Thahiti stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal

Kathmandu, a City of Contrasts

“Arrival on Kathmandu is surprising”. Here are the first words on my travel diary. As a great fanatic of the vast frozen landscapes, the first steps in this city of more than one and a half million inhabitants in which horn-driven driving, pollution and dust are part of the banalities, were quite disturbing.

Once the shock of discovery passed, Kathmandu opens little by little to my senses. Between the dilapidated walls of the narrow streets and under the chaotic rows of electric wires resonate the harassing sounds of engines and horns, the hubbub of discussing people and the voice of those who try to sell you something : “Hello sir! You need taxi?”; or in a more discrete way : “Hey, hey! You need smoke? Hashich, Opium?… Good quality!”. Sounds, but also smells. Between fumes and dust raised by thousands of people and vehicles, urban smells are delightfully mixed up with the syrupy scents of incense and spices.

Quite disconcerted at the beginning I quickly get used to this surrounding jumble and notice that the more I get out of the touristic district of Thamel, the more the real Kathmandu unveils. It is always pleasant to take a walk here in the early morning. Tourists? Inexistent. Street salesmen? Probably still sleeping, exception made from a few taxi drivers looking out. The handle of vehicles already running is not really annoying and the atmosphere is favorable to interesting and unexpected encounters. One can quickly find themselves drinking a Nepalese tea, served very sweet with milk, chatting of everything and anything with a totally unknown person. Or also discussing about life with a “shoe doctor” proud to show a worn out picture of his family.

The most courageous people have already opened their shop or selling vegetables on the ground onto a woolen carpet. Wandering dogs, when not enjoying the first rays of the sun, come to you hoping for some food or a few caresses. Little by little streets are enlightened by the shining golden envelope of surrounding dust, giving the place a singular magic.

Unfortunately, Kathmandu is also a polluted city. Even during the morning sweetness, only a few steps are required to notice it. One can quickly find out a spoiled river enveloped by the infect smell of sewers pouring in it. One man’s poison is another man’s meat and one can discover amid the filth a pig litter happily feasting on mommy’s udders…

But Kathmandu is more than anything else a spiritual city. Here pacifically coexist hindus and buddhists (and also a minority of christians, muslims and jews). Buddha is even part of the hindu god pantheon, which is by the way impossible to know because of the millions of gods it contains. Then, every day, numerous hindu devotes offer flowers and food to their divinities in the countless temples sheltered by the city. Buddhists are not in rest. Simple adepts or monks, one can meet them around a stupa, walking clockwise, continuously reciting in a deep and monotonous voice the following mantra : “Om… Ma… Ni… Pad… Me… Hum…”.

It is almost 9AM when the city finally starts to wake up. The sweet and serene Kathmandu is over, now comes the time of the agitated one.

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