Sacrificing Nepal

The extraordinarily scenic and untouristed area of Mustang is about to have its figurative throat slit -- by a greedy highway project.


Jeff Greenwald
November 6, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

It's the morning of sacrifices, the day when blood flows like water from the
public squares.

The festival of Dasain is Nepal's equivalent of Christmas, although it spans
15 days and is defined by copious bloodletting. The October holiday
commemorates how the goddess Durga -- a wrathful emanation of Parvati, the
otherwise demure wife of the great Lord Shiva -- slew a giant buffalo-demon
named Mahisasura. In Kathmandu, the event is recalled with zealous butchery.
Tens of thousands of goats, water buffaloes and chickens are ritually
killed, their blood spurting onto black stone shrines across the Valley.

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Needless to say, this is a very colorful festival -- red predominating -- and
tourists rise early for the chance to photograph the slaughter. Most
alluring is the annual blessing of the machines, where tools and vehicles of
all stripe are doused with sacrificial blood. Mechanics kill chickens,
sprinkling fresh blood over their wrenches; Honda scooters, taxis and trucks
receive their due as well. A few miles east of where I sit, a light-duty
crane hoists a hapless goat toward the cockpit of Karnali, a venerable 757 in
the Royal Nepal Airlines fleet. The goat is gently coaxed to bare its
throat. With a quick stroke of a khukuri -- the boomerang-shaped blade
carried by the Gurkha regiments -- the animal is beheaded. Blood spurts over
the jetliner's nose, assuring another year of safe passage.

After two decades of visiting the World's Only Hindu Kingdom, I rarely get
up for sacrifices. For one thing, I can hear goats being slaughtered from my
bed. For another, I've come to accept the event for what it is: a deeply
complicated form of meal preparation. I find it ironic that casual tourists
view the Dasain hi-jinks as exotic and macabre; it shows how far most of us
have strayed from our own food supply. A century or two ago, if you planned
to serve turkey or pork for Christmas, you'd butcher the beast yourself -- and
there would be a conspicuous lack of spiritual content to the event. The
Nepalese don't eat very much meat (compared with people in China, let alone
Wisconsin), but when they do, they like to have some first-hand knowledge
of where the animal came from -- and where, by the lights of reincarnation, it might be
going.

As gruesome as it may be, the wholesale slaughter that marks Dasain isn't
what's on my mind these days. I've been disturbed by a more gradual
sacrifice: that of the Kathmandu Valley itself.

During the past 20 years -- and especially since 1987 -- I've watched one of
the world's most sacred and exquisite landscapes spiral into a morass of
mismanagement and pollution. About 10 years ago, expatriate residents
squealed with delight as the first traffic lights were installed by the
Bagmati Bridge. Today the locals rev their two-stroke motorcycles through
bumper-to-bumper gridlock, Urban Survival particle filters fixed across
their faces. The commingling of rickshaw, taxi and bicycle horns used to
have a musical, almost celebratory ring. To simulate today's effect, go to
Manhattan and spread out a picnic in the middle of Eighth Avenue. The
alluring mountain views that remained even two or three years ago -- vistas of
the snowy Himalaya glimpsed between hastily erected cement buildings -- have
been overwritten with garish billboards hawking whiskey, beer and
cigarettes.

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Don't get me wrong. There are still a lot of beautiful things to see and do in Kathmandu -- from the golden spires of Pashupati temple to the all-seeing eyes of Buddha staring down from the Swayambhu stupa. The problem is that the distance between them has become a
stinging hell-realm of diesel smoke and chaos. I've bitched about it before,
but never this way. It seems to me, with this latest visit, that a line of
sorts has been crossed. Kathmandu's deterioration, left unchecked, will soon
make this once-mythical Valley about as inviting as Akron, Ohio.

All this leads me to a tale about a part of Nepal that I never
expected to see touched by the tide of industrialization. In fact, I never
expected to see it at all.

