Langtang’s Lost: An Oral History of the Village that Vanished

  • Text by Rabi Thapa, Slides by Prasiit Sthapit
  • Sunday, April 24, 2016
  • Comment
Langtang Village, April 2013.
Image: Langtang Village, April 2013.

Nepal’s model of “teahouse” trekking is defined for most by the Everest Base Camp Trek and the Annapurna Circuit. But the understated Langtang Valley Trek, a weeklong jaunt northeast of Kathmandu to the glacial plains of Kyanjin Gomba (3860m), was in many respects an exemplar of Himalayan tourism. This verdant valley in the shadow of Langtang Lirung (7227m) was named after an errant yak that a monk is said to have pursued through the northern passes from Tibet. The swell of vibrant Langtang Village, with its lodges, bakeries and cheese factory, was beloved of trekkers across the world.

Its success had latterly inspired the Tamang Heritage Trail to the west. Both treks radiated off the axis of Syabrubesi, just north of the district headquarters of Dhunche. The north-south valley itself, cleaving the Langtang and Ganesh Himal massifs, led to the old border town of Rasuwagadhi. It was from here that Nepali forces lanced into the side of the Chinese Empire, thrice, in the 18th and 19th centuries. In spring 2015, a highway linking the Nepali capital to China was completed, and the renewed trade link was the future of commerce for Rasuwa District.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck central Nepal on 25 April 2015 slammed a trident of destruction up the three valleys. West, the tremors laid waste to the compact, traditionally built settlement of Gatlang that crowned the Tamang Heritage Trail. North, huge landslides washed out sections of the highway all the way to the border, burying scores of Nepalis. But most horrifying was what happened to the east. The whole of Langtang Village – the hub of the yak-herding, lodge-running, farming community of the Langtang Valley – was obliterated. It was as though centuries of human endeavour had been rubbed out with a contemptuous thumb.

Cruelly, it was Langtang’s very vitality that spelled doom for extended families up and down the valley. The night before the earthquake, people from Lama Hotel in the west to Kyanjin Gomba in the east had congregated at Langtang Village’s monastery for an all-night ceremony to mark the reincarnation of the soul of a man recently deceased, a ghewā. Some had walked back home the morning after, but most were lingering with their families when the tremors began at 11.56 am. The earthquake dislodged parts of the hanging glaciers of Langtang Lirung and Langtang II, which shattered over the mountains directly above the village, burying 70-odd houses and generating pressure waves with winds of up to 150km/h, enough to flatten forests on the opposite side of the valley. It’s estimated that 308 perished, including 176 Langtang residents, 38 foreigners, and 10 army personnel. Over 100 bodies were never found.

When I first visited the Yellow Gomba in May 2015, in a nondescript northwestern suburb of Kathmandu, I found 160 survivors from Langtang huddled under tents and tarps in the monastery’s front lawn. Many more were en route to the capital, though 50 to 60 had stayed back in Kyanjin Gomba to continue searching for the bodies of their loved ones, safeguard the valuables buried in the ruins of their homes, and “maintain a presence” in the valley. But fresh avalanches and the second, 7.3 magnitude earthquake of May 12 prompted the Nepal Army to evacuate Kyanjin. By mid-May there were 488 displaced people in the camp. Though the Phuntsok Choeling monastery had agreed to host the survivors for the duration of the monsoon, the camp was bursting at the seams. It was difficult to watch the hardy and self-reliant mountain people of the Langtang Valley suffering through Kathmandu’s sweltering summer on a lawn the size of a schoolyard, bereft of their world. When would they be able to go back to the mountains? Where would they go? How would they sustain themselves? Such were the questions faced by the Langtang Disaster Relief Fund Committee, which struggled to manage the day-to-day needs of the camp, and plan for the future.

The day

The day of the earthquake, hundreds were stranded along the length of the Langtang Valley. Most were evacuated by helicopter from Ghodatabela and Kyanjin, west and east of Langtang Village.

