Climbing Back from Disaster in Nepal
All photos by Violet Baron
Step onto any road in Nepal — any chaotic street in the capital city of Kathmandu, or winding, rocky path in a highland village like Namche Bazar — and time becomes relative.
You leave the concrete span of 2015 — indeed, the Nepali calendar counts 56 years ahead of our Gregorian year—and you become part of an ancient history of castes and traders, legacies of immigration resulting in 61 different ethnic groups living and working together. You walk among Brahman priests, Buddhist monks, monkeys and street dogs on newly paved roads, passing dedications to Hindu gods that were carved centuries ago and are retraced and repainted every year. You become one element in this country stamped by millennia of gradual change, a nation coming ever closer to the digital present and the self-determination of a political future.
After the devastating earthquake in April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude disaster that killed more than 1,900 people and destroyed numerous homes and cultural sites, Nepal was changed. But to understand the country after the disaster, you must understand Nepal before the earthquake: a developing country with a Silk Road heritage and trekking renown, where ancient and modern struggled to meet.
You must understand Nepal during the earthquake, when tarpaulin tents lined roads and streets and filled every city pasture. Families lived in these temporary shelters, seeking refuge from homes leveled in the quake, or with unstable foundations.
Now, remnants of the earthquake can still be seen in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley and the Everest region. Historical and cultural sites like temples and palaces are damaged or leveled. Tents remain in public areas where people cannot yet return to their homes, and rubble still sits in corners of public squares. Construction projects are visible in various states of progress — some just picking up after the monsoon season from June to August.
The biggest lasting impact on travel to Nepal is intangible: the international sense that Nepal is still somehow broken, unready for the steady flood of tourism that had set its economy in motion before the disaster. Nepalis talk about a second disaster, the aftershock of public opinion that creates further challenges as they struggle to return to order.
Nepal is ready now. Hotels and guesthouses are open for business, with amenities like hot water in check. Tours, guides, and sightseeing spots are available as usual, and trickles of tourists have begun to return. Bars and clubs in Kathmandu are again drawing crowds, with live music in Nepali and English playing into the night.
Consider what to do and what to avoid on your next trip to Nepal:
Visit some of the NGOs that are helping to address the root causes of poverty and distress in the country. Some worthy organizations are 7 Women, which helps disabled and disadvantaged women learn literacy, numeracy, and labor skills necessary to earn an income; and Just One, which provides shelter and education to children living on the streets of Kathmandu.
Keep in the know. Nepal is a developing country, and still occasionally experiences growing pains. There has been unrest in the southern edge of the country, bordering India, after a new constitution was announced in September 2015. The most popular tourist areas, including the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara along with the Everest and Annapurna trekking regions, are safe for travel and provide the same powerful personal and cultural experiences that they always have. But before venturing into less-traveled areas, check for up-to-the minute news about those places.
Do your homework regarding guides and treks. In some spots, steep and rocky trekking paths are still being reconstructed after the earthquake’s reshufflings, and it is important to be with a guide who knows where it is safe to hike.
Don’t waste water, electricity, gas or other resources. While guesthouses and restaurants are open, Nepal was always a place where supplies are precious, and conservation and sustainability are necessary ways of life. Keep plastic bottles to a minimum — national parks recommend purifying tap water rather than buying new bottles for each drink, and many places offer large jugs of water with which to fill a reusable bottle.
Finally, don’t let word-of-mouth define your trip. Many of the places hit hard by the quake are functioning now, and many others were hit only by a sense of proximity to the disaster. The Himalayan region of Langtang, to the north of the Kathmandu Valley, is a good example. Though the tiny village of the same name was destroyed in the earthquake, the wider valley remains an excellent region for trekking and wildlife encounters. The Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel is creating “expedition” trips to Langtang, where visitors can see red pandas, bird life and butterflies. Dedicated to responsible travel, Intrepid is donating 100 percent of this year’s profits from Nepal trips toward efforts to rebuild the country.
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