Reaching our working areas is not easy – even when travel goes according to plan, it takes two full days of driving or flying and walking to reach our closest partner community. Others can take upwards of one week.To reach Solukhumbu, the journey starts with a nail-biting 30 minute flight to a small airstrip in the village of Phaplu. Here we catch our first glimpse of the Himalayas with the ever-watchful Mt Numbur (6,958 Meters/ 22,828 ft) towering over the green hills.
Sometimes trekking groups use Phaplu Airport as a launching point for treks up into the Everest region, and other people make the hour walk south to the Nepal Government offices in the District Headquarters of Salleri. Our journey leaves the beaten path almost as soon as the roar of the airport fades, and we head Southeast along footpaths that we share with porters and mule trains. In the absence of roads, all essential goods – cooking oil, clothing, rice, cement, sand, etc – must be carried in by mules. The more difficult-to-carry items such as roofing tin or long lengths of pipe are reserved for specialized porters who toil for days on end over some of the most rugged terrain on Earth. This photo is of a mule train crossing a suspension bridge high above the Dudh Kosi river, a day’s walk from Phaplu airport.
After two days of constant walking, we reach the beginning of our working area – the bustling market town of Sotang. The heart of Sotang is the Shivatar Bazar – a cluster of some two dozen densely built houses with shops for all kinds of goods and services. Below the houses, on a somewhat flatter ground lies a semi-structured market made up of tiny bamboo hut cubicles that is home to a farmer’s market every Friday, attended by around 6,000 farmers and traders every week.
Again, all commerce in Sotang depends upon human or animal labor. It is common to witness people carrying the most unbelievable loads – including this porter with a bundle of roofing tin which is double his length and likely exceeds his own body weight.
The hilly terrain around Sotang has allowed many different cultures to grow independently while within close proximity to one another. Sotang is home to Hindu, Buddhist, and animistic Kirat traditions and there are at least four languages spoken within only a few dozen square miles.Projects such as the truss bridge shown below greatly ease transportation woes, especially during the monsoon season when even the most casual stream crossing can become fatal. This particular bridge project has allowed thousands of community members to safely reach the weekly market which helps with income generation, to access medical care, and for children to attend school year-round.You can see that across Sotang, the style of houses and traditional crafts vary greatly amongst the different settlements of Rai, Tamang, Chhetri, and Sherpa families. The Eastern slopes (across the steep Hunga river) are a stunning vantage point from which to see the Mera Peak massif.
After finishing our work in Sotang, our journey takes us further North up the Hunga river. The terrain grows steeper, and the settlements become almost exclusively populated with members of the Kulung Rai community. Here, we visit our partner communities of Gudel and Cheskam, and now the closest road is at least three days of hard walking away. The scenery is stunning, and is only made more so by the numerous river crossings that we must navigate on local bridges. It is not uncommon for larger suspension bridges (if they exist in the first place) to be swept away by floods or landslides. Left with little other option, locals create temporary solutions.
When we arrive in the community of Cheskam, our legs are sore but our spirits are soaring. This is literally the last human settlement before the vast expanses of forest and nearly-impenetrable valleys give rise to the massive Himalayas. Cheskam is on the border of the Makalu-Barun National Park, that leads to some of the tallest peaks on Earth, including Makalu and Baruntse.
Cheskam is an incredibly tight-knit community where people live in very close harmony with nature. In the center of the dense settlement, there is a sacred forest which people are forbidden to enter, and nearly every household is decorated with beautiful flowers, fruit trees, and symbols of the nature spirits that the Kulung Rai worship.
The Kulung Rai village of Gudel is situated on the East side of the Hunga River – directly across from Cheskam. Together, these communities make up the heartland of the Kulung community, which holds the local landscape in sacred regard. The houses in Cheskam and Gudel are all constructed as mirror images of each other, as the main doors are all oriented around the downstream flow of the Hunga River that splits the communities.
Heading due East from Gudel brings us higher into pine forests and through Sherpa communities. The trail is populated with Buddhist chortens and long mani walls, piled high with prayers carved into stones – assuring us safe passage.
From the Salpa pass, high above Gudel, we can look down upon the entire Mahakulung region. This area – Gudel, Cheskam and Bung (where we plan to expand our reach in the next year) – is the homeland of the Kulung where the Kulung language and cultural traditions still exist.
The Kulung have an incredibly rich and vibrant culture that is centered around the ritual worship of nature and spirits. Their rituals are all guided by one of hundreds of shamans or spirit-mediums who help heal illness or provide blessings and advice. Kulung dress and dancing is distinct, and many local women still weave the traditional allo fiber from large stinging nettle plants. This fiber is highly sought after and is incredibly durable. Only a generation ago, nearly everyone in this area only wore clothing woven from allo, but now much cheaper (and more fashionable) clothing is available locally.
While the Mahakulung area retains many of its cultural roots, the area is also modernising and changing rapidly. Many of the elderly still do not speak or understand the Nepali language, but the youth are becoming rapidly familiar with the international language of Facebook and social media. Despite these changes, however, the Kulung have a very strong sense of identity and are committed to preserving their culture. This is something that at dZi, we hope we can be a part of in the coming years.
Getting out is one thing, and getting back to Kathmandu is entirely another. Already, we are dreading the pollution and the noise of Nepal’s largest city (yet dreaming as well of the hot showers). We begin our return following ancient trade routes across the ridge-lines that were made obsolete as foot bridges provided quicker passage over the impassible rivers below. The dense alpine forest above Gudel is ecologically rich and a virtually unexplored eco-system that is home to old-growth Rhododendron forests, bears, leopards, red pandas and dozens of species of birds.