Old meets new in the Middle Himalayas
I’m in the back seat of the bus from Kathmandu to Pharping, literally the end of the road. It’s a jouncing and twisting hour-long ride and although I never suffer from car-sickness I’m fighting nausea with every turn on this mountain road; at Pharping I’m happy to make my way to the front of the bus so I can get off. But when I do, the heavy choking smell of wood smoke nearly overwhelms me. This is certainly no better. I fear I may be suffering the fate of almost every traveler who comes to Nepal–an Asian version of Montezuma’s revenge. I think about the chicken curry lunch I had the previous day at an historic stupa in Kathmandu. As it turns out, it’s going to be more than a few hours before my stomach is back to even semi-normal. There will be some very un-pretty scenes along the trail to Kafleni.
I’m traveling with a small group from REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) and from Pharping we’ll hike several miles and climb two or three thousand feet into the middle Himalayas and camp for a few days and nights with the snowcapped mountains I’ve read about and dreamed of crowning the horizon to the north and west. From my campsite, and then from the hills above it, I can see Langtang, Manasulu and, in the distance, Annapurna.
I came to Nepal to do some trekking in the higher Himalayas, but the trip will take us first to these lower elevations in the middle Himalayas and also to Chitwan National Park. I’m sure that one reason for the sojourn in this lower range is to showcase some of the work done by the charitable foundation, Nepal SEEDS. And it turns out, that work is worth seeing.
Our camp is set up just above the village of Kafleni, one of several small villages that dot the dramatic hillsides here. With us are K.P. Kafle, a renowned Himalayan guide, Hari Pudasiani, a tall and sturdy looking man and also a well-known mountain guide and Jorlal Thing. Jorlal was born in the high Himalayas and is disarmingly quick with a smile or a charming joke. But after a short time with him, you know he’s a good man to have with you on a tough climb.
Both Hari and K.P. have small houses here in the middle Himalaya, although K.P. also has a home in Kathmandu, from which he runs his non-profit organization, ISSH Seeds Nepal. Hari is anxious to show me his house and I take a short walk with him down the hillside.
“You can see that we have electricity here,” he says, pointing out the simple two wire line that is suspended from a series of utility poles that climb from the valley floor miles below. “I have Dish Network and a TV. So do a few of my neighbors. I like National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. But the favorite here, by far, is WWE. Wrestle Mania. That’s big.”
I cringe just a little at the thought of WWE as the introduction to Western Culture for the village kids.
“Of course, it’s not like the U.S. You don’t take a short drive to Best Buy and pick out a TV. Almost anything you want to buy, including clothing, means walking a few hours to Pharping and a long bus ride to Kathmandu. Anybody who has a TV up here had to carry it for several miles up hill.”
The apparent concrete foundation and walls of his house are brick-red on the bottom floor and white on top. “I built this house mostly by myself. It took about 6 weeks.” It is obvious that he takes some pride in this.
I try to imagine hauling bags of cement up here from Pharping and ask him about that. “No. No commercial cement. It’s all local materials. The walls and foundation are mud and stone. A local guy knows masonry and helped me with it. I guess you could still call it aggregate cement, but it’s all from the ground here. I did the carpentry on the door frames and windows. And all the woodwork inside. All the wood is local and I cut it myself. I did have to buy tin for the roof in Kathmandu. I tied it to the top of the bus to Pharping and then carried it up here on my back.”
Around one side of his house I can see that rain gutters lead to a large cement lined storage tank. “Oh, we can store a lot of water here for the dry months. It doesn’t stay fresh though. We don’t drink it unless we boil it. But we water the corn field with it and water the yak and cattle. The only fresh, safe water is from a spring about 2 miles down toward Pharping. People walk to the spring and carry water almost every day.”
I notice that there is an outhouse; obviously there is no indoor plumbing here. The Dish Network satellite antenna is bolted to the outhouse and pointed at the southern sky. A cable runs from there into the house.
