Trekking in the Himalayas goes wrong as the group get mugged by Maoist rebels.
â€˜How about it?â€™ I cried, â€˜Come on, I need a break, Iâ€™ve been here in Iraq for nigh on two yearsâ€™. The other end of the phone went quiet, then a confused female voice came back, â€˜Yeah, but why Nepal? And why six weeks?â€™ â€˜Because Iâ€™ve always wanted to trek in the Himalayas and when I was at Heathrow the last time I flew to Kuwait, I absentmindedly looked through the travel guides at Books etc and saw the Lonely Planet Nepal guide. I bought it to read on the flight and was hooked! Plus you need at least a month to have a good trek and to see the other sightsâ€™
That was how my fiancÃ©e and I decided to take six weeks off to explore Nepal. It was true I had been working in hot, dusty and flat Iraq and was in need of a good break. Where better than high in the snow-capped Himalayas?
â€˜Isnâ€™t there a war on there?â€™ asked V in the next phonecall home to England? â€˜Itâ€™s only a small skirmish between a few Maoist rebels and the Nepali army. Itâ€™s nowhere near where weâ€™ll be goingâ€™, I replied. â€˜But Michael Palin was there and he nearly got kidnapped by these Maoistsâ€™. â€˜Good God! How many tourists do you think will be there same as us? Worse case scenario is that we do meet them and they charge us $10 as a â€œdonationâ€. Well, I got my “worse case scenario” with the Maoists all right – they robbed me and nearly did kidnap us, hereâ€™s how it happenedâ€¦
After a week seeing the sights in Kathmandu we met up with a good local trekking company and booked a guide along with one porter for our trip. The Sherpa guy, who owned the company, warned us about the Maoists and made us up itineraries so we could show the Maoists where we were going, and they wouldnâ€™t charge us more than once.
First of all we attempted the Annapurna Circuit trek, which was hard going. After 5 days we cancelled the trek, there had been severe snows high up in the Thorung La pass. People were heading back down towards us from Manang, where rooms were filling up with frustrated trekkers unable to carry on. They were prepared to wait it out, we werenâ€™t. Besides, news was coming down of a huge avalanche that had killed 6 French climbers and 11 Sherpa porters close to where we would be trekking. So instead, we took a car to Pokhara, hung out on the lake for a week and then went for the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek. This would take us two weeks, starting from the hills just north of the beautiful lakeside town.
Initially the trek went fine. I kept checking my Garmin GPS to see how far we were going each day and our exact altitude, but my guide, Dhendi, said, â€œItâ€™s ok to use it here, but when we get close to Ghorepani you will have to hide it. The Maoists will take it from youâ€. I was a bit miffed at this and we had a long conversation about the Maoist problem. Thing was, I had a satellite phone with me too, which Dhendi didnâ€™t know about, and this was to prove dangerous in the extreme. The Maoists like you to “donate” stuff like that to their “cause” I just didnâ€™t think about the phone being a problem and forgot about it.
It started to go wrong while we were trekking up to the base camp. We had started out at Sarangkot and by the time we reached Ghorepani in 3 days, spirits were high. So much so that V wanted to borrow my satphone to call her mum back home. The main reason I had the phone was because my fiancÃ©e suffers from chronic asthma and, Annapurna being so hilly and remote, we had helicopter evacuation included as part of our insurance package, in case she had a severe attack.
After she made her call I went outside to ring home quickly too. A Tibetan trinket seller spotted me and said â€˜You should hide that here, the Maoists will take it off youâ€™. Straightaway, I put it in my pocket and thought no more about it.
Next morning we arose at 04:30hrs to climb Poon Hill, where you can watch the sun rise on the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Himalaya. It was fantastic and as we descended for breakfast, the Maoists appeared â€“ Small, puny, weasel-faced and the complete opposite of the short and sturdy Tamang and Sherpa porters, who work for a living. They had the look of corner boys the world over; nothing more than punks. Street criminals.
The going rate was $15 per foreigner, I was polite but unfriendly – why should I be anything else? But some idiot trekkers were all â€˜Namaste! Hello!â€™ and fawning over these wasters like they were old school friends. I can never understand people being so enthusiastic about being robbed for the privilege of walking up a hill.
When we got back to the nice warm lodge for some masala tea and Tibetan bread our guide came in visibly shaken, he said â€˜Big problemâ€™. I looked outside and hanging about on the benches was a gang of about 15 Maoists. â€™Whatâ€™s wrong Dhendi?â€™ I asked. â€™They saw your phone yesterday and they want itâ€™. I couldn’t believe my ears. â€˜What the fuck for? What have I done wrong?â€™ â€™Big problem, they will kidnap us if you don’t give it to them, and give a big beat up for youâ€™.
Now, I can handle myself: I’m 6’1″ and I’ve had a few scraps in my time. I looked at them (they were throwing furtive glances in at me, not one of the little wankers over 22) and thought I could chin at least 4 of them, but 15? I went from anger to despair, to acute embarrassment, what have I done wrong? How can this happen?
