Stories From the Langtang Valley-I

Dear Readers,

I recently returned from the Langtang Valley, located in the Himalayan region of Nepal.  I have been participating in projects concerning this section of the country and its inhabitants for several months now; however, this was my first time to see the area from my own eyes, engage with the villagers, and refine my perspective.  This trip was part of a larger Langtang Memory Project.  Aside from living and learning from the Langtangpas in their homes, I conducted interviews and gathered information for the archive project–a project dedicated to remembering and preserving the Langtang culture in the wake of the 2015 earthquake and subsequent avalanche.

During my time in Langtang, I met family members and friends of the Langangpas I know here in Kathmandu.  I met the people who wake up every day surrounded by beauty, yet consumed by the sadness of devastation.  People who cannot escape this sadness; people who are slowly moving on, slowly continuing with the broken pieces of their homes and their families.  I would like to share with you, my readers, some of the people that I met along this journey into Langtang; the stories they shared with me, the experiences we shared together.

Today,  I would like to introduce two special women I met, two women that shared the journey into Langtang with me, two women with vastly different perspectives.  In the following paragraphs, I will share with you my experience with my Langtangpa porter-guide, Pemba Yangjin and my experience with a young girl that accompanied us, Pema Dolma Tamang.

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Pema Dolma and Pemba Yangjin (left to right)

 

 

The first time I met Pemba Yangjin was in Kathmandu during the Tibetan New Year holiday called Losar. This year, after the devastating losses endured by the Langtang community, the people did not celebrate in their traditional festive fashion; rather, family members simply gathered together for the occasion. It was the first Losar after the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal and the absence of those who lost their lives was palpable for the Langtangpas. Pemba’s family lost 12 immediate members—sisters and brothers, the laughter of her nieces and nephews had disappeared, uncles and aunts who had watched Pemba grow were no longer there. Losar is the holiday that Langtangpas look forward to all year; this year, it was a dreaded occasion filled with memories of the past and painful visions of the future.

Pemba offered me some khapse—a hard Tibetan biscuit made from flour, eggs, butter, and sugar and traditionally served during Losar—and some milk tea that she had prepared. Each step she takes, each action, each word, is reminiscent of those who have left her behind in this world. Slowly kneading the khpase dough, braiding it into different shapes, her mind wanders back to the years past where she shared this tradition with sisters and aunts who no longer are here. It is not just in these moments of tradition, but in each moment that she is reminded of what she has lost, who she has lost.

The next time I met Pemba, it was time for our trek to begin. This was my first journey into Langtang, and this was Pemba’s first time acting as a porter-guide. We situated ourselves into the public jeep that would take us away from the crowded streets, polluted air, and diversity of Kathmandu and bring us to a town called Syabru Besi—the place in which our journey by foot would start. The jeep ride from Kathmandu takes several hours; as we slowly made our way around the curving roads into the section of the Himalayan Mountains that the Langtang Valley resides in, I watched Pemba as she conversed with the other passengers, speaking in Tibetan with those local inhabitants of the mountains, and in Nepali with those who were not local to the area.

I watched as she looked out the window; her eyes sometimes glassing over, sighing breathy gasps of air making me wonder what the contents of her brain were. Every so often, she would turn to me with her kind smile, asking me if I was okay as we traveled. Her smile sometimes cracked slightly to reveal the pain that it was masking, pain that had invaded Pemba’s insides for almost a year now. Our jeep was beginning to near the neighboring towns of where we were headed. As we reached the town of Dunche, a cry of sadness escaped Pemba’s body. I turned toward her and watched as her hand reached her forehead as if to keep the memories of her loved ones intact. She was crying out for her sisters that had been taken from her, memories that had become too heavy to contain inside of her as we continued along our journey. My eyes moved to glance out the window, witnessing the evidence of landslides, the physical damage of homes and shops were visible, the brokenness of the inhabitants not so easily seen.

