Nepal Today

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By John Harrison

I visited Nepal in 1972 and wanted to show my daughter the place that inspired Russian poet/rock musician Boris Grebeshnikov, artist Nicholas Roerich and countless others. We bought tickets, planning to travel around the country ourselves, and hike up into the mountains. I thought that the place couldn’t have changed that much since I was last there in the 1970s. Then the shattering news came though about the earthquake on April the 25 which killed over 9,000 people and inured 25,000. Houses collapsing like cards, disease, foreign aid unable to reach the remote villages and so on. Instinctive reaction was to cancel, but for some reason we didn’t. A few months later we thought, ‘let’s do this;’ partly in reaction to calls for foreigners to come back to Nepal. Here is a short resume of our impressions of Nepal today.

Under the circumstances, I thought we’d be safer on a tour, so we opted to be chaperoned around in a car with guides, stay in reasonable hotels and not live in hostels, which at my young age would be difficult anyway. I found a tour company on the Internet that had a tour we could join that was running on the dates we had the tickets for. Three days in Kathmandu, two in the Chitwan National Park, a day at Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini and two in the ultimate ex-hippy chill-out place next to the Himalayas at Pokhara, then back to Kathmandu. This all came to $1600 for both of us. July is in the middle of the monsoon period, but the only time work and study-wise that we could go. I was full of trepidation, but Nepal smiled on us.

Kathmandu

Kathmandu looks really ugly on the road from the airport to the centre; like a 1980s Chinese shanti town with shabby concrete prefabricated 2-5 storey buildings. I wondered if I had spent the night on an uncomfortable seat at Dubai airport on the way in vain. India, that’s what it is, I thought. Gone are the horse drawn carts and human powered wheelbarrows, all hail to the motorcar and motorbike, to pollution and urban destruction. Our driver told us that 70% of the buildings in the city had survived the earthquake, as if that was a good thing, and that most of the buildings which came down or were severely damaged were in the city centre, the very heart of Kathmandu, whose ancient dwellings that line narrow streets with their intricate wood carvings on the windows and gables, low doorways, interspersed with extraordinary temples, monks and other people gave the city a unique medieval atmosphere. At least that is what Kathmandu was like in the 1970s. I feared the worst.

At the hotel, we were told that power cuts are frequent; electricity is off for about half of the time. That’s the way things are, not because of the earthquake. Hotels have generators but the hostels don’t. You might have to face the unthinkable – living without your smart phone for a few hours at a time. Drinking water is only turned on once a week, although the hostels and hotels have their own supplies. The ubiquitous black plastic water tanks on the roofs are for storing grey water pumped up from underground, which is not clean enough to drink, but can be used for washing and cleaning purposes.

That night we ventured deep into the badly lit, narrow streets of the centre. There was a carnival atmosphere as it was – like most days – a religious holiday. Nepal has 14 religions. So the practice of religion is not something to do with tourists (there weren’t any), this is real. About 80% of the old buildings are propped up with spindly wooden supports, the others are either completely destroyed and are now piles of rubble, with painted and carved wood sticking up into the air. Nevertheless, reconstruction work is going on, at least of the temples (there are a lot of temples) which have been allocated government money. We felt that there is enough of the 14-19th century fabric of the city centre to make Kathmandu well worth visiting, as long as the Nepalese government steps in and does something. Owners of collapsed residential buildings have so far been awarded just $200 which the government handed out 2 months after the earthquake, when the average cost of restoring an ancient property so that it at least resembles the original is very roughly $20,000 – $80,000. Another $2,000 has been promised per household, but when that money will come through is anybody’s guess.

We found out the next day that at the very moment when we were wandering deeper and deeper into the old city, there was a 4.6 earthquake. We didn’t feel a thing. The guide didn’t tell us the next morning; I guess he hoped that we wouldn’t find out, me being a journalist.

