmandu’s pollution, given the city’s size, rivals that of any other Asian city. But while pollution in China stems largely from that country’s industrial fervor, Kathmandu’s pollution carries with it the pulse of a poor, but emerging, valley metropolis. In preparation for November’s SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Conference, the public authority undertook the repaving of nearly all of Kathmandu’s major streets. Plumes of dust, exhaust from asphalting machinery, and bus fumes billowed into the air as motorcycles swarmed through the chaos. Even in the cramped alleyways of Thamel, the city’s somewhat more orderly tourist district, the din of construction and movement lifted a steady cloud of dirt around disheveled and weary tourists returning from local hikes.The effects of this activity–a thick layer of smog–nearly obscured the sight of Swayambhunath Stupa on its perch above the city.

A child chases birds in a temple plaza in central Kathmandu.

A child chases birds in a temple plaza in central Kathmandu.

The bustle of the city encroaches upon ancient sacred ground.

The bustle of the city encroaches upon ancient sacred ground.

As the city swells in size, I wondered, what cultural identities will it absorb and embody? Recently constructed office buildings seemed out of place alongside crumbling apartments, dangling informal electrical connections, and riverside slums. In a push for modernity, how might a city like Kathmandu incorporate the cultural richness of its new inhabitants, pouring in from Chinese-influenced mountainous regions of the north and Indian-influenced plains in the south? I look forward to another visit to see how the construction has fared, and to examine the city that has emerged–after all the dust has settled.

Author: Casey Weston

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