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If you take a bus from Kathmandu to the lakeside city of Pokhara, and fly
from there to a Wild West frontier town called Jomson, you can walk (it
takes about three hours, up the Kali Gandaki river valley) to the village of
Kagbeni.

Kagbeni, despite the unsightly metal electrical poles lining the lanes --
"Next year," the locals say when asked when electricity will actually
arrive; they've been saying as much since 1991 -- is a charming oasis
surrounded by orchards and bisected by a swiftly moving stream. Mules and
goats traverse the narrow streets, passing doorways where elderly women card
goat and yak wool. The old Buddhist gompa has recently been restored, and
the roof provides a spectacular view of Niligiri to the east and the Kali
Gandaki to the north.

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Kagbeni is the portal to Upper Mustang, an important leg of the old
salt-trading route from Tibet. For centuries the region was a small Buddhist
kingdom, with its own royalty and laws. The rajah lost his power in the
1950s, but the area -- thanks to its proximity to the Tibetan border --
remained closed. A sign at the edge of Kagbeni warned trekkers to go no farther; a
police post just below ensured that they did not.

For 20 years -- since my first trek to Kagbeni in 1979 -- I longed to
ignore that sign and continue on, traversing Mustang's harsh and spectacular
terrain: a land more similar to the Tibetan plateau than the highlands of
Nepal. The route continues northward for four days, traversing a raw and
sacred landscape before arriving at the walled city of Lo Monthang. Until
less than a decade ago, Lo was a world apart. Few Westerners had penetrated
its secrets, and entering the gates was like traveling back to the 15th century.

Nepal opened Upper Mustang to trekking in 1992. Even so, the restrictions
are daunting; visitors must pay a $70-per-day fee, with a minimum visit of 10
days. In managing the region, Nepal seems to have taken a note from
neighboring Bhutan -- where a $250-per-day fee keeps the backpacking hordes
at bay, and assures a minimum impact on the indigenous culture.

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One month ago, I was finally able to make the journey to Lo. The trek
through Mustang was unforgettable; it's a place where the drama of the
landscape dovetails perfectly with the local mythology. Walking beneath a
wall of tortured, blood-red cliffs, there's little doubt that this was the
site where a bloodthirsty demon was eviscerated. The high passes and
plunging canyons teem with immortal protector deities. Spartan meditation
caves, cut at impossible heights on sheer cliff walls, make it possible to
accept that adept monks and lamas can actually fly.

Geologically, the area is equally fascinating. Imagine Zabriskie Point, or
Canyonlands. Now raise the landscape two miles high, paint it every color of
the rainbow and stretch the brutal formations under 50 miles of
periwinkle sky. Look down, though, and you're in for a shock: Intricate
fossils lie scattered among the stones, reminders of the incredible fact
that this lofty terrain -- much of it more than 12,000 feet above sea level
-- was once an ocean floor.

Lo Monthang, when one finally crests the pass, looks like the promised land.
Buckwheat and barley fields stretch beyond the ancient village, which is an
impressionist collage of white, red and gray buildings. There aren't many
materials to work with; structures are made of rammed earth, wizened
branches and stone. Crumbling fortresses squat on bare surrounding hills,
and the wind keens over aeries webbed with prayer flags. It seems, in short,
like the end of the world.

This is why it was so shocking to learn, from a handful of well-informed
locals (over a few glasses of the local rakshi, in Chimmey's Coffee Shop),
that Lo Monthang is now endangered by the very plague that has ruined
Kathmandu. Within two years, the Nepalese government hopes to build a
highway into Lo Monthang -- and turn the once-forbidden city into another
gruesome sacrifice.

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The rationale for the road is deceptively simple. A day's walk south of
Kagbeni, the Thakali villages around Marpha grow a phenomenal number of
apples. This potentially lucrative export rots on the ground; there's no
efficient way to ship the fruit to the markets in Kathmandu.

