Mountain stories from Illam of Herbs and The Mountain Institute

Features Issue 98 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

When my amiable photographer colleague Hari Maharjan and I traveled to Illam recently, the notorious Illam fog veiled our first views of this historical tea district. Eventually, as we wound our way across the Tarai and into the eastern hills, the fog lifted and the entire countryside around Fikkal, below Illam Bazaar, was nothing short of a revelation. As far as the eye could see and the photographer’s lens could capture, there was tea, tea and more tea covering the gently sloping plantations. And the aroma was intoxicating.

The Mountain Institute in Illam
Out of our vehicle, we took deep breaths to replace the city air in our lungs with the amazing tea flavored air of Illam. Our guides, Yubraj Poudel Chhetri and Finjo Sherpa from The Mountain Institute project briefed us on the general status of various cultivations in the area. We had come to visit the Mountain Institute (TMI), a US-based international non-government organization, or INGO. TMI has created opportunities for further improving the Illam-area economy by founding another sort of plantation. “Not an inch of soil is wasted here. That is the best thing about Illam’s farmers,” said Yubraj, the more talkative of the two. This turned out to be pretty accurate, with entire hillsides barely showing any empty patches of earth.

TMI’s main interest here is herbs, not tea. We saw this on the following few days as we rode in old Land Rovers, and trekked in places, to reach project sites in the hills. Since ____, TMI has held training programs and has aided villagers in starting herb plantations. The market for herbs is in India and most villagers are reaping significant benefits selling what they produce by the man (rhymes with ‘run’), a traditional unit of measure that equals roughly 40 kg.

We were joined on our tour by Karma Bhutia from TMI’s Kathmandu office. Jolly and well informed, Karma had conducted extensive surveys in the villages before starting the herb plantation program. Travelling by foot to most destinations, he had assessed the quality of the land, did research on which herbs would grow best, and talked with villagers who expressed enthusiasm at launching an herb plantation project. In short, Karma had spearheaded operations here.

At the TMI project office, Karma and the others welcomed us warmly to Illam, then briefed us about our itinerary for the next six days.

Day 1: Illam Bazaar  Mai Pokhari Khopi (Land Rover + trek)
After a quick breakfast, we set out in an old, turquoise Land Rover to see the project’s results. First stop: Mai Pokhari, a pristine lake that is locally protected under the international ‘Ramsar Wetland Convention’. It has great religious significance, with villagers often coming here to pray and make offerings. The lake is deep, spread over many hectares, and is full of aquatic life. It is surrounded by tall, mossy trees, and as we walked around it we were told about TMI’s local partner NGO called Uchcha Pahadi Jadibuti (literally ‘Uchcha Hill Medicinals’) and how it functions. Whereas most INGOs hand out allowances, TMI gives farmers herbs after working closely with the local group in well attended training programs.

The farmers who attended these programs went back to their villages and applied what they had learned to successfully grow jadibuti (medicinal plants) such as chiroito, lothsalla and okhey alu in their fields. Planting traditional crops like corn and potatoes requires year round work, whereas herbs do not need the same amount of attention. Furthermore, they grow well in cold areas that see little sun. As Illam is typically cloudier than it is sunny for most part of the year, it is ideal for growing medicinal herbs. Today more than three thousand farmers in have started herb plantations. Each has a success story to tell.

Near Mai Pokhari is a monastery that TMI has also helped to maintain, with a catch. In return for TMI’s help, the head Lama holds frequent programs at which he asks devotees to plant trees to help conserve the local forests. TMI’s logic is that instead of an outsider asking villagers to stop cutting trees, the villagers are more likely to listen to their own religious guru. One of the reasons the locals cut the tall pines known as gobré salla is to hoist traditional Buddhist prayer flags. In a year’s time, as the wooden poles wear out more trees are cut, effectively wiping out a huge number of trees. TMI suggested using permanent iron poles and provided the funding. The idea was enthusiastically received by the locals, and now their prayer flags flutter in a more conservation-minded manner―an excellent example of innovative thinking that upholds religious values while protecting Nature.

