I ended up staying with Kashmiris in Pokhara, because I did not book my accommodations in Pokhara in advance, for after I returned from trekking in the Annapurnas. On purpose. That’s basically me trying to be spontaneous and making space for serendipity.
You see, I was in a meditative mood during my Nepal trip, so I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, it was the off season. A lot of guesthouse capacity was vacant. It wasn’t as if I would become desperate for a room. My mother, all the way back home in Malaysia, worried far more about it than I did.
And serendipity did happen. Walking past the high street, a cashmere merchant at his habitual spot outside his shop called out to me, out of the blue. He asked me where I was from.
Malaysia! I called back.
Muslim? he queried. Taken aback by the question in dominantly Hindu Nepal, I stopped walking. I wasn’t even obviously Muslim in appearance, in my trekking clothes and Tibetan bracelets.
Yes! I replied, astonished by his insight.
After some saffron tea and snacks inside the shop, it was settled. When I returned from my Annapurna Sanctuary trek, I would stay with him and his daughter Sumi for the rest of my time in Pokhara.
Perhaps this was fated.
The inevitable questionable Asian motorbike ride
Despite being Southeast Asian – the region famous for questionably acrobatic use of motorbike transport – I had never participated in it myself.
I held myself tense and rigid behind Sumi’s best friend, as she manoeuvred the motorbike surely around – and across – the potholes and road humps along the sloping roads of Pokhara to Mr. Ghulam’s house. Perched precariously behind her on the racing bike, I was keenly aware of the weight of my backpack. And the fact that there wasn’t a second helmet for me.
“How is it possible to ride pillion on that motorbike, while wearing a 40kL backpack?” My doubtful words at the start of the ride had been brushed aside. Miraculously, however, the girl’s dexterity proved her confidence.
Still, I was quite glad for the ride to be over. It would be a taxi, next time!
The women of East and West, coming and going
I was not the only traveller staying at Mr. Ghulam’s home. While I was up in the mountains, an Indonesian traveller, Baiti, had gone up to Annapurna’s Poon Hill, come back down again, and was already staying with the family.
It turned out that Mr. Ghulam is old school, keeping to the outstanding traditional hospitality of the region. He habitually hosts travellers from all over the world.
Being both Southeast Asian, Muslim, and travelling solo while female, both having returned from Annapurna, Baiti and I bonded instantly. More so when we found that we were both travel writers.
It’s a funny thing, travel. For Southeast Asians, anyway. Within the region, when we’re all home, there is often rivalry and comparison between many of the neighbouring nations.
But when abroad and far from the language and the foods of our region, those barriers disappear – and we are kin.
I would bring the whole region abroad, if I could. If it would make us all understand this once and for all.
But we were not the only ones who took shelter with Mr. Ghulam at the time. A couple of English girls whom Baiti had met in Kathmandu met up with her at the shop. It was a happy reunion, the girls having finally made their way to Pokhara after being briefly marooned in Chitwan by the 2017 monsoon flooding. Just the kind of thing that makes for a lasting story – once you’ve come out of it in one piece! And, after hearing our stories, they quickly made up their minds to take their turn trekking into Annapurna.
Mr. Ghulam promptly invited them both to stay as well.
The community of Kashmiris in Pokhara
There were many things I didn’t know about Nepal. One of the things I learned is that there is actually a significant Muslim minority there.
There are the Nepalis who are Muslims, as the Pokhara Halal Food Land restaurant people proudly informed me. And then there are the migrant Kashmiris – people from the Kashmir part of the Himalayas.
Actually, there has been a Kashmiri Muslim community in Nepal since the 15th century. They were valued migrants, and had been trading in woollen goods in the Himalayan region for centuries. Including, of course, the super-luxurious material named after their home region – cashmere.
Consequently, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that there is a standing community of Kashmiris in Pokhara, a Nepali tourism capital, and that they trade in cashmere goods. They continue to identify as Kashmiri, but at the same time seem to have a sense of belonging to Nepal.
When we were idling in the shop one day, a community representative dropped by. The community was taking a collection for the victims of the massive flooding to the south, the same flood that marooned the English girls, Sophie and Lydia, in Chitwan National Park, where a rhino was washed away by the floodwaters. I saw Mr. Ghulam empty his take for the day for the collection drive.
The English teacher in the Tibetan Monastery
Baiti decided that we should do the cooking one night, in exchange for the free stay. Sumi, who usually does the cooking when she is in Pokhara, was immediately in favour.
It was settled. Baiti and I would make dinner on the night that Lydia and Sophie would move in. Another girl they planned to catch up with would join us for the meal as well. Becky had already been in the area for a while. She was teaching English at a Tibetan monastery nearby.
