Kingdom of Nepal
 
introduction and context

Since most foreign offices in our western countries advised not to travel to Nepal, I was a bit reluctant starting this journey, even considering to cancel it.
That would have been stupid though, as never was my safety a concern. That is, as I am not Nepalese and the Maoist rebellion stated they wouldn't assault tourists.
So today, my concerns would rather go to the condition of the Nepalese, people of whom I will keep lively memories.

Yes, with hardly any tourism in these difficult times, the tourist tends to be solicited a lot. In Kathmandu, the feeling that shop keepers and improvised guides are only after money is strong. A "no" is most frequently interpreted as being a "maybe" answer. But all things considered, who are we to judge these commercial tactics ?
Once things are clearly (and sometimes repeatedly) stated, a relation of a deeper and more altruistic kind can be initiated with the ordinary Nepalese. Time to discover the true Asian hospitality; understand the many different cultures, the way of life, and of course the local gastronomy.

about the journey

In Bahktapur, I had the chance to meet a young Nepalese who took me to a clandestine pub, with clandestine money games, and clandestine rice beer - ten times cheaper than bottled beer.
In this poor economic climate, people appear to be seeking alternate life satisfactions like those involving drinking, playing, or drugs.

Because the roads were still closed by Maoists, I had to cancel the rafting and village stay I planned. Rather than just wait in Pokhara, I was proposed a 3 day trek in Mustang, near the border with Tibet. This B-plan eventually turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire journey.
As an overland transfer was not safe, a scenic flight over the Annapurna range got me to Jomsom.
I was accompanied by Rajendra, a young Nepalese student working as a guide to finance his studies. The mini-trek took us through unspoiled landscapes of dry mountains between the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.

the Tibetan cultures

Heavy winds are rising every day in the early afternoon making it mandatory to reach the next village in time. Pleasant local coffee and guest houses punctuated the hike, with the omnipresent "dal bhaat" and nicely spiced milk tea.
Guest houses are all build on the same pattern, with rooms accessed by a mezzanine overlooking a central dining table. A large tablecloth keeps the heat produced by a bucket filled with burning coals which is placed underneath the table.
Following a night break in Marpha, renowned for its brandy distilleries, the trail turned out to be much harder, though this was most certainly due to the late night fun…

Most Mustang villages host a Tibetan Buddhist monastery also known as Gompa, as well as uncountable praying wheels and Stupas.

The inhabitants of this remote region are quite different than typical Nepalese ethnic groups, being much closer to Tibetans, physically (Mongolian type rather than Caucasian), religiously, and culturally.
Local culture is very specific, giving women a more prominent role in the family compared to other regions. Even Rajendra, being of Hindu confession where marriages are arranged and where polygamy for men is allowed in his region, was surprised by some of their local traditions.
In the Kagbeny area, a woman is allowed to marry two brothers, and she does have a prime role in the decisions for marriage. When asked for marriage, she is allowed to test cohabitation with the future husband for two weeks, and call the marriage off, if she feels he is not suited.
Inter-ethnic marriages are not widely accepted in Nepal, a great disillusion for Rajendra who seemed to have a crush on one of the girls over there.

Marpha, as well as Pokhara and other regions, are hosting Tibetan refugees camps.
Nepal has to cope with a large number of refugees who fled Tibet in the 1950's, and more recently Bhutan in the east of the country. While this strengthens the multicultural nature of this country, they lack recognition, are often constrained into the refugee camp areas, and refused full citizenship. This is particularly painful for the Tibetan refugees, who have been living in Nepal for more than 40 years. A Tibetan woman explained that even if they can survive well thanks to their popular handicraft sold to tourists, they are denied housing outside the camps, and free travel. Her dream would have been a pilgrimage to Bodhnath, a major Tibetan Buddhist centre in Kathmandu, but this is not authorized.
The area around the Bodhnath Stupa is the heart of the Tibetan culture in Nepal, or even in the world. Traditions are better preserved here than in Tibet itself that suffers oppression by the Chinese.
Immersed in the sounds of Buddhist prayer songs, this place is fascinating. The masses, dressed with traditional Tibetan costumes, are marching clockwise around the big Stupa. In the evening, when the butter lamps amplify this very special atmosphere, various donations of food are collected at the entry of the Stupa and an effigy of the Buddha is surrounded with white scarves. These Buddhist traditions contrast with the Hindu festivals like in Pashupatinath, a religious centre in Kathmandu.

Hindu cultures

With the hundreds of incarnations of the 3 main gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, it seems almost every day another god is to be honoured. The countless temples in Kathmandu, or the holy Bagmati River, are constantly the scene of Hindu festivals.
Kathmandu also hosts a living goddess, known as Kumari. Chosen as a child which should have a perfect body, with no single scar or blood trace, she is imprisoned until her first period. Kumari is only allowed to leave the house for a festival once a year. From time to time, she appears at the window encouraging people to make a donation, which she will keep for her after-goddess life.
After seeing her appear briefly as a spoiled and arrogant child, one could wonder though, if this can't be categorised as child abuse according to western standards.

the Maoist rebellion

As an evidence of Asian hospitality, I was invited to share the evening meal with Rajendra and his family. They originate from a small remote village in the mountains, near Pokhara.
Following a Maoist raffle abducting all children in the village, which Rajendra could escape since he wasn't home, they decided to move down in the valley. Leaving their parents behind, the brothers, sisters, and cousins all came to Pokhara where their uncle runs a tourist agency.
In the house they now live in together, I enjoyed a tasty Dal-Bhaat and its sauce prepared with fresh vegetables.
Rajendra has recovered contact with some of his abducted friends. They were forced to join the revolutionary army. Today they believe in the revolution, as they are totally assimilated.
As for Rajendra, he would like to conclude his computer engineering studies, and find a job abroad, since in Nepal the future is uncertain, and there is virtually no employment.
If he's lucky, he will have the opportunity to find a job in India. Western options will unfortunately be unattainable as a result of our stupid immigration regulations.

meeting other travellers

Naturally my journey to Nepal was also a great opportunity to meet other travellers, like the very colourful Joop from Holland, or a small group of humanist Japanese.
The 3 Japanese were stuck in Pokhara, and waiting for the strike to end. We had a few beers sharing our experiences around a guitar with a local child.
Regular beers, nothing like the very special Tongba I tasted before. That Tibetan beer was served in a pot full of fermented millet marinated in hot water, and a metal straw with a flat end to keep the millet in the pot. I drank it to accompany the Momo's I had at a Tibetan restaurant in Pokhara.
As for Joop, I met him in a Jomsom guesthouse, after he had spent a week in a "monastery" of nuns at Muktinath. He booked for a classical trek initially, but his agency cancelled the trek given the security context, even though he was very well prepared to face the Maoists without fear and "show them who is the strongest".
He then decided to go to the Muktinath pilgrimage site on his own, and benefit from the fact that Buddhist monks are not allowed to refuse hospitality. Eventually, after a few days, the monks turned out to be nuns, a reasonable mistake considering that they all have shaved heads…

michael van overstraeten, March 2005