Trekking in Nepal: Guerrillas in our midst
In Nepal’s former no-go areas, Sue Watt treks to picturesque villages and welcoming locals with a grim recent past.
Dharepani village - Trekking in Nepal: Guerrillas in our midst
Dharepani village Photo: Will Whitford
By Sue Watt
1:43PM BST 29 May 2013
We had encountered Maoists in Nepal before. On the Annapurna Circuit Trek in 2003, two men visited our teahouse demanding a “donation” to the revolutionaries’ cause. Extortion by another name, it was a strangely businesslike transaction, with negotiations, payment of 1,000 Nepalese rupees (about £5), and the production of a receipt with our names, date and amount paid. The words: “Nepal Communist Party (Maoist)” ran across the top, alongside tiny sketches of Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Engels and Marx, the Five Fathers of Communism.
Prayer flags on Nepal's Annapurna Circuit Trek
Fast forward 10 years, and today’s Maoists are hoping to collect tourist revenue by more legitimate means. The “People’s War” that lasted from 1996 to 2006 led to the death of 16,000 Nepalis, displacement of more than 100,000, and desperate human rights abuses by both rebels and government forces. Winning the majority vote in 2008’s historic elections made the Maoist revolutionaries mainstream.
Peace brought visitors flooding back, with Everest, Nepal’s main attraction, drawing tens of thousands of trekkers annually. Aiming to spread tourism’s economic benefits to the impoverished Maoist heartlands of west-central Nepal, once a no-go area, the government has created a new “post-conflict” trail, the Guerrilla Trek, with various routes taking up to four weeks to complete.
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Our 10-day, 100-mile route started in Sulichaur, a lively market town nine hours’ drive from Kathmandu. My partner Will and I walked around its narrow streets and stalls that sold everything from copper pans and cloth to spices, fruit and fish. Unused to tourists, some people stopped and stared, but others bade us “Lal salam”, a Maoist greeting, or the more traditional greeting “Namaste”.
Our first day’s gentle trekking along a dirt track to Jelbang skirted steep hills terraced from top to bottom. As we walked, the human cost of the insurgency unfolded. We met Januka at her roadside shop, a pretty teenager with a baby on her back. At 13, she’d been forced to fight for the Maoists. They had threatened her father that one of his five daughters must join them or they’d all be killed. In a single battle, she saw 30 of her friends die. Later, we passed a marble memorial dedicated to five men killed by police in 1996, declaring them the first martyrs of the revolution.
Jelbang looks idyllic. Children play outside thatched cottages, and neon green terraces of barley hug the hillsides. But during the insurgency, it suffered more losses than any other village. Minchow, our homestay owner, described how in 2003, knowing it to be a Maoist training ground, the army attacked with helicopters from three flanks, shooting indiscriminately at men, women and children. Sixty-eight people died there, and Minchow survived a bullet in the head that left him partially blind.
A host at a homestay (Photo: Will Whitford)
Our next destination was Nepal’s oldest Maoist community. The brief inscription on Thawang’s gate spoke volumes: “We are independent of this cruel government and king.” Alongside was a mural of the Five Fathers of Communism.
My calves felt like lead when we reached that gate. Seven hours of uphill slog followed by four hours of descent left my legs quivering, and the beauty of pine-scented forests, brilliant red rhododendrons and virgin thigh-high snow en route was almost forgotten. At the top of the pass, Jaljala temple appeared like a mirage. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims visit this shrine in the middle of nowhere every year to bless their livestock.
We saw several bombed or burned homes in the pretty village of Thawang. Over our traditional Nepali dinner of dal bhat (vegetarian curry with endless variations), a social worker described how villagers hid in the forests we’d just walked through for 12 days during attacks. Three women gave birth there in the bitter cold without food or fire to boil water. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke. “It’s still very raw for him,” my interpreter Kiran commented quietly.
Despite that rawness, people here are desperately keen to embrace tourism. The Guerrilla trail was officially launched last October, but tourists are still rare: we met just one other trekker en route. For now, the poverty of locals and paucity of visitors mean a paucity of facilities, and accommodation can seem grim by Western standards. Some rooms were like breezy stables with wooden beds, the lavatory might be the great outdoors, and running water and electricity would be things of the future. As Mongal, our guide, frequently said: “This is how the Everest Base Camp trek used to be, maybe 20 to 25 years ago.”
The writer on the trail (Photo: Will Whitford)
People’s reactions were also reminiscent of those in Everest Base Camp’s earlier days. School was just ending as we arrived in Lukum, and about 70 pupils accompanied us through the village. Many looked terrified, whispering “Gori” (white woman), and pointing at me. “Some children have never seen white people before,” Kiran explained.
Next morning, our trek to Upallo Sera was a perfect mountain day, with blue skies after hailstorms the night before, bright green pastures and distant views of snowy peaks. But the highlight was our homestay. Its narrow, smoky kitchen was full of people; several villagers had heard we were staying and came to meet us. We all sat thigh to thigh on goat skins on the floor while Dilu, the owner, and her friend Jaya cooked curry, giggled and talked incessantly over the open fire. Both teachers, they were excused from fighting but compelled to pay 20 per cent of their salaries to the Maoists.
