mountains, people, roads and other fantasies

I’ve been rambling about the importance and the fun to prepare yourself a bit for what awaits you in far-away places, i.c. Nepal’s Mustang region. And my hopes for a collection of eye-opening and/or stereotype-countering reminders to give myself (and you?) a fighting chance of not getting lost in Shangrila fantasies. Well, here, you go. The main collection. Way too much to digest in one visit. I’m sorry. Look upon it as a repository, to be consulted when you have some time and feel like it.

Mustang is part of the Himalayan range, that huge arc of mountains thrust upward by the collision of the Indian and the Eurasian plates. Most travelling to Nepal will be aware of that, but how much do we really know about it? To me, what I know about something, matters in how I look at it. The immensity of this range, and the story it tells, are just that much more humbling when I, however imperfectly, manage to take the perspective of geological time and scale.

the Kali Gandaki gorge

the Kali Gandaki gorge

For a quick and dirty explanation of the plate tectonics involved, the UK Geological Society has this great one page write-up with accompanying animation. But for the lay person like me, a longer, Kindergarten level explanation may actually be what it takes to somewhat get the perspective. 

In case you enjoy reading, and in case you haven’t read it yet (actually even if you have, it can take a couple of rereads), I would know of few better books to take along to these mountains to feed your wonder about it all than Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

But it’s not only the scale that makes this a very special place, it’s also the people. Or more accurately phrased: the fact that there are people at all. The Western concept of nature and national parks is all about wildlife and botanical riches, but people? And most mountain ranges are indeed depopulated, with only those left that can make a living of tourism. That depopulation process is ongoing in the Nepal Himalaya, but for the time being, visitors can still get glimpses of what it’s like to live in such an environment.

And although some has changed, one major factor being the closing of the Tibetan border for most of the traditional trade, dramatically altering the economics of survival in many of these marginal regions that have always needed something in addition to their agriculture and livestock, another the invasion of new materials and technology, what you see in ‘historic’ footage is still quite similar to what you’ll see today. I’ll give one example, primarily to point you to this great resource of old films by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, which has been made available on youtube by another anthropologist, Alan Macfarlane:

So, their lives are very different from ours. That is utterly fascinating. But it’s also an open invitation to overlook our common nature. Doing that would most appropriately be labelled ‘dehumanizing’ were it not for the negative connotation of the concept, while the apparent problem of many visitors is their inability or unwillingness to perceive or hear of anything negative. I kid you not, they are really just like us. Often great fun, quite able to make their own decisions regarding what they value and what not, what they see as the good life and what not, and sometimes they’re not that nice. Their societies are very different from ours, but not utopias. Inequalities, exploitation, xenophobia, violence, really, just like humans elsewhere. As are their kindness, intelligence, wisdom and humour.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am talking as much about myself here, as I am about you, and the last thing I would want, is to make this something about being right or wrong, or about blame. We all look at the other through the lens of ourself, and of the known. That’s unavoidable, all we have is ourselves. So we tend to see what strikes us as different. And for reasons that I am not going to explore here, many of us travel-hungry modern Westerners seem to focus on what we apparently lack at home, things like strong community solidarity and support, a slower pace of life, a lack of gadgets, something we see as a ‘natural’ way of living (as opposed to the tendency to see savagery, idol worship, and other tokens of lacking civility that many in earlier generations of travellers tended to see). Let me give you an endearing example:

We’re suckers for this, as one of my favorite authors, Nassim Nicolas Taleb, would phrase it, and cannot escape it. But we can make an effort to bring our biases to awareness, and not draw silly conclusions from them, conclusions that turn Nepalese encounters into something Alice-in-Wonderland like. Learning is only to be had from reality, not from cloud cuckooland adventures. I guarantee you that such a stance doesn’t make the encounters any less fun. I’ll give you another example, not about Nepal, but still interesting for this scrapbook. Many will be familiar with Christopher McDougall of Born to Run, star storyteller, whom I love listening to, doesn’t matter that I am thoroughly familiar with the content by now. But listen what he makes of these mystical Tarahumara, or Raramuri as they call themselves, who live in and above the canyons of northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. I guarantee you that those Tarahumara do not exist. That’s not to say that the real ones are not pretty awesome, and great mirrors to look into for better understanding ourselves, but just that, unless you believe in a people of boddhisatvas, also the Tarahumara have to deal with violence, greed, disease, and those other evils.

All right, back to Nepal. The two ‘kinds’ of Nepalese that Mustang trail race participants are going to most closely interact with, are the support staff of the event, and the villagers in Mustang.

I’ve worked in the trekking business for a couple of years and can bore you to death with funny and not so funny misunderstandings, misperceptions, and weird interpersonal dynamics that are part and parcel of the interaction of trekking/climbing support staff and their clients. At the end of my tenure as operations manager, these so absorbed me, that I even wrote the outline for a film script, that never made it to the big screen, but did get a Dutch filmmaker interested, who a decade (2003) later released Nima Temba Sherpa, of which only a trailer is available on youtube:

Amazingly, this might still be the first documentary shot from the local perspective. There are now a couple of others, but all – for understandable PR reasons – focus on climbing ‘Sherpas’, rather than the much larger and broader category of trekking staff.

