Kathmandu is one of the world’s best cities for catching travellers by surprise. Your first arrival is an attack on the senses and as Allison Davies discovers, just being in Nepal can take your breath away…
“Nepal. It’s all about mountains, isn’t it? I think as I step off the plane in Kathmandu. But today the Himalayas play hide and seek behind the clouds. No mountains for me it seems. My friend turns up in a battered Landrover and we turn left out of the airport, beginning our journey to the Terai, a strip of flatlands that run along the edge of the foothills like a border on a sari.
The traffic is crazy and if there are rules I can’t work out what they might be. A motorbike zips in front of a bus and I notice that the driver wears a helmet, though none of his three passengers do. I hold my breath, sure there’s going to be a collision, but at the last minute the bus veers wildly and the battered Kawasaki makes it with what seems like millimeters to spare. There’s a domino effect as vehicles dodge and weave to avoid the bus. To add to the chaos a cow wanders out into the traffic. She stands in the middle of the road like a bovine island as cars, trucks and motorbikes flow around her.
Killing a cow is illegal in Nepal, even accidentally. A while back a US official ran down a cow while driving along a road. By rights he should have been arrested for murder, but eager to avoid an international incident, a wise Nepali magistrate let the guy off the hook by claiming that the cow committed suicide. But a local probably wouldn’t be as lucky, and our driver flicks the wheel with studied nonchalance, giving death wish cow a wide berth.
I admire his skill as the traffic flows on. An endless circle of dust and diesel fumes rises above the Kathmandu ring road and I can’t help thinking about the chariot race in Ben Hur. My friend sweeps a strand of hair from her eyes and grins. “This sure ain’t Kansas.” She says, her fake drawl pulling her lips tight against her teeth.
The road climbs, but only as high as the crest of the rounded hills that cup the city in a green bowl. At intervals there are temples – a mix of Hindu and Buddhist. It’s easy to tell the difference by the red, blue, green and yellow prayer flags that flap above stupas, spilling mantras on the morning breeze.
Our vehicle has spent the last few years carrying health workers from village to village along Nepal’s southern border. Every rock, rutted track and river bed has left its mark, from the battered paintwork to the sagging suspension and the hole in the windscreen that looks like a bullet wound. As we hit another crater sized pothole it feels like my spine is breaking through the top of my head. I grunt and our driver smiles an apology.
We reach the highest point on our journey and I turn for a last look across the Kathmandu valley. The clouds part and I see snow-clothed mountains, impossibly high, turn rose-gold as the sun hits their flanks. For a moment I forget to breathe!”
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* photo by Bradley Stulberg – Intrepid Photography Competition