I can hear him coming as I glance across the room of my trekkers lodge. The pale green numbers of my alarm clock glow 5:37 in the darkness. “The mountain is clear, the mountain is clear,” whispers our guide Raju in a voice so soft it seems intended to awaken us without actually disturbing our sleep.
After a few more stolen moments of rest, I drag myself out of bed to find five peaks of the Annapurna range visible as shadows against the soft, blue, pre- dawn sky. As I walk down a small hill towards a clearing where a group of campers are breaking down their tents, the sun slowly tops the jagged horizon and the summit of Annapurna South begins to glow a pale yellow. The first light of day dances across the peaks, separating the mountains from the sky. The foothills in the foreground distinguish themselves in different shades of blue and black. It’s as if I could just reach across the Modi valley and touch the snow-capped mountains.
I have been on the trail for several days with a small group of fellow Americans. The rugged terrain and hours of navigating steep stone steps have become a familiar part of my daily routine. We’re hardly the intrepid mountaineers of years past, however: after each day’s walking, we stop at a lodge complete with running water and modern amenities. Yet as we go higher, tourist lodges will become what are known as tea-houses, lacking the western style toilets we are accustomed to. There are no roads servicing the towns and trails in the mountains of Nepal. Everything must be carried on the back of a mule, a yak, or a man. Tea- house rooms often consist of nothing more than four plywood walls housing two small beds. Plumbing is simple and communal. Toilets are a hole in the ground framed by plastic and flushed by a splash of water from a nearby bucket. A dung-burning stove generates the only warmth on fridge nights. But for now, I am enjoying the relative luxury in the Middle Hills.
Young porters carry our heavy loads
After packing my gear and eating a breakfast of oatmeal, boiled eggs, and fried dough in a quiet courtyard, we set off on a path leaving the village of Ghandruk. Our young porters carry our heavy loads through the mountains in baskets (doko) on their backs, anchored to their foreheads by a simple strap. The village of mud and stone is coming alive with activity. Women are starting their day, tending to their kitchen gardens or doing laundry at a public faucet in the center of town. As we pass, dogs and chickens scamper out of the way of our parade of tourist trekkers. Children run and play as mule-trains hauling propane and rice navigate narrow cobblestone alleyways.
Raju calls the stone paths I am walking “the highways of the Middle Hills,” connecting generations of mountain people to an ever- increasing number of foreigners. Raju is a slender, quiet man in his late 20s. He is smartly dressed in khaki shorts, white sneakers, and a polo shirt bearing the logo of the tour company he proudly works for. My group is his first as a lead guide and he is both nervous and excited. He grew up in the area we are now trekking and often takes us on local trails, unknown by “city guides,” as he refers to them. Women who knew him as a child tease him, giggling and pointing as we pass. Children along the trail follow him and wrestle to hold his hand.
Throughout Nepal, teenage boys begin a career as a guide by hauling tourists’ possessions from lodge to lodge, often with nothing more on their feet than old plastic slippers or worn-out sneakers. In a couple of years they might advance from a porter to a lead porter, and maybe receive training or learn a new language. If they are lucky, persistent, or their family is fortunate, a few might be sent to guide school by tour companies and taught to lead groups. Fewer yet will go into the Himalaya with mountaineering expeditions. And the best of the best might one day reach the summit of Mount Everest. They are the Rock Stars of Nepal.
Climbing Everest was the high point of my life
One such is Khil Thapa, a guide with Gurkha Adventures, a trekking company based in Kathmandu. “I was born in Gurkha, about four hours’ drive from Kathmandu,” he says. “I was in the Army and once you are into that kind of lifestyle, you jump at the chance to earn a living from what you love doing. Climbing Everest was the high point of my life so far. It took me 45 days from Kathmandu and back. We did it much faster than normal because of a porters’ strike. Looking back, you put things into a bigger perspective and think more deeply about it but the memory is so fresh. It was like drinking two glasses of good red wine – a little bit like that. I could see the ranges in the far, far distance, right to the horizon. A 360-degree view. It was absolutely beautiful.”
He sees tourism, not just as a living for himself, but as offering a better future for his country. “In Nepal, we have diverse culture, diverse geography, from high to low, and a very diverse people with 59 ethnic groups,” he says. “Travel a short distance and you find yourself in a totally different culture. It is beautiful country.
The trekking numbers are picking up right now, although not as much as we would like to see. There are always a lot of Indian visitors and there has been huge rise in Chinese tourists but I do not yet see many in the hills, like European visitors. They come to places like Chitwan National Park and the sites associated with Buddhist culture such as Swayambhunath and Phokara.”
Along these trails, a new generation of Nepali children is being introduced to strangers from around the world, dressed in hi-tech fabrics and armed with trekking poles and digital cameras. They run from their simple wood or stone houses to welcome us shouting “Namaste! Namaste!” the traditional Hindu greeting. “Namaste” is quickly followed by “hello” and “school pen,” a small bit of English that has spread throughout the Nepali mountain network like a viral video on YouTube. Some of the young boys I meet have already started to dream, clinging to Raju as a local hero who can speak the language of the wealthy.
We rarely talk. We rarely stop.
