Thursday, October 14, 2010

Walking Bhaktapur with Anil - Part I

Last Sunday, Yanik, Mikaela, and myself went to Bhaktapur for a tour with Anil Chitrakar. Given how excellent the previous tours were, we expected an interesting walk and that's just what we got. In fact, there was so much, that I've opted to post about the trip in three parts. Part I covers the recent history of Bhaktapur, while Part II and III will cover the actual details of the tour with Anil.

Bhaktapur is the third largest city in the Kathmandu valley (Kathmandu and Patan are first and second). It is just east of Kathmandu proper, near the eastern rim of the valley and it is mostly surrounded by farmland. So one scenic 40 minute cab ride and we were there.

Random cow, chilling by the road to Bhaktapur.
We picked up Anil along the way, so when we arrived we headed right into the city through one of the Eastern (I think...) gates. Immediately, I was struck by the pristine state of the city. Unlike in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur has not seen much recent architectural expansion. In other words, the architecture that you see in Bhaktapur is usually at least 70 years old, dating back to the rebuilding effort that followed a major earthquake in 1934. In fact, typically, the buildings in Bhaktapur are much older and most new building that has occurred has typically been done in the traditional Newari style.
These are pretty average sized buildings for Bhaktapur. What's notable is how little the city has been built vertically developed.

The historical reasons for Bhaktapur's current state are actually pretty interesting. Bhaktapur's raison d'etre used to come from the fact that it stood along the trade route between Kathmandu and Lhasa. It served as a central, fortified trading point. Farmers from the surrounding area could come to (or live in) Bhaktapur in order to access the trade route and bring their agricultural goods to market.

The problem, however, is that Bhaktapur is no longer a major stop on the Kathmandu-Lhasa trade route. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Bhaktapur used to be a fiercely independent city state. As a result, when Nepal was unified, it was necessary to station a military barracks right outside of the city to suppress the occasional revolt. The problem with this is that the barracks sits between Bhaktapur and its water supply and the barracks virtually exhausts that supply. In fact, even today Bhaktapur has a huge water management problem. We walked past several public fountains, which are usually sunk about twenty feet down to better access the water table, and all of them are nearly dry. Only a small trickle of water flows from the fountains.

Just a trickle of water in the fountain...
Second problem: when the new road to Lhasa was built, Bhaktapur was deliberately bypassed for political reasons. So Bhaktapur no longer even sits on the trade route that sustained it for so many years. And finally, in an age of cars, Bhaktapur is only a 30-40 minute drive from Kathmandu depending on traffic. It would not be a trading stop anymore, even if the road to Lhasa still ran through it. It's just too close to Kathmandu to serve that purpose.

As a result, if you were to have visited Bhaktapur fifty years ago, you would have found what was essentially a ghost town. People were moving to Kathmandu to find jobs. The city's water source was going dry, its buildings were crumbling, etc. The city is so well preserved today, largely because it was virtually abandoned fifty years ago.

But walk through Bhaktapur today, and you won't find a ghost town. In the last thirty years, the city has been repopulated, restored, and its roads bustle with activity. What happened?

Starting in 1974, Germany (West Germany, at the time) provided the funding for the Bhaktapur Development Project. What ensued over the course of twelve years was a highly successful foreign aid program that completely transformed Bhaktapur. Basic infrastructure was repaired or newly constructed, the city's major landmarks were restored, new schools were built, etc. (Full details here).

More critically, Bhaktapur was given a new raison d'etre. It could no longer be the trading stop it had once been. However, the city's art and architecture, preserved by accident and disuse, made it ideal as a tourist location. The city virtually reinvented itself around that idea.

Today, Bhaktapur is one of Nepal's most culturally and historically rich locations. Think of it sort of like the Venice of Nepal. Foreigners are charged 750 rupees (about $9 - very expensive by Nepali standards) to enter the city. The city's fortified gates - once crucial for protection - now serve as logical points to collect this fee. The money goes to the municipality, which uses the money to maintain public spaces, as well as provide free education to the city's children.

One of the old city gates.
The city continues to be restored, building by building, and this sustains a thriving community of artisans, who also sell smaller crafts to the city's visitors. A number of hotels, restaurants, and cafes have sprung up along the major squares, often putting historic buildings to new uses.

Bhaktapur's proximity to Kathmandu, once a liability, is now a boon. Tourists visiting Kathmandu, have no excuse not to visit Bhaktapur given how close it is. Additionally, it is much more pleasant than most of Kathmandu, with better air quality, less traffic, and a generally more relaxed atmosphere.

Lots of shops along one of the roads in the center of town.

The major lesson that Bhaktapur can teach is that effective foreign aid creates sustainable economies. Or rather, that foreign aid, in order to make a difference, needs to create or bolster a sustainable economy. This is the give a man a fish vs. teach a man to fish thing. Aid in the form of fuel or food shipments (for instance) is essentially a stop gap measure. It may alleviate some suffering in the short term, but unless it promotes some sort of sustained economic growth, it merely defers the underlying crisis.

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