Tag Archives: Kathmandu Valley

The air that I breathe — my relationship with black carbon

I am old enough to remember the orange smog sitting over Los Angeles and the haze cloaking Manhattan, but my older kids, who grew up mostly in a much cleaner North America, consider my descriptions of air pollution family folklore. Then we moved to South Asia.

Nepali Darth Vader © Donatella Lorcj

Nepali Darth Vader
© Donatella Lorch

In Kathmandu, especially during the dry rainless winter months, the air we breathe dictates a fashion of sorts. Many people in Nepal’s capital wear multicolored dust masks. Women in saris or jeans wear them in pink and red, toddlers wear them, taxi and bus drivers wear them, police and army like them in black or camouflage. The swarms of motorcyclists that make the city a hair-raising place to drive look like Darth Vader, with masks or scarves under their helmets covering all but their eyes. Masks are so ubiquitous that the city’s many ATMs post big signs requiring that helmets and masks be removed before entering the booth.

Mask Instructions at a city ATM. © Doantella Lorch

Mask Instructions at a city ATM. © Doantella Lorch

Air pollution here is visible, touchable, intimate. The scientific name for the pollution that we breathe in Kathmandu is black carbon particulate matter, derived mostly from burning fossil fuels and suspended road dust. It’s the black grit that I wipe off my patio chairs twice a day and blow out of my nose. It’s the thick grey yellow haze that swallows up downtown Kathmandu during the driest winter months. It’s the black cloud-belching dilapidated trucks, the towering brick kilns that dot the valley spewing out their thick white spirals into the sky. It’s the black plume that wafts out of the humming metal-caged streetside generators. It’s the road dust coagulating upwards in clouds around the ubiquitous road construction sites. Fly in on a  winter day and admire (yes there is a level of dark depressing awe) how the plane slices through a flat layer of continuous thick greyness just before it lands.

Landing in a winter Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in a winter Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A mere 15 years ago, Kathmandu had clean air. Two factors transformed a valley that tourists called Shangri La. A decade-long Maoist civil war triggered a mass exodus of people from the countryside into Kathmandu, growing the valley population by more than 40 percent, to 3.5 million. Though infrastructure remains poor, rapid urbanization as well as easier availability of bank loans filled the valley with cars and motorcycles. By 2006, the demand for electricity had outstripped supply in a country that turns on its lights mostly with hydropower. Now more than ever, with winter power cuts reaching 18 hours-a-day, many businesses and households rely on diesel generators to provide power.

Generator Diesel - Kathmandu's largest polluter © Bhushan Tuladhar

Generator Diesel – Kathmandu’s largest polluter © Bhushan Tuladhar

According to the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), up to 40 percent of the country’s total diesel consumption is being used to generate electricity during power cuts. In 2012, NOC estimated that the country generated roughly 531 MW of electricity from diesel generators, filling a 35% power deficit. Tons of Black Carbon, one of the principle agents of global warming and the second largest warming agent after carbon dioxide, are being pumped into the valley.

      The Kathmandu valley is a bowl surrounded by hills that sometimes prevent pollution from dispersing. In the winter, the cold nighttime air doesn’t lift, creating a lid over the city and locking in the previous evening’s black carbon particulate matter. There is a reprieve during the summer months, when monsoon rains knock the black carbon down and improve daily air quality.

Measuring air quality is no longer done by the government. Kathmandu used to have six stations monitoring air quality but the last one fell into disrepair in 2006. It is now done on a case-by-case basis by Kathmandu-based ICIMOD ( International Center for Integrated Mountain Development). Nevertheless, the 2012 Environment Performance Index (EPI) ranking listed Nepal 130 out of 132 countries in terms of air pollution impact on human health and environment.

