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Traveling in Nepal While Local: Money Talks, Nepalis Walk

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Holy Lake Dhumpha in Jomsom in the background. The barbed wire fence has not always been there. As a matter of fact, it hadn’t been there when I visited the lake in the nineties. I discovered, in 2000, the reason behind it was the American in the foreground. Read about it in the following blog post: The Ugly Face of Tourism in Mustang in The Nineties.

This is the second blog post in the series about challenges Nepali travelers and trekkers face in their own country. The first one, Trekking in Nepal While Local: Second Class Citizen in Ones Own Country?! described some of my experiences trekking and living in Nepal in the nineties. To repeat some of the relevant introductory text from that blog post….

Starting in the mid-nineties, for a while, I did a lot of traveling and trekking in the country. The reason being that, in addition to visiting the country in the summers (of 1995, 1996), I also lived in the country from June 1997 to February 1999, and then the latter ten months of 2000. In the Summer of 1995, I made it to my village of Tangbe in Mustang district for the first time since leaving it back in the mid-seventies, for example!

Not surprisingly, I learned a great deal about Kathmandu, about the country (shared as commentaries in the Radio Program I hosted) and people — including my friends — and my people and Mustang District (click here, here or here for more). I saw more of the country in that period than I had done until 1995!

Traveling and trekking in the country, I also learned about the differences in the way establishments catering to tourists — as well as some systems — treated Nepalis versus international visitors and travelers. One would think we were second class citizens in our own country!

This blog is about a system: air-travel in the nineties between Pokhara and Jomsom, a sector with a very high demand from international travelers during tourist seasons.

 

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The time: sometime in October, 1997. The place: Jomsom, Mustang.

I had arrived in the village after trekking over the Thorong La pass from Manang and a night in Muktinath, both part of the Annapurna Circuit. I had decided to end the trek in the village to get to Pokhara in time for Dajhhyang, the Bow and Arrow festival of my people from the village of Tangbe.

That very afternoon I had jostled with many other pilgrims for a flight reservation at a few different airline offices. After making the long and arduous trek to Muktinath and back, understandably, the pilgrims were desperate to fly out as well! Being Fall (Autumn), as it was, flights between Jomsom and Pokhara was in very high demand.

Fall is the best season for tourists and trekkers to travel and trek in Nepal and Annapurna Circuit was the most popular trekking route in the country at the time. For the locals, the biggest Hindu festival of Dassain falls in this season and many make the pilgrimage to Muktinath, just a day walk from Jomsom. People from as far down South as India make the pilgrimage; some of the staunch devotees making it on foot all the way.

Depending on who you are and/or how desperate you are you pay one of three fares (for the same one-way, twenty-minute flight)!

The first fair is USD55 (approximately NPR. 3800). This is referred to as the “Tourist Fare” because it’s the one charged to all international travelers. The other two fares are for Nepalis. The cheapest and what’s referred to as the “Regular Fare” stands at about NPR 800 (approximately USD12). The more expensive fare for Nepalis is about twice the “Regular Fare.”

And why the difference when everyone flies pretty much the same small twin-otter and there is no class distinction in the plane? The official reason has to do with when you fly out.

The flights, originating in Pokhara, run for only about four hours in the morning, usually until ten, after which the notorious northerly Mustang wind prevents any air traffic. Every plane, therefore, can make a limited number of flights to Jomsom.

Some times there might NOT be any flight at all, notably in the Summer, the monsoon season. Pokhara happens to be the rain capital of the country! Other times every plane might make multiple flights, such as during the rest of the year, like…during the Fall, during peak tourist season!

Regardless, every airline operates what are called First Flight, Second Flight, and Third Flight etc. While the names suggest the successive flights made by a plane, they are also meant to designate the passenger groups they shuttle.

Officially, the First Flight is for international travelers, but really for anyone who has paid the “Tourist Fare.” The Second Flight is for the Nepalis who have paid the higher fare, and the Third Flight (and subsequent flights) is reserved for “Regular Fare” ticket holders, the Nepalis, etc. Or at least, that’s what the passengers are led to believe.

To improve my chances of flying out on time, I buy the more expensive ticket for Nepalis with Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) (now called Nepal Airlines Corporation), but I have no reservation.

Because, “All the flights are completely booked.”

I am instructed to just show up at the airport early next morning, at about six, to wait and see if I do get to fly out.

“There are no guarantees!” Of course!

That is pretty much the standard instructions and information all travelers receive…except, of course, the international travelers — most of whom would have bought their tickets even before arriving in Jomsom — and Nepali travelers paying the “Tourist Fare.”

I show up at the airport at the crack of dawn the following morning, all packed up and ready to go, hoping against hope that I get to leave. Different planes fly in and out in quite rapid succession. The very crowded and chaotic waiting hall empties of waiting passengers but mostly of the international ones.

