The sound of guns and bombs are never far away in rural Nepal these days. And so it is here, in the scenic Dolakha town of Jiri.
This is where the road from Lamosangu ends and the start of the trek to Lukla began in the old days. There are still some intrepid trekkers looking for adventure who walk this way, but for the most part the night-stops along the trail are ghost towns.
Despite the brilliant sunshine, it is a freezing winter morning here at nearly 2,000m above sea level. Thousands of people from in and around Jiri have gathered at the Jiri Higher Secondary School (see pic). Most are alumni of the school and the student body is also present to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the school and an alumni reunion.
Sukbeer Biswokarma's eyes are moist with emotion. He is a labourer from a simple Dalit family and can't contain himself after receiving a Letter of Appreciation from Ambika Prasad Regmi, Dolakha's DEO. "It is my happiness overflowing," he says, "these are tears of joy."
Biswokarma and his friends have been respected for their dedication in finishing work on the school library in time despite all hardships. Krishna Jirel is a close friend of Biswokarma and says this is the first time "simple people" like him have been honoured and their work recognised. It was a very small gesture by the school that made an immeasurable impact on Sukbeer and Krishna.
Principal Tek Bahadur Jirel felicitates Gertrude Liebrich, a volunteer from Basel for her contribution to the school. Jirel reminds those gathered that Jiri has strong links to Switzerland ever since the Swiss built this highway 25 years ago. In fact, Switzerland seems to have done more for Jiri than Kathmandu ever did.
A helicopter passes overhead and all eyes look up at the sky. It is flying high and headed east towards Lukla. There is a collective sigh of relief. For the past few days the surrounding hills have reverberated with the sound of gunfire and explosions. Some who have come to the school from Chuchure, Lapchan and Banchare in the adjacent district of Ramechhap speak of a bloody battle that lasted all day. The army said many dozens of Maoists were killed, but they're not boasting about it. Even the army doesn't want to be seen as a butcher of fellow Nepalis.
Sixty-two-year-old Aaite Tamang and his granddaughter Malati, nine, are from Banchare and have just arrived in Jiri to flee the fighting. "What a tragedy I have to see in my old age," says Aaite. Last year, a platoon of Maoists entered his cattle-shed, took away his bull and slaughtered it. Last week, his pregnant water buffalo was grazing in the forest when it was killed in strafing by an army helicopter.
Aaite wants to take Malati far away from the sound of gunfire and is headed for Kathmandu. He goes to the bus park to buy tickets for Kathmandu for tomorrow. The ticket seller tells him: "Nakabandi chha, bus chhaina."