Manaslu trek closure? What would Dr. Baburam Bhattarai do?
Government shut down Nepal’s best new tea-house trek
UPDATE: So far the lodge remains open, or rather no formal official document has been produced to enforce closure. So while it remains closed due to the cold, when the spring comes it will be open until further notice. And for further notice, please add your email to our mailing list.
Built, opened, forcibly closed, re-opened, forcibly closed, re-opened … and now finally closed and “sealed” by the Government of Nepal. The all important overnighting place before the Larkya La, Dharamsala or Larkya Phedi, has been closed indefinitely by officials.
The building of the lodge at Dharamsala meant the Manaslu Circuit Trek could finally be walked without carrying a tent and provisions. Tea-house trekking groups, by paying for local accommodation and food, bring more income to mountain communities than traditional camping groups do. With some of the biggest trekking companies in France and Germany deciding to offer the Manaslu Trek in tea-houses in their 2012 brochures, the coming year looked bright for poor communities of Kutang and Nubri.
You have to wonder what Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai would do. He’s from Gorkha district, and is clearly keen to help develop this area economically. Tourism a unique industry where customers come to the supplier – this indeed is the founding principle of the Great Himalaya Trail Development Project which aims to reduce poverty through tourism.
Yet as the Manaslu area was just starting to benefit greatly from tea-house tourism, and while the neighbouring Annapurna Circuit is being decimated by road building, it seems it was too good to be true.
On 16th December, the Dharamsala lodge owners attended the Manaslu Conservation Area Project (MCAP) office in Gorkha to file the necessary registration for their lodge. This is standard practice in the ACAP (Annapurna) and KCAP (Kanchenjunga) trekking areas, where an annual tax is levied on hotel operators for conservation services such as trail maintenance, forest management, signposting etc. However theirs was to be the first lodge registered by MCAP. It seems that so far no other lodge on the Manaslu Circuit Trek has registered with MCAP.
In a meeting with MCAP Project Chief Madhu Chhetri and Forestry Department officials Prakash Adhikari and Pashupati Adhikari, the lodge owners were informed of a court case being filed against them. The charge was ‘unauthorised building of a hotel on government land that is “a habitat for wildlife”‘. The case will take three to six months to bring, and could even, according to the MCAP official, result in jail sentences for the owners of the lodge at Dharamsala. The charged also include nine residents of Samdo, the closest village, who signed an agreement with Dharamsala lodge for a profit share. 30% of profits had been going to Samdo community, which had contributed to the village’s recently finished micro-hydro project.
Samdo have now lost out to Samagaon where the Sama Village Development Committee (VDC) offices are located. This disagreement over ‘profit sharing’ was the reason behind the temporary forced closures earlier in the season.
The ultimate decision about the lodge, whether its buildings must be demolished, will only be known when court proceedings are completed next year.
The court case is interesting for several reasons.
Firstly, a great many trekking lodges across Nepal are built on government land (falling under the management of DNPWC) without explicit permission. Even in Samagaon, tourists can stay in a lodge built without authorisation on government land (and, interestingly, built with the aid of a loan from MCAP). In the Everest region or along the Marsyangdi Valley, you’ll find the same situation. Could this be the beginning of DNPWC crackdown on unauthorised tourist accommodation?
Like everywhere in the mountains of Nepal, bird and wildlife can be seen – most commonly blue sheep graze in the area. But the argument that a permanent structure is a problem is strange considering that at 4,800 m, an hour’s walk above Dharamsala, there is a two-roomed stone house built and owned by MCAP. Though it stands uninhabited, some climbing groups have used this place as a basecamp for climbing Larkya Peak. Additionally, at the top of Larkya La, there stands a part-built shelter.
Additionally, earlier this year forestry official Pashupati Adhikari explained that “Larkya La is the major route for smugglers.”
Habitation and toilet trenches
It seems that the problem with the Dharamsala lodge is the near-permanent habitation during the trekking season.
But this location will be inhabited by people during the trekking season regardless of whether there is a building standing here – if not in a lodge, then camping and this has been the case for two decades. One big benefit of the lodge now is the management of the area. Trekker Howard Dengate made the following observation prior to the building of the lodge in 2009:
Dharamsala (4480m; Larke Phedi, Larkya Resthouse) is a stone hut with three rooms and an almost intact roof, but the lack of doors means that it can fill up with snow and remain full of ice for months. Don’t count on it for shelter: carry a tent. The camping area is filthy with toilet trenches, rubbish and blowing toilet paper so be careful where you get your water and boil it well. There is only meagre scrub for fires: carry a stove.
The area has been improved by a rubbish pit, proper toilets and an improved porter shelter which is routinely cleaned. An area that could do with this kind of management incidentally is just two minutes walk below the MCAP office in Philim.
Road building, deforestation and trail management
An area which arguably has much more wildlife to preserve is the nearby Tsum Valley, there, in this pristine environment, plans are well underway to build a road through Tsum from Tibet and the technical survey has already been completed.
Additionally there is the continual export of timber to Tibet long ago highlighted in Mohan Mainali’s 2004 documentary film.
Trekkers who have visited this area will remember this bridge. Is MCAP investing trekkers’ permit fees wisely? Mules have fallen from this bridge.
Time will only tell if the Manaslu Circuit Trek will remain a tea-house trek, or if it will be restricted to camping trekking with few benefits local residents if any. Until the court case is resolved, it seems that trekkers should be carrying tents, stoves and food with them for the pass crossing. One experienced trekker describes Larkya Phedi / Dharamsala thus:
There are no facilities for shelter between Samdo and Bimthang if Dharamsala is not open. When I did the trek, our porters were carrying tents and a stove. Fortunately, we did not have to use them. … Larke Phedi is a barren place at 4460 m, and the wind howls, which could bring the wind chill down to – 25 C or more. You are likely to be sleeping on snow and ice. There’s really no place to be blocked from the wind since it tends to swirl around the stone structures of the lodge rooms and kitchen/dining room. Further, I would not advise on trekking from Samdo to Bimthang in one day, unless you are already acclimated to 4500m, and you are super strong.
As Gorkha tourism takes a great leap backwards, the question remains what would Dr. Baburam Bhattarai do about it?