The Chinese are coming
Ask a person in China about Nepal, and the answer is mostly that it is a happy Himalayan country of Buddhism and mountains. Justin Zhao and Liang Ye have decided that is not enough for the 400,000 Chinese tourists that are expected during Visit Nepal Year 2020.
When they first arrived in Nepal as tourists themselves, the duo decided that the country had a lot more to offer. Many more Chinese would visit if they knew about the culture, history, art and architecture of Nepal .
Zhao and Ye have set up Himalaya Light Culture House in Jhonche to exhibit and propagate Nepali art, modern paintings, historical books and local handicrafts. By deliberately locating in the former Freak Street, not Thamel, the two wanted to reboot Nepal’s tourism brand among mainlanders.
Read also: Nepal in ink and brush
It is easy to miss the signboard for Himalaya Light Culture House amidst the thangka and scarf shops, the momo eateries and bars in this street off Darbar Square that used to be the haunt of hippies. Through a narrow passageway, after turning right on a sundeck, is the Culture House.
“No wonder so few people visit our Culture House, even I sometimes get lost,” jokes Ye, who was at Darbar Square when the 2015 earthquake destroyed the monuments here, and remembers weeping when he saw the devastation.
For his part, Zhao has been to Nepal 18 times since 2013, and cannot seem to stop coming back. He was drawn by Kathmandu’s rich heritage, sculpture and handicraft, and decided to establish a new museum, guest house and restaurant here.
Zhao says that after the earthquake, many Chinese gave up their businesses and went back, so he had to start from square one. But now he is one of the most influential persons for trans-Himalayan cultural exchanges.
Ye, 36, used to be a doctor, first came to Kathmandu in 2014, became a travel writer. “At first, I chose Nepal because of its tourism potential, but now Nepal is like my lover,” he admits, smiling.
After seeing the devastation in 2015, Ye started posting scenes of the damage on Chinese social media to explain that Nepalis revered Lord Shiva the creator and destroyer, and saw the earthquake as part of another divine cycle. The posts helped spread a huge response in China for relief aid.
Zhao has always been fascinated by Nepali modern art and wants to bring it to the attention of Chinese collectors. “Nepali artists are deeply rooted in their society, and their work carry socio-cultural meanings,” explains Zhao, “but the average Chinese tourist only knows about thangkas and wood carvings.”
Ye has been in Nepal long enough to understand geopolitical sensitivities. “Nowadays, the relationship between China and Nepal is like friends while Nepal and India are like brothers,” he says diplomatically, “brothers can fight but will always be brothers. China will always be a close friend.”
Ye and Zhao say they want to go beyond government-to-government links to be China’s “volunteer envoys” to connect the peoples of China and Nepal.
In the past three years, Zhao has taken young Nepali artists to China, held exhibitions and discussions about paintings and music. Zhao’s father Zhao Jianqiu is a famous Chinese artist whose exquisitely detailed ink and brush paintings of Nepal’s mountains and Kathmandu’s temples have been exhibited in Beijing and Kathmandu.
Tourism in Nepal has gone through many phases: the world jet-set ‘discovered’ Nepal in the early 1960s, the hippies came in the 1970s, trekkers and budget travelers after that. Ye and Zhang perhaps represent a new breed of Asian tourists who are drawn by Nepal’s unique natural and cultural heritage, as well as its modern creativity.