Letter from Sikles

As depopulation hits home, Himalayan village mulls ways to reverse outmigration

All photos: KUNDA DIXIT

The densely packed houses cling to a steep mountainside in scenic Sikles village below the Annapurnas. The doors of many of the homes are padlocked, some have wads of electricity bills shoved into them.

The barren terrace farms below the town now have uttis forests growing in them. The Sikles health post ambulance is permanently stationed in Pokhara, since most of the residents have moved down to the city. The student body of the secondary school in nearby Taprang has shrunk by half.

Yet, a new highway will soon make it possible to shorten the three-day trek from Pokhara to Sikles to a one-hour jeep ride. Some of the traditional stone-and-tile Gurung homes are being demolished to build multi-story concrete structures in anticipation of a tourism boom. 

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A new cable car is planned to nearby Kori Peak at 3,800m which commands a sweeping panorama of Lamjung and Annapurna Himals.

“What you see here is the government bringing development to villages, but villagers have moved to cities, and the cities have become unliveable,” laments Buddhi Bahadur Gurung, 70, who is collecting buffalo dung from the trail to turn into fertiliser for his maize field. Most of his family is in Kathmandu, Pokhara or London.

The village of Sikles was made famous because it was in the office of the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) that Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai in April 2016 negotiated the ceasefire before being flown to Kathmandu to form an interim government.

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Water buffalo grazing below Annapurna 2 at the point where the proposed Kori Peak cable car will have its terminal.

Sikles is also the birthplace of Chandra Gurung, who was inspired by shared decision-making and collective participation of his people to design Nepal’s innovative approach to community-led conservation of nature.

The ‘Conservation Area’ model has since been replicated in Gauri Shankar, Api Nampa, Manaslu. And it was just after the inauguration of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area in September 2006 that Chandra Gurung, along with other top Nepali environmentalists, was among the 24 people killed in a helicopter crash.

“Everything you see here is because of Chandra, these mountains used to be denuded.” says Purna Gurung, who has retired after working for ACA for 30 years. “But look at Sikles now. Still, what is the use if no one is going to live here?”

Even Chandra Gurung’s own house is locked up, and only his elder brother lives there. In stark contrast, another cement-plastered house with iron rods poking out of concrete beams is coming up down the hill. 

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“Dr Chandra would not have approved of this new construction,” says resident Bal Bahadur Gurung, shaking his head. “Now it is up to us to carry on his work.”

The Kori Peak cable car project has also divided the Sikles community. Some lodge owners in town welcome it, hoping it will boost the local economy and help slow outmigration by creating jobs. Others say it will irreparably damage the wilderness, which is the region’s biggest draw.

After international tourism collapsed during the pandemic, it was mostly Nepalis trekking to Kapuche Lake that brought some income here. The lake itself is an indicator of the climate crisis and is fed by melted ice from more-frequent avalanches from Annapurna II, and at 2,437m is the lowest glacial lake in Nepal.

Ward 1 chair Devi Jang Gurung, who was elected last year and is a former radio journalist, is not a fan of the cable car project because, he says, it will just bring visitors on day trips from Pokhara after the road is finished.  

“Sikles will not benefit at all, tourists will not stay here. In fact, Nepalis going to Kapuche spend much more money because they buy local food and spend nights in homestays,” adds Devi Jung Gurung, who believes that, if properly managed, trekking tourism can reverse the out-migration trend.

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The traditional architecture of scenic Sikles amidst a backdrop of Lamjung Himal is changing with new concrete structures.

Schools in Sikles and Taprang that have seen a drop in enrollment are also trying to make 10+2 classes more relevant and useful, so school education does not drive young people away. One idea is to have 9+3 classes with a focus on vocational training in subjects like tourism, disaster preparedness, heritage and environment preservation.

The Kori Peak cable car project was being initiated by the same group that operates Chandragiri in Kathmandu Valley, but has been stopped after an interim order from the Supreme Court in response to a public interest litigation arguing that it was being pushed without a proper Environmental Impact Assessment.

Also from Sikles is environmentalist Hum Gurung, formerly with the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and now Asia Partnership Manager at the Singapore-based BirdLife International Asia. He is worried about unregulated construction that is eroding the traditional architecture of Sikles town and its main attraction besides mountains.

“The road has already arrived in Sikles with all its consequences,” he says. “But with new infrastructure like the cable car we have to make sure it has minimum impact and improves livelihoods, creates jobs and slows out-migration. Ultimately it is about balancing economy and ecology.”  

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Sikles Peak

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The imposing pointed peak stands out when viewed from Sikles because of its dramatic summit pyramid. This is why most people coming here mistake it for Mt Machapuchre. 

But this peak is just a spur of Annapurna 4, and is only 5,900m, compared to 6,990m of Machapuchre, which is not visible from here.

Since so many people take selfies saying it is Machapuchre, Sikles native Hum Gurung has decided to christen the mountain Sikles Peak. This is a sensitive topic here because Lamjung Himal which looms over the town bears the name of the adjoining district even though it is now in Kaski after a change in the border. 

Says Hum Gurung: “Since we cannot change the name of Lamjung Himal, we can at least call this one Sikles Peak.”

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