The reincarnation of a holy valley
For the first time since 2015, Langtang’s survivors marked new year and a new beginning
Trekking guide Sangbu Lama was on his way to Kathmandu to take his children back to boarding school in the city. He was on the road when the earth started shaking.
First information was that Kathmandu had been destroyed, but as the hours went by Sangbu found out that it was his own hometown of Langtang that had been wiped off the map.
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More than 200 people including villagers and trekkers were killed within seconds at almost exactly noon on 25 April 2015. The quake had triggered a massive avalanche that swept the Langtang Glacier onto the village below. Most people, their homes and livestock were blown away to the other side of the valley by the shock wave that preceded the falling ice and rocks.
The village today lies buried under 100m of debris.
“I am certain that if I had been home, my family and I would not have survived,” says Sangbu in a subdued voice, “I don’t know if you can call it luck. I lost cousins and friends. But me and my children are still alive.”
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Three years later, there are signs that the people of Langtang are picking up the pieces and looking to the future once again. Many think they have been punished by the gods for being too materialistic, forgetting their dharma. The ghosts of those who perished seem to whisper in the afternoon wind sighing through the junipers, and among the fluttering prayer flags.
Like Sangbu, all survivors have stories of close calls. Some had gone up the valley to herd their yaks, others were visiting relatives in Kyanjin or Kathmandu. A few were miraculously spared when they ducked behind rocks just before the air blast blew away everything else. Everyone here has lost someone.
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Last month, for the first time since 2015, the people of Langtang marked their new year. They seem to be ready to move on and build a new future in their beyul, holy valley.
Sangbu says: “This year we will try to forget the past and focus on our own lives. This new year is going to be a fresh start for us.”
However, tourism hasn’t really picked up in the Langtang National Park after the earthquake despite an international plea to help Nepal recover by visiting the country. The trail has now been repaired, the tea houses along the trail are up and running, yet there are only about 30 trekkers per day this season, down from about 130 daily before the quake.
After the earthquake, many Langtang survivors were evacuated by helicopter to a monastery in Kathmandu. The families were trained in baking and hotel management so they could make a living from tourism when they got back. Many invested in rebuilding their lodges.
“I am too old to get new job training. I will have to keep working in the tourism business,” says Sangbu. Other families cannot even grow crops because their land was buried by the avalanche. Today, they are completely dependent on expensive supplies from outside.
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Up the trail from Langtang is Kyanjin, which was not as badly affected, but even here everyone has a family member who was killed. Members of the Tamang family were hurt and brought to a hospital in Kathmandu, but today Karsom Tamang has recovered. Her two daughters are in school in Kathmandu and her son Thindup, who had broken both legs, is living in Kyanjin with her mother and aunt.
Despite everything that has happened and the loss of livelihoods, there seems to be a new determination to help others. Kyanjin got its first home for care of the elderly who lost sons and daughters in the earthquake, and have no one to look after them.
Says Sangbu: “I am focusing on myself now, but we also have to keep our culture and traditions alive and try not to dwell too much on the horrors of the past, and plan for the future.”
Aside from its stunning scenery, Langtang is famous for its yak cheese factory. Built by Swiss geologist Toni Hagen nearly 70 years ago, the plant was destroyed in the earthquake. The factory already faced a threat to its existence because of the decreasing number of yak herders and the out-migration of the young people.
Nepali yak cheese from Langtang is almost as famous among trekkers as the Swiss Emmental. So, the community came together to preserve this dairy heritage to rebuild it.
Various charities have provided help to donate two yaks to every family in the village so they can produce the milk needed to make cheese.
But even with this help, cheese production will only be 20% of what it was before the earthquake. That is why Gyalbo Tamang, chief of the renovated cheese plant, is looking to expand his production by June with upgraded equipment.
Cheese production will begin right after the yaks return to Kyanjin from the high pastures, and will be sold to tourists in the town or sent down to selected stores in Kathmandu.
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Correction: Swiss Embassy, in agreement with the Dairy Development Corporation (DDC) of Nepal, is rebuilding Langtang Cheese factory block and residential block for cheese makers in Kyanjing valley, Langtang. The cost of rebuilding the cheese factory is about CHF 200,000, which includes the technical services as well. This symbolic support will help restore yak herder's livelihoods, that they lost for more than a year after the earthquake of 2015 in the valley.
In addition to this, the Switzerland also supports the DDC to waive the advance of herders worth of CHF 7500, which the herders took from DDC before the earthquake, with a promise to supply yak cheese worth of that value.
After losing their family members, yaks and property, the remaining herders were neither able to supply the cheese nor payback the advance money.
In order to continue with their livelihoods, DDC, in early 2016 supported the herders to build only a ‘make-shift’ factory by recovering some salvaged materials from the destroyed cheese factory block to start producing even in a smaller quantity some cheese so that the legend of Swiss Supported Highland Cheese will continue.
Mr. Gyalbo Tamang, the leader of the herders, who is also a DDC staff, is a cheese-maker and he organizes and coordinates the reconstruction of cheese factory with the Swiss support.
Switzerland expects to complete the reconstruction of these buildings by the end of December 2018 if everything goes well as planned.