Westerners have long imagined the Himalayas as the world’s last untouched place and a repository of redemptive power and wisdom. Beatniks, hippie seekers, spiritual tourists, mountain climbers—diverse groups of people have traveled there over the years, searching for their own personal Shangri-La. In Far Out, Mark Liechty traces the Western fantasies that captured the imagination of tourists in the decades after World War II, asking how the idea of Nepal shaped the everyday cross-cultural interactions that it made possible.
Emerging from centuries of political isolation but eager to engage the world, Nepalis struggled to make sense of the hordes of exotic, enthusiastic foreigners. They quickly embraced the phenomenon, however, and harnessed it to their own ends by building tourists’ fantasies into their national image and crafting Nepal as a premier tourist destination. Liechty describes three distinct phases: the postwar era, when the country provided a Raj-like throwback experience for rich Americans; Nepal’s emergence as an exotic outpost of hippie counterculture in the 1960s; and its rebranding into a hip adventure destination, which began in the 1970s and continues today. He shows how Western projections of Nepal as an isolated place inspired creative enterprises and, paradoxically, allowed locals to participate in the global economy. Based on twenty-five years of research, Far Out blends ethnographic analysis, a lifelong passion for Nepal, and a touch of humor to produce the first comprehensive history of what tourists looked for—and found—on the road to Kathmandu.
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Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal
By Mark Liechty
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Building the Road to Kathmandu: Steps in the West's Journey to the East
Inherent in the strange and remote is a powerful interest ... the attractiveness of which is in inverse proportion to its familiarity.
G. W. F. Hegel
The story of tourism in Nepal begins long before the first tourists set foot in the country. Global geopolitics and the Western geo-imaginary had contrived to place a heavy burden of countercultural longing onto the Himalayan region such that, when Nepal finally opened its doors in the early 1950s, at least a century's worth of pent up desire could finally be satisfied through tourism. To understand why Kathmandu became one of the most fabled world travel destinations — and not Karachi, Kilwa, Krakow, or any of countless other places in the world that are no less intrinsically alluring — requires a look into the seemingly haphazard developments that combined to elevate Nepal in the Western imagination and then suddenly make it accessible at the dawn of the era of global mass tourism.
The West's fascination with the Himalayas has earlier roots but reached unprecedented intensity during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the social and spiritual upheaval sometimes referred to as the Third Great Awakening, a range of popular movements grappled with the growing rifts between religion, science, and capitalism and the implications these antagonisms had for Western civilization. Along with a host of new religious movements (Christian Science, Spiritualism, Pentecostalism, etc.) came broad criticism of Western society (Marxism, Romanticism, etc.), and it was the peculiar alignment of these moral and social critiques that brought the Himalayas into the Western mind's eye.
Mountaineers and Mystics
Part of the appeal of the Himalayas stemmed from the nineteenth-century Romantic reevaluation of mountain landscapes (Hansen 2013). Once dreaded as the epitome of empty, barren loneliness, in the context of growing disenchantment with Western modernity mountains came to symbolize spaces of retreat for people in search of solitude and an idealized preindustrial humanity (Schell 2000: 149–51). From mountain tourism and mountaineering to mountain resorts, sanatoria, and "hill stations" in colonial India, mountains became exhilarating and grand places to escape the evils of modern civilization. As the world's highest mountains, the Himalayas were second to none in inspiring romantic attraction, serving as a magnet for the disaffected of all sorts.
But mountains were about more than escape and wholesome adventure: increasingly their inaccessibility stood for their purity not only environmentally but also morally and spiritually. It is in this context that the West's countercultural fringes projected their dreams onto the Himalayas, conflating their personal experiences of marginality with the geographic and geopolitical marginality of High Asia, turning the world's most isolated region into a "geographical emblem of anti-structure" (Yi-fu Tuan in Bishop 1989: 7).
Himalayan tourism began as "seekers" sought to flee their own cultural alienation. Some, such as explorers and mountaineers, looked to escape the stifling confines of the West. Others were drawn by the mystical appeal of Tibetan Buddhism. But for both groups travel to (and affiliation with) the non-West was a quasi-political act deeply rooted in nostalgic longing to reclaim what they imagined had been lost in the West. From the start, we find the recurring theme of Westerners being drawn to the Himalayan periphery less to find the people who resided there than to find the selves they wished to be — or imagined to have lost.