Austin Lord (Hydropower researcher/Director, Rasuwa Relief): My parents had never been to Nepal before. They were pretty amazed, they liked Langtang a lot…you kinda struggle through the forest then you peek into a glacial, U-shaped valley. We went up to Kyanjin Gomba, and when we got back down to Langtang Village we heard there was a ghewā for an old man who had passed.

When we went into the lower part of the monastery that evening there was a large group seated in the middle, then another group moving in a circle and singing all night, starting around six and ending at six. That community is very unified and to have them all in that space was a powerful experience.

In the morning, I took some photos of the valley. You could see how high Langtang Lirung was, directly above the village. I went ahead to Ghodatabela to do some interviews; there’s a big hydropower project being planned in the area and I wanted to get a sense of what people thought of it.

Dhindu Jangba (Hotel proprietor, Ghodatabela): I was talking with Austin at the counter of my hotel. There were a lot of other trekkers around, about 100.

Austin: My parents came and we ate lunch, then I told them to go on ahead. I called my fiancé on the satellite phone. I love being in the mountains, and was really enjoying being there with my parents – to the frustration of my in-laws perhaps, who were planning our wedding in five days – but it was time to go back. So I told her I’ll be in Kathmandu tomorrow, put down the phone and walked back out. One minute from the end of that conversation the earthquake struck.

Dhindu: We ran to a large open field. The hill right behind my hotel burst like a blasting had happened: there was nowhere to run but ahead. In that narrow space, to have the mountain burst out from both sides and to be in the middle, you can imagine what it was like.

Austin: There had been a few recent avalanches in the area, so initially I just assumed it was a landslide…we were running like hell, then I stopped and the whole ground was moving. When I realized it was a big earthquake I was extremely disturbed. My next thought was what does this mean for Kathmandu?

Dhindu: We didn’t even get to think about what might have happened elsewhere. It was only once it stopped that we wondered what must have happened in Langtang Village. We ran to the army post and through binoculars saw that it was all buried, and we realized that there were no people there anymore.

Austin: I ran through the woods along the river to find my parents. There was an incredible amount of debris coming down for 10-15 minutes. I eventually located them hiding behind a large boulder, with big rocks coming down and breaking off in all directions. We came back, and I looked up the valley where you could see Langtang Village and there was just a wall of snow…it was insane. I was standing there with Dhindu and and everyone was saying “sabai gayo”, which means “it’s all gone”. Everyone would have had family there. I just knew looking at it that many of those who had been in that monastery the night before were gone.

"It's all gone": The view of Langtang from  Ghodatabela

“It’s all gone”: View of Langtang from Ghodatabela, April 2016.

Struggling to cope themselves, the family members of those in Langtang Village desperately tried to reach them. With trails blocked and telecommunications down, even the Nepal Army had little success.

Lt. Col. Laxman Bahadur Thapa (Battalion Commander, Nepal Army, Dhunche): I contacted all posts in the Langtang Valley, but Langtang Village was out of contact. A soldier then called from Ghodatabela from a satellite phone borrowed from a foreigner. He said the clouds were blue and black, and it looked like Thangsyep and Gomba Danda were impossible to access, that it didn’t look good for those places.

Sheraph Tamang (Yak herder, Langtang Village): We’d left Syabrubesi at 8 and got to the settlement of Bamboo for lunch. When the earthquake came I had no idea what was going on, I was looking for my wife who’d panicked and rushed down to the river. There were rocks coming from one side and landslides from the other. This big boulder came, like a house it was, it just missed us and slammed with great force into a hotel and demolished it. Fate was on our side! Then there was this mule herder, and he was killed right in front of us by a rock. When we saw that we panicked and headed for a cave. We cleared a space for a helipad, but no helis came. Time and again we saw them going to Langtang Village, and we thought it must have been destroyed. All our family was there. I was stressed about that, about my wife, I didn’t know what to do.

