How a beauty contest aims to change the caste system in Nepal

Even though legally banned, the caste system is still a social reality in Nepal. Several projects try to fight this social stratification. Surprisingly, this challenge is also the aim of a beauty contest. I met the winner of the first beauty contest for the «untouchables».


On my trip in Nepal, I met Chet, a young woman studying health sciences in Kathmandu. With a friend, we stayed at her apartment which she shares with her sister for a couple of nights and spent a lot of time with these two smart, funny and kind ladies, walking in the city, having coffee or cooking traditional momos together. We learned more about Nepal and its society, and that the two belonged to the «dolits», also known as the «untouchables», the lowest caste.

The lowest caste of Nepal are called the Dolits.

Cooking momos with Nari and Chet.

The caste system structures society and determines the professions and social classes of Nepal. The four main groups are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaisya (merchants), and Sudra (labourers), which are divided into subgroups.

It is not possible to tell to which caste a person belongs just by their appearance. But in situations where Nepali need to present themselves to someone, they must tell their full name – not only the first name but also the family name – which reveals the caste they are belonging to. Chet’s full name is Chet Kumari Bishwokarma.

Castes still matter

Even though Nepal’s society, especially in big cities like Kathmandu, became more liberal and open these last decades, there are still many situations in which the caste matters.

My friend Lorène, Chet and me in Kathmandu.

With Chet and my Swiss friend Lorène in Kathmandu.

Chet gave us one example. At university, she has friends from different castes. But if she gets invited to a birthday party of a friend from a higher caste, she usually tries to avoid it. «I know that the family will not be happy to see me. Even if they might not tell me directly, I can still feel them stare and know they will talk about me behind my back. So I prefer to stay at home», Chet says.

Officially, the discrimination between different social classes is forbidden according to Nepal’s constitution. But the caste system is still a reality. Several projects aim to raise awareness of these problems and try to open Nepal’s society. Not only NGOs with educational projects, but even a beauty contest. Such an event was organised last year for the first time, with the aim to find the most beautiful «Miss Dolit».

Beauty and politics

This is not just a beauty contest where girls need to trip on the catwalk and throw smiles at the cameras. This contest was accompanied by a month-long preparation session where the participants would not only attend beauty classes about make-up or styling, but also learn how to speak in public, or how to become more self-confident.

The first beauty contest for the lowest caste, the dolits, in Nepal

The idea is to foster the self-esteem of the lowest caste in Nepal’s society. Therefore, famous people like Min Bahadur Bishwakarma were invited to speak to the girls during the preparation sessions. He is a member of the Dolit community himself, but also a famous politician representing the Dolit on a national level. With his speech about his own struggles but also the success he achieved even though belonging to the lowest caste he wanted to encourage the participants.

«He is a role model for our community. It was very inspiring and motivating, and an honour, to hear him talking to us», says Chet. He also talked about the origins of this societal system. «Most of us didn’t know much about this, it was very interesting – and important.»

Sister’s support

Chet actually never wanted to participate in this contest: «I was convinced I was too short anyway.» But her older sister Nari motivated her: «Height doesn’t matter, you should at least give it a try», Nari said. So Chet participated.

Me with Chet and her sister and traditional Nepali clothes

Talking about height… In Switzerland I’m average, in Nepal I’m a giant. Me with Nari and Chet.

One of the hardest parts for Chet was learning how to walk in high heels – it was her first time, and since she was shorter than the other girls, her heels were even higher. «I felt so much pain, it was very tiring!», Chet remembers. But being a very determined person, she wanted to go through the whole contest.

Smartness counts

During the finals, every girl got to wear a traditional dress and a modern dress. But the show was not only about presenting the clothes, they also had to answer questions. Chet’s question was «What would you do to unite Dolit people?» Not an easy task. Chet talked about the important role of information.

«First, I would inform the people, talk about the background, create awareness about the system. If we are not united, everyone looks down on us, so we need a strong bound to fight together.» But this alone would not be sufficient, she supports programmes like the beauty contest to raise awareness but also to foster the self-esteem.

This traditional dress is made out of dhak, a Nepali fabric

Chet wearing one of the traditional dresses made out of the Nepali fabric dhak.

Before crowning the winner, awards were given for different categories, for example for the most beautiful smile or the best walk. Chet received the award for «best discipline» – which made her even more proud. «This means a lot to me because for me working hard and having a good discipline are very important values.»

Then the coronation ceremony took place. Chet thought she would stand no chance against the other participants – so it was a big surprise when she heard her name when the winner was announced. «It was an incredible feeling, I have never been so happy and proud in my whole life», she says. It was the first time she had won something – and something she had worked hard for.

