WHEN Harka Bahadur Gurung, 65, a former soldier in the Indian Army and a long-time resident of Sirubari village in Nepal's mid-Western, Shyangja district, met this correspondent, he could hardly believe his eyes. An Indian in his remote village that is so high up in the hills! Apparently, Indians only visit the village to pay pensions to Gurkha soldiers retired from the Indian Army.
The disbelief soon turned into joy when he realised that this writer was part of a group of city-slickers who were in the village for a three-day slice of "village tourism".
Village tourism brings with it a strong aroma of rural life, and has become increasingly popular in Nepal with visitors looking for a first-hand experience of life in the traditional and culturally rich Gurung, Sherpa or Magar villages. Sirubari, situated on the southern slopes of a ridge, also happens to be the first model "tourism" village designed by the Nepal Tourism Board and Nepal Village Resorts Private Limited.
Sirubari is situated at an elevation of around 1,600 metres and has balmy weather round the year. Lying on the main tourist trail to Kusma, Parbat and Baglung from Lumbini and, Pokhara to Gulmi, Parbat and the western part of Shyangja district, it has a terrain ranging from flat agricultural fields to steep hills.
It takes a good four hours (perhaps just two if you are as fit as a mountain goat) to reach the Gurung settlement. One way to reach Sirubari is to motor down to Helu, which is just off the highway between Pokhara and Lumbini, and then cross the Daraun. The river can be crossed during the non-monsoon months by bus, the football-size rocks and shallow water rattling your bones and almost making the vehicle keel over.
We stop at Arjunchaubari, a small town, for a traditional Nepali 'thali' (lunch) of rice, vegetables, meat and salad before commencing the long walk along the Daraun and its rivulets and then up the steep hills, with paved slates cut in the rockface affording a foothold.
From the lush green fields of the river basin, the vegetation turns to subtropical, deciduous, coniferous and alpine as one goes uphill. A variety of flora - sal, bamboo, alnusand, cerasoides, pine, fir - and fauna - tiger, jackal, fox, red deer, langur, eagles, partridge, nutcracker and wild fowl - abound in these hills. In the valley below the only traces of life are a rare porter carrying provisions to the villages in the hills or a shepherd herding his flock. Traditional rest houses made of stone and slate or a lonely tea stall provide the welcome break.
Life in the Gurung village has been touched by modernity. Almost every one of the 72 households (52 of them are taking part in the village programme) had or has a member in either the Indian or the British Army. Yet the people retain their unique culture.
The Gurungs extend their hospitality by first welcoming each visitor with a garland of flowers picked from their gardens, to the accompaniment of music. They then offer 'rakshi' (a home-made millet wine) and boiled eggs. Also on offer are cultural programmes - dances performed by young women and lads.
The village is small and compact, with neat cobblestone trails connecting blue-roofed, mainly stone-and-slate built, houses. There are no hotels or restaurants in Gurung villages. So one stays and eats with a family paying $70 for a three-day stay.
A bonus of the Sirubari visit is a two-hour trek to the 2,003-metre Thumara hill. Gobinda Raj Oli, an NTB official, said, "The panoramic view from the Hill of the Western Himalayas, including the Annapurna, Manaslu, Dhaulagiri and Machhapuchre mounts, and the valley and Daraun Khola's river basin below is unrivalled."
According to Tony Parr, consultant, NVRPL, the village tourism programme (started in 1997) has been beneficial to both the Gurungs and for eco-cultural tourism. The villagers, who have organised themselves under an umbrella organisation called the Sirubari Village Tourism Development and Management Committee (SVTDMC), have become more conscious of hygiene (every house in the village now has a toilet). Besides, the programme helps the local people earn extra income. And NVRPL is making sure that "that there is no invasion from Bollywood's dream factory" of these unspoilt environs.
The 'home stay' concept, akin to Australia's 'farm stay' concept, is marketed by NVRPL. But once the guests reach the village, SVTDMC takes over. Said Tul Bahadur Gurung, SVTDMC member and a retired soldier from of the Gurkha Regiment: "Since 1997, some 500 people from all over the world have come here on the village programme, but not Indians. We want Indians to come. Hopefully they will now start coming. For years we stayed in India serving in the Indian Army, now we want to show Indians our way of life." Added Harka, who is also the president of SVTDMC, "For us this programme means that we can keep ourselves busy even while meeting with new people. It has been a success, but what we would really like to see is Indians visiting us."
According to Parr, efforts are on to spread the village tourism concept to another Gurung hamlet in Lamjung district, a Magar (another native group) village atop the Manakamana hill, and a Sherpa village situated on the main trekking trails at Junbesi.