Chyanga Dawa Tamang (Hotel proprietor, Kerung, Tibet/Sheraph Tamang’s uncle): We came down to Nepal only because we were worried about Langtang. We had no idea what was going on there, so we just came running and walking along the landslides at Rasuwagadhi up to Syabrubesi, about 30 of us. We wanted to go to Langtang but people said how can you go, there’s no way to go, and I didn’t find anyone who would come with me.

Most people in Langtang Village stood no chance. If they weren’t caught under the giant avalanche of ice and debris that smothered the western part of the village, they were blown away by the pressure blast it generated.

Karma Lachung Tamang (Resident, Langtang Village/Sheraph’s mother): We were upstairs during the earthquake and came out after, but when we saw the avalanche coming we quickly went to the yak shed and hid. The avalanche was really black, it was swirling and swirling, with rocks, sand, ice, snow all mixed up. Whoever was outside had no chance.

When we managed to get out we saw that everyone and everything was gone, and we started crying. My older son had been buried by the avalanche. Four of us dug him out, only his head was above the ground and it took us two hours…my older daughter was right in the centre, completely buried under the snow. We haven’t even found her body yet.

Sonam Tamang (Student/Sheraph’s cousin): She thought her son was dead, but five hours later they heard him groaning. Only his breath was left. They dug him out and carried him to that one house under the cliff that’s still standing – the only one in the whole of Langtang Village. She saw people being taken by the wind that came with the avalanche. Another brother of hers was by the river with the yaks. He was trapped under a tree and was begging an old woman to help him but she wasn’t strong enough. When they came back for him he was already dead.

Sheraph: When they came out they saw that the bodies of four foreigners were just lying around my uncle’s house.

Chyanga Dawa: The wind brought them from the trail, it blew them down to my house.

Sheraph: The wind took them from Gomba Danda to the other side of the river, that’s no joke. The people couldn’t believe it…I can’t imagine what kind of force there must have been.

Lhakpa Jangba (Proprietor, Dorje Café, Kyanjin Gomba): At least in Kyanjin you can hide behind the rocks. In Langtang Village you couldn’t even pick up some of the bodies, they were in so many pieces, totally mashed up like mince. When a glacial avalanche comes, there are rocks that are bigger than houses. I think they were smashed by these rocks and dragged down.

Many survivors elsewhere in the Langtang Valley, after spending a night or two in caves, made for the army post of Ghodatabela.

Ngawang Dorje Tamang (Student, Langtang Village): Me and my mother and my cousin were working in the fields two hours below Langtang Village. The avalanche caught us just as we got into a cave. The three of us were holding hands, and as we looked up to the sky we saw a black cloud, with dust, stones, huge boulders just revolving in there…when we went to Thangsyep and saw dead yaks and pheasants, about a foot of snow on the ground, with rocks still coming down, we wondered how we had survived. My mother was worried about the village, she was thinking that my father must be dead. The last time I ever saw him was at the ghewā.

We stayed in a cave that night and went down in the morning to Ghodatabela. There were two very badly injured people with us. There was a lady whose daughter was close to death, and her young son had a splinter of wood through the back of his head and his face was all swollen up. He was talking all the time, saying, “I won’t die, I won’t die”.

After

A combination of bad weather and lack of preparedness meant that evacuations in Langtang began only the day after the earthquake, and proceeded in fits and starts.

Lt. Col. Thapa: The MI-17 came at 630 am and I went to Langtang Village with a Rangers Disaster Assistance Rescue Team and a doctors’ team. When we landed I started running in the direction of the army post. Snow came up to my thighs and a ranger and a local shouted at me to stop. There were about 150 survivors gathered, some very seriously injured, and the priority was to airlift them. Once they were evacuated, over the next few days 118 bodies of locals and 10 foreigners were recovered.

Dhindu: If the state had been able to send helicopters the first day, then many people would have lived. Even in Langtang on the first day many people were calling out for help.

Ngawang: We heard from people who came out of the villages after two to three days that people who had no other injuries had died, calling out, “Water, water”.