Confidence building

This experience had a big impact on her. «My sister and my friends told me that I’ve become much more confident», she says. «I want to use this for encouraging other girls. Everybody should believe in themselves.»

Chet wins the beauty contest for dolits

She hopes that this title might open new opportunities. She wants to become a social worker, and do volunteering for people of her community who have a difficult life. «Dolits are not given education because, according to their caste, they are going to be shoemakers anyway», she explains.

Even though society is slowly changing, there is a lot of progress to be made: «We, the Dolits, build temples, but we are not allowed to get inside because we are considered impure. This needs to be changed.»

Mardi Himal Trek – a hidden beautiful trek in the Himalaya

For our hike in Nepal we chose a less popular trek in the Annapurna region, it was called the Mardi Himal trek – and it turned out to be the best decision we could have made. It was an authentic and beautiful hike up to 4500 meters with a fantastic view of the Himalayas!


(Find some valuable tips for your hike at the end of this blog post)

My friend and I had one common box we needed checked on our bucket list: completing a Himalayan trek. A Nepali friend of mine recommended the Mardi Himal trek – a short (five days) but beautiful trek up to 4500 meters above sea level with a fantastic view on the Annapurna mountains and Machhapuchchre.

Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Mardi Himal Trek – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Since it is a relatively new trek, opened officially in 2011 with tea houses in regular distances up to High Camp, it is not that famous yet (and not in Lonely Planet!) which means it’s less crowded and even cheaper than the popular ABC circuit, so we agreed it would be perfect for us – off the main touristic paths. Because of its length and simplicity, it allowed us to complete the trek without a guide.

Although guides can be very useful and important for longer treks, we felt more comfortable doing it our way, feeling confident enough coming from another mountain country, and hiking in a team of three, together with my friend and her adorable boyfriend.

We started our trek from a village called Dhampus, a one-hour jeep drive from Pokhara. We arrived in Pokhara from Kathmandu by a public bus, took the jeep our Nepali friend had booked for us, and spent the night in Dhampus at the lodge called «Paradise view» to get energy for the next days of hiking.

Hotel Paradise View in Dhampus before starting the Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

The view from our hotel in Dhampus – Photo: Johannes Nachbar

Day 1: From sunrise through the forest

The first day, we got up at 5:30am to see the night fading and the new day arriving.

Instead of having breakfast, we started our trek right away. Our Nepali friend recommended this so that we would have a nice view of the mountains for breakfast, and not start the trek with a full stomach. The beautiful sunrise itself gave us the strength and energy we needed to start our adventure anyway.

The first day of our trek led all the way through the forest. Even if I couldn’t wait to be close to the mountains, I enjoyed this part a lot since the forests in Nepal look so different from the forests in Switzerland. We saw many beautiful rhododendrons and other plants, and even discovered a small Buddhist temple with a nice view of the valley.

Temple on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Buddhist temple in the forest – Photo: Eva Hirschi

We arrived at our breakfast spot roughly after 1.5 hours of hiking. Deurali (2100m) consists only of a few houses and you get a nice view of the mountains. Our recommendation for a tasty and strengthening breakfast: milk porridge with fresh fruits! With this energy, we reached our first accommodation, Forest Camp on 2600 meters, within a bit more than three hours from the breakfast place.

The first part of the trek was quite steep, but later on, there were some parts that were flat or even went downhill, so all in all it was well balanced. After this first five-hour hike with an elevation of around 1000m, we relaxed at the nice «Green view Hotel», playing with the owner’s kids who were spending their school holidays up here.

Hiking through the jungle on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Hiking through the jungle – Photo: Johannes Nachbar

Hint: Take a shower (bucket shower but with warm water right from the fire) because later on, you won’t get a chance to…

Day 2: Passing the tree line and arriving… in the fog

After a good night of sleep, we continued our trek again early in the morning around 6 o’clock. Today’s hike should reach an elevation of again around 1000 meters in order to reach High Camp. Our goal was to get breakfast at a small teahouse on the way.

After half an hour, we reached a house from which we had a nice view on Machhapuchchre again. We continued straight through the forest and realised later that this must have been our breakfast place. But after two more hours, we already reached Low Camp so we could have a break there – there was a stunning view too!

Break at Low Camp on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Not tired yet 😉 Breakfast break at Low Camp.

After the last part through the forest, we reached the tree line but instead of having a nice view of the surrounding mountains, we entered into a cloud of fog. Every few meters, the fog became thicker and thicker, adding some adventure and mystical flavours to the experience. We enjoyed it, knowing that in the next early morning, the sky would be clear again.

