AsiaOne special: The thousand stars hotel in Nepal

Villagers (L) carrying the rice and dhal back to their houses. From the high altitudes to the harshest weathers, the Nepalese have endured it all. Temperatures at these villages, perched thousands of metres above sea level, can plummet easily to sub-0°C at night during the winter months.
PHOTO: Ng Thiam Kwee

I peered out of the bus window and the valley of boulders seemed a little too close for comfort. As the workhorse rumbled along the narrow and rocky path sending plumes of dirt in the air, the loudspeakers were blasting traditional Nepali music.

While the Singaporeans on the bus had looks of trepidation on their faces, the Nepalese were serene - almost to a point where it was unnerving. It's either a stoic resignation of the bumpy ride, or they must all be related to the Gurkhas, I convince myself.

This is the land of the hardy Sherpas, the land of fearsome Gurkhas, the land of the Nepalese.

2015 felt like a bad hangover for most Nepalis after a series of calamities that beleaguered the landlocked country.

It all started in March when its international airport in Kathmandu was closed for four days after a Turkish airplane veered off its only runway, stranding 100,000 people during the peak tourist season.

Seven weeks later in April, a devastating earthquake struck claiming over 8,000 lives, injuring more than 21,000, and flattening entire villages. Mt Everest also suffered its deadliest day in history when the earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed 19 people.

India's blockade of Nepal followed, leaving millions of Nepalis without fuel to keep warm during the harsh winter months, capping an annus horribilis.

"The county was punished first by God, then by our own incompetent leaders, and now by India. We are glad to bid goodbye to 12 painful months, and would like to think that Nepal's woes have bottomed out," The Nepali Times, an English weekly newspaper wrote in an editorial.

"There is now nowhere to go but up."

via GIPHY

Up indeed, as the bus slowly but surely defied rocks, potholes, and gravity on the winding unpaved road to the village where I was going to camp out for two nights, together with a team of 13 Singaporeans from the Anglican Crisis Relief, Outreach & Support, Singapore (Across).

It is an understatement to say that the treacherous roads in Nepal are fraught with danger - it was featured on BBC's World's Most Dangerous Roads documentary for a reason.

The roads were dry, albeit dusty - if that's any consolation - when I was there during the winter season last December. The seasonal rain during the monsoon months from June to August is the bane of drivers in Nepal when thick sludges of mud impede the safe passage of commuters.

Outside the Tata bus 1,000 metres above sea level, it was a different world. The rays shone gloriously behind the snow-capped peaks of the sacred Ganesh Himal mountain range, while the vegetation thick with dew glistened along the valley slopes partially shrouded in mist.

A slight veer off the path and it would most certainly be a deathly plunge into the picturesque landscape. This is what it means to be living on the edge, literally.

The eight-hour journey to the village in Chimchok, Dhading district, seemed to last an eternity - hindered by the poor road infrastructure.

But this pales in comparison to the villagers who trekked eight hours on foot to the food distribution point at Chimchok village.

My team, the fifth out of six teams sent by Across, distributed sacks of rice weighing 20kg each, and 5kg bags of dhal to 1,500 households.

These essentials, imported en masse from across the border in India, had to be repackaged into smaller bags for the villagers, which we duly packed in the outskirts of Kathmandu on the second day of our week-long stay in Nepal.

We started our distribution early in the morning, which meant that these villagers had to start their arduous trek in the cover of darkness during the wee hours of the morning to the distribution point 1,367 metres above sea level.

The rural-urban migration could not be more pronounced. Most of the villagers queuing for the food were women, of various ages, and some of them had babies in tow.

Curious why most of the women who came to collect the food were women, I asked my guide  Pushkar Shrestha, 27, who said: "Many of the younger men have gone to the cities, leaving the elderly, women and children in the villages."

Tanned and hunched, those queuing for food were clad in threadbare saris, which barely seemed enough to keep them warm for winter.

Neither of these villagers had expensive Timberlands nor heavy-duty Gortex boots to trudge on. They were either barefooted or they wore pairs of worn-out slippers for their two-way trek.

Hundreds of villagers snaked around the distribution point as the coordinated flow of colourful saris and jackets scurried like ants.

