Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Trip Notes - Yala Peak attempt with kids... Langtang Valley, Nepal - March, 2015

This is a story of an attempt on Yala Peak in Langtang Valley, myself and my two sons gave this an effort only to be thwarted by unexpected snowfall, or should I say normal mountain weather!

The Langtang Valley suffered doubly during the earthquake of April 2015 in Nepal. The quake itself caused many buildings homes, trekking lodges, restaurants to collapse in this very popular trekking and climbing region. Langtang is a short drive from Kathmandu and in recent years its popularity has raised it up to a close third for trekking tourists behind Everest and the Annapurna regions creating prosperity but also a dependency on tourism for a previously very impoverished local population. The earthquake shook loose an enormous piece of Langtang Lirung a beautiful triangular shaped peak, visible from Kathmandu. This piece of rock and glacier fell from directly above Langtang Village with devastating consequences. 

Photo taken looking directly upwards from the former site of Langtang Village.

In March, 2015 my sons, ages 9 and 11 and I ventured to Langtang with the idea to climb Yala Peak, above and beyond Kyanjin Gompa, known as a Trekking peak for its non-technical and comparatively lower summit; at 5500m we considered it an attainable challenge. Knowing of the tragedy in the region and knowing they were struggling to recover I wanted to see for myself how things were going and in doing so support the people simply by being there, and proving that it was safe to return to Langtang and possible to trek there as many had before.

In these Trip Notes, not only our trip... but our journey is described.

Day 0 
Drive from Kathmandu to Syabru Besi... not for the faint of heart in the early stages if your driver decides to go via Kalanki and the main East/West highway (due to the insane traffic) and later as the road gets narrower and windier. Requires a competent driver, a 4X4 (especially if wet) and patience. Private car takes 4-6hrs, Bus 8hrs+

Arrival in Syabru Besi is a bit of a blessing. We spent the night here although if you are keen and arrive early enough then you can probably hit the trail right away.

Day 1 
Syabru besi to Riverside (Lama Hotel) 2480m 9hrs (upper route)

There are two routes to Riverside, the lower one is just re-opened having been rehabilitated since the earthquake. It follows the river from old Syabru Besi on the northern shore through the jungle thus is in the shade and is said to shave 3hours off the time of the upper route.

We had to use the alternate upper trail that takes you up through terraced fields, into the pine forest and over the shoulder of the mountain. It is an 800m altitude gain to reach lunch in Khangjim (2235m) and then a further 250m before you start a long contour that weaves its way precariously along the southern side of the valley until it meets the river way down past Sherapgaon at Riverside. For a first day's walk I'll coin the phrase arduously beautiful. 

It is easy to see how the region was cut off after the earthquake with the lower trail closed due to multiple landslides, the upper one must have seemed impossible. We hear that survivors were trying to find a way out of the valley and it took some weeks before the trail to Riverside was rehabilitated. It is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Brave trail crew have made a way across very dicey landslides and the trail is high and narrow with amazing exposure. In one landslide, about 40m across, a huge tree hangs along the fall-line over a huge boulder under-cut by the trail itself looms. Steps have been built at great risk to the builders to make the way passable. Another particularly bad spot is where a 4m X 1m concrete slab is connected to a huge rock by re-bar. The slab is cracked along its length and there is no hand rail bolted to the rock. Used since the earthquake by all traffic including construction material laden ponies it will not last for long. The trail is high and a great adventurous moment early in the trip.

If you are starting from Syabru Besi and taking the high trail (which is no longer necessary) it is advised to stay the night in Sherpagaon to avoid an obscenely long and difficult first day of trekking trying to make it to Riverside. On the lower trail Riverside is easily reachable on Day 1. Riverside is a welcome stop, the lodge at the top (the original Lama Hotel) has a nice warm dining room and a really good hot shower. This was the last place we had the chance to eat chicken. The rest of the trip was vegetarian.

Day 2
Lama hotel to Thyangsyap 3200m 5hrs

The traditional walk from Lama Hotel calls for a stop in Langtang Village which is no longer possible. Eventually a lodge will be rebuilt above the village site but for now the choice is to stop in Thangsyap or continue to Mundu which is a full 1100m higher and beyond the recommended single-day altitude gain.

This is a lovely walk meandering up the left bank of the river. Huge primeval forest moss covered boulders and rhododendron ready to blossom. Many landslide crossings, some quite rough, and then again forest at times steeply upward always following the tumbling river on your right hand side. We had several sightings of equally curious langur monkey.

Ghoratabela 3030m is a traditional stopping place for lunch but has been totally destroyed by the earthquake and then the earthquake triggered rockfall. It is hard to see how anyone here survived and clearly it must have been a terrifying few minutes as the earth shook and then rocks and boulders rained down from a broken piece of the ridge visible high above, destroying everything.

We walked on to a small rebuilt hut near the abandoned National Park Check-post where a young woman was making lunch for passers-by. The tin roof of the hut needed securing and with strong wind gusts it banged up and down making everyone jump as they imagined what that fateful day must have been like with rocks raining down.

