A cold chill went down my spine after I entered the main thoroughfare of Durbar Square in central Kathmandu. I was surrounded by ruins – ruins that were once proud temples and complexes that were the center of thousands of years of Buddhist and Hindu history.
Now, most of them are just piles of bricks.
As I traverse the streets of Kathmandu, I see stupas that have been torn down. Buildings with cracked walls and apartments supported by wooden beams are still a common site in some parts of the city. As I reach the area where the once mighty Dharahara tower stood, I felt grief for the city’s history.
This is Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, once fabled to be the mythical land of Shangri-La, 16 months after the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the country. What came to be known as the Gorkha quake left more than 8,000 dead, 21,000 injured, and destroyed many of the city’s great heritage sites.
Inside Durbar Square, my tour guide shows me what was left of the Kasthamandap temple, the very center of Kathmandu where the name of the city was derived from. Built in the 12th century, the once open temple was believed to have been built from one single tree.
“This was the center of Kathmandu, the very soul of the city for hundreds of years. Now, it’s nothing. The quake took it away, it took away our center,” the old man with greying hairs told me. I sighed in sadness.
Tales of the quake
When the quake hit, my host Ram Tamang and his family immediately ran to the square near their family-run guesthouse. The initial quake, though devastating, was not as bad as the aftershocks, he recalled.
“The aftershocks were very strong. We would wake up in the middle of the night because of the shocks. We didn’t feel safe,” he said.
Many survivors had to spend their nights in open spaces either because their houses were reduced to rubble or they didn’t feel safe inside their cracked walls.
Niranjan, a local journalist I met during my trip, was riding his motorbike when the quake hit. None of his family members were injured or killed but the weeks that followed were difficult.
“It was hard to find food and water. Money was almost useless. But the situation was more difficult in the villages outside Kathmandu,” he said.
Every Nepali in Kathmandu has a similar story – of how they survived the quake, of how they lost a loved one, of how their house or school was reduced to rubble, of how difficult it was and is to rebuild their lives.
In the city’s most famous sites, “Danger Zone” signs are still posted outside the buildings and the wooden beams that hold them together. The muddy roads though, that are brought upon by monsoon rains, are in the same condition as it was before the quake. The paved parts of the highway that were ruined by the quake have now been fixed, according to locals.
“It’s low season now so I need to work extra hours to feed my family. The quake destroyed our house,” my tour guide told me. “It was hard before the quake hit but now it’s much harder. We’re still recovering,” he added.
I couldn’t figure out if he was making the story up or if it was true but it moved me to give him an extra NPR 200 for his services. We passed by many beggars asking for alms in Durbar Square. While most of them are quake victims, my friends said, many of them have already been asking for alms in the area since before the quake struck.
Road to recovery
Tourism is the largest industry in the South Asian country. They practically rely on it for foreign exchange and revenue. Nepal’s Buddhist and Hindu heritage are equally as popular to backpackers as its mountains are to mountaineers. Since the quake destroyed much of Kathmandu valley’s heritage sites, the industry was crippled.
In the quake’s aftermath, billions worth of aid from international organizations and other countries poured in in the landlocked country. Search and rescue teams from all over the world, including the Philippines, helped clear the rubble and mobilized to the country’s mountainous villages.
Houses and schools were rebuilt, and businesses were restarted – although many Nepali believe a lot of politicians benefited from the aid, a certainty in every major disaster response. And like other major disaster response in the region, recovery is not yet finished. According to my friends, there are still tent cities in villages outside Kathmandu valley. Rebuilding some heritage sites hasn’t been started due to government bureaucracy.
But there are signs of hope. Business is booming in the tourist center of Thamel, where foreigners can buy everything from precious stones to trekking equipment. Guesthouses are on full operation despite it being rainy/typhoon season, and the traffic is as crazy as it can get.
The aid from international bodies and foreign governments are starting to dry up but Nepal is surviving. This is partly because of its small businesses which give income to simple villagers. Tourism is starting to boom again, despite new restrictions on climbing Mt Everest and the fact that many tourist sites have yet been rebuilt.
Sixteen months after the quake, life in Nepal is already going back to normal, my friends believe. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
Go to Nepal!
Seeing the damage the quake left in Kathmandu valley, I hated myself for not going to Nepal earlier. I have been planning to visit the country since 2014 but it wasn’t in my priority list. Too bad I will no longer have the chance to see Durbar Square and other heritage sites in their glory. (READ: How to get a Nepal tourist visa on arrival)
But if you’re planning to go to Nepal or if you’ve included the country in your travel bucket list, go there now! Go there not only because the last quarter of the year is the best time to visit Kathmandu but go there because the country still needs help in rebuilding. As I’ve mentioned, tourism plays a big chunk in Nepali economy and going there will help local businesses.
Ideally, a week is enough to see Kathmandu valley and other cities like Pokhara. I spent a week there and stayed only in Kathmandy valley so I ended up sleeping and chilling half the time. It was a well-spent break though because Kathmandu is a very enchanting place.
If you’re planning to climb to the Mt Everest base camp, it’s better to stay for a month to acclimatize and train for the trek.
On my second to the last day in Kathmandu, my newfound friend Niranjan took me to the hills of Nagarkot. There, I saw a glimpse of the Himalayas behind a blanket of thick clouds as the sun was about to set. The mountain range stood proud and majestic like the country’s Buddhist and Hindu heritage. After I saw the majestic view, I knew my Nepal trip is complete.
This is Nepal, home of the Himalayas, the top of the world, 16 months after the Gorkha earthquake buried towns and leveled temples. The country hasn’t fully recovered from the devastation but its people, who have thrived for thousands of years, are well on its way to normalcy. Like the mountains that guard it, I know Nepal will stand proud and recover once again.