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Signs of change at the end of the hippy trail


Once a land of unbeatable exotic allure and the ultimate destination on the Hippie Trail, Nepal, and especially Kathmandu, has grown to accommodate a far wider variety of travellers than the average backpacker or trekker.

Part of its appeal decades ago was the difficulty in reaching it, and in suffering its third world conditions on arrival. Overland trips from Europe – in public transport quite different from anything experienced back home – were common among young backpackers in search of their identities and Eastern wisdom. Accommodation was basic and creature comforts rare, but in some way the hardship, coupled with the awesome natural beauty of the landscape and abundance of legal drugs, only increased its appeal.

Little Tibet

With the influx of hippies and trekkers came change: residents of Kathmandu began to catch on to what sold well, and exploit it. With the explosion of the airline industry came thousands more tourists, and for them Thamel, Nepal’s very own mini version of the west. It’s here you stay if you’re travelling cheaply – and it’s here you meet with other likeminded souls at restaurants offering Nepalese-influenced international cuisine. Myriad shops sell everything you could need, things you don’t need at all, and things you never realised you needed: fake designer sunglasses, pashminas, trekking gear, pipes, hash, Himalayan singing bowls – enough junk to satisfy every whim. It is also the place to arrange any number of tours  – motorcycle trips, treks to Anna Purna, white water rafting, jungle excursions, and flights over the Himalayas. There is little money can’t buy.

Cremation

For some, Thamel is just another example of the destroying influence of the west on Nepal. It is true that you wouldn’t have found a place so dedicated – or useful – to tourists fifty years ago. With its multitude of shops named ‘Everest’ or ‘Yeti,’ and its strange and blatant exploitation of western advertising techniques (“Walker’s Café – You’ll love itS EXcellent food!”), it is far from what Kathmandu used to be. But it seems, rather than fake, an interpretation of the west with its own inimitable personality.

Much of Kathmandu has changed, as most of the world has since international travel became available to the masses. But not all of the changes are down to an invasion of Western tourists, as some would have us believe (although they have undoubtedly had a huge effect). It is inevitable that countries change, traditions alter, and societies evolve. Things cannot stay the same way forever. Globalization, wars, disease, political and environmental change – all have had their effect on each individual country.

The only countries to have avoided a large degree of change over the years are those that have shut their doors to foreigners completely, thus avoiding the influences of other cultures on their society. But this is a pretty tricky thing to achieve, especially with our world history of wars and invasion. Mao’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s brought an end to its introverted existence, and an exodus of Tibetan refugees to Nepal, the nearest safe haven. This in turn altered Nepal’s demographics, adding a new texture to its culture, fresh colour to its scenery. Was this a good thing, or was it bad?<!–page–

From a tourist’s point of view – or mine when I visited – it’s not so bad. The Tibetans settled around the site of Bouddhanath, an enormous stupa located along one of the ancient trade routes between Nepal and Tibet. The township that they have since created is widely known as Little Tibet and is completely different from any other area of Kathmandu. Going through the entry gates is like stepping into another world: the higgledy-piggledy buildings, the dirt and the grime, the poverty and the noise, the tooting horns and hawkers’ cries – all seem to vanish. Instead, serene monks wonder around the clean-swept street encircling the stupa, and Tibetans hurry about their business, prayer wheels in hand. I have never been to Tibet, and doubt very much that this is an entirely authentic representation of Tibetan culture – but it is something new to see. And isn’t that why we travel at all?

One of the most interesting cultural sites to visit outside the city is Pushapatinath. Nepal’s answer to Varanasi, this Hindi temple is built on the banks of a holy river leading directly to the Ganges. Most famous for its morning cremations, tourists flock to see this extraordinary sight. Watching a dead body burn and taking holiday snaps felt like a rather morbid thing to do, but it can be deeply moving to watch the families as they surround the body and finally throw the ashes of their loved one into the river. It’s also disturbing to think about the women who have lost their lives here because of sati, an ancient Hindu ritual in which a widowed woman is burnt alive alongside her husband on the funeral pyre. Outlawed in Nepal more than a century ago, this act still occurs in some orthodox families in India.

Another great attraction of this place is the sadhu (holy men), who seem unexpectedly willing to pose for photos with tourists, draping knee-length dreadlocks over cringing shoulders – for a mere ten rupees. This is, as my Nepalese friend commented with a disapproving smirk, a truly holy action for someone who has renounced all worldly possessions…

To venture out of the hectic city into the calm of the mountains is a rejuvenating experience. It is here that you see a truer picture of the life of most Nepalese people. Poverty is rife within the city, but even more so outside. Village people barely use money, living an almost completely self-sustained existence and bartering for anything they need. Young girls wash clothes in streams, and sturdy women carry loads of heavy compost up the mountainside. Imagining life washing in streams, without television, books or internet, struck me as deplorable – but watching the smiling faces and hearing the excited chatter made me question why.

The mountains are not untouched by the tourist trade by any means: some manage to cash in, offering basic refreshments in roadside shacks; or for wealthier tourists, expensive resorts, hotels and restaurants. There are several beautiful mountain villages to visit, at varying distances from Kathmandu. Nargakot is among the closest, at little more than an hour’s drive from the city. Here you can sup your masala (spiced) tea and peacefully contemplate life as you gaze at the Himalayas in the distance.

View from Nargakot

Riding a motorcycle up the twisting mountain roads is an experience not to be missed. It gives you the chance to stop when you feel like stopping, taking in the view and talking to villagers along the way. This may sound utterly clichéd, but the experience of being on the road, without the constriction of time, breathing fresh mountain air and with the wind beating on your face, is utterly exhilarating. And unlike years ago, this experience is not one only enjoyed by the brave and audacious travellers making their way along the Hippie Trail. The most unadventurous soul can fly into Tribhuvan International Airport and see what Kathmandu Valley has to offer… safe in the knowledge that, come nightfall, they will be swathed in luxurious Egyptian cotton within the confines of a 5* hotel room, eating food that reminds them of home, and drinking wine from the furthest corners of the world…

Since opening its borders to foreigners in the 1950s, Nepal has undergone some dramatic changes. It has switched back and forth between monarchy and democracy; suffered a civil war and severe political unrest; lost part of its tourist trade and won it back again. Although it is no longer as authentically exotic as it used to be, it has retained its breathtaking beauty and developed a new personality alongside the old – one which, with all its catering to Western tastes, remains individual and unique.

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