Thirty years ago, travel writer Dervla Murphy worked as a volunteer among Tibetan refugees in Pokhara, and called the account she wrote about her experiences The Waiting Land. Pokhara’s Tibetans are still waiting: three former refugee camps, now largely self-sufficient, have settled into a pattern of permanent transience. Because Pokhara has no Buddhist holy places, many older Tibetans have remained in the camps, regarding them as havens where they can keep their culture and language alive.
At the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Tibetans now living in Pokhara were mainly peasants and nomads inhabiting the border areas of western Tibet. After the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and the Chinese occupation turned violent, thousands streamed south through the Himalayas to safety. They gathered first at Jomosom, but the area soon became overcrowded and conditions desperate, and three transit camps were established around Pokhara.
The first five years in the camps were marked by rationing, sickness and unemployment. Relief came in the late 1960s, when the construction of Pardi Dam and the Prithvi and Siddhartha highways provided work. A second wave of refugees began around the same time, after the United States’ detente with China ended a CIA operation supporting Tibetan freedom-fighters based in Mustang. Since then, the fortunes of Pokhara’s Tibetans have risen with the tourism, carpet-weaving and Buddhism industries – the latter is a big earner, due to foreign donations. A small but visible minority have become smooth-talking curio salespeople, plying the cafés of Lakeside and Damside, but whereas Tibetans have by now set up substantial businesses in Kathmandu, opportunities are fewer in Pokhara, and prosperity has come more slowly.
The settlements – Tashi Palkhel, Tashiling and Paljorling – are open to the public, and a wander around one is an experience of workaday reality that contrasts with the otherworldliness of, say, Boudha or Swayambhu. You’ll get a lot more out of a visit if you can get someone to show you around.