Circling the centre on almost all sides are areas full of hostels where you can stay for as little as $10-$25 a night and hotels where a decent room now costs between $25 and $35 per room per night. The bars and cafes are reminiscent of the 1970s, with names like: ‘Vegetarian Revolutionary Yoga Café’ and ‘Maya Deva Hotel’, however the very few foreigners that we met were very different from those I know in the 1970s. Gone is the search for truth and in is sustainable, healthy living and great sports such as paragliding. The seekers were all unceremoniously kicked out in 1975 in a run up for a re-assertion of control by the Nepalese royal family. The total farce of the Nepalese monarchy eventually came to an end 5 years after deranged Crown prince Dipendra massacred 10 members of the royal family, including his father, the King in 2001. Dipendra apparently wasn’t too pleased about who his parents wanted him to marry, at least that is one version of events. As utterly loyal and unquestioning as Nepalese are, even they had had enough of the Royals!

The earthquake – Help but No Help

The Nepalese situation provides interesting lessons in the effectiveness of charities. Foreign aid organisations have come in, and are doing valuable work. But the Nepalese we talked to complained that because most distribute aid through official channels, such help is limited in impact, something that has not got through to donors. Only person-to-person help has made a real difference, such as the work being carried out by the Prem Rawat Foundation (TPRF). The front line help they provided in the first critical days and weeks immediately after the quake, with blankets, tents and other essentials, cannot really be underestimated. They are now providing long-term support to 17,000 villagers in need, with an accent on helping to rebuild and support schools. Right now, for example, they are feeding 1,600 children per week with a commitment to spend $50,000 per year for the next three years through a ‘Food for People’ programme. Nepal will need help like this for years to come, long after the country has been replaced in our consciousness by other tragedies around the world, if that hasn’t happened already. Physical wounds are only one part of the story. Charities that understand what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is, are few and far between.

In some of the villages, like the village of Gourka, right at the epicentre of the quake, 90% of the houses were destroyed, partly because they were so badly built. “First there was a loud rumbling sound. Then the shaking started. It seemed to go on for ever.” Tika Regmi, MD of Amigo Treks, (the company that we travelled with), said. “I thought that nothing would survive. Then my father phoned and said that they were alive, and the phone went dead. 56 seconds is a very long time, we were hugging each other because even the trees were shaking. If it had lasted another 10 seconds, nothing would have been left standing, not earthquake proof buildings, nothing.” He said.

It could have been worse. In 1255, an earthquake of similar magnitude struck the country with an epicentre in almost exactly the same place in the night. A third of the population was wiped out. This time, the quake struck on a Saturday morning, which was a religious holiday meaning that most people were outside. If it had struck at night, or during the weekday when schools and colleges would have been full of students, we would probably be talking about hundreds of thousands of dead.

Religion

Nepal is fortunate in that Hinduism and Buddhism manage to coexist side by side. Three of the four mega temples in Kathmandu feature both Hindu and Buddhist temples together on the same site, which is bewildering at first. Very briefly, Hinduism, as our brilliant guide Sushma Kharel explained, stands for salvation and reincarnation, and Buddhism for realization and nirvana or enlightenment. Religious tolerance seems to be the order of the day, as in much of Asia.

After death, Hindus in Kathmandu perform funeral rituals and open fire cremation beside the Bagmati river, which flows into the Holy river Ganges. The Hindu funeral pyres at Pashupati work 24 hours a day, and were incredibly busy in the weeks after the earthquake. Conveniently, there is a pre-death hospice on the territory, which is considered a sacred place for taking one’s last breath. Open-air cremation has raised some environmental concerns, (the stench is unbearable and often body parts which are not fully transformed into ashes are dumped into the river) and the government has announced plans to introduce electric furnaces, however such modernisation plans meet stiff opposition from some Hindu ecclesiastic circles.

Looking at the wider picture, urbanisation over the past 30 years has meant that Nepal’s cities have swelled by millions, because of lack of schools, infrastructure, good housing and roads, medical care and most importantly, education in rural areas. But life in the city for the new arrivals is not sweet. Prices have risen whilst wages have not. Staggering inequality means that the poor tend to remain very poor, and the traditional strong spiritual way of life so visible in the faces of beaming villagers in the mountains and in the lowland areas, does not really work in the cities. Furthermore, western culture is eroding deeper and deeper into what is left of traditional Nepalese cultural values, and there is the constant reminder of one’s own poverty in comparison to other people’s perceived happiness due to material success. Yet going back to the village is only the last resort. Many young brides persuade their husbands to move to the city, after all who wants to spend their whole life in the paddy fields. Once the children start in a city school, it is virtually impossible for the family to move back.

