Nepal | November 19, 2019

On Langtang’s roads

Elisa Ritter

More than a year after the devastating earthquake, a photographer visits Langtang, the Mecca of ‘paradise’ trekking and one of the most-affected areas during the quake, and observes that solutions offered by collective self-­reliance would allow people to meet their needs throughout the year, even outside the tourist season

Rasuwa

Located in the district of Rasuwa, north of the central region of Nepal, Langtang has aroused the interest and sympathy of the international community after the April 25, 2015 Gorkha earthquake.

For some media, new steps to attract public attention like little improvements and developments, in which the Tamang and Tibetan communities have invested to raise their houses and their people, do not register.

Hard luck stories are spread overshadowing the good news that would encourage tourists to return. The majority of local people here support themselves through tourism. After traumatic images and misinformation, the Western world tourism industry remain paralysed at the idea of offering a trip to Nepal.

The international community think donations given to the government and a few multinational organisations will sufficiently help the plight of victims.

In vain. Of the billions of foreign donations collected since 2015 by the Government to compensate victims and help them, Langtang, the Mecca of ‘paradise’ trekking and one of the most affected areas during the earthquake,
will not get what it was promised.

Some families of Kyangjing Gumba, the highest point of the trek, none have received the sum pledged by the Government — from $200 to $500 per family.

According to the Ministry of Finance, the international community pledged $ 4.1 billion, but only $2.9 billion have been received and the department has made use of only 15-20 per cent since.

On the road and through my research, I met Sherap Tamang, Manager of Namaste Guest House in Kyangjing. This man shared his experiences of the disaster, the reconstruction which was not easy for his people, and also the loss of loved ones — his wife, his brother and father.

For three days he was buried in rubble with the wounded, without water or food or something to warm himself. “The blood of the wounded did not cease to flow, we had to put sand to mitigate the bleeding. We waited in the dark and cold for three days,” he shared.

It took a total of six days for the government and the US helicopters to arrive and rescue all the victims.

Organisations such as Om Nepal, Rasuwa Relief, Samaritan’s Purse, Langtang Management and Reconstruction
Committee and some international organisations contribute to native re-balances by bringing food and equipment, but what was most effective according to Sherap, was the help rendered by tourists who revived the local
economy through donations and trekking.

Sherap rebuilt his lodge with the help of a few workers from a nearby village to whom he paid $12 per day, and provided food and shelter, only two months after the disaster.

To give an idea, the average monthly salary in Nepal is around $59. He spent 13 months in the Yellow Gumba camps, until things improved in Langtang.

The camps are vacant now but some regulars come back during winter because their houses are not warm enough in the freezing temperatures.

Unfortunately, many others also had to resort to bank loans to rebuild their house or lodges. Furthermore, suffering a toothache, Sherap can only complain of his pain in this situation as he does not have access to medical facilities or medicines.

The only nurse who was in charge of taking care of the people disappeared during the earthquake, leaving behind a half-built hospital. For Sherap, one of the key elements for Langtang would be to get medical infrastructure with permanent staff.

Sangay, a 13-year-­old, walked with us for three days because she had twisted her ankle on the way home. She couldn’t keep up with her parents to Mundu Kyangjing because of her pain.

She set her sights on me while I was staying the night in the lodge of her family, who left her to me with confidence. It was at this point that I saw that her injuries were serious.

Her little moans made while walking made me suspect a more worrisome diagnostic. I was shocked to see an
ankle that had tripled in size, an infected bulb and a festering wound on the forearm.

Slight injuries like this in the West would have been nothing dramatic, but here each small wound turns into an infection which easily ends in sepsis.

With my fellow walker, a Canadian I met in Kathmandu, we fixed her with a tape, soothing cream, antiseptic, and gave her some painkillers. We realised that we might become the ‘doctors’ of the valley to look after all the small problems that we crossed.

Who would have thought that we would have to burst an abscess purplish blue finger with a compass burned in the fire (to disinfect) and clean and remove the impurity of the wound? A 10-year-old child only sketched a grimace when the operation happened, of course, without local anaesthesia. Fortunately, a few days later his little finger was healed.

Sangay took us to meet her grandparents in Mundu. A very modest wooden house with an evident charm. The grandfather is part of yak milk suppliers for cheese at the Kyangjing Gumba.

We were invited to drink some that was freshly milked in the morning and eat the cream cheese around the fire. This is where the family eats, lives and sleeps together, huddled on mattresses, carpets and cushions. Despite the language barrier, the hospitality and kindness of these people moved me.

It is important to know that humanitarian operations do not compromise basic principles of self-sufficiency. They do not teach about hygiene, or a carpenter how to maintain a house, they do not teach to anticipate the future in a sustainable way.

We must be able to dissociate humanitarian called ‘emergency’ that comes to help at the snap, to support a
primary need at a given time, but quickly becomes harmful if it is invested over a long period of assistance. It should not breastfeed the poor, but rather teach them the solutions to solve the fundamental problems over time to manage themselves.

We should think locally to be able to think globally of the overall risk of transforming a population in need to an addictive and assisted population, knowing no longer how to support itself.

On the trek, the presence of tourists is still relatively rare as the construction of lodges are still on. The local people compete for business hoping to have enough to survive the next few months.

Therefore, solutions offered by collective self-­reliance would allow people to meet their needs throughout the year, also outside the tourist season.

Moreover, technological advances allow spread of solar installations but installation of water filters would also be a wise principle.

It would minimise the supply of bottles of water, provide potable water to the community and tourists, and reduce the extent of waste in the environment.

The gardens’ rich resources and craft production from cheese, milk, or shawls, woollen scarves and other artefacts of yak, and jewellery made by the women would promote sources of income off season.

For children, almost all of them have access nowadays to education at schools in Kathmandu with support of several organisations.

Lhakpa Jamang Jangba, alias Dorje, owner of the bakery at Kyanjing Gumba, is one of principal actors of thje Langtang Memory Project, Partage Nepal Trek and many other projects, to offer visibility, authenticity and quality of evidence, which are sustainable solutions for the survival of his people.

Ultimately, the germination of ecology and a more equitable approach might be the solution that would benefit the
Langtang community.

The best time to visit Langtang is from April to May, and October to November.

(The author is a French photographer)


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