This view used to be commonplace but in winter it only appears after a rare winter rain. © Donatella Lorch

This view used to be commonplace but in winter it only appears after a rare winter rain. © Donatella Lorch

I knew these facts before I moved here but I looked at them differently when I began to live them. It’s the part of me that thinks I can be in control. I live on a ridge as far south of the Ring Road as commutably feasible. It helps me to know that the wind that blows across my place flows across the rural hills to the southwest and then across the city to the north. Most Nepalis don’t wear masks here. As a meager contribution to better air quality, I never use my own generator but have outfitted the house with enough solar power to power a fridge, the TV, wifi as well as a reasonable number of lights and outlets. But my ability to afford this alternative energy puts me in a minority. I have noticed subtle health markers. My colds come in the winter’s driest months of February and March and last weeks, not days, followed by chronic coughs. Nepal has no reliable hospital statistics on the increase of COPD(chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or other lung illnesses.

Bidya Banmali Pradhan, an associate coordinator for the Atmosphere Initiative at ICIMOD, has been tracking pollution patterns in Kathmandu for over a decade. ICIMOD is presently working with the government to set up a new monitoring station and is studying pollution’s socio-economic effect. There is no doubt that pollution will increasingly hurt tourism. Already, the big attraction of snow-capped mountains surrounding Kathmandu are only visible after a rare winter rain or a Maoist strike that bans all motor vehicles for the day..



Nepal’s climate, like much of its politics, is hostage to its huge southern neighbor. While the Kathmandu Valley has 120 brick kilns, the bordering Indian state of Bihar has about 30,000, says Pradhan. The winds carry black carbon into Nepal’s Terai and beyond, building the large Atmospheric Brown Cloud that moves from India into Tibet and beyond, the black particles slowly melting the Himalayan glaciers. The Terai, once a tropical winter refuge for Kathmandu residents, has been unexplainably blanketed in frigid fog for several years. This year, ICIMOD is convening a regional meeting of scientists to study this phenomenon.

Fog also seems to carpet northern India and Bangladesh for much of the winter. My iPhone reads it as “Smoke” for Delhi. Fog+Smog=Smoke, explains Pradhan. I find the winter air quality in Delhi more disturbing than what I breathe in Kathmandu. I measure taste and feel. In a recent week there, I rarely saw the sun. A pea-soup fog sat on top of the city like a metal pot cover. The air was cold, clammy, immobile, dense. Lucas, my nine-year-old, thought holding his breath might work during our Tuk-tuk rides. Flights were delayed for hours due to lack of visibility.

Kathmandu traffic adds to black baron emissions. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu traffic adds to black carbon emissions. © Donatella Lorch

As I reflect on these experiences, I realize that I have a front-row seat on a major climactic change. The National Academy of Science has done the first long term study of climactic change and pollution impact on Indian agriculture says there is a significant loss in rice and wheat crops due to black carbon.

Pradhan says she does not wear a face mask. She notes that the only real protection against black carbon is from an N99 or N95 masks that are not sold in Nepal. She has tested it and the filter turns black every 24 hours and needs to be replaced. She is philosophical about her home country.  “Once you are put in an environment, you feel normal,” she explains. “But when you come from cleaner places, you definitely feel the difference.”

In Kathmandu, I see it, I feel it, I smell it. And I too do not wear a mask.

What an airport can tell you about a country’s growing pains

There is an intimacy to landing in Kathmandu.  From the plane window, you can see the wings skim the mountains as the hairpin dirt roads leading to perched villages close in above you. From my neighborhood, earth and sky rumble together with each approaching plane.

Down we go! © Donatella Lorch

Down we go! © Donatella Lorch

When I was 27, fresh from two years of reporting inside Afghanistan, the New York Times assigned me to cover the borough of Queens. To soothe my homesickness for the wind-swept arid mountain ranges I had left behind, every morning I slowed down as I drove past La Guardia airport, rolled down my window, and deeply inhaled the jet fuel. Then planes were about escape. In Kathmandu, 25 years later, it means connection.  I live near the main landing path, and the sound of a plane is both comforting and awe-inspiring. It means that neither the valley’s fog, smog, storms nor its unpredictable wind shear have closed Kathmandu’s airspace. Kathmandu is a pilot-only, visual-only landing, and every time I fly in or out, or listen to a plane overhead, I am reminded that technology is not solely in control but that just one person is leading the way in.