It's easy to imagine that those drawn to the Himalayas for mountaineering and those in search of spiritual fulfilment were two distinct groups. Yet from the outset many people had a foot in each camp. Mountaineers often had mystical compulsions and spiritual seekers were de facto explorers. Almost all of them were countercultural strivers who looked to the Himalayas as the last "untouched" place on earth. As Peter Bishop notes, by the early twentieth century, "Tibet symbolized everything the West imagined it had itself lost": "Tibet was not just any place, not just one among many within the Western global imagination. For a few years at the turn of the century it became the place" (Bishop 1989: 204, 143).
Theosophy is one of the primary reasons why the Himalayas became "the place" of Western countercultural projection in the early twentieth century. In its day Theosophy was a major spiritual movement with forty-five thousand official members, five hundred branches in over forty countries, and an impact on Western popular culture that exceeded any of these numbers (Pedersen 2001: 157). Followers included the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, William James, Thomas Edison, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Mohandas ("Mahatma") Gandhi, and Albert Einstein. William Butler Yeats called Theosophy's founder — Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky — "the most living person alive" and embraced the movement as part of his "revolt of the soul against the intellect" (Schell 2000: 228).
This anti-intellectual, antiestablishment sentiment is key to understanding Theosophy's appeal. The Victorian era witnessed great scientific discovery and secularization, as well as profound alienation. With many people losing faith in science (and its seemingly unethical materialism) and in Christianity's ability to preserve the sacred experience, Theosophy offered a radical alternative. Claiming to unite science and religion into a "higher science," Theosophy offered its adherents "true knowledge" that drew from ancient mystical wisdom (Pedersen 2001: 152). Madam Blavatsky rejected truths based in Western science or Christianity and instead sought out occult knowledge, taking scientific rejection as sure evidence of a deeper, more profound, subversive truth (Meade 1980: 72). Myths and their "secret meanings" contained underlying truth, shielded from profane eyes but revealed to her by her psychic powers.
The Spiritualism craze that swept the United States following the Civil War provided fertile countercultural ground for the seeds of Theosophy. At a time when science was exploring the seemingly mystical, invisible forces of electricity, magnetism, and gases, the boundaries between science and the occult seemed particularly porous. Spiritualism promised to link the material and spirit worlds: it was in the context of widespread interest in séances, mesmerism, and assorted psychic phenomena that Madam Blavatsky found a receptive audience. In the 1870s she moved to the United States where she met Henry Steel Olcott, a journalist who had written extensively on the Spiritualist movement. Together Blavatsky and Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875.
Madam Blavatsky's first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), established the (imagined) link between Egyptian and Tibetan religion unique to Theosophy. Both were led by "Adepts" — the "Brotherhood of Luxor" and the "Tibetan Brotherhood" — whom Blavatsky claimed to be in regular psychic contact. In 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to India where they declared themselves Buddhists. Frustrated in their efforts to bring Indian religious leaders into Theosophy (Pedersen 2001: 153), Blavatsky and Olcott forged alliances with more obliging Tibetan "astral" (disembodied) spirits.
The gradual shift in Blavatsky's spiritual geography — from Egypt to India to Tibet — paralleled her own shift toward ever-more arcane spiritual assertions. Blavatsky claimed to be in regular paranormal communication with the "Tibetan Mahatmas" (or Great Souls) who resided as astral beings in Tibet (Schell 2000: 225). Communication with the Tibetan spirits was crucial for Blavatsky not only because it provided esoteric wisdom but because it justified her spiritual leadership (Pedersen 2001: 156). As Blavatsky's claims became more and more convoluted, by necessity they became more unverifiable, incontestable, and — literally — far-fetched. With Tibet essentially the globe's last remaining terra incognita, it became the best place from which Theosophy could claim spiritual inspiration and legitimacy.
Even if Theosophy is, in the words of anthropologist Agehananda Bharati, "a melee of horrendous hogwash and ... inane esoterica" (in Lopez 2001: 193), the fact is that Blavatsky and Theosophy are largely responsible for focusing the West's popular longing for meaning onto Tibet and the Himalayan region.
