Shopping for Souvenirs in Kathmandu

       One of the joys of traveling to another country, especially one as exotic as Nepal, is the thrill of bringing home unique souvenirs of another culture, generally something that represents an authentic bit of the place we experienced. But how do you know what to look for? How do you know what you are bringing home is a genuine cultural piece and not just something the vendor whipped up to make a few quick rupees?

       Unfortunately, unless you are in a remote village or have an honest native guide, most of the pieces you find in tourist areas or on the street are not going to be the same as those used by locals. This doesn't mean they aren't regional products or not something a local would use, just that they are most likely cheap copies. You can combat this to some extent, if you are staying more than a few days, by trying to observe where the area's residents shop.

Ceremonial Tibetan Buddhist Paraphernalia at a Shop Frequented by Locals 

       Thamel is where most westerners seem to head, the neighborhood which gained popularity as the destination for hippies, musicians and artists. This is where you will be overwhelmed by tourist trinkets and the most over-anxious vendors who try to charm you into a purchase. Be wary and always bargain as hard as you are comfortable. Don't be embarrassed to walk away if a "deal" simply does not suit your budget or integrity. 

       In Boudhanath, a major Buddhist pilgrimage site, the community is a mix of different Nepalese ethnic groups and Tibetans. Good souvenir choices here include fabrics and Tibetan Buddhist artifacts ranging from jewelry to handheld prayer wheels to thangka tapestries and statues. Many items, including deity masks, furniture and tea services, are new but designed with aged, distressed finishes. Beware the shopkeeper who tries to sell you one of these pieces for an exorbitant price, claiming it is an authentic ancient artifact.

       Most travelers to Nepal and India have heard that they should bargain and barter. The general rule of thumb is to offer roughly half the original asking price and then be prepared to face a few counter offers. Even that might be more than what a savvy local would pay. Unless you are an expat living in the area long term, you are almost certain never to get a local price. Nonetheless, the price you get can be a great one. Just remember never to pay the original asking price or offer what you think a particular item might cost "at home"

Ghau Prayer Boxes and Other Jewelry Displayed Outside Shop in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Buddha Statues, Prayer Wheels and Trinkets Outside a Shop in Boudha District

       Try to visit areas away from the main tourist centers when bargain hunting. Backpackers guides often offer great tips on those locations. Shopkeepers in these locations are much more appreciative of extra business and less willing to lose a sale than vendors in the heavily tourist trafficked areas.

Incense Burners for Buddhist Offerings and Prayer Beads 
       A final tip: Head to the shops early in the morning, as soon as you notice they are open. It is considered bad luck for the day's business to lose the first customer of the day, so this is usually when you will find the best deals.  In my personal experience, if you are diligent, you may be able to get up to 400% off what the average tourist pays.

The Changing Tibetan Language

The following is an excerpt from Everyday Exile: Life in the Tibetan Settlements of India and Nepal,  by Tammy Winand.

       One of the topics which always interested me in my observations of the Tibetan exile community is the evolution of the culture's native language since the 1959 diaspora in Nepal, India and Bhutan (and now beyond, in western countries) following the Chinese occupation.

       Within Tibet, there are numerous regional dialects of Tibetan. A native of Amdo province may have difficulty communicating verbally with a native of U-Tsang. Since the occupation, it is not unusual for them to have to resort to the Chinese taught in schools to communicate with one another. In some places in Tibet, Tibetan language is no longer taught.
Tibetan U-Chen Style Script Chart


       New arrivals from Tibet to the exile communities express difficulty in understanding, sometimes even recognizing, the local dialect as Tibetan. Again, they must often use Chinese to speak with other Tibetans. I witnessed this first hand among the residents of Gu Chu Sum Ex-Political Prisoner Association.

       Dharamsala area officials tell me all new arrivals are offered standard Tibetan language classes when they are matriculated into the community (at Tibetan Transit School). All children born in exile are taught Tibetan language in the school system. However, there are still those who fall through the cracks, whether they somehow arrive undocumented or do not, for whatever reason, attend the offered classes.

        In the Tibetan exile communities of India and Nepal, the influence of Hindi and English on the language is apparent. In local dialect, words such as “pey-cha” (a corruption of the Hindi “paisa”, a monetary unit) and “aloo” (Hindi for potato) are typically used in place of the respective Tibetan “go mo” and “sho gko” for money and potato.

       Walking in the street, one is as likely to hear Tibetan children speaking English or Hindi as Tibetan. Some high school students only want to speak in English with westerners, for various reasons, often refusing to speak Tibetan even with foreigners who are conversant.
Students at TCV Lower in McleodGanj Using English After Class

       A geshe from Lhasa who has been in India more than two decades told me that when he had a chance to return to visit friends and family in Tibet, they asked him jokingly “Where are you from?” because, they told him, his speech had become “very strange”.

       In November 2010, school students from McLeodGanj organized “Language Preservation” marches, circling the town square and 2 main streets with cards showing the Tibetan alphabet. They took pledges to speak and preserve the Tibetan language, with certain days (Lhakhar, aka White Wednesday) where they will only speak Tibetan. Some communities in Tibet are also applying this pledge, refusing to speak Chinese in shops within Tibetan areas, and imposing fines for every Chinese word used.
Tibetan Youth in Dharamsala Signing Pledges for Freedom of Language Language Solidarity March, November 2010

Tibetan Faces Travel Portrait Series Launched

My new photography series, Tibetan Faces travel portraits, features the people of the exile settlements in India and Nepal. It explores the concept of "what is a Tibetan?" and examines how traditions battle with modern influence in their evolving society. 

Image #1 shows a young Tibetan girl in a traditional chupa dress attending festivities at Tsuglakhang, the main temple, the week of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday in 2011.

The second feature is a touching image of a grandmother and her grandchildren, this time wearing modern western everyday clothing, at the same festival.                                                                                            

Over the coming days and weeks, I will post a variety of images from the Tibetan exile communities showing people going about various aspects of their daily lives. These images show some at their most traditional, both in costume and ritual, and others who choose to present their most modern westernized selves. 

If you are interested in reading much more about the Tibetan exile communities in India and Nepal, please visit my Amazon books by Tammy Winand page

I am currently fundraising to return for further volunteer work in the Tibetan community. My next project will focus on challenges faced by Tibetan women, particularly nuns. Please consider making a donation. Thank you.