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The pitfalls of progress in Nepal’s Himalayas


The old woman in a long grey skirt and shawl stands near our table, clearly at home in this trekker’s hotel in Tatopani. She speaks to Sudip but he just shrugs his shoulders.

‘Who is she?’ I ask him.

‘Just the grandmother.’

She speaks to him again.

‘What is she saying?’

‘She wants to know how old you are.’

‘Tell her I am sixty-five.’

His eyes flicker for a moment. Then he translates. There is a rush of words from the old woman.

‘She says she is 70.’

‘And?’

‘And she says that you Europeans are so lucky because your children stay near you.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘All her children have had to go far away to find work except for the son who is running this hotel. And now there are problems here.’

‘What kind of problems?’

‘The road. There are fewer trekkers now. They have all gone.’

At that point the lights go off and by the time candles have been lit and head torches found the old woman has disappeared. But as we set off the next day along the Jomson Trek I am still thinking about her words.  We had heard, back in the UK, about the new road; wondered what difference it would make to one of the most popular treks in Nepal and to the lives of the people who live and work along the route. And we had a more immediate concern too. Were we going to spend two weeks on an empty trail, with only ourselves and Sudip, our guide, for company?

The Jomson trek is part of an old established trade route used by local people for centuries, as well as by pilgrims to the temple at Muktinath. And we had allowed ourselves fifteen days to climb slowly, from Tatopani, past Jomson, to Muktinath, at 3800 metres, returning the same way. (Although it has been possible for a long time for trekkers to fly into, or out of, Jomson, in tiny planes). But for the first three days, as we walk through the deepest valley in the world, it seems that our fears are going to be realized. Not only do we see no other trekkers; our only glimpses of local people are as they pass us in the rattling buses. We had expected friendly greetings as they led donkeys, laden with huge panniers, from village to village. Instead we just see them fleetingly, faces pressed to the bus windows, their bundles and crates and baskets piled high on the roof.

‘What do you think of the new road . Is it a good thing?’  I ask Sudip.

‘It’s good because people can get potatoes or fruit to Beni quickly and it gets a better price.’

‘But what about for trekkers?’

‘It’s bad. Germans don’t come any more.  They say walking along a road is not trekking.’

‘Is that why some of the teahouses are boarded up?’

‘Yes. And also local people don’t need to stop on the road any more; so owners have left.’

‘Does it mean more people can stay in the valley to farm and not need to leave home to find work?’

But I am trying too hard to find answers and Sudip doesn’t have them. Yet he depends on trekking work, not just for himself but also to support his parents and seven younger brothers and sisters. His mother is coming from their village to Kathmandu that week and the money from this trip will pay the hospital bills. He will then have to wait his turn for more trekking work. He tells me has applied to work in the Gulf states but they have never got back to him.

We have trekked in solitude through Ghasa, Tukuche, Marpha. But at Jomson that solitude ends .We come across out first group of trekkers, six South Koreans, that night in the teahouse. It is cold by now and Sudip has told us there is a fire under the table in the dining room. However, as we climb hopefully up the stairs, he is coming down. The Koreans have paid for the fire and they won’t let us join them until we also have paid. We retreat and finally, money sorted out, squeeze ourselves into the small gaps reluctantly made for us. One young woman turns to me immediately

‘How old are you ?’

‘I’m 65.’

‘You must be very fit.’

‘Don’t women of my age trek in south Korea?’

There is laughter.

‘No.’

Some trekkers go straight from Jomson to Muktinath, another 1000 metres of climbing, and the end of the Jomsen Trek. But we stay the next night in Kagbeni. Kagbeni is at the same height as Jomson but across a barren grey windswept plain. It is the last village in Lower Mustang and at the far end of the village a sign warns that you are about to enter Upper Mustang and cannot proceed further without permission. We wander around the old village, trying to shelter from the icy blasts. Some women come out of wooden houses, through tiny doors in falling down walls, trailing grey faced barefoot children. But they ignore us. The owner of our teahouse tells us there is no work. Even her husband is working down in Pokhara. And now , with so few trekkers, she is thinking of selling up and joining him. But it is a warm friendly place, and we have her four daughters for company that night. After breakfast, invited into her kitchen to sit by the fire, we reluctantly say goodbye. And goodbye, too, to the monk, dressed in orange robes, who has been sitting quietly with an enormous cabbage at his feet . She winds yellow prayer scarves round our necks as we leave and they flap in the icy wind as we set off to climb the final 1000 metres to Muktinath.

