Late last year a friend leant me an extraordinary movie: an anonymous traveller’s impressions of Kathmandu in the late 1960s.
Sixteen minutes and 53 seconds of grainy, hand-held video footage. There’s no sound or voiceover, no plot, just dancing imperfections – scratches, discolorations and flecks of dust – on the Super 8 film reel, and a silent slideshow of Nepal as it once was. I couldn’t stop watching it.
I’d just returned from the country myself with Intrepid Travel and it was hard to reconcile the shoals of mopeds, urban sprawl and canopies of tangled power cables with what I was seeing. Kathmandu in the 60s was a little brown smudge among the rice paddies, banana fields and grasslands of the central valley, not the sprawling four-story city it is today. Isolated red brick homes sit on the banks of the Bagmati River, and local kids, dhaka topi on their heads, carry milkmaid’s yokes across their shoulders. It looks quiet, undeveloped, halcyon. I don’t spot a single tourist.
Since that footage was taken, Nepal has endured six major earthquakes, survived a Maoist insurgency and civil war, transitioned to a constitutional democracy and become one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. When I was there and our local guide, Shiba, pointed to the gear shops, internet cafes and pashmina stalls of downtown Thamel and told us, ‘Forty years ago, all of this was green fields.’ It sounded like hyperbole. But here was the hazy, unsaturated proof. Nepal before the boom. It looked beautiful.
I’d travelled through Nepal six months after the quake of April 2015, when a 7.8 magnitude monster flattened Langtang Village and reduced many of Kathmandu’s UNESCO temples to rubble. After the disaster, images of the quake ran 24/7 on CNN and Nepal was, briefly, in the public eye. Aid money flowed in. NGOs began picking up the pieces. The world was watching. But six months on, the TV crews had all gone home. All that was left were the Chinese Red Cross tents near Bhaktapur, fluttering in the wind, and a lingering tremor of concern: the fear that, despite little damage to the trekking routes, travellers simply won’t come back.
“It’s quiet now,” said Pemba, our guide in the mountains. “Last year at this time in Namche we had maybe 2000 trekkers.”
“How many now?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Maybe 200?”
Namche Bazaar is the gateway to Sagarmatha, the Everest region. If you want to trek Basecamp, you come there first. I was sitting in the hills above the town with Pemba, looking out over the peaks towards Everest. The clouds were thick, rolling up from the lowlands and blotting out the valley. Tenzing Norgay’s memorial stood nearby, bronze ice axe raised in perpetual salute. Someone had draped a Tibetan khata scarf around his neck. Two tourists took a selfie, checked it, took another.
“Was there much damage in the mountains?” I asked.
Pemba shook his head. “Not really. Some villages in the valley below have been damaged, but trekking no. But people think it’s unsafe. They think it’s changed. So they stay away.”
There’s a misconception around earthquakes in Nepal. As the Indian plate sinks below the Eurasian plate, it forces the Himalayas upward. They’re one of the few ranges that actually grows each year. Earthquakes built these mountains, but you’d need a seismograph to feel the thousands of micro tremors that occur every single day. It takes a long time for the pressure to build. Really big quakes, like April’s, only happen every 80 or hundred years or so – the last was in 1934. Change isn’t just natural here, it’s fundamental.
I think in time people will come back,” Pemba said. “It will be good to see them again."
From Namche we trekked two days to Lukla, another little town lost in the mountains. Pemba and I brought up the rear. He taught me about the woods and the valleys, the 33 types of rhododendron and 550 species of bird, the snow leopards, musk deer, marmots and Tibetan wolves. He pointed out crows riding thermals overhead, and butterflies drinking nectar from the wildflowers that grow beside the track.
Eventually I finished the trek, and left Nepal, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. It had fastened there like a crampon. Which is why, watching that old 1960s footage now, I can still smell the pine needles, feel the cold mountain air on my face.
Occasionally the shaky camera pans out an airplane window, and you can see the Himalayas, capped with snow. From a distance they look inscrutable. Limestone sentinels hiding some big, dark secret. It’s been 55 years, and so much about Nepal is different now. But I remember something Pemba told me:
“The mountains are always changing,” he says. “The ice comes and goes. The flowers bloom and die. Come back next year and you’ll see. Totally different.”
Have you visited Nepal since the major April 2015 earthquake?
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