| GHALEGAUN, Nepal, March 28
GHALEGAUN, Nepal, March 28 Gam Bahadur Gurung
sits cross-legged on the clean, hard-packed mud floor at the
family kitchen sipping rice beer.
His wife Tek Kumari, who sits across from him at the
fireplace, prepares a meal of lentils, goat meat and rice as her
husband offers vodka-like home-brewed rakshi to the guests, who
lie on straw mats stretching out their legs.
This has become a typical scene in Ghalegaun, about 100 km
(60 miles) west of the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, which is now
known as "the homestay village" for its part as the model for a
scheme designed to lure tourists, many of whom were scared away
during a decade-long conflict which ended in 2006.
"'Come as guests, go as friends' is our motto," said Gurung,
50, who lives in the stone hut that has been set up with rooms
with clean beds and toilets to accommodate visitors in this
hill-top village overlooking some of the world's tallest peaks.
"We live like a family sitting and eating together with the
guests. We discuss even personal matters and crack jokes with
them as friends," he said.
Ghalegaun, a village of 400, sits amid carved terraces
growing potatoes, onion, garlic, millet, rice and corn. It is
overshadowed to the north by Mount Manaslu, the world's eighth
highest peak at 8,163 metres (26,781 feet).
The village, which itself is located 2,070 metres (6,790
feet) above sea level, is renowned for the culture and
hospitality of the Gurung, a community that came from Tibet
several centuries ago and is known as one supplier of the famed
Gurkha soldiers for the British and Indian armies.
Tourists stay and eat with the locals in their homes, whose
doorways are so low that anybody entering has to stoop. The
prices for food and lodging are determined collectively by the
villagers - a system now copied by dozens of other villages
across Nepal, though Ghalegaun is the most popular.
Guests are allotted to families in a way that ensures
everyone benefits. Each household earns about $150 a month, a
substantial income in a country where one fourth of its 26.6
million people live on a daily income of less than a dollar.
"This is a unique opportunity to stay with locals, eat
locally grown food in their kitchen and even cook meals
yourself," said Shailendra Kumar Shah, who came with his family
from Nuwakot near Kathmandu.
"These things are not available everywhere."
The majority of tourists are Nepali, increasingly attracted
to the chance of spending time in quiet villages but were
reluctant to venture away from safe places such as Kathmandu
during the years of conflict.
Authorities said the government hopes other villages will be
able to copy Ghalegaun and share the benefits of tourism.
"We plan to prepare guidelines setting the minimum standard
families must maintain in terms of beds, cleanliness, bathrooms
and kitchens for the tourists coming to stay in their homes,"
said Mohan Krishna Sapkota, a senior Tourism Ministry official.
UNDER HIMALAYAN SHADOWS
Ghalegaun, a village with narrow paved lanes snaking between
stone walls lined by tin roofed houses, is reached after four
hours of nerve-wracking driving on a dusty road carved through
craggy mountains from the nearest town of Besishahar.
It sits on the fringes of Nepal's biggest conservation site
- the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), which seeks to
promote environment-friendly tourism in the area.
Project authorities support the villagers in vegetable and
tea growing and construction of village trails and bridges to
win their support for plans aimed at conserving rare local
animals such as the snow leopard, leopard cat and musk deer.
Other attractions include the local culture. Ghalegaun was
the capital of the Ghale Kings who ruled centuries ago, and at
night visitors join locals in playing drums and taking part in
traditional dancing in lively cultural evenings.
The return of tourists is a welcome sight in these parts of
Nepal, home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains
including Mount Everest, which emerged from a decade-long civil
war in 2006 - a conflict which caused more than 16,000 deaths
and scared away tourists, who contribute four percent to its
gross domestic product each year.
Aid-dependent Nepal earned $330 million in 2010, the most
recently available data, from nearly 600,000 foreign visitors,
who dominate tourism nationwide. There is no data on how much is
made from domestic tourism.
In Ghalegaun, domestic visitors - reluctant to take on the
trekking that foreigners enjoy - dominate. More than 11,000
visitors came to the vilage in 2011, only 400 of them foreign.
Visitors for their part are advised to respect the local
ecology and customs.
"Don't wear revealing clothes and avoid the outward display
of physical affection," a notice at the village entrance says.
"Save caresses for private moments."
Some villagers, though, say those same local customs include
the ugly reality of a caste system where the so-called dalits,
or untouchables, remain in an inferior position even though this
has been officially banned in the majority Hindu nation.
Of 115 village households, 50 are those of dalits, who do
not host visitors and must endure treatment by other villagers
that includes having teacups they have used purified by fire.
"This is a tradition we cannot wish away," said 45-year-old
Sukman Bishwakarma, a dalit. "What can we do?"
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; editing by Elaine Lies and Paul