The country had just seen the downfall of the Rana regime but social wellbeing and economic progress were still far behind the people´s dreams. This was 1950, when the Nepalis for the first time brought democratic freedoms to the country, but they had no sense of direction in life except engaging in farming for a livelihood.
The small valley of Jirels (a Sherpa community) was ekeing out a tough living at the base of Mt Everest, when the Swiss geologist DR Toni Hagen made his way to Jiri that year. His is considered the first known arrival of a foreigner in Jiri, says 60-year-old local Tek Bahadur Jirel.
Coming to Nepal for the first time under the Swiss Development Assistance Mission, Hagen´s advent brought three most valuable things to the Jirels. The first was economic empowerment. The seven-day trek from Jiri to Lukla, on which he had ventured, later became the most famous of trekking routes in Nepal, recalls Tek Bahadur, who is currently chairman of Jiri Higher Secondary School.
The Jiri Valley, known as Nepal’s Switzerland and the Gateway to Everest, is a small town with around 16,000 population. It is expected to be declared a municipality with an aim to encourage domestic tourism. (Nirjana Sharma/Republica)
Soon after Dr Hagen trekked through Jiri to Lukla, this seven-day route to Everest base camp from Iiri, situated 183 km north-east of Kathmandu, became the most preferred approach for climbers closing in on the world´s highest mountain. The steady flow of trekkers later motivated the government to construct the first airport in the hill areas of Nepal. In 1960, a Royal Nepal Airlines Twin Otter landed at Jiri Airport, carrying a team of mountaineers. Later in 1968, the government established an airport at Lukla.
“The daily arrival of tourists to this gateway to Everest soon improved the economic conditions of the locals,” says another local, Keshar Kumar Jirel, owner of Hotel Gabriela.
While the inflow of tourists was an encouragement to the locals, the developmental projects launched by the Swiss were also thriving at the same time.
The 110-km road from Khandi Chaur to Jiri was blacktopped four decades ago. “These development brought an apt name for Jiri Valley as Nepal´s Switzerland,” he added.
From the 60s to the 90s, Jiri almost completely dominated the entire Dolakha district. While district headquarters Charikot was yet to see any development, Jiri was leaving other places way behind.
“For folks in Charikot Jiri was worthy of jealousy,” says Tek Bahadur. Charikot lagged while Jiri dazzled with prosperity and development. Thus, a conspiracy began and officials started lobbying to establish the proposed Jiri Technical School in Charikot instead of in Jiri as planned.
However, Dr Suresh Raj Sharma, then executive director of the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT) appeared on the scene to write the subsequent history of this valley.
“It was Sharma alone who took the stand that the technical school would either be established in Jiri or nowhere,” Tek Bahadur remembers. Even today, JTS is one of the most result-oriented institutions under CTEVT.
Meanwhile, things took another turn and the trekkers who would arrive here on their way to Everest base camp started disappearing. Four airports were constructed right in Solukhumbu district. Over the years, the popular saying that Jiri is the gateway to Everest has remained limited to government-approved general knowledge books.
Trekking to Everest base camp by this oldest of routes was interrupted by the Maoist insurgency and this activity has never recovered.
Local trekking guides and hotel entrepreneurs point out two major reasons for the decline in the number of trekkers from Jiri to Lukla.
During the armed conflict, the then CPN-Maoist had exacted a Rs 5,000 donation per head. Similarly, adventure travellers who came from across the globe to reach the world´s highest summit also became vulnerable to brigandage soon after the armed rebels started attacking the security posts lying along the way.
This led to Everest climbers and other mountaineers using the air services that were more efficient and cheaper compared to what is required for seven days of trekking, apart from the paymenment of forceful donations, says Bijay Jirel, who shifted to the hotel business from trekking a decade ago.
Though Jiri lost its trekkers, there are no complaints from the tourism industry as the place has established its name as a destintion for internal tourists.
Schools and colleges come with hundreds of students every year on educational visits and the flow of visitors is the highest during the Nepali New Year.
Guests often have to return to hotels in Charikot as all 20 hotels in the valley are full, says Bijay.
When Hagen published his book comparing Nepal to Switzerland, the Nepalis started observing their own country through his eyes. In his book, Decentralization and Development: The Democratic Principles and Some Comparisons between Switzerland and Nepal in the Fields of Tourism, the geologist has compared his own prosperous native country to this poor land with its skimpy infrastructure.
Today, when Nepali tourists exclaim upon arriving at Jiri, “Is Switzerland really like Jiri?”, Tek Bahadur says in reply that the houses constructed under the Swiss mission in their own style and the weather in the background indeed provide them a little Switzerland in their own homeland.
Film city plan in the offing
Another coincidence between Jiri and Switzerland is that the European country is the first choice for on-location shooting for Bollywood movies whereas Nepal´s film industry always okays the location around Jiri for shooting Nepali movies. Nepal Film Development Board has tried to initiate steps to develop a place in the country as a film city, and the excitement peaked for both filmmakers and the locals when the Board proposed Dangdinge Danda in 2010 for the purpose.
Dangdunge Danda lies on the way to Jiri from Charikot and the Board has initiated a feasibility study for developing it as a film city. A study team is submitting a comprehensive report in a couple of days, it is learnt.
“The team has completed a month-long feasibility study which will determine the expenses and time required to develop the film city,” Dharmendra Morwaita, chairperson of the Board, told Republica.
The proposal is for constructing a film city on 1,500 ropani of land and surrounding areas. The area is one of the most scenic in the district.
According to the Board, the picturesque surroundings, the majestic Gauri Shankar peak and the abundance of rhododendrons in full blossom make for a perfect location. The place is also considered ideal for paragliding, bungee jumping, skating, jungle safaris and rock climbing.