Since Nepal opened its borders to the outside world in 1951, Western travellers to the ancient Himalayan capital, Kathmandu, have chased notions of a long-lost Shangri-La. Even now, sixty-five years on, as environmental chaos, a rocketing population and galloping urban sprawl envelop the emerald valley in which the city lies, it is possible to choose your Kathmandu. You could focus on the exquisite palaces and pagoda-shaped temples (many of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites and already under reconstruction following the earthquakes of 2015), or on the colourful festivals and bazaars. Or you could head out into the hills for a blast of high-octane trekking through picturesque villages with panoramas of snow-capped mountains – the abode of the gods.
Thomas Bell’s Kathmandu is the antidote to this kind of escapism. With extraordinary candour and courage he blazes a trail through the backstreets of the city to the hidden places most of us choose not to see, listening to conversations we prefer not to hear when visiting a country as complicated as Nepal. Fault lines affecting the whole country radiate out from the city; to ignore them, this book makes clear, is to be complicit in the myths that continue to bind Nepal in a knot of poverty and injustice. It is not just tourists who can be selectively blind and deaf, but also expats, diplomats, aid agencies and a whole host of foreign NGOs.
The year 2016 marks the bicentenary of British-Nepalese relations, and a sorry affair much of that relationship has been. The arrival of the first British resident, a de facto spy, in Kathmandu early in the 19th century marked the beginning of a story of espionage, meddling and power-broking that culminated,