Category Archives: temple

On The 5th and last day of Teej, women crowd a temple's grounds to offer Puja. Bhaisepati, Lalitpur © Donatella Lorch

Where ancient rituals rule in modern times — ‘Tis always the season!

     Growing up in New York, I rarely associated religious festivals with a national or even a city holiday, though occasionally alternate side of the street parking was suspended – to my father’s delight.

     Half way around the world, Nepal has taken the idea of religious festivities to another level. Beginning in late August and continuing until the end of October, religious festivals follow each other like tumbling dominoes, occasionally bridged by government holidays. The festivals can last a day or a more than a week. Parking, though, is not an issue in Kathmandu, a capital where parallel parking has yet to be discovered and the rule on the hair-raising narrow roads seems to be: “Never give way.”

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

It is a season when the complexities of Nepali society seem to surf above the capital’s physical chaos, pollution, political disorder and venality. The ties to yore, to myth, to custom and to religion may be a matter of worship or just a question of habit or a mere acquiescence to an insistent mother-in-law. In any case, Nepal’s festivals are not a matter that can be ignored.

     Depending on how you look at it, life in Kathmandu either slows down as stores and offices close or it hums with an entirely different undercurrent. There are different colors, smells, noises. Traffic jams change locations. In Nepal, the kaleidoscope of Newar, Tamang, Chhetri, Brahmin and other holy days challenge the most ardent ritualists, who consult multiple types of calendars not only to stay connected with the outside world but also to follow the local customs. Most of the calendars are based on a lunar cycle, so every year, schools, offices and government nimbly have to readjust their schedules. To keep everyone on their toes, some holidays rely on astrologers. 

The land where Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

     This year, the season began on August 10th, with Janai Purnima, when Brahmins and Chhetri communities go visit their guru to have their sacred thread changed. For good measure, there are those who add on a dip in a local river. Just a day later, on the 11th is Gaijatra or Cow Festival, a huge event in the Kathmandu Valley, when you decorate your cow or one of the many stray bovines in your neighborhood and join the dancing, singing parades. Some choose to wear cow head-gear. It is meant to pave the way towards heaven for any relative that has died that year. As the end of the month nears, there is Father’s day and close by the day when Hindu priests give (or more precisely sell) the faithful some ‘Kush grass’ so that Vishnu will live in their home for the coming year.

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

Some festivals are all-inclusive, others pick their ethnic group, pointing in numbers to the changing ethnic powers in the Kathmandu Valley. Take Teej, which is followed by Chhetris and Brahmins but not by the Newars, the area’s original inhabitants. If color is a sign, then the Newars are far from being the majority they once were.

  For the five days of Teej, observant women wear red saris, turning the entire valley into a red sea. The government closes down the roads in one of the busiest sections of Kathmandu so that thousands of red clad women can worship at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Shiva shrines in the world. Red saris are scrunched against the windows of overloaded public buses or billow elegantly in an Isadora Duncan sort of way on the back of motorcycles. Teej is billed as a woman’s festival – but it is really about the men, for it is a time when a woman either prays for the well-being of her husband or, if she not already married, for a husband-to-be.

     If a woman is very traditional, she will fast and she will also bathe her husband’s legs and drink the run-off water. This has some of my women friends in the States decrying marital abuse. But watching these red saris dancing in front of temples, standing and chattering on endless lines with their girlfriends and daughters, puja (offerings) and smart phones in hand, all bedecked in traditional gold jewelry, it is clear that, for them, Teej is not only about bonding but also about a great escape from endless daily chores and demanding husbands. It’s a time of year when gold prices in Kathmandu skyrocket. I’m inclined to believe that if you acquire new jewelry and a new sari, and spend five days with your friends, worshipping a husband is a fair exchange.

Women in traditional "wedding day" saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, a World Heritage Site. ©Donatella Lorch

Women in traditional “wedding day” saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines. ©Donatella Lorch

     The festivities don’t end with Teej. A short break afterwards, there is an eight-day Indra festival in Kathmandu. More masked dancers and drums in procession with the Kumari Devi, or ‘Living Goddess,’ blocking more traffic. And then Nepal’s most universal and longest festival – Dashain – begins and continues for about 15 days. This year it falls at the very end of September. On the surface Dashain is a celebration of the victory of gods and goddesses over demons or of good over evil, but between the prayers, it is mostly a celebration of family and community. Flights into Nepal have already been booked for weeks now. Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East borrow money to return home, others fly in from the U.S. and Europe. Kathmandu empties out as families return to their ancestral villages spending long hours on buses and often walking the last bit to grandma’s old mud- wattle or stone house. Aside from hotels and a few restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods, Kathmandu shuts down. The sky is a jumble of kites maneuvred by young kids on rooftops. The chaotic traffic jams and the smog melt away.

