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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Gerda Pauler, Dolpo

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Gerda Pauler has made countless trips to the Himalaya and Central Asia. In 2012, she set out to walk the length of the Great Himalaya Trail to raise awareness of autism in Nepal. Travelling across the country and visiting isolated villages, she interviewed some of the inhabitants of the Dolpo region, which inspired her new book Dolpo: People and Landscape. She spoke to us about day-to-day life in the Dolpo community.

During your journey across the Great Himalaya Trail in 2012, you encountered some of the most remote places on Earth. What was so special about the Dolpo region?

It`s both the friendliness of the Dolpo-pa and the remoteness of the region that fascinated me; and still does. As a traveller I percieved it as a 'timeless zone' where neither hours nor days seem to be of any importance. In a way, it 'cured' my obsession with time. 

Tourism is still in its infancy compared to crowded treks up to Mt. Everest Base Camp or in the Annapurna area. There aren`t any luxurious lodges with white bed sheets and pizza on the menu. 

Can you outline some of the differences between Dolpo and Tibetan culture?

The Dolpo-pa are of Tibetan origin and have preserved their Tibetan heritage. However, they no longer see themselves as Tibetans. And since they have been neglected by the Nepalese government all the time, they do not see themselves as Nepali either. They are Dolpo-pa; a marginalized ethnic group – one of many in Nepal.

How has the Dolpo community been influenced by Western culture?

Given the small number of tourists, the Dolpo-pa have not been subjected to much influence by Western culture. There are a few Dolpo-pa who have been to America or Europe. For my latest book Dolpo: People and Landscape I asked  them what they would have liked to take back to Dolpo. All of them wanted roads to facilitate transport, healthcare and schools; the government does not provide these last two basic things.

In this context I would say that the biggest influence (or 'new ideas') come from inside. As a matter of fact, the Chinese influence is much greater than the Western one. The locals do their annual shopping in China/Tibet. It`s there they see their first cars, roads, restaurants, fancy clothes and potato crisps. They buy food, mobiles, solar panels, TVs, motorbikes and cheap alcohol.

Less than a generation ago, there were no schools in Dolpo; have opinions about education changed in the last few years?

Yes. In the beginning, committed foreigners promoted education and built and supported schools but now, a growing number of locals understand the value and importance of schooling. I talked to people in very remote villages. Almost all of them wanted a school for their children. 

Traditionally, the Dolpo-pa have travelled a lot. This means that many of them are aware of the fact that times have changed. Of course, there are still families that do not want or even allow one of their daughters to attend school. Their help is needed at home.

How has the migration of young people affected the Dolpo-pa?

In order to survive the cold winters and the shortage of food, temporary migration has been the norm in Dolpo throughout history.

Due to the lack of schools, young people leave the villages and often spend several years in boarding schools in Kathmandu where they try to get a university degree later. However, those who get a chance to work in Dolpo as teachers or nurses/healthworkers return. Interviewing pupils in Dolpo showed that only a few of them dream about moving abroad.

The Dolpo-pa generally love their district although life is hard. Even Tenzin Norbu, a famous artist from Dolpo with exhibitions in America and Europe who worked together with the French filmmaker Erik Valli, returns to Dolpo for six months a year. Yet, sooner or later more young people will become technicians, software specialists or researchers. For them Dolpo has no jobs to offer and they will permanently move away. Then, like everywhere else in the world where a region cannot feed its inhabitants, only the old people will stay behind in the villages. Without help they can neither look after the livestock nor cultivate the fields. Probably, Dolpo will be depopulated in 50 years.

To find out more or to order a copy of Dolpo: People and Landscape, click HERE.

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