Contributing Writer: Karen Bennett
We made our way from a little village in the heart of the Gorkha District, in the middle hills of central Nepal, to the start of our trek. Thirty-six years ago, this village was our home base where Drew and I, as US Peace Corps volunteers, mapped soils for a USAID watershed restoration project. We wanted to share our Nepal experience with our adult children. We were embarking on the Manaslu trek, with a side trip to the sacred Tsum Valley. This 21-day trek took us through a region of Nepal which we felt most resembled the country we had the fortune of experiencing in the Peace Corps. No roads, little electricity, many mule trains, and fantastic people.
There was no road to or from the village until eight years ago when a bulldozer cut a rough scar into the side of the mountain. Today, that road winds through the hills, connecting remote villages across river basins. We boarded an already overcrowded bus, tying our backpacks to the roof and forcing ourselves into the crowd. Morgan, our son, hung out the door. In the States, a vehicle would never attempt this road, rutted and gullied, barely wider than the bus we rode on. The bus swayed side to side, feeling as if it would either topple off the cliff to our right or squash Morgan against the mountain to our left at any moment. The cliff to our right broke away in one steep sweep to the river below. Four hours we lurched down this road holding tightly to whatever surface we could find to grab onto and in all that time, covered mere miles. At a teahouse rest stop, we escaped and flagged down a jeep begging to hitch a dusty ride for the next four hours until we reached the launching point of our trek. We met our guide, Tenzin, and our friend, Johanna, in Soti Khola late in the evening, hours after we were meant to arrive.
We walked for three days from the end of the road, following the Buddhi Gandaki river to the confluence with Siyar river. We veered northeast and entered the Tsum Valley. With the exception of trade with Tibet, this area has been largely cut off from the world for most of its history. In the 1950’s, the Chinese convinced the Nepali government to restrict this area to foreigners, in fear that foreigners would assist the Tibetans who the Chinese aimed to repress. After a strong fight with the Nepali government, Tsum Valley locals succeeded in opening the region to foreign visitors in 2009. Even after nearly ten years of western exposure, the culture, Tibetan influence, and staunch Buddhist following remain intact. This is perhaps the only region in Nepal, perhaps the world, where every person has signed a vow of non-violence, which includes not killing any animals, wild or domestic, or even harvesting honey. The valley is considered a Beyul, one of the hidden valleys which Guru Rinpoche blessed as refuges to be discovered when the planet is approaching destruction and the world becomes too corrupt for spiritual practice. They are valleys reminiscent of paradise, which can only be reached with enormous hardship. The spirituality within this valley was evident even to a group of agnostic Americans like us.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on April 20, 2015, wreaked havoc in this valley, leveling whole communities, taking out bridges and tumbling miles of chortens and sacred mani walls which line the trails. These stone walls, covered with thousands of beautifully carved stones, inscribed with images of Buddha or the prayer mantra “om mani padme hum” were restored by communities even before they began to rebuild their own homes. House reconstruction has been accomplished in fits and starts, often with unfulfilled government promises of funding. Relief efforts are evident throughout the valley, from the ubiquitous blue tin roofs which were airlifted from Kathmandu to earthquake relief tents and tarps now repurposed for multiple uses from storage to livestock housing.
We are so privileged to visit this incredible, jaw-dropping, untraveled region of the world, to experience their culture and be welcomed into their homes. In our small effort to give back, we packed in 96 small, portable solar lanterns to distribute throughout the valley. Our hope was that these lights would assist in children’s education, allowing them to read and do homework once the sun had set. What we realized was just how helpful this small token of our gratitude could be.
