Where have all the buildings gone?

Areas around Kathmandu, Nepal. Today we had a driver and visited three destinations outside of the city. Our first was a bit of a bust, as the village we were aiming for, Nagarkot, has the best views of all the Himalayan mountain ranges – unless it’s a cloudy day. No luck for us, this time, but we climbed the steps hoping for the best. One family was partying loudly and heartily at the summit. A bunch of clouds weren’t going to stop them.

What we did see as we drove higher and higher into the mountains on absolutely horrendous roads was the enormous damage done by the earthquake in the little villages we passed. There is so much rebuilding going on, but the earthquake threat hasn’t gone away. I guess home is home, no matter what.

Our next stop was the Changu Narayan Temple, a living museum of carvings from 400 to 750 CE. There was a long walk up a hill to the temple, which gave us ample opportunity to see how much damage this little town suffered. We saw the brick factories working hard, but – four years later – there is still so much to be done.

The temple itself is said to the be the oldest Hindu temple still in use in Nepal. It is built in the pagoda style, and is guarded by lots of real and mythical beasts. It is still very commanding and noble, despite all the devastation it has witnessed. We saw some old carts in a side building that might have been used to display Vishnu on special holidays. And then there was a very young worshiper practicing his devotions in an appropriately sized temple.

We felt so sorry for all the people in this town, who were desperate to see their wares. They do, however, have a great wood-carving heritage, and we bought wonderful masks from two of the artisans who clearly do the work right inside their doors. Wish we could have bought something from everyone.

Our last stop was – for me – the hardest. Bhaktapur, a medieval city-state, up until 2015 described as the best-preserved. The town was devastated by the earthquake, and some people are still living in temporary huts or shelters. Many people were killed, and the tourism which had sustained the economy virtually disappeared for almost a year while basic repairs were being done. As with everywhere we have visited in Nepal, the work is going on full-time, in a relentless drive to return this town to the community it once was.

There are many outstanding temples in this town, but many of the medieval structures are uninhabitable now and will be torn down. Some of the modern replacements we saw will definitely detract from what must have once been a magnificent city. I was sad to see and hear that nothing really is the same for these people, many of whom suddenly lost their homes, family, jobs, neighborhoods and their sense of community. They are known for their pottery, weaving and carving, and are still trying to carry on those traditions. Don felt that it was fascinating to see an ancient city that was still operating in this century. I just hoped that they can regain their sense of a world that makes sense to them, and that has all the landmarks that made it home.

Don’s Food Corner

While Jo rightly documents the earthquake destruction we saw today and the human struggles to rebuild buildings and lives since then, I also saw an ancient city that functions pretty much as it always had. Of all of the old cities we have visited in our travels, I thought that this one retained the greatest sense of a living city operating in the same old ways — from the many old buildings still standing to the traditional uses of those buildings and different sections of the city, such as the pottery-making section. I remember walking through the area of Athens that had at one time been the home of pottery-making but is today just a ruin. Here, however, it is still going strong and operated by the same families who have worked here for generations.

Our guide told us that younger members of those families are not following in the tradition and today it is run mostly by older people. I suppose that is true of other cottage industry craftspeople we passed by today, including the ladies stringing beaded jewelry. But the dirt streets, the life-on-the street dynamics and the mostly intact ancient buildings with a minimum of modern building intrusion made me feel as if I had truly traveled back in time like no other place I’ve ever visited– and all without a polished Disneyland look to things that you see in cities and towns of equal vintage in Europe. Those who live in the city, however, might have a very different view of what it is actually like to live in such a time warp. At lunch one of the waiters came over to speak to me. In very good English he asked where I was from and where we had been traveling. I told him a bit about our three months in India, our week in Bhutan and our travels in Nepal. He told me rather sardonically that he had only been in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and two other locations in Nepal and said: “It’s like I’m in jail.”

The lunch we had was in a newly rebuilt restaurant that our guide took us to and was packed with western tourists and tourist groups. The menu was “multinational,” but I ordered the set vegetarian Nepali thali (say that ten times really fast). As in India, the thali is a meal of several different small dishes served on a round platter usually encircling a mound of rice. Sometimes these thalis can be elaborate affairs featuring a dozen or more different dishes. The thali I had today was relatively simple, with only a half-dozen dishes.

Like the food in Bhutan, Nepali food is far less richly spiced than Indian cuisine. These more northern countries simply did not have access to the variety of spices found in India and their cuisines show it. Instead of layering a dozen or more spices into each dish that is somewhat typical in Indian cooking, the food in Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet is plain except for various types of chilies. That heat seems to be toned down whenever a westerner orders the local food. The result is that you taste the actual vegetables more clearly than you do with Indian food where the spice combination is the actual star of the dishes. Although not as complex as the Indian thalis I tried over the last few months, I thought the Nepali version was satisfying and interesting.

Jo avoided the local cuisine on the menu and ordered a p—a, which arrived, oddly enough, with the triangular slices arranged as petals in a flower. It bore some resemblance to something that you might find in Italy or New York, but only in passing.


2 thoughts on “Where have all the buildings gone?

  1. The resilience and hope of the Nepalese people as they tackle daily life jumps out so strongly from your photos. Stands out even more so in the devout “little” worshipper of Ganesha! The god of clearing all obstacles and promising a good omen to every new beginning. Thanks for sharing.

  2. He touched me too – as all the people there did. What must it take to start your life all over again in the midst of such destruction?

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