Mining the river Seti in Pokhara

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ August 5th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
Young woman gets ready to carry a heavy basket of rubble from the Seti River Mine

A young woman gets ready to carry a heavy basket of rubble from the Seti river mining site in Pokhara Nepal

River Mining the Seti river in Pokhara Nepal

Quite often you will hear people saying “if you go back to a place it will never be the same as it was before”.

One of the most enduring, albeit slightly haunting, memories I have of my previous journey to Nepal was meeting a 12-year-old river mining girl called Talika. It wasn’t a romanticized memory but one of surreal awe at the sheer size and scale of river mining in the popular tourist city of Pokhara.

I remember first coming upon the river banks and looking down at something akin to an Indiana Jones movie.  A massive labor camp in a dried up river bed in a deep valley below.

I remember tiny specs from afar that were families working hard mining the rubble then packing it up into 70kg sacks of sand, silt and gravel.

I remember a man asking me to adopt his son. I remember a woman asking me to pay for her daughter.

The River Seti mine in Pokhara Nepal

Looking down at the Seti river mine – little has changed in half a decade

Returning to the river mine

It was hard to fathom this scene as a regular occurrence at the time. It seemed far too grand to take place every year during dry season. But I was told it does.

I never remember reading much about it since then aside from a couple of Nepalese government officials saying that these people were damaging the river and should be stopped. Nothing about alternatives of work or human rights in these self-imposed slave labor camps was written. The only concern seemed to be about profit under the guise of environmental protection was ever mentioned.

A mere five years later I couldn’t help but return. It was back during the dry season when the river was low. Nothing has changed including the vast scale.

I pondered for many months over what I experienced yet again. A bizarre case of deja vu.

I went from wondering if such an immense scene was less vivid than my memory recalled – it wasn’t.

To hoping that a human rights watchdog had taken account of all this – they haven’t.

To shuddering at the thought of the police moving – they did.

And mixed in all that … what of the 12-year-old girl Talika? Was she still working here? – I wanted to know.

Workers carrying heavy loads from a river mine in Nepal

Miners make their way from the dry river best to the top of the river bank with 70kg loads worth 20 rupees each

 The immense sight of hundreds working in a river mine

So five years later and yes the river mine was still there. I stood a hundred or so feet  high above on the cliff like river bank looking down. The Seti river is no more that a trickle during dry season. Grey whitish rocks and rubble spread out into the dusty riverbanks that bake all day in the heat. It would be a bleak and nondescript river valley aside from the fact that hundreds of people are dotted along that riverbed like trails of black and yellow ants.

Specs of sun tanned humanity churning through rubble, packing it up into grey and yellow sacks before carrying it up steep embankments. Never relenting. Each sack rewarded by as little as 20 rupees.

Occasionally a dull roar will echo across the river valley as one of the mechanised trucks starts up and slowly rolls away with a full load. Otherwise you might be surprised to learn the valley is virtually silent. So vast that the sound of metal on rubble is lost as hot winds the blow through.

Cremations take place near the river mining by the river Seti

Cremations take place near the river mining

Life and death side by side along the riverbed

As I make my way down a rough trail to the riverbed I come across several ritual cremations. The river Seti is where many Hindus cremate their dead. It’s not as prosperous a setting as Pashupatinath in Kathmandu nor a visual spectacle as Varanasi in India. But, it’s still a solemn  respectful event to witness.

Yet mere feet away from a family paying their last respects to a beloved sibling there are other families working from the ages of seven to seventy mining the very same river bed.

So far, it seems, little has changed here.

The families at work

Old woman shoveling sand through a makeshift sieve in a river mine

Old woman shoveling sand through one of the makeshift sieves

Down along the riverbed my boots crunch over smooth white rocks, gravel and pebbles. The tiny specks of humanity transitioning from ant like qualities to very real Nepalese families.

Each family has a near twenty-foot squared off section of the riverbed to mine for themselves. Each square is marked with makeshift markers and sometimes even cordoned off with string. Then within square are large sand pits with handmade five foot wooden frames sitting at an upright angle. These wooden frames have a metal grill composed of chicken wire or slightly thinker metal strands that act like a giant rubble sieve.

