Nepali Times
The Gorgeous Arun

The predictable thing about remote places is that they don\'t stay remote for long. The same will be the case with the literally "gorgeous" Arun Valley near Num. The project to build a hydro-electric plant at this spot where the Arun takes a mighty curl after entering Nepal from Tibet is being revived.

The vertical difference between the bottom of the Arun gorge (barely 1,500m where it enters Nepal) to the top of Makalu (nearly 8,500m) within a horizontal distance of barely 15 km must make this one of the deepest scars on the earth\'s surface. It is also remote. The nearest highway is at Basantapur, a three-day walk to the east. There is an airport at Tumlingtar, about 10 km downstream.

The Arun project will change the entire character of this area. The locals here and in Tumlingtar were disappointed when the World Bank pulled out in 1995, although environmentalists rejoiced. Now the tables have turned. There is something to be said in favour of opening up: who are we to tell the locals what they should do? Life without the road is hard, everything (kerosene, salt, textiles) has to be carried in and bartered. If someone is seriously sick, it is a death sentence, since the local health post is inadequate and the plane ride to Kathmandu is too expensive.

But going by what has happened in other parts of Nepal where the road has arrived, like Jiri or Gorkha, the locals need to be prepared for the transformation.

The road brings in outside world with all its ravages. It does not necessarily make kerosene and grain, or cigarettes any cheaper. It provides an easier access for local goods, but does not always offer a proper price.

The project itself will bring jobs, and the government is trying to ensure that locals benefit from the royalty that foreign investors pay. Here again, the track record from some other "development" projects is not good.

So, go to Num before it changes forever. The neat inclined village of Khandbari and its rato mato, the serenely soothing ridgetop town of Chainpur with its cobblestone streets and its vibrant market days. A little further east, the fabulous town of Taplejung. Thick forests drape the steep slopes of the Arun near Num, where there is a suspension bridge over the narrow, roiling waters. It is hard to imagine here in this noisy valley floor that this narrow 20 m neck of the Arun at Num is the only outlet for all the water from the mountains south of Tsang Po, north of Everest and Kangchenjunga.

From here, at barely 600 mtrs above sea level the trail climbs up to 4,000 mtrs on Shipton La. And beyond lies the mystic land of the Barun Valley.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)