For a land this remote it is remarkable how the people of Manang established themselves as successful traders long before the days of the market economy. Their trading goes back to King Prithivi Narayan Shah's time and continued well into the days of British colonialism, when they traded herbs with India, salt with Tibet and items such as curios and semi-precious stones as far as Thailand, Singapore and Malay. "After India's independence our trading rights automatically got cancelled because we did not have passports," says sexagenarian Chowang Norbu Ghale, a former trader who has been spending six months every year since 2000 in Upper Pisang heading the construction of a monastery at the foothills of Annapurna II.
After King Mahendra's visit here in the early 1970s the people were given passports and permits to trade. Customs duty was also waived and they returned to their historic profession. Once again Manangis ventured into Southeast Asia and then established themselves in Kathmandu with their newfound wealth. The two statues of King Mahendra here, one in Humde and the other under construction in Bhraga, the village he visited, are testimony to the Nyeshangte's (as the locals call themselves) gratitude to the monarch. But the exodus that followed nearly emptied the villages of Manang.
With the region opening for tourism in 1977 and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project's (ACAP) efforts to convince the people to preserve their culture and environment, the villages of Manang are slowly reviving. Tourism has played an important role in bringing educated youth back to rediscover the land of their ancestors. Along with them have also come sometimes troubling concepts of development and amenities of modern life.
Tripple Gurung, the president of the Manang Youth Society and a pilot by profession, is one concerned individual. He returns to his village whenever possible to help chart tourism's path and assist in the overall development of Manang. Guruing is one of the main forces behind the Destination Manang 2004 campaign and says confidently, "Manang has a lot of potential, whether it is eco or cultural tourism or mountain expeditions. If tourism picks up here the youth will certainly return."
Manang is easily one of the most beautiful and remote districts in the trans-Himalayan region of mid-western Nepal. The Manang Valley stretches between the Annapurna range to the southwest and Chulu to the northeast. The Thorang La pass at an altitude of 5416m joins Manang with Mustang. Together they form a part of the Annapurna circuit that is ranked among the top 10 most popular trekking routes in the world. This is a land abounding in natural beauty and flora and fauna and it is not uncommon to come across herds of blue sheep, the main food source for the endangered snow leopard, along the trek routes, an indication of the eco-system's robust health. Tilicho Lake, at a height of 5,200 m, is considered the world's highest lake and lures Hindu pilgrims and trekkers alike seeking the joy and solace of the Himalaya.
As one walks the mountain trails the sight and aroma of the myriad flowers is sometimes so strong it is dizzying. The region is also rich in medicinal herbs like Panch amle and Yarchagumba, found high in the upper hills. Unlike in western Nepal, locals here have decided to stop harvesting Yarchagumba, which is highly valued as an aphrodisiac, and even assigned guards so outsiders do not steal it. "We don't want it to finish. Our yaks feed on the herbs which makes their milk so delicious," explained one villager.
Manang's high altitude prohibited the growth of crops other than buckwheat, barley and potatoes. But with climate change, a range of vegetables such as spinach, cabbage and cauliflower and fruits like apples and plums, all with their unique Himalayan taste, are now grown. Villagers also come across earthworms in their fields now, something non-existent three decades back, they say.
Most of the area's villages already have telephone and electricity. Compared to other districts in Nepal, Manang, like Mustang, has been spared the ravages of the conflict. The road from Kathmandu to Besisahar has come to Khudi, a few hours below the district headquarters Chame, six hours below Manang village. The other route to Manang is by flight to Humde, two hours below Manang village, but the irregularity of flights is one of the main reasons some villagers are pushing for a road.
Michung Gurung, 47, is one of those who travelled abroad to trade with his father. He has long since settled here, opening the first lodge in Manang village in 1977 and another in Thorang Phedi, the camp before the pass, 23 years ago. Michung believes it is important to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the region but development is also equally necessary. "This is the 21st century. It will only be possible to save our culture and region if we develop. The road will bring enormous economic gains," he says.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the rapid pace of development. Mukhiya Biswakarma, 30, has been working as a trekking guide in the region for the last 16 years and is known throughout Manang as the Snow Monkey. He understands the need for change but emphasises that it is important to decelerate if the community and the region are to really benefit. "Everyone is talking about bringing a road but we need to question whether a road is really what Manang needs. How will it affect our culture and natural heritage which tourists come here for?"
As Manang opens up to the outside world it is obvious the region will undergo dramatic changes in the coming days. But the people here have one advantage-the community's ability to adapt to change. Manangis have proven they are strong enough to decide what is best for them.
Museum of Manang
Situated in Manang village the recently completed Manang Culture Museum highlights the region's natural and cultural heritage. Built to represent a traditional home, the museum showcases the traditional lifestyle of the local people or Nyeshangte. Tibetan by origin and mostly Buddhist by religion they do not belive in killing animals for reasons of faith. From their yaks and sheep they take milk to make butter and use the wool to spin fabric for clothes, carpets and rugs, without whose warmth it would be impossible to survive the cold.
Built of stones and wood like most traditional homes the main door of the Manangi house opens to a courtyard where the animals are usually tethered. The space also has handlooms where the women spend their spare time weaving traditional fabric. The upper level of the house consists of the sleeping quarters, storeroom, kitchen and prayer room, an essential part of every Manang abode.
The museum was funded by the New Zealand Agency for International Development and the Manang Youth Society. The land for the building was donated by locals while the Gompa Society and ACAP assisted in collecting items and setting up some of the exhibits.
Gyaru, one of the oldest settlements in Manang.
View of lower Pisang from upper Pisang.
Farmer in the buckwheat fields in lower Pisang.
Women in upper Pisang gives Manangi smile.