Shaken but still stirring: Nepal was hit hard by last year's earthquake but remains astonishing. Make 2016 the year you explore its peaks, parks and heritage sites. Here’s how...
Even before I left the airport, I knew something was very different. Reaching immigration – usually bustling with queues of people trying to sort their visas on arrival – it was almost empty. This wasn’t the Nepal I’ve known for over 20 years.
This was my second visit since April 2015’s earthquakes. Since then there’s been so many contradictory messages about Nepal – news reports, social media images, Government Advisories – that it’s hard to work out what the situation on the ground really is. So, five months on, I’d returned to see if Nepal really was back in business.
Stepping outside the airport the usual smoggy atmosphere of Kathmandu was gone, replaced instead by crisp light and clear mountain views. A recent embargo on fuel from India means the only traffic jams are for petrol pumps and my drive to the hotel was in record-breaking time.
As we sped through town I listened to the driver who was complaining as he has to buy fuel on the black market for $4 a litre. Some independent travellers have struggled to get taxis, though those travelling with tour operators have had buses laid on so that things all run smoothly.
As we made our way through the narrow streets I was surprised to note how localised the damage was in the earthquake. Despite the traumatic scenes on the news, most of the tourist areas – Dhurbar Marg, Lazimpat and Thamel – were largely unaffected. What little damage there was appears to have been repaired – so much so that you might not realise there had been an earthquake at all.
On the right path
But the desire to rebuild Nepal is felt everywhere, with locals working tirelessly. When I asked my hotel manager, Puru Dhakal, about the recovery efforts, he made light of the hardship his family has endured. He fared better than many, however.
“I have nothing now,” said Pema, a trekking guide I spoke to that night. “Both my house in Kathmandu and family home back in the village are gone. My children are still scared to sleep indoors. I need to earn money as a guide, but there are no tourists.”
And he wasn’t wrong. Sat in a bar in Kathmandu, under one of the prettiest night skies I’ve ever seen, there was hardly anyone else out. And it’s a shame because not only could the intrepid traveller be enjoying one of the most enticing cities in the world completely crowd-free, but every rupee they spent in every locally-run bar, restaurant, café, shop or hotel, would be helping the city in many more ways than the amount on the bill.
After eating I got chatting to a small group at the next table to see where they were from. Like many who are in the city now, they were there volunteering on projects, mostly in Sindhupalchowk to the north of Kathmandu. It was the worst affected area in the quake, with over 80% of buildings destroyed.
Volunteering has received mixed press outside of Nepal, but Wanda Vivequin, who raised her own funds to come and build schools, said that there’s a way to help responsibly. “Work with smaller grass roots organisations that specialise in a particular kind of work rather than one that is trying to do everything,” she explained.
Her dining companion Seth Wolpin, who’s been working on similar projects, said that though helping with the rebuilding was a great way to help, it’s tourists that the country now needs most: “Many parts of the country were untouched by the earthquake and visiting is the perfect way to help.”
The following day I headed to Thamel, the once-thriving tourist hub of Kathmandu and normally pumping with mountainbound trekkers. I spoke to a group who had just arrived back from a trip to Everest Base Camp. They were in good spirits, seeing the lack of people as a real positive.
“Right now, Nepal’s the best it’s ever been,” enthused one. “The trails are empty, the hospitality’s overwhelming – you get the pick of the teahouse rooms – and though meal options are limited due to fuel supply issues, each one is made with care. I’m so glad I came.”
Helping carry the load
Trekker numbers are down at least 50% , but some resilient local operators have seized on the opportunity to re-invent themselves and offer different experiences. Those who’ve already been doing this – such as Mads Mathieson from a mountain biking tour operator – says business is now better than before. “Trekker numbers are down,” he said. “But bikers’ and mountaineers’ appetites for risk are different, so biking trips to the Annapurnas and Mustang are actually pretty good compared to last year.”
For those who rely on hikers – the porters, guides and Sherpas who lead them – the lack of tourists is a mixed blessing. While some are busy rebuilding homes, for many, the travel industry is vital to the community, like those in the UNESCO-listed city of Bhaktapur.
When I visited there in June, repair work had started already, so I was surprised to see some rebuilding hadn’t progressed at all while some was nearly finished. My guide, Anil Chitrakar, explained that the locals are funding the majority of the work, which means having to prioritise. “They don’t have enough money or labour to work on everything at the same time,” he said.
I was quickly absorbed by the blend of spiritual significance, mix of techniques employed and boundless enthusiasm of the teams working on each project. What Anil said next surprised me and speaks volumes about the local culture: “After the earthquake we decided to rebuild our temples slightly differently, depending on the artisan’s vision. Our beliefs are fluid, able to change and adapt, just like our lives. For us, it is natural.”
It was time for me to see the trails for myself, but Anil’s words stayed with me. The Nepalese are a generous people, always looking to make every traveller’s experience more comfortable. By putting Nepal back on our travel wish lists – whether to spend time in the cities, walk the classic treks or watch the local wildlife – we can finally reciprocate their unfailing generosity, by making their recovery that much more comfortable too.