Nepal’s fledgling tourist industry has been hampered by political unrest and some immense obstacles to infrastructure development (largely consisting of the Himalayas). Surprisingly this has not halted the development of a sophisticated tourist trap. The country has two major cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara. Within the prescribed ‘tourist areas’ of these cities, most western luxuries can be had and local chefs will take a vague stab at cuisine from almost anywhere in the world. This is even true of some of the more established trekking routes. If you wish to gorge on apple pie at soaring altitudes, the Everest or Annapurna treks are for you.
Thankfully, however, for those seeking a relatively unadulterated experience of Nepalese culture, the tourist route is extremely narrow. Neither tourism nor the money it generates has diffused even a short way from the few more accessible destinations. This means that it is refreshingly easy, at the expense of some discomfort, to escape the beaten track.
Once even a short way from the whirlwind of touts and tourist tat, it seems several worlds away. Nepal is a rural nation, where tarmac roads are making their first intrusions and modernity is in many ways kept at bay. The few roads that have been carved from the landscape generally balance precariously alongside dramatic precipices. Valley bottoms are littered with the remains of wayward juggernauts and any accident brings the traffic to a halt for hours.
Despite the increased urban influx of the past few decades, many Nepali people still live in the villages where they were born. Many (of the older generation in particular) will have never been further than the nearest town. The isolation of these communities breeds resilience. Traditional, organic farming practices have been upheld and a diverse repository of local knowledge is still treasured. Most journeys are still made by foot, using paths worn into the landscape by centuries of use. While Nepal is in many ways outward looking and international, rural Nepal has been relatively insulated from external influences. If you ask local kids what their favourite food might be, it is always Dal Bhat, the simple rice and lentil dish, eaten twice a day, every day of their lives.
Beyond the end of the road.
Sitting in the suburbs of England, it is difficult to stress quite how remote rural Nepal can be. During a recent trip, I spent several weeks living and working on a farm in the central hilly region of the country. I had just finished working for a rural development charity in India and hoped for a more direct experience of subsistence farming. My aim was to observe and learn but also to participate in daily life and contribute my labour. The convoluted journey required to reach the village where I was to stay is a good illustration of the distances and obstacles involved in simply getting around.
Public transport in Nepal is generally fairly treacherous and unfortunately, to reach my destination, I had to take several buses. My journey coincided with the end of a 3 day strike (The ‘Maoist’ party periodically shut the country down in the name of the poor). This meant everyone who would have been traveling on the previous three days were also on my bus. Rather miraculously, the bus was judged by the driver to be full. I wasn’t previously aware that this concept existed in Nepal. Loading buses is like an extremely sweaty, 3 dimensional version of Tetris. The bus conductor orchestrates the whole thing by scrambling over and under people to physically rearrange them. On this occasion the conductor had reached the limits of his expertise.
This was not deemed to be a problem. On top of the bus (and in turn, on top of a metre high layer of stacked luggage), there was room for a whole extra bus load. Thus I travelled for 6 hours, precariously balanced on top of a bus, on top of a pile of luggage, with 40 other people, along some highly unstable mountain roads. When you are clinging on for dear life and there is a sharp drop either side (as well as some great views), pot holes become more than a mere discomfort.
This was all fine; we slowly climbed up from the flat Terrai zone bordering India into the higher altitude of western Nepal. The temperature gradually dropped and everyone managed to wedge themselves a little more securely as the journey went on. A healthy sense of camaraderie developed. The only issue was the police. The Nepali police are not so convinced of the safety of loading luggage racks with people. As a result, every time we came to a police checkpoint we had to take evasive action. 40 people had to climb off the roof and take a short cut off road. We would then rejoin the bus (which only ever deigned to slow down for everyone to clamber up) after it was safely through the checkpoint.
Unfortunately just as we were almost at our destination, the police outwitted us with a mobile inspection post. This meant everyone had to climb down and wait an hour for the bus driver to come to an ‘arrangement’ with the kind police officers. After they had been given a suitable fine/beer money, they were extremely accommodating and allowed us to carry on. The only catch was that, at least to create the appearance of safety (presumably to their superior officers), we all had to fit inside. This was possibly even more dangerous than before, with everyone packed in so tightly that movement was impossible.
When I finally arrived in the general area of my destination, I found a hotel/house to sleep in. It was a pretty tiny village which didn’t have any real facilities and was very surprised to have a tourist. The next day, after some inquiry, I found I had the wrong telephone number for my host (who was still 45 minutes away by white knuckle jeep taxi and then an hours walk). Thankfully, by determinedly drinking chai and making use of the information that naturally flowed my way, I found several people who knew him. I was also rather forcibly adopted by a retired Gurkha and his wife, who kindly insisted on paying for my accommodation and sorted out the jeep for me. After becoming on first name terms with most of the village (and even being taken to meet the local holy man who proudly harbored a pair of red sandals worn by the Hindu goddess Devi in his little shrine/hut) in the space of half a day, I was loaded on to a jeep and sent on my way. On arrival at the end of the road, I made a whole new set of very excitable friends who, on account of it getting dark, gave me a lift, as far as was possible, on a moped. After another very bumpy journey, I was close! I managed to meet my host and he showed me the rest of the way on foot.
