Nepal's restoration of riches
Two years after being hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed around 9,000 lives and ruined prized historic and religious sites, the small Himalayan country is eager to prove to the world it's once again open for business
Shanker Phuyal felt a sudden blow, as though he were struck in the head by an unseen force. His legs buckled beneath him and he couldn't regain his balance. He feared he was suffering a stroke.
The seasoned tour guide had been leading a hike through the tranquil green hills about an hour's drive east of Kathmandu when he found himself knocked off his feet. In the distance, he could see small explosions of dust, where villages had stood just a moment ago. The clusters of rural dwellings were now falling in on themselves, collapsing into piles of stone, brick and debris. It was then Phuyal realized he wasn't experiencing a medical catastrophe, but an earthquake – a big one, the likes of which Nepal had not seen in more than 80 years.
To Phuyal, it seemed apocalyptic. "This is the end of human beings. I felt like that," he recalls.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that jarred this Himalayan country on the morning of April 25, 2015, and subsequent aftershocks, claimed around 9,000 lives, injured many thousands more, destroyed roads and left millions homeless.
It also badly damaged some of the country's most prized historic and holy structures, including UNESCO heritage sites such as Kathmandu Durbar Square and structures within the Swayambhu Monument Zone, which are still under reconstruction. Tourism slowed to a trickle in the aftermath, which was further hampered later that same year by a lengthy, politically spurred blockade of Nepal's border with India. Still reeling from the earthquake, Nepal was cut off for months from its large and powerful neighbour – also its main source of fuel, food staples and medicine.
Yet, people here picked up the pieces and carried on, whether through equanimity or sheer practice after enduring decades of turbulence and uncertainty.
Now, two years later, Nepal's tour operators, hoteliers and guides, such as Phuyal, are eager to spread the word that the country is open for business as usual. The Nepal Tourism Board beckons travellers to return with the slogan, "Once is not enough."
This small, landlocked country not only welcomes visitors, it needs them. Tourism is its largest source of foreign currency, second only to remittances from Nepalese citizens working abroad in India, the Middle East and beyond. From Kathmandu's humble, single-runway Tribhuvan International Airport, hundreds of Nepalese passport holders, mostly young men, depart daily for better employment opportunities elsewhere.
Nepal nevertheless generously rewards those willing to travel here. Though battered by natural disaster and still struggling to find economic and political stability, the country is rich with natural scenery, biodiversity, cultural diversity and spiritual wisdom.
Many think of Nepal as a destination for trekkers and mountain climbers. But you don't need to be particularly outdoorsy or athletic or an adventure junkie to find a visit worthwhile. There are leisurely safaris to join, villages to explore, historic sites to see and resorts at which to luxuriate.
This brick-shaped country, roughly the size of New York State, is composed of three distinct terrains that run cross-wise in layers. At the bottom are the plains, known as the terai, where, among stretches of open farmland, you'll find Chitwan National Park, a World Heritage nature preserve that is home to wild Bengal tigers, crocodiles, monkeys, sloth bears and one-horned rhinoceroses.
In the middle are what people here modestly call "hills," but which most Canadians would consider mountains. Their picturesque green slopes are often carved into tiers for growing rice, bananas and vegetables to sustain local farmers for at least part of the year.
The final layer consists of real mountains. These are the rugged, dusty valleys and glacier-capped Great Himalayas, which, of course, includes Mount Everest. On the road to the town of Jomsom, in the Lower Mustang region, broad-leaf forests give way to pines and shrubs. As the land becomes increasingly arid the higher up you go, apple groves and buckwheat fields replace banana trees and rice fields.
It seems impossible to capture a bad photo when you're travelling through the countryside.
During a pit stop between the central lakeside city of Pokhara and Jomsom, I pull out my camera and take a picture of yet another scenic canyon.
"It's beautiful," I say, redundantly, to Phuyal, the tour guide. Although his daughter, Bidhya, a smart and capable 26-year-old gender-studies student, has been hired to be my official tour guide, Phuyal has decided to accompany us, uncomfortable with the idea of two of us women travelling on our own into remote areas of the country. (The irony of this is not lost on Bidhya, who speaks eloquently and with good humour about her university education in feminism and patriarchy.)