Building a road south from Marpha would be prohibitively expensive -- and
probably impossible. The Kali Gandaki river valley is wild and narrow, and
the monsoon rains would wreak havoc with any manmade earthworks. So the
ethnic Thakali villagers (as well as some of the Lobas who actually live in
Upper Mustang) have decided to build a road going north -- in the rain shadow
of the Himalaya.

Present plans call for the route to begin in Lo Monthang, a four days'
walk (by porters, not trekkers) from Marpha. It will enter occupied Tibet,
and loop back down to Kathmandu on a pre-existing Chinese motorway.
Eventually the route will reach all the way to Jomson itself, crossing all
of Upper Mustang via Lo. The project will cost millions of dollars, but
hey -- everybody loves apples.

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Or do they? As the evening at Chimmey's wore on, I heard some strong
arguments against the road -- and a fair amount of alarm concerning what it
might portend. There have already been a few political bones-of-contention
snafus, like whether Nepali drivers will be allowed to cross into
China at all. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), which manages
the area, wants an environmental impact report prepared -- but semantic
loopholes (such as the fact that the project is simply called a "farm
road") may nix this idea.

Today, with two miles of grading complete, Lo Monthang locals take it for
granted that such a road will likely be of more benefit to Chinese truck
drivers than to locals.

"When completed," a local development worker named Tenzing informed me, "the
road will make it possible for supplies like rice, timber, kerosene and
electrical goods to reach Lo Monthang from China, without high portage
charges." But whether the prices of such trucked-in goods will be
substantially cheaper than those carried by indigenous porters, he cannot
say. The benefit to the locals? "Someday, somehow," he added as an
afterthought, "the road may be used to ship wheat and fruit to China and
Kathmandu."

But even this cynical assessment may be optimistic. A former ACAP advisor was
quick to point out that, from the get-go, the chief purpose of the road will
probably be to import alcohol and cigarettes -- and to hasten any plans the
regional government may have for strip-mining.

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The boisterous Tenzing, along with a doe-eyed local politician named Indra,
ticked off the reasons for the controversy over the road. There is the
possibility that the Mustang villagers will import more than they export,
turning the project into a drain rather than a benefit. There's concern that
the traditional trade for porters -- some of the poorest citizens in Nepal
-- will be destroyed. There is general unease about the "unpredictable" Chinese
having such easy access from the nearby Tibetan border. Finally, there is
the very present fear that the beauty and culture of Lo Monthang -- certainly
one of the most fascinating areas I've ever seen -- will be destroyed forever.

"If there was just one argument against the road, then OK, we'll build
it," said Indra. "But four arguments? That's too much."

Still, it seems that even articulate and influential locals like Indra and
Tenzing can do nothing to slow the juggernaut of development. The southern
Thakalis are wealthy merchants, and they want to push this project through.
Indeed, the project is well under way. The graded, two-mile section of
roadway, cutting across a bare hillside, is already an eyesore to trekkers
approaching Lo Monthang. By 2001 -- the road's possible completion --
fleets of diesel-belching trucks may completely change the cultural ecology of this
lovely and remote Himalayan oasis.

When this happens, Upper Mustang's nascent opportunity to cultivate its
sublime beauty and cultural heritage rather than its industry -- an
opportunity already squandered by Kathmandu -- will be lost forever.

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"Upper Mustang has no Mount Everest," says Indra, referring to the
strictly protected status of Nepal's most famous national park. "We have no
discos or big bazaar. All we have is our walled city, and tourists come to
see it because it has been beautiful and interesting for so many years. When
the road arrives, all that will be destroyed. And why should people come
here then?"

Why indeed? One can only hope that an alternative plan -- shipping the apples
by Russian helicopter rather than transporting them for four days through
Tibet -- will grow some legs.

If not, grab your camera -- and get yourself to Upper Mustang as soon as
possible. That moment of sacrifice may have arrived.


Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

MORE FROM Jeff Greenwald


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