It is not easy getting to the Ramachhap district. We left Kathmandu around 8am after meeting Suresh, the TSS director in Kathmandu. TSS is short for Tamakoshi Sewa Sameti, or in English, Tamakoshi Service Society, the NGO working with WNC in Nepal. Suresh hired a Tata 4×4 with a young driver named Dinesh.
There were nine of us, Libby, myself, our son Ian, our daughter Sarah, her husband Brian, and their two kids, Yuma, aged 13, and Olyn, aged 6, and of course Suresh and Dinesh. All to fit into a rather small vehicle. This is Nepal and so you always fill the vehicle.
Manthali, our goal for the first day, is the largest town in the Ramachhap district. It lies about 200 kms east of Kathmandu near the banks of the Tamakoshi River. It is from this river that TSS derives its name. From Manthali, you climb up a very rough dusty track for two hours to Ramachhap, the main market village in the Ramachhap district. Ramachhap is also the starting point for a daily bus to Kathmandu. A further drive of about an hour leads to the end of the road, at which point you have to walk to get to the village of Salleni.
Charikot, a large bustling regional town, is about half way along the route from Kathmandu to Manthali. It sits on a knife edge piece of land that overlooks the lowlands to both east and west. It is a natural stopping point for lunch.
Approaching Charikot I noticed Dinesh was coasting down the hills rather than using the gears and engine to help brake. I asked Suresh to relate my concern to our young driver. Going downhill in Nepal is a scary proposition, and this road has hundreds of sharp blind switchbacks and at the end of each was a drop-off of hundreds of meters. Buses and trucks approach at full speed with not a care for your safety.
But I don’t think Dinesh really understood my concern. He just looked bemused.
Just prior to reaching Charikot, we were pulled over by a couple of young men who claimed to be Maoists. After about 10 minutes of negotiation, we were forced to pay 5000npr (about $68) for each foreigner to pass “their territory”. Suresh paid this amount out of his pocket. We were ignorant of what was happening as all this was going on in Nepali.
As soon as we learned what had transpired we of course wanted to pay him back. He refused saying it will be taken care of. Little did we know that he had phoned his friend Govinda in Manthali who it turned out knew some people in high places.
After lunch in Charikot we were stopped by a police officer who demanded that we follow him to the police barracks. On our way there the truck stopped violently. NO BRAKES! There was no brake pad left on the left side and the metal on metal just seized. Luckily we were still in the town and were able to get a mechanic to work on the problem.
Meanwhile, Suresh and I trekked up the hill and were seated in the Chief of Police’s office. He proceeded to hold an impromptu court where the young Maoists who had stopped us were put on trial.
In a matter of less than an hour, the police, using Govinda’s information, had arrested the suspects, and taken them to Charikot. I was asked if I could identify the young Maoist. At my positive response, the young man asked me in very good English, “How you identify me?” As he was right in front of me the whole time using my window to talk to Suresh, it was quite easy. The Chief gave Suresh his money back and we were on our way, assured that there would be no more incidents like that.
The last 40 kms into Manthali are truly awful. It’s 3 hours of some of the roughest gravel road I’ve had the pleasure of travelling. We arrived at 9pm, 200 kilometres in 13 hours, the last 3 in total darkness. Thankfully, upon arrival we were shown to our rooms, and a tasty meal of dahl bhat awaited us.
Dahl bhat is a dish of rice and lentils. Usually it is served on a tin plate that is divided into several sections. Dahl is the lentils, bhat is rice. Often there is a curry mixture with potatoes, and sometimes chicken will be added. On the side might be pickles or some other sort of condiment to add flavour. Nepalis eat dahl bhat twice a day. And it is eaten with the fingers.
TSS has a guest house that sits on the hill directly above their hospital. It’s comfortable, simple, with running water, not hot, but after a hot day, the cool shower is a blessing. We were fed dahl bhat each night and fried eggs and donuts each morning. Simple but tasty, nourishing and filling.
We left Kathmandu with nine in the truck. We would continue from Manthali with eleven. We now had Govinda, TSS Field Coordinator, and Mahesh, one of TSS’s field technicians, as well as our usual cast of characters.
About 45 minutes into the ride up, the truck once again stopped without warning. This time the left wheel had fallen off, a shattered wheel bearing to blame this time. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of nowhere and the jeep was blocking the only road. This road, unbelievably, is the bus route, upon which the bus passes every day from Ramachhap to Kathmandu. As various vehicles came upon our stuck truck, they were all, even the bus, able to very carefully squeeze past by trampling a farmer’s field on the cliff side of the road.
Suresh took this opportunity to show us another TSS project. We walked to the local village above where we stopped. Here, one of the TSS field technicians has helped build new stoves in the houses. These contrivances are still crude but at least have flues so most of the smoke is directed out rather than filling the room. Of course, being guests, we were treated to a feast of fresh papaya.
We had no choice but to walk back to Manthali. In the heat of the day it was a bit of a trek. Our wounded jeep remained, with no repair, a dam on the road to Ramachhap.
The next morning we tried again. Suresh had secured a “government” truck with a local driver. Away we went, up again, past our stricken jeep, and on toward Salleni, without incident.
Upon reaching the end of the road we walked for about half an hour along a well worn trail to Salleni. After trying to get here unsuccessfully in 2008, here we were at last. It felt a bit anti-climactic and ultimately quite sad. The villagers greet visitors with marigold leis, fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs and warm welcomes. We examined one of the new reservoirs and village taps, both of which have commemorative plaques to our daughter Rachel.
Salleni was chosen as the village that would receive the money we had raised for our daughter Rachel when she was very ill. She and her husband Aaron were to use this money for family expenses but instead wanted it used somehow in Nepal. Rachel had travelled in Nepal with her best friend and formed a love of the country. After Rachel passed away we searched for some project that would realize her wish. We were very fortunate to meet Bruce Petch in Kamloops who introduced us to World Neighbours Canada. What we heard impressed us and we decided to give the money to WNC to be used to build a gravity fed water system with TSS support.
We sat with the villagers and we learned that the water source had dried up. After all this they have no water. We are hoping that the monsoon in the following season will recharge the system. Much discussion has taken place as to what to do but for now we wait.
In the meantime, typical Nepali stoicism. The villagers seemed to take this bump in the road with calm resolution. Their faces betrayed no anger, no disappointment, just calm fatalism. It will take care of itself, they seem to say.
After far too short a time, we left, back down the trail to Manthali.It does seem strangely ironic that our difficulty in getting to Salleni is paralleled by the difficulty of getting water. We hope that the monsoon does help. Of all the systems that have been built in the Ramachhap district, why is this the only one that has failed? Suresh and his team are an amazing group of dedicated professionals and we trust they will solve this problem in due course.
Despite the difficulties in travelling to out of the way places like Ramachhap, the physical beauty of Nepal is constantly on display. Looking north from this area is the majesty of the Sagarmatha (Everest) area of the Himalaya. It is jaw dropping stuff. The people of Nepal have seemingly tamed this most vertical of nations with terraced fields rising endlessly upward. It is truly a wonder to behold.
We will return.