Before her death in 1891, Madam Blavatsky was "arguably, the most influential woman in Europe and America" (Pedersen 2001: 157). Author of a half dozen best-selling books and leader of a worldwide countercultural movement, Blavatsky had phenomenal charismatic appeal that apparently lent credence to her bizarre mystical writings. But Blavatsky's growing fame also presented her with significant problems. As eager biographers demanded a back story, Blavatsky had to construct her own hagiography — which she provided in contradictory and inconsistent ways to various people. Blavatsky's efforts to weave the Himalayas into her life story offer insights into the power of Tibet — and even Nepal — in the late nineteenth-century Western imagination.
Born in 1831 to an aristocratic German-Russian family in the Ukraine, Helena Petrovna (van Hahn) Blavatsky had a remarkable life even without the tall tales she appended to it. At seventeen she entered a short, disastrous marriage with a much older man (Mr. Blavatsky) whom she left after only a few months. Sent off to spend time with relatives, she gave her chaperones the slip and traveled on her own down the Mediterranean coast. By 1850 she was in Cairo where she discovered Egypt's "occult mysteries" and the liberating, vision-inspiring delights of hashish. According to a biographer, "Helena had a recurrent need to get out of her body," and hashish had the desired effect. Blavatsky described hashish as a "wonderful drug" that allowed her to go "anywhere or wherever I wish" (Meade 1980: 65). That these dream voyages were, for her, "as real as if they were ordinary events of actual life" (ibid.) goes a long way toward accounting for Blavatsky's later world travels — legendary in every sense of the word — and for Theosophy itself.
By the summer of 1851 Blavatsky had traveled to London where, depressed and suicidal, she stood on the Waterloo Bridge, pondering the water below "with a strong desire to die" (Meade 1980: 68). It was shortly thereafter that she first met her spiritual master, the man/spirit she called Master Morya, Mahatma M., or The Sahib. On August 12, 1851, Blavatsky claims to have met a group of magnificently dressed Nepali princes, one of whom — a tall, turbaned nobleman — she recognized immediately as the embodiment of an "astral spirit" whom she had encountered frequently since her childhood. The Master directed her to meet him in Hyde Park where he commanded her to launch the Theosophical Society (Barborka 1966: 17–22). In 1851 the only South Asian princes ever to have visited London were Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal and his entourage. Having recently claimed power in a bloody coup in Kathmandu (Stiller 1981) and seeking to obtain a British blessing, Jung Bahadur became the first South Asian elite to visit the seat of British imperial power (Whelpton 1983). The problem with Madam Blavatsky's story is that Jung Bahadur and his retinue had left Britain on August 20, 1850, a year before she claims to have seen him.
Though Blavatsky never met Jung Bahadur, it is certain that images and memories of his London visit — the social event of the previous year andexhaustively covered in the British press (Whelpton 1983) — were still fresh and circulating. Mysterious Jung Bahadur Rana and exotic Nepal took root in Blavatsky's fertile imagination, nurtured by emotional crisis and perhaps hashish, eventually growing into the massive Theosophical movement which for the next century formed one of the principle structures of Western countercultural projection and fantasy of the East in general, and the Himalayas in particular. Exactly a century would pass between Madam Blavatsky's mythical encounter with a Nepali prince in 1851 and Nepal's official opening to the world in 1951 (when the last of Jung Bahadur Rana's descendants was finally overthrown).
One of the instructions that Blavatsky claims to have received from her mystical Nepali Master was to travel to Tibet in preparation for founding the Theosophical Society (Barborka 1966:18). Blavatsky claimed to have lived in Tibet and traveled around the world twice during a seven-year period in the 1850s. Now understood to be total fabrication, these years of "travel" set the tone for much of Theosophical "knowledge." That Blavatsky knew little about Tibet is because there was, as yet, very little Western literature on the topic: much of what she claimed about Tibetan Buddhism was actually drawn from more accessible Hindu sources (Korom 2001: 171; Kyabgon 2001: 384).