Incredibly hard-working, tenacious, street smart, and able to manage incredibly complicated logistics. But also nepotistic, alcohol is a huge issue, and street smart has dark sides too.

Many feel embarrassed receiving all that support, from someone carrying their luggage, to the setting up of camps (if it is tented), the bed tea, and all the rest of what they seem to experience as a Victorian-era colonial treatment. Dunno really what to make of that. Support crews indeed work long hours, under often difficult circumstances, and make the client feel like a weakling – which most in comparison are. And some of their employers are rotten eggs that shouldn’t be allowed to operate because they exploit their staff. Also true. But the same clients mostly have much less trouble with being looked after in lodges (how do you think the food got there? doing lodge dishes at 11PM isn’t necessarily fun either. Weird it is to me). And while the pay for the majority is not great it beats much other options. What is more, the pay for those at the top of the food chain, the sardars, to some extent the cooks, and the climbing ‘sherpas’ (which is not an ethnicity but a professional designation), is good. There are preciously little avenues for social mobility, but the trekking business is one of those. Basic literacy and numeracy is required, but many who now own houses in Kathmandu valley and send their kids to boarding schools started their career as 14-year-old porters and worked their way up the ranks, on merit. I have huge respect for these guys (and some girls) because they are truly out of my league; and I’m not referring to their physical capabilities (which are obviously exceptional), but to their leadership qualities, social intelligence, crisis management skills, you name it.

I think most of us don’t realize how exceptional social mobility is in the first place. Not only in Nepal by the way, everywhere. That makes this level of jumps-across-class-lines through the trekking industry even more phenomenal; but many clients feel embarrassed. It’s a strange world.

Too much talk, time for a break. Nothing to do with mountains this, but nevertheless appropriate to my theme:

The villagers and their lives are equally amazing, and equally human. Just to get a feel for what village realities, based on socio-economic conditions, are like, also in Upper Mustang, it is enough to read one or two short research articles. I would recommend this study on inter-village conflicts about rangelands, and this one about intra-village differences in wealth and power and how those translate into access to water. Upper Mustang is not a traditional yarsagumba collection locale; but if it were, I’m sure that the violent turf war that occurred in 2009 in neighbouring Nar-Phu (and that made world news) could equally have happened in Upper Mustang. The areas are culturally very alike, as one can read in this academic description and this visual guide (I can vouch for it because we trekked it with the kids during the monsoon of 2000). But more importantly, this is what happens to people, anywhere, when the stakes are high enough.

The yarsagumba business is one of the more fascinating aspects of contemporary Nepalese mountain lives, and even if it is not directly relevant to Mustang, it is a good reminder of the realities and risks that villagers face. And how these cannot be understood unless one takes a global view: the main yarsagumba market is China. I’ll repeat it until you get sick of it: the region has always needed trade, long-distance trade, to be a humanly inhabitable environment. This NGO documentary about Darchula district provides a good overview.

Last, but not least, change and adaptation. The Al Jazeera doc embedded in a previous post is a good entry point. For the readers amongst you, I can recommend two village-level studies, one about Kagbeni, the other about Jharkot (near Muktinath). For the real data nerds, this study on climate change in Upper Mustang might also appeal.

And then there is roads. I am known for running rants, and one of my favourite topics in Nepal, well anywhere, is trails being turned into roads. So if anyone is in need of some reminders, it’s me. This is the general argument for why roads matter in Nepal. Obviously, not all are winners when trails are turned in roads. So Nepalese disagree about it (see e.g. the Kagbeni study).

However, according to Lal Prasad Gurung, director of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, that covers all of the Annapurna region, including Mustang, and an agency opposing the road development, is quite explicit about the realities: Local people who make their money from tourism are firmly against the road, Mr. Gurung said, but they make up only 15 to 20 percent of the populace. The rest — “those who are involved in agriculture, those who go overseas for work,” said Mr. Gurung — “they want the road.” This is not to say that planning, construction quality, corruption, environmental and social impacts, and more, are not issues of serious concern, but it is important to realize that visitors’ gut reaction to these ‘scars’ in the landscape that ‘chase out authenticity and bring in pollution and consumerism and destroy traditional lifestyles’ is a very self-serving view of things, and that Nepalese by and large see things very differently. The only bit of visual about road building issues, that I could trace , is this trailer about the new road linking Nepal and China through the Tamang country of Upper Rasuwa district. Go here for an interview with Ben Campbell, the anthropologist involved.


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2 Responses to mountains, people, roads and other fantasies

  1. Pingback: 2014 Mustang Trail Race wrap up | roger henke's fancies

  2. Pingback: un nimweegs rondje – version 1.0 | roger henke's fancies

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