Head in the clouds on Mardi Himal Trek in the Annapurna Region of Nepal

Head in the clouds… – Photo: Johannes Nachbar

After two and a half more hours of hiking, we finally reached High Camp (3550m). At this point, we could only see a distance of three meters and there was a freezing cold wind. We went straight to our accommodation: the «Fishtail Guesthouse», where we warmed up in the fire oven, drinking hot milk tea.

Raj Kumar is the owner of this guesthouse and one of the most welcoming and nicest Nepali we met on our trip. For the next two days, he would make sure that we always got some nice hot tea or our beloved Dal Bhat – a Nepali meal consisting of rice, a lentils soup, some vegetables and pickles. On a trek, it is the best food to get energy, or as the Nepali say: «Dal Bhat power – 24 hours!»

Warming up next to the fire with milk tea at High Camp on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Warming up next to the fire with milk tea – Photo: Johannes Nachbar

Day 3: Breathtaking experience – in two senses

The big day had come! Today, we wanted to hike as high as possible on Mardi Mountain. We got up before sunrise, but late enough so we wouldn’t need any torches. We knew that the foggy clouds would rise soon after 9 or 10 o’clock so we didn’t want to miss the clear view before.

The first part of the hike direction Mardi Himal Base Camp was very steep, at some point, we almost needed to climb the rocks. Soon, the sun rose above the mountains and it quickly became warmer (also because of the bigger physical effort for sure).

Title

Beautiful hike – Photo: Eva Hirschi

We realized how the air was getting thinner with every meter we gained in altitude, and one friend had to deal with some effects of altitude sickness, feeling nauseous and having a headache, we took it slowly and made sure to drink enough water and to eat chocolate and nuts, to keep our blood sugar level up.

After two hours, we reached the first viewpoint. We were just in time to enjoy the last minutes of a clear sight on Machhapuchchre, before the clouds started to enclose the peak, then the rest of the mountain, like a white winter coat.

First view point on Macchapucchre (Fishtail) on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

First viewpoint on Mardi Himal and Macchapucchre (Fishtail) – Photo: Johannes Nachbar

But we were not yet satisfied; our goal was to reach the upper viewpoint.

We hiked for two more hours, enjoying the view despite the – here in the high altitude higher – physical effort. Finally, we saw the sign with colourful praying flags on it – we reached almost 4500 meters! An overwhelming feeling overcame us, looking on the white giants on one side, and the valley with a dark mountain range, which seemed endless on the other side.

Upper View Point on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

We made it – almost 4500 meters above sea level! – Photo: Eva Hirschi

The clouds were rising, so we decided it wouldn’t be worth to hike up to Base Camp because we wouldn’t have had any views anyway, and would make our descent unnecessarily more dangerous. After a break, we started our hike back. On our way, we met a smiling Israeli with a long white beard sitting on a rock, and a bunch of Nepalese next to him. It turned out they were part of the rescue team, searching for a missing Israeli guy.

We had an interesting conversation with the man, about the power of mountains, the weight of years and the understanding of strangers. Instead of searching planlessly the area, they would try to understand the behaviour and thoughts of the Israeli, hoping to be able to trace his way by logic rather than by chance. We left them not without promising we wouldn’t take the short cut, but take the longer but safer way back down (not mentioning though that we had taken this precise shortcut on our way up…).

Pure happiness. View on Annapurna mountains on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal.

Pure happiness. View on Annapurna mountains. – Photo: Lorène Métral

Finally, we reached High Camp again. The rest of the afternoon we spent heating up with tea first, then relaxing with a well deserved Nepali Ice beer. At one point, we found ourselves sitting around the warm oven in the middle of a group of Nepali, who offered us Nepali Whiskey, which is mixed with water and drunk warm. Soon, we felt the heat also inside the body and had a funny, laid back afternoon.

Day 4: Down, down, down

Since this was our last morning high in the mountains, and since we’d become used to getting up early, we decided to enjoy the sunrise one more time. We climbed up a small hill behind the guesthouse and could feel the euphoria filling our heart as the sun started dipping the mountains in a pinkish warm light. We felt the sunlit loneliness as if we were the only ones in this magical world.

Sunlit loneliness in the Annapurna mountains on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Sunlit loneliness – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Then began our descent. The first part was truly beautiful and we realised which endless view we had missed when we were hiking up in the thick fog.

We couldn’t help but stop every few meters to take pictures or just to enjoy the majestic view. At Badal Danda, we got breakfast and saw the clouds coming up. Especially in this time of the year (October in our case), it’s worth to get up early since clouds are coming up rather fast, mostly around 9:30 to 10 o’clock already.

