On a wall of the place where I'm currently staying hangs a banner entitled "Appreciation" with some words from the Dalai Lama. I have tried scouring the internet to find the full content of these exact words to no avail. Nonetheless, this banner appears to be one of the last remaining remnants of what was once far more ubiquitous than Wi-Fi, not only here in Pokhara, but in Kathmandu, as well.
Wi-Fi is practically everywhere now in urban Nepal. Not only does virtually every place catering to foreign tourists now offer it for free - something that was almost unheard of my last time here - but many, many establishments far away from the major tourist areas also offer it - testament to a small, but growing, urban middle class whose youngsters cannot imagine living without their phones. While smartphone ownership overall is still very low in Nepal, there are now enough locals online that even many bus services now just include it in the ticket price. In rural areas, it's another story entirely, but at least in any lodging or accommodation that's on the road network, WiFi now appears to be the norm, even in small towns between Kathmandu and Pokhara.
So WiFi is in; the Dalai Lama is out. And much of Pokhara is going visibly upmarket. Spared from the worst of the earthquake two years ago, and buoyed by increasing numbers of package tourists from nearby countries, many makeshift, hovel-down establishments are gone and new multi-story hotels are being built in their stead. There has been a proliferation of restaurants aimed at Japanese, Korean and Chinese clientele, with menus and staff trained in the respective languages, and new shopping areas that cater to these visitors.
The only real losers in Pokhara seem to be the Tibetans who previously ran major jewelry markets and restaurants in the main area around Lakeside. I was able to count eighteen Tibetan shops and three restaurants within about a one kilometer span that looked like they had closed only very recently. That's not to mention the numerous Tibetan trinket vendors - mostly older women of the diaspora generation who previously roamed the area flaunting their wares.
What does the following flag stand for? What springs to mind when you see this image?
Separatism? Slavery and Oppression? Cultural heritage and identity?
This symbol was once ubiquitous in all the major tourist areas of Nepal. It was found papered across store fronts, hanging from buildings, and sold in many locations throughout town. Now you would be hard pressed to find a Tibetan flag at most vendors in the area, though on my third time out I did find one or two tucked away at places off the main street.
To many who were schooled in Mainland China this flag epitomizes not only separatism, but serves a potent symbol of slavery and oppression. Tibet was, after all, among the last of the world's nations to abolish slavery - a practice that was only formally abolished in 1959 - the very year the Dalai Lama fled to India after the People's Liberation Army came rolling into town. To suggest that this flag represents anything other than slavery and oppression would be unthinkable for many Mainland Chinese, and if you were to suggest such an offensive thing, you would likely either be a truly horrible person, or else just ignorantly spoon-fed lies crafted by dangerous extremists.
Of course, for many other foreigners, the situation looks a little different. On earlier visits to Nepal and India I was sometimes met with some suspicion by various Tibetophiles after referring to the other side of the Himalaya as China, while the fact that I had lived in Beijing for a year and made a feeble attempt at learning Putonghua was met occasionally with some eye-rolling in the various places that sold and flew the sort of flags shown above. To be fair, I have also played my own part in such exchanges by suggesting that my fellow travelers think more critically before romanticizing Tibet's past and look more carefully at what transpired in the Dalai Lama's early years. Nonetheless, I found myself filled with appreciation and gratitude to read the Dalai Lama's words on the wall the other night. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that point in time.
This time around, Pokhara is full of tourists from the Mainland - a demographic I had never really noticed before on past trips to Nepal. Most locals appear to be better off than before and it looks like the economy, more generally, is growing. Nonetheless, that separatist flag can no longer be seen hanging in prominent public places where it once flew. Larger and more upmarket shops no longer carry it, and it's only available to those who really actively seek it out. Yesterday, I paid a visit to the Tibetan refugee camp on the outskirts of town and it looked like the only place in the area where living conditions had actually deteriorated in recent years.
Tourism is big business in this town, so it's not surprising to see some of the recent changes. Nonetheless, it raises questions of whether there couldn't be a third path forward. Something that benefits Mainland Chinese, local Nepali people, Tibetans, and other foreign tourists, many of whom still create a strong demand for Tibetan-themed goods. Could there not be a win-win-win-win situation? I won't call it a four-win situation as that number sounds too unlucky for the Chinese Mainlanders, but perhaps it could be called a two win squared?
In such a scenario, the previous Tibetan market area could be converted into an upscale shopping area for wealthy Mainland Chinese on short visits. That area is already very close to many of the hotels that cater to Chinese-speakers. Local Nepali people could staff the shopping area to help craft a well-mannered and harmonious imagination for the growing flocks of Mainlanders who want to relax and enjoy Nepal without those pesky separatists spoiling all the fun.
In another area that caters to non-Chinese, some Tibetans could sell their wares, but without the ostensible displays of independence symbols seen before, and only after ensuring that local authorities get a sizable royalty of all sales. On the surface both shopping areas would look very similar and could both contain a title like, "Historical Memorabilia from Mountain Areas". Nepal would be at the center of the map. Everything sold could be advertised as historical memorabilia. And images offensive to Chinese Mainlanders could be only made available upon request, with signage in English and other non-Sino languages explaining what's available and what's not. Could such an approach not benefit everyone involved? Should the flag not just be phased out altogether, given the region's history, or is there something deeper that's worth preserving, and if so, who should do what?
After thinking about this for a while, I decided to go hiking. First I ascended Sarangkot, which I had done on previous visits. The ascent of 750 meters, mostly up very steep stone steps was the toughest physical thing I've done since Half Dome this past September. On the way down, I decided to veer well off-course to take a less-trodden way back to town.
A while after leaving the more visited areas behind, I heard an older voice calling out that I needed to stop and turn right. I hesitated and looked over at a large group of people sitting in front of an old farmhouse in the hills, motioning at me to come over. It turned out the whole extended family was having a party that day and they wanted to see if I'd eat with them.
I sat down in an outside courtyard area between the main house and the stables among at least three generations of kin. They had just slaughtered one of their goats, and several others continued to graze around nonchalantly, baa'ing idly and chewing on anything they could find. I wanted to make sure the meat was fresh, so one of the younger men came out from behind and fist -bumped me transferring drops of goat blood from his hand to mine. It was very fresh. My mouth watered. It was by far the best meat I had tasted in a long time - and very nicely seasoned. Once I tasted the meat I was also made to try their raksi, a homemade rice wine. I declined a motorcycle ride back to town as all of the men had been drinking raksi the whole time I was there.
I got back exhausted but content, and will now return to Kathmandu within the next couple days to begin the formalities associated getting official recognition for my time doing research in Nepal.