The RNAC plane makes the First Flight and then the Second Flight. However, most of the passengers on the Second Flight are also international travelers! By the time the Second Flight departs, all the international passengers in the waiting hall are gone and those left are Nepali travelers like myself; I surmised most likely with Nepali fare tickets and NO RESERVATION!

The RNAC plane does not make the Third Flight. Even though, as far as I can tell, the weather is holding out, no planes approach the small Jomsom airport. All of us wait until about ten even though it’s long clear to us that no flights are coming in.

After tiring of just waiting around at the airport for all those hours, I go to the RNAC office to inquire if there were any vacancies for the following day for Nepalis. None, I am told. They weren’t sure if the Third Flight was coming in the next day anyway.

Even if it did, “There are too many tourists.There are, however, some seats left in the First Flight.”

Would I be willing to fork out Rs. 3800?

I was in a position to afford it but I declined. Many of my compatriots, the pilgrims, I was pretty sure, could neither afford that nor afford to remain in Jomsom indefinitely.

The three tier pricing system ostensibly appears to be in place to make air-travel accessible to locals. What it actually does is price out Nepali travelers, especially during peak season, like the Fall. The open secret about the system that everyone seemed to be aware of is that it’s in place to maximize profits of the airlines and financial gains of the local personnel, both airline and airport.

When, during peak season, every plane makes a few or more flights, regardless of who is supposed to fly in each flight, international travelers and Nepali travelers paying the “Tourist Price” get to fly out first. Following that, according to the locals who “know” the system, the airline officials and air traffic controller decide the weather is unfavorable for additional flights and inform Pokhara to not send any more planes! Do that enough mornings, I was told, desperate Nepali travelers will switch to “Tourist Fare” tickets. The airline officials and air traffic controllers get a cut from the sale of every ticket, apparently, and, obviously, the more “Tourist Fare” tickets they sell, the bigger the kickback for everyone!

At a different time in the year, during low season for instance, when there are few tourists in the area, Nepali travelers do get to fly out on “Regular Fare” tickets. I myself have.

So in reality, whether or when a Nepali gets to fly, especially during peak season, depends on more than just the weather or the number of tourists or which of the regular fares they have paid. It depends really on the number of flights the plane makes and who actually gets on those flights, both of which is controlled more by the airline and airport officials than the weather.

In other words, the number of trips a plane makes and who actually gets on those flights are determined more by the greed of everyone who stand to benefit directly, financially, especially during the peak season, than the weather or anything else.

It’s the same story the following morning as well, of course. I go down before sun rise to watch each plane bring in hordes of international travelers and take off for Pokhara with batch after batch of also international travelers.

Two mornings is all I can endure of the home-airport-home morning routine. Walking to Pokhara would have meant at least three days on the trail. [There were no roads at the time connecting Jomsom with Pokhara.] So, that morning, I walk straight to the RNAC sales office from the airport, pay the difference for a “Tourist Fare” ticket and book a seat. The next morning, I fly out without any incident.

I suspect, there were, among the pilgrims and other Nepali travelers, who couldn’t afford that price and walked.

New Development

Fall of 2000, the private airlines started operating at least one flight a week just for the locals, the local locals, for the people of Mustang District. It’s not much but something, if you know how long Nepalis can get stranded in Jomsom.

What prompted such a concession? Because of the difficulties they encountered in traveling between Jomsom and Pokhara, the Mustangis staged a strike at the airport. Apparently people from the district camped out at the airport preventing planes from landing at all. They demanded that the airlines change their policies and make provisions for the locals to fly on “regular fares”! The airlines are supposed to have relented.

 

* * * * * * * *

What is the situation now in Jomsom? Apart from the fact the fares must have gone up, I have no idea.

However, here’s a Twitter thread about the recent fleecing of the people of Dolpo, another mountain area West of Mustang. (You’ll have to read the whole thread for the details.)

On a side note, this kind of dual systems for different people, which can get abused, probably also exist in other developing countries. I don’t ever recall seeing them in developed countries I have lived and traveled in though.

Cuba out does all countries that I know of. It has two completely different economies — one for locals and the other for foreigners — supported by two completely different banknotes! The country has separate department stores, hotels, restaurants and bars etc.

One afternoon in Havana (in the Summer of 2008), a local man was arrested and led away in handcuffs right in front of me in the restaurant and bar I was at. He was in the wrong bar! I have photographic evidence too, which I took surreptitiously!

And, to get to the point of this side note: That a discriminatory and extractive system existing elsewhere (or even everywhere) does not necessarily make it right or even acceptable! Sadly though, I have come across Nepalis (and others), both educated — with advanced degrees — as well as uneducated who fail to understand that!

What do you think?

 

 

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