“… Kathmandu is Shangri-la… you’re going to find everything you need there,” Paulo Coelho
Last week I was at a memorial gathering for Jan Salter who died earlier this year. Jan was famous for her paintings (Faces of Nepal) and for being the founder of the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). But before that Jan was an adventurous traveler, what we would now describe as a hippie! Over wine and candlelight we reminisced how she told us of her travels through South East Asia, in the 1960s I believe, in the days of conflict, dubious border crossings, and definitely no tourists!
This brought to mind a book I have just read… Paulo Coelho’s new work Hippie is a biographical tale, taking place in 1970, before Coelho became a writer, although his budding passion as a ‘mystic seeker’ is very clear. In the book, he describes the people, the hippies, who join him on the Magic Bus which travelled overland from Europe to Kathmandu via Eastern Europe, Istanbul, Tehran, and Baghdad.
When I first came to Nepal, this overland route was still open, albeit in much more comfortable buses than the Magic Bus (an old school bus with static seats). Those buses would occasionally call into Bardia (where I was living at the time) and could be seen parked in hotels in Thamel. I’m not sure exactly when these overland buses stopped running: either politics got in the way, or it was too dangerous to drive through conflict zones. Which is a shame, because I think I would love to do this now!
Perhaps the average person in the West has lost the ability to feel what those hippies and spiritualists like Coelho and Namnik felt?
Which leads me back to those ‘old’ friends of Jan living in Kathmandu. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to find out who came across land? (Please tell us!) Air travel at that time was, of course, only for the wealthy as plane tickets were expensive. Thus, the cheap overland option would have been very attractive. According to Coelho it cost $70 from Amsterdam to Kathmandu. I can’t even fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara for that price now. Despite air travel being ‘affordable’ for the masses!
Unfortunately the Shangri-la described by Coelho no longer exists. Or doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s just taken a different, harder-to-find format. Last month I watched an Avenues TV interview with Lotan Namnik, a Tibetan musician here to take part in the film ‘Dakini’ with Bhutanese film maker/writer Khyentse Norbu (Rinpoche Dzongsar Jamyang Kheyntse). Namnik is of the opinion that Nepal is still a magical, spiritual place with friendly, kind, peaceful, and grounded people.
Serenity, calmness, and a rejection of haste, he stated, is part of the people’s make up, and is something other countries don’t have. I think that those who identify as either an original hippie or post-hippie era ‘hippie’ can agree with this to some extent. But is it getting harder to see past the bright lights of consumerism and the fast-forward towards infrastructure development, to the things that attracted them here in the first place? I also believe that, for some years now, Westerners newly arrived for extended stays often fail to see the beauty underneath the dust and cut their stay short, leaving disappointed that Shangri-la could not be found. In Kathmandu at least.
Perhaps the average person in the West has lost the ability to feel what those hippies and spiritualists like Coelho and Namnik felt? Or is it the fact we can now be in Amsterdam, London or New York in the morning, and reach Kathmandu the same evening? Completely bypassing the mystical transition from one culture to another as we pass through the physical transit of generic airports. I wonder what those hippie travelers of the 1970’s would make of Kathmandu today! Would they be able to find Shangri-la?
‘Hippie’ will be available in Nepali from Bookworm early 2019