It was bound to happen sooner or later: Maoists have become Nepal's latest tourist attraction.
Trekking lodges along the Annapurna Base Camp trail are abuzz with hikers exchanging experiences on their encounters with the rebels and passing around precious souvenirs: Maoist tax receipts emblazoned with portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Compared to last year, when many tourists were apprehensive about meeting Maoists and felt uncomfortable about paying a 'revolutionary tax' to a group espousing violence, this season's trekkers seem to have taken the rebels in their stride.
"They behaved like friends," said Joni Lundstrom from Sweden, "they gave us a receipt for Rs 1,000 and told us they would provide us with security."
There is an apparent paradox here: anywhere else in the world news of violence dissuades tourists but in Nepal it seems to be turning out to be something of a draw. Part of the reason is that the young Maoists that trekkers have met on the Annapurna Base Camp trail are non-threatening, friendly and helpful. The result is that the Annapurna trail has seen a spurt in trekking compared to the last season when publicity about firefights near Ghandruk forced many to go to Khumbu instead. Some 200 trekkers have been passing through Pokhara every day headed to Annapurna Base Camp or to Ghorepani.
Although the war tax is mandatory, it doesn't seem to bother individual trekkers much, they see it as just another fee that tourists have to pay the authorities every step of the way in Nepal. Although trekking permits and charges have been scrapped for the Annapurnas there is still the Rs 2,000 Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) fee.
Till last year, the Maoist receipts were from the 'People's Liberation Army'. This year the Maoists have a checkpoint in Ghorepani where they charge Rs 1,200 ($15) for entry and give receipts bearing the name of the Maoists' Magarat Autonomous Region. Another checkpoint in Ghandruk (pictured above) is on the road to Annapurna Base Camp and there the Thambuwan Autonomous Region charges Rs 100 per day as 'people's tax'. But they are flexible. When a Japanese trekker met Maoists only on the return journey when all his money had finished, the rebel sentry gave him Rs 700 and sent him down to Pokhara.
The Maoist tax has now become so organised that trekking agents even budget the expense for their groups before they go on the trek.
"For many trekkers, coming across guerrillas with guns is an exciting experience," Val Pikethly, a Canadian trekking guide told us recently. "They get excited because they are not affected by the insurgency like the locals are."
Amanda Mockidge, a British trekker, came across rebels in the Annapurna region in western Nepal recently and was asked to pay Rs 500. "I enjoyed chatting with them," she recalled, "they said they would use the money for the revolutionary cause." Trekkers say they are never forced to pay the money but the Maoists usually carry a gun and they pay anyway just to avoid trouble. In the remote Kangchenjunga and Karnali treks, the fee is $100 per trekkers and Rs 500 for per porter and guide.
Despite frequent reports of encounters with Maoists, many trekkers have returned from their Annapurna treks without ever meeting the rebels. Other parts of Nepal, such as Everest and Langtang, are free of Maoist activity even though porters have to go through intensive searches by security forces at checkpoints along the trail.
Bandinima Sherpa, vice-president of the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal, says news of friendly Maoists have spread through the Internet and travellers' chats and most trekkers are not rattled to meet rebels anymore. "Trekking is adventure tourism, and they see it as a part of the adventure package."
Even so, tourism officials deny they will ever sell Maoism as a tourist attraction. They say the conflict has ruined the local economy, and everyone in the mountains is waiting for a durable ceasefire and lasting peace so the tourists return in the numbers they once came.
No tourist has ever been directly harmed by the Maoists but news of the conflict in the international media has affected arrivals even though numbers are climbing again this season for the first time since 1998.