This time of year, the Manang valley is a patchwork quilt of yellow and brown. The village elders have met to inspect the ripening buckwheat and millet, and decreed that harvests will begin tomorrow.
The scenic autumn colours hide a serious social dislocation. Decades of depopulation, the migration of Manangis to Kathmandu and beyond, has taken its toll. Many of the fields are fallow, there just isn't enough manpower for the harvest, so hundreds of villagers have moved up from Barpak in Upper Gorkha for the harvest season. Even before the sun rises from behind Pisang's towering cone, the workers are on the terraces. The fields rise up like a staircase from the frothing Marsyangdi up to the base of the cliffs that form the northern ramparts of the Annapurnas.
It is back-breaking work and they are at it all day, cutting, gathering, threshing with no time to admire some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. Thick forests of fir and spruce serrate the ridges, with the trees clinging to the steep slopes right up to the snowline. High above all this are the knife-edge ridges, fluted crests and teetering blue seracs of the hanging glaciers on Annapurna.
Along the flat and wide trail from Humde airfield to Manang, there are a few trekkers this season to take in this view. On a normal October, there would be 300 tourists a day, walking up towards Thorung La and Jomsom. This season, there haven't been more than 80 daily doing the traverse. The end of the ceasefire on 27 August and the security situation down valley in Lamjung discouraged many. The adventurous came nevertheless, but were blocked by the Marsyangdi bridge below Dharapani that was damaged by a rockfall in mid-September.
Information and rumours travel quickly up and down the trails, and now reports are rife of rampant Maoist extortion in Ghorepani at the other end of the Annapurna circuit. Many who can afford it are planning to fly out from Jomsom instead of walking to Pokhara. In the lodges at night over dinner, trekkers exchange experiences of their encounters with Maoists: the courteous requests to donate to the revolution with a grenade peeking from below the shirt. Receipts for Rs 1,000 bearing portraits of Marx, Lenin and Mao and denouncing American imperialism have become the new take-home souvenirs of a trek in Nepal. Most take the encounters in their stride, it is the khaobadi they are more worried about.
Many Manangis who returned to their home villages after the trekking bonanza of the 1990s are now in gloom. "We struggled a lot to make tourism work here, if it goes on like this all our investment will be wasted," says the ex-DDC chairman Michung Gurung (pic, right). "And if tourism goes down, we go down."
Even though what happens in Kathmandu has such direct impact on the economy and development of Manang, its politics and horse-trading feels remote here. Even the Nepali Congress chairman of Manang DDC, Phunjo Gurung, says there are no partisan causes here. "People are least concerned about politics, they just want things to get back to normal so the tourists start coming again," says Phunjo, who runs one of Manang's classiest restaurants, specialising in Mexican and Italian cuisine.
Phunjo is impatient to get back to the work the people elected him for, but says his party bosses in Kathmandu wouldn't understand this. When he was DDC chairman, Phunjo worked closely with the Annapurna Area Conservation Project to upgrade the trekking trails, build and repair bridges. Today, every VDC in Manang is connected by new suspension bridges, trekkers who want to go on side trips have safe and well-marked trails and the community forestry program has revived much of woods around Pisang.
Revival of tourism would also reverse the trend for outmigration as more Manangis come back. "There is a perception in Kathmandu that Managis are all rich," says Phunjo, "but the reality is different. Here you have to struggle, but if you work hard it has rewards."
Karma Tsering (pic, right) started the first bakery in Manang in Braga, and says he and his family can survive from farming even if tourism completely dries up. "You don't need as much money here as you do in Kathmandu, you have to work hard, but you can make a living from the land," says Karma. But even he admits that he doesn't have to get up at three every morning to start baking bread like he used to five years ago.
Sonam Tapkey is rushing off to his field on the slopes above Braga, carrying lunch for his Barpak harvesters. He has time to do this because there are few tourists in his Hotel New Yak. With his John Lennon spectacles and film-star good looks, Sonam has no regrets about leaving Kathmandu. "Why live anywhere else when your home village is so beautiful, the air and water is clean?" he asks with a wide grin.
For Sonam, tourism has been the impetus to farm vegetables, sell a tasty health drink made from high-altitude wild seabuckthorn berries, and run roadside shops. All this will suffer if the tourism slump continues. "We have cabbages here that are 10 kg, carrots of three kg, if there are no trekkers we have to feed them to the horses," says 75-year-old Tashi Tsering.
Manang returnees like Tashi say the real problem is that city Manangis are not helping their village, and they don't want to come back. Michung Gurung, who returned to Manang in 1977 after trading between Bangkok, Penang and Singapore, agrees that the Manang diaspora only donates to monasteries and rites. "With the money they give gompas, we could upgrade schools and healthposts in all VDCs here," Michung tells us.
Most of those who have returned to Manang have had to leave behind their children in expensive boarding schools in Kathmandu or India. They are worried their children are alienated from Managi culture, language and festivals and act like foreigners when they come home for holidays. Because of the tourist slump, it is also getting difficult to pay the school fees.
With an average per capita income four times the national average, there seems to be no reason why quality schools can't be set up in Manang. But that may have to wait for the return for the next generation of wealthy international Manangis who want to get back to their roots.
Michung has also served as DDC chairman and has long stopped expecting anything from Kathmandu. "They don't care for us, whatever needs to be done we must do ourselves," he says. Indeed, most recent development in Manang has been because of local initiative. The airfield at Humde was carved out from a hillside by local people 15 years ago, the two power plants that supply electricity were set up locally but demand has outstripped supply and the turbines need repairs so there is power in Manang only on alternate nights.
Tripple Gurung (pic, right) is a Manangi who flies for Yeti Airlines, and has been trying to promote tourism to his home valley. He flies regularly into Humde from Kathmandu, and agrees that visitor numbers would grow if the flights could be made more regular. He has set up the Manang Youth Club to carry out conservation work, and is the prime mover behind the Destination Manang Year 2004 campaign.
He sums it all up: "People don't know that 30 minutes from Kathmandu you have this unspoilt mountain paradise, and it is income from tourism that will ultimately help us preserve our culture and our way of life."