Cherilyn Parsons, Special to the Chronicle
Sunday, December 2, 2007
(this article has been published here by the kind permission of the author, whose original article was published on the San Francisco Chronicle. Read original article here)
12-02) 04:00 PST Kopchepani, Nepal -- On a moonlit night in 2004, two young Nepalese lovers, fleeing their disapproving families, ran onto a suspension bridge over the Kali Gandaki river. As they swayed over the roiling waters, gunfire tore into them. They fell to their deaths.
"It was mistake," said Chhering Lama, my trekking guide, as we crossed the lovers' bridge. "They were shot by the army, who thought they were Maoists. But they were just ordinary people wanting new life."
I gazed down at the river - named for Kali, the bloodthirsty Hindu goddess - and mourned not only these innocents but the 13,000 Nepalese lost in the crossfire of a decade-long civil war.
For years, the Maoists waged a ruthless insurgency to sack Nepal's king and politicians and replace them with a communist government run along the lines of Mao Zedong's China. Foreign visitors were almost never targeted for killing, but thousands were robbed or forced at gunpoint to make "political donations" to help fund the rebellion.
It's been a little over a year since the peace accord that officially ended the rebellion and brought the Maoists into an interim government. Travelers, trekkers, climbers and Nepal lovers the world over breathed a sigh of relief that the violence and instability were finally over.
Or were they? According to persistent news reports and troubling U.S. State Department advisories, the Maoists hadn't quit marauding.
I visited Nepal in October and November to see how much things had changed - or hadn't changed - since the peace accords, and whether the birthplace of Buddha was returning to the days when blissed-out travelers decided that its name stood for "Never Ending Peace and Love."
In recent years, coming to Nepal has been like setting forth upon seas known to be crawling with pirates. Though the Maoists' stated intent wasn't to wreck tourists' vacations, they also called strikes that crippled transport. They bombed buses.
Tourism dropped from a high of nearly half a million people in 1999 to a low of just over 200,000 in 2002, according to the Nepal Tourism Board.
But visitors seem to be returning. When I arrived in Kathmandu in October 2007, I was part of a 27 percent increase thus far this year over 2006, according to the group.
Indeed, the travelers' district of Thamel was packed - far more than on my last visit five years ago.
"We have lots of business now," reported the owner of a camera store where I bought an extra flash card. He refused to bargain with me, apparently because he didn't need to: Another tourist would come along.
Still, all the Nepalese with whom I spoke - taxi drivers, hotel owners, shopkeepers, heads of nongovernmental organizations - expressed exhaustion, apathy and cynicism about the political prospects.
The one exception to the apathy was a taxi driver whose picture of Prachanda, the fiery Maoist leader, peeked out from where it was hidden inside the tassel on his rear-view mirror. When I pretended to be a Maoist sympathizer, he began a passionate tirade against the monarchy, the politicians and the Royal Army. He had a point: According to human rights organizations, the police and army have been more violent than the Maoists during the insurgency.
Were things any different in the countryside? I left Kathmandu to walk the Annapurna Circuit, a trail once so popular with world travelers that it had been dubbed "Highway 101 of the Himalayas." It had emptied in recent years, though, thanks to the insurgents.
With my guide Chhering, two porters and my boyfriend, Greville, I set out on the 125-mile trail. Chhering, who'd been forced many times to pony up clients' dollars to the Maoists, told us how the trekkers who'd braved the rebels had come to think of it: "The donations were like a second trekking permit. The first went to the government with buildings, the second to the jungle government."
The amount of money demanded of each visitor varied over time and by trail, from more than $100 to only a few dollars.
In courtly fashion the insurgents would give their "donors" a receipt to prevent double jeopardy: Show the receipt, and you didn't have to give to other Maoists along the trail.
There were no red flags or gunpoint check posts on the first day, only emerald rice terraces cascading down the mountains. The next day was equally spectacular, with waterfalls from earth and sky. In rain we tramped through a gorge with too many waterfalls to count, each pounding hundreds of feet. Huge stands of bamboo waved in the storm, arced into the sky, dropped and shook thick fronds. We crossed steel suspension bridges over the white Marsyangdi River.
