I was at a barbecue in Sanepa the other night bidding goodbye to a couple who are leaving Nepal. Even though loads of ex-pats are choosing to return to their countries I didn’t actually know these guys were headed back to the UK until just before I got the invite. But it made sense. There are still aftershocks nearly every day. Rubble clogs the streets. Construction dust is starting to swirl.
More important, she’s pregnant and already showing, while he’s a professional peacekeeper in a place where healing old animosities will have to take a backseat – for a while at least – to the task of rebuilding a million broken homes.
At the party I shared a table with a friend who has born and raised in Sanepa, an L-shaped neighborhood in north Patan, one of Kathmandu Valley’s four ancient kingdoms. As the distant lightning lit up the sky and he bounced his two-year old daughter on his knee, we talked about how the earthquake has given a new look to the city in more ways than one. For example, with some of the temples down, the sacred geometry of the royal squares is now skewed. Like a lotus with a missing petal, you can’t help but look at what’s absent no matter how beautiful what’s present.
There’s another way the cityscape has changed, too. With the first big jolt, down came many of the city’s retaining walls. Whether public or private, short or tall, cemented or not, miles and miles of shoddily built boundary walls quickly toppled over.
Or to be clear, on 25 April down they came. Many were just starting to go back up when the 12 May quake hit. Oops.
But what they revealed – and here my friend who grew up in Sanepa’s eyes began to widen – for many Kathmandu residents, it was a glimpse back to their childhood, a time when Kathmandu was a different place, and the city and the modern world hadn’t closed in like a vice around the valley.
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When the boundary walls came down, some fell forward and some fell back.
In most cases, fortunately, they fell harmlessly to the ground. But there were casualties. According to one report, 14 people were killed by boundary walls in Nagpokhari, Jamal and Bhotahity alone. And Nepal’s walls have been deadly in smaller quakes as well. In 2011, a boundary wall killed three people at the British Embassy during a 6.8 earthquake.
Up in the hills, where millions of Tamang, Bhotia, Thakali and Sherpa families live, villages are often built with dry stone construction. Carefully selected rocks are stacked firmly one of top of the other without mortar. Grass or mud might be stuffed between layers but usually not. It’s an ancient method for building the world over, wherever there is stone enough for it, and if you squint these houses can appear as if they erupted up out of the Himalayan hillside itself.
Down in Kathmandu Valley, brick is king, and a visitor can’t help but notice the towering, belching kilns that stand like sentinels north and south of the city. More than 125 kilns march across the Valley in all, operated seasonally before and after the monsoons. Aside from the smoke that colors the sky, the kilns are reviled for benefiting from the small hands of tens of thousands of Nepali children. While I haven’t heard full reports on how many kilns crashed down in the quakes, bricks are in such demand now that they’ll likely be rebuilt and put back in business as quickly as possible.
In addition, were she a construction expert, our visitor might also notice a lack of end caps at corners and long stretches of wall unbroken by support pillars or columns. There’s actually a law on the books banning property walls over four feet, although no one seems to follow it. Or at least they didn’t before the earthquake.
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Thanks to a location midway between the dense and dimly-lit districts of old Patan and Kathmandu, Sanepa has more space and less congestion than most of central Kathmandu. But it also has its fair share of narrow lanes. And for close to a decade, skinny roads have been the enemy of the state in Kathmandu.
In 2011 the city began widening hundreds of lanes in city – in part to lessen the pressure on the city’s main arteries, but also as a safety and security measure in a fragile community. Surveyors wandered the streets, measuring gaps and intersections and spraying walls with red paint to tell property owners how far their walls needed to be moved back in order to comply. For some is was a meter. For others, three or four.
Once a street was surveyed, it was only a matter of time before the walls came down one by one. One irony of the widening is that Kathmandu was already so acquainted with rubble that it often felt like an earthquake had already hit. Thus photos since 2011 often show Kathmandu’s streets in various stages of destruction – hillocks of bricks, still edged with mortar, piled and neglected at the foot of new walls.
Perhaps because ownership here is usually hereditary and often limited to modest holdings divided between siblings – or perhaps it’s just another marker of the harsh divide between Nepalis and their government – many property owners have been suspicious of all the widening. Few seem to trust all the pat talk of public safety, preferring to imagine instead a great government conspiracy to grab land and dominate the cityscape.
In any case, passersby have rarely been afforded more than a quick glimpse of what lies beyond: In most cases property owners would simply construct the new wall inside of the old one. Demolition would be seamless.
But 25 April was different. With 400 aftershocks in the month following the first big quake, more than a million people fled the city, including laborers who went to the hills to check in on their families. And so in Kathmandu most of the fallen bricks remained where they were.
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One of the first things you notice when looking at any photo from before 1980 is just how open the Kathmandu Valley seems.
It’s not just that there were far fewer buildings then – although this is true – but that it was an era before walls connected to walls entombed the streets and narrowed the range of vision in a valley where the views traditionally stretched forever.
Modern Sanepa, wedged between the Bagmati River and Pulchowk Road, is a cluster of modern cottages in compounds sprinkled with century-old mud brick farmhouses and ancient Newari townhouses. Small lanes feed into larger roads that are flanked by cafes, pharmacies and clothing stores. Occasionally traffic gets plugged up at certain times of day and in certain bends of the road, but in general the neighborhood evinces a more peaceful spirit than most of the capital’s chowks. This has contributed to making Sanepa popular with NGOs and diplomats, Kathmandu’s gentry, and the newly privileged. The United Nations mission is located here, as is much of the city’s best dining and even a yoga studio.
Like nearly all of Kathmandu Valley, Sanepa used to be farmland and even today the wheeled carts that appear in dusk at the crossroads often sell cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower and other produce from the area. At the party, my friend told me that when he was a child, the farmlands became playgrounds for him and his friends. They would spend whole days outside. The Jacaranda trees became swing sets. They would ride bicycles in the loamy earth. And when they were feeling particularly mischievous, they would quietly raid the orchards of farmers who were slow to harvest the day’s ripest mangos, plums, and persimmons.
So much has changed in Kathmandu and so quickly. My friend told me how he had forgotten about many of these places and the way the low hills of Sanepa had once felt like a single big backyard.
Seeing through the walls again to reveal previously hidden spaces brought up a mix of emotions. On the one hand, as a Nepali who lived through the civil war, he was intently aware of the world of class, privilege and power represented by the luxurious mansions and hidden army barracks that sometimes shown through the breaks.
But more often than not what was revealed after the earthquake by Kathmandu’s fallen walls was a reminder of loss. The inaccessible fields and orchards. The broken down farmhouses now tended to by a single elderly woman. The unused acreage left fallow. The shadowy waterways sheltered by willow and birch.
While we talked the storm in the distance moved closer and he held his sleeping daughter tightly.
Soon, he said gesturing to the girl, the bricks would be picked up and put back in place. The difference, for her, is that she’ll never know what Kathmandu was like before the walls.