ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
Written by Matt in August 2020
We all hoped that 2020 would be a special year. But not this type of special! Covid-19 has shaken the world and rattled it loose (insert Royal Enfield joke here) exposing just how vulnerable we really are.
It’s easy to get caught up in the never ending cycle of lockdowns, travel restrictions, quarantine regulations, political one-up-manship, vaccine breakthroughs, unemployment rates and so forth, that it’s become difficult to remember what day-to-day life was like before that fellow in Wuhan decided to eat a bat.
The travel industry has perhaps been the most hard-hit sector of all, causing businesses from all corners of the globe to close up shop with no real idea of when or how they will reopen. In Nepal, many hotel owners are forfeiting their bank loans and walking away. Restaurants and small shops are emptying their shelves and giving up their leases. And taxi drivers are selling their cars to simply pay the household rent. The list goes on. The once overcrowded tourist areas in Thamel, Kathmandu and Lakeside in Pokhara are now ghost towns compared to this time last year. The tens of thousands of locals that were employed as a result of the travel industry, now have no income and no support from their Government - unless you count that bag of rice they might get once a month.
As a result, the Nepalese locals who once looked to Kathmandu or Pokhara for a brighter future, or even further to the Middle-East or Malaysia for job opportunities, are now forced to return to their villages and put their hopes and dreams on hold whilst they focus on simply surviving. Sounds dim doesn’t it.
But the Nepalese people don’t have it in them to simply give up and lose hope. They just get on with it. When the 2015 earthquake hit, many thousands were homeless but they somehow kept on smiling. India closed their borders to Nepal for 5 months not long after, shutting off the supply of medicines, petroleum and cooking gas amongst other things. They responded instead by preparing their meals on small wood fires! The Nepalease people certainly are resilient.
A couple of months ago I was chatting with some hotel owners and operators that we use on our tours to see how they were fairing. Needless to say the business side of things was going terribly, but you already knew that. What was incredible to hear however was that because they no longer had the usual number of tourists visiting their towns and villages, and therefore had more free time, the local festivals and traditions were seeing greater participation. Normally the Nepali’s would be busy cooking meals for trekking groups, cleaning guesthouse rooms, or driving jeeps up and down the mountain. They would only catch a glimpse of the various farming practices, local crafts or unique sporting events, when they had a break between jobs or from stories told by older family members. But now, as they return to their villages, many communities are more alive than they have been in years.
One of the conversations I had was with our long-term partner and friend from Yac Donald’s guesthouse in Kagbeni - 24 year old Yeshi Choeden Gurung. Everyone who has been on one of our tours to either Lower Mustang or Upper Mustang will have stayed a night at Yeshi’s and may know it better as - that awesome Yac Burger place! I have transcribed our conversation for you below.
Matt: Hi Yeshi, thanks for your time. I am very grateful that you can share with us some of your stories from Kagbeni during Covid times! To start with, can you please tell me a bit about the background of Kagbeni and Yac Donalds.
Yeshi: Sure! Well my father started Yac Donald’s in 2002. Tourism had been around for a while but it started to kick off properly in 1985. My father was old enough in 2002 to start to build the hotel. It was also around this time that the civil war ended.
Kagbeni got its name from the confluence of three rivers and is considered a holy site by Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims. We are the Varagungpa community and share a border with Tibet. We are similar to Tibetan culture but we are not Tibetan. We fall under the Sakya Sect.
Matt: Do you know how long your family has been in Kagbeni?
Yeshi: My family was part of the original settlers of Kagbeni in the Stone Age.
Matt: That’s quite some time ago! Do you have an idea of when the Mustang stone age was?
Yeshi: It was near the time the monastery was built. About 1400 AD.
Matt: Has he told you what the early days running the hotel were like?
Yeshi: I’ve heard some things! In the beginning he didn’t have any staff. Just the family would help. But now we have 5 full time staff….and the family still helps out! We used to only get 100 visitors a year and now we get about 1500 per year.
Matt: Can you describe to us some of the local festivals in Kagbeni?
Yeshi: We have 4 main festivals in Kagbeni.
The Pi Dajyang festival in spring is celebrated by playing archery and drinking local beer.
The Tyonga festival is celebrated by performing a ritual worship to the farm and water gods in the summer season. The harvest season also begins at this time with the Kundang festival.
Yar Yartung celebrates the end of summer and harvest season with horse races, jewellery and traditional silk dress competitions. We also take a holy bath at Muktinath temple during this autumn festival.
Gung Chongu is celebrated in winter by offering prayers to gods in the monastery with a variety of delicacies, changing the prayer flags with fresh juniper, family gatherings, dancing and singing.
Matt: Well there certainly is a lot to learn about. I’ve been lucky enough to experience some of these festivals but didn’t know of Gung Chongu. So how has the Corona Virus affected you and what have you been doing with your time?
Yeshi: Well besides all the negative things, we have had quite a lot of spare time so I’ve been trying to keep myself busy! Instead of spending money to buy simple grains like buckwheat and barley, we have been farming more which has motivated us to engage in the local culture. I have learnt to weave handmade handicrafts, I’ve learnt to milk the cows and make cheese and butter. Before only my grandma would do that! I’ve been learning to read the ancient prayer texts and listen to mythological tales and songs. These are the things I do to pass the time these days.
Matt: That’s impressive. You’ve really been making the most of this time. How do you see the future?
Yeshi: I think it’ll all be OK once the pandemic is over and they find a vaccine. But the next 2-3 years are going to be tough whilst tourism recovers. In the meantime we have to conserve our culture and traditional values to strengthen them because tourism was based on these elements originally.
Matt: I think you’re absolutely right. The tourism industry started developing rapidly in Nepal since the 70s which brought along with it both the good and bad aspects of western life. Nepal hasn’t had a break from this growth for years so now is a great time to reconnect with local traditions and practices to not forget what it’s all about.
Yeshi: Exactly. So many of my friends are sad to leave Kathmandu to go back to their village, but they should try to make the most of it because the traditions of our ancestors can be lost very quickly. And right now we’ve been given a great opportunity to remember who we are before the future starts again.
Matt: Thanks so much for your time and profound comments Yeshi. I’ll be seeing you up in Kagbeni soon….and I might even try to help out with the cows!
I think Yeshi put it perfectly when she mentioned that now is the time to “conserve our culture and traditional values [...] because tourism was based on these elements originally”. Nepal is not alone with tradition and culture forming the foundations of its appeal for tourism, and hopefully more communities around the world can use the time Covid-19 has provided to reawaken their true spirit. As it turns out, 2020 might end up being the right type of special after all.