Call it development, or colonialism by another name, but the big donor nations have staked out distinct spheres of influence in Nepal. Despite the closure of the Gurkha Camp at Dharan, the bustling gateway to the eastern hills, almost half the British Army’s Gurkha recruits still come from the area, and the old ties are strongly felt. Britain’s aid programme, based in Dhankuta, has been handed over to the Nepalese government, but agriculture, forestry, health and cottage industries are still in operation. The biggest and most obvious British undertaking is the road to Dharan, Dhankuta, Hile and beyond, which was constructed with £50 million of British taxpayers’ money. While there are few grand monuments or temples, this region is a bastion of traditional Nepali hill culture. The bazaar towns of Hile and Basantapur, in particular, give a powerful taste of what lies beyond the point where the tarmac runs out.
More about Nepal
Find out more
Dhankuta and around
Dhankuta and around
From Dharan the road switchbacks dramatically over a 1420m saddle at Bhedetar, then descends to cross the Tamur Koshi at Mulghat (280m) before climbing once again to DHANKUTA, stretched out on a ridge at 1150m. Though you’d never guess, this is the administrative headquarters for eastern Nepal.
Dhankuta is a small, predominantly Newari town, with a friendly, well-to-do feel. Steps lead up from the bus park to the main bazaar, which climbs north along the ridge. The lower half of the bazaar, up to the police station, is paved and reasonably active; the upper half is quieter and more picturesque, lined with whitewashed, tiled and carved Newari townhouses. The outlying area is populated by Rais, Magars and Hindu castes, who make Dhankuta’s haat bazaar, on Thursdays, a tremendously vivid affair.
Although you can’t see the Himalayas, the area makes for fine walking. In Santang, about 45 minutes southeast of town, women are seen embroidering beautiful shawls and weaving dhaka. You can walk to Hile in about two hours by taking short cuts off the main road: stick to the ridge and within sight of the electric power line.
Most buses to Dhankuta continue as far as HILE, 15km beyond Dhankuta and 750m higher up along the same ridge. This spirited little settlement is one of the most important staging areas in eastern Nepal. Poised over the vast Arun Valley, Hile’s bazaar strip straggles up the often fog-bound ridge, drawing in to trade Tamangs and Sherpas from the west, Newari and Indian traders from the south, and Rais from their heartland of the roadless hillsides all around. The most visible minority group, however, are Bhotiyas from the northern highlands, who run a number of simple lodges. One of the most exotic things you can do in Nepal is sit in a flickering Bhotiya kitchen sipping hot millet beer from an authentic tongba (miniature wooden steins with brass hoops and fitted tops unique to the eastern hills).
The only thing to do in town is browse the bazaar: Hile’s haat bazaar, on Thursday, is lively, but smaller than Dhankuta’s. Most visitors are here to trek, and magnificent views can be had just a half-hour’s walk from Hile – as long as you’re up early enough to beat the clouds. Walk to the north end of the bazaar and bear right at the fork up a dirt lane; after 100m a set of steps leads up to join the Hattikharka trail, which contours around the hill. The panorama spreads out before you like a map: to the northwest, the Makalu Himal floats above the awesome canyon of the Arun; the ridges of the Milke Daada zigzag to the north; and part of the Kanchenjunga massif pokes up in the northeast. Some landowners in this area also cultivate tea: take a look at the Guranse tea estate (w guransetea.com.np), whose main entrance is just down the road from the bazaar.
For a day-trip, catch a bus to Basantapur, a dank, almost Elizabethan bazaar 21km northeast. En route you get tremendous views of the Makalu massif, while in town you can sample Nepal’s only wine, Hinwa, which is made from berries.