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Friday, 01 January 2016

Trekking in the Lantang Valley in Nepal, Before the 2015 Earthquake

Written by Jean-Marc Theodorowicz
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For thousands of years the Himalayas have held a profound significance for the people of South Asia. Their literature, religions and mythologies reflect the overall lure of the world’s largest mountain range. It stretches 1500 miles from east to west, and passes through five nations: Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet (Tibet has been under Chinese sovereignty, since the Chinese invaded the country in 1950).

 

The world Himalaya is Sanskrit for “abode of snow’, quite fitting for an expanse of land that houses more non-polar ice masses than anywhere else on the planet.

 

Referred to as the roof of the world, the Himalayas have long been shrouded with lore, legends and myths - well before Sir Edmund Hillary first climbed Mount Everest in 1953. 

 

It was early 2013 and my cousin Fabienne, who lives in France, invited me to join her on a trekking trip in Nepal at the beginning of the climbing season in October.

 

Much of my knowledge about Nepal revolved around campfire tales of the hippie and drug culture of the 60’s and 70’s. Besides, I always thought that climbing high mountains was for those rare individuals who combined a fearless blend of athleticism, exceptional lung capacity, and a total disregard for the hazards associated with alpinism: frostbite, avalanches, altitude sickness and cerebral and pulmonary edemas just to name a few.

 

The rest of us remained high peaks conquerors in the realms of our imagination, opting for gentle walks in valleys covered with wildflowers, and gazing with envy at snow covered peaks - looming like impregnable fortresses in the backdrop.

 

“Life is way too short to deprive oneself of those rare forays into the extraordinary”, said the little voice in my head without missing a beat. After all, aren’t we all hedonists at heart? Men/women devoted to the pursuit of pleasures...

 

The mighty Himalayas were all of a sudden looming like sand castles on a sun-soaked beach and the sea was at its most serene. It was time to set sail. 


 

The lord Buddha was born in Nepal. Incidentally, 81% of the Nepalese are Hindus, due to the country’s close proximity and ties with India. 10% practice Buddhism, consisting mainly of Tibetan and Burmese ethnicities who live in the mountain villages. In Nepal however, religion is not just a set of beliefs and accompanying rituals, passed on from generation to generation. Its a complex intermingling of traditions, festivals, faiths, and doctrines that have permeated every strata of Nepalese society to become the very heartbeat of the nation. It is an intricate and beautiful tapestry, where Hinduism, Buddhism, and other beliefs are woven together, with the threads of tolerance and harmony.

 

If you want to explore the Himalayas you have a multitude of choices depending on your climbing experience, level of fitness, and ultimately, your budget. As well as several countries to base your expedition.

 

Fabienne’s brother, Serge Bazin, has been a mountain guide in Chamonix, in the French Alps, for the last 30 years. He has been organizing mountain climbs with private clients all around the world. Nepal is very dear to his heart and he has been back there ‘religiously’ every climbing season, for the last 25 years.

 

When Serge came to pick me up at the airport in Kathmandu, we had a hard time finding each other. The airport was bustling with adventure seekers from the 4 corners of the globe and a mix of anticipation, excitement, and chaos were hanging over the whole scene. It didn’t help that we hadn’t seen each other for more than 40 years; would we even be able to recognize each other?  

 

Serge was in between climbing assignments at the beginning of November and had arranged for a 9 day trek in the Lantang Valley with a group of hand-picked friends and family members.

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That period happened to coincide with the French school holidays of ‘La Toussaint’, or all saint’s day, which is a Christian day of remembrance for all saints and martyrs. The French, it must be said, are never to be outdone when it comes to holiday times or decreased working hours. On a side note, they also seem to be quite fond of martyrdom.

 

One doesn’t need to be an experienced mountain climber to go trekking in Nepal. The main challenge is getting acclimated to the high altitude; a descent physical shape, a good pair of walking boots, and the will to endure a little pain. There are some well-known and popular treks; Everest Base Camp and Annapurna are among the most famous, but they require taking a flight from Kathmandu, which can be highly unpredictable in Nepal.