Capt. Ashish Sherchan (Executive Director, Fishtail Air): To be honest, we just couldn’t meet the demand for helicopters at that point in time, with calls coming in from the government, from embassies, from the families. But you know, unlike with the Everest avalanche, in Langtang the whole village got washed away so there was no one to be rescued there. The injured were airlifted from up and down the trail, and others were simply stranded because the trail was blocked.

Austin: In the morning an army helicopter arrived and a lot of people scrambled to get on. We stayed back, I wasn’t going to fight! I knew it would take all day. It was mostly tourists to begin with but the sad thing was the army didn’t realize how many critically injured local people there were in the area. People started coming down from caves once they heard the helicopters. They were covered in blood, covered in mud, massive head wounds, compound fractures…it was very disturbing to realize how many injured were coming from both directions…there was an outpouring of emotion, a realization of the scale of the disaster.

Then the helicopter didn’t come back. People were fainting, wailing, trying to figure out who was alive and who wasn’t. The weather wasn’t good to begin with – but there’s been a lot of talk about how the helicopter system didn’t get going, didn’t make the best use of the weather window, and when the army arrived it was immediately clear they were just a bandaid. They came with limited supplies, no radio, they didn’t know the area very well. They tried to coordinate the crowds, but the level of uncertainty was extremely high.

Ngawang: For four days we waited for helicopters. At a time like that the only thing we wanted was a helicopter, we felt like we’d hang from the propellers if we could.

You could see very clearly that the army wanted to take the foreigners first, never mind who was injured. There was a private helicopter on the first day, and there was an injured foreigner but there were more seriously injured locals, like those two children I spoke about. His guide got into the helicopter and kicked us from the inside so he could get his client in.

Austin: It was just fear…there’s no bad people in this whole story, it’s just fear…and mismanagement. They didn’t have a triage system set up, and one of the other big problems was that the policy was NGO workers first, rest of the foreigners and their guides next, and Nepalis last. But we got consensus on sending the injured Nepalis first.

The next helicopter came the next morning. Thankfully it was a big army helicopter and we loaded 25 injured Nepalis and two very injured foreigners. Then only a couple of small helicopters came, and people began swarming them again. One of the pilots from the first helicopter had gone back and told everyone “these people are dangerous”. But this second pilot who came was wonderful, his name is Doug, he went rogue and did as many laps as possible. He said that we needed to decide who was in need, that he was going to leave in five minutes and not come back unless it was well managed. So then we got some people on the helicopter, and another one came, and they asked me if I wanted to go to get the word out. They all knew I was getting married, but they felt I should go back and help. So we overloaded the helicopter – we took an intelligent risk I think.

Capt. Sherchan: It also happened to an engineer in our company – his son was in Ghodatabela. Obviously he wanted to get his son back safely, so the helicopter went to get his son, but they had a big fight there. The engineer was inside the helicopter and he was almost pulled out. It was chaos. It’s very, very difficult. There are about 20 helicopters in the private sector, but at a time like this, it’s not enough. I think the responsibility lies more with the government. But if something like this happens again, we will work again, that’s our duty.

Following the first wave of evacuations, locals from Ghodatabela walked up to Langtang Village to look for survivors. Until the earthquake of May 12 precipitated a complete evacuation, they camped in the relative safety of Kyanjin, working with the Nepal Army as well as foreign armed forces and guides who flew into the valley.

Dhindu: After the evacuation was complete, I walked with eight or nine young men to Langtang Village, where my mother had been. Her house wasn’t there, everything was buried, it was like a desert. It was such a beautiful place and it had turned into a glacier. There was no hope that anyone would be alive. When we went there it was like climbing a mountain, we had to skirt around gullies in the ice, there were huge chunks of the glacier as high as a three or four-storey building in Kathmandu.

Capt. Sherchan: I got there about four or five days after the earthquake. There were lots of people up in Kyanjin, and professional guides coming from across the world for rescue operations, so we were transporting these guys.

Later, I was taking the families of the foreign trekkers. There were people who had hardly heard about Langtang before, but they could come and see the destruction, and realize that it wasn’t just their family members who’d died. I knew that there was no chance of finding anyone alive, but it was good to show them what had happened, that they were not the only ones who lost family.