Up away from the river we came to Thyangsyap. It is a small comfortable location and three lodges are being rebuilt. After a 700m altitude gain we decided this would be our stopping place. To continue would be to gain more altitude and while most people continued to Mundu well beyond the Langtang landslide we decided to stay.

This little place was also destroyed not by rockfall but by first the earthquake and then the devastating wind blast from the Langtang slide. The force of this blast flattened huge trees and blasted others with black dust on the forested other side of the valley for 2km down stream and scattered debris (and body parts) 100's of metres up the valley side. Remember the photo below is from 1 year later.

In the absence of enough rooms we spent the night in the tent, comfortable cosy and warm, the boys first night in the mountains in a tent and highest so far at 3100m. 

Day 3
Thyangsyap to Kyanjin 3830m 6 hrs

The trail continues up the left side of the river the forest giving way to scrub and mounds of mossy peat on the benchlands high above the river itself. I am approaching the site of Langtang village with trepidation, already the reality of the enormity of the tragedy is apparent but now the non physical sense of it is coming. The physical is visible in the scar rising up the south face of Langtang Lirung scarred last April 25th by 1000's of tonnes of rock and ice as it fell from 3000m above. The earthquake shook hard and a huge piece of the mountain and glacier broke off directly above Langtang village. It strikes me that in English we don't have a word to describe an event of this size, it is indescribable... avalanche, rock fall, landslide..all totally inadequate describers...

The debris of homes and tea  houses destroyed or damaged on the western edge of the falling mountain starts an hour before the village area. People have salvaged valuable wood from family homes and you pass neatly piled timbers to one day be used for rebuilding. Everyone you meet on the trail talks about that day, about the family members they lost or their own near miss. There was a funeral that day in Langtang Village and people from up and down the valley had come to pay their last respects. Tourists excepted, people are engaged in restarting businesses or rebuilding. A few erstwhile foreigners are working on projects, a school (for what children?), homes (for which people), today building materials for 116 homes are to begin arriving by helicopter at enormous expense but there is no development plan and no people to rebuild, they are asking for more money to hire laborers. It appears they are mostly putting the cart before the horse which is the  beginning of a long discussion.

The majority of the village is completely buried in a white yellow rubble composed of rock and ice. It appears to be a huge terminal moraine with wood beams, broken concrete pillars, rebar and all sorts of debris sticking out in places. We tied Tibetan prayer flags between two rocks and the boys built some balancing rock towers, moments to reflect and remember the 260+ who perished... many of whom remain unfound. The village site is essentially a graveyard and all who pass through, at least the several trekkers and the locals I spoke with, sense the disturbing disquiet of wandering souls yet to find their final peace.

Except for our building of memorials we passed through in silent respect, Zaki and I chanting the mantra Aum Mani Padme hum, Nima our Sherpa guide singing a Buddhist prayer for the Dead. It is a very moving experience and one, by their questions later in the day, the boys  were processing in a positive way.

The upper part of the village is damaged badly but not buried and it is here where there are some efforts at rebuilding underway. Last week, as if some unseen force is objecting to these efforts happening at this time, a helicopter delivering construction material crashed on take off, tipping over mysteriously. The pilot pulled out and no fatalities but the hull remains as a reminder.

Leaving the village site to the west the climb continues now affording glimpses of dorje lapka rising at the eastern end of the valley. The boys were keen to meet up with their school friends who were a day ahead of us and so we had a quick lunch in Mundu and continued.

The northern side of the valley is bench land and perfect for grazing yaks and dzos and highland ponies. Now at over 3500m Kasem strode off ahead on the clear trail and didn't stop for one and a half hours expecting Kyanjin gompa to appear over the next rise. When it didn't appear after two or three 'next rises' he collapsed in tears, quite spent. Finally, passing through boulder fields and over a new unscarred suspension bridge, the next rise revealed Kyanjin gompa!

Or next task to find where our friends were staying was achieved quickly and after an agonizing two hours they were reunited.

Day 4
Kyanjin gompa

Spent the day taking it easy. The boys played for hours in the tent or bounding around the boulders below the village with Alex and Nick, friends from Patan. I did all the laundry in freezing cold water. In the mid morning sun we all 3 had a wash in a single bucket of stove top warmed water. I read, wrote notes and passed the morning despite Marvyn's chomping at the bit to do something.

Great to sit in the high altitude Himalayan sunshine and back in its warmth. Kyanjin is rebuilding, lodges bring re-roofed and a sense of normality returning... except there are few tourists. In recent years Langtang had become a hugely popular trekking region and Kyanjin the jewel. Easy to access from Kathmandu and within 2 days waking you are in stunning mountain grandeur, 2 more days and will have climbed to 4500m had some glorious views and 3 days after that you'll be back in Kathmandu.

In a few weeks it will have been a year since the earthquake and while Kyanjin may recover, Langtang village  will take longer and the fear remains of more trouble to come. What hasn't helped at all has been the lethargy in Kathmandu and the preposterous time the government has taken to move through the reconstruction bill.

