Post-Annapurna elation will be short-lived. Higher mountains and tougher conditions are forecast for the crossing into Tibet, but for now we have breathing space in one of the most intriguing cities of the Himalaya.
My guide to the Nepali capital is Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, an English weekly with a circulation of 8000. It’s crisply laid out and well designed and has a sharp, well-informed, provocative style. The most recent edition carries the latest World Terrorism Index, which shows that, despite the Maoists, Nepal still comes below the UK.
So I’m not entirely surprised to find that Kunda Dixit is an urbane, elegant figure with a shock of prematurely silver hair, dressed immaculately in a pale grey labada and knitted tunic. I am surprised to hear that his real love is flying and his fantasy is that, with a pilot suddenly taken ill, Kunda takes control, lands the plane perfectly and is asked to take over the national airline.
We meet up in Patan, once one of three independent kingdoms in the Valley, and now almost a suburb of Kathmandu.
The jewel at the heart of Patan (pronounced Parton, as in Dolly) is Durbar Square, a dazzling collection of buildings dating back 350 to 500 years, to the days before Prithvi Naryan Shah, king of Ghorka, unified the kingdoms of the Valley in 1768 and created modern Nepal. There are temples, palaces with golden gates, a huge bell suspended between two pillars and a lion on a column. Nepal was never colonized, so the architecture has no Western derivative and its distinctive fusion of Indian and Tibetan influences was created by the Newars, the people of the Valley, and craftsmen of the highest order.
As we wander through the colonnades of the Krishna Mandir, a stone-built Hindu temple topped with a shikhara, the characteristically Indian, curvilinear spire, we can look across to the Royal Palace, in a completely different style, refined by the Newari architect Arniko in the 14th century. It has powerful horizontals of brick and timber with deep, overhanging eaves, projecting balconies cantilevered out over finely carved, timber supports, and, inside, an elegantly proportioned chowk, or courtyard.
Kunda tells me that the Kathmandu Valley, once a lake, is rich in fertile, alluvial soil. The kingdoms, grown fat from consistently good harvests, ploughed their surpluses into religion, festivals and fine buildings, competing with each other for the tallest tower or the biggest bell.
‘They used to say there were more temples in Kathmandu than houses and more gods than people.’
The buildings are not purely for show. A family arrives to do a puja at Krishna Mandir, unsettling a flock of pigeons, who create a sharp gust of wind as they take off, circle and descend en masse a few feet away.
The most dramatic building in the square is the five-storeyed pagoda of the Taleju Mandir, with a bronze stupa at its apex. The pagoda, a tapering succession of roofs symbolizing the various stages of enlightenment, was perfected here in Nepal, and it was Arniko who took the design to the Ming court at Peking.
One of the pleasures of meandering round Durbar Square is the immense amount of carved and sculpted detail. In the Royal Palace there are stone slabs called shildayras that carry historical records from the Lichavi period, 1800 years ago. On the beams in the chowks are intricately worked and painted lotus flowers, dragons and swastikas, and the stone walls of Krishna’s temple are adorned with athletic, erotic couplings.
‘Krishna is the God of Love,’ explains Kunda. ‘He’s a young guy with a flute and girlfriends all over the world.’
I’m rather envious.
‘Our gods don’t tend to have girlfriends. It’s something we’ve rather missed out on.’
The smallest of the old kingdoms was centred on Bhaktapur, seven miles east of Kathmandu. On our way out there we’re waved past a police checkpoint set up since the Maoists recently brought their attacks to Kathmandu itself. They’re searching all the buses that run out to the country areas in the east. According to Kunda, journeys that took 12 hours can now take 48.
Kunda’s view is that the Maoists recent change of tactics, targeting civilians in the capital, has lost them support.
‘It’s not that the Maoists are terribly brilliant or strong, just that successive governments have been weak and fractious and corrupt, and they (the Maoists) have tapped into that bedrock of neglect and apathy and frustration in the people. They’ve grown so fast precisely because everything else has been in such disarray.’
