For generations of travellers, the experience of arriving in Kathmandu has been something of a rude awakening from pre-arrival perceptions of Nepal as a land of mantras, mountain winds and chiming temple bells. The mantras, mountains and monasteries are there, and in abundance, but life in Kathmandu has been long been blighted by its chaotic road network, and the knock-on effects of traffic jams, vehicle noise and pollution.
But things are changing, and changing fast, following a string of new measures from the municipal and national government, aimed at making Kathmandu once again clean and serene. At the end of October 2017, traffic was banned from the streets of Thamel, the bustling traveller quarter sprawling north from the medieval centre of Kathmandu, and the ban has now been extended into the old city. From 16 January, four-wheeled vehicles have been barred from large parts of central Kathmandu, including the historic districts of Ason Tole, Indrachowk and Chhetrapati.
Tourists and residents have reported the novel experience of being able to walk or ride a pedal rickshaw from Thamel to Kathmandu’s medieval Durbar Square without being trapped in a snarl of cars, motorcycles and pedestrians, all jostling for space in the narrow medieval lanes.
An even more radical change was the ban on the use of car horns across the Kathmandu Valley in April 2017 – a welcome move in a city with measured noise pollution levels above 110 decibels, as loud as an industrial riveting machine and only slightly quieter than a passenger jet on take off.
As well as saving their hearing, locals and visitors have high hopes that the vehicle ban will also clean up the air of this famously polluted city – ranked as the fifth most polluted city in the world in 2017. Set in a natural basin in the foothills of the Himalaya – actually the bed of a vanished glacial lake – the city is particularly prone to atmospheric pollution from vehicles, and the problem is exacerbated by thousands of brick kilns and industrial developments dotted around the city limits.