September 30, 2016

Utah Immigration Success Stories: Himalayan Heroism

Surya Bastakoti, owner of Salt Lake City's Himalayan Kitchen

Surya Bastakoti, owner of Salt Lake City’s Himalayan Kitchen

Surya Bastakoti has a calm and peaceful disposition. His warm smile greets customers as they come and go.  Himalayan Kitchen smells of fresh turmeric, cumin and curries. While we sit in a booth he tells me he gained his appreciation for fresh food and spices from his mother and that he learned at a young age to satisfy the most discerning critic, his father, who would only eat food his mother prepared.  Eventually,  Surya learned to cook as well as his mother and satisfy his father, a feat his siblings were unable to match.  With a natural aptitude for business and planning, Surya tells me of how he built up a lucrative travel agency in Nepal while he was a student attending Tribhuvan University.

I came here today, however, to hear another story about the terrible event in Nepal that forced him to flee. Surya never wanted to share this story with any other media until now.  This is the story about the kidnapping, torture and ransom that happened to him in Kathmandu in 2004. It is a sensitive issue because Surya still has four children living in Nepal, along with his father and siblings.  Due to the lack of law and order in Nepal at that time, his family’s safety depended on his residing elsewhere.

The story begins when Surya’s trekking business started to fail due to the sharp drop in tourism just after 9/11. In 2001 many flights from Asia, Europe and the Middle East were canceled and American tourists stopped traveling. As conditions worsened, jobs, money and safety became a huge concern.

Problems were compounded in 2002 when Nepal experienced a coup d’état. After King Gyanendra assassinated his brother, he brutally imposed martial law and allowed his private army to simply murder any residents suspected of insurrection. ”There were no cars in the street and all the tourists were fleeing the country,” said Surya. Shortly after the coup, civil war broke out in the mountains between Maoist rebels and the royal army. Conditions became too unsafe for expeditions.

Surya’s business was in a free-fall, yet he continued to pay his employees though bookings were canceled.

He hoped things would quickly get resolved but the situation dragged on. American and European sanctions failed. Foreign financial aid came to a halt. Despite imminent financial ruin, the king would not surrender his illegal dictatorship; instead he imposed additional taxes. Surya had heard many terrible stories and even his friends were victims of the government’s brutality. “2003 to 2006 was the worse period in Nepalese history.  Many people were kidnapped and killed. Simple business people were taken all of the time.”

Rather than hunker down in fear, Surya made a trip to France to learn paragliding. He believed he could promote a different kind of tourism, in the foothills of Kathmandu instead of the mountains where civil war was raging.

kathmandu valley india

The Kathmandu Valley is very similar in shape to the Salt Lake Valley. The likenesses were one factor in Surya Bastakoti choosing to settle in Salt Lake. When conditions became too unsafe to offer treks in the mountains, Surya started a new business offering paragliding in the Himalayan foothills.

He first visited Salt Lake City in 2003, to advance his paragliding skills with his friend Dale Covington.   “Salt Lake City is like a bigger version of the Kathmandu Valley.  The similar surroundings made me feel right at home.” After spending five months in Salt Lake learning to teach the sport, he returned to Nepal, confident of his new business plan to restore tourism. “I received a lot of media attention and support,” he states. By spring 2004 his business was booming again. Nearly four hundred people visited Nepal to paraglide.  Soon, he was able to organize what had been his lifelong dream, a paragliding expedition to Mount Everest.

After months of preparation he was nearly ready to take 20 yaks, 60 porters and seven people 20,000 feet above sea level to base camp. But this trip did not happen. Surya says with a somber tone, “On March 25th 2004 I was kidnapped.”

Upon his arrival from work, six men informed Surya that he would need to go with them for questioning.  His whole family was in the house and he told the men it was impossible for him to go with them because of his upcoming expedition.  They insisted. Somehow they knew that Surya had recently made a very large deposit into his bank account for expedition costs. He had also recently sold his home to cover additional expenses. The thugs made it clear that unless he handed over this money they would either put him in prison or kill him.

“They left me alone in a tiny room with a very bright light for several hours. I was very scared. Then someone came and started to interrogate me. I was blindfolded and couldn’t see anything. They asked all about the money, they knew about the expedition. I told them that for the last 18 years I was working towards an expedition like this. Then they said that the money was from terrorists, and they told me to prove that it wasn’t.”

They then gave him options: They threatened to either plant five pounds of marijuana on him and put him in prison as a smuggler, or say they found a bomb on him and execute him as a suspected terrorist.

“I didn’t sign anything; I said I want to talk to my lawyer.” They asked me again, I said no – another man had a big stick and started banging the stick and said, ‘I’m going to beat you.” Then he came down on my legs. “I thought, this is my end; I can’t survive.” After 10 minutes Surya was beaten and unconscious. They hit him so hard in the ear it broke his eardrum. He completely lost hearing in that ear. Bloody and bruised, he adds, “It felt like my face was going to fall off.”

Badly beaten and left alone, he could have easily died in the underground bunker they left him in if it weren’t for a little unexpected help.  One of the security guards happened to be a former porter. He eventually provided Surya with food and water, and warned him that if he signed they would take everything. The beatings and demands continued.

Finally, after two weeks, he said, “I’ll sign whatever you want me to sign.” The next day another man brought in a paper with all of Surya’s banking details. He then signed a series of blank checks [to different phony entities and people]. He was told that he would be released the next day, but instead they moved him to an underground prison with many others. He became friends with one man who was in the prison who was the principal of a private boarding school. Two more weeks passed. Guards would sometimes return drunk and randomly beat people. “They killed many people,” Surya adds, “Everyday they would drag out more dead bodies and bring in new prisoners.” Inexplicably, one day he was dropped off in the center of Kathmandu with his cell phone. He was told that if he said anything to anyone his family would be in danger.

Himalayn Kitchen salt lake city

Himalayan Kitchen exterior, located at 360 South State Street

Surya believes he was released due to media awareness, because of his famed paragliding and expedition business. Local and international newspapers began writing about how the man who brought paragliding to Nepal had been kidnapped. Human rights groups including Amnesty International got involved. The embassies became aware that this was happening on a massive scale.

He first landed in New York and spent six to seven months in New York trying to heal. He rented an apartment in Queens because, he says, “The worst thing for me was waking up in complete silence in the night. Queens had trains and noise going all the time. I could always hear the trains. I wasn’t as scared at night.”

The rest you could say is history.  Surya came to the Salt Lake and started the most successful and acclaimed Indian restaurant in Utah. His wife, Carmen, has helped him brand, remodel and build a new and much larger restaurant in the past three years.

 Himalayan Kitchen is located at 360 South State Street.