Towns on the borders with other countries have a distinct charm and unique characteristics. The pace of life is altogether different and their remote locations add to their peculiar set of problems and challenges. In this category falls the town of Dharchula in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand that is trying to find its way through the modern day maze dictated by international dynamics and changing economic landscape.

This town stands adjacent to its geographical twin Darchula that falls in Nepal. The two entities are separated by the Kali River, but are connected by a bridge. Standing on the Indian side of the riverbank, one can just shout out a greeting to the Nepalese neighbours.

In fact one can stroll over to the other side too, as all that is required is an identity proof.

Both the towns face similar challenges of being remotely located from the respective national capitals and the people face the same challenges vis-à-vis development.

This reporter had a peek into the life of the people residing in this remote town while covering the Lok Sabha polls in Uttarakhand. Life here is dictated by factors that the so called ‘mainland India; cannot even grasp. Reaching Dharchula is not an easy task as it takes over three-hours of travel on treacherous hill terrains. The condition of the roads tests the physical fitness of both the vehicle as well as the travellers.

Many people from the Nepalese town of Darchula also come over to the Indian side of the river, for employment. After a day of doing odd jobs they return home in the evening, the attraction being the difference in the value of Indian and the Nepalese currency.

The Indian Rupee amounts to Rs 1.60 in Nepalese currency. It’s a win-win situation on both sides. The Indian side gets the required manpower and the Nepalese side gets gainful employment.

Interestingly, the small business community in Darchula is now trying to figure out how to circumvent the challenges being posed by online retail. It is only recently that the online retail platforms have started delivering goods at people's doorsteps here. The local shopkeepers are a bit worried.

“It is well known that these companies play on the volume of sales generated and give discounts while a local trader has to pay through his nose to get articles transported to such remote locations. The online marketing has started having its impact,” some of the local shopkeepers told The Citizen.

The locals also said that a large segment of the population in this region continues to be badly hit by the closure of international trade with China through the Lipulekh pass. This trade has not resumed after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The people are also not sure of its early resumption citing the present Indo-Chinese relations. This annual trading used to be carried out between June and October every year.

This age-old practice had been disrupted following the Indo-China war in 1962. However, it was resumed in 1992 when traders from the Indian side used to go up to Taklakot in Tibet, and those from the other side used to come up to Gunji.

The Indian traders would barter sugar, jaggery and steel utensils, and wool, shoes and apparel were brought in by traders from the other side.

Local sources said that now the paucity of well paying employment and the lure for quick money has led to a large number of people taking up the vocation of gathering Ophiocordyceps Sinensis, also known as Yarsagumba or ‘keeda jadi’ or caterpillar fungus.

This is said to be medicinal and believed by many to ‘boost the immune system’. It is also said to have ‘aphrodisiac qualities’ and is nicknamed the ‘Indian Viagra’ . Needless to add, it fetches a very high price.

“In many families, the males just climb the heights to gather this item and sell it through a network that ensures high returns. Many people have lost the inclination to look for other avenues of employment,” a local disclosed.

He added that all such businesses were also gaining popularity as ‘better employment’ was becoming rare. He said that the Agniveer scheme had also led to disillusionment among the youth in the area which always preferred defence forces as the first choice of employment.

As there is no long term ‘job guarantee’ with this temporary employment, many men now prefer to gather and sell the caterpillar fungus.

Coming back to Dharchula and similar remote locations, one often gets stumped when discovering the most unexpected gems. One such gem is Dharchula’s Rung Museum located right in the middle of the town.

Rung that is also referred to as ‘Rang’ is an indigenous community in India and Nepal known

to practise transhumance. Besides nomadic pastoralism, the members of this community would historically have trade ties with the Trans Himalayan traders in Tibet.

The museum is the brainchild of Rung Kalyan Sanstha (RKS). The people of the community relate that after the Indo-China war when the trade came to halt, the community was forced to find alternate sources of livelihood.

The pursuance of education and employment avenues had a dramatic impact on the social fabric of the community. The emigrations had an impact on the cultural heritage in terms of the unique languages that survived through oral traditions and are now in the category of those endangered.

The RKS’ website states that there are 34 Rung villages or hamlets on the Indian side, and 10 are on the Nepalese side distributed mainly in the three valleys of Darma, Byans and Chaundas. As per the Indian census 2001 community’s population was approximately 9,195 and including the population on Nepalese side, total community population was around 10,000.

The museum is a delight if one is interested in the history and culture of the region. One is transported into an altogether different world as artefacts of display have slowly become extinct. One gets a peep into the community dwellings as depicted in the museum. Utensils, kitchen design, goblets to serve traditional wines are all there on display.

One gets to see how the community divides space for keeping livestock and storing grains in the houses located in high Himalayan topography. The visitor gets to know the lifestyle of the community by browsing through the traditional implements. On display are the devices used for weaving and stitching.

One also gets to see the apparel, mainly the best quality leather worn by the community members when they used to travel to the Himalayan heights on horses and other beasts of burden. Also on display are the tube radio sets that were the sole contact with the outside world in harsh weather conditions. The process of collecting these artefacts had started in 2009, and is still underway.

Dharchula that transports a visitor to a world that one cannot imagine sitting in the metros of India. It is much more than a stopover for those undertaking the annual Kailash Mansarovar Yatra.