We reach Muktinath in the early afternoon. From a distance it had looked spectacular, snuggled at the foot of the pass with its temple rising above it. It is in fact just a long straggling street with a few stalls in the middle. However some girls are washing their long black hair at the pump, a boy is playing with a hula-hoop, and the owners of the stalls have clustered on some steps talking quietly. And when the blazing sun disappears, and an icy cold descends, we see the first trekkers who have come down over the high 5,500 metre pass that is part of the Annapurna Circuit . Only a trickle, and all walking slowly, one stumbling, one hanging half on and half off a donkey. We do not know it at the time, but days later we hear that the pass had beenclosed, deep in snow. Some say that Germans had paid local people to clear the trail; others claim to have broken the trail themselves for those following.

Pilgrims at Muktinah

Whilst, for these trekkers, Muktinath is the start of the last leg of the Annapurna circuit, for others it is a destination long dreamed of. And now we are at last seeing the pilgrims and the holy men who make the journey to the Muktinath Temple from Kathmandu and even beyond Nepal. We watch the men from a large family group wading into the icy water in front of the temple to pick up money thrown by the women; we watch them run under the holy taps of spurting icy water, still laughing. And we watch as they quietly approach the holiest place of all, where fire meets water.

And then it is time to turn around and retrace our steps. Back down the steep path to Jomson, where we watch the early morning flight taking off. Then along the river valley we had struggled along in icy winds days earlier. Today, though, it is warm and springlike. People are at work in the fields, ploughing with oxen, and smoke is rising from small bonfires. I stop and wave to an old woman scrambling along the top of a six-foot wall and she waves back to me to me. And there are more trekkers too. In Marpha a group of large heavy Australians is established in the restaurant, plates of chips in front of them . Their guide has developed a company called ‘slow trekking’. They will be carrying on to Muktinath on ponies.

Two days after leaving Jomson we arrive at Kalopani. As we enter a woman calls to me.

‘You look tired.’

‘Yes I am.’

‘How old are you?’

‘I am 65. Is that old?’

‘No, of course not.’

We have time before dinner to wander down the road and gaze at the sun setting over Annapurna South. A Nepalese guide calls to us from a wall where he is sitting beside a big bearlike man. We smile at the man.

‘Are you staying here tonight?’

A look of panic flashes across his face and he desperately shakes his head, waving his cigarette around in the air.

‘He doesn’t speak English’ explains the guide.

‘So how do you communicate?’

‘Well, sign language. We are pretty good after 10 days.’

This is our first encounter with the Russian whom everyone seems to have met. He had struggled over the pass days earlier, stopping every half hour for a break, and not getting to Muktinath until long after dark. But then, at his teahouse, he had found some Germans who spoke Russian. They had drunk vodka far into the night, and the Germans had been very ill the next day.

There is a young Indian at our table that night. He says he is a city banker and has worked in London. The circuit was easy, he assures us. He had done it in record time. But this route now, along the Jomson valley, is not proper trekking. It is more like a plod.

As we set off the next morning the rain starts. The dry dust of the road becomes wet then turns to mud. Stones shower down on us from the hillside so that we have to run from one shelter to the next. A landslide has closed part of the road so that buses can’t continue. Pilgrims, hundreds of them, are plodding slowly on and up. Each time we think the line has finished more of them appear round the bend. Some of them are in loose sandals, light skirts. They ask us if it is far and we smile back trying to make a shrug of the shoulders look reassuring.

And then finally back to Tatopani, the same hotel room we had left fifteen days earlier. There are oranges on the trees. The Indian is sitting in the sun on the roof reading Agatha Christie. The Russian is sitting in the hot springs, still smoking. But the old woman has gone. She is visiting her grandchildren in Pokhara. Her words that first night had set me thinking about the future of the Jomson valley, its inhabitants and those who make a living from trekking. And I would have liked to have told her that I now understood just a little of her concerns , even though I didn’t have any answers.  But it would have been good to tell her, too, that the route had not been empty but teeming with characters .  And then I remember her first question to me, a question repeated frequently along the trail. And think that perhaps I too was part of that rich mix.

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