I walk towards the back of the group so as not to hold them up during my frequent pauses to take photographs. Step by step, hour after hour, we walk. We rarely talk. We rarely stop. Mountain peaks appear and disappear in the distance. The sound of distant dogs barking and roosters crowing breaks the chatter of countless birds. The hum of the distant river fades as we go ever higher. There is no performance to entertain me, no honking horns to distract me. I am alone with my thoughts moving forward to the rhythm of life along the mountain’s edge. As the day wears on and I start to tire, my head drops and my view constricts to the step in front of me, until I pause to take in the view.
In this seemingly idyllic rural landscape, where picturesque terraced slopes extend around every bend in the valley, it is easy to believe that the communities who live in these verdant hills are prosperous. But the farmers who plow their tiny plots with oxen, and tend to them by hand, barely raise enough food to support their own families. Much of the arable land has been cropped continuously since the 12th century, forcing farmers to cut a living from steeper and more fragile slopes. Landslides are a constant threat when the monsoon rains come in June. Massive chunks of earth cascade thousands of feet down the valley, scarring the hills, taking lives, and altering the system of trails.
Despite developments in education and road construction, many parts of the country remain inaccessible. Nearly 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people live in rural areas, where the economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture. The limited resources have forced many men to leave their farms for Nepal’s major cities, or cross the border into India in search of work. Nepal is one of the poorest nations on Earth and the capital Kathmandu is an exotic, dirty, noisy crush of humanity.
The money foreign visitors bring is not being spread around fairly, suggests Thapa. “It is supposed to but it is not doing that at all,” he says. “People on the trails do well out of it, but the rest of the country is not benefitting so much. In specific areas, yes, it has changed people’s livelihoods for the better. We need better infrastructure, and for that we need a coherent plan and a bigger perspective. For example, a road has started going into Annapurna, so we have lost some of the charm from the old days. It will give a better sense of security in terms of rescue for those on the mountain but we need to balance that with a proper plan for preservation.”
A decade-long armed struggle
After decades of failed governments and unsuccessful attempts at democratic reform, frustration and hopelessness has spread from the cities to the countryside. The poverty of peasant farmers, high unemployment in cities, often-oppressive treatment of women and ethnic minorities, combined with the lack of opportunity, gave rise in 1996 to the Maoist-inspired “People’s War”. This decade-long armed struggle ended 240 years of royal rule and transformed the world’s only Hindu Kingdom into a struggling multi-party secular democracy led by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal.
With 40 percent of Nepal’s population under the age of 16, children were soon caught up in the conflict. “Boys and girls as young as 12, 13, and 14 years old were conscripted by the Maoist People’s Liberation Army. They became killers as well as spies, workers and sex slaves,” one elderly farmer says. “The Nepali security forces and police also used kids as informers and tortured some if they thought they worked for the Maoists.” It seems a far cry from the school pen jokers who called out to me in Ghandruk.
Nepal is now a changed nation. The portrait of dethroned King Gyanendra on bank notes has been replaced with an image of Mount Everest, and the Royal Palace in Kathmandu has become a public museum. Guides and porters such as Raju, who left the Annapurna region and their families behind for work in India, have returned. New lodging is being created along the major trekking circuits and work has begun to create the Great Himalaya Trail, a 1,700km network of trails that will traverse Nepal and pass all eight of her 8,000m peaks.
But the scars of the bloody conflict remain. As I near the village Tanchok, our final destination, I see a large billboard affixed to a house above a metal awning. It looks remarkably out of place among the houses, colorful clothes lines, terraces, and trees; like a Coca Cola sign randomly placed in a forest. As we get closer I see it contains a photograph of a girl, some words in Sanskrit, and the red flag of the Maoists. Raju says that her name is Tika B.K., and she is a Maoist Party Member. She was arrested by the police in 2002, and she is still missing. Raju notes that thousands of victims of the Movement are also still lost.
Many people have left for the city
Raju doesn’t understand the politics of Kathmandu that have delayed the promise of prosperity which came after so many years of violence. “That is for city people,” he says. Yet the countryside we see as we trek through the hills isn’t just a pastoral idyll: there is as much to learn by hiking along mountain paths as strolling down city streets. Walking into Tanchok, we are once again met by a small group of kids and a chorus of “Namaste!”. But something is different. The houses are lifeless and apparently abandoned. The village looks run-down, gritty, and old. Many of the buildings are in need of repair and there are fewer people than in the villages we had trekked through in recent days.
I meet two older women sitting on the ground weaving fabric into a quilt. One woman asks Raju for some ointment for her sore back, which he provides willingly. “There are 55 families still here,” she says, “but many people have left for the city.” The women seem happy to share their stories and have a bit of unexpected company. They say that very few visitors come by there any more.
During my trek, I witnessed far more than camera-worthy vistas. Indeed, Raju believes that walking is the best way to understand his native land. “Nepal is a country that can only truly be appreciated on foot,” he says. Distances are not measured in miles or kilometers, but in how many hours or days it will take to walk to your destination. There is no easy way to experience the magic of these mountains. For that, travellers need to follow in the footsteps of Nepal’s people, taking one step at a time on a path with no end.
I may not be experiencing the grittier side of Nepalese life – even in the primitive tea houses – but my trek has allowed me to see something beyond breathtaking landscapes. While the country continues to face challenges since the ceasefire of 2006, the young boys and girls of Nepal’s Middle Hills are being introduced to a world without guns, bombs, and killing. It is a world where yak wool and pashmina coexist with polyester and Gore-Tex. Fear and violence are being replaced with a new language of friendship, and tourist trekkers from around the world are learning about the hopes and dreams of a nation.