Life has always been hard in villages among the narrow valleys and towering, jagged snow peaks of northern Gorkha, but few here can remember a winter as difficult as this.
First it was the earthquake on 25 April, then there was the problem of transportation caused by the Indian blockade and the fuel crisis.
With its epicentre just 20 km northwest of the district capital, northern Gorkha bore the brunt of the earthquake as the mountains were torn apart. Huge landslides wiped trails off the map. The gashes are still visible on the steep slopes above the Budi Gandaki gorge.
Not a single house was left standing on the ridge-top settlement of Sipchet here in the Tsum Valley, a finger of Nepal that juts out into the Tibetan plateau behind Ganesh Himal. With the trails cut, survivors among the 37 families were left to fend for themselves with only occasional helicopter flights — the only contact with the outside world.
“Everyone here has been sleeping in tents for last eight months,” says Gopal Lama, 49. “There are no toilets, no drinking water.”
After a while, even the helicopter flights became less frequent as operators ran out of aviation fuel due to the Indian blockade. Winter clothes and supplies did not arrive on time, and villagers in Tsum and the neighbouring Nubri Valley were left to fend for themselves.
From Thursday, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) which had handled helicopter charters, stopped emergency flights because it ran out of money. Relief agencies that were coordinating assistance for health and education clusters have also stopped work as of 31 December.
Much of the emergency supply for winter like sleeping bags, smokeless cooking stoves and tarps which were to have been distributed by now, have been stuck at the Indian border for months. The backlog will be even more difficult and expensive to deliver to Upper Gorkha. A MI-17 helicopter of WFP could carry up to four tons of cargo at a time, but the smaller Écureuil AS350 will take four days to transport the same payload even with an external sling.
The Oli government announced it was distributing Rs 10,000 per family to buy winter clothes. Relief workers see this as a publicity stunt, since most people in remote areas have to walk several days to Soti Khola and catch a bus to Gorkha to buy a jacket.
In Gorkha, there are more than 2,000 households in camps living inside huts made of corrugated sheets. Without insulation it is now bitterly cold and condensation falling from under the roof is becoming a problem.
Even when they are available, the price of essentials have shot up, and income from trekking was reduced to a trickle as tourism collapsed. Schools are now closed for the winter, and the few health posts in the region don’t have staff or sufficient medicines. Helicopters ferrying in supplies used to take sick patients to hospitals in Gorkha, but now even the flights are uncertain.
Looking forward to spring
The Manaslu Trail was becoming a popular alternative to the Annapurna Circuit and the Everest Base Camp trek. But after the earthquake destroyed the trails, the flow of trekkers is drown to a trickle. Only the brave and really adventurous have been coming through.
It has been difficult even for villagers, who have to walk down the valley to buy essential supplies. “We had to crawl up and down the slopes like four-footed animals,” says 50-year-old Dawa Dorje from Namrung, “it was very difficult for us, especially the elders.”
The villages Lho, Namrung and Ghap which were on the trekking route to Larkya Pass have hardly seen any trekkers since April. Trails in the Nubri and Tsum Valleys are also badly damaged. One trekker who went through in October left the following warning in a lodge guestbook: ‘Some trekkers lost their way because of the landslides and dangerous trails.’
Fortunately, some of the damaged trails are being repaired under a ‘Food for Work’ program supported by WFP both for relief distribution and to revive trekking. The Manaslu Conservation Area Project says most of the Manaslu Trail is now fine, except below Philim. And if that is repaired over the next few months, the Larkya Traverse will be open in the spring season.
Authority to reconstruct, Om Astha Rai
Winter emergency for quake survivors, Kunda Dixit
Even more secluded sanctuary, Rinzin Norbu