Just as quickly as her pain had revealed itself, it was once again tucked away neatly inside of Pemba. “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The Buddhist mantra quietly emerged from Pemba’s lips. Moments later, she pointed out to us that we were reaching our destination for the evening. The jeep slowed to a halt and Pemba’s hand extended to help me out of the vehicle. As my hand grasped hers, I wondered to myself how I could comfort someone who had been so broken. Her exclamation of pain for the family members she had lost was something I would continue to carry with me—an indication of the pain that marks the daily lives of the Langtangpas. We settled into our night’s lodging at Syabru Besi.

The sun hit my eyes slowly waking me from my sleeping state, reminding me of the journey I was beginning. I placed my toothbrush back into my bag and met Pemba in the dining area of the lodge. One cup of lemon tea and some Tibetan bread fueled our bodies to begin our day’s journey. As we left Syabru Besi behind us, I followed behind the gentle steps of Pemba. No longer was my name “Jennifer”; she had renamed me “Pasang Lamu”—a Tibetan name that her brain could more easily access. As she continued to forget my American name, she explained to me that the place of stress that she had been dwelling in since the 2015 earthquakes had caused her mind to become forgetful, not able to quickly capture new information.

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Our steps were accompanied by a somberness. We slowly winded our way through trees and rocks, the remains of landslides, and into a large patch of black land, charred by a forest fire that had recently stripped the land of its greenness, painting the landscape again in sadness. I watched Pemba as she led me, wondering what thoughts were entering her mind. “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Reaching the top of an incline, she directed her smile toward me and declared that it was time for a rest. Slow steps, heavy breathing, hand in hand we sat, allowing our lungs to fill with air, our bodies to rehydrate with water, and our minds to comprehend our surroundings.

As we sat near the edge of the trail, our eyes rolled over the hills, following the birds overhead. My body was calm as Pemba spoke. At the age of 32, she was a single woman. At that moment, our adult minds interacted as those of children, making a pact to stay unmarried and share our lives as sisters. She extended her hand to confirm our pact and we laughed at the thought as our hands clasped together. As I watched Pemba stand up to begin our day’s journey again, my mind began to curiously wonder why Pemba was still unmarried.

Pemba has lived her entire life in the Langtang Valley; she had not attended school and cannot read or write. She continues to live with her mother and father, fulfilling the traditional roles of Langtangpa females of cooking and carrying out the necessary housework. I silently questioned why her parents had not arranged her marriage or why she had not partaken in a “love marriage”. Keeping my curiosities to myself, I picked up my bag and again followed Pemba as she led me on the trail to her home. A trail so revealing of the past—walking over landslides, viewing the remains of homes that once housed families, seeing the temporary make-shift shelters that currently housed these broken families—yet, the trail was also indicative of a future, of rebuilding, of continuing—passing over a new bridge, watching villagers construct new doors and piece together wood to create new homes. Prayer flags waving in the mountain breeze continued to remind me of those who were lost, and those who were left to place these flags in their memory. “Om Mani Padme Hum”.

 

From Syaphru Besi, we stayed one night in a town called Sherpa Gau.  The next day as the walking portion of our day came to an end as we reached the village of Tangshap. Our bodies became aware of the evening coolness as we placed our belongings in one of the few rooms available during this rebuilding phase. We sipped hot water in the moments that the sun disappeared behind the mountains surrounding us. Pemba had known the people of Tangshap before and was helping the women prepare our evening meal. I listened to the sounds of the Langtangpa dialect of Tibetan language and watched the few other foreigners that were staying the night there.

Darkness flooded the valley; we huddled together in the small kitchen waiting to be served our evening meals of dhal baat—a typical meal that can be found everywhere in Nepal consisting of rice, lentils, and curried vegetables. As we ate, Pemba and the other Langtangpas sat on the floor continuing their conversation. I slowly became aware of the sadness that was being exchanged in this conversation. I looked up from my plate and saw tears brimming the edges of Pemba’s eyes; staining the side of her cheek, she wiped away a tear that had fallen from her eyelashes as she continued to talk to the other women.