Economists refer to it as ‘connectivity’. A poor country cannot reach middle-income status unless its people can be connected by economic, social and political opportunities within their country and with other economies.  This cannot be done without roads and airports. The challenge is huge in Nepal, South Asia’s poorest nation, a vertical land where roads have to be carved out of steep, unstable cliffs that are prone to landslides and where mountains rise so fast and sheer that radar is not always relevant and planes have very limited options on how to get to an airstrip. Imagine terrain so perpendicular that pilots turn off their ground proximity warning system because the constant computer generated voice warning: “Terrain, terrain, terrain,” is not only obvious but also distracting.

Planes landing at TIA skim Kathmandu rooftops. © Donatella Lorch

Planes landing at TIA skim Kathmandu rooftops. © Donatella Lorch

Nepal has 48 airports, mostly dirt strips precariously balanced on mountain tops or in narrow valleys, but there is only one international runway, Tribhuvan International Airport, an example of the vast complexities surrounding the issue of connectivity that go beyond just being able to land planes. In Nepal, tourism is the second biggest earner of foreign exchange, and with mostly dirt roads and vast numbers of road casualties, planes are critical to enabling tourists to come and continue to fuel growth.

Yet what happens when tourists come faster than the existing infrastructure can accommodate? Set inside the city of Kathmandu, TIA is bursting at the seams. It has only nine bays, but almost 50 daily international arrivals and more than twice that number for national flights. Visas are available on arrival, but the line is long and the unbridled crowded chaos of baggage claim is only enhanced by an enveloping dark penumbra. Mandarin seems to be the most spoken tongue. According to the local papers, vast amounts of cash are also exchanging hands at customs, where several officials, including the acting director, are under investigation.

So close yet so far. © Donatella Lorch

So close yet so far. © Donatella Lorch

Nature is not always cooperative. Flights can stack up for hours circling outside the Kathmandu valley, over Chitwan National Park, a domino effect often started by winter’s morning fog and aggravated by vehicle and generator-induced smog or summer monsoon storms and wind shears. There is one landing strip in dire need of re-tarmacking. Last summer, earth worms infested the runway, attracting nearby birds and closing down the airport for a day.  When I fly in or out, I find myself glued to the FlightRadar24 app, scanning weather and delays. The international airline with most delays appears to be Turkish Air, which has the uncooperative 6:55 a.m. landing slot:  thick fog at that time often brings long landing delays and recently a flight was even rerouted to Bangladesh for the day because of it.  The radar system, only for international approaches, is 25 years old and was installed after two major airplane crashes caused by white-out conditions, but it is struggling to keep up with the rapidly growing traffic. With only a 30-mile radius and blind spots, it is scheduled for a much needed facelift and expansion.

Yet international flights are almost always full, especially the five daily jets coming from five different Chinese cities and the scores of flights from the Middle East and South East Asia—the latter often carrying Nepali migrant workers to and from their host countries. Business must be good as landing rights at TIA are more expensive than Bangkok and on par with Singapore, while refueling charges are extremely high (all fuel comes by truck from India). In addition, pilots need special simulator training for Kathmandu landings. Two airlines, Qatar and Korean Air, are now even using the newest technology, satellite-based GPS systems, that provide the pilots with more information and greater leeway during their landing approach.

As in every other sector in Nepal, there are many improvement plans afoot. The government wants to build two new international airports, and is actively pursuing the Chinese government for soft loans. But airports are also competing with projects such as hydropower plants, expressways to India and China, waste water treatment plants, drinking water for the Kathmandu Valley, and sewage systems for all their cities. The wish list is long, the government cash-strapped, and so far investment is only cautiously moving in.

TIA will be it for the next few years.  That means accommodating the dozens of extra weekly flights scheduled to start soon from China. I don’t see the two security check lines that snake through the length of the departure area getting any shorter.

The wisdom of a Nepali street dog

Stray dogs happily sleeping the day away ©Donatella Lorch

Stray dogs happily sleeping the day away ©Donatella Lorch

I had noticed her only in passing. On any given day there can be as many as 10 stray dogs moving up and down a 40-meter stretch of my street but I usually just pay attention to the two trouble makers that try to intimidate my Rhodesian Ridgeback when I take him out for a walk. The others either sit and watch or completely ignore our temporary presence.