We walk to another neighboring house and Hari points to a cement lined hole in the ground with a three sided blade and handle. At about three feet across, it looks like a giant pepper grinder. “This is something really exciting,” he says. “Yak or cattle dung is shoveled in here and then water poured on top and you crank the handle and mix. When this mixture turns into a thin enough slurry, it runs through a small pipe into an underground chamber. It takes a while to get started, but pretty soon you’ve got a reliable source of almost pure methane. Another pipe runs from the top of the chamber into the kitchen. Inside you can see a one burner gas stove. You can just turn a valve and light a match and you’re in business. Look at the hillsides around you. Years ago, this was all rhododendron and pine forest. Whole swaths have been clear-cut for fire wood. A grant from REI and another foundation financed the building of 125 of these methane generators in this area alone. I think 75 of them are producing biogas now. I hope that soon all of them will be.”
I look into the kitchen and sure enough there is a single burner stove going strong and a meal is cooking.
“You can see where they used to burn the fire wood. And look at the ceiling.” I look and see that it is black with soot. “For some reason here in Nepal we never thought of chimneys. So the smoke just lingered in the house. You take a look around while you’re here in Nepal. In a lot of places you’ll still see wood fires in kitchens and no chimneys and wood smoke heavy inside.”
Up on the hill a few hundred yards away I can see three men working on an aluminum tower maybe 30 feet tall. I point it out to Hari. “What’s going on up there?”
“It’s a cell tower. We do have cell phone reception here, but it’s pretty sketchy. When that tower is done, we’ll have great coverage all over this area.
“If you look at the terraces just below, you’ll see where we grow our crops. Mostly corn. But now, in winter, nothing’s growing. With no real farm work to do after the harvest, quite a few of the men take jobs in Kathmandu for a few months while their wives and children remain here. In the spring, they return and plant the next year’s crop.”
Hari and K.P. tell us that we should make sure we see the foundation school, about 2 miles and 2,000 feet down a tough narrow trail. The government school only went up to 3rd grade. The school built by the foundation features a pre-school as well as first through sixth grades. There is also a secondary school farther down the valley. Hari tell me that the school provides a fine education. His oldest son went there and then boarding school in Kathmandu and then medical school in China. His younger son is majoring in Computer Science at the University in Kathmandu.
The next day our group takes a walk down the tough steep path to the school. I think of all the moms who drop their kids off, either directly in front of the school in our San Diego neighborhood or on a nearby street so that the children walk no more than a block or two. Some of the children here walk three miles or more each way—and the trip home means climbing steep mountain trails that take them 2,000 feet or more up into the hills. We peek into a classroom. The kids are delightful and offer a happy, “Namaste!” in smiling unison. When we suggest a group picture of the children, they laugh and scamper like bunnies to a nearby field, then quickly fall in line.Photo Gallery. Click the photos to enlarge, then use arrow keys to navigate:
I ponder the life here. It looks hard. But these are certainly not unhappy people. On the contrary, they seem quite content. I wonder if this life may have been reality for many people in the rural U.S. two or three generations ago—subsistence farming. Survival. Except that even then, most farm families had access to clean drinking water. My grandparents chopped wood and much of their food was grown and raised right on the farm. But they didn’t carry water—at least not more than a few feet from the well to the house.
“Well, I do think clean water is the next challenge,” Hari says. “After we go to the high Himalayas next week, I’m going to take a few months off from trekking. There is a clean water project planned that I want to work on. Meanwhile, people have to walk to the spring that you saw on your way here and carry water back to their houses. It’s a four mile round trip for most of them but even farther for a few others.”
Life is very old here. Chop wood. Carry water. Milk the yak and make yak cheese. Some of these mud and wood structures are more than a hundred years old. They grow corn and trade for rice. I’ve seen a few water buffalo in the village. I think of a quote from the book, Bringing Progress to Paradise, by Jeff Rasley. “Poverty is a relative term and lack of it by American standards is not in itself a misfortune.”
The kids here know how to play soccer and can name their favorite international stars. Some watch Wrestle Mania. One morning, while taking a walk on the southern slope of these highlands, I watched a boy of twelve or so walking down toward the school with his little sister. He seemed concentrated by whatever he held in his hands. I took a closer look. Here, in this wild country, miles from nowhere, his fingers are moving quite nimbly, texting on his cell phone.
Nepal SEEDS was founded in 1998 by trekking guide KP Kafle who cares deeply about his country and the everyday challenges faced by fellow villagers. He inspired a group of his friends to support a non-profit organization that provides funding for projects at the grassroots level. Nepal SEEDS helps people improve their health and welfare by supporting grassroots projects that involve community partnerships in the areas of education, water, health, and the environment.