Friday, June 15, 2012

Colorado Karma

This story appears in this week's Durango Telegraph. 

photo by Steve Eginoire
Though he is from a remote corner of Nepal, Karma Bhotia feels right at home here in Durango. Bhotia, owner of the downtown restaurant Himilayan Kitchen and the adjoining retail space, Dreams of Tibet, has followed his dreams and his heart to the mountains of Colorado.

In a story that unfolds like a classic novel, Bhotia, who is 46 years old, was raised in the Mount Makalu region, located in northeastern Nepal. He was the third man from his village to graduate from high school, and his wife, Jyamu, was the first woman. During his childhood he also studied as a Buddhist monk. One of 12 children, his family hoped he would become a teacher, but his dreams were to pursue photography and the mountains.

“My dreams were bigger than what my family thought,” he said.

Mountain guiding ended up being his ticket to pursue his dreams, and for 15 years, he led clients to peaks all over India, Nepal and Tibet. Even though the work was dangerous, he enjoyed it immensely.

“It was the greatest time of my life,” he said. “It never felt like work, it felt like I was on vacation.”

During his guiding years, he summited Mount Choyu, the sixth tallest peak in the world, and he also guided on Mount Everest. Starting as a porter, and then as a sherpa, he worked his way up to the position of sirdar, which meant he was in charge of expeditions up to 34 clients and 280 porters. He said the greatest challenges were fighting with the weather, and the variety of personalities of his clients, who were mostly European. Despite a deep love for his work, he did witness a fair share of tragedies.

 “Anything can happen in the mountains, and many people lost their lives,” he said. “My family was always hoping that I would return and that someday I would quit my job (as a mountain guide).”

One thing that Bhotia learned while working in remote corners of Nepal and Tibet was the uses of herbs and spices from the region’s people.

“People in these small villages were very creative with growing their own herbs and spices,” he said.

Sadly Bhotia, who is of Tibetan descent, was unable to continue guiding in Tibet because of the police presence there. He was detained on one occasion without a reason, and no longer felt comfortable working there.

“When I was detained they did not give me a reason, but maybe it was because they thought I was a spy for the Dali Lama. In Tibet you can go to jail for simply having a picture of him,” he shared. “The Chinese want to destroy Tibetan culture.”

Through some contacts he made mountain guiding, Bhotia moved to Austria for a while, where he worked as a cook and did some climbing. There, he enjoyed ice climbing, and was able to work on his English. He also met Austrian Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years of Tibet, who at the time was building a Buddhist monastery.

In 2000 Bhotia made his first visit to the United States with plans to present slideshows of his photography and possibly attract some clients for mountain guiding. Serendipitously, he ended up in Pasadena, Calif., and discovered that the Nepali restaurants there were not true to the essence of what the food should taste like. He ended up buying a restaurant called the Tibet Nepal House.

His restaurant flourished, and though he missed mountain guiding, the business was safer than climbing Himalayan peaks. However, he does note some similarities to the food business and mountain climbing.

“It is a big responsibility to run a restaurant,” Bhotia reflected. “The customer is blindly trusting you. Food can heal you or make you sick.”

With the success of the Tibet Nepal House, Bhotia was motivated to open up another location, and found his way to Durango in 2007. It was love at first sight.

“We arrived at night, and checked into a hotel,” he said. “Then in the morning, wow, I saw the river, the mountains and then downtown.”

The quaint downtown of Durango reminded him of some places in Europe he had visited, and it was an easy decision to open a restaurant here. Shortly after in 2007, he opened the Himalayan Kitchen.

“It is a perfect place, maybe God meant us to be here,” Bhotia said.

In 2010 he opened Dreams of Tibet, located next door to the Himalayan Kitchen. The store sells Tibetan artifacts and imports from Nepal and India, like jewelry and clothing. It is his way of trying to protect Tibetan culture.

Bhotia is still interested in photography, and his work graces the walls of the Himalayan Kitchen. Two of his sons, Wang and Kejok, attend Fort Lewis College, the oldest, Nima, lives in Pasadena.

Bhotia loves the Durango community, which he describes as the nicest people of all three continents he’s been to.

“I am trying to reach everybody’s heart,” he said. “Durango is very special to me.”

His philosophy is to stay busy, which he manages to do with his two businesses. He still travels back to Nepal to visit family and purchase items for Dreams of Tibet and spices for the Himalayan Kitchen. He hopes to give back more to Nepal, with dreams of building an American style school there, funded by sales of his photography.

In other words, Bhotia has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“There is a saying, 'free time is the devil’s time,' if you’re busy you always focus on positive things,” he said. “I am always thinking positively.”

With what little free time he does have, Bhotia enjoys hiking in the mountains with his family and taking photos. He says he feels at home within the mountains.

As for mountain guiding, he does miss it and reflects fondly on his years helping others reach the summits of Himalayan peaks. This holds especially true in the fall, the season he traditionally guided in.  

“In the autumn, my imagination always goes to the mountains,” he said

Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine

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