Despite all of that, we didn’t meet any atheist Nepalese. We had a great evening flicking from one TV station to another after visiting the birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini. There are two government stations then an array of spiritual stations, for example: ‘Golden Eye Television,’ ‘Sagarmatha (Your Third Eye) Television,’ ‘Peace TV (Shakti),’ and so on. Religions compete with each other for your attention, although Nepalese don’t look at it that way.

Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha, is a kind of Buddhist ВДНХ. Instead of palaces to Soviet Agriculture, Soviet Cosmology and so on, we have huge and incredibly beautiful temples to Buddha built as donations by various countries. The amount of money that was spent there, must make a few even devout Buddhists wonder if the money could perhaps be better spent improving the country’s infrastructure. The place is like a visitation from another planet, and far away from any major city. More representative of the true state of Buddhism in Nepal are the poor Tibetans who live in the large Tibet refugee Camp in Pokhara.

Pokhara

If you want to hang out on a beach, go hang gliding, which my daughter had a fantastic time doing, meet the cool people, drink chai from a view point high up in the mountains at 6 am and watch the sun rise over the Himalayas, go straight to Pokhara. What more can I say?

Prices

Prices are certainly lower than in most western countries, but they are not that low. When a bottle of beer costs £2, and a meal for 2 with drinks costs £12, we found ourselves eating and drinking more. A lot more. You have to be non-human not to splurge on gifts such as mandalas, beads, wood carvings, traditional clothing items and any of the millions of exquisite hand made goods on sale. Budget for at least $50 a day just for shopping which in Nepal feels like an awful lot, because one is aware that Nepalese who earn an average of $200 a month go to their places hidden round the back where prices are at least 50% cheaper. You can get an idea of just how high the difference is by bargaining and realising just how far traders are prepared to drop their prices. We were advised to start off at 50% of the asking price.

Serious stuff

Nepal is landlocked, being 1,100 km from the nearest sea, and has a population of 27.5 million, who live in a territory a little larger than England between high mountains. The country is one of the world’s poorest with virtually no economy to speak of. Nepal cannot feed itself, and has to rely on major imports for staple foods from neighbouring India. Nepalese say the problem is politics.
These people are clever, noble and hard working. Being religious and successful isn’t an issue. Endemic corruption amongst government officials is. India is often used as a scapegoat, there is a feeling that India has a strong influence on Nepalese politics, coupled with accusations that neighbouring countries wish the country to remain poor for geopolitical and economic reasons, such as the fact that Nepal is a great source of cheap labour. We realised just how turbulent the situation is when we were unexpectedly held up for a few hours when travelling along the incredibly beautiful mountain passes on the road from Lumbini to Pokhara. The Maoist party, which almost took over the country at one stage, had decided to hold a general strike, in connection with very slow moving constitutional reforms. Reassuringly, our driver said: “we should be alright, they are only stopping cars and throwing bricks at them, nothing serious”. Nothing happened, but…

Many good things have also happened in Nepal. Last year the vast 360 sq. mile Chitwan National Park; a previous royal hunting ground, which we visited, declared that for the first time ever, it had had a poacher free year, largely due to the efforts of the Nepalese army. The earthquake is in a sense bringing the Nepalese together in a way that has never happened before. The process of change will accelerate, there is hope.

Me and my daughter had an incredible, profound time in Nepal. Next time I’ll be in the mountains.

Tips:

Don’t ask anyone the way in Nepal by showing them a map. It is very unlikely that anybody will know where they are on the map, or that the map will even have street names on it.
Don’t go to Chitwan National Park during the Monsoon period, you won’t be able to get into the park proper because the roads turn into rivers.
Lumbini can be missed unless you are a Buddhist, in which case you should stay there for at least a couple of days. Seeing the birthplace of Buddha could be a truly moving experience.
ATM machines can be a problem, but it is very easy to spend more than you budget because there is so much to buy and enjoy.
Whatever you do, don’t drink cheap Nepalese wine.

The tour company we used:
Amigo Treks & Expedition P.Ltd,
www.amigotrekking.com
The charity TPRF: www.tprf.org

How to get there from Moscow.

Fly Dubai operate flights via Dubai. Visas can be obtained at the airport in Kathmandu for $30.