Day 5
Rest Day - Kyanjin

A day off, our friends left with a clatter at 7am. We headed up the mountain behind the village to acclimatise. Wasn't quite the day I had planned, to get us up high and stay out for a while.  We headed up towards the summit visible from the town and it did become steep as we zig zagged up hummocks of grazed grassland. The steepness started to freak out first Zaki and then Kasem as they realised one slip and it was quite a tumble, quite exposed but we were going uphill and it wasn't particularly tricky. Anyway we stopped short of the Summit and decided to head down ending up back in town only 2 hours since we left. To debrief we all wrote a paragraph each on our feelings before during and after the walk and then read them outloud and discussed a bit. Below is what i wrote. The rest of the day we did nothing. Later though we started the arrangements to help in a memorial marble slab prepared for placing in Langtang somewhere. So the day ended on a high note.

At the beginning I felt strong and ready for a good climb. For the first time my legs felt strong and it felt like I was adjusting nicely.

When Zaki started to complain my displeasure at what he was doing turned to anger as I looked at his face and his attitude which was all wrong. He was defiant and unpleasant seeming to have completely forgotten where he was and why he was here. I felt worried too that he would resent being 'made to come' and that he might not like me even though my intentions are to give him a great adventure.

As we climbed higher and it got steeper we could see the top not very far away and the boys started worrying about coming down and how 'one little slip' would be a bad fall. Again I felt worried that they would feel pushed into something they didn't want to do. Perhaps I am second guessing myself.

We came down having 'nearly made it' and if course the descent wasn't as bad as they thought it would be... and it was very fast.

As we turned for home I again was unhappy because it was still early, we hadn't gone very high, and I just didn't feel any sense of what adventure means coming. I don't think the boys have any idea how fortunate they are not to be in the sick pollution of Kathmandu with every day of the holiday the same, playing mindlessly on screens and writing about which friend they can play with. Instead their father has taken then on a great trip into the Himalaya to listen to nature reveal who the really are.

Kasem had knee cramps in the night but we all ended up with a pretty good rest before our trek to base camp tomorrow.

Day 6
Kyanjin to Yala Peak base camp 5hrs

Great walk, no complaints as the trail heads West up the valley and trends upwards only occasionally with steep switchbacks. Contouring along grazed hillsides the clear altitude gain is most noticeable on the snowy forested north side of the valley as we pass above the snowline but on the sunny south side there is no snow at all.

We stopped sheltering under some rocks for our first packed lunch and soon the trail turns North up a steep gulley opening up into rocky moraine. We all failed in fact to read a telling sign portending of what was to come; a massive herd of Himalayan Blue sheep were descending the hillside that mid-afternoon. Had we stopped to think why... we would have guessed at what awaited us. A last push up a ridge to find base camp unusually located on the ridge rather than in a more sheltered location. To the east rises Tsergo Ri and to the west the unclimbed Kansas Ri massif, to the north our objective Yala Peak!

The weather has been unsettled all day, high cloud which could bring snow would scuttle our aspirations. Otherwise the plan is to bed early then up in the wee hours to try and knock it off and be back in camp by 1pm so we can have dinner in Kyanjin. Let's see what comes.

Day 7
Snowed in, descent to Kyanjin

Today started at bedtime the night before... when it started snowing around 7pm. Us boys were snug in our sleeping bags in my faithful MEC tent, the last gift my mother bought me 16 years ago. Pellets of snow pelted the tent with varying frequency accumulating rapidly. And then a flash of light followed by a peal of thunder that geeky like it was directly above our heads and we knew we were in for a storm. We were not to be disappointed as the thunder and lightening continued abating and returning, the calms between storms gave opportunity to knock the tent free of snow.

Kasem slept almost immediately, Zaki after an hour or so. I slept fitfully worrying about a lightning strike, already our Summit bid abandoned with thoughts turning now to the descent. Concerns ranged from route finding amidst the blowing and drifting snow to avalanche hazard on the steep traverses.

Sleep came hourly and morning too quickly, the zip had also broken on my my sleeping bag so was hard to tell what woke me, the lightening, the snow on the tent or the cold seam along my back and legs.

Nima our guide passed by at 5:30 to knock snow off the tent to wake us and we conferenced briefly. Given the continued snowfall and accumulation which could only have been greater higher up, poor visibility and the biting cold we decided the best course of action was to descend.... fast, before the was more accumulation.

The lads brought us tea in bed and then began the necessarily meticulous dressing process so that the boys were dressed for the weather and all possibilities; double socks with plastic bag foot liners, double trousers wind proof, heat tech under shirt, turtle neck, fleece, down vest, wind breaker, neck warmer, toque and gloves, sunglasses.... and boots. Backpacks only contained water and fibre fill jacket, spare gloves and dry socks.

I had to stuff the sleeping bags and get the hardware (crampons, harness, carabineers) separated in case of need. And dress myself. Finally we were done, the lads brought us noodle soup in the middle of it all and they packed up the rest of the gear. It took an hour and we were ready to go.