They craned their necks forward as they slung woven baskets on their foreheads to ease the load of the 25kg sacks of rice and dhal off their backs.

As we passed the items to the Nepalese, I could feel a tinge of regret among the Singapore volunteers as the 3,000 blankets that we had intended to distribute were stuck at the Nepal-India border due to the ongoing blockade.

It was another cruel twist of fate. We had to rest our hopes on the last Across team, which would be making a trip after us, to distribute the blankets.

With many houses damaged by the earthquake, this meant that the 1,500-odd families who could have benefitted from the 3,000 blankets had to endure the bitter winter with only their meagre possessions.

It was a stark reminder of what over-reliance on a neighbour for sustenance can do to a country, putting 28 million Nepalis and the two million earthquake survivors at the mercy of their neighbours.

Surcha Tamang, a 36-year-old guide from a neighbouring village, pointed in the horizon to where these villagers came from - across the valley. I was flummoxed.

From far, the villages seemed minuscule. Next to the villages, there were 'white scars' etched against the slopes that looked deceivingly benign - like a white sheen of snow glistening from the mountain top.

"Are those snowcaps?" I asked Surcha.

With a grim expression on his face, Surcha muttered: "No, those are rock slides (from the April earthquakes)."

A solemn reminder of mother nature's destructive fury.

Nepal is a country of extremes.

From the high altitudes to the harshest weathers, the Nepalese have endured it all. Temperatures at these villages, perched thousands of metres above sea level, can plummet easily to sub-0°C at night during the winter months.

I have done humanitarian work a few times in countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, but the challenges these Nepali villagers face are on a different scale.

The prospect of a back-breaking trek across an inhospitable terrain just for a sack of rice and dhal seemed daunting.

As the spartan villagers lugged the sacks of food across the valley, it made my basic military training 24km route march in Singapore seem like a big joke.

According to The Nepali Times, dialysis patients in Nepal have to cut visits to the kidney centres because of the fuel shortage, hospitals are out of essential drugs, and children in tents are dying of cold.

"This humanitarian disaster is now becoming a crime against humanity. Yet, the world couldn't be bothered," The Nepali Times wrote.

1,500 sacks of rice and dhal later, 14 Singaporeans gathered around a bonfire on Dec 31, 2015 to usher in the new year.

I had the company of the Chimchok villagers who hosted us with traditional songs, dancing, and raksi - a traditional distilled alcoholic beverage made from millet.

After hours of merry-making, I quivered back to my tent, where I slept in for the past two nights.

As I admired the stars in the night sky outside my tent in the frigid cold despite wearing four layers of clothing, I had flashbacks of the faces that I had seen.

I can only hope for them and their fellow countrymen, that there will be nowhere to go but up.

(The blankets have since been distributed at the time of publication)

IF YOU GO

- Best time to travel

September heralds the start of autumn, which lasts until November. This is the best tourist season in Nepal with the passing of the summer months and the onset of winter in December, making the weather pleasant for treks and sightseeing.

- Areas of interest in Nepal

1) Thamel

2) Annapurna Base Camp

3) Pokhara

- Food to try in Nepal

1) Dhal bhat - A staple meal in Nepal, this quintessential platter comprises of  a generous portion of steamed rice, together with servings of dhal, vegetables, and chicken or goat meat.

2) Aloo gobi - Normally served in meal of dhal bhat, aloo gobi is made with potatoes and cauliflowers mixed with turmeric.

3) Momo - A popular fast food, these dumplings are usually served with a tomato-based chutney sauce. It is usually served steamed or fried.

4) Masala chai - Black tea mixed with milk, spices and herbs.

5) International cuisine - There are plenty of restaurants serving international cuisine in Kathmandu. Some highly recommended ones include Fire & Ice Pizzeria (Italina food), Everest Steak House, and Mahaaja (Fusion food).

- Recommended books on Nepal

1) The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly - A compilation of short stories describing the experiences of Nepalese people and the Nepalese diaspora.

2) Sold by Patricia McCormick - Written in the point-of-view of Lakshmi, a Nepali who was sold into sexual slavery in India by her stepfather when she was 13. The novel was adapted into a narrative feature film directed by Oscar-winning director Jeffrey D. Brown.

grongloh@sph.com.sg

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