“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ‘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.