Just before leaving I spotted some figures about 300m on the trail below and both Nima and I saw them moving. Perhaps a group coming up or rescuers? Hard to know but we know we saw them at that time.. But then we never saw them again leading us to speculate perhaps it had been a family of yetis! What else?

Our two porters were laden, one with a dokho (basket) seemingly precariously top heavy, both loads at least 25kg. They had good runners on but any footwear would quickly become snow bound. It was going to be a slow careful descent. Nima positioned himself between the porters leading the way, close enough to grab the dhoko of one if he fell and  shepherding Zaki. Kasem was ahead of me following close enough to grab his back-pack strap should he stumble. 

In good weather the time to descend 500m should take 2.5 hours. We left at 8am with strong winds, blowing snow and visibility at about 30m. Despite the concerns mentioned I wasn't worried, Nima inspired confidence and I was no stranger to back country predicaments...the main difference was instead of having clients to care for I had my two brave young sons in my care. The boys were in good form, a bit scared in a sort of healthy way, I mean the plans had changed rapidly with the weather and we were in a 'bit of a spot' so to not have been scared would have been unnatural. Had we thought about those sheep the day before, heading down to safety... we might not have gone up in the first place!

We began the descent, steeply down from base camp, picking out the path first through invisible switchbacks covered in snow and then a jumbled boulder field. The wind at first was coming down the mountain slopes, blowing snow on top of us, this shifted as we got lower so that it was coming out of the west and so every time we rounded a corner of the east sloping side of a hill we would be blasted by snow. On one of these, where the wind had built up the snow into a 1m snow drift, Kasem said ‘Daddy this is getting pretty extreme!’.

We stopped after an hour and a half at the lunch rocks which were our target and we almost missed them in the driving snow, at one point not sure whether to take the higher route or the lower. But our porter Sonam got it right, he was in the lead most of the time and like a yak seemed to be able to smell the trail. Fortunately the lads had been up to Base Camp the day before to pre-position supplies so this trip back was their 4th time on the same trail in 36hrs. We had a short break now relieved with the knowledge that we were nearly 1/2 way back although with some of the trickier terrain still ahead it was getting warmer and the wind was less threatening. With two lightweight little boys along… it was a bit of a question at times whether they would stay on the hillside!

Down, down, down… we crossed a section with flowing water that was already melting, we had expected it to be glassy with ice so that was a relief, and then lower still, now out of the clouds and snow we were able to cross two small rivers without incident, also a relief since they could have been swollen with melt-water…. The sun came out for the last 40mins of the walk into Kyanjin and with the snow cover the temperature soared as we peeled off the layers. It was very nice to arrive back in Kyanjin, we had only left 28hrs before and it looked completely different covered in a white blanket of snow.

Grateful for our uneventful return, hot chocolate at the Dorje Bakery and a hot rum toddy for Daddyoh were highly called for… and a snowball fight and snow man building competition in the afternoon rounded off the day! 

Therein ends the tale. We were very lucky to be able to heli out of Kyanjin, the boy's mother had chartered a chopper also to support the transport of a memorial stone which is now installed in the Valley. Helicoptering out of a Himalayan valley is a short and very sweet way to exit (especially to avoid hammering the knees!) with amazing views and to gain a serious realization of where you have been and what you have done but also of how amazing it is that people live where they do.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017



May, 2107

Query on FB Group from random expat parent: 

Good afternoon. Any tips on the names of the top international schools in Yangon? Thanks so much..

My response: Daniel Pugh Just to be clear, there aren't any really great schools in Yangon. All have their warts, mostly following outdated curriculums with antiquated methodologies... good education is hard to find on the international scene. https://britishschoolyangon.org/


A few weeks ago I posted the response above to an enquiry on Facebook. It was picked up by the British School in Yangon and last week I was called to account with the school Director. My boys go to this school and the school felt the need to express their confusion as to why, if I was so critical, did I send my kids to their school. BTW I haven't been called into the 'Principals office' in 38 years since Tom Brown (not his real name ;-)) and I were told one of us had to leave the school for our miscreant behaviour. I self-expelled and moved on.

It's perfectly understandable why an erstwhile teacher might leap to the school's defence given the strength of social media and the influence we know it can have... at the same time it isn't something to be taken personally rather it is a point for reflection. I had of course not meant to offend, however as I told the Director in our meeting I did mean to be provocative; it seems I was successful. The take-away is that teachers, parents and school directors must wake up and question what they are doing. If the measure of being a top school is one that serves the best interests of our children and their futures (given what we already know are the challenges) indeed, in Yangon my answer remains "there aren't really any great schools in Yangon". BSY just happens to be the best of the choices imho.

Most schools here teach based on a 'colonial' curriculum that has its roots in the industrial revolution (quite a while ago), the British curriculum is the best known (Burma was a colony) and there are at least 4 schools in the city laying claim to using the British curriculum. There is one using the French system and a couple of others use the USA curriculum. Educators around the world recognize that for the most part these curriculum and how they are taught (silo learning, standardized testing, homework regimes) are woefully outdated.

