unforgettable, in every way


I’ve started setting aside the stuff I plan to bring to New Zealand and felt a pang of nostalgia when I fished out this shawl, which I bought in Nepal six years ago. I have great memories with this shawl – it’s not very light but it is very soft, very warm, and putting it on was like a warm hug as I shivered through freezing rain and fog in Europe in 2007, on my grand graduation tour.

I first caught sight of the shawl when I was trudging back to my hostel on Patan Square after another hot, dusty day in Kathmandu. I remember being attracted by the bright squares of colour, but also by the dark blue on the reverse, which looks almost like indigo denim. I remember sitting on a stool in a tiny shop while the proprietor pulled out scarf after scarf to entice me, sipping on a tiny cup of hot greasy tea (it’s the yak butter), and most of all, I remember him loosening a thread from the shawl, setting it on fire, and waving the smoke under my nose. “SMELL THAT?” he boomed. “SMELLS LIKE BURNING HAIR? THAT MEANS IT’S REAL WOOL. NO VISCOSE.”

I ventured one of those “everything is made in China these days” jokes, which earned me a disapproving wag of his finger. “NOT MINE. MY PATTERNS ARE SPECIAL AND MY WEAVERS ARE (I can’t actually remember what he said).” When I added that I didn’t know what burning human hair smelled like, he plucked one off my head, ignored my yelp, and set it on fire as well. “SMELL THAT? NOW YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?” he said, smiling smugly.

In any case, I had already decided I wanted one of these squares of colour for myself. We haggled until we were convinced neither of us were getting a good deal, I handed over my money, we shook hands, and I left with two shawls – one for me and one for my mum.

A few days later, I went to Pashupatinath, a temple which sits on the banks of the Bagmati river, and is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus.

What I hadn’t realised then was that cremations are also held there. I was enlightened not because I saw the cremations first, but because I caught a familiar smell in the air as my friends and I walked closer to the river. That’s burning hair, I told them.

How did I know, they asked.

A man at a pashmina shop told me. He burned a strand of my hair, I said.

So we're smelling burning hair because…oh.

We went closer and watched the cremations, which are held in open air by the river, in accordance to Hindu beliefs.

Years on, I often wonder whether there's real similarity between burning goat hair and human hair, and whether my mind was playing tricks on me at Pashupatinath. One way or another, it makes for a good story.


I'll rustle up a few pictures of Pashupatinath, and other places in Kathmandu one of these days. I can't believe it's been six years!


ericamay said…
hi lin,
i'm a long time reader from Brazil and i happen to have the same shawl! i bought mine in Jaipur, and the seller told me it was named the 'midnight shawl', because of the dark blue side. the colours of the stripes in mine are different though, with yellow and orangey tones.
you told that story beautifully, i always enjoy reading your posts and your style is inspiring, especially because you live in a hot weather place like me.
Anonymous said…
Hi,lovely story:) I have had similar memorable experiences in India, be it buying real pashmina (best of the casmere wool apparently) up north in Himalaya, or buying jewellery in Rajasthan. Its seems that Indian and Nepalese shop owners have similar tricks:)I like my things I bought there so much and people always curious to know where I got this amazing shawl or necklace:)
Anonymous said…
I've seen video of Pashupatinath. You just crystalized how very much such a place is an entire sensory experience. A video does not come close. This is quite a story. Thank you for sharing it.
miss sophie said…
what a beautiful shawl, and a beautiful story to go with it! thanks for sharing a little bit of magic on an otherwise ordinary tuesday... :)
Sue said…
I love the story - it's always nice when there is a memory (even if it is of burning hair) associated with a garment as that is how I often relate my tales. Your story reminds me of the Turkish handbag salesmen who always delighted in telling you how real leather doesn't burn whilst brandishing a cigarette lighter and torching the handbag you were about to buy!
jamie-lee said…
You know i have never heard that real wool when burnt smells like burning hair, but interesting to know! I do love the story though, it's always a bit of a bonus when pieces you own have some sort of memory behind them.

I have to ask, where in NZ are you going, and for how long? I'm based in Wellington myself which is the reason I ask!
Ammu said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ammu said…
What a lovely story! And you tell it so well.
The contrast between the navy and pink shades is gorgeous. Few places can match South Asia when it comes to shawls and scarves - and the stories are marvellous. I love seeing the pride that my shawl seller in Delhi has in his product. And he bargains with such joy, it's quite a pleasure.
It doesn't quite match the burning hair story, but I remember going to a basement warehouse in Jodhpur last year, recommended in the Louis Vuitton guide since they weave scarves for LV and are permitted to sell a small batch on the premises (for much less than the boutique price). The young salesman (fluent in French, no less!) pulled out a vicuna scarf and proceeded to tip a bottle of water onto it to show me the weave (the water didn't pass through the fabric, floating on the surface instead). Needless to say, I purchased it. I love a little showmanship in retail - we don't see it enough these days!
Amanda said…
Oh, yak butter tea! It reminded me so much of salted caramel and chai when I had it in Tibet. It was weird. Thanks for sharing this story - Nepal has probably changed a lot (for the worse in terms of traditional livelihood) in the last six years and this makes me appreciate all my past travels even more.
Kali said…
That's such a nice story! These are how some things come to life, because it's not just entering a store and pulling out some money, there is a history to tell friends and family, it kinda gives life to the object I guess. Anyway, thanks for sharing, that's very interesting!
What a fantastic anecdote. I was totally captivated by your story. Have a wonderful trip to NZ. I can't wait to hear about your adventure.
lin said…
erica: I like the sound of yours; I wonder how many people out there have some version of this shawl.

And thanks for your kind words about my blog...it's always nice to know that what I write has meaning in the smallest way to someone.

anon: I suppose they do! I knew mine was a very "touristy" experience but I thoroughly enjoyed meyself, haha.

editor: I look at my pictures and I feel like they don't capture what it was like either, so you're right about the place being a sensory experience. Glad you liked the story!

miss sophie: I pretty much cheered myself up when I picked up my scarf...material things may not be everything but some of them certainly mean quite a lot!

Sue: That I have to see!

jamie-lee: I'm going to South Island, so nope, not going to Wellington. NZ is too big to cover in two weeks!

Ammu: Thanks! As always, you make me want to go to India! You're right about showmanship and a sense of pride...I enjoy the banter that comes with the shopping and not everyone does it well.

Amanda: So many places in Asia are changing quickly...I aim to visit a new place in the region every year but so far it's been limited to my scuba diving trips where I don't actually spend much time on land, haha.

Kali: Thanks! Yes, it is very pleasant to sit down and chit chat with someone on a trip, those memories stay with you.

Marlene: I can't wait to go! Mentally I've flown over...

lovethetron said…
Hi Lin,

We are bloggers from NZ and I absolutely love you and your blog,
if your in the central North Island or Hamilton and need a tour, we would love to give you one! Just send us an email
London Escorts said…
Thanks for sharing this story, it bring back alot of my memories

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