Long before the sun rises above the towering Himalayan peaks that overlook Pokhara in central Nepal, scores of young men gather in the dark on the edge of the town to train for the race of a lifetime.
At the starter’s signal, they charge off, first heaving a 25kg sack of sand into a “doko” wicker basket on their backs, and then starting a grueling 5km race up the steep mountainside. Finish in less than 46 minutes and they have a chance to join the Gurkhas, the legendary brigade of the British army.
The Gurkhas’ reputation as a fighting force is almost mythical: brave young men from the hills of Nepal who fight by the motto, “Better to die than to be a coward”.
This month hundreds of Nepalese young men aged 18-21 are battling it out at the British Gurkha Camp in Pokhara for just 400 coveted places, in a series of demanding physical and mental tests, which include the feared “doko race”.
To make it this far, they have already seen off more than 6,000 young hopefuls who signed up for the regional selection phase in late summer 2018.
The prize is not just a job in the British army, but a lucrative salary and pension, and the right to settle in the UK. For young men from one of the poorest countries in Asia, it is like winning the lottery.
The British army insists the recruitment process is, “free, fair and transparent”, but with so much riding on selection, Gurkha recruitment has become big business for private training academies across Nepal.
It has also become the target of bribery and extortion from unscrupulous dalals, or agents. They approach families of some potential recruits claiming to be able to use contacts at the British camp to secure them a place with the Gurkhas in exchange for a payment of tens of thousands of pounds.
Their pitch is a lie – they have no links to the British army and no way to influence decisions in the British camp – but with so much at stake, it is one that desperate parents are susceptible to, especially in a country where corruption is widespread.
“There is a real craze for the British army … so it’s common – you can ask anyone applying,” says Om Thapa, who runs a training academy for potential recruits.
Ashok Thapa, 19, one of this year’s candidates, says his mother was approached by the son of a retired Gurkha demanding 2 million rupees (£13,500) to secure a place for him in the brigade.
“My mum was willing to pay because she would do anything to help me [but] I told her this is a bet for them. If I get through they get money for nothing,” says Thapa, who convinced his mother not to pay up.
Years ago, the British army used to send ex-Gurkhas out into the hills to find potential recruits. Poverty was no bar to selection. Today, recruits are more likely to come from middle or upper-class urban families. The vast majority of the finalists have been to private school and speak fluent English.
“The selection process now is completely different. Most of the candidates have achieved top grades. They are more professional and educated now, but in the past they were stronger,” says Rajesh Rai, an owner of Gurkha Fitness training academy.
While potential recruits do not have to pay anything to the British army, they are shelling out thousands of pounds to join training academies, which promise to prepare them for recruitment.
The number of academies nationwide has increased fivefold in the past 10 years to more than a hundred. Many candidates sign up months before the British army’s first phase of recruitment, and if they make the cut, they stay on at the academies until final selection, meaning the schools are guaranteed a year-round income with no shortage of repeat clients.
The standard admission fee is 35,000 rupees for each phase of recruitment, but a candidate who spends a whole year at an academy can easily pay £1,800 in admission and hostel fees. Nepal’s per capita income is less than £800 a year.
“The academies are like a trap … There is a fiction that if you don’t go to an academy you can’t succeed. Nobody wants to take that risk, because [joining the Gurkhas] is a one in a million chance,” says Ashok Thapa.
Rabi Sharma, 20, says he and all his friends have had to borrow money to pay the fees. “I didn’t join an academy in the past because I couldn’t afford it, but this is my last chance so I want to be prepared,” says Sharma, who will be too old to apply next year.
Himal Limbu, vice-secretary of the Kathmandu branch of the Nepal Physical Training Association, the body that represents most of the training academies, says: “It’s up to a candidate to decide whether to prepare independently or go to the training center. That’s a matter of individual choice. We have been charging a nominal fee. For most of the training centers, the fee is hardly enough to pay for renting space and staff.”
The British Gurkhas say they have no connection to any training academies and do not engage with them. “We actively advertise that it is not necessary to attend a training academy in order to successfully pass recruitment selection,” said a spokesperson for the British Gurkhas.
The Gurkhas say they discourage people from spending money to get selected. “All the information on our selection assessments … are available on the army website. However, we cannot force people not to go to training academies and ultimately it is their choice,” said the spokesperson.
Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist who has researched Gurkha recruitment, believes the British army should take more responsibility. “Numerous young men drop out of school or leave career paths to train for the British army. Once they fail, few actually rejoin school. Many are in pretty serious debt too … the British army ignores these repercussions,” says Coburn.
Gurkha Fitness is one of a new crop of academies run by ex-British army soldiers. Co-owner Rajesh Rai says the academy attracted 700 candidates during the first phase of selection, guaranteeing a bumper pay day for his company.
Its compound resembles an army camp, with dormitories packed with bunk beds, a canteen and a gym. Eye test charts are pinned to the walls alongside stacks of doko baskets.
Kumar Newar, 19, has been at living at the academy for two years. Last time round he failed final selection because of a perforated ear drum. “I felt so bad, I cried … my family has spent a lot of money, about 300,000 rupees (£2,090) in two years.”
After an operation to repair his ear, and another year of relentless training, Newar is confident he will win selection this time. “I want to join the Gurkhas for the fame and fortune,” he says.
Becoming a Gurkha brings prestige and status, but for most the real motivation is the money.
Each morning and evening at Pokhara’s sports ground, groups of potential recruits jog around the rough cinder track or pump out sit-ups to their favorite songs, blaring from their phones.
“I want to continue the glorious legacy of the Gurkhas,” says Rabi Sharma, between laps of the track, repeating the standard response his academy has drilled into him, before adding, “and get a good salary and pension, and move to the UK. The salary and pension are the most important.”
For potential recruits like Prakash Rana, 20, the cost is a risk worth taking. “If 35,000 rupees can bring 3.5m rupees in the future, then why not?” THE GUARDIAN