     This is a time of sacrifice – animal sacrifice that is. My friend Keshav, has been fattening his mutton for three years just for this year’s holiday. On October 1st this year, the day will begin with the army’s ritual throat-slitting of scores of buffaloes and then everyone has the go ahead to kill and feast on their own buffalo or goats and the drain-less roads will be covered in blood. Even if you live in an apartment, there is pressure to buy and butcher your own animal.

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan's old city. ©Donatella Lorch

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan’s old city. ©Donatella Lorch

 My favorite festival is none of these, but comes a bit later. After the dancing, chanting, techno-filled boom-blasted nights of Teej, just passed, I look forward to Tihar, the festival of lights, at the end of October. If poetry can transcend words, it is found at night in Patan’s old city. Every household creates on their road-side stoop mandalas of rice and painted flour lit by butter lamps. The narrow roads cornered by ancient temples are full of families strolling or going to prayer in the flittering, smoky lamplight. If there are no power cuts (and the government goes out of its way to avoid them during Tihar), cascades of Christmas lights decorate the taller buildings. Of course, modern times intrude. On Tihar, it is traditionally auspicious to buy metal; these days that means buying electronics, and so phones, televisions and stereos sell briskly.

I too turned red - briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

I too turned red – briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

Luckily, when it is all over, I won’t suffer from withdrawal. There are of course many more festivals during the year but in the meantime I still have my neighborhood Hindu priest to remind me I live in Kathmandu. Without fail, 365 days a year, he starts clanking his bell to wake Shiva at 5:15AM. I lie in bed, counting the 25 to 31 reverberating sharp and hard rings occasionally enhanced with some megaphone chants. When I moved here a year ago, the head-thudding noise forced me up and out of bed but these days, it has a soothing quality, alternating with the baying packs of neighborhood stray dogs and the coo-ing pigeons on my windowsill. I roll over, a smile on my face, knowing that the ancient is still there to guard the new day.

Meat-eating vegetarians in the land of the Buddha

Kathmandu Valley streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes.

Kathmandu Valley streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes.

The conversation with a Hindu friend in Kathmandu went something like this:

“Ram, are you a vegetarian?”

“Of course I am,” he answered.

“What is your favorite dish?” I countered.

“Chicken curry but it is very expensive so we mostly eat mutton curry.”

“But aren’t you a vegetarian?” I sputtered.

“Yes of course,” Ram assured me with a big smile. “I don’t eat beef.”

Ubiquitous ducks in certain neighborhoods can make driving tricky. © Donatella Lorch

Ubiquitous ducks in certain neighborhoods can make driving tricky. © Donatella Lorch

Since that first encounter with this new definition of vegetarianism, I’ve heard that explanation many times. It is often followed by a discussion on the holiness of cows. Nepal is a secular state, but just over 80 percent of its people are Hindu and it is illegal to kill cows here. Penalties are similar to those for manslaughter, so be extra careful when you drive around the Kathmandu Valley:  city streets are a free range for all animals of all sizes, holy or not. This includes some 20,000 stray dogs as well as goats, ducks, geese, chickens, buffaloes, and many wandering cows – all accompanied by the ubiquitous cacophany of murders of crows that have given the capital one of its nicknames: Crowmandu.

I wondered whether my preconception of religious Hindus as complete vegetarians was misplaced, or whether Nepalis aren’t so religious after all?  Yet, living in Nepal, I see, hear and smell religion everywhere.

Mornings can be very busy with Gods everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Mornings can be very busy with Gods everywhere. © Donatella Lorch

Nepalis are believers, of a kind, and even the Maoists and Marxist Leninists seem to have overlooked the Marxist dictum that religion is an opiate of the masses. There are 330 million gods worshipped in this country, where only 10 percent of the people are Buddhist and a tiny percentage Muslim or Christian. At Christmas, my Hindu friend Jyoti, wanting me as a Catholic to feel included in Nepali life, assured me that: “Your God is my God.” With 330 million gods already in the panoply, I had to admit that adding one more didn’t seem to be much of a stretch.  Though Buddhist numbers are small, Buddhism remains a cornerstone of Nepali identity. Tourism brochures proudly boast Nepal as the “Birthplace of Lord Buddha.  Just this week, the government announced a plan to transform the birthplace, the town of Lumbini, into a “global peace hub,” hopefully giving it a desperately needed facelift. By the way, Buddhists here also love their meat. There is a twist to the “can’t kill a cow” law. In Nepal, it is not illegal to eat a cow and many Tibetans here love their beef. But, given the lack of beef vendors, it comes at a steep price. I buy mine from a lone store that ships it in frozen from Australia. There is of course also an underground black market.