It is true to say some teachers are enlightened in their teaching methods, others not so much. In that regard and certainly at BSY for example there are teachers trying their very best to deliver a curriculum to the kids that itself doesn't serve them so well. Still, silo learning prevails, with the concept of cross-cutting thematic learning trying unsuccessfully to edge in. Silo learning where the Math, English, Science, Art, Music, etc subjects are taught in isolation from each other, with little cross-referencing or points of intersect is antiquated.

Let me give an example of the beginning of this rabbit hole; my 12 year old is memorizing facts about pretty obscure figures from pre-Elizabethan England in his Humanities class and is tested weekly on his 'obscure figure of the week'. Dutifully I support him in this but privately I question wherein lies its relevance. Given the time allotted to schooling in his young life why spend time on this? Yes, he is learning to read, research and retain information that he is tested on but does it have to be this information? Couldn't it be something he wants to learn or that will be relevant to his future? Couldn't the 'obscure' persons be less obscure like Nicolai Tesla, Mother Theresa or H.H. the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu or JFK? We live in Myanmar, surely it might be a tad bit more relevant to consider notable figures from pre or post colonial Burma?

The rabbit hole deepens though: the world is changing at a very rapid pace as we know, what we aren't doing well as a species is adapting to the change most of which we are the cause of. With silo learning and memorization of redundant facts, we certainly aren't teaching our children how to deal with change, how to adapt and how to be tolerant and kind and those are the characteristics that are going win the day. The dogs may eat the dogs for short term gain but the majority needs to survive long term. It is most likely within our children's lifetimes that there is global calamity in access to food, to fresh water, stunning climate extremes, and in widespread social upheaval. These will require them to take information from the fluid landscape, analyze it, manage it, make decisions, change, adapt and survive. How are our schools preparing them for that using industrial revolution era methods and curriculum?

When I were a lad (and I'm dating myself here) it was school then uni then job then wifey then house then kids then mid-life circus (err.. crisis), etc... I digress. Think about it, in 40years how much has changed? Work has shifted completely, we have a work style continuum running from the job-for-life salary concept through a gambit of job types to the other end where work is forked out piece-meal to the lowest bidder on the internet. Myself, aside from being a grocery store clerk when I was a teen, have only ever worked as a consultant or contractor taking on temporary work for a multitude of employers and in changing fields. I have reinvented myself no less than 5 times over my working years to date. Grocery clerk, Adventure travel Guide, Development educator, Humanitarian Aid worker... and now transitioning into a Wellness Therapist!

Project Managers now manage their teams virtually, they live all over and they farm out the work piece by piece. To get work you have to hustle, be online, get those contracts no matter how small, make a name for yourself and get more work... isn't that right? How many of us realise this and how are our schools supporting us to prepare our kids for it giving them the tools they will need? How are our schools nurturing the ability to change and flow, to adapt and grow in this quite ruthless and unforgiving environment... and then there is the question of what is coming next in the evolution of work? So in 7 or 8 years what does Zaki need to be ready for? To reiterate facts about his obscure figure of the week? I think not.

Granted schools like BSY are also great places for kids to learn to play and socialize, etc? And certainly BSY in the alphabet soup of Yangon schools gets that part right with homework mercifully kept to a minimum so they don't have this burden when they come home and can just be children. This is a wee blessing. I'll say it here, my kids wouldn't be at BSY if homework was onerous and mandatory; homework is antiquated and proven to be in many cases counter-productive to learning. 

My response then was a bit trite, even reactionary but it was accurate and I stand by it. There is no international school in Yangon that adequately prepares our children for whats to come in the future. After much research we determined that BSY was the best of the options. The question remains, is there anywhere such a school? Does the Steiner/Waldorf approach provide the answer? United World Colleges? Is thematic or project based learning the best way forward, better than the columnar silo learning that is the norm and where standardized testing is still used creating categories in which children are placed for a good long time.

Private education entities like the British School Foundation with 10 schools around the world could do well to shed the past and the prevailing centuries old model. As a private educational for profit business, they could focus their energies (and profits) on pioneering a way forward so children have an option in places like Yangon that serves their best interest. Or does short term profit trump longer term gain?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

What to do? (A departure essay)

What to do? 
Often heard in Nepal translates in the lingua franca Nepali to ke garne…. an ubiquitous evolving turn of phrase that has become a useful time-marker for the circumstance of the country. Language evolves, we see that in all languages and Nepali is no exception; when I was first in Nepal in the mid 1980s you heard ke garne spoken with an air of fatalism; I am told that it had previously been said with a more a casual shrug of the shoulder and without much attribution assigned to the gesture. In 1985 ‘what to do’ had become much more a shrug of resignation, a sort of ‘laugh it off’ sign of the frustration at the follies and excesses of the shenanigans of governance by crony-infested royalty in one of the poorest countries in the world. It was a place seemingly forgotten by time… and there didn’t seem to be a sense that there was anything that could be done… ke garne.

