Nepali Times
‘tis the season


In his rocky abode high above flowering pink buckwheat fields and the swirling grey waters of the Marsyangdi river, Lama Tashi, 86, contemplates on the philings, or foreigners, in his life.

Ever since the oldest resident of Mananggaun and his 85-year-old wife decided to lead a quiet, contemplative life under a craggy cliff more than two decades ago, the two rarely venture down the steep slopes leading into this picturesque highland village.

But the elderly couple do not discourage the constant stream of visitors, namely tourists, who hike up to greet the lama with the customary khada or ceremonial scarf and often a donation of Rs 100- an exercise in acclimatisation and seeking blessings to cross the Thorong La. "Tourism hasn't replaced the pastoral economy, but it has definitely benefited us," nods the bearded lama seated in a cold, cramped prayer room, surrounded by hundreds of passport photos of tourists who have visited him glued to the wall.

But this monsoon has been quieter than usual. Following the state of national emergency, there is no sign of the student volunteer groups who used to visit in the off-season. Of the odd tourists trekking into the village, few hike up the hill. Most make the customary acclimatisation one-day stop in Manang village before moving onto the challenges of Thorong La on the way to Mustang.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed for this autumn season," says Binod Gurung who, with his wife Gita, has been stocking up supplies and cleaning house for the coming season. Two years ago, the couple gave up their curio business in Thamel to invest nearly Rs 10 million in the Yeti Hotel.

Like a number of their counterparts, they've been pushed by the global recession, and stricter immigration laws in places like Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, to look at opportunities at home. "It makes sense to invest here, things don't look too good in Kathmandu or abroad," says Topke Gurung, 27.

With money earned trading in Malaysia, Topke, with his partner Gyanjen, 28, has been running the Buddha's Kitchen, the popular local restaurant where villagers gossip over cups of black tea and local liquor, samosas and jilebis. The two also run a tiny video hall where villagers can watch Devadas and Om Jai Jagadish on VCD and during the season, tourists watch Harry Potter or Into Thin Air.

Relatively untouched by the Maoist movement and a major stop on the popular Annapurna circuit, local tourism entrepreneurs are getting together between Chame, Manang district's headquarters, and Thorong Peak, to market Manang's mystique. Weekly chartered flights take locals and tourists directly into Hunde airfield (3,200 m) built by labour contributed by locals nearly two decades ago. Otherwise, it's a five-day trip from Kathmandu.

Royal Nepal Airlines is also planning to fly Twin Otters twice a week from Kathmandu and Pokhara. "The more flights there are the better, we'd like more tourists who can afford to fly in, spend a week in and around Manang and then fly out, like they do in the Khumbu region," says Tripple P Gurung, president of the Manang Youth Society.

Gurung and his fellow villagers are doing the groundwork to celebrate Destination Manang 2004. An annual calendar of events that reflect and help revive local cultural traditions, and enhance economic opportunities and help reduce the trend of people migrating to Kathmandu is being chalked out.

ommunication facilities are being improved, for a start. A high school graduate, Gom Tsering Gurung, is getting the hang of running the first Internet caf? in Manang opened this August. With just one VSAT phone operating for six villages, some an entire day's walk away, it's not only trekkers who drop a line home at Rs 30 a minute; locals are getting online, too. "I chatted to my daughter in New Zealand," says Michung Gurung, former DDC chairman of Manang district.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)