 

Lantang was the first of Himalayan National Parks, designated in 1970. The park is quite close to Kathmandu, and yet stretches all the way to the Tibetan border. You could take an 8 hour bus ride to Dhunche and start your trek from there, or even start from Syabru Bensi, which is another 2 hours at the end of the road. You won’t need to be in the greatest shape to explore Lantang National Park, although you will need to pace yourself and stay at established lodges along the way, in order for your body to deal with the altitude. If you'd rather go solo and carry your backpack yourself, as opposed to an organized trek where an army of porters carry the bags ahead of the group and everything has been taken care of when you arrive at the lodge in the afternoon, you run the risk of exerting more energy, by walking too far, too fast, and not acclimating properly.

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Some people always underestimate the effects of the altitude, especially the most in shape individuals. Anticipating how the body is going to react is very unpredictable, so it is best to exercise caution or risk ending confined in bed for a couple of days, too sick to put a foot in front of the other.

 

That is where the experience and savvy of a good guide is invaluable. Serge had chosen a trek in the Lantang Valley for several reasons. 

 

Bill Tilman, the famous British Himalayan explorer and mountaineer, called Lantang: “one of the world’s most beautiful valleys." Despite its close proximity to Kathmandu, one is able to reach an area as wild as any of the Tibetan highlands, on a trail less traveled by tourists, and be immediately immersed in the unique culture of the Tamang tribe who inhabit these mountain villages. They are the oldest tribe in Nepal, and are Tibetan Buddhists who are the direct descendants of Mongols, going back thirty thousand years ago.

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When you first arrive in Kathmandu, soon after clearing customs, you will find yourself in a taxi speeding down a road made, it seems, entirely of potholes with garbage spread all around like dung in a cow pasture, overwhelmed by a cacophony of sounds, and inhaling dirt and exhaust fumes by the bucket load. 

 

Pretty soon though, you will come to peace with the sensory overload of the surroundings, and the city, along with its people - arguably some of the friendliest in the world - will have cast its charm on your unsuspecting self.

 

In spite of the harsh living conditions and the over-bearing traffic and pollution, people are always eager to greet you with a smile and a ‘Namaste’ wherever you go.

 

Cat Stevens described Kathmandu in one of his songs: “as a place where a strange bewildering time will hold him down, as soon as he touches her”. 

 

After a few days of exploring the city and being alternatively bewildered, amazed and humbled, it was time to go and explore the Lantang valley.

 

Our group was fairly big by tour standards. We were a total of 16, the youngest was an 8 year old French girl, with her brother and parents. Then there were a couple of older guys and gals, and several teenagers and young adults. 

 

Everybody had a prior connection to Serge in some way and that made for easy camaraderie within the group.

 

Upon leaving Kathmandu, the road climbs very quickly out of the valley, leaving the city far below. As soon as we reached the rim, we caught a glimpse of the Lantang peaks in the distance. The road winds around lush green hillsides, terraced with paddy fields. The word paddy is derived from the Malay word padi, that stands for rice plant.


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When gazing at the farm houses built with stones and mud and thatched with straw I sensed that little had changed over the centuries. Wooden plows pulled by oxen or water-buffalo's have been used for two thousand years. Nepal is still primarily an agrarian society where agriculture employs 70% of the population. The total farmland is only 20% of the total land area of the country, with forests and mountains making up the rest.

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The road soon zigzagged up and down the mountainside to the Trisuli gorge and our driver maneuvered the bus on this treacherous terrain with the ease of a skater speeding around an Olympic ice rink. A slip of the wheel and we would have met our maker down in the river below.

 

When we arrived in Dhunche, the air was crisp, and the silhouettes of mighty warriors, dressed in white capes, stood up defiantly in the glowing sky, as the sun was setting. This small town of 2,500 at an altitude of 6,600 feet stands as the administrative seat of the district and serves also as a commerce hub for the local villagers getting their supplies and for the trekkers spending the night.

 

Early in the morning, it was time to head to the mountains, and before we had breakfast, everybody packed their backpacks and dropped them in front of the hotel. The porters then divided the load, based on size and gender, put them in plastic bags, and scrolled on the trail ahead of the group. When we arrived at a specific lodge, after 4 to 6 hours of trekking on average, all we had left to do was shower, relax and re-hydrate with a few cups of Nepalese tea.