When I returned to live in Nepal in 2013 democracy had been a slowly evolving concept at best; the political class, recently descended from systemic patronage under the royalty, had yet to relinquish it's grip on power and commensurate ‘benefits’ or to transition from ruling to governing. So thirty years later, reflecting what has become a torturously slow political process, ke garne has become more than resigned… it has become a deflated and defeated expression. People don’t know what to do anymore, it took 7 years to move through the process to enact a new Constitution (they do have one since July 2015 perceived to be a step sideways at best rather than forward). Sadly, and as a result of political shenanigans, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, one of the most corrupt with decaying infrastructure, a struggling economy, diminishing investor confidence and seemingly intractable ethnic divides confounded by caste discrimination.

At the same time (and ironically) Nepal has huge resources in human capital including educated and experienced entrepreneurs, an incredibly inspired and inspiring creative music and art community, a rising middle-class. Nepal has the best global potential for hydro-power generation and and the most amazing natural adventure playground in the world.The people themselves are hardy, cheerful and adaptable, being down-trodden has resulted in an uptick in innovation and ingenuity. The middle-class business-folk are resistant to enter politics and be the needed change agents. They are reluctant to enter the fracas perhaps not wanting to become caught up in the lethargic inertia of entrenched government or of becoming politicized; as business-people they see it best to remain quickly adaptable and impartial i.e. light on their feet and without enemies and independent of politics. It’s a survival strategy that has served them well, better not to change up, at least not yet.

I have lived in Nepal for 6 of the past 30 years living and travelling across the world, not a long time but longer than anywhere else, definitely long enough to empathize with my Nepali brothers and sisters as we together raise our eyebrows and roll our eyes to say… ke garne.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The long, sad Nepali winter of discontent, with scattered rays of sunshine: an essay.

You try to be an optimist, keep your chin up and put a smile on, this winter in Nepal tested even the brightest of lights to keep their glow. Blow after blow fell on the national psyche and just when you thought it couldn't get worse... it did; the general corps d'esprit fell to complacency and fatigue, a sense of hopelessness complemented fatality adding depth and hue to the long used and abused Nepali phrase 'ke garne', what to do? Amidst it all there were rays of sunshine that blasted through… we’ve all seen it happen on the darkest cloudy day when the sun finds space and a brilliant ray shines down…

I am returning from a few weeks out of the country and returning into a spring time that can only hold hope and promise for things to get better. The story started last spring with the earthquakes that sent the nation into shock and then continued over the bungled response period and into the recovery phase of the humanitarian emergency that ensued. The government did not rise to meet the challenge and proved itself distracted, dispassionate and entirely a disappointment. None of this was really anything new and while it would not have been wrong to hope that a massive earthquake would literally shake the political class out of its self-absorbed, out-dated, corrupted ways and spur it into action, to harbour such hope would have been na├»ve. The idea that government should help the people they govern rather than simply rule over them and take advantage of their plight… Well that seemed a bit far-fetched, after all it has only been 70 years since Nepal opened to the outside world, 25 yrs since the devolution away from royalty began, and 8 years since the end of an acrimonious civil war, and in 2015 was it realistic to believe that the dinosaurs still at the helm were able to learn new tricks?

Open the opportunity for a ray of sunshine… the earthquake pulled out of nowhere an amazing response from regular people… Nepalis, expats, tourists came together in the early days of the response gathering relief materials and convoys of civilian vehicles delivered to many hard to reach locations. It was amazing, the Yellow House group…Himalayan Disaster Relief Operation was one such group that saw over 200 ‘mission’s go out in the first 3 months of the response… all volunteers, all self-organized, all materials donated including vehicles and fuel…http://www.wired.com/2015/05/nepal-earthquake-aid/ It is no secret that the money raised privately (including through ‘gofundme’ type initiatives) equalled the money committed through official channels, some $273Million. Notably, in the early days the Army too, quite separate from the government, stepped up rescuing many people from the rubble in Kathmandu and the districts. Unsung heros were many. Ironically, the government, seeing the success of private initiatives, tried to stymie this forcing money earmarked for the emergency, requiring all newly formed NGO's to funnel their funds through what they called the 'Prime Ministers Disaster Relief Fund' and while it may be that money still got through to those that needed it, this announcement was ill-timed and the backlash it caused revealed the broad mistrust the population has for its government.

Government 'action' did eventually come, it was not to help the earthquake victims or to facilitate the reconstruction phase... rather it came seemingly as a realisation on the part of certain senior political aspirants that this was their moment to take advantage. While the population and other influential actors were momentarily distracted by the humanitarian crisis they ended 7 years of wrangling over the formulations of a new Constitution pushing through a draft that gained a 90% approval from the Constitutional Assembly. Unsurprisingly congratulations on the birth of a new democracy did not come whole heartedly from the Indian government nor from the United Nations in Nepal, both of whom felt (for their different reasons) that the Constitution fell short of its mark in ensuring proportional representation for groups long marginalized (due to caste and ethnicity) and on the rights of women.  And neither thought it politically impudent to be vocal, a sign of frustration I think. Mindful that this came after years of donor and institutional support to a painful Constitutional process to try and come up with a modern progressive un-acrimonious document that would set the stage for an easier and prosperous future. Sadly this wasn't to be the case; when people say Nepal is 30 years behind... this is the kind of thing they mean, the politicians are 30 years behind. There is much discussion about Nepal being left for Nepalis to determine their future but they are dominated by a ruling class that is narrow-minded, uninspired and uncaring for the poorest of their constituents, they are stuck in a paradigm of exploitation and control.