Feeling like on top of the world on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

On top of the world. – Photo: Lorène Métral

Then the path re-entered the forest, and the descent turned out to be more challenging than expected. Instead of going down to Forest Camp, we took the left path, which led to a village called Sidding. Not only was it a steep path, but also there were many loose rocks on the ground, which made it slippery. My friends soon felt their knees but I was lucky and didn’t feel any pain except for the tired feet.

As we reached the first houses of Sidding, next to rice fields and bamboos, we had a tea break before looking for our tonight’s accommodation. Raj Kumar, our friendly host at the High Camp had organised us a home stay accommodation – at his family’s place.

We were looking forward to this experience, even though we soon realised that there was a language barrier. At least with two men we were able to communicate, and especially with one of Raj’s brothers, we learned a lot about the current working situation for Nepali men.

Homestay in Sidding in Nepal on Mardi Himal Trek in Nepal

Our homestay in Sidding – Photo: Eva Hirschi

He told us that many Nepali would – because of lack of job opportunities in Nepal – go working in the Gulf states or in India, under harsh conditions. The employers take away their passports the day they arrive, so they can’t leave the country before the contract is over, which often lasts for three years – so they can’t defend themselves against exploitation nor visit their families. Now, he was back after having finished his working contract in South Africa, looking for a new job, maybe in Japan.

Full of thoughts, we went to bed.

Day 5: The jeep ride – an experience itself

The next morning we changed our plans. From Sidding, we could have continued our hike for three more hours before taking a jeep back to Pokhara. Since my friends were dealing with knee pains, we decided to take the jeep directly from Sidding, since the further hike would have been as steep and difficult as on the former day.

So we found ourselves on top of an old jeep, driving down what wasn’t even close to a road to Swiss standards – not enough, in Switzerland there certainly are at least ten laws why we shouldn’t do this. The word «bumpy» wouldn’t do this experience any justice, my hands got blisters from holding myself on the bar, trying not to fall off. The jeep passed over stones and through a small river, which came from a waterfall next to the road – what a crazy experience!

Jeep drive from Mardi Himal Trek to Pokhara in Nepal

Standing in the back of the jeep was certainly less bumpy than sitting on top… Photo: Eva Hirschi

Once we reached the flat land of the valley of Pokhara, my bottom was very happy and I could finally enjoy the view on the Himalayas better, without needing to hold myself convulsively on the bar. This jeep ride was almost more exhausting than the actual hike in itself but definitely worth the experience.

 

Precious Tips:

Trekking permit: Before starting the trek, you need to get an official trekking permit at the tourist centre. For Mardi Himal trek, you need two different permits: Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and TIMS Card (Tourism Information Management System). Each one costs 2000 Rupees (20 dollars) and you need two pass photos for each permit. If you don’t have any photos with you, there is a possibility to get pictures – for free! At some points on the route, you will find checkpoints where you register your name, so authorities know who’s on the trek. And who’s missing – so don’t forget to check out in the end again (also possible via phone if you don’t pass a checkpoint, as us)

Accommodation: A Nepali friend booked our rooms one day before we started our trek and we were happy since sometimes, it seemed that certain accommodations were fully booked. The rooms are very simple but clean and good. The bathrooms are rudimentary and outside, so bring a torch to be able to use them after sunset.

Water: For ecological and economical reasons, we brought two one litres bottle each and refilled them up at the teahouses on our way for free. We used water purification tablets my friend had bought in Switzerland and some drops to make disappear the chlorine taste. In high altitudes, the body needs more water so make sure to drink enough.

Electricity: From Dhampus on, there was no electricity available in the rooms anymore. In the lodges, they have electricity for the lights, but usually you can’t charge your phone or camera, or only do it if you pay for it. It’s easier and safer to bring a spare battery for your camera and a power bank for your phone.

Prices: the prices are fixed and transparent. The higher you get up the mountain, the higher get the prices, but the difference isn’t big. For a room with two beds we paid between 350 and 550 rupees, a Dal Bhat was around 350 rupees and tea or coffee around 60-80 rupees.

Clothes: We did our trek in the end of October, which is the beginning of the winter season in Nepal. The higher you hike, the colder it gets. From High Camp on we were happy to have windbreaker jackets and a cap.

What to bring: Sleeping bag (even if some lodges provide blankets, it can get very cold and you’ll be happy about your comfy and warm sleeping bag!), water purification tablets, two water bottles of one litre each, some snacks, sunscreen, a windbreaker jacket, a power bank, cash. A map is not needed since the path is well indicated and there are few chances to get lost.