After a Night in Nepalgunj, I am in Jumla

After the first ever helicopter ride, I take a first ever walk in Jumla headquarters. There are many firsts.

04 July: By all accounts and activities that I experienced today, it was indeed a historic day. Let me be chronological because histories are recorded that way. I woke up at 06:45 even as I had slept at around 12:30 night. I am talking about this morning in Nepalgunj, in Sneha hotel. That was a nice hotel with the cooler (not AC though) switched on all night which was normal in a super hot place like Nepalgunj. The hotel apparently was occupied by quite a many khaire and khaireni as it has a neighbor called United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN- regional office). The hotel owner told me that eight rooms were occupied by UNMIN folks while a few others by activist and probably doctors of Medicine Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Okay, it seems I am stuck into details.

I had never stayed in Nepalgunj before and not certainly shared a room with a word wizard guy called Raj Kumar, a reporter with Nepal One TV who, like me, was in the trip to cover a parliamentary observation of the newly constructed Karnali Highway. The members of Public Account Committee were undertaking a helicopter trip to Jumla to observe the muddy, unpaved and still-under-improvement highway (Jumla-Surkhet). (Read my Highway journey here)

So this guy: Raj Kumar. He is quite a talkative guy with millions of topic to talk about. He talked like hell- I mean everything from hell to heaven to life and death to sports and dreams. The weirdest thing was a weird lump of flesh on this guy’s chest. That was a small, rectangular shaped thing, slightly overgrown from the rest of the chest. What’s that on there? Is that a locket? If that is a locket, why can’t I see the string attached? After I finally managed to ask, he explained me that the ‘locket’ grew up when he suffered some kind of a disease and that remained there ever since. “I love this thing these days,” he said. “I don’t want to remove it [through surgery] though doctors have said it could be removed. Sometime it itches but that’s it.”

That’s it. So I woke up, hurried to the breakfast table. I know I was already late and restless MPs were already having bread and butter downstairs. After eating quickly, I was all ready to head towards the airport: Seven kilos of sugar stuffed into the backpack that was already weighted about five kilos. I felt the weight while carrying the bag up to the car. By the way, the seven kilos of sugar was for Nabaraj Shahi, a reporter and a shopkeeper in Jumla. When he learned that I was coming to his town, the first thing he said was: “Nepalgunj bata chini lyaidinu hunthyo ki?” Of course, why not as long as a chopper was there to carry the stuff?

So I woke up, ate breakfast and, along with the group, headed for the airport. A new chapter was going to be added in my personal aviation history. In a few minutes, I boarded into a Shree Airlines helicopter. I had never gone inside a chopper before. The interior was slightly opposite to the combination of my expectation and imagination. I had though that there would be fancy seats and cozy space. That was not the case. Seats were rusty, space was plenty but the whole thing was like a big empty drum. There were about a dozen and half seats on two sides separated by the aisle. Throw your bags and other belongings on the back side and yourself into one of those seats.

These helicopters are the lifelines for places like Jumla and Kalikot that were not connected to the road until recently. Just imagine living in a place like Mugu where it takes at least a week to reach from the nearest road without these choppers. These choppers basically ferry goods to places like Gamgadi, headquarters of Mugu, and come back to Nepalgunj or Surkhet, the regional hubs, packed with people. People fight to get into them and sometime they are stuffed like packs of goods. A Nepali Army colonel accompanying us in the trip remembered a day when he was thankful to God for just being able to enter inside the chopper and stuffed together with several others where my backpack was lying down at the moment. Seats are no use in those moments.

The take off was exciting. As we flew, my ears were about to be get deafened. The sound that came from chopper was the worst thing in the flight. I put kapas in my ears, gulped the sweet without even chewing it properly and, taking my time while enjoying the view outside, drank the Frootie the ‘flight attendant’ gave to all of us.

Now it’s time to say wow! Say wow! Say that again. Those beautiful hills! Lush and dense jungle. Frightening yet attractive mountains. Hundreds of Sheep grazing peacefully in open space in the middle of jungle. Shepherds probably were humming local folk tunes that weren’t audible unfortunately. Felt like jumping from over the chopper and being with them. I also saw a few lumps of snow in shadowy parts of some hills. That was the most unexpected thing: snow in July. If there is snow on Kalikot hills, what would be the situation in Rara where I was planning to go? I was frightened by the thought. I hadn’t brought enough clothes. Its summer, I told myself, you are going to be fine.