The contents of the conversation was revealed to me after finishing my meal. I had returned to my room and a girl who could understand Tibetan explained that Pemba had been speaking about a boy she knew before the earthquake. I listened as I learned that prior to the earthquake, there was a boy that Pemba planned to marry. His life had been taken from him on that April day of the earthquake; Pemba remained. Pemba remains in the brokenness that consumes her, that reminds of her those who are gone, and makes her question why she is still here.

I closed my eyes, laying my head on the pillow provided for me, and my mind wandered back to the previous afternoon, the pact we had made, and the laughter we had shared. The next morning I awoke to the mountains. The beauty, the immensity, the power. I wondered what thoughts entered Pemba’s mind when she looked at these same mountains. Today was the day that we would reach her home in the village of Mundu. Between Tangshap and Mundu, however, lies the village of Langtang. Langtang is the village that endured the most destruction as it was completely covered by the avalanche that accompanied the 2015 earthquakes. I had read reports and listened to many stories about the damage, but had not yet witnessed it for myself.

Once again, I was being led by Pemba. This time, she was leading me to her home. The path began to open up; no longer were we tightly surrounded by a covering of trees. We were now surrounded by distant mountains, slowly making our way through the valley. We passed porters carrying materials for rebuilding, men carrying heavy bags of stone, and large pieces of wood strapped to their heads. Ringing bells and heavy steps signaled to us that donkeys were approaching. We stood to the side of the trail as they passed, following them for a short time as we neared the area where the village of Langtang had once stood. This was where Pemba’s family, friends, community members—people she had known her whole life—were killed. Some found; some still buried under the rubble that we were about to walk over. The air felt heavy as we continued to move forward.

“Om Mani Padme Hum”. I looked around me. Prayer flags danced in the wind above the broken village. Signs of a past life quickly began to surround us. Broken chairs, bent tea thermoses, torn sweaters, old wallets, cracked television sets and radios, old shelves. Remnants of those who once inhabited the land that I walked over. Pemba signaled me to follow her. We walked through the space that her sister’s house once stood, a house that no longer remained, people that no longer remained.

 

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Just past Langtang is the village of Mundu. The rocks that we had been walking on began to be replaced with a dirt tail that had not been covered by the avalanche and landslide. Mundu is a small village of about 18 households. Pemba’s house no longer stands after the earthquake. There is a closed in kitchen and storage area where she and her family sleep now.

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Pictured above is Pema Dolma Tamang.  The following is an account of our journey starting from the jeep ride again as I experienced it with her.

Our jeep stopped in Ramche and a young girl entered, taking the hand of Pemba and sitting next to the window. We were close to our destination of Syabru Besi, and I wondered to myself where this girl was traveling alone to. The driver started the jeep again and Pemba informed me that this young girl, Dolma, was accompanying us on our journey. She was dressed in a sheer black top, black pants, and brown shoes that buckled around her ankle. Her shirt had plastic pearls around the neck and she carried a red coat, small backpack, and leopard print purse. Dolma’s eyes were fixed on the changing scenery out the window; she didn’t speak more than a few words as we traveled.

I wondered who Dolma was. Was she a friend of Pemba’s? A relative? How long would she stay in Langtang? Pemba did not speak to her in Tibetan; rather, they conversed in Nepali, revealing to me that Dolma was not a Langtangpa. When we reached Syabru Besi, Dolma remained quietly by Pemba’s side. Pemba and Dolma made milk tea for themselves as I drank lemon tea from the lodge. We explored the area and Pemba brought us to one of the shops along the road to buy Dolma a pair of sneakers—shoes much more suited for a trek into Langtang Valley than the ones she was currently wearing.

The next morning, we left Syabru Besi and were headed to Sherpa Gau. Dolma was still wearing the shoes she had arrived in and I asked her why she wasn’t wearing the new sneakers. She responded by telling me that those sneakers would make her hot and she preferred to wear the flat shoes with a buckle. I wondered if she knew how far we would be walking that day. I listened to the wooden soles of her shoes click against the stones that we walked over. Her bags looked heavier that morning.