The Nepali army can never catch these Maoists, who appear from the bush, demand free food off the very people they purport to defend, and then melt away whenever the first Royal Nepal Army chopper appears over the tree line. They scare away the lifeblood of the locals – the rich (in their eyes) trekkers. If a lodge owner doesn’t at least even tacitly co-operate with them they will close him down and he cannot feed his own family. After a Mexican stand off of over 2 hours which even included V showing her medication and Doctors note to prove we needed the phone the Maoists were adamant. My guide Dhendi was nearly crying and began telling me he had children etc. â€˜Fuck itâ€™, I thought, â€˜This is getting out of handâ€™.
I had taken the sim card out upstairs. They weren’t getting that too, with all my work and personal numbers. I had thought about disabling the phone, but Dhendi said they would punish me for that as well. I guessed they wanted it working so they could sell it on the black market. So, I strode into the dining room and slammed the phone on the desk beside the head weasel and marched off to our room in a god almighty rage.
An hour later we went down for tea and they appeared again. This time they wanted the sim card. Dhendi said he was told they had an old revolver and a shotgun hidden on them. This time I stuck to my guns, they werenâ€™t getting the sim, if they wanted it they would have to fight for it. I couldn’t win but I would be the best second place they had ever seen, I can tell you.
They offered me some money for it, a few hundred rupees – no chance – me taking their money was acceptance of the fact that they took my phone by menace, no way. I told Dhendi to translate to them “Stick your fucking money up your fucking arse”, but I know he didn’t say that exactly! They decided for whatever reason to let it go – probably because the whole scene was prime entertainment for all the locals and trekkers in the village. It wouldn’t look too good if the “defenders of the people” started working someone over with the odds heavily in their favour. Commies like to see themselves as David to the West’s Goliath.
When we finally left Ghorepani my fiancÃ©e was spent, she had had enough of the trek and I had to leave her with our porter in Chomrong while I went up the potentially hazardous route to the base camp. She wouldn’t go without the peace of mind the phone gave her.
Now you can say what you like about it being their country etc. etc., and I’m a rich western capitalist who was just lightened of his bourgeois toy; the consumer in me was outraged by losing private property to people who see property as theft. Well that may be true, but before people think these guys are the darlings of the left like the Sandinistas, Che and all the other half-baked reds that’ve ever picked up a rusty shotgun against the oppressor, just remember – they’re not fighting the army. When that lot turn up they run away. They demand food off local people who first have to pay someone to carry that food up mountain paths from the lowlands. Tourism is the sole means of making something of yourself in this poorest region of one of the poorest counties in the world. The Maoists are destroying that industry and therefore wrecking the livelihood of the very people they say they are the armed wing of.
But isn’t that what Maoists are all about? Didn’t Pol Pot turn the clock back 500 years in Cambodia? The Communist Party of Nepal wants the country to fall into ruin so they can come in and rule it like every other despot the left has thrown up since Karl Marx wrote his unworkable nonsense.
Nepalis on the whole are peaceful people. The locals in the trek area (I can only speak first hand about the Annapurna area) are either lodge workers, porters or subsistence farmers. They have no interest in bringing the kind of strife that armed resistance to the Maoists would incur. The local Maoists are disliked but the people are quietly opposed to them. I think comparison to the Sicilian Mafia would be appropriate, only the Maoists hide in the hills and are nomadic in small areas – they move from village to village sponging off the people.
Maoists have a lot of support, I was told, in poor rural areas where tourism isn’t a factor. But there are also stories of village “Death Squads”, trained by the army to root out and kill Maoists in their village areas, but that drew a blank on the faces of people I asked in our region.
The west Annapurna area particularly suffers from the Maoist problem. I met trekkers who had been held up for $50 apiece, trekking in Dhaulagiri. The Dolpo region has stories of $100 demands. The areas affected are where Gurung and Tamang Hindu castes are concentrated. The Everest region, for example, has a Maoist presence south of Lukla, but none north, where the population are 97% Sherpa and Buddhist. Most trekkers tend to fly into Lukla to avoid this as well as have a less physical hike to the Everest Base Camp.
I also heard anecdotal evidence about a group of French Annapurna trekkers, who, because of the language barrier, didn’t understand the Maoists demands for money. One of the French throttled a Maoist. The commies disappeared and then returned in big numbers, whereupon they kidnapped the French after hitting the â€œthrottlerâ€ with a heavy bench. The ordeal lasted only a few hours, but they really are nasty little bastards. A South Korean in Ghorepani was punched and kicked to the ground, I was told, when he stupidly took a snap of one of the Maoists. His camera was taken off him too.
Nevertheless, I still would recommend a trek there. When I talked to other trekkers they were amazed we had even met Maoists. Some had seen none for over a month. If I had known beforehand about the dangers in having comms kits like GPS phones etc., I would’ve been more discreet, but there you go – put it down to rotten luck.
Nepal is a wonderful country. Go there and enjoy it, and spend as much money there as you can. That will help the people there much more than “donating” money to the Maoists. And if you feel the need to be robbed of your hard-earned dollars, don’t smile at the filthy monkey who’s stealing from you.