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Manaslu Magic

Manaslu Circuit, Oct 2003

By Joel Schone

You cannot conceive of the beauty of Manaslu in the autumn. I consider it not only the loveliest in Nepal, but also possibly the whole Himalaya.

The start is a middle hills classic, the real Nepal. Wonderful river views, kingfishers, woodpeckers and multi-hued dragonflies dance on the breeze. Children give formal Namaste.

At Jagat the Manaslu Park begins; streets have been paved and there are spotless communal toilets. The mothers groups have contributed up to 70% of the cost of these.

We meet the Maoists, of course; they are unwelcome in the villages, and as everyday life, harvest, school, fetching water, goes on, they extort money. But hearts and high places go together and they are soon a memory.

Above all the character of the land stays with you. Corn, mustard, barley. Incredible canyons on a Ladakhi scale, but heavily wooded. The same Himalayan light that illuminates my dreams plays from side valleys, and then turn a corner and array of glittering peaks greet you.

Our Tamang porters on their first trek sit and admire their country as canyon opens upon canyon. Sherpa staff, paid so little, always there to steady our trekkers on the trail; and our trekkers give time as children barefoot around them in villages.

As we climb from the valleys the peaks appear. Manaslu, Ganesh Himal, Larkya peak.

At Prok and above the Mani walls resembled art galleries; the local rock was so fine it made for such artistry. Chortens are twin storied, most with colourful paintings, some fresh, inside. A faith alive; inside the entrance chorten, freshly painted frescos; huge brass worked prayer wheels in small chapels line the route.

Far down the trail we see Maoist graffiti sprayed over the stunning Buddhist carvings; ‘the people do not need religion’ An hour or two before, our Buddhist sherpas had laughingly told our Hindu porters the right way to pass the mani wall…’You will all bring us bad luck!’ they laughed as they chivvied them along. The religion the Maoists taunt bears no relation to the smiling faiths of Nepal.

From above Lihim, incredible views of Manaslu, here at 3000m with a bite in the air harvest is coming in. Wooden hilltop gompas resound with the clashing of cymbals and the echoing horns. October is a bad month in the Buddhist calendar; gyaks, brightly coloured kite shaped pieces of wood wrapped in coloured cotton litter the trails, smashed tea bowls once full of chang or rakshi to lead the spirits away crunch under your feet as young children, chuba wrapped around their waist, khampa style, run to school. 

At Lho feast your eyes on 360 degrees of peaks glittering in the sun. Outside the wooden houses the young women work on their looms, ‘Teejay’ weaving Tibetan sheep wool into Chubas, or ‘Chawa’ in the local dialect.

Climbing through Lho you are in a wooded forest world. Autumn pine smells, and flirting giggling Tibetan women. The Monastery being renovated behind will host monks from Tibet, as Zanskari monks were once hosted at Sera and Gyantse.

From here you drop into the wide pastures at the foot of Manaslu, Samagaon the Nepali name but called Ro by its Tibetan inhabitants who fled from the Mongol invasions in west Tibet. The valley they call Nubri, and Tibetan traders still come and go with Lhasa beer and brandy. In a few days we would meet one on the pass to Tibet, coming over to get his yaks from their summer grazing here.

They still brought wool (baal) over from Tibet and the Ro villagers made it into Tibetan gowns (Chawa) the village men and women all wore traditional dress, the women with the narrow engraved belt (chirna) with a hook for the tsampa spoon (Kimbu) that also marked the Ladakhi.

The people here are Lamas, the head monk married and will pass the learning on to his son. The first Lama here was Tashi Namgyal, succeeded by his son, Singge Namgyal; Ladakhi names, and I learn they were descended from the kings of Ladakh; the Himalaya is full of these tiny Tibetan footholds; Olanchungola in the Kanchenjunga region. As I type this I learn that Kim has successfully explored Nar Phu, while Jamie and Nic are out east in another Tibetan region. A hundred little Tibet’s where a valid and great culture lives on.

In the villages harvest activity, threshing and winnowing fills the air, and I step around piles of sun warmed barley, like their faith linking Tibetan communities the length of the mountain chain that is their home, and mine. It is this grain that links all the Tibetan kingdoms; not for nothing was the first declaration of Tibetan independence addressed to ‘Tsampa eaters everywhere’

In a few short days, we climb the pass that leads to Tibet, and then we climb the Larkya la, probably the most stunning pass crossing in the Himalaya. Then we climb into a littered village street; children ask for pens; Israelis argue over room prices. Looking back at the narrow gorge I emerged from, I realized I had been blessed to see a real Nepal.

Money for nothing

This article was published in the Nepali Times and is about their encounters with Maoists.

by Joel Schone

It was hard to explain to the hotel clerk. A Sherpa who had worked on a trek with me had come to my hotel for his salary, and unwisely, I had paid him in view of the hotel staff. After he had gone, one of them had approached me; “why do you give this man money? He is a dirty Sherpa man, a peasant. I am educated; give me some money also…”

I tried to explain he worked for me, and he worked hard, but it was clear he simply saw me giving away what to him was a vast sum of money.

15 years later my trekking group is held up by Maoists while trekking through the stunningly beautiful Manaslu Conservation Area. They told us we would not be allowed to proceed unless we paid a ‘tax’ of $100 to them. In conversation, the young man was forthright, telling us the money was being used to equip his comrades for their struggle. Around us villagers were in the middle of their own struggle, doing harvest tasks; down the hill we could see the local children in the school playground, their struggle for education about to begin for the day, having, like most Nepali children, finished their tasks on the farm before walking up to a kilometer to school.

It was obvious that none of the money would go to local education, agriculture, or health care. It was obvious, unlike Mao that they claim to follow, they were uninterested in the people of the village. He sat by his office, well fed, healthy, waiting for the next group to rob. We paid, of course; my trekkers had come from around the world to see Nepal mountain peoples, and $100 to them was not a lot.

Our Sherpa crew sweated up the hill, and unloaded and started to prepare lunch. Two 7 year olds on their way home for their lunch stopped and watch their countrymen work. Pemba puts them to work, laughing, asking them to run to the tap and fill water containers. Like all children, they love to ape their elders, and soon the canteens are brimming and they walk past where I argue on with the comrade. As they see me they stop and see the money change hands. They see a foreigner give another of their countrymen – the city man who sits at the entrance of the village and does nothing – a fortune in rupees. Money, we all know, for nothing.

If you walk through the Manaslu Conservation Area, for me after nearly 20 years wandering the Himalaya, probably the most beautiful trek in Nepal, look at the yellow signs painted on the rocks as you enter the villages. They tell you how much it cost to pave the streets and put in the clean communal toilets. Sometimes up to $1000 per village. Each sign says how much the local mothers group contributed, sometimes up to 70%.

The people of Nepal do not want charity; they do not want hand outs. Like anyone, they want to lead a dignified, meaningful life in their villages. To work, to follow the cycle of the seasons and their various faiths.

The Maoists, by setting the example they do, robbing tourists in villages in full view of the future of Nepal, its children, are showing incredible short sight if they are truly interested in Nepal’s biggest Asset. Its people.

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