Hardship and Riches.
The village in which I had arrived is called Jharket, a collection of houses spread sporadically over a hillside with plots of farmland at precarious angles. It is a 45 minute hike and a wade across a sizable river to get to the local shop (impossible in the rainy season). To the nearest secondary school it is a full hour up hill (a mountain by the standards of any other country). The village has no electricity and the nearest hospital is several hours away.
Despite the porous soil and steep slopes, the village generates enough food to feed itself, although some farmers do migrate for work during the harder months. Excess produce is often carried by foot to the nearest market, although it is more commonly traded with neighbours. A close-knit community and an informal system of mutual giving ensures that nobody goes hungry. There is a deep sense of pride concerning this way of life, kept alive through generations of each family.
However, the labour involved in sustaining a smallholding on this marginal land is grueling. The working days are long, from first light to sunset, on two basic meals each day. For my host and his wife; a couple in their 40s, supporting several children through school, this workload clearly took a toll on their health. Mechanisation doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in the more remote hilly areas. The only bit of outside technology which I saw was a hand powered fan, for winnowing wheat, which had broken 15 years ago.
As a result, everything is done entirely by hand. The wheat harvest for example, begins using sickles in the heat of the day and tying the crop into bushels. The bushels are then gathered into piles. These are carried off the fields using a traditional Nepali sling, which is balanced on the forehead (this is more ergonomic than you would imagine, although you do end up with a very itchy back from abrasive chaff). The wheat is then threshed; which involves vigorously smashing each bushel on a large flat stone. The light chaff is winnowed out using the wind and finally, the grain is ground into flour using an old hand powered grind stone. Partaking in the harvest was, for me, a steep learning experience. Quite a lot of the village turned up and looked greatly edified at the westerner, tottering up mountain paths with 30 bushels of wheat on his head.
In order to take the edge off the relentless nature of the work, any break is often enriched with a good glass of topi, the local rice based liquor. Thus I found myself, sitting in the sun, swigging extremely lumpy fermented rice (somewhere between rice pudding and saki), in the company of some extremely formidable old women. The women in the village did a large proportion of the hard labour. By the time they reach pensionable age they have been ground down to a lean mix of muscle, sharp gossip and an unquenchable appetite for topi. I certainly wouldn’t like to pick a fight with one.
In contrast to these sinuous old women, the children in the village spent every possible hour of freedom playing in the fast flowing river that runs near the village. Diving for pebbles and chasing each other through the current like a bevy of otters. Childhood is valued highly in a community where later life brings hardship and responsibility. Every child, if sometimes a little reluctantly, took advantage of the nearest school. Families dedicated their little excess income to this end, hoping for a better life for their children.
The pull of the City.
Bhim, my host, embodies many of the issues which Nepal, as a country, now faces.
He is a clever and dignified man, who had been educated and worked as a science teacher in the nearest large town. However when his parents died, he was duty bound to return and tend the family farm. He expressed sincere pride in his simple way of life as well as a strong sense of belonging, tied to the land and to the community. He knew not only his immediate neighbours but also exactly how his family has been associated with their ancestors for generations.
And yet despite this understanding, perhaps because of it, he clearly felt the pull of the city. He saw with sadness, that if his son is to have a higher standard of living in the future, he will have to sacrifice this traditional lifestyle and the intangible wealth that goes with it. Every evening, when the light had faded and the work was finished, he would sit beneath the stars, hunched over a battered old radio, listening to distant, crackly voices from Kathmandu.
It must be said that by the time of my own return to Kathmandu, I had developed a greater appreciation of its (occasionally) warm showers and pseudo-western food. After a month of rising with the sun and working in the fields, I was more than ready to indulge in a little modernity. Following a prolonged period without even the distant rumble of an engine, it was a shock to battle the chaotic congestion and dust clouds of the capital. Sitting in a noisy bar, sipping a slightly toxic approximation of lager, it was difficult to connect with the rural tranquility of the past weeks. Not so many miles away, families were living much as they had for centuries.
The people of Nepal have inherited a wealth of traditional knowledge and deeply felt community ties. However, these are not easily separated from considerable hardships and uncertainties. The challenge for the future is for Nepal to develop without compromising the resilience and riches generated by the subtle, diverse fabric of its society.