Kathmandu's 20,000 stray dog are an integer; part of the city ©Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu’s 20,000 stray dog are an integral  part of the city ©Donatella Lorch

Recently, a local crowd caught my attention, hovering over a dog lying and whimpering in an open sewage ditch, unable to move. A car had hit her, I was told, and she was incapable of walking or standing up.

Living in Kathmandu, an interaction with a stray dog is inevitable. There are, after all, more than 20,000 of them in the Valley’s tri-city area. When I first moved here a year ago, I lumped them all together into one large category: destitute, miserably hungry, unloved, unhappy and most critically, unvaccinated and un-neutered. Rabies is present throughout Nepal and Lucas, my nine-year-old son, knows never to reach out and pet a stray dog. Nepalis in general coexist with the strays, feeding them scraps, letting them hang out on their stoops, but the dogs are not family pets and the Nepalis do not care for them. On the dark side, I’ve seen dogs kicked and abused. I’ve seen little kids garrot a puppy and drag him around for fun. Some dogs, starving or maimed, grovel for leftovers from the stronger strays.

Raksi was lying in a ditch whimpering and unable to move. ©Donatella Lorch

Raksi was lying in a ditch whimpering and unable to move. ©Donatella Lorch

My Nepali neighbors hovered over the dog and attempted to feed and give her water, but she was in pain and intensely afraid. In Kathmandu, injured stray dogs are left to their fate, even if it means days of suffering. But I couldn’t walk away. At the same time, I was hesitant to interfere. In the back of my head I was replaying a line that my producer at NBC News would tell me regularly: “Dony, you can’t play God.”

A mobile vet injected her with anesthetic. ©Donatella Lorch

A mobile vet injected her with anesthetic. ©Donatella Lorch

Perhaps, I reasoned, I could make her death more peaceful if in fact she was badly injured. I couldn’t move her so I called the local mobile vet. Though Kathmandu is Nepal’s largest city, it is home to all types of farm animals, and vets also treat cows, buffalo, goats, sheep and elephants. After some time, two young men arrived on a motorcycle, pulled out a syringe and anesthetized the dog. They packed her in a cardboard crate, placed her between them on the bike and drove off to their roadside two-room clinic to X-ray the injury. I followed in my car.

The mobile vets packed her in a crate © Donatella Lorch

The mobile vets packed her in a crate © Donatella Lorch

raksi on bike The dog had only tissue damage, but she needed a week of daily steroid, antibiotic and pain killer shots. This meant keeping her virtually immobile in the vet’s small cage, recovering for a week. If she was then immediately released back on the street, her chances of survival were slim. By then, it had become clear to me that I had inherited a stray and its hospital bill. She had also at some point been blinded by a stick or rod in her left eye, so before I changed my mind, I added in drops for the infected eye as well as rabies, distemper and paro-virus shots. Lucas named her Rexi. The Nepalis, having some difficulty in pronouncing Rexi, renamed her Raksi – after the local moonshine.

For the past year, in my morning runs and commutes to school, I have studied the multi-layered social interactions and relationships between Kathmandu canines and the world of humans. The Nepalis who have dogs as pets (often white, furiously yapping, furry Spitzes) keep them indoors or on their rooftops. Some people tie their guard dogs on such short chains outside their houses they can barely lie down.

Raksi'd first efforts at standing up. © Donatella Lorch

Raksi’d first efforts at standing up. © Donatella Lorch

The vast majority of strays, like Raksi, are community dogs that live their lives outside in a self-delineated territory of a couple of city blocks. They drink from the open drainage ditches that often double as sewers, and beg–always patient, unobtrusive and even elegant–from store fronts and especially from the ubiquitous one-room butcher shacks. They are mostly thin and dirty though some are strikingly handsome. Raksi had a thick black and brown coat and impressively healthy white teeth. Some are social and wag hello, others are terrified when I walk by and on rare occasions there will be one that snarls or barks. In this city of massive and aggressive traffic, a week never goes by without seeing at least a couple of dogs lying on a road, killed by a vehicle. Sometimes the animal lies there for days before being removed.