Yet Theosophy's treatment of Tibet is ultimately less important for its (in)accuracy than for its overall positive portrayal of Tibetan Buddhism. In good countercultural fashion, Theosophy celebrated Tibetan religion in direct opposition to Western theological and academic perspectives that actively reviled them. For centuries Protestant Christianity had condemned Tibetan Buddhism by comparing it with Catholicism: both were full of idolatry, saint worship, ostentatious rituals, and corrupt institutions, and were generally priest-ridden and Popish (Lopez 1998:29). Nineteenth-century academics condemned Tibetan Buddhism in similar terms. As scholars learned more about ancient or "true Buddhism," most contemporary forms of Buddhism, especially Tibetan, were deemed hopelessly degenerate and far from their ancient glory — like Catholicism (Lopez 1998: 32, 168). Early twentieth-century Western Buddhology abandoned its anti-Catholic rhetoric but retained a distinctly negative view of Tibetan Buddhism at a time when Theosophy kept alive images of Tibet and Tibetan religion as antidotes to Western civilization. Because Theosophy prompted generations of seekers to turn their minds — and, increasingly, their feet — toward the Himalayas, we need to trace the influence of Theosophy through the twentieth century as a persistent romanticization of the Himalayan region continued to keep Tibet and Nepal in the countercultural mind's eye.
Late nineteenth-century movements like Spiritualism and Theosophy reflected a larger spiritual crisis triggered by ascendant science and increasingly discredited mainstream religion. But these antiestablishment currents only broadened in the early twentieth century when, during the turmoil of World War I, Western countercultures increasingly turned against the modernist faith in progress to mount a general critique of industrial society. For many the war shattered what remaining faith they had in Western civilization, leaving a desperate longing for someplace on earth still untouched.
While the West's imagination turned toward Tibet, in fact very few people had the resources and stamina to actually travel in the Himalayas. Prior to 1950 it's estimated that fewer than about 1,250 Westerners ever made it to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital (Bishop 1989: 245). Tibet had been under Chinese control to greater and lesser degrees over the previous centuries, but with the Qing Dynasty collapsing from domestic rebellion and foreign intervention, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence. Though neither Chinese nor Tibetan authorities welcomed Westerners, a number of them managed to "penetrate" the Forbidden Land (Bishop 1989: 195), entering either through British-held Ladakh west of Nepal or the Sikkim/Darjeeling area east of Nepal.
As for Nepal, with few exceptions, the country remained off-limits to Western visitors. Inaugurated by Jung Bahadur, the era of Rana family rule (1846–1951) was characterized by a peculiar mixture of sycophantic Anglophilia and intense xenophobia (Liechty 1997). While the Ranas imported vast amounts of foreign luxury goods and enjoyed lifestyles in close approximation to Western elites, foreign people were another matter. Aside from the British Resident and his entourage in Kathmandu, no one visited Nepal without a personal invitation from the Rana prime minister. Before 1951 only about three hundred Westerners had made it to Kathmandu, far fewer than had managed to get to the more remote Tibetan capital.
Excerpted from Far Out by Mark Liechty. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Part One: The Golden Age
Chapter One: Building the Road to Kathmandu: Steps in the West’s Journey to the East
Chapter Two: Making Nepal a Destination: The Cultural Politics of Early Tourism
Chapter Three: Mountains, Monsters, and Monks: Nepal in the 1950s Western Popular Imagination
Chapter Four: The Key to an Oriental World: Boris Lissanevitch, Kathmandu's Royal Hotel, and the “Golden Age” of Tourism in Nepal
Chapter Five: Jung Bahadur Coapsingha: John Coapman, Hunting, and the Origins of Adventure Tourism in Nepal
Part 2: Hippie Nepal
Chapter Six: The Great Rucksack Revolution: Western Youth on the Road to Kathmandu
Chapter Seven: “Kathmandu or Bust”: Countercultural Longing and the Rise of Freak Street
Chapter Eight: “Something Big and Glorious and Magnificently Insane”: Hippie Kathmandu
Chapter Nine: Hippie Ko Pala (The Age of Hippies)
Chapter Ten: Nepal’s Discovery of Tourism and the End of the Hippie Era
Part 3: Adventure Tourism
Chapter Eleven: Adventure Nepal: Trekking, Thamel, and the New Tourism
Chapter Twelve: Imbibing Eastern Wisdom: Nepal as Dharma Destination