Electricity in the Tsum Valley, if available, is produced by solar panels or micro-hydro dams. It is unreliable at best. The first village we came to at the entrance to Tsum Valley, just a one hour walk up the Siyar river valley, was Lokpa. In Lokpa, we learned that only the two tourist lodges could afford solar panels. The rest of the community is without lights. We stayed the night, and with the help of our guide Tenzin Lama from the Tsum Valley Welfare Committee, and the local community leader, a message was sent to each household in the village to come to our lodge the next morning. Twenty-five villagers showed up, and in my elementary Nepali, I welcomed them and explained our family quest. Drew, Shawna, and Johanna passed out the Luci Lights, which we brought from the US thanks to the generous financial support of family and friends and a non-profit discount from the manufacturer, MPOWERD. Faces lit up with smiles and laughter ensued as the community members figured out how to blow up the lanterns and switch them on. These lights, they told us, with a heartfelt “dhanybhad” (thank you), will not only be useful for reading and homework, but also for cooking, household chores, and nighttime journeys. Access to electricity is something we take for granted at home; Nepalis take very little for granted.
Our hike the next day was relatively short, Nepali flat – a little up, a little down, but mostly four and a half hours uphill. We passed a construction site where community members were building a new suspension bridge across the river. Two years after the earthquake, the government had sent construction supplies by helicopter, and now each village trades off week for week of construction labor. Everything is done by hand. Young girls and old women carry 50-pound steel bridge platforms and cables on their backs from the helipad where it was dropped, down the steep mountain trail to the river construction site. The bridge platform is being carved out of solid rock slopes with a sledgehammer attached to a hand-hewn handle, striking a steel wedge into the stone. They split the rock one strike at a time, relentlessly continuing toward their goal. Others, including women with babies tied to their back, hand-crush rock into gravel which will be needed to form the concrete platforms that will ultimately hold the suspension bridge in place. Despite the excruciatingly hard work, everyone smiles and laughs and bows with a “Namaste” as we walk by.
Forty-five minutes later we arrived in Chumling just above the bridge site. The village where the bridge workers live, Yarchyo, is another two hours uphill. We wait for them to finish their work at 5 pm after we learn that they walk much of the way home in complete darkness on precipitously steep and narrow trails. At the lodge, we met a local teacher and a health clinic nurse. Neither of their workplaces, we learn, have electricity and only small windows to let light in during the day. Providing lights to the school and the clinic as well as to the bridge workers for their long and strenuous trek home each night, seems like such a small token but was welcomed so graciously.
The nurse, Pemba, had an incredible story to relate. Born in the next river valley to the south, Pemba left her home at 6 years old to attend a boarding school in Kathmandu. Her entire education was sponsored by a single gentleman from the UK. Her English is near perfect. She went on to nursing school, and wanted to give back to her local community so came to Tsum Valley, where she speaks the local dialect. At 24 years of age, she is responsible for the healthcare of all the communities within a day’s walk. Just weeks earlier, she had sewn together a head wound of one of the bridge workers by candlelight. Carried to her clinic at midnight, with a weak pulse and blood covering his face and clothes, he had fallen off the side of the trail after getting up in the night to pee and was found by his friends after he didn’t return to the tent. Pemba sat up monitoring him all night, sitting alone in the dark. She thought there was no hope for his survival. At 4 am, she heard slight moans and knew he was regaining consciousness. To her great relief, he would survive.
From Chumling we hiked three more days to the Mu Gompa monastery high in the Himals. Just hours from the Tibetan border, the monastery sits at over 12,000 feet isolated in a spiritual ring of mountains and is maintained by five old monks, the youngest in his 60’s. One monk tells us he has been living there for 57 years. These monks need to gather wood for the cook stove, carry water from the spring two ridges away, and carry food from the village three hours below. Out of respect for their hard work, we declined their invitation to stay the night, but we left the last of the solar lanterns there for them. We later learned from fellow trekkers that, the very same night, the monks used the lights during their walk around the monastery while ringing their bell and saying their prayers.
Though these solar lights are a small token, we hope they positively impact the communities and people we were able to reach and will make life a bit easier and the long dark winters a bit brighter. As the young nurse told us, “It is a wonderful gift. Even the smallest offering means so much to the people of this valley”.
- Karen Bennett