“Namaste!” It’s so faintly chirped I almost don’t hear it, until I stop walking and look around. Then I see her, a child no older than five standing in a nearby potato field in tattered clothes, her hands pressed together in front of her chest. She smiles. I smile back. “Namaste,” I say, and walk on. Big mountains might lure us to Nepal, but it’s small moments like these, encounters with the people who live in the landscapes we’ve come to see, that keep us coming back. This is my third visit to Nepal, my first since 2015 when the country was rocked by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks. More than 9000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. An estimated eight million people were affected, according to the UN. When I first arrive in Kathmandu the city seems much as I remember it, but with more dust, from roadworks and reconstruction. Scratching the surface, however, it’s clear that three years isn’t long in a place like this. Some of Kathmandu’s World Heritage-listed landmarks remain caged in scaffolding, off-limits to visitors. And the earthquake is still very much in people’s minds.
Everyone has a story about where they were at 11.56am on April 25, 2015, and what, and who, they lost. It’s in my mind too, because I’m here to do a new trek run by Intrepid Travel in one of the regions hardest hit by the earthquake, the Langtang Valley just north of Kathmandu.
As the largest trekking operator in Nepal, Intrepid has played a key role in helping the country’s trekking industry get back on its feet. They worked with an international team of earthquake engineers on the first-ever safety assessments of major trekking routes in the Everest region, the Annapurnas and the Langtang Valley after the quake to reassure visitors it was safe to return. They donated all their profits from the 2015-16 trekking season and ran a year-long fundraising campaign to support five local and international NGOs rebuilding the country. “We thought we might raise $10,000 then we raised $40,000 in the first 24 hours and we ended up raising $750,000, which is a testament to what a special place Nepal is and how much it touches people as a destination,” says James Thornton, Intrepid’s Melbourne-based CEO. Finally, in October 2016, Intrepid started a new trek to bring much-needed income to the Langtang Valley, which had been closed to trekkers until then, and to “share the love” on the nearby but less-visited Tamang Heritage Trail. So this is a tale of two trails: Tamang first, then Langtang.
Our first day on the Tamang Heritage Trail is a taste of things to come. We set off from the town of Syabrubesi, a day’s drive from Kathmandu, cross the road in front of our hotel and head immediately, steeply, uphill.
While our three guides, Raj and his two assistants Minh and Ritess, ease us into the trek with the Nepali trekking mantra “slowly, slowly”, we pace ourselves by talking as we walk, getting to know each other. My nine fellow trekkers include a police officer from Penrith, an architect from Switzerland, a vegan couple from northern England and a radiographer from South London. Our five porters, carrying our luggage in red duffel bags supplied by Intrepid, are hours ahead of us, having left the hotel while we’d been at breakfast.
Our destination that afternoon is the village of Gatlang, where we stay in a teahouse, basically a family-owned guesthouse, as we do every night. The rooms are monastically basic, with bare wooden walls and floors, but they’re comfortable enough, with twin beds (BYO sleeping bag) and shared bathrooms. Although it’s a low-altitude hike by Nepal standards – our highest point that first week is an alpine meadow at 3100 metres – it’s surprisingly steep. We become intimately acquainted with stone steps and zig-zagging tracks. But the steep terrain has advantages. Every switchback yields a new perspective: a drone-like overview of that village we’d left half an hour ago or a range of snowy peaks peeking over the next forested ridge. On the morning of day two we see Ganesh Himal, a range straddling the Tibetan border, and Raj, who happens to be a Hindu priest as well as a trekking guide, tells us the story of the elephant-headed Hindu god it’s named after. The mountains we see from this trail might not be the rock stars they are in other parts of Nepal, but they’re not what we’re here for. The real beauty of this trail is that it gives us a chance to walk with the Tamang people. Descended from Tibetan horse traders who made seasonal migrations from the Tibetan plateau down to the Nepalese lowlands, the Tamangs settled the steep green valleys in between a few hundred years ago. Daily life hasn’t changed much since then, if you ignore the solar panels on some roofs and the occasional mobile phone. Most of the villages we visit can be reached only on foot. In five days we see only three other trekkers. Instead, we share the trail with men carrying bundles of firewood on their backs, curved knives tucked into the sashes they wear as belts. We pass women working the fields wearing traditional tunic-like dresses, coral necklaces and felt hats. One morning we step aside to let an elderly couple pass; on their shoulders are heavy wooden farm tools that would look more at home in a museum. There are few trips as simplifying as a guided trek. With every passing day, I think less and notice more. Raj tells us when to wake up, when we need to set off, where we’ll stop for morning tea. Even at mealtimes, decision-making is kept to a minimum: every teahouse has the same menu, usually porridge or muesli for breakfast; momos (Nepalese dumplings), dal bhat (rice, lentil soup and curry), noodles or pasta for lunch and dinner; and apple pie for dessert, if we’re lucky. One day we descend a steep slope and it suddenly smells like Christmas: we’ve ambled into a pine forest. Other days we weave between mossy-trunked oak trees, listening to the knock-knock of woodpeckers and cuckoos that really do sound like Swiss clocks. Twice we see black-faced langur monkeys. Then there are the rhododendrons, “rhodos” as the South Londoner calls them. They’re everywhere: enormous trees dotted all over with pink, snow-white and blood-red posies. That’s one good reason to trek in spring; it’s Nepal’s version of Japan’s cherry blossom season.
On the morning of day four, Raj points directly across the valley to where we’re headed that day: the village of Briddim. It looks so close. Getting there takes us all day. But trekking in such an open landscape, being able to see where you’re going and where you’ve been, recalibrates your sense of distance and restores an ancient confidence that you can travel far on foot.
On the way to Briddim, we come to a suspension bridge badly damaged by rockfall during the earthquake. One end is now a patchwork of stone slabs and the railings are missing so I’m glad to see the porters there, waiting to join the guides to help us all across, one by one. It’s not the only time we see evidence of earthquake damage – and rebuilding slowed by remoteness and having to transport materials on foot and work by hand.
In one village the afternoon sun glints off shiny corrugated tin roofs that have replaced traditional wooden shingles. In another, new wooden houses outnumber old stone ones. Blue tarps emblazoned with foreign aid logos span still-gaping holes in walls. Everywhere there’s the smell of sawdust and a soundtrack of sawing and hammering.
“Happy new year!” says Raj at breakfast on day five. It’s April 14 to us, new year’s day to him. “It’s now 2075 [by the Nepali calendar],” he announces, enhancing the feeling that we’ve stepped out of our own time into another. It also seems an auspicious date to start the second half of our trek. Before the earthquake, the Langtang Valley was Nepal’s third most popular trekking region after the Everest region and the Annapurnas. It’s an ideal trek for first-timers, promising big-mountain views for minimal effort: the trailhead is close to Kathmandu, it’s not as steep as the Tamang trail and you can walk up the valley and back in less than a week.
There’s also something mystical about the Langtang Valley. Its name comes from a Tibetan legend about a lama who stumbled on it while searching for his missing yak. It’s said to be inhabited by yeti as well as red pandas and black bears. And when the first Westerners visited in 1949, at a time when Nepal was just reopening to outsiders, their expedition leader, British explorer Bill Tilman, described it as “the most beautiful valley in the world”. It’s not hard to see why.That first morning the trail gently climbs through an enchanted forest at the base of a deep ravine; beside us flows the rushing Langtang River. The forest gives way to wild gardens of rhododendrons then we’re above the treeline in a classic U-shaped valley carved by glaciers and flanked by snowy 6000 and 7000-metre peaks offering the kind of top-to-bottom mountain views Nepal is famous for.