I gazed in amazement at the sight of the colossal structure that towered over me – the Karnali river bridge at Chisapani, in far west Nepal. A sheer diametrical contrast to the natural setting, the landmark bridge dominated the skyline. Beneath it flows the turquoise river Karnali, which changes color according to the season, to a swirling chocolate brown during the monsoon.
Located on the western high banks of the Karnali river, Chisapani is a little highway town in Kailali District, just over 600km southwest of Kathmandu and 92 km northwest of Nepalgunj. After the chaotic, dusty, humid and squalid Nepalgunj, followed by dreary vast expanses of flat land, the landscape changes dramatically on arrival at Chisapani. East of Chisapani bazaar, across the bridge, a thick mass of jungle stretches out over the imposing Chure hills that roll
northward and form the northern border of Bardiya National Park. The north offers a rugged landscape as the tall wooded Chure ridges flank the awesome Karnali, which cuts through a deep gorge on its southward journey. The west is marked by the receding hills, stretches of farmland and the east-west highway. Southward, the river spreads out into vast swathes of Terai flood plains, then disappears from view behind the dense rain forests of Bardiya National Park.
The Colossal Behemoth
Completed in June 1993, the Chisapani bridge is a sheer bulk of steel (3,870 tons of it) and cables – the only cable-stayed bridge in Nepal and one of the longest of its type in the world, 500 meters long, 10 meters wide and 125 meters high. This two-span single tower continuous composite cable-stayed bridge has a main span of 325 meters and a side span of 175 meters. The world-famed Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan took six years to build what some say was a brilliant feat of engineering. A hitherto little known settlement in the remote ‘wild west’ of Nepal, Chisapani rose to prominence and trade after the bridge emerged, thus linking far western regions like Mahendranagar, Kanchanpur, Doti, Bajhang, Bajura, Dandeldhura and Baitadi. Before the bridge came, crossing the river was done by boats and ferries, very dangerous during the monsoon floods.
As the name suggests, the little settlement is said to have been christened Chisapani after the ‘cold waters’ of the snow-fed Karnali. The longest, wildest and by far the most untamed river in Nepal, the Karnali starts out near Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in western Tibet. Once it crosses the Nepal border it begins a wild descent through high canyons and deep gorges as big feeder streams like the Seti in Doti District and the Bheri in Surkhet District join in. Some say that the Karnali carries “holy water” from the sacred mountains; some call it the “Turquoise River”. As a trans-boundary perennial river it goes by three names – K’ong-ch’ iao Ho in China, Karnali in Nepal, and Ghagra in India, before it finally converges with the legendary Ganges.
In and Around Chisapani
Typical of most highway hubs, Chisapani’s main bazaar is a cluster of eateries that line the road on both sides, sprawled out in a haphazard fashion. On one side of the road are ramshackle houses that serve as eateries and crummy lodges, and on the other side are makeshift lean-tos where travelers can buy tea and tidbits. The town is also famous for fish from the cold waters of Karnali, and what strikes you at those eateries are row upon row of fresh as well as dried smoked fish for sale to hordes of travelers on their way to or from the far west. Many travelers time their arrival at Chisapani so that they can eat a platter or two of fried fish, the local delicacy. Swarming with people and bustling with life, Chisapani is always a busy market doing brisk business. “But the business in the recent years has slumped after the Kohalpur-Surkhet road,” Harka Bahadur Rawat, a long-time resident of Chisapani, told me. Kohalpur is a busy town 15 kilometers from Nepalgunj. “That road,” he went on, “has opened more directly to the farthest points in the hills, like Jumla.” Harka runs one of the eateries that line the highway bazaar. “People now travel less by this older route through Chisapani to Accham, Dailekh, Kalikot and Jumla”, he added.
As you stroll along a road that heads north, an old bazaar flanks an unpaved road that stretches out to the foothills of the Chure. Called Tuki Bazaar, the place is flanked by rows of tin-roofed shanty houses most of which serve as shops selling all kinds of wares from grocery to electronic goods. The back of these houses function as living quarters. The bazaar thins out as the road heads towards the Chure hills and the next village called Pitmari. Formerly an ancient trade route, the road is presently open for vehicles up to Pitmari. Half an hour’s walk from Chisapani and nestled on the embankment of the Karnali, Pitmari affords a stunning view of the river gorge where it cuts its way south through the hills. And, as the locals out there reminded me, the place is also famous for prize catches of the legendary Golden Mahseer fish.
Before the Roadz
Before the highway was opened through Chisapani in the 1980s, the only access to this little town from Nepalgunj was either by a five or six day elephant ride through the Bardiya jungle or by foot along a jungle trail infested with all manner of wild animals and the dreaded killer malaria. A relatively easier and more used route, however, went via Rupedia to Katarniyaghat, Indian border towns. Invariably, all the far western districts in those days could be reached from Kathmandu only by travelling through India.
“Although one of the remotest areas in the far west, even before the present highway, Chisapani did have some local importance as a ‘haat bazaar’ (literally a ‘hand’ bazaar, or a weekly village fete). Traders and villagers from far-off hilly districts congregated here to either sell their wares or to buy items like oil, salt, textile and household implements,” said Harka.
Thinly populated, Chisapani is inhabited by a heterogeneous working class of Magars, Gurungs, Thakuris, Chhetris and Brahmins. Low on cultivation, the local populace lives on trading, fishing, cattle-raising, piggery, labor and odd jobs. A good number of Indian Army recruits and pensioners have also taken residence in Chisapani.
Chisapani’s Ferocious Side
For visitors, Chisapani has even more surprises. The small settlement is well known for high winds that reach gale force proportion – one reason why the bridge was designed as it is. These winds last almost eight months in a year. The winds are fiercest in December, January and February, starting as early as nine in the morning and lasting until one in the afternoon, then resuming again after sunset. The windy conditions lessen considerably during the monsoon months of July through September. The bridge is the worst hit as the wind gathers a huge momentum charging down the narrow Karnali gorge. Even in late March, during my visit, I had difficulty keeping my balance on the bridge because of the strong wind. You literally have to shout to be heard as the wind makes a deafening sound. “Many a times, village women carrying loads of grass on their back are knocked flat when the winds are at their highest”, Bishnu Kumari Sahi, a lady from Chisapani, told me.
Then Harka Rawat related this local legend to me: In the ancient times, the Jumli Raja (King of the old principality of Jumla) wed his daughter to a prince from a Terai state. Both the king and queen were concerned, however, that their beloved daughter, brought up in a cold climate, had now to endure the windless, blistering heat of the Terai. After consulting with royal councilors and palace tantrics (shamans), the king ordered his shamans to trap an enormous quantity of wind into a gabu (a bamboo cylinder) to send as part of the dowry along with the groom’s royal entourage. That gift, they thought, would alleviate the scorching weather of the Terai. The king and the queen entreated the princess not to open the bamboo cylinder until she reached the prince’s home. But, unable to contain her curiosity, she forced open the mysterious container at a place called Bunghat. There the wind escaped with such savage fury that it triggered a hurricane causing the river to become violent. The boats of the royal entourage capsized. The prince was swept away by the raging Karnali, and was bashed into a big boulder and died. The princess met the same fate after hitting a smaller boulder a little way downriver. These boulders eventually came to be known as the ‘Prince’ and the ‘Princess’. The Prince boulder can be seen to the south of the Karnali bridge, while the Princess boulder is a little farther, out of sight, downriver.
The locals say that the monsoon rains bring respite to Chisapani from the notorious winds from July to September when the twin boulders are submerged by the floodwaters of the Karnali. The winds, however, are a blessing in disguise to Chisapani, without which the place would literally turn into one of those humid and sweltering Terai settlements. Among other things, even during late March, I was surprised to find few mosquitoes in Chisapani; they stood no chance against the strong wind (while, by comparison, Nepalgunj swarmed with an army of them).
The Signs of Time
Paras Thapa, a local resident, told me that “The pride of Chisapani, the Karnali Bridge, has for too long been an object of neglect. Since its inception 16 years ago it has not been repainted and the maintenance work is not even remotely satisfactory.” On a closer look, I found that the bridge looked extremely faded with paint peeling off at several places. As a legacy of the troubled times of insurgency, tell tale pock-marks of rifle bullets also remain on one of the tapered towers. “Once, a substantial number of iron counter-weights housed in the chamber of the left bank of the bridge were nearly stolen. But with close vigilance by security guards and the local people they were recovered from the culprits”, says Paras Thapa.
“The water level of Karnali over the years has shrunk by almost 30 percent and continues to go down alarmingly”, Harka Rawat added. When quizzed why this was so, Harka had an ingenious explanation, which made me wonder. “Take a glassful of water with some pebbles”, he began. “Now fish out half of the pebbles from the glass. What happens?” He directed the question at me and in reply I pointed out that the water level would invariably go down. “Yes, that’s the problem”, he retorted. “Once brimming with abundant fish, Karnali has been emptied of fish by overfishing, causing the water level to go down disastrously”, he concluded. My angling tour of Karnali, which coincided with my visit to Chisapani, confirmed that the fish population in the Karnali has declined by almost 60 to 70 percent over the past two decades. The legendary Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora) has fared the worst. And the endangered Gangetic dolphins, which in the past were sighted as far up the Karnali as Bunghat 20 years ago, have completely disappeared from the waters around Chisapani.
Chisapani is also well known among the travel trade circle as the ‘put-out’ point of rafting expeditions. Many travel outfitters mount seven to eight day expeditions on the Karnali with class III to awesome class V rapids. They also enjoy the rich flora and fauna, starting from a village called Sauli in Surkhet District down to the Chisapani Bridge.
As a travel destination, Chisapani can well fit into an itinerary package if the trip is carefully planned to include a few programs on the side. A visit to nearby Bardiya National Park at Thakurdwara, for example, offers an exciting tour of a jungle teeming with wildlife. And there are plenty of cozy resorts to stay in. For adventure travelers with a taste for a gut-wrenching, adrenalin-pumping spree, there’s the classic roller-coaster raft ride through narrow gorges and rapids on the churning white water of the Karnali. Or maybe you would like to try your hand at angling for the Golden Mahseer. If you do, however, I advise following a catch-n-release code of conduct, as this species is on the endangered list. All in all, a visit to Chisapani, the small town in Nepal’s ‘Wild West’, can be a rewarding bargain, worth every rupee and moment spent.
Ravi Man Singh is a freelance writer in Kathmandu. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.