From the serene monastery, we went on to Sulubung to meet some farmers who have done exceptionally well. After lunch, however, as we got ready to visit the fields of a farmer named Surya Tamang, it started to drizzle. We hiked on. Surya’s fields are expansive, reaching into the belly of the hill. One of his crops is chiroito, an important medicinal herb used for curing headaches and fevers. Dropping a few chiroito leaves into hot water and drinking the warm potion is all it takes, we were told. Lothsalla is another important herb; its leaves are a crucial ingredient in cancer treatment drugs. Both of these plants, along with many others, cover Surya’s fields.

Sprightly and enthusiastic about showing off his work, Surya told us that he was in Qatar two years ago, working menial jobs, sending money back home and missing his family terribly. When he came back on holiday, he saw how well his brother was doing with herbs and decided to take a chance. He extended his home leave with a plan to return to the Mideast if the herbs idea did not work out. It was the best decision of his life, he says as he digs into the fields with his bare hands to unearth some okhey alu. Last year Surya earned more than two hundred thousand rupees, more than he had ever thought possible.

“Please visit us again so that your words of encouragement can make us work harder and do better,” he says as we moved on to hear the success stories of other farmers. But Surya’s story stayed with us throughout the trip. How many of our youth are in Qatar and other foreign lands, I wondered, doing odd jobs to support their families back home? How they must miss their villages and their families. Wouldn’t they, like Surya, jump at the chance to come back home if provided with similar opportunities?

Later the same day, we met Netra Bahadur Thapa Burja Magar, whose name is as long as his list of accomplishments. Netra Magar is the founding member and president of the local project committee. Standing outside a newly built office and processing plant building and talking in a soft, kind voice that’s taught people about herbs in 15 communities, he tells us how it was all trial-and-error in the beginning. Now he’s an expert in all that grows here. The office building has a small adjacent plot in which several herbs are grown, to be transplanted to bigger fields when the time comes. They include chaanp, a tree seedling that will grow into a tall tree to produce fine quality wood that sells for as much as forty rupees per foot. Growing chaamp is a profitable adjunct to herb farming.

The local committee was set up to overcome the many shortcomings that farmers experienced when trying to get a fair deal for their produce. They are encouraged to store and process their herbs here, and to bargain as a group for better prices in city markets.

Netra Magar and others on the committee told us of their plight and their efforts. and requested us to kindly write about them. They thanked TMI for helping to set up rules and regulations and fines for those who break rules, such as randomly uprooting plants before they are ready. Committee members expressed their gratefulness towards TMI and told us about how the work of the villagers would not have met with success so soon without external support. After a photo with the entire group, we got into our Land Rover for the rocky ride up to Khopi.

Day 2: Khopi – Dobatey –Kalopokhari (trek)

Waking up in Khopi the next morning, to the sound of a stream and birds chirping outside my window, it took me a while to register my surroundings. Around me, on the wood paneled walls of the room are old pictures of army men and old Sherpa monks. Soon, I found myself downstairs in Lhakpa Nurbu Sherpa’s warm kitchen sipping butter tea. As his daughter-in-law, Pasi Didi, a shy young woman, prepared breakfast for us, her infant son, Tenzing, eyed us curiously. Lhakpa operates a small guesthouse-like space above his own home and provides delicious meals for random guests like us.

Getting to Khopi the evening before was quite an adventure. On the way, we encountered a felled tree in the middle of the road. We could go no further, so after helping our driver turn the vehicle around in an exceptionally narrow spot, we hiked on briefly to Lhakpa’s house. There we we enjoyed a dinner of chicken and rice, before settling in for a comfortable night.

Over breakfast, Lhakpa spoke of his son who is in the Indian Army and how a family reunion is overdue. Then we were off to observe another success story nearby, about twin brothers Pem Tsetar and Pem Gyalze. Born in to a poor farming family, the brothers planted herb seeds three years ago and have now saved enough to buy more land to plant more seeds. Shy and blushing as their story is told, the brothers built a better home for themselves with the profits from the first year’s produce. Then they spent some of the profits from the second year on their weddings. When I ask about how much land they now have, they both pointed into the distance and said, “Ankha le bhyaye samma”―As far as the eye can see.

On that day we planned to trek at least four hours to Dobatey and on to Kalopokhari, near far eastern Nepal’s border with Indian (not far from Darjeeling). Back at Lhakpa’s house, we gathered up our gear, then were pleased to hear him tell us of a short-cut through the forest that would take us to Dobatey in one hour. That good news fell on my ears like a happy tune.

Now I quite enjoy a bit of trekking; but because I was unaware that we would have to trek on this trip, I was wearing flat soled, Converse shoes are not the best to traverse steep, slippery hills with trails that are barely a foot wide in places. To top it off, a light drizzle turned into a harsh downpour, making the trail all the more dangerous, and getting our bags wet and our moods a little damp.

At a tea shop in Dobatey we pulled leeches off our legs and warmed ourselves by a fire, while  the cold drizzle outside delayed our onward plans. After the rain ceased, we went out to check the hut owner’s land. She was a quiet, middle aged woman, who like many others told us that she was also earning more from growing herbs than she ever had. Chiroito plants grew lushly in her small patch of land; another success story on a remote hillside.

The trail on to Kalopokhari proved to be a hard one. I slipped and slid my way along, fearing as much for my bones as for what was left of my dignity. “I’m okay, thanks!”, I said politely to offers from my companions to support my clumsy gait and hold my bags. Kalopokhari (it means ‘Black Pond’) finally came into view, and there at the border with India was a simple stone slab that said ‘Nepal’ on one side. Nice to know where one is.

At Chhewang lodge, owned by a friendly Bhutia family, we dug into some delicious food in the warmth of a wood fire. The whipping winds outside made prayer flags flutter wildly on a sturdy iron pole.

Day 3: Kalopokhari – Sandakpur (trek)
After a good breakfast the next morning, and some medication for a light headache, we were soon outside in the warm sun, learning more about TMI’s work. We were told about the construction of 2.5  kilometers of steep road to the village. In return for that, TMI sought a commitment from the villagers to plant at least 150 trees, herbs and other plants. Villagers have been requested to not cut down lokta, bikhbikhuma, gurans and padamchal trees for at least three years and then only in a designated area. In this time, other trees would be planted so as to balance the ones that were felled. This rotational system was designed to assure ample forests at all times.TMI has also helped establish a system of charging a minimal toll tax on vehicles plying the road, a trend that earns the local committee at least twelve hundred rupees a year. Such trends have helped Kalopokhari retain a lot of its greenery, which in turn attracts tourists.  

From Kalopokhari, we took the road to Sandakpur, our highest point at 3636 meters (12,000 feet). We were looking forward to seeing the view from the top but, to our dismay, we found our smiling, jolly driver Pemba to be quite drunk, and reeking of local liquor! The combination of a drunk driver navigating rough inclines with an old vehicle sounded dangerous. It was late, and the sun was setting accompanied by a sudden rain squall. All of that inspired us to avoid any more driving on muddy inclines! We left the vehicle behind, and after a wet, strenuous hour trekking the hill, we reached Sandakpur and hurried into the comfort of a warm lodge. Some border patrol officers harassed us a little by asking for unnecessary identification, but our spirits remained high. During the night the wind howled outside like hungry wolves and a window that had been left open banged noisily against a wall. Tired from the day’s exertions, we slept regardless.

Day 4: Sandakpur – Falakey – Kalopokhari – Jaunbari (trek + Land Rover)
Mornings in Sandakpur are amazing. One can see for miles from the hill top and even with the mountain range clouded over the view was a treat. After a brief visit to the source of the Mai river, we got into our vehicle with Pemba, now quite sober and embarrassed, for the ride to the Falakey cheese factory. TMI has an important hand in the success of this cheese factory, also. It is another innovative idea where TMI’s efforts have helped change people’s lives and protect the environment at the same time.

