After walking to Jomsom in 1974, my next foray was to Langtang. I went better prepared this time, remembering to bring a hat and wear socks inside my humble canvas shoes.
The path was precipitous, and packed by centuries of human and animal footprints. It wound through the towering forests of Nepal’s mid-mountains, taking detours into the hillside for stony stream crossings and traversing upwards into the thinning air with tantalising glimpses of rocky outcrops and soaring white peaks.
In late spring, the woods were heavy with red rhododendrons, white daphne and yellow bamboo. The pervasive calls of Himalayan ravens and crows, kag, haunted the landscape. Tangled creepers and buttressed tree roots reminiscent of Tolkien’s Hobbit sent my mind skidding off into a trekkers’ trance, a flight of fancy involving mythical monsters and waning moons.
But mostly I was just concentrating on putting one foot in front of another, and gasping for air.
“These people must be stupid,” observed Pertemba, as we passed more men bent under the weight of bulky loads secured by a woven canvas strap across their foreheads, driving their shaggy ponies ahead of them down the trail. “Why don’t they use the horses to carry those sacks of grain?”
He shook his head, smiling a wide Sherpa smile, dark eyes shining beneath a red baseball cap. Stones dislodged by the horses’ hooves spun noisily and invisibly into the void below, the sound ricocheting across the valley walls. The pungent steam of pony droppings mingled with the scent of warm pine needles and the sound of my laboured breath.
It was late that afternoon that I encountered the red panda. It was definitely an encounter, not just any old sighting. Pertemba had gone ahead up the Langtang Valley to find us a spot for the night, so I was wandering alone on a friendly stretch of hillside, the last of the fading sunlight filtering through the trees. Startled by a rustle beside the trail, I first noticed a rich orange coat and furry banded tail amidst the dead leaves of the forest floor, followed by a white snout, black nose, striped face and a pair of curious beady eyes. A current of communication passed between us, a taut pause, and he flashed away into the undergrowth.
Pertemba and the locals had no idea. It took me some time to identify the creature as a red panda, as they are rare, highly threatened and seldom seen in the wild.
Even today, wildlife viewing and bird watching in Nepal’s mountain circuits remain a lost opportunity for tourism. There is little overlap between the knowledgeable naturalists of the Tarai national parks and the sherpas (with a small ‘s) who guide our 200,000 or so trekkers with such world-renown capability.
Trek guides are adept at getting their clients safely through the day, avoiding altitude sickness, cheerfully cajoling up the inevitable steep climbs, and delivering them in one piece to a lodge or teahouse for the night. On more un-serviced trails, they are super-skilled at setting up camp, wrestling with tents, packing sleeping bags and producing elaborate meals in the middle of nowhere.
But few of Nepal’s 16,000 licensed trekking guides know the names of the birds, animals, plants and trees along the route, striding past a whole dimension of potential enchantment for their clients. The opportunity to advocate for conservation, and explain changing lifestyles forged by modern life and climate change, is lost too.