In the remote borderlands of the high Himalaya, several valleys are said to be Beyul-hidden lands that, according to ancient scriptures, were established by Guru Rinpoche, the 8th century Indian saint accredited for spreading Buddhism. Beyul are havens of peace, prosperity and spiritual progress and refuges
for believers. In 17th century Tsum (Chekampar), a valley that branches off the Budi Gandaki towards the north of Ganesh Himal in upper Gorkha, was named Beyul Kyimolung.
Even non-Buddhists understand why Tsum is perceived as a blessed land. Perhaps one of Nepal's most beautiful valleys, it is cut off from the southern lowlands of Nepal by deep, forested gorges and swift rivers, and from Tibet in the north by snow-covered passes. The surprisingly flat valley floor provides for some 4,000 inhabitants of almost exclusively Tibetan origin. Clusters of stone houses with slate roofs dot the landscape, enclosed by gentle forested slopes and snow capped mountains with cascading glaciers. This is century-old Buddhist heartland, with monasteries, bumpa, chortens and mani walls omnipresent.
Beyul Kyimolung means "the valley of happiness", a name echoed in the people, who appear proud and content-an attitude perhaps influenced by a strong feeling of identity, strong social cohesion and small income disparities. The generous Tsumpa hospitality is the highlight of a visit-countless cups of butter tea, dhindo and boiled potatoes shared generously with strangers.
And yet, one cannot help but wonder if the people's happiness and well being is not seriously compromised as they struggle with illness, lack of education and income shortages. Tsum has been almost completely neglected by development efforts, and now this isolation is perpetuated as people see themselves living in an area controlled by the Maoists and de-linked from the central government. The implications are clear long before entering the remote valley. A few hours north of Arughat Bazar, where the road and government outreach ends, a woman in her thirties sits beside the trail with a syringe sticking in her chest-the indigenous healer is treating her chronic cough by bloodletting. Asked whether the syringe is sterile, the healer says, "I always clean it in the river, and besides, I've used it on lots of patients."
In Tsum, change is slow. For centuries people have depended on subsistence agriculture, cattle rearing and all-important trade links to Tibet: to the east, Kyirong is only a day and a half walk over the mountains. But the cross-Himalayan trade of Tibetan salt for rice and goods from the Nepali hills has given way to one-sided shopping trips. There is hardly anything that can be bartered from the Nepali side and the once well-stocked village storages that awaited transport to Tibet are now empty. Except for the yearly yarchagumba rush in May, all other traffic over the high passes is one-way into Nepal as even rice and vegetable oil is cheaper in Tibet. The Tsumpa depend on several excursions every year, sometimes risking their lives, to earn small profits from retailing. "I lost three of my fingers to the cold for Rs 2000 when I went to Kyirong in January," says Dorji Norbu from Nile, showing his blackened left hand. "Had I not walked on and on for 24 hours without stopping, I would still be up there."
Still, the challenges in income are nothing compared to problems in health, sanitation and education. One village was completely devoid of children. Eighteen died in a single month last year, but because Tsum doesn't have any health workers, nobody could tell us why. A middle-aged woman tells us how much she misses their laughter.
If children reach the age of five-30 percent don't-chances that they benefit from formal schooling are slim. There are school buildings, but local confidence in public schools is close to zero. The half dozen trained local teachers in Tsum are an integral part of the social fabric, often involved in activities that distract them from their job. While we were there, one was preparing tormas for a village puja, and another was repairing a bridge.
Teachers posted by the government only show up sporadically. "Sometimes they only come once a year-they do not want to stay in remote areas," a villager explains. Irregular classes result in a low attendance rate, and Tshering Gyurmed, one of the local teachers, estimates that the primary enrollment rate has dropped to almost 20 percent. Only half of those enrolled also attend school. For most children, the only alternatives are no school at all or the monastery. Samten Dorji, who runs classes in Tsum's main monastery, Rachhen Gompa, tells us, "Up to 30 percent of children are sent to monastic schools in Bouddha and India where they become monks and nuns."
Villagers say the problems were much the same before the Maoists came in 2001. That year, police abandoned the Chokhang post and since then the Maoists come regularly in the summer to ask for contributions from villagers. But little has really changed, and since local elections were suspended in 2002, traditional village-based self-help systems for small repair and maintenance work have revived. The village headman oversees this, and, together with a group of elders, resolves small disputes over issues like trespassing cattle and unpaid debts. Two months ago, a man was suspected of having broken into a bumpa to steal the sacred relics. When the man denied the charges despite overwhelming evidence, the people beat him all night and then stuck his leg into a hot oven.
In a place where state services don't exist, self-help initiatives are the only option. Even further isolated by the present conflict, whatever few development benefits the area received are about to vanish. Out of the reach of the central government, but not under the aegis of the Maoists either, this is no man's land. Tsum, it seems, is too remote to be of critical importance for those with the power to help.
Stefan Priesner is Deputy Chief of SURF, a UNDP regional office, and visited Tsum in his personal capacity. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNDP.