The Society’s Annual Supper Chief Guest Lisa Choegyal March 2017
Britain Nepal Supper 15th February 2017
Namaste and good evening your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen
What a great pleasure it is to be here with you tonight, amidst many familiar faces and some new ones. And daunting as well, knowing how much collective knowledge there is in this hall about Nepal and the Britain Nepal relationship, now a very respectable 200 years old.
The historical background of the relationship has been well remembered, discussed and published during this past year, by others far more qualified than me, not least our former Nepal Ambassador to UK Dr Suresh Chalise. I’m not much of a political animal either, so in contrast to the state of the nation address that I understand is customary at this august annual evening, I thought instead it might be interesting to share some more personal perspectives from my over 40 (nearly 43) years as a Brit living in Nepal, and how a good Northumbrian gal ended up being there in the first place.
The short version is that I came trekking in 1974 and never left. My Nepal time divides almost exactly into two, the first half working with Jim Edwards and Tiger Tops Mountain Travel and the second since 1997 working independently under different hats too numerous to bore you with tonight, but all in the tourism, wildlife and cultural heritage conservation fields that remain my passion.
Officially I’m a foreign investor with Marcus Cotton in Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge which many of you know, and I work as consultant with the New Zealand based firm, TRC Tourism. I might mention that I serve on a number of committees, and was on the founding boards of the Nepal Heritage Society, Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust as well as ITNC and Chance for Change. Since 2010 I have been New Zealand Honorary Consul to Nepal, replacing the then-85 year old but still reluctant Elizabeth Hawley, the former Reuters Time Life correspondent. If you are confused as to why I as a UK national with a Tibetan husband and two American sons represent NZ in Nepal, you are not alone – it took a Cabinet decision to approve my appointment and I’m proud to be the only non-Nepali honorary consul in Kathmandu.
Of course the bicentennary year has been a big one for us, following on from the Gurkha celebrations in 2015. We have achieved a whole list of activities in Nepal, some more successfully than others. I know you have also done a huge amount here in the UK, and the online profile has also been impressive. Pratima Pandey and our Nepal Britain Society have been tireless in their determination, overcoming the FO financial constraints and the inconvenient detail that Nepal’s view of the Treaty of Segauli is not as enthusiastic as that of the British. Reflecting on the facts, this is perhaps not surprising as 1816 marked the year that Nepal relinquished what amounted to nearly half of its land area, albeit of recently acquired territory.
Our Nepal celebrations included the opening by the President of the Godavari Biodiversity Garden developed by RBGE, with the director Simon Milne and Dr Mark Watson. The annual Everest Marathon was rebranded with the Bicentenary logo and Ambassador Richard Morris ran a symbolic 8,848m (the height of Everest), no mean feat at that altitude, before presenting the prizes in Namche. With only a couple of days to spare the Nepal Post Office launched their bicentennial first day cover, and very handsome it is too.
The pinnacle was undoubtedly the hugely successful visit by Prince Harry who not only charmed us all, but dominated the international media, and helped greatly to restore much-needed visitor confidence for Nepal tourism after all the various disasters. There were a few funny moments such as when the local CDO failed to be informed of Harry’s “surprise” volunteer school-building visit to his District following the official tour.
The activities spill into next year and we still look forward to the major BIEX at the Nepal Arts Council in April and a couple of Nepali likely lads driving from Kathmandu to London under the bicentennial banner. Of course, we also had a range of receptions, talk programmes, Shakespearian productions, cricket matches, music and rock concerts, scholarships and an unlikely black tie dinner at the British School hall. I even launched my most recent book A Journey Through Time at Dwarikas as part of the 200-year celebrations.
Encouraged to write from my personal perspective, it is not an exhaustive history of tourism in Nepal, but rather an evocation of those far off days and the cast of characters that inhabited the Valley. Many of you will have known many of them. I was fortunate to work with so many of these remarkable people, and startling to realise that are not only dead and gone, but also their pioneering roles are in danger of being completely forgotten – Tony Hagen, Boris Lissanevitch, Desmond Doig, Jimmy Roberts, Jim Edwards, Chuck McDougal, Barabara Adams laid the groundwork for much of Nepal’s development, conservation and tourism today.
In an effort to preserve this legacy I have taken on a bi-monthly column for the Nepali Times (So Far So Good) and a more comprehensive book about my time in Nepal. Provisionally titled The Unsuccessful Hippy in recognition of my first arrival in the spring of 1974, before I was rescued from stoned indolence (which I was never very good at) by Jim Edwards and what became over 20 years of working for him and the Tiger Mountain group.
As mentioned, I first arrived to trek the amazing network of trading trails that cobweb the Nepal Himalaya – it was part of a wider overland wander that began in Bali, through South East Asia via Burma ending up in Kathmandu, then a hippy haven. The trail from Pokhara to Jomsom had just reopened for trekkers, and tourism was still in its infancy – only 90,000 visitors that year which represents just over 10 per cent of what we receive today.
After the trek, it wasn’t long before a chance meeting in a Freak Street pub resulted in a trip to Tiger Tops. The excitement of exploring the jungle on elephant back deep in tiger country captivated me from the start. I was charged by a rhino and calf while out on foot, only saved by a tourist-laden elephant named Rup Kali and her heroic driver, Sultana. The delighted guests thought this incident was part of the Tiger Tops ‘show’, oblivious to the fact that this was a perilously close encounter. As for me, I was hooked on the wild thrill of jungle life.
Having talked Jim Edwards into giving me a job (‘If you can talk me into that, you can talk anyone into anything!’ was his memorable line) Chitwan was to be my home for the next three years, and thereafter Kathmandu-based as director of marketing and quality control. During my first month I bonded with the Lodge staff when the kitchen thatch caught fire, and my height helped them hoist up the chain of water buckets from the river to the team working on the roof.
I learned how to identify every audible engine sound, whether motor vehicle or aircraft. With the Indian and Nepali naturalists I studied the sounds and behaviour of the wildlife – birds and animals very different from my native north of England countryside. I loved the complex logistics required to manage a safe up-market wildlife enterprise in the heart of a national park, even though we were actually deep inside potentially hostile tiger and rhino country. I found it really useful to have hands on operational knowledge of how the Lodge worked. Everything had to run smoothly for the guests, and my colleagues were former Gurkha army engineers, Tharu elephant drivers, Bote boatmen and Tamang cooks. Together we achieved apparently effortless precision timing, which in fact required meticulous behind-the-scenes planning.
At the height of its success in the 1980s, Tiger Tops’ elephant safaris, nature walks and guided boat trips were an iconic ‘must-see’ of Nepal tourism, attracting not only regular punters but also hosts of celebrities, royalty, movie and rock stars. Highly skilled naturalists and Chuck McDougal’s drawling evening talks gently educated guests about environmental issues. This was the beginning of nature tourism in Nepal, a responsible tourism initiative rooted in conservation and community, and recognised as one of Asia’s best wildlife experiences, long before the term ‘ecotourism’ was invented.
My job included monsoon sales trips to Europe and North America – we needed to not simply market ourselves, but also to put destination Nepal on the world tourism map. Other ingenious and cost effective ideas to promote Nepal included wildlife and other films, fashion shoots and elephant polo.
One of my roles in those days was to travel between our lodges and camps throughout India and Nepal, (actually even to Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia and Far East Russia) checking on operations to ensure quality control and monitor training. Of course in Nepal the kids came too – Tenzin and I had married in 1986. Sangjay’s first word was not mama or papa but hatti (elephant) – what does that tell you! One unforgettable moment came in Bardia when our elephant safari unintentionally cornered a tiger. With a heart-stopping roar it charged my elephant with baby Rinchen sleeping tightly clasped on my knee, but swerved into the undergrowth at what seemed like the very last moment – Rinchen didn’t even wake.
Its hard for me to objectively analyse the highs and lows of 20 years working for someone like Jim Edwards, but in those early years he was entertaining, innovative, challenging, and inspired a zeal and committment that totally captivated those of us in his orbit. I think he and I made an effective team, with him having the brilliant ideas and trusting me to make them happen. I well recognise there are definitely aspects to Jim that are harder to admire, and those perhaps got worse in later life, especially after his strokes. But things were never dull around Jim. Working for him meant I was in the centre of a web of dazzling development and tourism pioneers, and other sundry hangers-on.
Everest hero Sir Edmund Hillary, universally known as ‘Sir Ed’ or burra sahib, was just one of the regulars. Boris Lisanevich’s restaurant was the magnet for many celebrations, and Sundays would often feature sumptuous picnics on his and Inger’s land in the southern part of the Valley, usually with writer painter designer Desmond Doig, development guru Toni Hagen, journo Dubby Bhagat, Bernadette Vasseux and many others. I was young, it was a golden time, and we all felt we were doing something useful for Nepal.
I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the background, but in February 1972 Jim and Chuck had taken over Tiger Tops from its Texan owners who first built the then-four roomed treetop lodge in 1964. A winning partnership of entrepreneurial energy and wildlife acumen, Jim and Chuck realised it was time to abandon hunting and embrace conservation. They were joined by Elizabeth Hawley who had lived in Nepal since 1960 (and is still going though increasingly frail at 92). Soon after Jim’s younger brother John joined from the UK, along with the Nepali team mainly from villages adjacent to Chitwan, many of whose relatives and descendants stayed with Tiger Tops for decades.
It was also back in 1965 that Nepal’s first commercial trekkers arrived — a small group of three intrepid American women heading out to the Everest region, organised by Colonel Jimmy Roberts, former DA and mountaineer, and his new company Mountain Travel. This was the birth of the Himalayan trekking industry, the term ‘trek’ adopted from a 19th century South African-Dutch word meaning a long arduous journey on foot. Providing employment for his beloved Sherpas, a typical trek would last at least two or three weeks and the market source was exclusively Westerners.
Today the patterns are changing, trends moving to shorter treks and younger travellers, many from Asian countries, as well as increasing numbers of urban Nepalis exploring their own hinterland. Chains of mountain lodges offer accommodation one-day’s walk apart in the more heavily trekked Annapurna Langtang and Sagarmatha regions, that together receive over 95 per cent of today’s 170,000-or-so trekkers. I have been involved with the Great Himalaya Trail concept, a 100-day, 1,000-mile route first devised in 2001 as a marketing and development concept to spread benefits to the more remote communities of Nepal.
When reflecting on my early Tiger Tops life, I am keen to avoid the traps of romanticism, nostalgia and the illusionary “good old days”. Actually there is lots of interesting stuff going on today, and what I most treasure about Nepal and its amazing people are the independence, resilience, pragmatic responses to changing conditions, and often under-rated abilities and innovations, certainly in my areas of tourism and conservation.
Unsung examples of where Nepal excels might include leading work in ecotourism such as the Annapurna Conservation Area, Great Himalaya Trail, and pioneering the use of tourism as a development tool for the reduction of poverty, much of it funded by DFID. We are still just about hanging on to our zero poaching status for the rhino (with its population increased 48% in the past 10 years) with assistance from ZSL via UKTNCN amongst others. Buffer zone legislation, tiger conservation (63% increase per WWF) and community forest management (forest cover up 5% now 44.7% of the country) continue to set international benchmarks.
The strengths of Nepali people were especially apparent following the earthquakes, avalanches, accidents and other natural catastrophes that have recently rocked us, literally. In addition we suffer the “normal” annual droughts, floods and landslides (significantly more than usual after the earthquake) not to mention what I call the manmade disasters which includes the perceptions of political instability (22 governments in 25 years), on-going corruption (NEA), and the entirely avoidable blockade last winter that made everyone’s life a misery and so cruelly slowed down the post earthquake relief.
I don’t want to dwell on the earthquakes but I would just like to mention that it was the most extraordinary experience to be there. Once you feel the earth moving like that, you realise that everything taken for granted as being solid and secure, such as one’s house and home, really isn’t. On 25 April 2015 I had just got home to our house in Budhanilkanta from the Australian Embassy ANZAC Day service with the Gurkhas and Nepal Army. It was midday and I was sitting on the veranda having kicked off my new smart beige shoes that pinched my toes. The rumbling sounded like a truck as the ground began to tremble, but it kept on coming. I was aware of my dogs scattering in panic as tiles started to rain off our roof onto the grass lawn. I ran outside barefoot into the open garden, and had to hold onto a solid wrought iron chair to keep my balance as the ground heaved and bucked. I was aware of my little red car rocking violently, backwards and forwards. Away in the distance below, a pall of grey dust could be seen rising upwards above the buildings of the city below us, an eerie and unnatural sight. I became aware of Nepalis across our hillside shouting to frighten away the evil earthquake spirits.
It sounds strange but from that (very long) minute we realised how lucky we were and how much worse it could have been. Timing and temperature helped. The greatest blessing was that neither the airport nor bridges connecting Nepal to India were damaged. We never lost communications. Shortage of water and food was not an issue. Electricity was switched off so there were no fires. Exhausted staff kept the airport running 24 hours, and hardly any international flights were cancelled, just delayed. The army and police heroically pulled out survivors from the debris, the UN led the crisis coordination, donors pledged US$4.1 billion and 134 search and rescue teams arrived from 34 countries, though many ended up being more hindrance than help.
And most remarkable of all in the context of Nepal’s castes and creeds was the overwhelming display of community spirit. Two days after the big one, at Patan Durbar Square with my New Zealand consular team we watched the Nepal army soldiers take a break and drink from the ancient Licchavi waterspouts which never ceased to flow. Locals were collecting the fallen sculptures and carved beams so they could be stored safely for reconstruction. Students caked in dust cleared the debris with shovels. “Are you from around here?” I asked one lad “No” he said. “We have come from the other side of the Valley to help. We just felt it was the right thing to do.”
In the tourism sector we have also suffered a number of self-inflicted blows, particularly ones that have damaged high-end markets. These include problems with the Nepal Tourism Board, mountaineering regulations, and a protected area concessions policy that have together resulted in a reputation of a degraded destination that is not fulfilling its potential. For the last 10 years, ever since the end of the insurgency, we have only succeeded in attracting budget end travellers with an average visitor spend lower than in the 1990s. Stuck in this low-yield spiral, Nepal is still dependent on our neighbours, and almost entirely on the Chinese for tourism growth.
Having said that, visitor numbers have outpaced the post-earthquake recovery predictions, and are just about back up to normal. The more tricky question is can we “build back better” and get the yield per tourist back up as well as the numbers.
I’m sure you agree that Nepal’s beautiful mountains, rivers, jungles and historic monuments deserve better, and quality rather than quantity should be our goal.