I'm Holy.

I’m Holy.

Friends often ask me what I like about living in Nepal. Though this is a multi-layered complex question without a straightforward answer, I often say that I am inspired by the way Hinduism and Buddhism are not only integrated in every aspect of daily life but that Nepal appears to be the most religiously tolerant country I have ever visited or inhabited. It is also a place where religion is alive and intimate. Buddhists and Hindus share hundreds of festivals and shrines of all shapes and sizes that are everywhere, from huge Durbar squares declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, to hidden stupas in tiny alleyways, a lingam or a rock in the middle of a paved road (surrounded by railings that oblige cars to go around it) or a towering Buddhist vihara on a hillside. There is not one but several Buddhist ‘Living Goddesses’ that are worshipped by Hindus on a daily basis. These pre-pubescent girls, called Kumari, are allowed out of their homes only on festivals, lathered in makeup and weighed down by jewelry. Their feet are never allowed to touch the ground.

Puja, or worship, is constant and everywhere. In the early mornings, the streets are full of women carrying rice, flowers, red thika and food to various neighborhood shrines. Beware of Kathmandu’s hordes of motorcyclists maneuvering through heavy traffic:  many drivers will suddenly bow their heads and lift a hand to their forehead to acknowledge a holy site that is being passed. What, you didn’t spot the holy rock? Apparently, if you are deeply religious, it is also necessary briefly to close your eyes as you drive past.  Adds a certain adventure to the driving experience.

For this Puja, I got off my motorbike. © Donatella Lorch

For this Puja, I got off my motorbike. © Donatella Lorch

Meat, a major business in Nepal, is an integral part of religious festivals, in particular during the October Dasain Festival, beginning the first day with the army sacrificing buffaloes at a central shrine, and continuing with the family butchering of a goat or, if affordable, a buffalo.  Animal sacrifice at temples is practiced year round as well. Even with an outbreak of avian flu that made chicken production fall by 20 percent, the Valley produced over 49,000 tons of meat in the six-month period between mid-July 2013 and mid-January 2014. Buffalo is the most popular meat, taking 45 percent of the market share, with mutton in second place.

Fresh buffalo, anyone? © Donatella Lorch

Fresh buffalo, anyone? © Donatella Lorch

These animals, both dead and alive, are a visible and integral part of Kathmandu life. Many butcher shops are just shacks on the side of the roads, their soon-to-become muttons tethered live on the stoop, whiling away their last few hours chewing on tree branches in uneasy companionship with the stray dogs sitting nearby, patiently waiting for their friends to become food. Early every morning in my neighborhood, a bent old man walks half a dozen young buffaloes single-file down the hill and into the courtyard of a red brick house. Within an hour, dripping meat is piled on a wooden table outside in the company of black flies waiting for customers. Even after a year here, I still feel deeply unsettled looking at the goats just feet away from their guillotine.

Just waiting for the butcher at the local shop. © Donatella Lorch

Just waiting for the butcher at the local shop. © Donatella Lorch

I am also constantly visually reminded that cows are holy, but not their bull calves. Abandoned, the calves try to survive, skinny, listless, parched under the torrid pre-monsoon heat, eating garbage and plastic bags, lazing in the middle of a congested street.

The girls may be holy but we're not. © Donatella Lorch

The girls may be holy but we’re not. © Donatella Lorch

It is not only religion that is intimately lived here, but also our relationship with the animals we eat. Even politics gets involved. This week, Hindu right-wingers–wanting to create a Hindu state, ban the sale of beef and declare it a crime for Hindus to convert to another religion–tried to paralyze the capital by declaring a two-day ban on vehicular traffic. Happily, everyone ignored the ban. Another reason I love Nepal.

Gods have birthdays too. In Kathmandu, none is more bizarre than Shiva’s

Thousands of Hundu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of Hindu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Nepal boasts 330 million gods and counting but none garners a more unusual collection of birthday well-wishers than Lord Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. In non- Hindu terms, Shiva is like the patron saint of Nepal. His spiky trident and his bull are ubiquitous from big city temples to impromptu shrines sprouting up in the middle of fields and roads.  In fact, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, Pashupatinath, in the heart of Kathmandu, is one of the most renowned Shiva shrines as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year Shiva’s birthday fell on February 27.

