Our trekking group originally numbers six. We receive our trekking permits on the last day for the season. The country is just beginning to take measures to curb COVID-19 (which people here tend to simply call “corona”). We have all wanted to trek the famous Manaslu circuit before the road being constructed through it to Tibet drastically alters the landscape, interrupting the ancient trail of salt traders and their mules. So in early spring our group is ascending the steep valley cut by the raging Budi Gandaki. We have the support of our experienced guide Manshanta, and two porters, Lucky and JB.
“Mules coming!” Manshanta shouts and we press ourselves to the inner side of the cliff as a train of mules comes jingling through, oblivious to us if not wholly impolite. The mule herders are fit young men with smart haircuts and t-shirts promoting rock bands. Like the mules, their future will be uncertain once there is a road.
The mules’ days have grown more arduous since the 2015 earthquake. Now they carry loads of rebar and other building material. Thomas and I have not travelled together since we completed a book, Himalayan Style, about vernacular architecture of the Himalayas. On day three we pass through the poor village of Rana where nearly every house is under construction. New roofs in Rana and other villages are bright blue metal sheeting. Gone is the integrity of traditional building, but in its place is something lighter, safer. First the earthquake, then the road and now coronavirus: I have always resisted calling the people of Nepal “resilient”, as it implies they have a choice. But here in Rana is evidence of how people endure, adapt, rebuild.
In the villages of Bihi there is WiFi powered by solar panels. I call my husband who is in Kathmandu nursing a broken leg. Thomas only reaches the answering phone of his father who is spending his 99th birthday in quarantine at a nursing home in New Mexico. A heavy rain falls throughout the night, almost ensuring that the Larke pass, our crossing point to the next valley, will be blocked by snow. Our group discusses flying home by helicopter. As we lie at night withrain pounding on the new metal roof, we face all our fears about what the future holds.