Bandhs in Nepal
The joys of a bandh
A bandh is a strike. This can be a small village affair, perhaps because the villagers nurse some grievance against the government of the day or someone, anyone else (I sometimes had the impression that having a day or even just an afternoon off was a lot more important than the actual reason given for the bandh). This type of local bandh is annoying when you're travelling in a local bus and are held up for a few hours or a day, but it's not too bad. At least it adds some local colour.
On the other hand, a bandh can also be an all-encompassing nationwide strike where nothing (and I mean nothing) goes, possibly for a week or even two (the longest nationwide bandh lasted a full 19 days). This second type of bandh can be a lot more troublesome, for both foreigners and locals.
During such a bandh all shops, all commerce and all public transport (with the sole exception of most domestic and all international air travel) cease to function. This is even true in the Kathmandu valley. Sometimes the government provides emergency transport (ie army buses) for tourists from and to the international airport. But other than that the whole city, and with it the whole country, is paralysed.
General bandhs are normally called by one or more of the parties currently forming the opposition (at the moment the Maoists, but most other parties have called bandhs as well). Often, such a bandh is accompanied by more or less loosely veiled threats of these parties (or affiliated strongmen) against shop keepers and businesses: disobey the bandh by opening your shop or taking your taxi to the streets and you may well pay for it with a smashed window or a cut tyre.
No wonder then that Kathmandu looks like a veritable ghost city during a bandh. Tourists sneak surreptitiously through the backdoors of restaurants; desperate would-be travellers try to arrange some, any form of transport to the airport to catch their flights (often with rickshaw drivers: their rickshaws carry no number plates, hence they are not so easily traceable). The Nepalese themselves mostly keep indoors.
During a bandh rumours fly. How long it will run; what the politicians have said, might say, should have said; who was injured or threatened; how the latest pronouncements of the Maoist Politbüro or the Nepali Congress Central Committee might worsen or lighten the situation: all this and more is endlessly discussed and rehashed in public and private, often without any real substance.
A bandh can be a mildly entertaining affair for a few hours or a day — but after a while the eerie atmosphere and the enforced inactivity begins to test everyone's nerves. Tempers fray, despondency sets in and the situation deteriorates with every passing day. There's often a fuel shortage and food stuffs get scarce. At some point, the government of the day either admits defeat or fudges something or the opposition realises that their gamble has failed (for Nepalese politicians, all this is more an amusing diversion than a serious matter). One way or another, the bandh is finally called off, though often no one knows exactly when this will come into effect. So even if the bandh is officially off, people are still cautious: it frequently takes another day or so until normality returns (if you can call the usual state of affairs in Nepal normal, that is).
Tourists, so long as they keep out of taxis and closed premises, are pretty safe during a bandh. The Nepalese don't want to frighten the goose that lays golden eggs (though they often do: tourists with a flight to catch or with a sensitive soul are easily spooked by a bandh). We have been mostly lucky so far, as most big bandhs have taken place while we were somewhere in the mountains where the effects of a bandh are quite limited. We also know that if the worst came to the worst, we could just shoulder our backpacks and simply walk to the airport.
$updated from: Background.htxt Thu 22 Nov 2012 14:35:20 trvl2 (By Vero and Thomas Lauer)$