Under TMI’s initiative and the leadership of Pemba Sherpa, leader of the local yak herders, an efficient system has been put into place. All the milk from the yaks of a wide region is collected at one common point where it is boiled and readied for making cheese. Running one collection point makes sense for two reasons. One, the amount of trees that are felled every day for firewood is drastically reduced when the milk is boiled over one fire and not on separate, individual fires. And two, the availability of all this milk in one place is more convenient for producing various cheeses from the milk. Besides the big rounds of relatively soft cheese, they also product the hard, dried churpi, that Sherpas especially love to suck and chew on. These products get a good price in nearby towns as well as in Kathmandu. From the cheese factory we could see both yaks and horses grazing lazily on green pastures. One of TMI’s objectives is to conserve key habitat, especially alpine and pasture areas through improved livestock management and reduced livestock herds.

Inside the factory, we witnessed a simple set up where milk comes in almost all day long and shelves are lined with cheese ready to be taken away. We nibbled on cheese and had some butter tea outside in the sun as we made small talk with our new friends. Up there in the hills, I began feeling like a local myself, conversing easily with people, sharing stories and drawing parallels.

Later, back in Kalopokhari, we bid farewell to the family at Chhewang lodge, some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever come across. Then we moved down to a small village called Jaunbari along another road that TMI was also involved in building. There we saw massive forested areas as well as more herb plantations. The area covered is more than 16 hectares, a truly amazing feat by the locals in partnership with TMI. It has also been fenced to keep domestic animals from grazing there.

In the village we were welcomed into the cozy guest house/home of Thhupten, another friendly fellow who told tales that took our minds away from our aching bodies, sore from the bumpy ride. Until last year, Thhupten was in charge of the conservation and forestation efforts here, and under his able leadership Jaunbari farmers had done well.

Day 5: Jaunbari – Ingla – Mabu (trek)
The following day we visited the conserved forest near Jaunbari with Indira, a straight forward, progressive housewife who chairs the forest committee. Then we started out on what for me was be the hardest trekking day of the trip. As we departed Jaunbari, Thhupten presented us with khata scarves, a traditional farewell, and volunteered to accompany us as far as another cheese factory that was on the trail to Ingla. There, the owner, Ang Rita Sherpa, showed us around and served us butter tea. Before continuing down the trail to Ingla we were taken to a small gomba (temple) that TMI has also helped to maintain. We were also shown a small TMI-funded school consisting of two small tin-roofed buildings, where village children study, an opportunity that generations before them never had.

On the trail, we were helped carrying our gear by a local named Saangi. As he walked along making merry conversation, I struggled not to fall and make a complete fool of myself. He, too, had started a small herb plantation and was very happy with how it was coming along.

Perhaps to help take my mind off the tiresome journey, Yubraj launched into a story about a fellow named Saan Bahadur Rai. When he was young, Saan Bahadur dreamed of owning a big house where he could organize get-togethers for friends and family with plenty of food and liquor. But born into poverty, he knew it was wishful thinking. Then he heard of herb plantations and invested a little in it. Today, Saan Bahadur owns the house of his dreams with a sprawling living room where he hosts loud and lengthy get-togethers.

Still thinking about this story, we came upon a huge plantation that belonged to a local named Gyalpo. Here was a farmer who started out in his own extensive fields and has rented more land to plant more herbs. Around his fields are smaller plots that belong to individual famers, all lush with herbs.

The extent to which TMI has infiltrated lives in these villages with such a simple idea is awe-inspiring. Our association with TMI instantly made us honored guests wherever we stopped.

At Ingla we had a snack of tea, corn and eggs at the house of two jolly, middle aged sisters who answer all our questions with giggles. Since our vehicle and driver had taken a different road back to Illam, we trekked a ways farther out of Ingla, then  caught a ride in a another Land Rover on to Mabu Gompa (monastery), the final stop on the trip.

