Richard Lutz travels the high road through the mountain nation
This smiling little girl above is celebrating the first day of the month. It’s a Nepalese tradition for women here in Sattenghal, a busy village cupped inside the Kathmandhu valley.
She arrives with sisters, aunts, grannies, her mother, to lay flowers at the foot of a Hindu shrine and help light the ubiquitous incense that scents the streets of her dusty neighbourhood. The ladies, all ages, spend the day worshipping the goddess Shiva. Here, below, they dance sing, spin and swirl to a trio of musicians in the main square.
Sattenghal is about 5 miles from Kathmandu’s centre. It is a city crushed by traffic and is the nexus for the backpackers, the tourists leaping off buses, the mountaineers and the NGO communities that cram into its streets.
But leave the capital, leave Sattenghal and its monthly dancers, and the peaks reach for the sky in the approaches to the Himalayas.
Sherpas and trail guides make a modest income in this poor nation where a quarter of all people live below the poverty line, hiking up the stone switchback trails to higher ground and then even up to Everest base camp. Most use a robust bag strapped to their foreheads. It’s more balanced than a backpack. Here are some of them in the Annapurna Range where an 8000 metre peak ( 26,000 feet) can loom on the horizon.
A young sherpa with the 22,900 foot Fishtail Mountain behind:
And another taking cases of Coca Cola on steep trails where jeeps or pack animals cannot go:
The trekking sector is sometimes the only way to earn a living. That or leave.
Go along to Kathmandhu airport and it can be crammed with men heading for the Middle East, to places such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to get work, much of it low paid, some of it dangerous due to bad work conditions. Said one mountain guide high up at an Annapurna trekking camp: ‘Many of us dream of working in the States or Canada or England. But I don’t even have enough money to dream’.
Some don’t even have the time to dream. They work the land in small holdings in the tight valleys or steep hills. A third of Nepal’s GNP is tied to agriculture, most of it on modest farms growing rice, wheat, tea and corn:
For others, religion can offer solace. More tha 80% of the country is Hindu and about 8% Buddhist, here in the land where The Buddha was born. The two religions combine quietly, effortlessly but not without colour and monumental panache:
And sometimes with a sense of great celebration too. In late March is Holi, a day long garish Hindu festival for the beginning of spring. Coloured powder is sprayed everywhere and on everyone….purples, reds and yellows paint the whole of Nepal:
But aside from the deep sense of religion, the huge mountains, the roll call of trekkers, backpack wanderers and tourists, it is a country combatting big problems. Five million people are undernourished; the rocky Communist government has no natural resources such as gas, oil or coal to sell; its infrastructure is still vulnerable to earthquakes; and, time after time, men and woman say simply, resolutely, they want to go abroad for work. There is little choice, they say, if they want a future.