Maoists' mountain checkpoints reappear as elections cancelled
As foreign trekkers struggle up a hill in the thin air of the Nepali Himalayas, they are greeted by a red Maoist flag and a group of young men waiting patiently to collect their 'voluntary donations'.
For those who agree to pay, it is a chance for a snapshot and a tale to tell back home, but those who argue about the definition of 'voluntary' are reportedly intimidated with sticks and threats.
While the Maoists demand 2,000 rupees (HK$240), most tourists bargain the price down to below 1,000 rupees, and receive a receipt to avoid being charged again later in their trek.
The checkpoint is between the villages of Tal and Chamje in the remote Lamjung district near the border with Tibet.
It disappeared for six months as the Maoists tried their hand at politics in the capital, but was quietly re-established three weeks ago, when the group forced the postponement of elections planned for later this month.
The forced donations are collected by the United Revolutionary People's Council along with stick-wielding members of the Young Communist League, the renamed and expanded Maoist militia responsible for numerous recent violent incidents around the country.
'It made us feel like we were being robbed,' said American trekker Abby Bachhuber.
'It was upsetting because I don't necessarily agree with what they are trying to do and I don't like being forced to give money to anything.'
As Ms Bachhuber and her husband approached the checkpoint, they met a couple who had turned back and abandoned their 20-day trek because of their experience with the Maoists.
The male trekker had been slapped across the face when he refused to pay, which left the couple determined to avoid any more contact with the group, Ms Bachhuber said.
Violent encounters between foreign tourists and Maoists are rare, and the group's leaders insist that their party supports tourism in Nepal.
But Dev Gurung, a member of the Maoist politburo and parliamentary representative of the neighbouring district of Manang, admitted that threats were sometimes used to encourage donations.
'This depends entirely on the approach of the Maoists; if donations don't come easily, some people will use coercion,' he said.
Mr Gurung refused to specify what the money was being collected for but denied reports that the cash would pay for further conflict.
'There is no war,' Mr Gurung said. 'So there is no question of using the money for war.'
Trekkers are usually told the money is used to 'help the martyr's families' or to improve the conditions for the 31,000 Maoist fighters now living in UN-supervised camps, as agreed in last year's peace deal.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by all parties specifically prohibits 'tax collection against one's wish' but extorting foreigners is potentially a lucrative business, with 37,000 trekkers visiting the Annapurna region last year.
The Maoists' extortion comes on top of a 2,000-rupee state fee tourists must pay towards the conservation of the Annapurna region.
But while most trekkers complained that the donation was far from voluntary, not everyone found the encounter at the Maoist checkpoint a cause for concern.
'I expected it to be a bit more hardcore,' said Australian trekker April Lyons, who paid 3,000 rupees for her group of four and posed for a photo at the checkpoint.
'It certainly wasn't a threatening experience.
'They talked about the poverty in the country and how the king didn't do anything about it. Then they talked about their army.
'But they didn't say they were actually giving the money to them.'