When airfares were unaffordable and the route still hazardous and unknown, the first tourists of Nepal were souls on a journey.
Tired of western materialism, conformity and consumerism, they packed their rucksacks, took the little money they had and hit the road Eastwards on a trip to discover a different self in a foreign world.
This overland “mission” from Europe to Asia generally ended here in Kathmandu, specifically Jhochhen Tole.
Known for its laid back pace and liberal marijuana laws (shops sold legally until 1972), “Freak Street” became a destination for many daring, free spirited and open minds.
Before coming to Kathmandu I knew these tales from the sixties and seventies. Following their inspiration, I came here via road. After about five years traveling, mostly hitchhiking, and living around Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia —I arrived in Nepal and knew I had reached my destination and found a home.
Recently I found myself eating momos along Freak Street with a nostalgic, extravagant old Italian man.
“Thirty years ago this street was filled with long-bearded freaks!” He shouted.
“We were searchers of existence, wandering from one side of the road to the other, with a cup of chai in one hand and a joint in the other, talking philosophy. No insane behavior could surprise people in this street, we felt free to be.”
“Without all these cheap airlines, the only youngsters who could arrive here were the ones with enough courage to pass though Turkey, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so on…Now you see these tourists? They wear the most professional trousers for the most professional mountain trek! Mamma mia!”
“Teleportation already exists,” the wrinkled old Italian continued. “We can cross the whole globe in one day. Everyone makes big talks about modernization and development, but I see the development coming up to our necks.” He was right, Nepal these days has become a well known tourist destination, with all the changes that it implies.
Freak Street travelers are now vastly outnumbered by Thamel tourists. Marijuana shops have been replaced by restaurants and cyber cafés and Thamel’s fields and farmhouses, have been developed into a tourist trap with countless trekking and rafting advertisements, hawkers on the street, fancy hotels, live music and a thriving night life.
But the spirit and way of the first travelers who came by land has not died. Travelling in this new millennium, I’ve encountered incredible travelers of all ages and backgrounds crossing 6000 miles of deserts, high mountains with landslides, and rough roads. By motorcycle, minibus, car, bicycle, or hitchhiking.
I met a man who peddled his rickshaw from Kathmandu to Spain, a Swiss couple on donkeys, two French crossing the world wholly on foot, and a man on unicycle (one wheeled bicycle).
Their dedication to traditional and creative ways of land travel writes new chapters in the collective story of the backpacking citizens of the world. Sometimes I meet older travelers who, after crossing the “60’s hippie trail” until Kathmandu, never left.
Their testimony inspires and encourages me to dream big and live out my dreams through my actions and choices. These old spirits follow a simpler path, preferring to travel by land and let the space move them organically. Time passes more naturally as a conception.
When it is time to move from one place to another the body and mind will speak, one only needs to listen to hear .
While the makeup of Freak Street and Katmandu may have been commercialized, the spirit of the original tourists of Nepal lives on through the message of classic rock songs spilling out from windows and those who continue to spill them.