With an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 rebels, with looted arms from the police and the army, how does he see the future?
There can, he is sure, be no military solution. There has to be compromise. The institution of monarchy is quite strong and Nepalis identify their country with it, but the King can no longer be an absolute ruler. He must be firm but fair. (Which seems to suggest he’s neither.)
He points to achievements brought about by strong policies resolutely applied.
Forestry conservation has been a big success since local people were given their own areas of forest to administer, the hydroelectric programme, building of roads, water improvement projects. All give him hope.
‘And,’ he concludes, ‘Nepal’s press has never been freer.’
We’re turning into the bus park below the walls of Bhaktapur.
‘The Prime Minister has been sacked, parliament is in limbo, but the press is free.’
The day that started promisingly is growing grey and gloomy as, having paid our $10 fee to enter the city, we climb up the steps and in through a narrow, rose-brick gateway.
For Basil it’s a nostalgic return. Much of Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, on which he worked as both actor and stills photographer, was shot in Bhaktapur. Though smaller than Kathmandu or Patan, Bhaktapur, whose name means ‘city of devotees’, once boasted 99 separate chowks. A powerful earthquake in 1934 did serious damage and now only five of these grand courtyards are left. That they are here at all is largely due to a German-sponsored reconstruction programme. The connection with Nepal seems a curious one, but it goes back a long way. A German Jesuit sent one of the Malla kings of Nepal a telescope as early as 1655. Hitler sent a later king a Mercedes.
As in Patan and, indeed, old Kathmandu itself, there is some glorious work in Bhaktapur. The Sun Dhoka (Golden Gateway) is an arched entrance surrounded by richly ornamented deities covered in gilded, embossed copper. The figures of the gods are still worshipped and I see young Nepalis touching them and then their foreheads as they pass. All over the temple area there are statues and carvings worn shiny by touch. We clamber up into a small, octagonal, carved timber gem called Chyasin Mandap, the Pavilion of the Eight Corners, an 18th-century original, meticulously restored around an earthquake-proof, steel shell. A much grander building stands nearby: Nyatapola, the tallest pagoda in Nepal. Five-tiered and standing 100 feet high, it somehow survived the 1934 earthquake quite unscathed. One might imagine this would increase its attraction for devotees, but when I climb up the long, steep staircase past sculpted ranks of temple guardians – wrestlers, elephants, lions, griffins – I find only dust and a group of street children. Apparently, this magnificent building is dedicated to an obscure Tantric goddess, Siddhi Lakshmi, who very few people have heard of, let alone worship. As the temples rely on rich patrons for their upkeep, Nyatapola remains neglected.
There is hope. Kunda is generally optimistic about the way the old city centres are looked after (all three are UNESCO sites). He’s much less happy about the way modern development is going. The urban sprawl around Kathmandu is, he feels, destroying the identities of the three cities. They are becoming part of a Kathmandu conurbation, which is bad for Nepal. It increases the centralization of wealth and government in the Valley, further alienating the country areas, and puts great pressure on limited resources. Water supply is becoming a major problem. The latest proposal is to bring water in direct from a glacier, 15 miles away. It will be the biggest engineering project in Nepal’s history, and if it works it will only bring more people and more money to the central Valley, further dividing the country. And it would not go unopposed. Only yesterday, Kunda reminds me, the Maoists destroyed a hydroelectric plant.
On our way back, the insalubrious suburbs, and the congested roads that take us through them, seem to bear out Kunda’s darker prophecies, but life is not all gloom.
He tells the story of sitting next to Prince Charles (of whom he has a very high opinion) at a Nepali banquet. Halfway through the meal Charles upended a full portion of rice wine into his lap.
‘Great embarrassment all round?’
‘No, everything was fine.’ Kunda smiles at the recollection. ‘I told him that was the way we do our dry cleaning here.’