Kathmandu dogs are nocturnal, and their baying, howling, snarling, yelping and ululating barks punctuate my night. Silence only descends briefly between 4am and dawn. In the winter, the cold takes the weak. In the dry, hot months, thirst kills. Puppies have a particularly high death rate. Wounds from nighttime fights fester. I never cease to be amazed by the dogs daytime ability to sleep — absolutely anywhere — though they love to spread out in the middle of roads, oblivious of honking trucks or speeding motorcycles. During my weekly runs, I’ve taken to greeting the strays on my route. Occasionally one or two will join me for a stretch of road.

Within two days of moving in, Raksi was  walking around our garden. ©Donatella Lorch

Within two days of moving in, Raksi was walking around our garden. ©Donatella Lorch

After her stay at the vet, we took Raksi to our house to recover. Once in our home, she stayed in a makeshift corrugated iron shack with cardboard and a towel as a bed. My dog, Biko, immediately disapproved of Raksi’s presence and not only ignored her but me as well. After a day, she began to limp around cautiously, and then soon was wandering around the garden, sleeping in our garage and trying to find ways to enter our house. Gentle and courteous, she wagged up a fury whenever she saw anybody, circling her head high so as to catch us with her good eye. I began to worry that she would never leave. I knew with each passing day, I was falling for her too.

At the end of the first week, as Lucas and I walked one morning onto the main road, Raksi followed. She went to sit facing us on a mound of half-burned blue and pink plastic garbage bags. Lucas tried to woo her back through our gate with her favorite dog bones and a bowl of milk, but she sat there sphinx-like and dignified and finally just turned, crossed the road and disappeared down a narrow alley.

Lucas went to school in tears that day. He thought that he had lost a friend. But Raksi didn’t really move away; she moved back to where she always had been—on the streets in our immediate neighborhood. Since then we have seen her every day, sometimes in front of our gate or on the concrete landing in front of the local tailor shop next door, even as far away as across the main road by the green grocers. I see her sleeping, surrounded by her many companions. She’ll get up and limp over to sniff a newcomer, warning him off with a bark. Her favorite spot is the sand pyramid on the construction site opposite our place. She has always greeted us with utter delight and wagging tail, dog-tracking towards us with a huge grin, one black ear perked, the other flopping.

Lucas visit Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

Lucas visit Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

I like to think that this is her way of telling me that she is okay. The dog rescue organizations in Kathmandu had warned me that there was virtually no chance of finding her a home and that if a foreigner adopted her (the most likely possibility) he or she would probably leave Raksi behind when leaving Nepal. If she was healthy, the street was the best place for her.

I still grapple with all I have learned from Raksi. When I saw street life as misery, why did I automatically believe she thought the same? Why did I assume my joy was her joy? I thought she was like my Ridgeback, an obsessively loyal animal whose idea of home was lying by my side. Biko won’t even smell the street garbage that is Raksi’s food. But it’s obvious to me that Raksi, like so many other dogs here, is only at home in her pack. She and several other dogs move, eat, sleep together. She has the freedom to roam. She perks up with the chaos of trucks and honking horns and it also lulls her to sleep, lying inches away from the paved road. She likes to lie with her nose on the edge of the open sewer. And though she greets me effusively, when I see her, one thing is clear: This is her world.

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.

‘REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES’ — Postcard from Nepal

This graffiti was once bold and bright, an eye-catcher on Patan's main avenue ©Donatella Lorch

This graffiti was once bold and bright, an eye-catcher on Patan’s main avenue ©Donatella Lorch

“I am calling from Nepal,” I began the conversation with my usual opener. I was on the phone with Visa, my credit card having been blocked three times in one week. “That’s a tiny country between China and India,” I explained to the befuddled voice on the other end and then without pause added the tried and true clincher: “It’s the country of Mt. Everest.”