As an anomaly of sorts (another ray of sunshine?), Nepal is the only ASEAN nation and one of few in the world to recently recognize transgender people with the gender box 'other' available to be ticked on visa and arrivals forms and passport applications. Go figure. It remains to be seen how well this is reflected in social policy but it is at least a start.

To mention only briefly the beginning of what sets the bleak background for the winter's discontent was the post-earthquake period through the summer of 2015 when for example, Nepali Customs charged duty on incoming humanitarian assistance supplies, and Immigration couldn't figure out the visa waiver for aid workers so most ended up working illegally on tourist visas. When coordination of the humanitarian mission became a political football (even the UN was a player in this game). The years of multi-level (VDC to National) capacity building (training) to deal with a major disaster fell by the wayside as did leadership of the Reconstruction authority. This latter causing a delay of several months with the Reconstruction bill, that critical document providing the legal framework for the receiving and disbursing of $4.1 billion of committed donor funding. The bill, ready to be passed and promulgated back in August, only made it onto the floor of Parliament in January... reconstruction can now start in April… a year later.  The cynic humourist would wonder if it just took that long to figure out how to milk the money... the government in Nepal is considered endemically, systemically corrupt and $4.1 large is like dangling a dumpster full of carrots in front of a donkey.

I think my own discontent and frustrations are beginning to show through and I have barely begun. Indeed this is partly because the 800,000 people (demographically this number indicates more than half are children and elderly people with a disproportionate number of women-headed households in the mix) left homeless after the earthquake suffered and continued to suffer immensely and needlessly. Never mind the deprivations of basic human rights, they had to pass the chill of winter under tarpaulins and corrugated tin when they were ready to start rebuilding in October but couldn't because the money for bank loans wasn't there, NGO's requiring the release of funding to implement reconstruction projects waited, men, desperate to work, disappeared over the horizon to Malaysia and the Gulf states rather than stay and help rebuild. Interestingly the International Council of Jurists is pressing for an investigation into whether the government in its actions (and lack thereof) denied its citizenry of its basic rights to food, shelter and health care.

Instead the government got on with passing the Constitution (ray of sunshine potential!), denying the Reconstruction bill a reading until the Constitution got through... as if that were a good reason. And when it was finally passed, the next blow came... uproar, protest, violence and up to 40 deaths as those groups re-marginalized by the Constitution, the Madhes and the Tharu, took to the streets. The resulting insecurity blocking the vital supply link to India. The Indians, for their part were alarmed enough to close the border on their side to protect transporters from the insecurity. However this went on so long and even border crossings where there was no insecurity were closed as to betray a clear agenda of political patronage, India, the much bigger brother, sanctioning the youngest in the fold. While India is Nepal's biggest trading partner, Nepal is far from relevant to the Indian economy. What India worries about is water; the himalayan watershed that feeds the great rivers of India, the Brahmaputra, Indus and Ganges rely on Nepal keeping the proverbial tap open. Control of hydro development in border districts is a huge concern and so Delhi needs a compliant government in Kathmandu. The under-representation of populations along the border, those people ethnically more akin to India's plains people, makes control more complicated and less likely.

The blockade was curious because the shelves of the big department stores were only missing a few things, but there was food aplenty, no one was lacking but prices started creeping up, inflation soaring over 10% of many staples. In an already poor country, it is estimated more than a million people have been pushed into extreme poverty. Through it all, somehow the organizers of the annual Kathmandu Jazz Festival were not deterred, neither was the first annual Photo Kathmandu http://www.photoktm.com/ event both of which went off in fine style as if nothing was going on. If the ability of some Nepalis to carry on as if events such as a blockade were just part of the new normal is a sign of resilience… then wow, there is some amazing resilience in Nepal.

What wasn't available due to the problems on the border and affected everyone was fuel, diesel and petrol for cars, buses, motorbikes and cooking gas also used for heating. Initially the ‘fuel crisis’ was quite a respite, the streets were quiet, such a relief from the daily congestion and the lung choking pollution. But, as time passed and winter descended it became worse, a tourist season came and went and guess what?? …there were few tourists. Internal flights were reduced because there wasn't enough aviation fuel so people from far flung districts had less chance of coming to the capital, International flights reduced frequency (or in the case of South China Air they stopped completely) due to the lower numbers and higher cost as they had to make an intermediary stop to refuel. Air fares went up. The impact of a downswing in tourism reaches from the hotels and restaurants of Kathmandu to the handicraft makers of the valley, to the trekking districts and of course to unemployment. Unemployment causes, particularly young men (needed for reconstruction) to seek alternatives off-shore. Nepal has proportionally one of the largest migrant worker populations in the world, prior to the earthquake it was 3rd in the world.