I think the bodies of the foreigners were retrieved by the concerned embassies but those of Nepalis were lying all around, and I could see vultures all over. I felt quite bad. They were trekking workers, and their bodies were lying there for maybe two weeks and that wasn’t a nice feeling. They were just doing their job, they also had families.

Ang Gyaljen Sherpa (National Mountain Guide, Solukhumbu): When we got there on behalf of Trinetra Adventure, we searched for bodies, most of which were in pieces among the debris of the avalanche. We worked all day, looking for bodies, then went up to Kyanjin for the night.

We found the bodies of two French trekkers, a guide, and a friend of the guide. They had been at a hotel called Pilgrim for lunch, and it seems the guide and the porter had run a little away after the avalanche came, but then the wind blew them quite a distance away. Their faces were smashed, but the guide was recognizable by his long hair. Most of the whole bodies we found, they were naked, they’d been caught up and blown by the force of the avalanche to the other side of the valley. But those who were closer to the avalanche were mashed up.

I’ve seen dead bodies before while climbing, along the South Col, but this is the first time I’ve seen such a big avalanche, and picked up body parts. At least I’ve handled corpses before, the army helped us, but many local people found it too difficult. They were identifying and taking charge of the bodies, but also just looking through the debris. Apparently they have a lot of dzi necklaces, they’re worth millions.

Norphu Tamang (Yak herder/Cheese factory worker): We stayed about two to three weeks in Kyanjin, looking for bodies in Langtang everyday, coming back to Kyanjin. I didn’t find anyone from my family – my wife had gone to Langtang, she died there, my older brother too.

Lhakpa Jangba: There was another avalanche in Langtang Village after the earthquake. It was strong enough to have killed everyone working there, but they survived because it happened at 745 pm and they’d gone back to camp. We could have lost 40-50 young people.

Karma: We old people wanted to stay up in Kyanjin because we thought we would die of the heat in Kathmandu. We made a stove in a cave and cooked whatever was brought up. We slept there, we were scared but what to do? After the earthquake of May 12, we were too frightened and were evacuated by the army.

Ngawang: Those who stayed were also looking for their valuables. There was a lot of looting by outsiders…many villagers would have been wearing their jewellery at the ghewā the night before and probably hadn’t had time to take it off. Even foreigners took some…we heard there was an Israeli who was found with a local’s citizenship card and six lakhs (US$6000) in cash! When the locals confronted him he said you don’t have banks here, how would you have so much money? What people! The villagers beat him up. We also heard that porters and guides stole Euros, but we never thought of checking until later.

Lt. Col. Thapa: We were conducting recovery operations of body parts in Langtang Village, where we estimated the avalanche is about 100 feet deep, by placing salt and black tarps over the snow, waiting for the sun to melt it. But whatever had not been lifted out was lost after the May 12 earthquake.

Ang Gyaljen: The Spanish Guardia Civil arrived with sniffer dogs and did recovery work. They had satellite communications that beamed images out internationally, and it seems they claimed that they had recovered all the bodies themselves. The French embassy then protested saying the news was fake, that the work was done by the army, police, guides and locals. They only worked the second day, but I feel they misrepresented the situation deliberately.

Dhindu: The rescue helicopters had focused on the people gathered further up. If we had managed to get there earlier we might have been able to save 50-60 people. We stayed on another four to five days to recover bodies and cremate them or place them in caves higher up where they don’t decompose. We found the bodies of my mother and her sister, and we cremated them, then went on to Kyanjin where we stayed about three days. The older people were evacuated first, and us in the end, and we joined our people in the Yellow Gomba after about 10 days.

Today and tomorrow

The population of the Kathmandu camp swelled following the second evacuation. Even as the Committee scrambled to provide for their depressed, dislocated community, they were negotiating their future with the state.

