Kathmandu is a city of contradictions. While many many tourists walk the streets of the upscale Thamel area, which reminds me of Toronto’s Kensington Market with much better shopping but minus the diversity, you have to walk 10 minutes in the right direction and suddenly you are in the middle of a timeless courtyard that has been lived in for hundreds of years and is still used to this day. Or see the bizarre Toothache Shrine with many needles:
Or find an ancient temple on which cloth are displayed for sale:
Or walk by a porter hurling a heavy load on his back as if cars were never invented:
A big part of the allure of places like these is the enigmatic feeling of suddenly being transported to another time. The sounds, smells and general vibes of Kathmandu’s old city have a magically timeless quality to them.
Of course, there are Coca Cola ads everywhere, everyone has a cell phone and it’s hard to avoid cars and motorcycles but you can turn into a narrow path lined with leaning walls and exposed electricity wires, dodge a few motorcyclists and ragged children and suddenly you are face-to-face with a 1000 year old shrine, “unprotected” and still used on a daily basis for prayers. In Nepal (and many parts of Asia), history is alive and well and not a concept in a museum.
The magical thing about these places is not that there is a lot of culture and history here; it is the fact that these traditions are still alive and have been continuously alive for centuries. I really enjoy this experience but am also aware of a deep contradiction that it entails.
There are many things to admire about different traditions and many values that should be cherish and preserved. But there are also many aspects that should not and travelling here provides an excellent chance to see the reality and be humbled by the complexity of culture.
The traveller if he or she scratches the surface of the picturesque can easily find the grotesque: child labour, thwarted lower casts, suppressed women. It’s easy to generalize and and pass a verdict on old traditions as either misunderstood treasure troves of wisdom or blind systems of oppression. But the real challenge is to stay calm, observe and decide what to take in your backpack and what to leave behind hoping it would transform soon!