Dhulikhel has for centuries prospered from its location on the ancient trade route between Nepal and Tibet. Now, the country's smallest and best-run municipality is gearing up for the rush that will accompany the opening of a new highway that will soon be the only direct road access from Kathmandu Valley to the eastern tarai. Half the traffic moving through Thankot is going to be diverted through Dhulikhel. Is this going to bring more dhulo (dust) or dhan (riches) to Dhulikhel?
Dhulikhel is gearing for some well-planned honest-to-goodness commercial and social development. It helps that Dhulikhel has a population of only 12,000, there is a thriving sense of community despite the cosmopolitanism. Part of the reason Dhulikhel is so well run is its mayor, Bel Prasad Shrestha. "We have set three objectives we would like to meet," says Shrestha. "We want quality education for our children, better health services and the promotion of tourism."
There is good reason to take Mayor Shrestha's words seriously. An independent candidate serving his third term as mayor, Shrestha managed to bring in a successful university and a modern hospital. To take full advantage of Kathmandu University, which set up home here in 1993 on the western edge of the town, the municipality has been working to improve the quality of education in its schools, so more students from the area can get into KU. Locals even donated a large part of the land the university stands on. (See "College comes to Dhulikhel-and the country", #64)
Set up in 1996, the Dhulikhel Hospital, a modern medical facility with out-patient and in-patient departments, is said to be better than many Kathmandu clinics. The town has other, more pro-active ways of keeping its residents healthy-it has one of the most efficient and safe drinking water systems in the country. "Stomach ailments caused by poor drinking water have almost disappeared from here," says Govinda Neupane an old-timer on the main street who runs a homeopathic medical store.
The drinking water program is admirable, but reaches only seven of the nine wards of the municipality. "The program was started before the municipality came into existence, but we are trying to provide for the remaining two wards as well," says the mayor.
Everywhere you go in Dhulikhel, you see signs of change. A large community ground has been constructed with the help of the Japanese government, and an artificial lake is on the way as an added tourist attraction. The town has also conserved the forest in its backyard, which is now a jungle that drapes the ridge connecting Dhulikhel to Namo Buddha. The trees have brought the birds back, and bird watchers flock here, as do Kathmanduites on weekend picnics.
But the most important change will be the Banepa-Bardibas highway being built by the Japanese, 22 km of which has just been completed. In another five years, when the road becomes fully operational, it will provide a shortcut to eastern Nepal. The fact that Dhulikhel is so well managed will probably help it overcome the Mugling-effect-that wild west look that afflicts all major highway junctions in Nepal.
Dhulikhel is bravely preparing for full-scale war. Since the water supply was improved and the university moved in, real estate has become scarce and expensive. But, with the help of a German government grant, the municipality has already started building a bus park to make commuting easy should offices move here. "We plan to cash in on this road and convert the region into a major trading point that offers better deals to traders than Kathmandu," says Shrestha. Those residents of Dhulikhel not in the tourism industry will, he hopes, work to establish a wholesale market. Shipments of Chinese goods would hopefully stop here first, encouraging the Valley's traders to take advantage of the lower prices. The road would also make it easier for Dhulikhel to leverage its tomatoes, potatoes and milk.
But there are doubters. "How can Dhulikhel be a stopping point when Banepa, 15 minutes down the road, is already a major business centre?" asks Biswa Shrestha, who has been running the Mt View Guest House for 14 years. Dhulikhel and Banepa have endured centuries of healthy competition, and the tradition endures. It isn't as if residents of Dhulikhel don't like the idea of developing their town. They are all for it. In fact, the Sanjeevani High School here was built with the small savings sent home by Dhulikhelites who ventured further. The problem is time. Many residents are getting impatient, waiting for the benefits to trickle down. "A handful of moneyed entrepreneurs have profited from the tourism industry. Smaller ones like us have it hard," says Purna Man of the Nawaranga Restaurant and Guest House. Others, like Purna Bahadur Karki, a teacher at the Sanjeevani High School, remain hopeful, "If there is proper infrastructure tourism here could do much better," he says.
Dhulikhel is swiftly turning into a modern municipality, with good infrastructure. It is still a united town where citizens are very much concerned with development. What it needs as it moves forward is consensus, so its residents continue to have a say in the future of their town. Mohan Prasad Shrestha who owns a stationery shop summed it up: "Dhulikhel people have always shown much love for this place even if they do not live here. The important thing now is for all of us to remain united, whether we are hoteliers, farmers, or other professionals."
Things to see
Whether it's a mountain sunrise you're after, or 400 km of horizon from the Annapurnas in the west to Numbur in the east, the Himalayan skyline dominates Dhulikhel. And unlike that Thamel-on-the-Hill, Nagarkot, Dhulikhel has culture with its old Newari heritage. At 1,500 m it is also milder in winter than Nagarkot.
Dhulikhel was once known by the Buddhist name of Shrikhandapur and still has a few Buddhist stupas in memory of the old days. Namo Buddha is an interesting and pleasant three-hour hike from the town, and has a nice mix of Buddhist flavour and old Hindu temples. Dhulikhel also has several ancient temples dedicated to Sweta Bhairava, Hari Siddhi, Shiva, and Narayana, each with an interesting story related to how they came into being.
There are plenty of other short hikes to undertake from Dhulikhel, but one of the best is the pleasant half-hour uphill from Dhulikhel to the telecommunication tower. Walk through a lush forest echoing with the chattering of racquet tailed drongos and turtle doves to come to a temple dedicated to Kali. If you can manage to wake up early and get up there, it is a sunrise you will remember for years.
And there are more than a dozen hotels to stay for the night if you want to do this, from the upmarket Himalayan Shangrila, which stands at the highest point here and offers the best views to the 28-year-old Nawaranga Restaurant and Guest House, which with its gallery of local art is a backpacker's dream come true.