You didn’t think my trek was all fun and games, did you? Gatlang, the village in which I do my research, lies just outside Langtang National Park, and shares important cultural and economic ties to the areas I trekked in. Seeing the Langtang area from a tourist’s point of view gave me a better idea of what “development” and “earthquake rebuilding” means for Gatlang, which provided critical context for the Parvati Kunda project.
Gatlang lies just outside Langtang National Park, and it is not on the main trekking routes that go up the Langtang valley and to Gossaikunda. Rather, Gatlang is on the Tamang Heritage Trail, a lesser-known and less popular “cultural” route that hits villages mainly outside the park. Unlike villages in the Langtang valley, Gatlang is accessible by road, although the nearest bus station is a 1.5 hour walk away.
Gatlang fared badly during the earthquake. All structures in the village (mostly un-mortared stone houses, famous for their black, smoke-stained wooden roofs) were rendered uninhabitable. However, damage in Gatlang did not compare to Langtang Village, which was literally buried by a landslide. This is a Guardian article that mostly focuses on trekkers lost in Langtang during the earthquake, but also discusses what happened to villagers (warning: it’s hard to read).
Both Gatlang and Langtang Village can be compared to Barpak, a village located at the epicenter of the earthquake about 50 kilometers west of Gatlang as the crow flies. The captions and pictures in this photo project provide good descriptions for what the earthquake and subsequent rebuilding process has been like in many areas: hard-to-access villages, no government support (or, no government support without a bank account, but there are no banks), and semi-permanent tin-tarp-wood shacks in place of houses. The rebuilding process in Gatlang has been somewhat similar to that in Barpak. Even though Gatlang has a road, two years post-earthquake only 10 or 12 structures have been totally rebuilt. 85% of the population (total population is approximately 1,500 people) still lives in those tin-tarp-wood shacks. People worry that, if they aren’t able to rebuild their famous traditional houses and preserve their heritage, tourists will never return.
On the other hand, Langtang Village, even though it was completely wiped off the face of the earth, is far more advanced in the rebuilding process than either Barpak or Gatalng. There are at least 8 newly-built lodges open for business plus as many homes and other structures, and most are equipped with shiny new solar panels for hot water and solar batteries. It blew me away—knowing the terrible fate of Langtang Village and based on my experiences from Gatlang, I expected only rough and rudimentary lodging options. To my surprise, the lodge we stayed in at Langtang was one of the nicest facilities on the entire trek.
What is the difference in recovery progress between Barpak and Gatlang, which suffered severe but non-cataclysmic damage, and Langtang Village, which was completely wiped off the face of the earth? Tourist dollars. Langtang gets many times the number of foreign trekkers as Gatlang. Since government relief money has been absent or insufficient, and foreign relief agencies have mostly ducked out after immediate needs were satisfied (the earthquake was two years ago now), money brought in by foreigners is often the sole base of continued rebuilding projects.
Interestingly, even in Langtang Village, which has been extremely fortunate in the constant flux of wealthy trekkers (I do not in any way mean to discredit the suffering that Langtang Village experienced during the earthquake; I refer only to the rebuilding process), lodge owners complain that foreign tourism has been extremely low, down by some 85%, since the earthquake. It seems that post-quake, many foreigners are afraid to come to Nepal, and particularly afraid to visit Langtang National Park. I will hazard a guess that that heartbreaking Guardian article about Langtang Village, written less than a month after the quake, is a large part of the reason people fear Langtang. The article is extremely well-written and accurate—it was a terrible situation for foreign trekkers and Nepalis alike, and heartbreaking for their families. However, given that the Guardian is widely read, perhaps the article was a little too well-written. I suspect the lasting images from that article have continued to deter foreigners from visiting Langtang, despite follow-up articles.
Media is powerful, and perhaps what the Langtang region needs is another follow-up article, not about earthquake rebuilding but about the incredible beauty of Langtang. And especially for those of us who live and work in Nepal, disparity in the rebuilding process is critical context for understanding how to work within these communities. Before anything else, people need clean water, food, shelter, financial stability, and a way to preserve their culture. In many cases, even two years after the earthquake, these basic needs have not been met.
In terms of environmental research, biodiversity conservation often pales in comparison to the need for rebuilding. On the hierarchy of needs, making sure people have clean water absolutely comes before protecting wetland plants. This is important background to be aware of when working with community leaders to develop a conservation plan for the Parvati Kunda wetland. Clean drinking water and the health of the community comes first, especially in a post-earthquake context. Even though my primary interest as a scientist is biodiversity conservation, it is a sign of respect for me to recognize that and act with humans as the priority.
[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are based on experience, casual conversation, and internet research. They do not represent the results of scientifically conducted surveys or interviews]
“Sometimes the ‘plan’ is not the only path with a good outcome” – Steve Hill
From a wise and illustrious sage, this statement perfectly encapsulates Nepal, where nothing goes as planned but things usually turn out okay anyway.
Trekking Everest Base Camp wasn’t even on my bucket list, because who would’ve thought a kid from Illinois could make it anywhere close to the highest mountain in the world. But, a few Sundays ago, there I was, in the Kathmandu airport, waiting to board a plane to Lukla, the gateway to Everest and my ticket to a two-week trek to the (bottom of the) top of the world.
And so, there in the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport, we waited. And waited. And waited for eight hours. And then all flights were cancelled because of bad weather. The next day we waited again, and just when we had checked our bags and got our boarding passes and were about to board the plane, we were bumped to the bottom of the list by big trekking companies and our late flight was cancelled. And then the third day we waited again, but for unfathomable reasons, the airline never put us on a flight. Helicopters were too expensive, so we went home after 3 days (over 24 hours total) of waiting in the airport, failing to fly to Lukla. Disappointment is an understatement. Everest Base Camp, which is now on the bucket list, did not get a checkmark.
However, I did put a checkmark next to Langtang National Park. The trekking company pulled strings and sent us there last minute, and our 12 day trek was stunning, educational, and physically challenging in a way that Everest, perhaps, would not have been.
The road to Dunche (remember that time I almost died on the road to Dunche? The same road on which I almost lost my bag and all my belongings off the top of a jeep? That road) was miraculously smooth. Before we knew it, we were hiking up the Langtang Valley from Syaphru Besi in the opposite direction from Gatlang. Walking along the Langtang river through blooming rhododendron forests, we climbed over 1000 meters in elevation on the first day, and again on the second day. By then, we had risen above the treeline and were surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
Day three I started taking Diamox to stave off altitude sickness, but that didn’t stop me from feeling dizzy during our early morning hike to Kyangin Gompa. But after a bowl of garlic soup (garlic is said to help the body adjust to altitude, and garlic soup can be found on all menus above 3,000 m), I recovered enough to climb the Kyangin Ri viewpoint. It was hard. But I made it up there, to about 5,000 meters, almost 16,000 feet. And from that point, which is 2,500 feet higher than any point in the contiguous United States, the Himalayas rose above us and all around us. Insignificance, utter awe, exhaustion, euphoria—the “power of nature” may be a cliché, but standing on the windblown knob of rock looking up at the giant, majestic snow-covered peaks, it felt truer than ever before.
As we descended the Ri we passed through a herd of yaks, which are the amazingly fluffy domesticated cow-relatives of the upper Himalaya. Yaks represent the far end of the “domesticated-cow-like livestock” continuum, the other end of which is occupied by cows themselves. Most people in mountain areas say they raise chauri, which is a cross between a yak and a cow. But sometimes chauri are created with a female yak, which is called a nak, and a male cow; and sometimes a male yak, which is actually called a yak, and a female cow. And of course, most chauri are simply offspring of other chauri, but often a male chauri is called a yak for simplicity. And sometimes people call yaks chauri-gaai (gaai means cow), which in my opinion does not make sense, because chauri plus cow does not equal yak.
Specific cow-chauri-yak designations aside, above about 4,500 meters everything is pretty much a true domesticated yak. And yaks are beautiful. However, yak meat unfortunately tastes like a wet yak might smell. I do not recommend eating yak meat.
At one point our way back down the Langtang valley, we descended into the shadow of a deep gorge. As we climbed down a steep section of trail, we heard shouting ahead, and then a strange rumbling sound. When we looked up, a refrigerator-sized boulder had dislodged 2,000 feet above and was bouncing down the canyon like a ping-pong ball. “RUN!!!” screamed our guide, and we turned and sprinted back up the crude steps. Run, run, run, faster, faster, don’t look back…those fifteen seconds felt like eternity. When we finally did turn to look, the boulder had stopped halfway down and hadn’t dislodged any other rocks. We watched for several minutes as the dust cloud cleared, and then turned and hiked slowly back down to the river, aware that what had been a harmless slip could have easily turned into a dangerous landslide.
Next we headed to Gossaikunda, the sacred frozen lake that is the home of Lord Shiva (and also a major source to the mighty Trishuli River). As a popular pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists, the trail to the lake was filled with Nepali trekkers and the occasional baba (holy man), coming to pay their respects to Shiva.
Walking around the lake, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that an entire river, that eventually feeds into the Ganges, which is a holy river and the source of water for millions of people, comes from here, in the Himalayas, from the snow and ice that fall every winter and melt every spring. I am drawn to bodies of water, and even though I couldn’t wade in the sacred lake, I stuck my hand in—the lake is oligotrophic and has few plants and no fish, but I looked for mayflies and snails under the rocks anyway.
And then from Gossaikunda, up and over the Lauribina pass we went, carefully kicking our way through snowfields and pausing to take in the breathtaking views. And then we went down, down to Phedi and Ghopte, and then unexpectedly back up to 3,500 meters, where I forgot to take my Diamox and got so ill I barely made it up the hill. And then we were no longer in the true Himalayas but in the foothills, and the rhododendron forests turned to pine, and it looked and smelled more like Colorado than Nepal. Finally, we walked into Shivapuri National Park, through the thick jungle, passing bird watchers out for a day hike, and followed the aqueduct down to Sundarijhal, where we stopped at a fruit stand for bananas and jumped in a taxi home. Thus, 15 days after my initial foray to the Kathmandu airport, I welcomed myself back to my apartment with a cold bucket shower and toilet paper.
The trek was beautiful, but also challenging. Altitude often subdues appetite, and that combined with 7 hours climbing stairs every day wiped ten pounds off my body. My hiking pants were falling off by day seven. At times, the altitude had me struggling for every step and left me gasping for breath up even short flights of stairs. Then I caught a nasty cough, which combined with the weight of my pack pulled a muscle in my ribs badly enough to visit a doctor in Kathmandu. But it was 100 percent worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And before I leave Nepal in November, I certainly will.
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!