Norphu: We can’t go back to our own village. It messes with our minds…what’s the point of staying here in the heat? It’s like taking someone from the plains and leaving them in the mountains. If they really want to fix the road, using a few bulldozers, it shouldn’t take that long. They should build a proper big road to Ghodatabela. Tourists don’t see anything in the forests anyway, so they might as well drive through and start walking once they get to the alpine regions.

There are people here who’ve never been to Kathmandu before, who’ve never been in a car…the herders want to go and check on their yaks – half the people rely on tourism, but the other half depends on livestock. The yaks can’t go up or down or cross the river, the trails are blocked. If someone can lead them to safety then they can climb up to find grass. There must be about 500-600 yaks stuck between settlements.

Lhakpa Chhomu Tamang (Hotel proprietor, Lama Hotel): It’s cold up there, the air and water is so good…here just going to Boudha my head was aching. There are four of us in this tent. We don’t have this heat up there, no bugs, no leeches or snakes. Here there are diseases that will consume you. Up there even if you’re ill you recover quickly. Even with what happened, the villagers want to return.

Ngawang: I think its OK here, we have the LDRF committee, we have supplies. The main objective however is to resettle the Langtang Valley. We want our village, right? We need a rebirth, and for this the main thing is money. So we need to petition the tourism board, the elected reps, foreigners. It’s all happening, I think it’s going well.

Lhakpa Jangba: I try to make sure they are not afraid, I tell them this is a safe place, you can’t die here. I keep on talking to them to keep them mentally strong. We need them to survive to make more population to put back into Langtang, that’s why we need more tents! I tell them that until the whole of Nepal collapses, you’ll be OK here in Kathmandu, and if everyone dies in the next earthquake, we’ll all die together, so why do you worry? It’ll all be gone, finished.

Finjo Lopchan (Tourism entrepreneur, Langtang Village): Until the monsoon is over there will be no reconstruction. There’s not enough government help. They know what’s going on, but they have put kān mā tel (oil in their ears). They should seek out the most difficult areas and help, and thereby earn karma, dharma, name, respect, there’s no point distributing relief to Kathmandu people! Langtang lives by tourism, but tourism is blocked, landslides have destroyed all the fields, what are they going to eat?

Some people have no more than what they are wearing. These people made Nepal known to the world, but now they have to sit by the road and beg. We are busy organizing everything for people in the camp, and haven’t had the time to go look for help. But people who love us, who know us, have come to us. So what if our Member of Parliament comes? He says “don’t worry”. This is a big festival for politicians and thieves, their pockets grow large when something like this happens.

Lunchtime at the communal kitchen at the Yellow Gomba, summer 2015.

Lunchtime at the communal kitchen at the Yellow Gomba, summer 2015.

In early June, about 40 Langtang men joined the army rangers already working on the trail, driving to Syabrubesi then hiking to Langtang Village.

Akio Asahara (Trekking agent, Japan): We went to check the trail earlier, in May, but eventually had to give up and return. We got past Sherpagaon but had to turn back before Rimche because the landslide was too big. So we crossed the river and went high up for about four hours for a view of Langtang. It was a very steep herder’s trail that we’d never been on. It was cloudy, but when it cleared we got a view. There was nothing left of Langtang Village, just a white avalanche, and all along the trail there were many, big landslides. Some were 50 metres wide, others were up to 80-100 metres, how can you cross that? The ropes aren’t even long enough.

It will take about 10 years if they want to fix that trail. I think that they should try accessing Kyanjin from the southeast, from the Ganja La pass. The people who are going to look at the trail are also checking on their yaks, and to make sure those that remain survive they need to take them to pasture. The yaks can go over the pass. Ultimately everyone heads to Kyanjin, which is more accessible by the Ganja La. We should move people up this way, then slowly move them back into the valley. If I bring tourists it would be by this route as well.

I don’t think Langtang Village will be rebuilt. Eighty years ago the village was further up, but they had to move it because of a landslide. If they move it back up there the same thing will happen again.