Phuyal nods. "Beautiful but deadly," he replies, and I can't be sure whether he means the canyon itself or Nepal in general.
Indeed, several recent deaths of foreign visitors, reported in the media, would support the latter interpretation of his statement. In April, a Taiwanese man was rescued after being lost for 47 days in the wilderness, though his girlfriend died just three days before he was found. In the same month, Ueli Steck, a renowned Swiss climber, died in what was reported to be a mountaineering accident near Mount Everest.
Of course, the perils of climbing the world's highest peak do not apply to the average traveller. It takes extensive training and acclimatization to make an attempt, and it costs thousands of dollars for a permit alone. But less ambitious visitors should be mindful of certain risks, too. Although hiking trails are well-marked and maintained, trekkers are warned never to travel alone and to always stay hydrated.
Even crossing the country by car requires titanium nerves. Nepal's roads are narrow and wind sharply through the hills and mountains. On these treacherous routes, vehicles carrying tourists jockey for space among whizzing motorbikes and rattling Tata trucks, brilliantly painted like jewel boxes, which drive to the Indian border empty and return laden with imports.
Slogans handpainted on their bumpers offer clues to the individual temperament of their drivers: "Slow drive, long life," "Speed control," "Risky Rider," "Pimp my drive, baby."
Occasionally, you'll encounter a lorry that bears the words, "Buddha was born in Nepal." This doesn't necessarily mean the vehicle owner is Buddhist. Only about 8 per cent of the population is Buddhist, and more than 80 per cent is Hindu. More likely, the statement is both made as a point of historical accuracy (it is said that although he attained enlightenment in India, the prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in the Nepalese terai area of Lumbini, now a UNESCO World Heritage site and pilgrimage centre), as well as a point of pride for an underdog country, sandwiched between two powerhouses: India on one side and Tibet, controlled by China, on the other.
Regardless of your spiritual leanings, it's hard to come here and not be moved in some way; the briefest glimpse of the Himalayas can put one's very existence into perspective. You know they're big, of course, but nothing prepares you for the staggering experience of seeing with your own eyes just how big. (Fortunately, domestic carriers such as Yeti Airlines make this experience more accessible by offering quick, hour-long mountain flyovers. The sight of the famous peaks is made all the more satisfying with sparkling wine, distributed by a cheerful flight attendant.)
If patience and flexibility were not your strong traits before you arrived, Nepal has a way of instilling these values. Getting from point A to point B is never certain and rarely easy. Flights can be cancelled at the last minute because of extreme winds or fog. Bus and car journeys can be delayed because of traffic accidents, construction and mudslides – or, as I discovered on the road through the Palpa region, due to threat of unrest from dissenting political party supporters.
For those who are accustomed to them, such obstacles are often met without even batting an eyelid. Bidhya, for instance, explains to me how until recently, power outages in the capital of Kathmandu occurred daily, sometimes for as long as 18 hours at a time. The reason? "Corruption," she says simply.
There is nothing you can do but roll with the punches.
It's easy to become enchanted with this country, but a deeper understanding of it is difficult to grasp. In 1992, acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer described Nepal as an "impossible phantasmagoria," which still holds true today.
"More than most places, it leads a double life: the one in reality, which seems relatively tranquil and benign, and the one on paper, where it looks completely desperate," Iyer wrote.
While the paper version has improved in many ways and is no longer completely desperate, it still remains grim. Nearly 10 per cent of the population lives in severe poverty, according to the United Nations Development Programme's 2016 Human Development Report. And close to 44 per cent of those with jobs are considered working poor, earning the equivalent of $3.10 (U.S.) per day. Child labour is common and infant deaths are not uncommon; 30 babies die for every 1,000 live births.
The Nepalese countryside is definitely not developed, but not necessarily destitute either, Kathmandu resident Ranjan Shrestha, a 35-year-old digital designer, tells me.
"Generally, I don't think people are so poor here … You can see they're content," he says, pointing out that his compatriots are known for their generosity and hospitality. "They'll give you a place to sleep. They'll give you the best food. If they have a chicken, they'll cut it for you … That is most important; if you have good company, you'll be happy wherever you are."
