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1970s Nostalgia Thrives in Katmandu


From time to time, as he travels around his region, NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves has been in the habit of sending us a letter on what he's seen. Philip just returned from a visit to Katmandu, the capital of Nepal.

PHILIP REEVES: Some nations seem determined to be eccentric. Nepal is a very small country, an oblong on the southern flank of the Himalayas, tucked between two giants, India and China. Yet it has its own unique time zone. Its clocks are ahead of India's by 15 minutes.

Nepalese say this is a way of asserting their independence. And if you go north and step over the border into Chinese-controlled Tibet, you move forward in time by two and a quarter hours. The Nepalese blame this on the Chinese, who set the hour to the time in Beijing, 2,000 miles away.

For visitors to Nepal, this can all be very irksome, especially if you need regularly to tune into the hourly news from the U.S. You try working out a nine and three-quarter hour time difference in a hurry.

After a while, though, you realize Nepal's time warp is not about the hour, but the year.

(Soundbite of song, "Smoke on the Water")

DEEP PURPLE (Rock Band): (Singing) Smoke on the water, and fire in the sky.

REEVES: Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-Tung were in power when Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" was released. More than three and a half decades later, young Nepalese in this Katmandu bar still enthusiastically rock away to it. Though the song came out before most of them were born, they know all the words.

Here, the old hits never seem to die.

(Soundbite of song, "Smoke on the Water")

REEVES: It's the same all over town.

(Soundbite of song, "Imagine")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) …life in peace.

REEVES: Listen to what the students are playing on their laptops in this cafe.

(Soundbite of song, "Knocking on Heaven's Door")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) That long black cloud is coming down. I feel I'm knocking on heaven's door.

REEVES: Step, if you will, into the car in which I'm being driven around the city and back to the days of the Vietnam War. There's a reason for this phenomenon. Katmandu has never forgotten the '70s. In those days, the city lay at the end of the hippy trail. Crowds of hairy, Western youths would travel here to find themselves - or was it lose themselves - in a haze of hashish smoke.

Many came on the Magic Bus, a cheapo coach service from Europe. Its psychedelic vehicles rattled joyously along the old Silk Road, the same route used by Alexander the Great.

It's easy to guess what the mullahs of Iran and Afghanistan made of these decorous youngster in bandanas and bare feet. The more open-minded Nepalese simply found the hippies unusual. They gave them a name: freaks.

(Soundbite of whistles and car horns)

REEVES: This was the hippies' favorite spot in the middle of Katmandu. It's still called Freak Street. Even now, you occasionally see ancient and bedraggled former hippies wandering around, revisiting old haunts. The shops still sell Jimmy Hendrix and Cat Stevens and Ban the Bomb signs.

But the place is not what it was. In this cafe, they're playing all the old songs…

(Soundbite of song, "Just Like a Woman")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Ah, you fake just like a woman. Yes, you do.

REEVES: …but there are signs on the tables warning customers not to smoke dope. The authorities cracked down on drugs long ago, and they say the police can pretty ruthless. The cops know the time of day, even if no one else in Nepal does.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.