A former Indian ambassador to Nepal used to say in jest, “I can take all the brickbats from their media only because of the Kathmandu weather.” With the overlooking Himalayas so up-close, Kathmandu could be freezing. But, it is like a sunken bowl surrounded by hills that protect it from the mountain blast. Thus, even winters in Kathmandu are delectable sans a biting wind chill.
Unlike Western or other Asian tourists, Indians seldom check the weather before travelling—one of the habits of living in a largely tropical country. As a result, they come either over- or under-equipped for the cold. The latter calls for a rushed trip to New Road or a Bhatbhateni supermarket for woollens. The trip can be tricky though, as Kathmandu’s focussed variety in mountaineering gear can drive compulsive Indian bargain seekers investing in gear good to climb the Everest. But finally, our now well-prepared yatris end up in Pokhara, which is several degrees warmer than the Kathmandu valley.
Unfortunately, Kathmandu’s breezy sunken bowl has gathered a lot of dust due to rampant construction after the 2015 earthquake. Everyone wears masks—locals and visitors alike, but Indians don’t bother. Makes sense, we now have seven of the top ten most polluted cities in the world.
Any haze clears up in about six hours, to Pokhara, the lake town and the starting point of the Annapurna Trek. It is also the gateway for Mustang and Muktinath (believed to have been the last stop of the Pandavas) by flight. Pokhara was a favourite of Indian tourists once, when their idea of adventure was boating on a lake. But, over the years the tourist profile has changed. Nepal is no longer a land of backpackers alone. There is visible surge of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asians, mostly pilgrims on the Buddhist circuit, who tuck Pokhara in the itinerary.
Pokhara has evolved along with the tourists. The lake is clean. And the best part is that a strip has come up along the lake-front. A mix of continental, and oriental eateries, trendy bars and cafes gives it an international feel. Fruit vendors with juice machines fitted on bicycles add to the touristic ambience. Many value-for-money boutique properties have come up in the lake area, giving competition to the few high-profile hotels of the past.
This development is not confined to Pokhara. After the Maoist insurgency ended, areas that had become out of bounds have opened up. Rural tourism is gaining traction in Nepal and a number of lodges have sprouted in remote areas. Apart from intrepid foreigners, they also attract domestic tourists. As connectivity improves, more Nepalis are looking to explore their own country.
One sees this trend in Kathmandu too. Old Thamel—once a hippie paradise—has lost its appeal. The action has now moved to the south of the city in Jhamsikhel, Patan: an area rechristened as ‘Jhamel’. The clientele comprises up-market tourists and expatriates but also the affluent global Nepali.
After Nepal’s transition to a republic, there are some visible social changes. There is a sense of empowerment among the middle class. A ‘non-elite’ millennial and post-millennial generation is emerging. And they have a refreshing global outlook. Take Shrinkhala Khatiwada—Miss Nepal World 2018. Coming from the small town of Hetauda, she is a qualified architect. Sumnima Udas, a former CNN journalist came back to Nepal after the earthquake to set up the museum of Buddhism and Sacred places in Lumbini. Sixit Bhatta is the co-founder of a ride sharing platform called Toodle. These youngsters are idealistic in a practical way. They see their role in making Nepal a more inclusive society and creating jobs. As an influencer, Shrinkhala feels she can infuse more positive energy among the youth. But, as an architect she wishes to work on the restoration of heritage structures. For that she dreams of bringing back skilled Nepalis working overseas.
Another sober positive is that Nepal has cracked down on drunk driving, with “zero tolerance to alcohol”. Also, only in Kathmandu can a woman traffic police officer take on an inebriated driver late at night. That is true woman power.
A few years back, Nepal turned to serious tea cultivation. The plantations in the eastern parts bordering Darjeeling produce some excellent teas. But, Nepali coffee, starting much later, has stolen the march. Single origin Nepal coffee now commands a premium in European markets. Kathmandu and Pokhara are dotted with chic coffee shops. There’s a contingent of noveau coffee snobs and there are stores selling fancy, imported coffee devices.
After the IC 814 hijack in 2001, there was a long diplomatic stand-off between Nepal and India. The Indian government insisted on putting its own security personnel at boarding gates. It took months to reach a compromise solution, by which Indian carriers could use a cabin on wheels raised three feet above the ground—so not on “Nepali soil”—for frisking passengers. It has been eighteen years since the mishap, but the odd practice still continues.(The author is a writer, blogger and marketing executive)