Monday, October 30, 2017

Returning to Nepal's Langtang Valley

On April 2015 Nepal’s worst earthquake for 80 years shook the Langtang Valley. Within seconds a kilometer-wide wall of rock, snow and ice detached from Langtang Lirung peak high above Langtang village and dropped in an unseen avalanche, picking up speed and shooting off the lip of the cliffs 300m above the valley floor, to pulverise the unsuspecting village below.

Before the earthquake Langtang was a popular stop on the Langtang Valley trek route, as one of the few actual villages on the trail, and it boasted dozens of trekking lodges. Today just one house remains from the village, cowering under the cliff that protected it from the avalanche.
The avalanche poured over the cliff that towers above former Langtang village

One solitary house is all that remains of Langtang village

Around 155 villagers were killed instantly, along with around 40 foreign trekkers and many Nepali porters and guides. As it was noon most trekkers were settling down to lunch, while many locals were attending a funeral in the village. As the avalanche engulfed the village it sent hurricane force winds up and down the valley, stripping the surrounding area of trees, killing wildlife and ripping the roofs of lodges. Multiple landslides tumbled down the hillsides simultaneously, blocking the trails down valley. 

Everest hogged all the media attention, as it always does, like a pouting Kardashian with its glacial cleavage pushed up to its chin, but far more people died in Langtang and help was slower to arrive. Locals from nearby Kyangjin Gompa rushed to the village to find their houses and families vanished under 20m of rubble; disappeared, gone without even the chance of a goodbye. Most bodies were never recovered.
Memorial to Spanish trekkers and their Nepali crew.

Memorial to an Israeli trekker

Heading back to Langtang today the devastation is still shocking, especially if you know what you are looking at. Not a single piece of wood or trace of the village remains. It takes about 20 minutes to cross the tomb-like rubble that sits atop the former village, until you finally get to a collection of prayer flags and a memorial chorten that records the names of the dead: villagers from Langtang, Gumba and Sindum; seven trekkers from Spain; four French walkers from the same family. Individual memorials to lost trekkers are visible along other parts of the trail. One Israeli trekker was swept into the river by a landslide. A team from Italy is commemorated with a cairn.

This is what remains of Langtang village

Trekkers crossing the landslide that covers Langtang village

It’s a sobering experience talking to lodge owners and hearing their recollections from the day. Many of the survivors were elsewhere, looking after family lodges elsewhere along the trail but almost everyone lost family members in Langtang, often from multiple generations. After being evacuated to Kathmandu’s Yellow Gompa for six months following the earthquake almost all have returned to rebuild their houses and businesses. What was clear to me is that the mental scars are yet to heal and that raw trauma simmers just below the stoic surface.

The lady I stayed with in Kyangjin Gomba lost her husband and two of her children. The sorrow in her face was penetrating and was the reason I stayed in her basic lodge, despite the rats scampering across the ceiling all night. Over two years after the quake, she needed all the help she could get. Many widows are facing life alone for the first time and summoning the courage to rebuild their lodges as they face the future alone.

In some ways Langtang is lucky. It has received much goodwill and donations from trekkers who have fond memories of the region. There are many, many other villages in Nepal that suffer in silence. Mixed with a lingering sense of sadness was an admiration for the self-reliance of the people here. Most were not waiting for the government to help; they knew better than that. Most were rebuilding their lodges by hand, riding out two years of no trekkers. The Langtang trail is now fully open and lodges have been rebuilt along its length.

View of Langtang Lirung from the Langtang trail

One of the five Tsona lakes near Kyangjin Gompa, Langtang

Langtang's trekking lodges are once again open for business
Panorama of Kyangjin Gompa, Tsergo Ri and Lasngshisha Kharka from Nyengang Kharka, upper Langtang Valley

So my recommendation if you are interested in trekking in Nepal is that you trek the Langtang Valley. The scenery is as stunning as it was before and the lodges are better than ever. Kyangjin Ri offers some of the finest viewpoints in the Himalaya. Adventurers can now rent camping equipment and a guide to climb Yala Peak without the need for trekking peak permits. With the opening of the Tibet border at nearby Rasuwaghadi overlanders can now combine a Langtang trek with the amazing overland trip from Lhasa. If you have more than a week you can add on a visit to the Gosainkund Lakes or the Tamang Heritage Trail for a fabulous two or three week walk.

Head to the Dorje Bakery in Kyangjin Gompa for a slice of chocolate cake and chat to Lhakpa about how he rebuilt the bakery after it was destroyed, or to lodge owners who are trying to rebuild the one clinic in the valley, or repair the destroyed monastery. And as you trek up the valley know that every cup of tea and every dal bhat you order is helping a community recover from the worst disaster in living memory. 

Memorial Chorten and Prayer Flags at Langtang village


Classic Pamiri Scenery of Gorno Badakhshan

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