Dolma slowly began to reveal pieces of herself as we walked through the paths of the Langtang Valley. She comes from the caste of Nepalis called Tamang—a distinct culture complete with its own language and customs. A language that differs from Pemba’s native tongue. She told me she was 17 years old and had only gone to school until Class 7. We continued to walk, led by Pemba, into the mountain landscape. As we walked, I wondered why she was with us, what was she going to do when we got to Langtang. The sun was becoming stronger and our stomachs were becoming empty again. We decided it was time to take a break and eat some lunch.

I reapplied sunscreen; offering some to Dolma, I asked her how long she had known Pemba. She told me that the day she met me was the day she met Pemba. Confusion washed over my mind—How could she have just met Pemba? I inquired a bit further as we waited for our meals. Dolma explained to me that she had been at her uncle’s house the day that we picked her up. Her house, consisting of her mom, dad, two brothers, and one older sister, is two hours away from her uncle’s house. Prior to that day, she had not been told that she would be traveling to Langtang. Pemba appeared from the kitchen, carrying our plates of dhal baat. I poured my dhal—the lentil soup—over my rice and began to eat while my mind continued to ponder Dolma’s words.

I picked up her leopard print purse and explained that I would carry it for the rest of the journey as she seemed to be having a difficult time with so many bags. The sun was setting when we reached our night’s destination of Sherpa Gau. That night we met a young girl of similar age to Dolma. She was there from a different region of Nepal as a worker for the lodge owner, cooking the meals for guests, making tea, cleaning the dishes. I realized that this was the work that Dolma’s future consisted of.

“How long will you stay with Pemba’s family?” Dolma answered with uncertainty. “What will you do there?” Pemba explained that her family needed assistance now that there was so much work to be done in the rebuilding process and less family members to help out. Dolma would be working for Pemba’s family—cooking, cleaning, doing as she will be asked to do. Dolma sat quietly next to Pemba. How did Pemba know Dolma? Pemba explained that her mother had met Dolma’s uncle about a month prior to this day. Her uncle had been helping out with some rebuilding for Pemba’s family and Pemba’s mother had inquired about some extra help around the house. The product of that conversation was what I was witnessing. Dolma had no authority over her choice. She was sent by her uncle and she would stay with Pemba’s family until her work was no longer needed.

As we continued to walk, Dolma would ask me how many more days, how many more hours until we would reach Mundu. She had not been told where Langtang Valley was; she had not been told how cold it would be; she had only been told that she must go—an order that she reluctantly obeyed. After realizing that she had no choice but to obey her uncle’s command, she hastily had packed two pairs of pants and one shirt; clothing that was suitable for the weather she was accustomed to, not for Langtang. I watched her flat shoes carry her over stones and I began to understand that she did not know where she was going.

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We were slowly approaching the village that she would now call home. I watched her face wrinkle as we walked over broken homes. What was she thinking? Was she scared? We both were experiencing our first time into Langtang Valley together—coming from vastly different perspectives. My perspective gave me the agency to leave, the ability to return, to make my own agenda. Her perspective left her in a place she had no prior knowledge about, to people she did not know but must listen to. I wondered if her mind was free to comprehend her situation. Where were her thoughts leading her? We reached Mundu.


The first three days of my journey into the Langtang Valley, described above, taught me so much about the situation that plagues this region of the country.  The sadness, the loss, the pain.  Pemba allowed me to understand this from the Langtangpa perspective.  Dolma allowed me to understand this story from a broader Nepali perspective–the need for workers in this earthquake-devastated area and the obedience young girls must display to their older relatives.  For now, I would like to leave you with just these two perspectives, and slowly share with you more stories of my time in Langtang as I continue to write about the people I met along the way.

Thank you, as always, for reading and for allowing me to share my experience with you.

Jennifer

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3 thoughts on “Stories From the Langtang Valley-I

  1. Jennifer, that was an amazing story… I felt so a part of that journey. I felt the beauty as well as the sadness through your eyes and heart… Thank you once again for allowing me to be a part of your travels . Safe travels, love you!
    Debbie

    Like

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