As we leave Nepal, I’m filled with mixed emotions. I’m ready to leave. The pollution and dust have given me a painful asthmatic cough that keeps me up at night, and I’m ready for some clearer, warmer air. But on the other hand, I’m not ready to leave at all. I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of this grand little country that seems to have captured the imagination of the world.
By all accounts, Nepal should be irrelevant. Its resources are natural beauty and tolerance. While they have monetised these attributes, it’s not something that can be exported. They consume most of what they grow and have very little international trade in the modern era.
Nepal’s position on ancient trade routes made it a valuable target for invasions and takeovers, once upon a time. But those routes are now traversed by North Face gear clad foreigners, and the goods shuttled along those paths on the backs of humans and donkeys serve to keep those foreigners fed and comfortable.
Kathmandu is an unruly jumble of buildings, streets, people, homes, shops, motorbikes, rubbish, dust, sewage, all on top of one another. The city fills every inch of the Kathmandu Valley – it looks much like Mexico City from the air, and incidentally, both sit on an ancient lakebed which makes the ground beneath unsteady and earthquake prone.
Nepal doesn’t have a monopoly on trekking. There are mountains and mountain trails in many other places in the world. Places with creature comforts like hot water and reliable electricity. Of the millions of visitors to Nepal every year, only a small select few are there to summit a peak or test their endurance in mountain wilderness.
What keeps drawing people back to Nepal?
It is a place where cultures intermingle seamlessly. After centuries of invasion and infighting, the indigenous tribes have united to become a single Nepal. There are just as many Hindus in Nepal as Buddhists, and The Boudnath Stupa is one of the few places in the world where Tibetan Buddhists can worship freely, without government interference.
Nepal is not without it’s political strife, or almost mythical royal intrigue. Less than 20 years ago, the King and his family were murdered by his brother in a bid for power. That’s pretty out there in terms of political drama.
Yet, Nepal has opened its doors to refugees, most famously from Tibet, but also from other neighbouring countries. They accept the outcasts of the world, and do so gladly – as though it’s their human duty to do so (imagine that).
International governments have poured in support, not just in the wake of the earthquake, but long before. Education, health care, orphanages, infrastructure – these “first world” nations have invested in the wellbeing and the future of Nepal, seemingly without the expectation of getting something in return. If the world were to have a heart, perhaps it is Nepal.
Crisis and opportunity
Many sacred locations in Nepal were levelled by the 2015 earthquake, as were many more homes. Rebuilding continues everywhere, from roads to homes, schools, infrastructure and services. This has created an industry for building materials, and has opened up opportunities for women to join the construction workforce.
Everywhere we went, we saw women construction workers, working hard alongside their male counterparts. They were performing hard physical labour, but to a woman, they wore on their faces the energy and abandon that only choice and opportunity can bring. Out of crises come opportunities, and the women of Nepal have taken this crisis and created a leg up for their gender in society, giving them options for employment, and the means to independently support their families.
While devastatingly poor, I didn’t see the longing and wanting often seen in other developing countries. Nepalis are deeply proud of their country, their landscape and their culture, and openly share it with the world.
As we travelled around the country, we noticed that food is grown in every spare patch of land – from vast terraced fields to little vegetable patches behind the family homes. Every home had a canvas mat or tarp stretched out wherever there was space – even on the roof. Neatly covering every inch of those canvasses were rice, corn, millet, mustard and other grains drying in the hot son, preparing to store for the coming winter months. These families were supporting themselves through the land, and through the mutual support of their neighbours.
Perhaps that’s the draw to Nepal. It’s a reminder of a purer life, one with less and not more, but one that is so much richer as a result. Nepal opens her arms to the world, and the world responds in kind.
I’ve never met someone who’s only been to Nepal once. People seem to fall in love and go back and back and back. I know already this is only my first trip to Nepal, and look forward to my next — whenever that might be.