It was a day like any other. Rickshaw drivers, feet balanced on bike handlebars, were stealing 40 winks while waiting for a fare. Street-savvy dogs nosed the litter and stallholders were plying bananas and trusses of tomatoes. And then, at four minutes to noon on 25 April 2015 — while many were still digesting their mid-morning dal bhat — a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal.
In the first 50 seconds, and during devastating aftershocks, 600,000 homes were levelled, killing 8,856 people — 22,309 people were injured.
“It was fearsome,” says Hari, my Kathmandu guide, one year on. “Everyone slept outside in the street, food prices soared and roads were blocked.”
Hari — who has a dusting of grey hair at his temples and a fresh red tika dotted on his forehead from temple — is showing me around the capital’s UNESCO-listed Durbar Square whose ancient temples bore the brunt of the damage. Crumbling bricks cascade onto the street like spilt sand. Fragments of carved stone and wood are propped up, awaiting repair. On the outskirts are a dozen tented camps, funded by USAID and the Red Cross, to house those whose homes are still too fragile to live in. An elderly lady is sweeping the earth outside her canvas shelter, while above her droops a mass of electricity wires, as tangled as liquorice laces.
Rebuilding of the central Durbar Square and Swoyambhu Buddhist stupa complex, aka Monkey Temple, was slowed while they waited for permissions from UNESCO — a three-year rehabilitation project was given the green light in April.
The earthquake was Nepal’s worst natural disaster in 80 years. In fact, the damage may have been prolonged by the West’s reaction: tourism is key to the Nepalese economy and it took nearly 10 months for the US and UK to lift their travel bans to the country, despite only 14 of the 75 districts being affected. Well, it’s time to go back!
I hop into a taxi and head straight for the hills. Neydo Buddhist Monastery sits above the town of Pharping, 15 miles south of Kathmandu. Tourists can sleep in its simple guesthouse and attend puja (prayer ritual) at dawn.
The barks of local dogs lever me from my bed, and I pass under prayer flags trembling in the breeze as I climb the steps to the monastery. I slip off my shoes and tiptoe inside. Every column and wall is covered in paintings and I’m the only tourist. I sit cross-legged on the floor and watch as the rising sun filters through the roof down onto the almighty statue of Amitabha Buddha, whose palm is raised as if to wave ‘hello’. I watch him slowly turning golden as the monks — some as young as six — chant their prayers; their voices meld together to form a deep hum. Occasionally, they turn their hand-written prayer sheets
or blast their breath into a conch shell.
Let bygones be bygones
The eldest monk opens the great doors behind me and a cold wind rushes in. “Would you like to move to the side,” he asks. “Mind you, cold is just a state of mind,” he winks. Once prayers are concluded we walk barefoot together through the monastery. In a twist of fate, he’s named Karma. How has the earthquake affected people, I ask. “They stay together,” he says, pulling a Samsung smartphone out of his robes to check the time. “Any arguments were forgotten and now families are much closer.”
After the earthquake, many set up homestays to earn a living, he adds. Indeed, it’s one of the best ways for visitors to direct cash to the people who need it. As it happens, UK-based responsible-tour operator Rickshaw Travel arranges stays with local families and I’ve come to try some.
It’s mid-afternoon when I’m dropped outside the four-storey townhouse of 37-year-old Shila Amatya. She whisks my bag off my back and ushers a cup of chai — milky masala-spiced tea — into my hands. “From now on you’re not a guest and I’m not a host,” she beams, so I seat myself on a wicker stool and watch while she entertains customers who’ve come to buy hair dye, earrings, panty liners or phone cards from her open-fronted shop.
Shila is one of 15 families in Panauti — one of the oldest towns in Nepal, southeast of Kathmandu — that run a homestay cooperative. Guests are rotated between the families to ensure even distribution of earnings, with 80% going to the host and 20% going to the collective for projects such as scholarships for poor children and a new community hall.
“I’m a hairdresser too,” she says, pointing to a worn leather chair facing a broad browning mirror on the wall. I pull at my own messy locks and frown at the split ends that haven’t seen a pair of scissors in over a year.
“Would you cut mine,” I say.
“Of course,” she replies, whipping a silky black coverall off a peg and laying it across my shoulders. “I’ll give you a modern Nepali style.” Her sister-in-law, Ambika, and 15-year-old daughter, Amy, look on, amused, as she shears off a clump of hair. In 15 minutes I’m lighter and redesigned — a bargain at around £1.50.
“What’s for tea tonight, Mum?” I tease. “We’re having a momo party,” she says — dumplings. We gather round the kitchen table in the basement. Amy rolls out small circles of the flour-and-water dough, while Shila and I massage grated water buffalo meat, onion, garlic, coriander, ginger and masala spices together. I watch as she spoons a little into the centre of the floury circle and nips the edges together into a neat little bundle. I try to copy but fail.