Maha ShivaRatri (Big Shiva Night) is a national holiday in Nepal. On the big day, thousands of devotees inched down the main road towards the main gate, tightly packed in a several kilometer-long snaking line waited to enter the holy room where they can worship the Shiva Lingam, a phallus symbolic of the regenerative power of nature.

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

But some birthday guests had come many days before. This year, more than 5,000 Sadhus or ascetic holy men who give up worldly possessions to achieve enlightenment, walked, biked and bused from far reaches of the Indian subcontinent and set up camp in every nook and cranny in the vast complex of Pashupatinath, making for a rather kooky birthday party.

 

Most of eastern Kathmandu roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. The massive temple complex on the banks of the putrid but very holy Bagmati River was crammed with people. Tiny shack shops were doing brisk business, loudspeakers were blaring and thumping a Bollywood religious song.

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is famous for its open-air cremations and the very distinctive both sweet and acrid smell of burning flesh and scented wood hit me even before I reached the three pyres that were brightly crackling, the smoke curling upwards into the grey sky. Amid the relatives of the dead squatting near holy men and asking for blessings, a young boy on very high stilts was entertaining a crowd of devotees. But this was not the scene that distinguishes Pashupatinath.

 

On an upper terrace, in between several small temples laid out around a square were hundreds of saffron robed Sadhus, scores of devotees, some tourists and about a dozen police. Some Sadhus, called Naga Sadhus, were naked or almost so. Many were smeared in ash with massive dreadlocks piled on their heads, colorfully painted faces and long beards.

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One, with only a loincloth and a blanket, his eye rims bright red sat shivering and mumbling. In the chilly, drizzling morning, they shared home-made fires smoking more than burning on the stone pavement.  The cremation scent quickly mixed with wafts of ganja (marijuana) that grew more and more intense as I walked deeper into the complex, stinging my eyes and coating my lungs.

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This year the police were not allowing the open sale of drugs but some of the Sadhus were doing a brisk business with young Nepali men as police looked on.

 

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him  to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

While many devotees want to pay their respects to the Lingam, some do gather for blessings from these yogis who are thought to be very wise and gifted with special powers. Some Hindus consider them saints and the government of Nepal feeds and lodges them for their entire stay. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) estimates that about $14,000 will be spent on their room and board. The government also provides each one with a financial ‘gift’ when they leave.

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

The yogis may have been saintly and one claimed he was 110 years old but a lot of their holiness and their weird charm was lost for me as I watched their aggressive demands for money from anyone who wanted to take their pictures. In fact picture-taking was a brisk business. They may claim to forgo all worldly possessions, but many had easily available change for big bills. I photographed one foreign tourist busy posing one Sadhu in a variety of different poses against a wall. No doubt for a hefty fee.

 

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on  Shiva's birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on Shiva’s birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Sadhus belong to different sects. There was one much smaller group of Sadhus that were given a wide berth by their fellow ascetics and by the crowds. These men, dressed entirely in black, are Tantric or followers of the occult and worship Bhairav or Shiva’s fiercest manifestation. Some Hindus believe that they live near cremation grounds and feed off of human remains. When I saw them they were eating rice.

 

Then of course, like at every huge party anywhere in the world, there are also the Birthday gate-crashers. Beware, not all Sadhus are real Sadhus.

In Nepal’s Himalayas, the uphill battle is against plastic

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Matang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Manthang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there.  Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.

“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of  Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas.  www.plasticfreehimalaya.org

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and Sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year.  As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”

Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.

Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.

Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts.  The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.

“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles.  But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.

In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.

The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.

In Nepal where mountains rule — Making roads is not straightforward

 

View from the road down to the Bagmati River near Kathmandu. Nepal is one of the toughest countries in the world to build roads. Copyright Donatella Lorch

View from the road down to the Bagmati River near Kathmandu. Nepal is one of the toughest countries in the world to build roads. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Just 25km south of Nepal’s capital as the crow flies, the limpid Kulekhani River empties into the larger and heavily polluted Bagmati River, which flows in a series of twisting bends down from Kathmandu. In this narrow gorge bordered by steep treeless mountains that slice the blue sky, there are only a few mud houses perched on seemingly inaccessible ledges and on the riverside an army camp of plastic-covered quantum huts. This is the shortest way from Kathmandu to the Indian border.

