Until two years ago, the trail from Terathum to Milke Danda and Jaljale Himal in the rhododendron season would be one long line of trekkers and porters.
This year, the mountains are ablaze again with Nepal's national flower. The trees are sagging a bit under the weight of late spring snow here in eastern Nepal and it's not just red, there are blossoms of every shade from pure white to deep red. But there are few trekkers here to enjoy the sight.
This is also the route to Kangchenjunga Base Camp via Taplejung and where rafters used to come to raft down the Tamur and Arun. But this spring there has been only a sprinkling of mountaineers headed up the mountains.
"This time of year, there wouldn't be a lodge empty around here, this year we haven't seen trekkers for months on end," says Donga Sherpa who runs Yak Hotel in Gupha Pokhari.
Last week, there was a rare Swiss-German group with 12 ecstatic trekkers who had timed their arrival here with the peak of the rhododendron season. They spent time birdwatching at Kosi Tappu, travelled up to Taplejung and will be flying back to Kathmandu from Tumlingtar.
Sixty-year-old Swiss, Peter Schmidt, is a Nepal veteran having come to trek here 17 times. Many in the group are repeat visitors who have come here in the past and this time brought their friends to see the rhododendrons. What's different this year is the Maoist trekking tax which has gone up to Rs 5,000. "It's a bit steep," says Schmidt, but otherwise isn't that bothered about paying it, "we run into them but if you pay they don't make a fuss."
However, having already been forced to pay Rs 3,000 in Mangalbare a few days before, the group ran out of rupees to pay the rebels. So they scrounged around for all the euros and dollars they could find.
The local commissar, Comrade Himal, explains to the tourists that they only have to pay once and promises to refund the Rs 3,000 justifying the tax saying it is to protect visitors from robbers along the trail. "It's no different than the visa fee you pay to enter Nepal, you are paying this to enter our territory," he tells the sceptical looking foreigners. That day, the Maoists collected Rs 55,000 from the group.
The trekkers have no illusions that they are being made to pay at the point of a gun. The Maoists are all menacingly armed with SLRs and one German woman is not impressed, saying: "We didn't come here to look at guns, we want to help Nepal's economy with tourism not give money to people to buy guns."
Local lodge owners say news of the conflict has killed tourism, and even the few people who still come to this remote part of Nepal will stop coming if the extortion terrorism continues. Teashop owners also have to pay a part of their meagre earnings to the rebels. Dondu Sherpa used to be very busy this time of year running her lodge in Basantapur. These days she doesn't have much to do. "It's fear of the Maoists, their extortion, bandas and blockades that have affected tourism," she says.
"We had a lot of cancellations this year because of negative news of Nepal," says Explorer Nepal's trekking guide Narayan Shrestha, who is leading the group. But even after being told about the extortion, many still come. "I guess it is part of Nepal's attraction as a trekking and adventure destination," says Shrestha, adding that no trekker has ever been directly harmed in Nepal.
Commissar Himal hangs around to chat up the trekkers. He says he will pass their comment about Rs 5,000 being too much up the rebel hierarchy. Despite the 11-day strike, Himal allowed the trekkers to pass, saying the ban on travel was only aimed at the "old regime".
British journalist, Peter Patson, who was travelling in the area, said he wasn't really harassed by either the Maoists or the army. As a journalist, he was even exempted from the revolutionary tax. He told us: "It's natural to be a bit nervous before you come but once you pay their tax they leave you alone."
Ever since two businessmen from Jiri-Khimti in Terathum were robbed and killed by khaobadis on the trail to Basantapur in January, there have been a spate of armed robberies in Sankhuwasabha district by a gang of five ex-Maoists. Local rebels are now patrolling the trails on the lookout not for soldiers but for their renegade comrades who have taken to robbery.
"There are at least 30 of our comrades who have stolen money and left the party in this district," admits a Maoist who calls himself Harka. Those who have deserted with a lot of money have gone to India or to cities in the tarai, he adds, but others hang around in the district and pretend to be Maoists and extort money or rob travellers.
A local teashop owner asks the Maoists how he's supposed to know if the people coming to collect 'donations' are genuine Maoists, but Harka doesn't have a convincing answer. "Take pictures of them," he says. Although the khaobadis will be severely punished, says Harka, his patrols have not yet caught a single renegade Maoist. Local farmers are victimised from multiple sources: soldiers on patrol who think they are Maoists, Maoists who think they are spies for the army, and criminals pretending to be Maoists. The rebels are also brutally punishing people they suspect of sheltering khaobadis. Villagers are afraid to talk but they tell us that they are fed up of it all.
After 1 February, there has been no qualitative change in ground reality here. In fact, the Maoists seem to have been emboldened. Maoist cadre of Taplejung's Sanghu area, Comrade Nikhil says, "Now, the people and the political parties will support us." The bunker building campaign in schools appears to have ended. The Maoists are now capturing food caravans headed toward outlying villages and recently started taking 25 percent of all medicines supplied to health posts. Rather than face reprisals from the army, the villagers have locked up the health posts.
Gopal Dahal in Sankhuwasabha