       Sometimes, I feel tempted to skip the obvious and instead to share my favorite, rather obscure fact about Nepal. In 1996, when communism was already an anachronism, Nepali Maoists, with little base among the masses, began a brutal 10-year civil war. They weren’t sufficiently pure Maoists to be recognized by China but were declared terrorists by India and the U.S–though an Indian group, the Naxalites, are said to have provided them much of their military training. Their very first weapons, whose bullets heralded the opening of the war, were American-made and had been air-dropped to Tibetan rebels in 1961 to mount a revolt in China.  To make the story even quirkier, the Maoist leaders are now in the fledgling new Nepali government.  Their former military commander, who directed the war from India and who was believed by some to be a fictional character, today is still referred to by his ‘nom de guerre,’ Prachanda or “Fierce”, and remains a subject of Nepali gossip  — not about where he may be hiding but about how he acquired his wealth and fancy cars.

         There is a fast-fading moldy quotation painted in two-foot high bold lettering on the concrete wall that border the main avenue of Patan, Kathmandu’s sister city. “REVOLUTION IS NOT BED OF ROSES, it declares in what was once blood-red paint, before the rest of the sentence fades into black-leaching monsoon mold. The author’s originally spelled name resurfaces briefly: “Friedl Castro.”

There are still stenciled Chairman Mao portraits in Kathmandu as well as Nepal's villages. ©Donatella Lorch

There are still stenciled Chairman Mao portraits in Kathmandu as well as Nepal’s villages. ©Donatella Lorch

Nepali communism (a unique brand that includes three separate and fractious parties) is far from dead but it has morphed and become part of the flow of the varied influences that define 2014 Nepal. And, yes, for the tourist mountain climbers and trekkers out there, it has even made it to Mt. Everest. With the official title of “Lumbini-Sagarmatha Peace March,” a 2012 expedition to Everest was co-led by Prachanda’s son and funded by the then-communist-led Nepali government. There are still black-stenciled faces of Chairman Mao around Kathmandu, and at election time last November the hammer and sickle was ubiquitous. A social media and Twitter coach might advise that they revisit their 1960s party brands: ‘Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’; ‘The Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist- Leninist’. Catchy they are not. Businesses looking to invest in Nepal may also be a bit taken aback by politician’s business cards bearing these names from another era.

     From absolute monarchy through a vicious civil war, a military coup and now a fledgling democracy, Nepalis, it often appears, struggle, survive and succeed despite, and not because, of their governments.  With bleak employment opportunities in Nepal, more than two million Nepali youth work overseas mostly in the Middle East and Malaysia as an unskilled labor force.  A similar number cross the border to look for work in India.  Their remittances represent about 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP. Critics point out that fewer unemployed restive youth at home means fewer problems for the government. None of Nepal’s many political parties have come up with a “Yes We Can” style political slogan, but the common man has found a phrase to express his resignation to the water, fuel and electricity shortages, the slow progress in constitution writing, and even the weather.   The quintessential “khe garne?” literally translates as “What to do?” This is not really a question as much as a manifestation of decades-worth of a culturally-fed apathy and fatalism. 

Life in Nepal is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. ©Donatella Lorch

Life in Nepal is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. ©Donatella Lorch

    Nowadays, the revolutionaries are not in opposition.  In fact, many Nepalis believe that they share in government corruption; and they remain mixed and melded and molded with deeply ritualistic Hinduism and its hundreds of festivals. Bandhs (“strikes”), once a feared Maoist weapon, are now part of the mainstream, adopted even by right-wing Hindus–but, though they are occasionally violent, as in the rest of South Asia, observing uniquely Nepali manners, they are maintained only during business hours and not on any major religious holiday. Mahatma Gandhi’s most visible legacy in Nepal is the hunger strike, often undertaken by individuals to demand justice for crimes committed during the civil war. Some are very serious, like the hunger strike of the parents of Krishna Prasad Adhikari, murdered in 2004, demanding that the police arrest his killers believed to be Maoist cadres, but others are a little more comical, in a Nepali way, like a recent statement of various civil servants that they would undertake “relay hunger strikes” until their demands were met. I told my husband that I too would be on a hunger strike between lunch and dinner.

