- Lisa Choegyal
Not since the early 1950s have we had zero tourists arrive in Kathmandu Valley.
The combination of hostile geography and cautious politics had effectively conspired to keep foreigners out of the kingdom of Nepal, sealed for centuries. When King Tribhuvan wrested power back from the reclusive Rana rulers in 1951, only an estimated total of 300 foreign officials, diplomats and royal guests had ever penetrated the malarial swamps of the Tarai or the snow-bound Himalayan barrier of the northern passes.
The xenophobia of previous regimes considered it prudent to keep the doors closed to Westerners, especially with the changing fortunes of Tibet and China to the north, and a marauding East India Company followed by a power-hungry British Empire lurking along the southern boundary, which extended nearly twice the length of Nepal today.
All trade routes into the Valley were well patrolled, and the British incumbents at their Lainchaur Residency (now the Indian Ambassador’s home) were tolerated to varying degrees, but remained under escort even around the Valley and seldom permitted beyond its rim except to their ridgetop cottage at Koulia, then Kakani.
Boris Lissanevitch changed all that when he opened Kathmandu’s first hotel and brought the first tourist group to Nepal in 1955. Having visited on a 10-day holiday in 1951 at the invitation of newly instated King Tribhuvan, Boris moved to Kathmandu with Inger, two small boys, Mischa and Alexander (their third son Nicholas was born later in Nepal), and a mother-in-law with a penchant for collecting stray animals and antiques.
‘After a few hours I fell madly in love with this country’ Boris declared in a contemporary interview. ‘This is where we wanted to live.’ Inger, his beautiful Danish Scottish wife, 23 years junior, agreed. They never left.
An ebullient White Russian ballet dancer and big-game hunter born in Odessa of Ukraine, Boris was a larger than life character, born into a wealthy military Tsarist family amidst the hardships of the 1905 Russian revolution. A cadet heading for a career in the Tsar’s navy, instead Boris had to flee to France, escaping Bolshevik persecution.
Boris’ exotic career included performing with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris and dancing with Massine throughout Europe, South America and Asia. In 1936, finding himself stranded in India, he started the exclusive 300 Club in Calcutta, the first establishment to accept Indian members and to remain open 24 hours a day. Patronised by India’s princely elite, leading businessmen, world war pilots, diplomats and itinerant adventurers, Boris had the opportunity to meet and charm royalty and influential politicians from the region, especially Nepal.
In addition to King Tribhuvan, his close friends and frequent guests during his ten years at the 300 Club included the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and exiled Nepali Rana militants, Mahavir and Subarna Shamsher. Supposedly B P Koirala, Nepal’s democracy activist, and King Tribhuvan held secret negotiations in the men’s room. Not all the abundant stories about Boris’ exploits are true, but they are usually dramatic and always amusing – he was a collector of people and tall tales.
Boris set up a spirit distillery in Kathmandu, and with Prince Basundhara converted Bahadur Bhawan in Kantipath (now the Election Commission offices) into the Royal Hotel with 40 restored rooms. In its 1960s heyday, the Royal was considered amongst the most interesting hotels in the world, and its charismatic proprietor was a major attraction. The hotel’s Yak & Yeti Bar was the heart of Kathmandu’s foreign community with Boris presiding, ever popular with a stream of mountaineers, envoys, explorers, spies, missionaries, aid workers, tiger hunters, yeti enthusiasts – and tourists.
As Toni Hagen remembered, the Royal Hotel was ‘an irresistible gathering point’, eating, drinking and storytelling would go on late into the night, until ‘Boris began to sing Russian folk songs in his deep voice or even perform Russian dances’. Featuring his flamboyant brand of personal charisma, warm hospitality and fine Russian recipes, Boris was the first to bring ‘ordinary’ tourists to Nepal and is thus credited with being the ‘Father of Nepal tourism’.
