Sunday, September 7, 2008

Kathmandu Traffic

If you want to get a sense of how chaotic the city of Kathmandu is, go for a drive. The roads, which are shared by taxis, bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians, street dogs, chickens, vegetable carts and the occasional water buffalo, often appear lawless. The other day, for instance, I was in a taxi travelling down a narrow alleyway when the driver cut off a pair of eight year old school girls. As a nepali newspaper editor said recently, an analysis of nepali traffic can tell you a lot about the politics here: it's anarchic and selfish.

But another way to look at traffic here is that it depends on generosity and an understanding of some very subtle self-enforced rules. The fundamental approach to driving requires quick reaction, distance perception to the millimitre, and lots of horn honking. If you're a motorcycle or a car, you honk your horn on average three times per block. But unlike back home, honking isn't used as a form of aggression, it's more a courtesy. Like the way waitstaff in a fancy restaurant would lightly touch your elbow and say "pardon me." In fact pedestrians here get angry if a driver doesn't honk, because it's seen as wreckless. Luckily, not honking is rare.

One thing you almost never see in the street is frustration. Somehow gridlock is understood to be part of the game of transportation.

It’s hard to believe, but we've been told congestion is at significantly reduced levels right now because of fuel shortages. Fuel comes from India, and due to unpaid debts its flow is very irregular (waiting times at the gas station can last up to 24 or 36 hours on bad days).

Here's a video of the drive to Patan Durbar Square.