Langtang the terrible, Langtang the beautiful
By Rabi Thapa
25 April 2016
Hope springs eternal on this trail.
I’m walking across the biggest landslide I’ve ever seen, and I know how I’m supposed to be feeling. But I don’t feel like I’m stepping over the remains of hundreds of people, animals, and houses, buried deep under tonnes of stone. Instead, I’m experiencing something of an emotional white-out, a sense that I’m traversing a dead, empty space. The mountain responsible for the devastation just stands there, impassively peering over the grey, scoured rock that makes up the northern flank of the valley, as if it had nothing to do with the scene before me, nor the thousands of trees flattened like so many matchsticks on the south side.
Until last spring, this was the penultimate stop on a much-loved trek across Nepal’s first Himalayan national park. Langtang Village was a thriving community, a genuine yak-herding and farming settlement that had taken to tourism with aplomb, and on the eve of 25 April, hundreds from up and down the valley had gathered at the monastery for a funerary ghewa for an elder. Many were caught in the monstrous landslide triggered by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake the next morning – if you can characterise a landslide as the cataclysmic brew of snow, ice and rock that buried over 70 houses and created a pressure wave that blasted anything in its path clean across the valley. Over 300 died in the Langtang Valley, and a third of the bodies were never recovered. In the aftermath, I worked on an oral history of the disaster, mostly by interviewing survivors at the Yellow Gomba refugee camp in Kathmandu, but was unable to secure a chopper ride into the valley. Well, here I was now.
The lunar landscape is unrecognisable from the pastoral scenes I’d admired three years ago. But it is mostly in the approach to the site that the flotsam of lives gone – a battered dekchi here, a pair of slippers there, a collapsed kitchen crisscrossed with timber – weighs hard on one. A local woman, solar panel strapped to her backpack, overtakes me. She’s singing, and beautifully, but I can’t make out whether it is a song for the lost souls or a signal to jam out the “things that play on your mind” across this cursed terrain, as someone has told me down in Lama Hotel. Pausing frequently to take photos, I turn a corner to see her but a speck in the distance, moving quickly towards the upper end of the village, where a stone-flagged path emerges from the rubble and winds between sites now busy with masons. Here, witnessing the first signs of reconstruction, optimism supplants sorrow.
The sentiment is shared by the Langtangbas who have returned to live here after a sweltering summer in Kathmandu. Trudging on to nearby Mundum, where a couple of tiny lodges cater to the few trekkers to be seen, I come across Dhindu Lama, former proprietor of a hotel in Ghodatabela, abandoned along with its army post. I last saw him in the capital, where he seemed moody, harassed. Now he grins broadly as he shakes my hand, “It’s much better being up here. I felt so dull in Kathmandu.” He has more than the fresh air to be happy about. He’s building a hotel in Kyanjin Gomba. And the first sight of Kyanjin itself, which was spared the brunt of the catastrophe because of the rock spurs it nestles into, is a heartening one. Shiny-new blue roofs cap the cluster of stone buildings that comprise the settlement and even the famous Dorje Bakery is up and running. As we chow down on hearty portions of almond and chocolate cake, owner Lhakpa Jangba tells me that a dozen hotels have been repaired in Kyanjin. Lhakpa lost about 25 family members last year, yet even in Kathmandu, as a key member of the Langtang Management and Reconstruction Committee, he was in good spirits, as much for his community as anyone else. “I keep on talking to them to keep them mentally strong,” he told me then, adding cheekily, “We need them to survive to make more population to put back into Langtang!”
Kyanjin had 27 hotels before the earthquake, and in addition to those already up and running this season, the rebuilding of another nine is imminent, according to Lhakpa. Five hotels are coming up in Langtang itself. All through the previous day, we tracked a helicopter swinging half-tonne loads of iron rods across to Kyanjin, and workers from Solukhumbhu and Okhaldhunga have been drafted to drive rebuilding efforts and trail improvement. Apart from some funding provided for the latter, however, the government appears to have largely redacted itself from these endeavours. At least our government has – the private sector choppers are chartered by UKAID, and the workers are organised by lodge-owners and by the local committees themselves. This has only fulfilled the low expectations of many, but does not excuse the state. As one Finjo Lopchan told me in Kathmandu: “It’s a great opportunity for them, when things like this happen. Their pockets grow large.” Still, Lhakpa Jangba expects to see everything back in place in about two years.
The Government of Nepal has not only refused to take the lead in reconstruction here (not to denigrate the involvement of the Nepal Army in body recovery and trail clearing in the aftermath), it is a champion of obstructionism. “What can we do with the NPR 200,000 (USD 2000) they have promised us,” fumes a lodge-owner in Bamboo. Up here, a mason can cost upwards of NPR 1500 a day. It’s been a year since the earthquake, and survivors haven’t received even this paltry sum. On our way back through Langtang Village, I encounter some men who’ve zipped in on an army helicopter. One asks me whether I’m walking back to Dhunche, the district headquarters, though even a fool would know the motorable road to the trailhead at Syabrubesi has been in existence for years. He then inquires what’s in Kyanjin Gomba. “A gomba,” someone offers blithely, “A Buddhist gomba”. As I move on, I hope these innocents are only contractors out to make a quick buck, and not representatives of the state doing the same.
In the absence of the government, save through subsidy, non-governmental organisations have stepped in to provide succour, notably OM Nepal and Rasuwa Relief (for whom I’m delivering 120 solar panel/lamp sets). WWF is behind the construction of a community centre, which will also function as a “memory park” in tribute to the victims of the earthquake. Freelance volunteers too are part of the landscape of reconstruction: a Swiss couple in Kyanjin were pitching in to sort through reusable timber, and in Langtang a Dutch couple explain that they are supporting the building of a house for a physically-handicapped member of a family they have known for 14 years. When I admire the sturdy pillars reinforced by iron rods and ask if they are building according to guidelines on a poster plastered on a traditional wooden home in Mundum, they laugh, “No! That’s too high to be safe, we don’t know who printed that out and stuck it up.”
Meanwhile, the lower trail along the Langtang Khola is now fully open, and we are returning this way despite the dire warnings of a young Australian consultant who claims a bridge is “hanging by a thread” (but nonetheless used it himself). The bridge is listing, but works fine for mule trains, so we march across undaunted, cursing the Aussie. Some of the recently cleared stretches thereon to Syabrubesi twitch a few nerves, but relative to the shifting terrain I scampered through last year on my way to Rasuwagadhi, this feels safe. It’s the stops that jar, however, since lodge-owners from Thulo Syabru have only just returned. At Bamboo and the aptly named Pairo, boulders the size of cars lie alongside the houses they have wrecked, and a man forlornly overlooks two workers clearing rubble below his eviscerated lodge. In Domen, where we spent our first night three years ago, the damage is less evident, but the hotels are locked up. A dignified-looking middle-aged lady smiles and offers us water, while complaining that her old man refuses to come down from Thulo Syabru to help her set up shop. Still, many places along the trail are now open for business already – a prospect many observers considered impossible just months ago.
On the way up, we’d taken the high road through Sherpagaon, and were rewarded with views of the Laurebina pass leading to the Gosainkunda lakes. We were also reminded that it’s not just the Langtang Valley trek that was affected by the earthquake. Aside from the Gosainkunda trek, now back in operation, the Tamang Heritage Trail has been badly ruptured. The traditional architecture of the village of Gatlang (up from Syabrubesi across from the Trishuli-Bhotekoshi) is all but gone, and even if settlements here do not adopt the tin sheet vernacular that has come to define many of the highway shanties enroute, tourism will be a harder sell. For Tenzin “Gyalpo” Lama, owner of the twice-born Tibet Guest House in Khangjim – his hotel came tumbling down a mere fortnight after he first opened it – the purported risks of the lower route are something of a boon: he stands to receive trekkers both from the Tamang Heritage Trail and the Langtang Trek. But how long will this last? It’s a precarious position to be in for this 65-year-old father of 10, but Gyalpo took shelter in a cave for months last year: it’s a hard land, with hard people living on it.
Indeed, the incipient spread of new Langtang Village huddles under an inherent precarity. The magnificent mountain that has become its livelihood, is at the same time its greatest nemesis. The old village has been obliterated, but the new hotels are coming up just shy of the site where the 1934 earthquake consumed an even earlier settlement. But if the people of Langtang were to leave for good, where would they go? The only reason some have houses in Kathmandu is because they retain a material interest in tourism and agro-pastoralism in Langtang Valley. The labour market being what it is in Nepal, there is no reason to believe education will lead Langtang youth away from home as long as they have a stake in tourism here, though migrant labour is a different matter (and one that affects the whole of Nepal). Even the farmers and yak herders are back, consolidating their thinned flocks, struggling with the flinty soil, and the older folk, who suffered through a listless summer in their tents at the Yellow Gomba in Kathmandu, are occupied with rebuilding the houses they wish to pass their last days in.
And who could begrudge them that? In spite of everything, Langtang is a beautiful place, and not just for its glorious mountain vistas. In the jungle, on the trail, one can almost forget what happened here. There is a simple joy in the creak of shoe and strap as I tread the trail up through forests of rhododendron, oak and bamboo, where tiny birds of different colours flit about and thwart my attempts to identify them. Between Rimche and Lama Hotel we are granted a spate of sightings – deer, ghoral, pheasants, and as we gawp at a score of giant honey hives on a cliff on the other side of the Langtang Khola, we are convinced that we have spotted a red panda… until it turns into a Himalayan langur. As always, hope springs eternal, for every traveller on this trail, and for Langtang and its people.
~Rabi Thapa is from Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is the editor of the literary magazine La.Lit (www.lalitmag.com). In 2011, he published the short story collection Nothing to Declare.