Dhindu: Once the snow melts, people hope to find something in the ruins, recover the missing bodies, and recce the trail. This is why the more energetic amongst us went back up. Going along the trail was like mountaineering – high boulders to traverse, active landslides that took half an hour to cross, jumping over trees that had blocked the trail. We didn’t have any equipment, it was very risky. But the snow hadn’t melted as much as we had hoped, in fact the May 12 earthquake had heaped more on top. But along the edges of the glacier where the ice had melted we found 50-60 bodies. They were being eaten by vultures. The rangers told us not to touch the bodies, they were really in a bad state. The whole valley is empty, we didn’t see anyone.

Sheraph: There were no people, no yaks, just vultures, everywhere. We proceeded in a single group, so no one would go ahead and take valuables they might find. When I saw Langtang Village, I found it was much worse than I’d imagined. I felt very sad. You can’t even figure out where your house was. It’s not possible to reconstruct Langtang Village where it was, but places like Rimche, Thangsyep, the upper part of Langtang and Kyanjin are safe, contrary to what the media is saying.

We found 15-16 bodies. There were four foreigners in Thangsyep – just bones, but we found passports in their bags. One was a Spanish girl. We saw a photo of her, she was so pretty. In Langtang Village, people only recognized their family members by the clothes on them.

We stayed there four days. A lot of the yaks had died, or were lost. The remainder were scattered all over, and we shooed them up towards the high pastures, fixing the trail as we went. I found five of my thirteen yaks and sent them towards Kyanjin. They’ll be fine up there throughout the monsoon.

We’re still worried about our future. There’s no way we can use the pastures across the Ganja La, they belong to other villages: we haven’t thought of it at all. We don’t know what’s going to happen with tourism, and there are no jobs. But since most of the region is national park land, it should be possible for the government to lease out the land for resettlement.

High levels of support from private initiatives for the Langtang camp in Kathmandu suggest the outlook is not so bleak. David Breashears of GlacierWorks recently shared high-res aerial images of the valley at the camp. While it was clearly traumatic for those present to view panoramas of their brutalized settlement, others appeared heartened by the clarity provided by David’s preliminary risk assessments.

Lhakpa Jangba: We’re concerned about the long term. The state should give due attention to this. If Langtang Village isn’t there, there’s no importance of the area. This is a region that’s earned billions in royalty for Nepal, it’s the third trekking destination in Nepal.

Landslides could come anywhere at any time, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our villages in fear. If we leave the villages, there won’t be anything left…others might come in, the Chinese could come in! If the government can’t facilitate this quickly, things will fade away. If we stay in Kathmandu, there are no jobs, and we’ll have to go work in Malaysia or Dubai. If 30-40 young men leave, it won’t be possible to build the village again.

What David showed us should allow us to come up with a concrete agenda to present to the state. We already knew that Kyanjin was safe, but having seen his photos we now feel that the eastern part of Langtang is also relatively safe. In that corner, if a slide comes one way it deflects off a ridge, if it comes from this side it goes the other way. With windproof buildings, we’ll be safe there. As for fear, you have that everywhere. We’ll have to take monks up to conduct rituals and assure people that nothing will happen.

Dhindu: When we were in Dhunche we consulted with the Chief District Officer, the police, the army. We don’t want to stay in Kathmandu, we told them, and they told us that we had to be safe. Everyone feels we should stay in Kathmandu over the three months of the monsoon. Even so, the old people and the herders want to go back as soon as possible. We’ve been telling them to be patient.

People haven’t been able to retrieve so much as a needle from their houses. The earthquake came, people ran, and the avalanche covered everything. So everyone in Langtang is destitute now.

Ang Gyaljen: Tourism will go down for a couple of years, but if the government organizes for a camping area a little above Langtang Village it’s possible. Not much climbing happens on Langtang Lirung, but there’s the trekking peak Yala and a lot of training for National Mountain Guides goes on. Just like the Khumbu Icefall in Everest, there are other icefalls here that may have been destabilized, and they could break off at any time.