The valley of Jumla, wow. The green rice fields, wow. Finally, Jumla airport, wow. Yet another page was added in my travel history. Here is the headline of the breaking news as I landed at the airport and stepped out of the chopper:

Dinesh Wagle Lands In Jumla

Jumla! Same Jumla that I was grown up hearing about: The famine-hit, mythically poor and hungry Jumla. One of the most backward regions in Nepal.

But it’s not the same Jumla anymore. It has a blacktopped airport, CDMA phone network (damn, I didn’t bring my brother’s CDMA cell phone that I would have provided me mobility. My GSM phone is already a dying piece of machine here.), improved chuloand solar panels in many houses in the vilages ( The electricity is rather unreliable). This Jumla even has a few girls wandering around the bazaar clad in tight Jeans and t-shirts! ‘Real’ juice is available at Rs. 20 (it’s Rs. 16 in Kathmandu). There is a TV cable company (I was shocked and didn’t believe at first), a FM station (a mild heart attack though I knew it was there), modest hotels and even a Nepali speaking French tourist with a guide and about a dozen porters. I learned that they were heading for Rara and Limi.

Just take a walk across Khalanga Bazaar, the district headquarter, you might stumble upon celebrities like world record holder high altitude marathon runner Hari Bahadur Rokaya who finds his name in the Guinness Book of World Records. I also met a few oldies who shared their fond memories of seeing off famous anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista at Jumla Airport. (Bista, the writer of a widely quoted book, hasn’t been seen since the next day in Nepalgunj.) It was quite an experience while visiting Rokaya in his room. I plan to write an article just about him inside that room. I must thank him for lending me his raincoat. I am heading upward, over to the highlands and my umbrella might not be able to save me from heavy rains. He also offered me his company up to Danphe Lek (hill) tomorrow morning, about three hours of walk from here. I will go to his home early in the morning to see him training kids for different athletic games. I plan to take photos of the scene.

Today I sent a small report about MPs’ visit to Kathmandu that actually only mentioned the visit at the end of the article. It was more about the first ever transport strike (chakka jam) in Jumla! There is a transport strike in the highway that was inaugurated three months ago but hasn’t been opened for all vehicles yet because it’s still being constructed.

I visited a horticulture facility- an hour walk from the bazaar- with Nabaraj Shahi. The chief of the government-run firm offered us fresh apricot. Great taste though it was hard no to let flies entering mouth while eating the fruit.

In the evening, I visited Radio Karnali 105.2 Megahertz. Don’t read that dot between 5 and 2 as ‘point’, that’s ‘timko’, local word for ‘thoplo’. I talked to reporters including a girl Hari Devi Rokaya, 19, who has been working for the FM for the last three years. She also reports for BBC Nepali Service. She was full of energy and ambition to do something in journalism in this remote part of the country.

The food at the Snow Land Hotel in Jumla- especially the rice- was different than was I was used to with. Red and big. Very tasty. The rice of Jumla is famous. There are some places in Jumla that are probably the highest in the world to have grown rice. They say that even the rulers of Kathmandu in the early 19th and early 20th century used to receive rice from the area as tax. Stories say that people of Sinja, an area in Jumla, used to send a kilo of rice daily via post office as tax to Chandra Shumser, the then prime minister of Rana family that ruled Nepal for about 104 years till 1950. I was kind of surprised to see cauliflower in my dish though I learned latter that Jumla actually ‘exports’ vegetables to Surkhet, the nearest market hub that’s about five days walk away as the trucks have started ferrying goods from there. Thanks to the Karnali highway.

It’s about 21:52 PM, according to my cell phone that’s dying fast. I don’t have watch. Can I walk in the jungle alone? Wait a sec. The jug that I just used to pour water into a glass is ditto like the one I used to have in my home until recently. That had suddenly disappeared from my room. Didn’t know a jug could travel up to Jumla! Anyway, so many thoughts are coming in to my mind. That is perhaps because of the trip that I am undertaking tomorrow. It will be a lonely trip.

To sum up, today was quite a busy, fruitful and historic day. (Photos will be added later.)