“I hope heaven looks like this,” said an American fellow traveler as our footsteps imprinted the dusty trails in one of Nepal’s farfetched districts. This time, it wasn’t a tourist awestricken by the exoticness of Everest, or the magnificence of Annapurna or the tranquility of the reflection of Mt Machhapuchhere in Phewa Lake in Pokhara. For him, it was surely nature’s hypnotism in the mid-western district of Salyan.
While Gregg imagined Salyan to be a piece of heaven, for me, it was a heavenly experience. My memory, to the utmost, has been inked with Salyan’s sky: the crystal blue sky in the day gradually satiated by countless stars at night. In the three-day trip, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t’ look to the blue sky and starry nights and sighed at the spotless canvas where the clouds could have painted its own picture.
About 320 kilometers west of Kathmandu, Salyan is a mix of smooth and rough motor ride. As the scenic drive through a straight stretch of road through Dang, Nepal’s largest valley, marks its end, the bumpy drive sometimes resonates with the turbulent flight or an adventurous rollercoaster ride through the narrowly twisted road up and down the hills.
These roads signify a mark of development. In a landlocked country like Nepal but gifted with the Himalayan and hilly ranges, nature’s gift sometimes poses to be one of the major barriers for growth. Geographical terrains have proven to play the biggest role when we speak of inaccessibility, leading to poor infrastructure and lack of basic facilities like health and education. It’s only when you trek via rigorous trails and/or get an aerial view of the country that you realize what it really takes to materialize the definition of development at places as such.But from what I’ve seen in these past days and in conversation with some of the locals, Salyan seems to be recovering. One of the key areas to be affected by the decade-long homegrown Maoist insurgency, memories are still afresh for the locals.A healthcare worker in Marke Village described the scene: the constant hovering of (Royal) Nepal Army’s helicopters through the village, the sound of crossfire between the army and the Maoist rebels, and the beam of light used for the search operation that passed through her houses most of the nights.“And the fear of getting shot or being in an ambush always persisted,” said Jumani Bohara as she stood outside the sub-health post and pointed to her village in between the hills.
But with the end of the conflict in 2006, violence has subdued and paving paths for progress. A two-hour drive through Marke to Barala is a prime example. Small settlements have flourished along the way; the district headquarters in Khalanga is abuzz with people and new settlements.Barala is one of the additions to the latest settlements in Salyan. Until a few years back, locals said the place was deserted. But after the conflict ended and the traffic surged on the road to Rukum, Shyam Bahadur Bhandari cashed in on the opportunity. A retired soldier also having worked at the US Embassy in Kathmandu, Bhandari returned to Salyan and opened a restaurant, and later a guesthouse four years ago. His Alisha Guest House is an intimidating property in the area. It’s a facility with 11 rooms, further being expanded to 17 rooms with attached bathrooms in some of them.“In the past six years, this place has got a new map,” he said.Barala today is a small community with about 30 houses and a range of shops from groceries to utensils, electronic and clothing. People from the neighborhoods now don’t have to make an hour’s walk to the marketplace of Srinagar or even a longer walk to the district headquarter in Khalanga.
With the times changing, Buddha Singh Budhathoki, a teacher at a local school in Barala, commented that people are more aware of issues like education and health. Established in 2007, White Bud Boarding School is a bamboo structure up to fourth grade with about 120 students.
“During the conflict, parents were scared and skeptical to send their children to school,” Budhathoki informed. He said there were times when the Maoists would visit, demanding to suspend classes and the teachers wouldn’t know where to send the students and what to do.But today, girls and boys play under the clear blue sky, run amid the green fields before classes start at 9 am. Away from Barala, approximately three hours’ drive to Damachaur, a typical afternoon is racketed with sounds from the classrooms and children playing in a spacious lot in the periphery of the school and the sub-health post.The way to Damachaur from Barala is intriguing in itself. Winding up the hills, the height provides a bird’s-eye view of the scattered neighborhoods with Sisne Himal as a scenic backdrop. At times, the view resembles the postcards sold in Kathmandu. The drive from one Salyan village to another is also home to small and progressing communities.Dhor Chaur is a bustling junction on the way filled with teashops and small eateries. It’s also an open space for children playing with slingshots and chungi as goats, roosters, hens and chickens dyed in pink add vibrancy to the sights and sounds of the area. Other communities share the same stories. However, the common sight throughout the entire journey are bulldozers paving roads for development, children dressed in blue uniform walking to school with books in their hands, men and boys playing Carrom Board outside their courtyards, and a smiling battalion of kids with red rhododendrons in their hands.
As I traveled through different parts of Salyan district, if not all, the beauty of the place and the progress that places like Barala has made in a short span of time is what I’ve compiled in my memory. Though reminiscences of the conflict-ridden past linger around in weathered wall paintings, fresh signs of improvement and burgeoning neighborhoods is a slap to the past, a timeframe lost in translation.A leap outside Kathmandu, and it doesn’t take long to realize what real Nepal is all about. You get a picture of the country’s troubled past, a sight of the state of hope and examples of ongoing progress at its own pace, stories of people’s lives and lifestyle that can make strangers to Nepal like Gregg and Margy tear up. Moreover, you realize the picture-perfect beauty of this country referred to as Shangri-La.But words alone can’t paint Salyan’s pictures; photographs alone can’t capture its beauty. You ought to see it, feel it, and experience it yourself.(Note: This note is from my visit to Salyan in March.)