Dhindu: If the villagers get fired up and get support from the government, then we might be able to open the trail and revive Langtang in about two years. We proposed this to the district administration, and they are planning to budget for this. We know that the monsoon will bring fresh landslides. But we have great expectations of the rangers working on the trail.

Austin: From the moment I left, I had a really strong feeling of guilt, almost, of being alive and being able to get out of there. There were people holding on to my hand and saying, help us, help us. I told them I would do everything in my power.

We’ve been trying to become some sort of a smart park for other organizations, helping channel aid so it will go where it is needed. We started Rasuwa Relief, a grassroots volunteer organization that has so far provided about 27 tonnes of food and shelter materials to 1400 households. We’ve been raising funds and are also supporting the Yellow Gomba camp with tents, toilets and solar lighting. Now we’re moving onto Phase 2 – reconstruction through temporary, low-cost housing.

It began with being in Langtang at the time, and knowing that I would be linked with this community for the rest of my life – now my soul is mixed up with everything that has happened.

Capt. Sherchan: I’ve been to that village hundreds of times over 15 years, and I know a lot of people, so I felt very sad. They were a close community, they had a good life, and I’d been very happy to see that. I went there after everyone had been evacuated and there’s no life there, nothing at all. To get back to where they were is going to take a long, long time. I don’t know if they will even be willing to go back. It won’t be easy to stay there. But it’s such a beautiful place. I think that sooner or later they’ll go back and they’ll do it.

On June 12, the survivors of Langtang Valley held a ghewā for their dead at the Yellow Gomba. The hypnotic chants of several dozen red-robed lamas filled the interior of the monastery. Between verses, the sobs of women were audible. Outside, seated in rows, the people of Langtang sang to guide the souls of the 176 villagers lost in the earthquake. The bittersweet melody, rising and falling, echoed the contours of their high valley. The older women sat stolidly in their traditional long dresses; their granddaughters rushed around in Langtang Rise Again T-shirts, handing out soda and snacks. It’s too early to tell if their shared trauma will keep the people of this community together, or drive them apart. But in time, new paths will be found to the valley of the runaway yak.

Postscript

In the year since the earthquake, the people of Langtang have lived up to, and in many cases exceeded, the expectations of those concerned about their welfare. The Yellow Gomba was vacated as promised at the end of the monsoon, and the survivors began to move back to the Langtang Valley – to survey the damage sustained to their homesteads and businesses, to begin repairs with or without the help of government, to live up in the mountains, clear of the maddening hurly-burly of Kathmandu.

I was finally able to revisit the Langtang trail in early April of this year. What I saw was inspiring, despite the undeniable heaviness of spirit that accompanied me as I traversed the monstrous landslide that had consumed Langtang Village. There is no doubt the survivors are deeply scarred, but many appear too busy to dwell on the past – they are rebuilding their present, most evident in the shiny blue roofs of the dozen hotels that have been raised in Kyanjin Gomba, at the end of the trail. A memory centre is being planned at the upper end of Langtang, to serve as much as a memorial to those who perished in the disaster as an audiovisual archive of a way of living that has been irretrievably altered. With the lower route fully clear, hoteliers up and down the valley are returning to clear the rubble and begin anew. Though the numbers of trekkers passing through now are middling, at best, one can have faith that the autumn season will bolster morale amongst those who have taken Langtang’s curse on the chin, and seek to transmute it into their collective future.

A guide to Langtang, found in the rubble of Bamboo.

A guidebook to Langtang, found in the rubble of Bamboo.

A co-authored, edited version of this oral history appeared as An Oral History of Langtang, the Valley Destroyed by the Nepal Earthquake on Outside Online in September 2015. A special thank you to Prasiit Sthapit for sticking with me through all the interviews, and to Rasuwa Relief’s work at the Yellow Gomba camp for making them possible. This unedited, updated version has been published on lalitmag.com to give readers not only a sense of the catastrophe that obliterated the Langtang Valley on April 25, but also to suggest where the survivors may be headed, in an unlikely microcosm of the nation’s struggles.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>