Eighty people from this and the neighbouring village, Talo Sera, died during the insurgency. Now life is improving – a new road, schools and hospital are being built. When we left, Dilu and Jaya hugged me warmly. Homestays may be basic, but you touch the soul of the country when you stay in them.
For two days we followed a turquoise river across plateaux that would soon be swarming with horses, cattle and sheep, but at the end of a bitter winter, they were deserted. Then we reached the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, home to a Tibetan refugee centre. It was like Switzerland with prayer flags: snowy peaks peeped out of pine forests whose residents include red pandas and leopards, Himalayan goats, blue sheep and barking deer.
This area became a training ground for hundreds of Maoists who eventually stormed the city of Beni, three days’ walk away. When army helicopters arrived, the insurgents simply melted into the forests.
Those forests had an eerie stillness. Set alight by Maoists to obscure the visibility of army helicopter pilots during a raid on Beni in 2004, they still bear the scars of the fires. Walking there was like walking through a silent black-and-white film, devoid of birdsong with burned trees lying in the snow.
The forests led to our highest pass, Jaljala (not to be confused with Jaljala on day two), at 11,200ft – low by Nepali standards. From there it’s possible to glimpse Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest mountain at 26,795ft, although white-out conditions obscured our view.
A steep descent brought us to Lamsung, chosen as a Maoist model village. During the insurgency, people couldn’t drink, smoke or gamble there – such vices would distract them from working in the fields – and a People’s Court punished infringers. Arriving in the late afternoon, we saw a man lying comatose outside our hotel, proving those rules had been forgotten. “Is he drunk?” I asked. “No,” someone replied. “He was celebrating on ganja last night.”
A local at Sulichaur (Photo: Will Whitford)
On our penultimate day, we walked for hours with views of the Gurja and Dhaulagiri Himal mountain ranges, watching wispy flutes of snow funnelling from Dhaulagiri’s jagged peaks. Heading to relative civilisation in Dharepani, we passed lush terraces and terracotta-coloured houses.
The bells of mule trains jangled down the valley, and English signs, overhead phone lines and electricity cables reappeared. Finally, a cramped minibus took us to Beni, a city of 50,000 people and the scene of the Maoists’ boldest battle.
Bimala Gauchan, the vivacious owner of Hotel Yeti, where we stayed, described the scene when 6,000 Maoists attacked: “I couldn’t understand why there were so many people in Beni that day. I was so scared I stayed inside. Then at night-time it started, just here by the hotel. There was shooting and blasts and black smoke everywhere.”
About 150 people died in that battle. Bimala took us to the former British Army post. “There were bodies everywhere here, just lying all over the place,” she said. And she showed us shiny new government buildings nearby: “All the old ones were destroyed by the bombs.”
When we left, we passed the memorial plinth that once bore the statue of King Mahendra. Toppled in battle, today it’s called “Martyrs’ Pillar”, and the new inscription reads: “For the memory of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the nation and the people.”
For all its beauty, it’s those people, their spirit and their rare blend of strength and gentleness, who make the Guerrilla Trek so special.
Sue Watt flew with British Airways (ba.com) via Delhi, connecting with Jet Airways (jetairways.com) to Kathmandu, from £768 return.
British citizens need a visa for Nepal, available on arrival ($40/£27 for 30 days) or from the Embassy of Nepal in London (£35 for 30 days; 020 7229 1594; nepembassy.org.uk).
Sue travelled with Swiss Family Treks & Expedition, which offers trekking, climbing, adventure and cultural holidays throughout Nepal and in Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim (00977 1 4710390; trekking-in-nepal.net). Prices begin at $1,755 (£1,165) per person, which includes two nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation in either Kathmandu or Pokhara, all accommodation, food, guide and porter on trek, and a tourist bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu. A private Land Cruiser from Kathmandu to Sulichaur costs $320 (£210) per vehicle. Flights from Pokhara to Kathmandu cost $107 (£70).
The inside track
The Guerrilla Trek usually starts from Beni and ends in Sulichaur. Sue trekked the route in reverse order, reflecting the chronology of Maoist history in the region, starting where the Maoist movement started and culminating with the siege of Beni. It also saved the best views (of Dhaulagiri) until last, a true reward after the rigours of the trek, and meant that some post-trek R&R in Pokhara was more easily accessible.
Very little English is spoken in the area – make sure your guide or porter speaks good English so that you make the most of meeting the locals.
You’ll need sleeping bags for the trek. These can be hired from Shona’s on Jyatha in Thamel, Kathmandu (1 426 5120).
Nepalis eat dal bhat (vegetarian curry) every day. It’s surprising how much the taste varies from place to place. Eating simply, as the locals do, is by far the safest option. Packets of dried noodles are sometimes available and make a tasty noodle soup as an alternative.
There’s very little bottled water en route, and water will need to be purified. Take iodine or chlorine tablets and neutraliser. Wipe dry any plates and cups that still have traces of water on them after washing.
You won’t be able to buy loo paper or tissues en route, so take your own supplies.
While the tourist bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu is safe and comfortable, driving standards in the country generally are very poor. The bus takes eight hours, and the flight one hour, making the additional cost well worthwhile.
The guidebook The Guerrilla Trek by Alonzo L Lyons (2012) provides detailed insight into the Maoist insurgency.
An excellent map is available from Kathmandu bookshops: Guerrilla Trek NS509, himalayanmaphouse.com.