Just before the town of Chamje, I spotted a bamboo barrier and the flash of a red flag with the emblem of a white hammer and sickle.
Five young men, one boy and a woman were hanging out on the porch of a wooden hut. They wore no uniforms, though one had a red woolen cap. I couldn't see any weapons.
The young man in the cap handed me a printed page. "Appeal to Foreign Tourists," it read. "Welcome to Nepal, land of valiant Gorkha fighters, and warmest greetings from the C.P.N (Maoist) and United Revolutionary People's Council, Nepal.
"You are visiting this magnificently beautiful country in the most important juncture of its history. The old feudal and monarchical Nepal is fast crumbling under the tremendous pressure of the people's revolutionary struggle ... "
I skimmed. "We loathe the very idea of extortion from anybody as alleged by our detractors. We would, hence, humbly appeal to you to make a voluntary donation ... "
"But of course, madam," they assured me.
Chhering waggled his head back and forth in that classic, noncommittal Nepalese gesture.
"Do what you like," he said.
In my five previous trips to Nepal, I'd never gotten a Maoist receipt. I gave 500 rupees, about $8.
At the teahouses, I asked other trekkers if they'd donated. John Beath, a South African now living in Australia, told me, "We said namaste, and went on."
Said Erez Ayalon, 26, an Israeli: "They didn't like my answer, but they didn't do anything about it."
Everyone seemed to see the Maoists as a tourist attraction more than anything. They obviously felt safe in Nepal.
David Duncan, 53, from Auburn (Placer County), was traveling alone. "I feel more comfortable trekking in Nepal than in Latin America," he said, because the latter was plagued with robberies.
It was the local guides and porters who didn't feel safe. When I mentioned being a journalist, one veteran Sherpa guide, who'd told me nothing more damning than "I just hope it gets better here," begged that I not use his name out of fear that Maoists would harm him, his family or employer.
Over the next two days, the trail narrowed into deeper gorges, passed more waterfalls and climbed through pine forests. We ascended endless rough stone steps. Soon we could see Annapurna II, then III and IV - edifices of rock and ice, glacier and cliff. (Ironically, you walk all the way around the main Annapurna peak, but you rarely see it.)
Though political graffiti decorated every village, too, I'm happy to report that the unrest hasn't dampened the sweet, earnest hospitality that has endeared travelers to Nepal. "We have spacey room," urged a teahouse sign near Pisang village, "well seprate you can sleep without any disturb!" Using only wood and kerosene, local cooks still manage to make apple crumble and "Cadbury chocolate" pies.
In Manang, a one-path town of stone houses at 11,610 feet, we attended a lecture by the Himalayan Rescue Association. Andy Gorlin, a volunteer American physician, said altitude sickness - rather than the Maoists - is the big risk to trekkers. Two weeks after that, as if to prove the point, I heard that two tourists died of it near the 17,769-foot Thorung La pass.
A couple of days later, in the tiny village Thorung Phedi, at the base of the pass, we prepared for the long and difficult climb. The plan was to rise at 5 a.m. and hike 3,000 feet uphill. As I stood there contemplating this, a horse nudged me. I discovered that people could hire horses to ride up the pass.
I felt like a wimp, but asked the price. Sixty dollars.
Before dawn I settled onto her saddle of Tibetan carpets and rode up the snow-covered pass like a Victorian lady traveler. I watched the crystals of snow ignite at dawn; rainbows danced in my camera lens. Morning flowed down the slopes.
The other side, the fabled Mustang district, was an arid plateau carved by wind. This region, especially Upper Mustang, mostly had stayed apart from Nepal's political problems, including the Maoists.
The town of Kagbeni was like stepping into medieval times: a red ochre monastery, old frescoes, mud walls. Except, that is, for the few reminders of modern times, including a "YakDonalds" restaurant.
