Here in Nepal's far-west, it is a feast of monsoon green. Verdant mountains, roadsides overflowing with weeds and grass in every shade of green from emerald to jade. The rains have brought life back to this rugged dry region, and from the tarai to the mountains the plant life has exploded in an immense splash of chlorophyll.
We rush past the choking reeds lining the highway cutting through the Royal Bardia National Park up the winding roads to the tall, cool and serene pine forests of Dadeldhura. The green never leaves us, it soothes our monitor-weary eyes and calms our souls. After the cynicism and apathy of the capital valley, the people of the far-west exude a sense of vigour and hope. The teashop owner in Chisapani, the community health volunteer in Nawadurga, the policeman on duty atop Amar Singh Gadi-all alert, self-assured citizens with a refreshingly positive outlook on life. Despite all odds, despite the lack of help and support, they help themselves and their communities.
A cool breeze blows down with the swollen grey swells of the mighty Karnali River at Chisapani. It shifts wisps of hair over Sahuni's face as she stokes up the fire to prepare tea. Pointing to the jungle across the highway she tells us: "There are many more bandels (wild boar) now thanks to thuldai (big brother) confiscating all the guns." When we inquire how come she is minding the store alone, she lets out a gurgling laugh. Her husband is away somewhere minding his own business. If he is doing what most other men these parts do, then he is drinking and playing cards. These days, because of the thuldai, the drinking and gambling has gone semi-underground. Sahuni hands over our tea, and adds with a men-will-be-men tone: "They won't stop drinking, dry zone or not."
In Nawadurga village in Dadeldhura, we ask the menfolk how things are going. "Bharat nabhai gujara chuldaina," says one. India is across the border, and most here migrate to work part of the year to work as porters or to sell produce. Most cannot imagine a livelihood without India. But their wives do not understand why they go across the border for back-breaking work if they spend most of their earnings in drinking and gambling. "Our communities tried to launch several anti-alcohol and gambling campaigns, it didn't work." says Mandari Devi Bhatta. "Now due to the maobadi's meherbani they have finally stopped drinking." But prohibition courtesy of the Maoists doesn't impress other men here, they don't understand what the big fuss is all about, they say forcing men not to drink will never work.
Nearby is the thick forest of the once denuded hill of Bandanda. Wild animals, including deer, snakes and leopards, have staged a comeback. Up in the hills around the district headquarters, hugging the ridgeline and the main bazaar, is a prize-winning community forestry run by women. "After the CDO's office confiscated the guns we no longer hear gunshots of poachers," says a villager in the aptly-named Bagh Bazar where leopards now roam the streets at night. Few dogs remain, the ones not taken away by leopards. Parents are careful not to let their small children stray after nightfall.
Half an hour's walk downhill from Gaira on the ridge that separates Doti from Dadeldhura is Nikaney village. Ripening terraces of maize hug the contours of the hillside. And here too, the spreading community forests have brought their woes. "It's the monkeys and leeches that bother us this time of the year," says Kallu Gurung, as she deftly flicks away a leech from her ankles with the tip of her sickle. "We have to take turns staying awake all night in the machans to chase the monkeys away." But Bir Bahadur Dangi has nearly given up: "Nothing can stop these monkeys rampaging through our maize crop." With no guns, the farmers have turned to observing monkey behaviour and use counter-psy war tactics. "We noticed that the leader of the pack usually comes in to scout the field," explains Bir Bahadur. "The others come only if he gives the green signal. So the trick is to scare the leader away."
Back on the highway in Gaira, we peel off scores of leeches from our legs and arms. The tea-shop owner doesn't allow us to flick them into a drain by the highway. "No, they will multiply and make our lives unbearable," he says, and proceeds to roast them with smouldering firewood from his kitchen. The smell of barbequed blood wafts in the air as we gulp our tea.
The highway is lined with hundreds of tins filled with pine resin, waiting for collection for the turpentine factories in the plains. The tapper cuts trees with girths of more than three feet for sap and sells each tin for Rs80. The monsoon mists move in silently through the high pines. Further along the road, we look eastwards towards Matela, a small cluster of houses over the Ruwakhola which is the hometown of prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Several hours' walk away from Matela is the school that Deuba attended. Certainly a long hike from Matela to Baluwatar for Deuba.
A spate of construction seems to have gripped Dadeldhura ever since the highway got black-topped two years ago. A trip that used to take six hours over bumpy dusty or slushy road from Atariya on the Mahendra Highway is now a smooth three hours away. After the road was built, many Dadeldhurans have migrated back up from the plains, drawn by the cooler climate and spectacular views of Api and Saipal to the north-the westernmost mountains in the Nepal Himalaya on the tri-junction of Nepal, India and China. With improved transportation, and the opening of small hotels, Dadeldhura is bracing itself for a tourism boom.
And it is not just the views that will bring visitors. Dadeldhura also has a great potential for historical tourism. The region has great significance and is littered with landmarks from Nepal's westward expansion 200 years ago-famous forts that the Gorkhali forces established and fought to defend against British invaders in the 1814-16 wars. Amar Singh Gadi outside Dadeldhura is named after the famous general who showed courage and endurance in the famous battles against the British. The fort offers a 360-degree view of western Nepal and the hills of Garhwal in India. It used to be sentried by the army, today it has four posts manned by police. Some are still in their teens, with heavy rifles slung across their shoulders, as they peer down from their bunkered posts.
Inside the fort, the only well maintained structure is the altar of Bhairab. Overgrown weeds choke up the rest of the fort, including the ruin of a two-room structure near the altar where Amar Singh may have once lived. Where did the soldiers live? The fort as it stands seems ridiculously small to have housed an army. Were there underground chambers? But there is no one to answer these questions. No guide, no brochures. Nothing other than the general text from the pages of a history book on a faded signpost near Amar Singh's garishly-painted statue which sports a walrus moustache. Amar Singh looks westwards, towards Almora and beyond which once used to be Nepali territory.
The border of Nepal lies on the banks of the Mahakali a day's walk from the district headquarters. Kathmandu seems very far away from here. Two days by bus, if the roads are clear. There is so much to see here, so much to feel, as Nepalis. If only it were more accessible by air through airports large enough to handle bigger airplanes at Mahendranagar or Dhangadi. The resulting boom in tourism, both internal and external, every third man in Nawadurga and Gangkhet village would probably not have to head west to earn a living.