“Pinch and release, pinch and release,” she says. “What time does the electricity cut out tonight,” Shila asks her daughter. Amy shrugs and, comically, we’re plunged into darkness five minutes later. We continue rolling by torchlight. Once steamed, we dip the parcels into homemade tomato pickle and take sneaky sips of the alcoholic home-brew raksi.
Like the tectonic plates beneath it, Nepali culture is a meeting of Indian, Nepali and Tibetan influences, so for my second homestay we drive to the Tibetan settlement of Jampaling on the outskirts of Pokhara — Nepal’s second-largest city. We overtake pimped-up trucks with hand-painted bumper stickers asking drivers behind them to ‘Care-Full Drive’ or ‘Bolw Horn’, and pass leafless silkwood trees whose bright-red blossoms burst from the tips of branches like fireworks, until the snow-covered triangle of Machapuchare (Fishtail Mountain) juts above the horizon. My Tibetan guide Thupten Gyatso, is waiting by the roadside. We shake hands through the window, then he jumps astride his moped and motions for us to follow him along a deeply rutted dirt track that weaves down to the Seti River.
When we stop, the wood smoke wrinkles my nostrils and roundabout coloured prayer flags flutter from every beam and rooftop. Home to around 600 people, Jampaling was established in 1975 to house refugees fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. It is one of 12 such places in Nepal. “I was a year old when we arrived,” says Thupten.
“My father had been ‘rich’ with 10,000 sheep and 1,000 yaks, but we had to exchange jewellery for food. Many died on the journey. He remembers vultures circling in the sky.” Thupten has led us into the compound of his sister’s house, where his father — now in his late 80s — sits on the floor weaving wool on an ancient spinner. “He desperately dreams of going back to die in the land he was born in.”
We meander through the village, visiting the school and snacking on strips of dried water-buffalo skin from the community shop. Displaced Tibetans have been in exile for more than 50 years. The earthquake is just another setback for them. “Tibetans arriving after 1989 were denied Nepali passports,” says Thupten. “Even if you study to become a doctor, you can’t get a job because you need citizenship to work.”
It’s getting dark and time for Thupten to drive back to town. His sister, Nangsa, and I wave him goodbye from the gate and wander inside to finish preparing dinner. Her ebony hair trails to her waist and I watch her, standing in her slippers behind the gas-ring cooker, as she carves off a chunk of drying chakampo (water buffalo meat) and dices it into a blackened skillet with some onions. Her father sits in the corner fingering his red prayer beads, his lips moving silently. She hands me an ‘I Love Tibet’ mug brimming with po cha (salty butter tea), and we dip kabse — a rock-hard traditional Tibetan snack made from fried flour — into the hot liquid, listening to the rain battering the corrugated tin roof.
On her phone, she shows me photos of her three children. “I only see them for two months a year, the rest of the time they are at school in India,” she says. After eating, we pass the time painting my nails with glitter-laced polish and, in broken English, she teaches me how to play the card game ‘marriage’. Warsang, the family’s white Japanese Spitz lapdog — small as a wind-up toy — has a barking fit every time I slip out of the gate to go to the toilet.
When it’s late, Nangsa shows me to a bed set up in their altar room. A buttermilk candle, the sole light source, shows up posters of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama.
Drizzle marks the next morning. Even Warsang is quiet and happy to huddle inside his hutch, as I wander outside to the water pump to brush my teeth. Sitaram, my driver arrives and signals it’s time to go. Nangsa runs to her ageing chest of drawers and fishes out a white scarf and places it tenderly around my neck. “For a safe journey and prosperous life,” she whispers, pressing her hands together in prayer and bowing her head. I break tradition and give her a huge hug.
Two days after I leave, Prince Harry flies in for a royal visit. As part of his five-day tour he spends the night in Leorani village at the home of 86-year-old Mrs Mangali Gurung, the widow of a World War II Gurkha soldier, whose house was destroyed by the quake.
Back home at my desk, I recall words Thupten said to me: “For us, death is more important than birth. Not that we wish to die sooner, but rather we look forward to our rebirth.” It’s an apt motto for Nepal, which from the rubble deserves a new beginning.
Rickshaw Travel builds responsible-tourism holidays from a series of bite-size trips. These include ‘In the Foosteps of Buddha’, ‘Warm Welcomes in Nepal’, ‘Hiking to Ancient Newari Villages’ and ‘At Home with the Tibetans’, which cost £45-£445 per person based on two sharing. Flights can be arranged too. A 15-day single-entry visa can be bought on arrival at Tribhuvan airport from $25 (£19). Two passport photos are required.
Published in the November 2016 guide issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)