On a Quest in the Katmandu – Valley
In my early teens, I started getting farsighted. The advantage however of a need of goggles is that you can make yourself look quite fashionable, if you choose your pair wisely. If I remember correctly, my second pair of specs, were the typical John-Lennon-inspired “granny glasses”. Yes, I sure got that groovy thing goin’…
Quite some years later, exiting the airport of Katmandu, I found myself reminiscing those round frames, as it struck me, whilst having a flower garland headfirst slid onto my shoulders, I had stepped foot on what was once a nirvana for Flower Children. And I wondered, would it still be?
My initial theory was that this was very plausible. Let’s say you were a young adolescent who hit puberty full on end of the sixties, start seventies and you decided to make love, not war. You found yourself a couple of kindred spirits who shared the same mantra and jumped into a VW-MV together. On your way you were, following the opium trail to a place where you could get blasted on temple balls, eat the richly filled hash brownies and burn down the Buddha, free from prosecution, even more so, with the government’s consent.
Well, being that crazy kid from back then, you will now probably have hit your midlife crisis. In strange bewildering times yet again, in search of enlightenment yet again, chances are you’ll find yourself held down in Katmandu, yet again.
Tea for two
Arriving at the hotel, I encountered the first Western influence that stuck. I was offered a tea with milk. Nasty, dreadfully awfull , absolutely appaling, bloody rubbish quite frankly. This British bad habit couldn’t have come from colonization as Nepal has never been overtaken by the British. It’s a long shot I know, but it might just have been brought by our hippie-friends. However, even if it was, that doesn’t prove they’re still around … Nevermind, just wanted to diss the tea.
So, let’s hit the streets and examine my statement properly. During the peak years of the ‘Hippie Trail’ the epicenter of government-run hashish and marijuana shops was Old Freak Street or in Nepali Jhochhen Tole (झोछेँ टोल), a small street south of Kathmandu Durbar Square. This was the place to be back in the sixties and seventies if you were looking for enlightenment and legal smokes. Although the smokes were made illegal in the eighties, I wanted to verify if there was still some enlightenment to be found in Old Freak Street.
Unfortunately I had to ascertain that the street spirit had faded out. Cheap guest houses, trekking agencies and souvenir shops took over after the hippies got deported in the eighties. Old Freak Street has not been able to revive its charm among the tourists since then as it has come to be overshadowed by the Thamel-district, the primary tourist area in Katmandu. Dispite it’s historical charisma, the only ‘freaky’ thing I saw here was a display of a live 5-legged-cow.
No more Monkey-Business
Slightly disillusioned, I decided to widen my search of fabled Katmandu. This brought me to a Buddhist stupa called Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the north-west parts of the temple. Legend has it that the Bodhisattva who raised the hill the stupa stands on, let his hair grow long. The head lice that nested in his hair later transformed into the packs of monkeys that dwell in the vicinity of the temple. And judging from the number of monkeys, I wouldn’t be surprised if our longhaired pilgrims had anything to do with the turning of lice into monkeys.
Psychedelic as that might sound, the stairs behind the Monkey Temple did lead me to the world peace pond, bearing a manifest reminder of the flower ideology on its walls: “May Peace Prevail on Earth”. Nevertheless, times have changes here aswell. Even the monkeys must have figured out the mellow yellow was nothing but a hoax and consequently got the raving munchies for cotton candy instead.
After rounding-up and physically deporting hippies to India, imposing strict regulations for tourist regarding the dress codes and physical appearances and banning the production and sale of hashish and marijuana in Nepal, the ‘Trail’ had come to an end. Nowadays rumor has it that in the surrounding fields throughout the valley, the sweet leaf is still growing wild and free. If there is still to be some leftover flower pariah, I should probably comb though these lands as it has become obvious to me that none of them inhabit the town anymore. The closest I came to an encounter with an eccentric ‘free-spirit’ was a local gent in orange robes with a strangely painted face who by the smell of it clearly revolted against any form of personal hygiene.
I could no longer ignore; the hippie contingent of Katmandu had been devastated. Unfortunately devastation seems to be a grim fate for the town. In april 2015 a severe earthquake shook Nepal to its foundations with aftershocks that lasted for over 3 weeks. Many of the ancient temples and monuments, including several Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites, collapsed in the quake. After the loss of hippie tourism, Katmandu’s cultural tourism is now at stake aswell.
Besides being a travel destination for good cause, nowadays the town is still considered a gateway to the natural beauty of the Himalayas, a nirvana for the present western-world nomad. Nobody told me but come to think of it, the trekking tourism that makes this town flourish does share a similar link to the hippie tourism of the past. At heart both attempt to escape our western day-to-day stressed and materialistic lifestyle. And that’s good enough for me. I’ll blow to that! No hurries, no worries, be happy … NAMASTE!