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We walked through a forest of oaks, maples, alders, and sals. In places, there were large stands of bamboo and rhododendrons. A group of langur monkeys gave us a little spectacle of gravity-defying aerials. The narrow trail meandered up and down a gorge, leading to our first lodge, which stood hazardously on the steep river banks. On the way, we met villagers carrying produce and goods, up and down the trail. All the loads are carried in bamboo baskets, held on the back, by a strap around the forehead. The locals are capable of moving huge weights over a long distance and have developed special muscles. They are very efficient at it, according to research that was done on the Sherpas of Mt Everest.

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The forest is home to a wide range of animals; among them, wild dogs, wild boars, the rare red panda and snow leopard, and the Himalayan black bear. According to some elders, living in the villages down the valley, the yeti (the abominable snowman) roams the highest wastelands.

 

On the 3rd day, we climbed steadily to the high country and the coniferous trees of the forest below gave way to firs, blue pines, spruces, and hemlocks. When we arrived at the village of Lantang, in the early afternoon, we could instantly feel the uniqueness and the charm of this small village of stone houses sitting on a wide plateau framed by lofty peaks. Herds of yaks were grazing in the rocky fields, literally at the foot of Lantang Lirung, the highest peak of the Lantang range, which is shaped exactly like the head of an arrow piercing the sky at an altitude of 7,227 meters (23,711 ft). Everything seemed so eerie and timeless, like stardust gravitating in the Milky Way.

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We stayed the night at the Everest Guest Lodge and the Lama family were our gracious hosts. We felt honored to share a little part of these people’s daily lives, and their kindness and humility won us over. 

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The next morning we continued on to Kyanjin Gumba, the last bastion of civilization on the trail, some 4 hours walk from Lantang at an altitude of 3,900 meters (12,750 ft). We would spend 3 additional nights there in order to acclimate for the ascension of Tsergo Ri, at 5,000 meters (16,404 ft).

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We woke up in the early morning on the second day to a few inches of snow carpeting the ground after an overnight storm. It felt like being kids again on Christmas morning. A few snowball fights later and we were ready to conquer that ‘monster’, which stands taller than Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. I guess it would be a real privilege to be part of the 5,000 meters club!  The last 200 meters to the top proved pretty exhausting for me, due to the altitude and the deep snow cover, and I had run out of water. From the summit, I swear I heard the echoes of Tibetan chants, bouncing around the other side of that formidable mountain range which had the menacing angularity of a great white shark’s teeth!  A huge cloud cover and high winds were coming our way, so we didn’t linger at the top very long.


 

When we passed again by the village of Lantang the next afternoon, on our trek back down the valley, and waved a last goodbye to the Lama family, little did we know that exactly one and a half years later, to the day, this village would be completely destroyed and buried under an avalanche of rocks and ice. It happened a little before lunch time and there were practically no survivors. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake of April the 25th dislodged parts of glaciers on Lantang Lirung and Lantang II. 116 houses in the village were buried, winds blew up to 93 miles per hour - strong enough to flatten forests on the other side of the valley. One single house, standing directly at the slope of the mountain, and being protected by an overhanging rock, was not destroyed.

 

It was in the busy part of the tourist season - the 12 tea houses and lodges were full. It is estimated that 80 foreigners died that day, along with 176 Langtang residents and 10 army personnel. More than 100 bodies were never recovered, and approximately 300 people were evacuated by helicopters, after being cut off by the numerous landslides and avalanches.

 

More than 9,000 people lost their lives, during, or in the aftermath of this fateful day in Nepal.

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It is impossible to make sense of the devastation from such a catastrophic event. Just to attempt to convey it in words is painful enough. If you ever had the chance to spend some time traveling in Nepal you would feel even more deeply for those wholesome folks. You see, in one of the poorest countries in the world, the Nepalese people are very kindhearted and they consistently show the bright side of their souls.

 

We were left wondering whether all the riches of this world could ever transcend these two entities: the heart and the soul?    

 

Our prayers and our thoughts go to the 9,000+ people who died in the 2015 earthquake and their families.

   

This article is dedicated to their memory.

  

Namaste 

 

 

 

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©Jean-Marc Theodorowicz 

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Last modified on Friday, 01 January 2016