The Kathmandu of the past lives on in present-day Kathmandu. When the mountains glitter against a clear blue sky, when yellow jasmine blooms in a neighbor’s garden, or when a devotee rings a temple bell, I remember the small, sleepy town this used to be.
Today it is a city of pell-mell growth and aspiration. Every day, the sidewalks narrow as another house goes up. The roads clog with traffic and the air thickens with dust. All the familiar landmarks fall away. The ancient Bodhi tree at the center of the business district, the paddies that once circled the valley, and even the museum that served as the royal palace until the end of the monarchy in 2008: they’re overshadowed by construction. New neighborhoods crop up, confounding residents and making us lose our way.
As Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu has always attracted migrants from the countryside, but it grew especially rapidly during the Maoist insurgency of 1996–2006, when people flocked here for security, both physical and financial. The war had destroyed the economy. There was little to invest in elsewhere. And Kathmandu acted as the gateway for those who had lost faith in their country to seek work—or a new life—abroad.
This overstressed city can now barely govern itself. Outside of the monsoon season, residents queue up for water, and feel thankful for electricity and cooking gas. Getting a job, getting health care, and even just getting a passport to leave is a struggle here. More: