Nepali Times
Manang sans Manangis


Life is difficult for Manangis who have not migrated. These women are carrying compost to prepare the fields for winter wheat.
The change is obvious. The houses along the trekking route are built with imported building materials: they have concrete floors, iron grilles and glass windows. There are bakeries, coffee shops, and movie theatres in Manang village.

Basic services like water supply and sewerage, electricity and telephone lines are now available. The erratic NTC mobile network is surprisingly consistent in this remote district and loadshedding, unsurprisingly, is less than in the capital. If it were not for the snow-clad mountains that tower over you on both sides, you'd be forgiven for forgetting you were in a trans-Himalayan valley of nomadic people of Tibetan origin, said to have crossed the mountains in the course of hunting and gathering centuries ago.

The only reminder of Manang's unique heritage are a few poor settlements of basic stone stacked one on top of another against a wall of towering cliffs. They remind you of Manang's medieval beginnings, but even these houses own modern appliances: television sets, VCD/DVD players and radio sets so their inhabitants can keep abreast of happenings in the wider world. Manang district, after all, is one of the wealthier districts in Nepal, with a per capita income of $504 to national average of $240.

The Manang valley's harsh climate, due to the rain-shadow created by the Annapurna massif, ensured that its people never lost their nomadic tendencies. When King Mahendra granted special privileges to the Manangis in the 1960s, many moved down to Kathmandu and beyond and became prosperous traders, hoteliers and businessmen. The out-migration was intense, and depopulated Manang district between the years 1960 to 1990. It was only in the 1990s, with the increased popularity of the Annapurna Circuit trek, that a few people returned to tap tourism.

But Subarna Lama, a hotelier in Chame, says that rich Manangis either live in Kathmandu or abroad. Subarna's children study in Kathmandu, while her husband works in the US. Karma Gurung, whose father owns the best hotels in Braka, prefers working as a bartender in Kathmandu to working in his village. His brother Rabi is studying to be a Lama in Kathmandu. They help father Sonam Gurung during the tourist season. Tourist numbers have gone up since the peace agreement was signed in 2006, and they are doing good business. But the Gurung brothers say they want to see the world.

In-migration from neighbouring districts has been on the rise in recent years, mostly from Gorkha district. In fact, those from Gorkha now outnumber Manangis in Manang, says Ram Raja Prasad Subedi, CDO of the district. Gorkha people mostly go to Manang in search of employment and end up settling there.

With the construction of the road, in-migration is expected to rise. The road linking Besisahar to Chame has been completed up to Chhahare, near Syange. This has already shortened the journey from Besisahar by one day. Tourist entrepreneurs may worry about what this will do to tourism, but hundreds of villagers will benefit directly from access to the road. The Manangis may keep on moving, but their heartland, Manang, awaits a future they won't chart for very long.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)