Kathmandu Durbar Square at dawn: part 1 – a black & white world

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ January 23rd, 2012. Updated on October 4th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Nepal.
Durbar Square Kathmandu at dawn

As sun still hides behind the Kathmandu valley mountains at dawn, Durbar Square has only a sprinkling of life as traces of the night vanish into the background (click to enlarge)

Dawn in Kathmandu still contains the linger of a different night

The air is still filled with the night fires that burned throughout the old city. Heat, food and light are scarce during the dark hours of this ancient capital. Smoke still hangs thick in the entrapment of Kathmandu valley.

With clenched teeth I throw back my heavy blanket and quickly jump into layers of cold humidity filled clothes. It’s 4.30 am and I am on my way to Durbar Square, old Kathmandu’s center point, before dawn to watch it come to life.

Returning to a country like Nepal is time to catch up

It’s not strange to be back in Nepal. I came prepared not to see old travel friends here. I knew it would be like a restart session for me. The people staying at my guesthouse are indeed not like the last group so it gives me a chance to dig a little deeper into this amazing country. The real project of exploring life in Kathmandu moves on.

Empty street in Kathmandu

The rare sight of an empty street in Kathmandu at dawn

Pre-dawn empty streets in Kathmandu

It’s hard to imagine the rickety dirt roads and streets of Kathmandu being empty. But walk them at 5am and you will find few people there. It’s also pitch black. Pot holes, and vast quantities of rubble mean a torch is needed. There’s noise everywhere though. Dogs barking. People spitting from the shadows and the clatter of metal from somewhere.

I’m a little nervous as I’ve seen what lies behind the shadows of Kathmandu. Rabies from the dogs is real. Gangs of street children and the odd person up to no good.

In the pitch black life is different everywhere.

Then the morning ladies appear. Straw brushes in hand to sweep the streets. The sky becomes white, and a bluish haze appears. The smog is with us once again.

Durbar Square before dawn

There is no man looking for tickets as I enter the old red stone square. There are a few clusters of men standing around open fires in various corners. Burning plastics and the faintest smells of the underworld fill the air with a heavy morning scent.

I take the opportunity to climb up the center temple for a bird’s eye view of the old square. No one cares, it’s not as though the place will be teeming with people in a few hours anyway.

At the top I see old WWII era bicycles rattle by. A few lone souls in heavy blankets appear from every corner. They all walk to several meeting areas hacking up the morning air as they go.

Watching the beggars arrive

Begging is a way of life in Nepal. In a caste system it’s near impossible to get away from this “occupation” once your are forced to be in it. And, like any occupation you have get up, and go to work in order to eat.

A beggar walks to work on the streets of Kathmandu

A beggar walks barefoot to work on the streets of Kathmandu

First “anything” of the day is important in Nepal too. Paying alms to various deities is a morning ritual for many. Turning your back on a person in need is not a good start to the day.

Many have coins ready to hand out. A few look for food. Others just go about their business.

One ladies start to the day

I follow a lady who is no more than skin and bone. She is not old. Maybe 40, though I suspect younger but with years added due to a harsh life on the street.

Many women whose husbands have left them, died or run away are left to fend for themselves. In one of the poorest countries in the world this is not easy. In many places in Africa or Asia the family would take them in. But here there are a  huge number of women and children who are cast out for bringing shame on their families for not having a husband.

Every culture has its way. Nepal is no different.

The lady walks a limping walk with no shoes. Huddled in layers of thin blankets and shawls. She makes her way passed people setting up roadside stalls. Some selling no more than buttons and small bundles of firewood.

She makes her way to a place where blessings are being given. And then gently sits to the ground in a lump. One hand is outstretched and her head bows down. Here she will stay until late afternoon.

Watching the world wake up

There is so much to watching a city wake up in the morning. You see a part of life that many take for granted. It is the preparation for the day for many.

For others it is a rare glimpse of reality and the people before the war of their day begins.


Travel Tip:

Want to know more about Durbar Square? Check out my free Kathmandu Durbar square travel guide for tips on the best time to go,  prices, tips and much more …


Coming Soon:

Kathmandu’s Durbar square at dawn: Part II a burst of color

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14 Great responses to Kathmandu Durbar Square at dawn: part 1 – a black & white world

  1. James says:

    Nice insights. You can find scenes like this all over the world. The bigger the city, the darker it gets.

  2. Jan says:

    I really enjoyed this look at a single part of a city waking up. The writing flows well too ;)

  3. Adrianna Ye says:

    It’s sad to read about that woman’s life. She must be so cold sitting there like that.

    • Yes, cold. But also I never quite know how they/she survive mentally. Best over all day. What goes through your mind like that?

      • Shaun Tamu says:

        Well i dont realy know if my exprince applies to her’s as there are a lot of diffrences such as sex, class, education, family, tribe , villag and etc. But in the village and in the schols i went to the mentalitly is dont complain, do as your told, finish your work and just generealy do what you have to do, little to no thinking for your self required.

  4. mandy says:

    Scent, smell. I wonder if this place carries a distinctive scent that when you smell the same, no matter where you are, automatically you think of that place and the people/incidents happened around it.

    Consider this is your second time being there, does it have the same scent like the first time?

    Certain perfume/coffee scents remind me of the London airport, likewise one particular smell brings back memory of my deceased grandmother & her house.

    I know I must be sounded odd for asking you question like this but I can’t help it, lost in the scent of dawn reading your post :)

    • The scent of something is actually a really good trigger to remembering places! Great points Mandy.

      Kathmandu’s main scent is sweet incense. They burn it everywhere. Out in the open, inside just about everywhere. It’s just about more over powering than the stench of traffic fumes.

      After that, at night, it’s the night fires in winter. But yes, to answer your question Kathmandu still smells like Kathmandu :)

  5. Giovanna says:

    Your latest posts look deeper,not that food & drinks ones are not pleasant especially becouse I’ll never taste them, even so there’s a step of quality in your points of view; I wonder if Nepal influences you, or other.

    • You could try to make some of the food featured here? It’s hard to please everyone. I got a comment a few weeks ago saying they were looking forward to some new food from Nepal that they might not have heard about before. Then there are people who are not interested in it. I try to cover all the main bases.

      I run a poll / survey in my email newsletter where upon I ask people what they prefer here. If you’ve not signed up already, it would be a good place to make your vote count!

      To answer your question about the current posts being deeper and with more meaning. I think as it’s a return journey to a place I like very much I am approaching it differently too.

      Similar to The Philippines after 2 years. The posts got a lot more into the intricate parts of social integration few people dive into.

      At the moment I am approaching Nepal with a deeper sense than many people who first arrive can. I’ve been here before, I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve thought about what I would do here if I came back. I think that gives me an edge at the moment that you are seeing in my writing.

      I hope you are enjoying it. Over the next few weeks I’ll be covering the Everest Trek I did in the form of my old journal format. I hope you enjoy that as well.

  6. hayadeen says:

    i love morning and i prefer sunrise over sunset.

    it’s a life reminder how lucky i am to be able to wake up and see the sun rises and shines. A gift, of having another day to live.

    I like this post dave, I really do..

  7. Wow, lovely lovely writing Dave! Would be a great submission for a magazine; the depictions, sounds and scents came alive for me and reminded me of Nepal again.

    … and I didn’t know turning your back on a beggar in the morning was bad luck.