The shortest route from Kathmandu to India where even the tracks are impassable due to landslides. Copyright Donatella Lorch

This gorge is part of the shortest route from Kathmandu to India. Even the tracks are impassable due to landslides. Copyright Donatella Lorch

To get here from Kathmandu, I took the shortest route passable by a 4X4 car – a 45km drive that took 2.5 hours on a narrow mostly-dirt road that hairpins over sheer precipices. The road is too narrow for the trucks that bring fuel, propane and all imported goods from India to the Kathmandu Valley. They have to take a 152km detour that on a map looks like a big C loop.

Outside of Kathmandu, bridges over the Bagmati are all like this one. Copyright Dominic Patella

Outside of Kathmandu, bridges over the Bagmati are all like this one. Copyright Dominic Patella

Inaccessibility is a defining characteristic of Nepal’s history. Much of Nepal is an endless sequence of steep hills and narrow gorges that abut the world’s highest mountains. Once you leave the Indian border and the Terai, the word flat or straight is rarely used to describe a road (outside the Kathmandu Valley). Whole areas have been so geographically isolated that Nepal, a country of 27 million, has 123 spoken languages and 125 ethnic groups. Today there are still far-flung areas of Nepal, especially in the northwest, that are not connected by any road and where all goods have to be brought in on foot or by donkey. After years of a violent Maoist revolt that tore Nepal apart, roads are a critical means of integrating and uniting a nation. Not only do roads facilitate trade and decrease poverty but they also provide isolated areas with security and medical care.

Most of Nepal’s roads are not paved and even on the paved ones, the maintenance is poor and irregular. Landslides are commonplace, especially during the torrential monsoon downpours. Vehicles, often overloaded, have frequent accidents.

One of the many trucks that didn't make. Copyright Donatella Lorch

One of the many trucks that didn’t make it. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Only Peru ranks up there with Nepal as the toughest country in the world to build roads. Today, the fastest way from Kathmandu to India is through the town of Hetauda on the dirt road I took. The main means of transport is the Tata Sumo, a 4X4 large jeep lookalike.  A Sumo can cram 12 to 15 people inside and at least five sitting on the roof rack. Up to 800 Sumos a day aggressively ply this road that at one point curls up the sides of mountains and has redefined for me the meaning of the word ‘narrow’. The road has no shoulders. From the open window of our car, it is possible to touch the sheer wall of rock, on the other side our wheels are inches from a sheer drop of at least 400 meters. Below and across the river gorge, houses inch up the hills while white Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples perch on hilltops accessible only by switchback dirt trails that resemble goat tracks. Reverse is often the only way to deal with oncoming traffic. It takes five hours to the Indian border. Trucks take the longer 10-hour route.

A Sumo on a wide Nepali road. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A Sumo on a wide Nepali road. Copyright Donatella Lorch

 

The Nepali government has a four-year-plan. They want to build what they call a “Fast Track” road following the Bagmati River to India. This 91km-road would link Kathmandu with a new airport the government wants to build in the flat Terai land for bigger airplanes. The new airstrip is to be built in one of Nepal’s foggiest zones. Critics say this will affect airplane traffic. Tourists would then take the two-hour drive to the Kathmandu Valley.

Of course the airport won’t work if the road isn’t there. Challenges to building the ‘Fast Track’ are technical, financial and political.  In the road sector, politicians often pressure the government to steer projects to their home districts. In one district in Nepal, the conflict between three political parties over the building of one bridge compelled the government to agree to build three bridges (one for each party) within 4kms of each other, but to date, no bridge has been completed as the project has become too expensive.Six months ago, at the confluence of the Bagmati and Kulekhani, the Nepali army enthusiastically blasted a segment of the ‘Fast Track’ through an overhanging  mountain crag transforming it into a jumbled pile of jagged white boulders.  Since then the work has stalled. Financing has yet to come through. International engineers estimate a cost of about US$1billion, 40 percent of which would go to building 9kms of bridges and 1.4kms of tunnel. Geologically, mountains are unstable in Nepal and no road tunnel has ever been built here.

The slice of mountain blasted by the Nepali army as part of efforts to   start  'Fast Track' construction. Copyright Dominic Patella

The slice of mountain blasted by the Nepali army as part of efforts to start ‘Fast Track’ construction. Copyright Dominic Patella

 

The ‘Fast Track’ will exist though it probably will take 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, we continue to drive on our goat-like mountain paths with the nail-biting hairpin turns, incredible scenery, on Nepali time and dreaming of better roads.