Nepal is also a country where homes in even hard-to-reach villages have satellite dishes, where drivers in the dusty mountains may be as likely to play Tibetan Buddhist chants as Katy Perry on their stereos. It is a place where the underemployed youth in Kathmandu are plugged into Instagram and Facebook on their smartphones, aspiring for jobs at high-paying "INGOs," or international non-governmental organizations. The most coveted jobs, in other words, are at charities.
In the hilly Palpa district, I meet Rana Kumari, 88, whose approach to personal hardships perhaps sheds a light on how people here have weathered broader political and natural calamities. Kumari, who was married at the age of 12, gave birth to four sons and six daughters, but only four of her children are still alive today. As a resident of Gorkha, which was the epicentre of the 2015 earthquake, she also lost her house in the disaster.
"It's in our fate," she says, as Bidhya translates. "There's no time for sorrow, for grief. It's like that."
In the lakeside city of Pokhara, Santosh Karki is optimistic about the future of his country.
The general manager of the city's Waterfront Resort tells me at least 15 new hotels open in Pokhara every year. The edge of serene Phewa Lake is surrounded by restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, as well as hotels and guest houses.
"Tourism is the best opportunity for the prosperity and development of the country," Karki says. "We've been so blessed by nature … we just have to utilize it in a proper way."
After the past few tumultuous decades, the people of Nepal are now more engaged than ever in politics and nation-building efforts, he says. "We have been through the worst of the worst situations, and we cannot afford to have more [setbacks]," he says. "It will be better in the years to come."
Yet, doesn't he worry that the future may be as shaky as the very ground beneath his feet?
Imagine you're planning to climb Mount Everest, he tells me. Everyone you meet along the way will have his opinion about what you should do and how you should do it.
"If you listen to everybody, you'll miss your goal," he says. "If [you] just worry, you can't move ahead."
If you go
Be prepared for a long journey, including at least a couple of stopovers. Jet Airways flies from Toronto to New Delhi via Amsterdam, and New Delhi to Kathmandu.
Where to go
"If you want to see the real Nepal, you have to go to the villages" and into the countryside, says Ranjan Shresthra, a 35-year-old digital designer from Kathmandu.
This is sound advice.
Here are three must-see places beyond the capital.
Chitwan National Park
Nepal is one of the smallest countries in the world, but also one of the richest in terms of biodiversity. This national park in the terai lowlands is home to more than 540 species of birds, 120 species of fish and as many as 68 species of mammals.
The luxurious Kasara Resort, is among several businesses that offer wildlife adventure tours in and around the park area, including elephant and jeep safaris, canoeing trips, nature walks and full-day hikes. Cool off in the pool or unwind with a spa treatment after a day of spying rhinos, deer and crocodiles in their natural habitat. Rooms from $80 (U.S.).
This central city overlooking Phewa Lake is a popular destination for international and domestic vacationers alike. With its panoramic views of the water, hills and glacier-capped mountains, it's easy to see why. Leisure travellers will enjoy strolling along the lakeside, hiring a boat or renting a bike from local businesses, while the more adventurous types can explore nearby caves, go bungee jumping or paragliding.
The lakeside is bustling with guesthouses and hotels, such as the Waterfront Resort (rooms from $39). But if serenity is what you're looking for, check into a lodge-like room at the secluded, ecofriendly Raniban Retreat (rooms from $120). You'll have to climb 500 stone steps to get to this hilltop retreat, but like many places in Nepal, the harder it is to reach, the greater the payoff will be.
Located in the Lower Mustang area, Marpha is a charming village known for its traditional flat-roofed stone buildings, apple orchards and apricot and apple brandies. Marpha is only a short distance from the larger town of Jomsom, but it feels even further removed from the trappings of modern life. Visiting here may be the closest you ever get to travelling back in time. Make a stop on the road to Jomson, or fly into Jomson and take a 1 1/2- to two-hour hike here.
While guesthouses are not difficult to find in this area, don't expect luxury accommodations. Om's Home in Jomson is a cozy place to stay (rooms starting at $40).
This trip was arranged and paid for by the Embassy of Nepal in Ottawa and the Nepal Tourism Board. It did not review or approve this article.