As I wandered through the shady local streets, I heard snatches of what sounded like several different languages. I wasn’t really in the mood to shop, so I just kept going straight ahead. When the streets got too narrow for my liking, I turned down the next alley. In this way, I passed the afternoon.
Eventually, I emerged from the narrow, crowded alleys into a more open space. I felt the sun beat down upon my skin, and I warmed ten degrees. Those shaded alleys had been chilly. Here, there were souvenir stands and sunglasses vendors. It felt more like Thamel than the local streets I’d been wandering all afternoon.
Idly, I wondered if I had walked in a giant circle. Maybe this was Thamel.
[This is a chapter from my travel book. There are lots more chapters posted on the blog, but if you’d prefer to read them all at once, sign up for my e-mail newsletter and I’ll be sure to let you know when they’re available in a condensed form!]
I risked a quick glance at my phone. Google Maps showed Thamel, where I had last been using it. My blue dot was well outside the borders of the familiar neighborhood. Luckily, it looked like all I had to do to return to Thamel was just follow one major street all the way back. I made a mental note of what that street looked like (Brown and dusty, what a surprise). With some sense of direction restored, I took in this new neighborhood I found myself in.
This was Kathmandu Durbar Square
The place was clearly a tourist attraction of some sort, as evidenced by the hordes of Nepali hawking postcards, sunglasses, and singing bowls. You didn’t see that in the shadier streets of Kathmandu.
There were hordes of Chinese tourists, taking selfies and menacing bystanders with their ubiquitous selfie sticks. A healthy mix of foreign and Nepali faces swirled in and out of a central square, which seemed to be walled in. Souvenir stands lined the outside of the wall, hugging the wall tightly in order to take advantage of the meager shade provided by the high angle of the sun.
A small tollbooth was set up at a gap in the wall. The attendant appeared to be selectively charging admission, mostly, it looked like, based on skin color. Many Nepali flowed past the booth without casting it a second thought, while wandering tourists were flagged down and asked for a contribution. I simply joined in with the flow of the crowd and confidently walked through the entrance. No one bothered me.
I didn’t feel bad about my little bypass, especially once I saw the state of the square.
Kathmandu Durbar Square lies in ruins.
Nowhere is the impact of the 2015 earthquake more visible than in Durbar Square. Where ancient palaces and towering monuments must have once stood, today there is little more than rubble and roped-off construction zones.
Piles of bricks lay haphazardly around the square, and many of the facades are held up by external supports which I’m pretty sure didn’t used to be there.
Scaffolding, cracks, and “Danger!” signs drew my eye more than any sort of ancient beauty that remained.
But, as I wandered around the damaged square, something else drew my eye even more than the tragedy of the damage.
The Nepali People
The Nepali have a saying, “Come for the mountains, come back for the people.”
I would come to know this saying later in my travels. As I wandered through Kathmandu Durbar Square, taking in the earthquake damage, I did not know of it. And yet, I was starting to feel the truth of it.
Being back in a tourist area meant I was once again subject to the offerings of the touts — most of whom offered to guide me around the square and explain the history. I politely turned them all down, and as such, my understanding of the significance of Kathmandu Durbar Square is rudimentary, at best.
It’s a palace complex, I think?
But I don’t feel I missed out on this. My attention was on the present, not the past. And the present story of Durbar Square – although it might be tempting to tell it as such – was not a sad story of ancient monuments and priceless cultural legacy destroyed by senseless disaster.
What struck me about Durbar Square can be illustrated with one single image: these two young men, lounging atop a raised dias. I suspect the dias had once supported an impressive building. Today though, it was a raised set of steps leading to nothing more than a flat mesa. As I walked around the base of this dias, I couldn’t keep my attention from swiveling towards this pair.
They crouched, close together, at the top of the steps. They sat, touching, in the comfortably intimate manner of young Nepali men. One showed the other something on his phone, and they both laughed, big genuine laughs. They chattered excitedly, then fell into a more casual rhythm.
But here’s why the moment stuck out to me: these people have had nothing but bad luck for a year. These two young men – boys, probably – were out of school and unemployed, just like many Nepalis. Their home had been devastated, their history literally reduced to rubble.
And yet, here they were. Life went on. They had found something to smile about.
That thought filled me with a lightness I had not felt for a long time.
Did I pique your interest? This series is more than a travel blog — it’s a story. I recommend starting from the beginning.