Nepali Times
Running riot in Christiania


Coming out of a caf? one evening while talking with friends about the uncertainties of Nepali politics, we immediately noticed the familiar and unmistakable smell of burning tyres in the air. We followed the fire trucks as they ran red lights at intersections, their sirens screaming. Crossing a bridge to the southern fringes of the city, we saw traffic being diverted because a riot was in progress. Police vans with blue lights flashing were tearing out of the side streets.

No, this wasn't the start of Jana Andolan III in Kathmandu. These were anarchist youth groups fighting pitched battles with riot police in Copenhagen last week. Something was definitely rotten in the orderly and laidback capital of Denmark, because this was the last place on earth I'd have expected to see a street riot.

But there it was the next morning in the Christiania section of Copenhagen: barricades still smouldering, burnt out skeletons of bikes, broken glass everywhere and the familiar circular stains where the asphalt had melted. All this was just a short walk from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and 200m from parliament.

A Danish friend who lived through the Kathmandu Spring of April 2006 couldn't help making comparisons. "A bit like Kalanki," he said. Indeed, for a visiting Nepali there was an odd sense of satisfaction that it's not just us who have the world monopoly on incinerating tyres and bikes on the streets.

In Kathmandu the uprising was fuelled by a desire for democracy and perhaps a sense of hopelessness on the streets stemming from social inequities and joblessness. Here in Copenhagen it seemed to be young people bored with affluence and a welfare state that leaves nothing to chance.

The 'Free City' of Christiania was established by a group of hippies in 1971 who had just returned overland from Kathmandu and Afghanistan.

They 'liberated' a military base to set up a commune and declared independence from the rest of Denmark. They made their own rules, tried to be self-sufficient, and lived close to the wild earth. A liberal state allowed the experiment to flourish even though its laws did not apply in this flower power enclave. Indeed, over the years Christiania became of a symbol of Danish tolerance and the second biggest tourist draw in Copenhagen after the mermaid.

Around the corner from a street littered with debris from last night's battles, the Nepali got another jolt: there was a replica of the Boudhanath stupa on a street corner (see pic) and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering above the sidewalk. Christiana is like walking into a space-time machine. The bars are inhabited by ageing hippies with white beards smoking hash. In Kathmandu they used to be on Freak Street, here they are on Pusher Street. Houses are painted with 70s style psychedelic art with peace signs, an elderly woman transports firewood by rickshaw.

The ageing demographics of Christiania are probably one reason for the tension. The original inhabitants of the collective are in their 60s. Many have grown comfortable in their surroundings and now want ownership of property in this prime real estate area that only the state can give. But there is pressure from youth groups from across town who represent the entire spectrum of rebels ranging from anti-globalisation activists to anarchists and Hells' Angels motorcycle gangs attracted by Christiania's outlaw character.

Trouble had been brewing ever since youth groups were evicted from an abandoned building they had occupied last December, and what better way to draw attention to their anger than to stage a riot in Christiania. Most ex-peaceniks here took a dim view of the youngsters, and for the young anarchists the bearded ones had gone soft and lost the fire in their bellies.

As a Nepali, I could only extend an invitation to the hippies to return to Jochhe and re-establish their Free City in Kathmandu. And perhaps leave the groovy experiment called Christiania to be chewed up by Copenhagen's refined and relentless gentrification.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)