Nepal: Joining China's "One Belt, One Road"

Trekking in Langtang: To Conquer the Unconquered — or To Let It Be?

It was the sixth day of trekking – I had been walking in the Langtang mountains, seemingly in the middle of nowhere for six hours, tired and hungry. Narrow, muddy paths meandered across the endless mountains and mist; the valley was so quiet as if nobody had ever been here. I had no idea what was waiting for me – maybe another meal of curried potatoes, a meal that we had had every day since we were in the mountains. If I could survive till we arrived…My mind started wandering… 17

The third highest peak of Langtang, Gengo Lirung.
Photo: Katherina Tse

Ever since the innovation of aircraft and automobiles, urban inhabitants seem to have had the illusion that they can conquer lofty mountains and dense jungle by modern transportation and development.

Partly, it is true: According to Xinhua Net, a mainstream Chinese media outlet, China had built 82,000 kilometers highway in Tibet, making natural Himalayan resources accessible to citizens and bringing more than 20 million tourists in 2015. Yet, as a Chinese who lives in a metropolis of southern China, it was not until wrapping up an eight-day-trek in Langtang National Park – the first Himalayan national park in Nepal, setting off from Syabrubesi, reaching the highest spot of 4610m, and visiting the sacred lake, Gosaikunda, that I had a stronger dissenting opinion: Nature in some places remains unconquered, due to its complexity and, in the Himalaya, its sheer wildness. And some parts should remain unconquered by human beings, even if they could be:If those parts were altered by humans, not only would biodiversity be destroyed, but the very resources we depend on for things like development would simply disappear.

With an area of 1710 square kilometers, Langtang National Park is a famous Himalayan trekking destination near Kathmandu, offering varied natural scenery, from snow summits to lush temperate river valleys and ancient jungle —  a jungle where one of the national treasures of Nepal – the red panda — lives.

Our group consisted of six journalism students and two teachers, and we trekked from altitudes of 1340m to 4610m while talking to and interviewing people of the local Tamang ethnicity and other minority groups. The journalistic focus of our trek — covering Nepal’s entrance into China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and how OBOR projects were likely to affect Langtang — differentiated it from that of most others.

Nature sees us all equal – she didn’t distinguish between giving us the mysterious beauty of snow-covered mountains, or sending a bunch of leeches out to suck our blood on the muddy road. I still remember the first time I witnessed two leeches wriggling and sticking to my right foot, with more were creeping up my boots – I screamed and begged one guide to take me out of that place as soon as possible. But that’s another story…

Nevertheless, bearing our journalistic duty in mind, we managed to see the recent effects of development on both environment and people on our journey. Before the formal trek, we first took a quick drive to the Rasuwagadhi-Jilong border – the only open land crossing between the two countries. Driving on the muddiest narrow road that I have ever seen in my life…  squeezing past trucks on a one-lane road while looking at 1000 foot drops, and spending 13 hours on bumping up and down like a roller coaster for 134km on a rubble-and-mire-filled ‘highway’… From Kathmandu to the Chinese border, we saw a lot of new development: hydropower projects to supply local electricity (a lot of villagers there are still using solar power only) and a few international tourists  crossing the border (a new policy that had just come into play about ten days previously).

On the first day of the trek, I felt uneasiness about what would be physically required of me over the course of the day – setting off from Syabrubesi to Thulo Syabru, climbing in altitude approximately 1,000m in five hours. Although everybody seemed to be happy to step ‘out of the office’ and into the woods, by the time we arrived at Thulo Syabru, we were all starving and couldn’t help buying a ‘luxury’ drink – Coca Cola, as a reward to ourselves, even though it cost 250 rupees (roughly 17 RMB) for one at the first house we saw in this roadless village.

Although it has been two years, the scars of the 2015 earthquake can still be seen in Thulo Syabru and all along our trekking route. In Thulo Syabru, some houses were still under construction; some people were still living in dilapidated buildings or temporary houses – not only residents’ houses were destroyed, but also their income has been reduced due to the drop-off in tourism after the quake. Without a drivable road, this village and all the villages we were going to visit up in the mountains depended on tourists and small-scale farming to make a living.

It is commonly believed that the view of Gosaikunda (4380m) is the most stunning one on the trek, however, in Lauribina(3950m), I saw Langtang Lirung – the highest, most spectacular snow peak of Langtang. The night was cold and it rained heavily; I curled up in a sleeping bag near an extinguished stove, half awake and half asleep, thinking about what we were going to do if we could not set off tomorrow, or if we encountered a landslide. Then the next morning, a panoramic mountain view under the clear azure sky spread out before my eyes.

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The view of Langtang Lirung, shot at Lauribina.
Photo: Katherina Tse

Luck smiled on our expedition again on the night we spent in Gosaikunda – it snowed, just enough, but not too much. The hill top above Gosaikunda and Bhairavkunda was powdered with snow, while the foot of the hill revealed the actual season by staying green. “Every few steps is a different view,” said my friend Binod. Since the snow was thin, reaching the highest point, the pass of Suryakunda (4610m), you could still see black rocks and grass beneath the snowflakes.

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Snow covered Suryakunda.
Photo: Katherina Tse

 

In addition to the spectacular views in Langtang, the lodges themselves are as attractive as the snow mountains because of the people there. We stayed in eight villages, and the smallest village had only three residents. Lodges in the remote mountains not only provide an opportunity to stay away from social media and social anxiety, but also to talk to interesting strangers. There were trekkers and Nepalis from all walks of life, including students, former military officers, hotel owners, and others. At Gosaikunda, we even met a three-legged dog sitting by the stove; the dog had followed a group of Israeli trekkers from Dhunche, which was at least 50km away. We talked to one Israeli who told a story about her brother encountering the 2015 Nepal earthquake, a hotel owner concerned about being forced out of the lodge he’d run for 22 years due to the government opening up lodges management rights to the highest bidder, and other people you might have missed if Internet and social media had been accessible. Trekking on our own two feet had brought different kinds of people together; facing similar difficulties and experiences made the conversations happen.

A few months later, and I was back in civilization…Reflecting back on the trek, it made me think of the Tower of Babel, a myth that tells of a united humanity that falls apart into different languages. Human beings are always trying to explore or conquer the world via technology and competition. We assume that nature is incompatible with modernization and human aspiration. Through the whole evolutionary history of mankind, we are changing and conquering the unknown. However, trekking tells me a different story; there is always an unknown that cannot be conquered: Nature itself. And the most efficient way to deal with her is to respect and to communicate with her. Will there, ultimately, be a settlement, a deal made between these tensions, in which human progress and nature coexist through sustainable development?

If so, the high Himalaya of Nepal might be a place where the natural side of the compromise gets the better part of the bargain.

 

(By Katherina Tse)

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