When we hit the next town, Jomson, with an airstrip serving the region, I began to feel that Nepal's trekking trails were back in business. It became hard to get a room.
Our porters left at dawn to try to get us into the lovely Dhaulagiri Lodge in the hot springs town of Tatopani. Owner Bhuwan Gauchan told me - after we scored a bed - that the old insurgency period had one advantage: "You didn't have to rush for rooms."
We had one last encounter with Maoist-style enforced philanthropy in the village of Ghorepani, where the written appeal - pasted on a red flag - asked that the "warmly welcomed" foreigners "invest your assists" in helping the revolutionary movement improve tourism and natural resources in the area.
I didn't believe for a second that the money would go to tourism - more like food and fuel for the out-of-work cadres. A sour-faced man sat at a desk with a woman in a pink shawl hovering behind him. This Maoist talked tough. My receipt was in my bag with the porters, and the man said, "Then you make a donation, or you wait for your porters."
I gave him 200 rupees ($3.25) - and got another receipt - only to get chided later that night by other trekkers who had just ignored the Maoists and walked on by.
Prachanda, the Maoist leader, has told his cadres to desist, but they're still collecting. It seems this movement is struggling to balance the peace accord with its members' desperate need for rice.
My real concern is that the political truce is as unstable as the rickety suspension bridges we crossed. Elections originally scheduled for Nov. 22 were canceled, a major setback. Anyone contemplating a trip to Nepal should consider a refundable ticket and tour, and watch the news and government sites carefully.
But I do think we go to places like Nepal for a kind of risk - the kind that real travel, as distinguished from a vacation (which has its own virtues), gives. Literally breathtaking, trekking in the Himalayas makes us feel our fragility.
We travel to have our minds blown by beauty, and our illusions of "self" and security destabilized. We go to lose the familiar, the blanket that muffles the spirit and the senses.
Is Nepal safe? Is life?
If you go
When to go
High season is post-monsoon (mid-October through mid-December), and secondarily February through mid April.
There are no nonstop flights from the United States to Kathmandu. Most travelers from the West Coast fly via Bangkok, then hop a 3.5-hour flight to Kathmandu on Thai Airways or Nepal Airlines. It's also possible to go to Kathmandu via Hong Kong on Dragonair.
What to do
Though I saw several trekkers doing the Annapurna Circuit on their own (no porters or guide), it's not smart to go solo in Nepal these days, given the political insurgency. There are hundreds of tour companies that can arrange tours and/or trekking in Nepal, from high-end Geographic Expeditions ( www.geoex.com) to tiny agencies down alleys in Kathmandu. I used Sunny Travels and Tours ( www.sunnytravels.com.np), and the service was superb. Cost was $1,300 per person for a full-service, 20-day Annapurna Circuit "teahouse" trek, including transport from Kathmandu to the trailhead, a skilled guide and two porters, good rooms and all food, two nights in Pokhara and a return flight to Kathmandu.
Socialtours.com, based in Kathmandu, has won responsible tourism awards and is run by a friendly man, Raj Gyawali, who blogs about safety in Nepal. www.socialtours.com.
For more information
Both the U.S. ( www.travel.state.gov) and U.K. ( www.britishembassy.gov.uk) governments offer excellent, detailed security information. The U.S. embassy in Nepal's Web site, nepal.usembassy.gov, has up-to-date information. Also try www.thekathmandupost.com and www.thehimalayantimes.com for the latest news. The Integrated Regional Information Networks, www.irinnews.org, an editorially independent news service for the United Nations, offers terrific overviews and analysis.
If you get too depressed, see the Web sites of Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation. www.nyof.org, or American Himalayan Foundation, www.ahf.org, and read about the region through the eyes of these San Francisco nonprofits that have worked there for years.
The best book on Nepal's history is "Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy" (2005) by novelist Manjushree Thapa.
Cherilyn Parsons last wrote for Travel about Newport, Ore. To comment, go to sfgate.com/travel and follow the links.
This article appeared on page G - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle