There and back againIn 2004, my family and I went to Langtang with some family-friends. Although many details of that trip faded over the years, I revisited many times the awe that I felt when I woke up in Kyanjin Gompa,
In 2004, my family and I went to Langtang with some family-friends. Although many details of that trip faded over the years, I revisited many times the awe that I felt when I woke up in Kyanjin Gompa, stepped outside my room into the hotel’s balcony, and saw, in all four directions, the mountains I had been too tired to notice the day before. I remember racing my sister up a hill in Kyanjin because the hilltop looked so close, and upon realising that we wouldn’t be able to run to the top, launching into fits of giggles and taking pictures instead. I remembered the little kids, their cheeks red from exposure to the cold.
In Langtang, I saw, for the first time, running water frozen. I remembered seeing the movement of the water in the ice, and in places where the water ran deep, fish swimming in the depths, under icy surfaces. I remembered walking through mossy forests, where rocks and trees were covered by a fuzzy green accumulated over many years. I remembered sunlight filtering in through the foliage, dancing near my feet.
The earthquake of April 2015 triggered an avalanche that flattened Langtang valley, caused significant destruction throughout the trail, and killed many people. Last December, I watched a documentary about the people who had left Langtang after the destruction and the people who were left behind, as well as their efforts to rebuild their homes and villages. The documentary, produced by the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists’ (NEFEJ) Ankhi Jhyal team, showed how even though so many trees had been felled by the avalanche, locals had to pay for the timber they used to rebuild their houses according to pre-earthquake rules.
I had always wanted to go back to Langtang, but that documentary made the wish even more urgent. In mid-March, I trekked the same route with a few friends. We saw that some rebuilding had happened in Langtang—people have rebuilt houses, and started hosting tourists again. But many of the trails are now more dangerous because of dry landslides, and some of the rubble from the destruction remains. In A City’s Death by Fire, Derek Walcott describes how he “walked among the rubbled tales” of other people’s lives. In Langtang Village, we saw broken plastic cups, multiple lonely slippers that had lost their pairs, and even a crushed laptop. But in many ways, the destruction ran deeper than what we could see.
In Kyanjin Gompa, I noticed that the number of hotels had increased dramatically from the last time I was there. I tried to find the hotel from whose balcony I had seen the splendid view of the mountains around me, and wondered how the little boy with the red cheeks was. He would be old enough now to be one of the young men who we met on our way, carrying planks of wood to use for rebuilding, rolled foam mats wedged between their lower backs and the wooden planks. Maybe he was running his parents’ business now, I thought.
I realised only later, during our evening stroll, that destruction had also hit Kyanjin. Many of the hotels that were damaged during the earthquake had not been reconstructed. The cheese factory, a highlight of the previous trip, was padlocked; one of its walls had fallen, and dairy equipment hung waywardly from a corner, rusty from the snow.
The metal signboard at the broken-down factory was the only indication that we saw of Nepal Government’s presence inside Langtang National Park. In 2004, I remember having to check in at an Army check post before we entered the protected area. Post-earthquake, we saw soldiers only at Syafru Besi, and were not even required to sign in.
My friends and I had wanted to try as many local foods as possible. We asked if we could get dhindo for dinner instead of dal-bhat, but in many places, the option was just not available. When it was, though, it was much cheaper; rice had to be carried on mules’ backs from Syafru and barley and millet were grown locally. On our trek, we saw quite a few broken greenhouses, but the invasion of dal-bhat probably has to do with the high status accorded to rice (like in the rest of Nepal) and the growth of the tourism industry. Maybe before the earthquake, we would have gotten to eat more tarkari.
Although many signboards on the trail boasted of “good yak curd”, we didn’t get to taste any yak milk or yogurt. “We don’t have yaks right now,” most hotel-owners told us, and we didn’t press for more details. In Langtang, locals had told us that many of their cattle had been killed in the earthquake, and we assumed that people on the trail were talking about the same calamities. But on our descent from Bamboo, on the last day of our trek, we saw a huge herd of yaks and naks returning to the mountains after spending the winter in the lowlands. A man was carrying a calf, just one-day-old, on his back. For me, that was the most heartening sign of life and resilience in Langtang; a sign that along with the infrastructure, people were starting to rebuild their lives, and a sign that regardless of how much we lose, we are wired to love.
The Langtang Valley and the trekking route that goes there are still as beautiful as ever and the view of the mountains from Kyanjin is as splendid as ever, even if you can’t find the perfect balcony. But this time around, Langtang was harder to leave. I turned back every half an hour to bid goodbye to Kyanjin. This time, along with the curves of the river and the beauty of the Mountains juxtaposed with the valley underneath it, I had seen in Langtang the resilience of people, as well as the love for the land that had brought them back, even after such destruction.