The black market flourished and to demoralize people who were struggling, fuel became available but at inflated prices; at one point gasoline was 4X the usual cost and cooking gas 8X, far beyond the ability of the average Nepali to pay. To add insult to injury, like a spit in the eye, it appeared clear that officials of all stripes, including the Nepal Oil Corporation, the Police, border authorities, etc had all jumped on the black market bandwagon and were having a hey-day... it is no wonder the blockage of fuel went on so long... who was motivated to stop it!? It is only now, months after the blockade that you can get petrol… diesel and cooking gas remain scarce… amongst rumours of trucks waiting now at the border because there is too much fuel in depots... so where is it going? Queues at fuel stations persist, and no one can really explain why.

As cooking gas ran out and as the temperature fell with the advancing winter, the government in its seemingly infinite mission of national disservice started to sell firewood from national forests rather than focus on solving the crisis at its root. The cost of wood doubled and people were using it to cook and to stay warm so that whatever air pollution gains had been made due to the lower vehicle numbers was lost to the smoke from fires. Whats more, all over the Kathmandu valley you can see trees either felled or denuded of branches to provide people food and warmth... in the 21st Century. A sadness descended when the previous Prime Minister Shushil Koirala who had been succeeded by the ambitious K.P. Oli in February as part of the Constitution signing agreement, died shortly after Oli's installation. While a firmly established member of the political elite at fault, Koirala was also an architect of the Constitution, a key player and prevailed over its signing... his loss was respectfully mourned nationally. 

Rays of sunshine thinned out…  and bad got worse in February 2016, 2 domestic aircraft crashed. When aircraft go down in Nepal it is felt like a blow to the solar plexus, across the nation people gasp because lots of people fly in Nepal or know someone who flies; the first incident occurred on a very popular route accessing the Annapurna and Mustang regions which my family had also been on in March, it could have been us. Tourism to those regions took a hit. People know the pilots, they are national heros, their loss is tragic and widely felt. Nepal is already struggling to gain its IATA accreditation for flights to Europe, and I recall a conversation of well-travelled aid officials once who posited that how an airport runs is indicative of how the country runs... this seems to hold true in the case of Nepal... the CAAC (airport authority) has a reputation of being rife with corruption, inefficiency and neglect.

My sense is that Nepali's soldiered on but wearing 'resilience' like a badge of honor. Was it misplaced? Many (Nepalis and non-Nepali residents) asked... why were there no protests in the streets. Previously when the government tried to raise the price of cooking gas there were loud public protests but this time, nothing. Queues at petrol stations were literally kilometers long, people left their vehicles for days and weeks in queues, I thought blocking the parliament with vehicles and non-violent protest at the gate would have gained results much quicker... but that would have required two missing ingredients... one the leadership to do it (and a game plan if it went pear-shaped), and two, such an action would have perhaps been construed or co-opted as an act in solidarity with the Madhes. Ahh, it does get complicated, and far moreso than I have written here. Indian border State elections didn't help when they disempowered the Hindu BJP party, in power in Delhi but struggling in Bihar with its long and porous border with Nepal.

And then there is the ruined economy having taken a double blow with the earthquake and then the blockade, I could go on but I think you get the picture. If you live above 2000m in Nepal as most of the earthquake victims do, how much do you care about these complexities when you are trying to feed your children, keep them warm and get medical help for your elderly parents? In Kathmandu how much can you protest when you know the suppression will likely be harsh when it comes, when you know there is no one to replace these entrenched leaders anyway, and when your main concerns are finding fuel for your motorbike so you can get to work lest you lose your job, and finding fuel so your wife can cook dahl bhat for dinner.

Like many resident expatriates we look on with dismay at the discontent of the population, and disappointment that there aren't alternatives to the leadership on the horizon for the change that has to come. I admire those amazing individuals, those rays of sunshine who crack on regardless organizing treks and expeditions, a mountain bike festival, international photo festival, and celebrate their festivals and hold music events (chapeau) to buoy up the youthful, diverse spirit of the nation and keep feeding the creative stream that is very vibrant in Nepal.

Nepal is a special place, with such amazing advantages and opportunities that are not being realised on a the scale necessary to transform the country into a regional example of so many great things.. like extensive micro-hydro projects, grand scheme hydroelectric power, like sweeping visions of high potential in tourism, like preserving for posterity the incredible vibration in the power centres (temples, monasteries and stupas) in the Valley. What about building a new capital elsewhere and leaving the Valley for tourists, anthropologists, spiritualists and its residents and for those wanting to develop the arts and hold space in this special place. Something has to give, the Valley has reached a critical mass, it is overburdened with humanity, the question is will mother earth express herself again in the form of another massive earthquake or will she let it continue to burn slowly; the elite constantly consuming what they can feed off until it all falls to ash. Embassies are closing their doors, fewer in number than ever before, donors are dismayed in a country where foreign aid income is as big as revenue gains through tourism and corruption is rife.

I hope for a breath of fresh air, for young educated well-spoken Nepalis to step up and step graciously almost fraternally, like a young person relieving his/her older tired respected elder to take on leadership roles which may not come easily. Then they can take on the challenges facing Nepal with gusto, diplomacy and vision.