New Horizons: Kathmandu

December 12, 2014


I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Kathmandu in Nepal. I couldn’t remember if it was highest capital in the world (it’s not: that’s La Paz, Bolivia, also on our trade route) or whether it would be icy cold or spring-like (a little of both). What I found there amazed me.

Kathmandu is in a large valley in the midst of the Himalayas. Imagine a dusty, dirty Shangrila, and you get the idea. The ancient streets of the old city, called Thamel, are narrow lanes choked with pedestrians, motorcycles, pedicabs and ancient shrines plunked right in the middle of intersections. Kathmandu has long been center of trade routes between China, India, Mongolia and Tibet, and a walk through the old city is a delirious trip through long-forgotten byways of commerce. The same products are still sold as were centuries ago: embroidered shawls from Kashmir, Chinese, Tibetan and Indian silks, spices, gemstones, bolts of hand-woven linen or silk, brass sculptures and implements, religious items, even seashells from far away coasts. For textile fans, it’s Disneyland, and one could spend an hour on a single block of densely packed stalls, then duck into an alley to find a quiet courtyard and a millennia-old shrine.

There are temples everywhere, and Buddhist monks and painted Hindu holy men called Sadhus roam the streets. The two native religions have zero conflict and in fact often worship at each other’s shrines.

I went to Kathmandu for two kinds of products: their beautiful felted wool bags and shoes, and their cashmere stoles. Again, what I discovered there surprised me.

First of all, Kathmandu is the Hong Kong of the Himalayas. It produces neither wool, nor cashmere, but exports a fair amount of all over the globe. They import their cashmere yarn from China and their wool for felting from New Zealand, and also import and weave silk from China and India.

Second, despite Kathmandu’s odd cosmopolitanism, the traces of much older cultures are very strong. Everyone I met knew their home village, even if they have never lived there, and all spoke longingly of it and showed me pictures on their cell phones (including monks). Our new felted wool supplier, a Hindu man, returned to his home village and found a wife through in a marriage arranged by relatives, while our shawl suppliers married secretly, because they were off different casts and were afraid of resistance. That’s another thing: while no one seems to know how many castes there are in Nepal, all agree that there are dozens.

With Nepal a new adventure begins for Invisible World. Stay tuned: the first of our gleanings from there will begin to appear in February. And they will be surprising!

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