Road widening in Kathmandu was begun under Nepal's last prime minister, a Maoist, and continues today. ©Donatella Lorch

Road widening in Kathmandu was begun under Nepal’s last prime minister, a Maoist, and continues today. ©Donatella Lorch

After living for four years in Nairobi, a city beset by violent crime and the danger of terrorist attacks, it has been a delight to live in Kathmandu for many reasons, including the lack of ubiquitous crime. I can go out at night, with no fear. Driving my car, I don’t have to check my rear view mirror to see whether I am being followed. I don’t even have to worry about drunk-drivers.  Though Nepalis can drink–heavily–the Kathmandu police enforce zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and many an alcohol-scented driver has found himself stranded at a police checkpoint at night.

    Yet national interest and community self interest often clash. Many Nepalis feel that only protests spark government responsibility. In the aftermath of an August 2nd landslide that destroyed villages, killing 156 people and burying more than 10kms of Nepal’s only major trade route to China, the local community’s “struggle committee” blocked army bulldozers from trying to address the ensuing problems, demanding first that the government deliver the aid that it had promised. Subsequently frustrated by government inaction, local businessmen are now building their own bypass road. The government appealed for funds in the local papers, printing a bank account number for Good Samaritan direct deposits. The Chinese ambassador delivered his government’s donation in cash.

The government provides insufficient garbage dumping space. Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides and along river banks. ©Donatella Lorch

The government provides insufficient garbage dumping space. Open dumping is ubiquitous. Nepalis dump their garbage on roadsides and along river banks. ©Donatella Lorch

 In Kathmandu recently, where garbage disposal is beyond a crisis, residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the city’s only garbage dump (a way station to a bigger dump outside the city) complained to the local government about weeks of overflowing and unmanaged dumping. When the city ignored them, the locals padlocked the gate to the dump. Needless to say, the garbage got dumped anyway–somewhere even less appropriate.  

Padlocking, as a threat is often used by communist youth groups. Here a school accounting door was double locked and sealed. © Donatella Lorch

Padlocking, as a threat is often used by communist youth groups. Here a school accounting door was double locked and sealed. © Donatella Lorch

Padlocking as a threat is often used in Nepal, especially by communist youth groups. This year when private schools announced a tuition hike, the youth groups padlocked and sealed the offices of the schools’ accountants, and added threats of violence for good measure. It was fairly effective–because they have a reputation of delivering violence, fire bombing buses and taxis and (just this week) trashing local newspaper offices.

    Friedl Castro definitely had a point about revolution:  it is not a bed of roses. Democracy is also a long, painful, and convoluted process. From 2011 to 2013, Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist party’s ideologue, who has a degree in urban planning, was Nepal’s prime minister. It is his vision of widening Kathmandu’s narrow roads that is slowly untangling the capital’s horrific traffic jams. If only the contractors had remembered to add drainage ditches. 

Dhaka to Kathmandu — A different commute

I dread Fridays. The anxiety can start the day before, and then the mornings find me pacing and monitoring the Internet, the local weather channel, a friend’s broadband radio and WhatsApp. On Fridays, my husband is scheduled to come back to Kathmandu from Bangladesh. It’s not that I don’t want to see him. Spending an occasional weekend together is a welcome treat. The problem is getting him here. Every week, what is in fact just an hour and ten-minute flight, a Washington D.C. to New York hop, can evolve into a several day ordeal, if it happens at all.

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu is a city of 3.5 million, and though air traffic cannot be compared to Delhi or Bangkok, it is not a backwater. Scores of international airlines come everyday, with heavy traffic from India, several Chinese cities, non-stop from as far as Korea and Turkey. Nepal, like Bangladesh, is a major supplier of migrant labor to the Middle East and Malaysia, and their airplanes land here as often as four times a day. If John were commuting from India, he’d have a vast array of airlines and departure times from which to choose.

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

But my husband is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital of 12 million. It used to have two airlines plying the Kathmandu route every day but a few months ago, without giving a reason, United BD dropped down to two flights a week, leaving only the national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, offering (on paper) five flights a week. Bangladesh is the only one of Nepal’s neighbors that offers so few flights. Even Bhutan, a country of 775,000, flies daily to Kathmandu. Filling the plane does not appear to be an issue. So why is it so hard for John to get here?

