On the Road to Katmandu

During the 1960s, the legendary Road to Katmandu became a magnet attracting hippies and beatniks from all over the world. The road across Europe and half of Asia led from London to Istanbul and then onwards to the three KKKs, Kabul, Kashmir and Katmandu, where pot was legal and almost free. “Let’s get on the road to Katmandu” was the counter-culture’s dream, not only in the United Sates but in Europe too, and especially in England, Germany and Scandinavia. As one of the many beatniks who journeyed down the Road to Katmandu, my wife and I with our one year old son and our dog, let me now tell you about the Katmandu we arrived in. Reprinted from Letters to Zerky, a Father’s Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World.

January 4, 1968,Katmandu,Nepal, see Maps 4 & 5: Dear Zerky, there is no heat inKatmandu, or at least we have not been able to find any. Our room drops below freezing each night and the days bring icy, hazeless blue skies filled with sunshine. Each morning we can barely wait for the sun to flood onto the tiny balcony outside our window, so we can go out to sit in the sun, our only source of heat except for our daily bath. Our room does not have a sit down toilet, a shower nor a bathtub, but for a few cents extra our kindly room bearer brings us up two buckets of luxurious warm water, both of which have been lovingly heated on the downstairs kitchen stove. Then, for a few delightful minutes, your mother and I will get warm in turn, as each of us in turn pours a bucket of warm water over the other one. This has become our daily get-warm ritual, but you, you lucky dog, you fit into the bucket and get the only truly warm spot in the hotel. But then unfortunately, like all good things that must come to an end, there comes that dreaded time when you need to get out of your bucket and get dried off. Teeth chattering, you cry and you wail, reminding us once again that your cold-hearted parents really should be taking better care of you, perhaps on some nice warm beach somewhere where the waves won’t knock you down into the water and your teeth won’t be chattering away like castanets. And—oh, I almost forgot—you don’t like those rats scampering about our room at night. I have been trying to get Tarzan to do something about this but he just keeps on telling that he is not a cat and that that is not his purpose.

Mostly we keep warm by walking in this unforgettable city which has the flavor of China mixed with the flavor of India. We read that pagodas originated here, many of them built in the style of Chinese pagodas. The majority, however, have roofs in the inverted U style of Indian Hindu temples. Downtown Katmandu near Durbar Square appears much as I imagine it must have looked one hundred years ago. We walked there today with Tarzan on his leash, whereupon we discovered that for 1.3 rupees each we could get blessed. So now all three of us have red spots on our foreheads—all of us except Tarzan, that is. We tried to get him a red spot on his forehead too but the guy selling the spots couldn’t manage to make on stick onto Tarzan’s forehead. So this evening I had to give him a lecture on how lucky he is to have even been blessed at all. I then ended up telling him about that preacher who told your mother that her dog couldn’t go to heaven with her because dogs don’t have souls. Tarzan is now thinking about becoming a Buddhist.

You also went to see Bodnath Stupa today, Zerky. Bodnath is the home of a Buddhist temple built in the shape of an inverted half grapefruit with a golden tower sticking up out of its center. At the base of this tower are two giant eyes looking at you like they’re spying on you. Someone told us they’re the all-seeing-eyes of Buddha but I suspect they are most likely Communist spies because those eyes are all shifty and trippy, which probably accounts for Katmandu’s popularity with this younger hippie movement. Bodnath Stupa takes up nearly an entire city block. Around it in the shape of a mandala is a prayer wall with imbedded prayer wheels you are supposed to spin as you walk past, thereby offering up your prayers to Buddha. But if you don’t happen to be near a prayer wall, you can still haul out your own little portable wheel. They are for sale in many of the shops in that part of town. You see people walking around with them, twirling away. your mother and I each bought one at a shop across the street from the stupa. Their prayers have been written on small pieces of paper rolled up inside little cylinders you are supposed to spin with the help of a chain going around and round like a merry go round. I took both prayer wheels apart in order to try to figure out what makes them tick. Unfortunately their prayers are written in a secret code that your mother says is Tibetan writing. Our eight-rupee prayer is very short while our prayer in the twenty-five-rupee wheel is more than ten times as long. All of which just goes to show you that if you plan to go to heaven it pays to buy the very best. We also bought you a little hand-carved little rattle and a furry little yak. You don’t much care for the rattle but you sure do love your Jack the Yak. Whenever you are feeling down, Jack’s tail scrunches up in your tight little fist and your thumb goes into your mouth, as you wander about, Jack dangling and swinging beneath your chin until you start feeling better. Jack works better than prayer wheels.

Out beyond the outskirts of Katmanduwe picked up three hippies and gave them a ride back into the city. They were totally stoned. There were only two of them when we stopped, but then one of them asked could we please
wait a minute while he went off to find Frank. “Frank disappears a lot these days,” he told us. “He wanders off into the hills with a copy of the Tao Te Ching under his arm and sometimes we don’t see him for days.” There had recently been a hippie convention on top of some mountain eighteen miles outside of Katmandu. “It was all very beautiful,” he told us, until it was broken up by the fuzz.” Two of our newly found passengers appeared to be Americans, the other one said he was from Scotland. Both of them were wearing religious beads and jewelry in profusion. Both are plentiful and cheap here in the many curio shops in the Bodnath neighborhood. Until the hippies started coming here a few years back, I doubt Nepal had any tourists. Still, sometimes I cringe at the thought of what the Nepalis must think of us westerners.

We ran into the Swedes again. Ever since Tehran they have been following much the same route as we have. Last night we had dinner together and swapped stories about Benares. They told us they had taken a boat ride there and seen a dead baby floating in the river and being eaten by birds. Their guide had told them that there is no need to have dead children cremated because until they are twelve they already belong to Ganga, the god of the Ganges.