Public transport is a doddle these days. With the empty can of the tempo rattling behind us, being seated in front is quite the same as being in a cab. ‘They’ve all disappeared,’ the driver moans, and I have to resist paying him extra.
The Kathmandu Valley has emptied out, just like at Dasain. This time, it’s not immigrants flowing back out to receive blessings from their relatives. They’re leaving to check if their homesteads exist at all. The earthquake has ravaged those districts that send most of their sons and daughters to the city, and even a fortnight later they are piling their belongings onto buses with sacks of food, foam mattresses, and bundles of indeterminate anxiety.
The bajaar at Naya Bus Park is desultory in the noon heat. A solitary man picks out a fuchsia frock, otherwise the only activity is that of weeds pushing out of the burst bags of soil that hold down the blue tarps so in demand across central Nepal. Kathmandu’s middle class will not let go of the alternative shelters they managed to procure for those first days of justifiable fear.
The capital is hollowed out, but there are new arrivals, too. I’m heading to Swayambhu to talk to refugees: the erstwhile inhabitants of Langtang Valley, smothered by landslides in the wake of the 7.8. But everything else around their camp, in the grounds of a monastery, holds my attention equally. I walk through neighbourhoods I’ve never had reason to know – Halchowk, Panchdhara, Thulo Bharang, Ichangu. Everyone but the AFP cop manning a sentry box knows the chowk I am looking for. They all seem like new neighhourhoods, sprawled out west of the Ringroad across from the great stupa, battened up against the lower ridges of Nagarjun. I see nothing distinctive, nothing I’d call a landmark, until I pass a collapsed multi-storey structure, its floors sandwiched together, twisted iron rods spilling out like filling. Nearby, a gaggle of girls perch in the shade and thrust cardboard boxes marked ‘Earthquake Relief’ at passersby. They take me for a foreigner and pipe up. My Nepali does not deter their immaculate English.
On the way back, I weaken and grab a cab. It’s one of the new ones, meter perched so low you can imagine it doesn’t exist, engine smooth enough for you to take notes as you zoom towards the city. I haven’t been this way in a while. This isn’t Langtang, but the earthquake is everywhere in evidence. Four died in the collapse in Namgyel Chowk. The entry to Swayambhu at Bhagwan Pau has been roped off due to the damage sustained by the site. A hi-rise at Bijeswori is wracked with cracks. And the pagoda by the Bishnumati has had its block knocked off. By the time we get to Sohrakhutte, I am resigned to never seeing the pati again, the very question of its relocation rendered irrelevant by Kathmandu moving several feet to the south.
We cruise past the old palace grounds, peering through the barbed wire over the piled mortar and brick that makes up substantial portions of the walls now. I espy neat rows of blue tents. The army sure is organized, I think, but revise my opinion as I consider just how dangerous the perimeter is to pedestrians fool enough to pass that way. They don’t remember that even the puny tremors of 2011 brought the British Embassy walls down on three. We pass sentries posted on extant sections. Deep cracks split the paint, but a private leans stupidly on the wall a few feet away. How quickly we get used to calamity.