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Nepal, a land of steep mountains, narrow valleys, unpredictable weather and few paved roads, offers 48 airports, though most are dirt strips precariously cleared on narrow mountain ledges. The Kathmandu valley is circled by hills (the Nepalis call anything under 4000m a ‘hill’) that require a plane to dive sharply down towards the airport. Auto-pilot is not an option here. It is required to be a visual pilot (not co-pilot) landing. The runway also has reoccurring problems, especially during the monsoon rains, when cracks widen and close the airport for hours or even a day or more. The local fauna gets in its dibs as well. Last month an earthworm infestation on the runway attracted so many birds that landings were suspended and planes diverted. Nearby garbage dumping also attracts birds that have cracked a few aircraft windshields. During the three-month long monsoon rains, thunderstorms and wind shear over Kathmandu can force planes to re-route to India and Dhaka.

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

A Nepali friend has hooked me onto FlightRadar24, and from the comfort of my Ikea lounge chair, I can follow live-time landings and take-offs into the valley. I have spent way too much time tracking the red loops made by as many as five little planes at a time as they circle over and over and over Chitwan National Park waiting for permission to edge towards Kathmandu.

Even before takeoff, Biman has challenges. State-owned, cash-strapped, with little transparency and a poorly-maintained fleet, its functioning planes get juggled from route to route. The Kathmandu route is a frequent victim. But even then, if and when you take-off, the problems are not always solved. The last week of July, the Nepal-bound flight caught fire when it blew four of its left-side tires as it landed in Kathmandu. No one was injured.

Last Friday, John went to the airport for his 11:00 a.m. Biman flight (Friday is the first day of the Bangladeshi weekend). Once there he was told it had been delayed to 4:00 pm, a common occurrence. The plane then took off on time but after a half hour, an announcement was made in Bangla that the plane had technical difficulties and would have to return to Dhaka. As the plane turned around, John saw a man wearing a Biman pilot’s uniform taking out a prayer rug from the overhead bin and commencing to pray in the aisle. Perhaps for that reason the plane landed safely?

Once back in Dhaka, passengers were then kept in the airport for five hours, with-half hourly promises of updates that never came, until 10:00 pm when Biman, faced by an angry plane-load of people, cancelled the flight. With Sunday a working day in Bangladesh, it didn’t make sense for John to attempt the next day’s flight.

A newspaper article a few days later explained that the A310-300 S2-ADK , the sole Biman craft that flies the Kathmandu route, had had a throttle stagger, a problem with the control that maintains the speed of the plane on landing and take-off. Two days before, this same plane had an unidentified technical glitch that again forced Biman to cancel the daily flight. The acting CEO of Biman had some vague and not very proactive words to share with his airline’s clients. “I have heard of frequent problems on the Dhaka-Kathmandu route and we might have to think about the A310-300 S2-ADK,” said Mosaddique Ahmed to the Daily Star newspaper.

I can hear my sister telling me: “Dony, stop being so pathetic!” In my foreign correspondent days, I flew sitting with chickens, goats, a metal bucket full of garlic- covered raw meat at my feet, standing behind the pilot during nose-dive mountain landings and sitting on bales of Khat in a propeller plane gutted of seats and flown by a pilot wearing a black bowler hat. It’s the frustration really. It means another week not seeing John. It means his having no choice but to take an unsafe airline to do his job. It’s the irony of Bangladesh. In our world of globalization, of instant communication, of apps that do everything but brush your teeth, in the world’s eighth most populated country home to brilliant novelists and poets, Nobel prize winners, world famous NGOs, the national airline can’t even maintain good connections with its neighbors.

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

This week, heavy and constant monsoon rains have been coating the region from Bangladesh across Bhutan and Nepal, and the fog enshrouds us here in Kathmandu in a thick white veil. Our house is on the main flight path and the grumble of passing jet engines are a soothing reminder that, yes, planes are still landing. Today a Nepali friend messaged me that he’d stopped for puja (worship) at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines, just to get a blessing for today’s Biman flight. There were no praying pilots on board this week. The flight circled a number of times over the valley. But the flight made it. A good day for the Dhaka commute.