On average there about four to seven people working in each pit.

In these pits it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, child or grand parent so long as you can lift a shovel of rubble.

Each shovel of riverbed rubble is tossed into these sieves to grade the rubble into different categories. Sand is the finest. Next comes gravel. Then fist sized rubble. Mounds of each grade surround these pits as other family members pack up sacks to the brim. Then one by one they are loaded onto a persons back with a typical Nepalese headband taking a great deal of the weight.

Next comes the brutal task of carrying the fully loaded sack to the top of the valley for weighing and then loading onto the waiting trucks. Not a grain is ever spilled from the sacks I’m told by one man. If a sack is under weight then there is no note of payment. It’s simply not counted by the pay masters.

Human machinery

A river mine like this in many parts of the world would be automated by big heavy digging equipment. Here in Nepal it’s simply cheaper to have humans do the work. Moreover the river mine is technically illegal.

Miners working in Nepal's Seti river mine

Nepal’s river Seti is a source of cheap building materials for wealthy companies and a source of a day’s food for the men, women and children that toll in it day after day

The lack of expensive machinery means that if it ever was raided then the operators can simply deny having anything to do with it. There result? The laborers are charged with illegal mining of the river and the companies actually paying them get away with it.

Deja Vu in the river mine

A small boy carrying a heavy load in the river mine

A small boy carrying a heavy load in the river mine

During my stay at the river mine I speak with as many people as possible. I’m hoping that I might spot Talika from some five years ago. I sit with a family and share some samosas with them. The father is grateful and full of talk. Then as is what happened years ago upon leaving he turns to me and asks if I want to adopt his son.

It’s the same question I was asked on my last visit by another family.

It’s not unusual to be asked this in Nepal. However here in the river mines you can see the anguish in a fathers eyes. There’s no explanation needed as to why he is so ready to give away his son. Anything must be better than this. Anything.

Old before one’s time in the mine

I move on to another mining pit in the river. Still no sign of Talika. I realise that in this vast expanse I could be searching for days.

I sit with another family and notice a young woman who’s standing with a basket attached to her back and having it filled with sand. It’s not Talika but something strikes me about this woman. She’s young. Perhaps in her twenties or late teens. But the open weather and hard toil of the river mine and Nepalese lifestyle has aged her.

Young woman having sand loaded onto her back at the river mine in Nepal

Young woman having sand loaded onto her back at the river mine in Nepal

She’s youthful at heart but it’s painfully obvious her heart is focused on work and already broken by the knowledge of the years of toil ahead.

Talika would be the same. A young girl I met for mere minutes. Her story pained me then. I don’t have to meet her again to know her fate. I see it this young womans face too.

A final recall

Many years ago on my first visit to this river mine I remember the father who wanted me to adopted his son.

I remember the mother who wanted me to buy her daughter.

I remember the families at work.

I remember the river mine being under the Kathmandu Pokhara tourist flight path. I remember looking up and seeing the plane buzzing so close over the mine as it shipped tourists from the capital to the start of their trekking vacation.

I remember thinking if the people onboard ever looked out their window and down at the scene below.

Then, the final act played out as years later that same flight path produced yet another low flying plane filled with tourists.

I looked up and wondered it all again. Before me the river miners continued on in their work.

A tourist plane flies overhead as the workers continue their toll in the Nepalese river mine below

A tourist plane flies overhead as the workers continue their toll in the Nepalese river mine below

My final thoughts were if the river miners knew who was on board these planes. The cruel irony of the flight path. And of the parents below hoping their child would somehow end up being on board such a plane with a one way ticket to a better future.

 This is an additional article about the river miners of the Seti River in Pokhara Nepal

Travel Tip:

Looking for things to see and places to go in Nepal? Read my free travel guides to Kathmandu or my travel guides to Pokhara. Want to know more about trekking? No problem here’s a guide to everything you need to know about trekking in Nepal.

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24 Great responses to Mining the river Seti in Pokhara

  1. Karen says:

    Just an amazing story and collection of Photographs. I’ve really been enjoying the way you’ve been revisiting places that made an impact on you in the past. Great stuff.

  2. Elaine says:

    What a way to live. It puts things in perspective when you see things like this.

  3. Anna's World says:

    These are two societies living in the same world. That last photo captures everything perfectly.

    • On my first visit I took a photo of the tourist plane over head as well. But it was much higher. This time it was flying lower so I was able to capture it. The men sitting below was the icing on the proverbial cake so to speak.

  4. esne says:

    Posts like this are why you are the best travel blogger out there: it’s not about you (I’m guilty of this): it’s about them/the place. Excellent read and not a photo of yourself (taken at arm’s length) in the bunch. Thank you

    • Thank you Esne, that’s a very faltering complement. In a scene like this there’s no doubt who should be the focus. And while I’ve written about the Seti mine before I felt a return there and noticing no change 5 years later might just show the quagmire Nepal is in.

  5. Pollen says:

    I am speechless for which some of us have to go through. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  6. Carl says:

    Just an amazing read. Visually stunning. It’s rare to come across a site like this these days. Good work.

  7. Noraleen says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. Would love to see you write for a larger audience. Have you ever considered it?

    • Bad new sells, but reality news like this rarely captivates or sells. It can however educate and provoke emotion.

      Would I like to write and photograph for a larger platform and show an audience how some people live in the world? Or the parallels of tourism and reality? Yes.

      In the meantime this website is accessible the world over. If people find it then they’ll be able to read articles like this right here.

  8. P.T. says:

    I’ve seen remotely similar scene in Mt. Ijen, Java. Workers are carrying heavy loads of sulfur from bottom of the Ijen crater up to the ridge before they slowly descend down.
    I remember they were earning peanuts compared to the work done.
    Yet the scene you so vividly described with both your captivating pictures and narrative seems even further from what I saw in Indonesia. I am not surprised this scene was ‘haunting’ you in your memories.
    And I love how you put the plane on the sky and people on the ground into perspective. Literally.
    Great article, thanks for sharing!

    • Thank’s PT. Now that you mention it I seem to remember seeing a documentary about Sulpur mining years ago. Workers carrying heavy loads and wearing makeshift breathing masks?

      I’m sure these two examples are not the only ones in the world either.

      Yes, the plane was there the first time I visited years ago. This time however it was flying lower so I got that shot!

      • P.T. says:

        Yes, it could have been a document about Ijen (though they can be other places where they mine sulfur). With the constant sulfur steam escaping from the ground and changing wind, you never knew what you were up to. One moment you are watching the surreal scenery, moment later you are gasping for a breath of air when wind direction changes. Those men are climbing the steep slope in their flipflops with makeshift masks (or a piece of cloth or shirt) and 70+ kgs worth of sulfur on their back.

  9. Edwardo says:

    Breathtaking observations in a part of the world I think never publishes things like this. Full credit to you. I imagine quite soon the media will be there. But they follow in your footsteps sir. Thank you.

    • Thanks Edwardo … If the media does show up and make a fuss the police will move in and force everyone out. The workers will simply move further out into a remoter part of the river. A place where there’s less chance of their story being told.

  10. Mandy says:

    Hi Dave, another GREAT story coming from you yet again. The writing and photograph complement each other. Your writing never fail to stir my emotion/thought after reading it. You are such a gem :)

  11. Lauren says:

    It’s not so shocking for me, I have seen in many poor countries people would easily agree to sale their children because they don’t want their child to live like them. It could be sad moment for you to watch out small kids working very hard.

    • Yes it’s true there are many places in the world where parents would ask someone to help take their children away. Indeed five years ago that was said in the same place. Shocking for me? No. Will it provoke emotion in others? Hopefully. Will it do some good? I really hope so.

  12. Barbara says:

    Outstanding, I was captivated as I read this post. It’s sometimes hard for us to image the hardships that others endure in some parts of the world but this is truly and eye-opener. Thank you so much for a very thought provoking article.