Guests unable to pay the Royal room rate, pitched tents in the hotel’s spacious grounds, avoiding the bizarre vegetables that Boris introduced – he was the first to cultivate mushrooms, strawberries, artichokes, carrots and beetroots – and a roaming menagerie of stray animals. Lhasa Apso dogs, flying squirrels, leopard cats, and a mare that would come ‘clattering down the veranda to be fed lumps of sugar’, occasionally wandering into guest bedrooms leaving unwelcome offerings. A red panda named Pandaji, a gift from Ed Hillary, was said to be the most photographed animal in Nepal.
In 1964 screen idol Jean Paul Belmondo, with a crew led by director Philippe de Broca stayed at the Royal for a few weeks to make Nepal’s first feature film, a boisterous comedy released as Up to His Ears. Boris played a small part. In a scene Belmondo asks: ‘How come you speak such good French?’ and he replies: ‘Because I am Russian!’ After filming in Kathmandu and Pokhara, the crew went to Hong Kong where Belmondo met Ursula Andress, leaving his wife in a much-publicised love affair.
Boris’ special entertainment skills were required by his royal connections to cater extravagant parties and banquets, not least Mahendra’s coronation ceremony in 1956 and the hunting camp for Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh’s state visit in 1961. Boris himself was fictionalised by the novelist Han Suyin in The Mountain is Young (1958), and his eventful life is described in Tiger for Breakfast (1966) by Michel Peissel.
With Boris’ word-of-mouth and media networks paving the way, tourism flourished during the 1960s. Nepali entrepreneurs and royal family members were quick to grasp its potential, opening new hotels of their own. The hordes of hippies, mountaineers and world travellers began to arrive, but preferred to hang out in Basantapur. In 1969 the Royal Hotel was forced to close.
By the time I came to Nepal in 1974, myths about the famous Royal’s chaotic hospitality were lost in the building’s abandoned arches, its dusty corridors echoing with the footsteps of former guests – Hollywood stars Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman, Baron Thyssen from Switzerland, Jean Paul Guerlain seeking ingredients for his perfumes, and Queen Sophia of Spain on her honeymoon.
My boss Jim Edwards greatly admired Boris and helped him through many lean times as he struggled with a series of restaurants in Kathmandu, always strong on entertaining but light on commercial acumen. As I sat behind my blue painted desk in the Tiger Tops office, Boris would shuffle past in a gaudy short-sleeved shirt with a cheery wave, on his way to beg another loan from the soft-hearted Jim.
‘He was a terrible businessman, he didn’t think about money at all,’ bemoaned Inger. Boris himself said: ‘I always spent just about a little bit more than I made’. Disasters over the years included trout, pig and vegetable farming, peach wine, and the failed mahua flower liquor business, which landed him in prison for a couple of months for non-payment of royalties.
Restaurants came and went, located in Dilli Bazar, Darbar Marg and his Yak & Yeti Restaurant in Lal Durbar which had opened in 1970 (now the Chimney Restaurant in the Yak & Yeti Hotel). I was first taken there for my birthday in 1974, and my future husband Tenzin and I had our first date, crammed on the narrow window seats around the circular brass fireplace. I was mesmerised by the sophisticated choice of flavoured vodkas – lemon, pepper, and something green and not very nice, dill perhaps. The elaborate 1970s menu featured not only Russian favourites such as borscht and stroganoff, but snipe pate, guinea fowl marechale, smoked becki fish and quail’s eggs provided by Jimmy Roberts.
And who were Nepal’s first tourists? In 1955 Boris persuaded the reluctant King Mahendra, newly succeeded to the throne on the death of his father Tribhuvan, to invite the first tour group arranged with Thomas Cook & Sons in Calcutta. Consisting of ‘mostly old ladies from a cruise ship’, the narrative goes that the King was so impressed by their genuine enthusiasm for his country, delighted by Kathmandu culture and hoovering up handicrafts in the Royal Hotel shop, that he was convinced by Boris to embrace tourism for his emerging nation, ordering officials to arrange two-week tourist visas.
Since that day when Boris achieved this historic reversal and Nepal began to tentatively welcome visitors, tourism has become an essential core industry with consistent growth, climbing from none in 1951, to 6,000 arrivals in 1962 and 1.2 million last year – until coronavirus hit.