Sumi took us all down to Lake Phewa for a walk. I told them of the Tibetan jewellery sellers by the lake, and we went to see their wares. Many people were out walking that day. There were toy sellers as well, and even a guy taking wagers. The game involved a roulette wheel and animal pictures.
I fell in with Becky at some point, and we got to talking about her teaching job. What was it like to teach in a Buddhist monastery?
She spoke about the daily regiment of monk training. The meditation and the prayer routines. Education-wise, the young monks learn quite typical school subjects – mathematics, science, etc. plus philosophy as well. There’s a lot of debating in the curriculum, she said. Then they go on to study 8 years of philosophy to qualify for a Bachelor’s degree, and then another few years for a Master’s degree.
So actually, very similar to classical Islamic scholarship training! (But dissimilar to most modern curricula, in that modern secular state curricula no longer include subjects like logic and philosophy).
Shopping for groceries in Pokhara
I meant to make my signature variation of kungpo chicken. It was the first dish I learned to make in university, mainly because the preparation is simple and only required a knife. Consequently, it is my best dish. Sumi knew where to go to buy halal chicken in Pokhara, so that was no problem.
However, we discovered that we had several other dietary restrictions to balance out the meal. We had two vegetarians among us, plus one who wasn’t – but had a gluten intolerance and several allergies. So Baiti thought she would make some egg-fried vegetables and vegetable fried rice to round up the menu.
After the walk by the lake, and having resolved the menu, we went ingredient shopping.
There were no supermarkets in Pokhara. So we had to go old school, going to different shops to get a combination of ingredients. Meat from the butcher, packed goods and eggs from a couple of different places. Sumi made sure to be discreet about an item or two that was sold in both locations, so as not to hurt the feelings of the second grocer we didn’t buy from. And vegetables from a fresh produce vendor by the roadside, who still weighed out her vegetables with a little set of balance scales.
Dinner ended up a mixed bag. The root cause for this was the fact that soy sauce in Nepal is way thinner and saltier than is normally the case in both our Southeast Asian countries. However, fortunately none of our dinner party knew what Indonesian fried rice and kungpo chicken was supposed to taste like, so it was not ruined for being ‘wrong’. For all intents and purposes dinner was just a different kind of tasty!
Introduction to the original cashmere
We hung out in the cashmere shop in the daytime. There was always saffron tea to be had, and sometimes a side of biscuits. Being surrounded by all that temptation, I eventually bought a yak wool poncho (it was a gorgeous purple!) and a unique light cashmere shawl in grey shades, bordered with purple.
It wasn’t the absolute best quality (sadly beyond my price range) but still counts as high grade. I figured, when else would I be able to get real cashmere at in-region prices? The shawl quickly became my favourite – softly draping, light to pack, yet somehow oh-so-warm. It’s no wonder that real cashmere is so sought after!
We got to talking about cashmere in the shop, while looking over the many different grades and colours and weight of the scarves. After all, who could do cashmere more authentically than Kashmiris?
Being first on the scene, Baiti told us all about the stories Mr. Ghulam had told her already. His early life guiding in the mountains. His father’s weaving credentials and how he was apprenticed from the bottom in spite of that.
She was not personally in charge of the Nepali weavers. But she dealt with their Kashmiri weavers since she mostly spends time there, where the greater part of the family still is. In fact, she was in Pokhara visiting her father while on a university break.
The idea of an ethical cashmere online shop
Sophie and I looked at each other. Sumi was describing what amounted to the terms ‘fair trade’ and ‘free range’. But neither Mr. Ghulam nor Sumi seemed aware that they could trade on that, especially in a world of growing awareness against industrially-farmed wool, corporatised manufacturing, and cheap blended cashmere masquerading as 100% genuine.
Have you ever thought of selling online? Like on Etsy? Sophie asked Sumi.
A millennial herself, Sumi had thought of it, but considered it too hard. Her brother had talked of it, but was too busy trying to keep a foothold in China to figure out how. Mr. Ghulam himself had never gone to school, never mind computer literacy – he had learned English and math on his own.
So we set out to show her how easy it could be. Right then and there, the five of us set to work creating an Etsy account for Caprah Handicrafts and proceeded to set up a shop.
It was… not as easy as we expected. It wasn’t hard, but definitely more effort to sell than to buy. Eventually, foiled by a lack of online banking facility by Kashmiri banks, we put the effort on ice. Still convinced, however, that it was worthwhile to do. At some point.
‘Someone’ ended up being three someones. In 2018, Jason and I teamed up with Sumi to make the online cashmere shop a reality.