Langtang copes with quake and CovidSix years after deadly avalanche, survivors endure the Covid-induced collapse of tourism
After attending a night-long vigil for a dead relative, Karma Tamang was taking a nap in a room in his Panorama Guest House in Kyanjin, when he was woken up by violent shaking.
He staggered out into the balcony, down the stairs and outside. All around him, stone houses were crumbling in clouds of dust. Then there was another more ominous roar from the cloud-covered slopes of Langtang Lirung directly above the town.
“I knew it was an avalanche, but what we did not expect was a blast of wind so strong that it swept people and yaks off their feet and blew them away,” Tamang, 55, recalls.
He ran back to the farthest room in his lodge while the dirty snow blew all around like a blizzard.
“There were people with broken limbs, faces bleeding, we rescued whom we could find, and sheltered them in the lodge,” he says.
Tamang then remembered that his family was in his other guest house in Langtang village, and ran down the valley. He met hundreds of locals and tourists, some with grievous wounds, fleeing in the opposite direction.
When he reached the Army base overlooking the village, there was no village, just blocks of black ice the size of houses that looked like giant rocks. There was no sign of his home, where he had left his wife, sister, son and two nephews that morning.
“I had tried to wake up my son to bring him back with me to Kyanjin, but he wanted to sleep, so I had left him there,” recalls Tamang his face contorted by grief even six years later. They found the bodies four days later, half-buried in ice and boulders, on the other side of the valley.
No one knows for sure how many people died in Langtang’s co-seismic disaster just before noon on 25 April 2015, but its physical and emotional scars are still visible everywhere.
There used to be up to 150 trekkers every day passing through Langtang village before the earthquake, the numbers had started picking up again and lodge owners were so optimistic that they were adding floors, and expanding restaurant space.
That construction spree is still going on as families who survived the disaster rebuild lodges near where the village once was, and in Kyanjin. Every day, there are dozens of helicopter flights ferrying iron rods, cement and plywood in slings up the valley from Syabru.
“We had thought we had seen the worst of it after the earthquake, and took loans to rebuild our lodge, improve the facilities, but there have been no trekkers for a year now,” says Sumjo Tamang, 29, as she prepares tea in the immaculate, but deserted, dining area of her Snow Leopard Guest House.
Sumjo’s husband was in Langtang village ploughing his potato field with two yaks when the avalanche came down. His body was found 200m away. Up in Kyanjin, Sumjo picked up her baby daughter, and ran out when the house started shaking--only to be blown away by the shock wave.
She was knocked unconscious, and neighbours found her baby in a nearby field, unhurt. When she came to, Sumjo could not move her leg which was broken in three places. Her two other daughters also survived miraculously, and the family spent four days in a cave waiting for a helicopter rescue to Kathmandu. It took a year for her leg to heal so she could return to the ruins of her lodge in Kyanjin.
“It has been difficult without my husband and with small children, but everyone helped and we were just starting to recover. Now, they say this Covid will go on for another few years, I don’t know how to carry on,” she says.
Even if trekking revives, lodge owners here worry that there will be too much competition and rates will go down as lodge owners try to undercut each other. There are 40 tourist lodges in Kyanjin alone, in what used to be a tiny monastery village. Most are padlocked and their owners are away in Kathmandu, but others are using the pandemic to rebuild in anticipation that tourism will pick up again.
Alone in his empty Panorama Guest House, Karma Tamang sits by a shrine in his dining area with photographs of his wife, son and nephews who perished in the disaster.
“The earthquake was such a shocking tragedy that for a time, people here became spiritual and believed that it was divine retribution for being selfish, and for leaving the path of the dharma,” he says. “But six years later, everyone is now back to building bigger houses, they are heavily indebted, and Covid has killed tourism. There is a lot of anxiety in the people.”
Here in Kyanjin, it was mostly the stone structures that came down in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2015. And, as elsewhere in Central Nepal, everyone is rebuilding using reinforced concrete columns, presuming they are stronger. The steel and cement is all flown in by helicopter.
On a ridge overlooking Kyanjin, the town’s Ward Chair Supa Tamang is supervising the installation of a Nepal Telecom mobile tower for which he lobbied two years in Kathmandu. As a Nepal Communist Party candidate, he was elected in the 2017 election, but is far away from the political intrigue and infighting of his party in Kathmandu.
“We survived the earthquake, and we will survive Covid as well,” says Supa Tamang confidently. “The new lodges, better facilities and mobile connectivity prove that the people of Langtang are hoping for a better tomorrow.”
Read Also: The Story of Langtang Cheese, Gyalbu Tamang.