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.

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. 

Cashmere product range | pashmina inventory | Kashmiris in Pokhara cashmere business
Inside the cashmere shop

The Inevitable Impossible Asian Motorbike Ride

Despite being Southeast Asian – the region famous for questionably acrobatic use of motorbike transport – I had never participated in it myself. Until Nepal. 

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.

Shawl close-embroidered in silk | Nepali embroidery close-up | Caprah Handicrafts

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 all who took shelter with Mr. Ghulam at the time. 

A couple of English girls who Baiti had met in Kathmandu met up with her at the shop. It was a happy reunion, 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.

Genuine high grade cashmere scarves | luxury 100% pashmina shawls | Caprah Handicrafts

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. 

Evening at Fewa Lake | Silhouette of Annapurna mountains with Lake Phewa in foreground

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. They then 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. Being Muslim as well, Sumi knew where to go to buy halal chicken in Pokhara. 

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. 

Grocery shopping in Pokhara | fresh produce in Nepal | roadside vegetable vendor

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 pretty 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. 

Sumi told us about the weavers they work with in Kashmir and Nepal, and how cashmere goats are supposed to be pastured high at altitude for the best and softest wool.

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. 

Caprah Handicraft Pokhara | Couchsurfing with a Kashmiri family | cashmere shop in Pokhara, Nepal

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. 

By someone. 

Epilogue

‘Someone’ ended up being three someones. In 2018, Jason and I teamed up with Sumi to make the online cashmere shop a reality.


23 Responses

  1. This is a really beautiful story about Pokhara. There seems to be so much going on there, it’s a pity that many trekkers (myself included) only saw the surface of the city! Thank you for sharing this story – I can’t wait to go back to Nepal!

    • Teja says:

      Oh there is much more! There’s jewelry making classes, and Buddhist thanka painting classes, and crafts from yak and cashmere, singing bowl performance, … I even saw a sign pointing to a local skate park somewhere. Absolutely absolutely schedule acclimatisation and restoration days on either side of a trek! I’m so glad I did even when I didn’t know upfront what I was going to fill those days with.

  2. Tania says:

    Wow what a beautiful experience! I can’t imagine how impactful seeing such a different culture must be. Thanks for sharing and the relationships looked so profound!

  3. Beautiful read, great post! All the fabrics and textiles are so beautiful, I would have spent all my money on fabric lol

    • Teja says:

      Oh man, the amount of willpower required… I think the only thing that really stopped me, was the fact that I still had to backpack through north India and can’t afford to run out of money already!! I did buy a yak poncho and one cashmere scarf tho! No regrets!!

  4. Laagan Kaayo says:

    i love encounters like this! it certainly adds spice to the travel experience :)

  5. Dawn says:

    What a lovely story to read! It is these relationships that are the best part of travel. We are headed to nepal next year so it made me very excited?

    • Teja says:

      To be honest, this was my first time actually seriously trying solo, slower travel. I was pretty floored by how differently it turned out compared to all previous travel I’ve done! I’m averaging something like a story per day, which is unprecedented! How can there be so many significant experiences in that amount of time??

  6. Madhu says:

    Loved reading your post and interesting stories. It’s great that you enjoyed your Nepal trip and got to know cashmere community there ?

  7. Pujarini says:

    I enjoyed your tales of traveling through Nepal and discovering the Kashmiri community. It’s fascinating to realize that different cultures are more closely connected than we actually know. Kudos on setting up the online store for the Cashmere shop.

    • Teja says:

      You know, when I was young, I was fascinated by histories of warfare and conquests. History books emphasise these events. But now that I’m older, I’m a lot more interested in the connections that happen in between and around the war bits. There’s a lot more of it than I ever imagined.

    • Teja says:

      We hope the online shop does well. It’s quite experimental, since we want to keep the traditional way – consultative, lenient to weavers. We also want to double weaver’s wages through it, basically turning it from just a retailing business to a social enterprise. It’s quite challenging, but it does make me understand the pressures of business a lot more, and rounds me up well as a sustainability advocate and environmentalist.

  8. sam says:

    Wow great stories- especially the last one with setting up etsy- thats so sweet of you! Keep it up!

  9. Mijia Eggers says:

    a nice article. I know it is a silly question but I would like to know in which country it is about.

    • Teja says:

      LOL Not silly! The country name is pretty small at the top. It happened in Nepal, but the family are migrants from Kashmir, which is in India (but disputed by Pakistan).

  10. Bidisha says:

    That indeed was serendipity. I had no clue that there is a Kashmiri minority living in Nepal. I am glad you found such a wonderful host who made your Nepal adventure all the more worthwhile. Also, so completely agree with the fact that when we are travelling all the barriers and rivalry among nations, cultures and religions seem so minuscule.

    • Teja says:

      Me neither! I was like, why is there so much cashmere in Pokhara? Is it some kind of luxury destination? I love those times when I discover these evidences that in fact people have got along since way, way back.

  11. Ricarda Christina Hollweg says:

    What a heartwarming story…Our stay in Pokhara was rather anonymous staying in a dull hotel and not really getting in touch with people. By the way: My husband and me like Malaysia very much. :-)

    • Teja says:

      It was my first time trying out just not… booking a portion of the trip in advance. Luckily it panned out in such an amazing way!
      P.S. Hope you come back to Malaysia one day!

  12. Jackie says:

    Loved reading about your cashmere story and how you helped Sumi with setting up an online shop. Sumi’s cashmere scarves are stunning and I’m glad that the world can buy her ethical scarves now.

  13. Gemma says:

    In Hanoi, I couldn’t believe what people could fit on a bike – families of five, electrical equipment, rubber swimming rings! I stuck to a small backpack!