Pappu was our driver now, but as he had only recently learned to drive a Land Rover, he was visibly nervous, which only made everyone on board nervous. Every time a small patch of muddy road appeared, Pappu started talking to himself about how to handle it. Many times we were asked to get down and push when it really was not necessary. At one point, small rocks started to fall from the hill above us. We had been warned about landslides so we raced on up a steep climb to a gomba. Meanwhile, Pappu managed to get the vehicle well stuck in the mud and, swearing to himself, he gave up and suggested that we all walk up to the gompa on top of the hill.

After a strenuous hike we relaxed sipping tongba, millet beer from the monastery kitchen, And after a welcome hot bath, we sat all evening chatting with the local Nyingmapa lama, Dawa, and his jolly wife, who poked fun mercilessly at how Pappu was not able to get the jeep up the hill. We finally slept after the guard dogs had been let loose and had quieted down.

Day 6: Mabu – Illam Bazaar
In the warm morning sun, Lama Dawa told us of the foreign “sirs” who helped design and build the monastery. Sipping tea and chatting with our host, I took a moment to savor my surroundings. How cool it was and how peaceful I felt having slept in a monastery and visiting with the head lama. After breakfast, we toured the around monastery to see the herbs that had been planted.

Chiroito was, again, the most common herb. In addition, for the support that TMI has given, the monastery has committed itself not only to herb farming but also to reforesting the area.

Then, after a light lunch, we set out on our final descent into Illam bazaar.

Strange that none of us looked forward to reaching Illam Bazaar after experiencing the serene peace of the hills. Where we had been had somehow remained untouched by the chaos of town or city life. It’s true that life is not easy in the hills. Poverty and illiteracy are major problems and people struggle to make ends meet. Electric power is only available in the homes of a lucky few and there are a lot of social issues. But life is also simpler somehow. Everyone knows everyone, and ask after each other, and certainly smile and laugh a lot. How many people in the city will share their homes and their food with random visitors? The hospitality of these rural people had humbled me more each passing day.

The Mountain Institute and its partner organizations in Illam have made a serious difference in many lives. Because the farmers are making money off their own fields, they are not burdened by loans. What profit they make each year is solely theirs. Most people have invested their profits wisely, buying more land to plant more herbs or by building infrastructure for themselves or even getting married like Pem Tsetar and his brother Pem Gyalze did last year. The project that started almost nine years ago has provided many opportunities to the local people, something that will certainly cut back on the number of local youth leaving to go abroad for work. By staying back in the village, possibilities of more proactive initiatives have been raised. The quality of life of villagers has improved. Because they can now afford it, people eat more nutritious food, live in cleaner, more comfortable homes, send their children to school, and can afford to pay family medical expenses.

The Mountain Institute, which set out to create jobs through plantation of medicinal and aromatic herbs, have ended up transforming the lives of people here. For this, the villages of Illam District its people and the country are much obliged to them.

If you are interested in visiting Illam, getting there can be as much fun as being  there. Yeti Airlines has regular flights to the area which makes for some pretty interesting views of the eastern landscape from on high. There are also buses connecting Kathmandu to the eastern Terai and hills, any one of which will take you there in about a day. My advice: Opt for an old, slow bus rather than microbuses with crazy, young drivers. Rushing on a journey is probably the best way to spoil any trip. Either way, you pass through the colorful plains of Bhadrapur in Jhapa District before you hit the refreshing, hilly terrain where the tea estates, and now the TMI-assisted herb plantations, are plentiful.

The author and photographer thank The Mountain Institute for hosting the trip to Illam. Thanks also to the team at Uchcha Pahadi Jadibuti in Illam, and in particular to Yubraj Poudel Chhetri and Finjo Sherpa, without whose help we would have been but two city blokes lost in the mountains.

Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer and can be contacted at Phone: 984.132.7187.