I fell in love with Helambu, and you would too.
Steeped in thousands years of culture, a migratory settlement that has given rise to a unique Yolmo culture, the gentleness of the slopes that rise bravely upward into the sky and is reflected in the warmth of the people, can steal your heart. The magic of the surrounding mountains is everywhere – the gentle goats that roam the land seem adapted to the mountainous landscapes and graze with an urgent frenzy. The numerous trails beckon adventurous hearts into explorations and the green trees silhouetted against the bluest of skies is a sight that is forever stamped in memory. The devout Buddhists of Helambu have been bravehearts in tilling a land that yields precious little. That is why perhaps their hearts and the surrounding regions echo with beauty that is religious yet spells unique adventure. Rarely would you get a taste of the Himalayas that can be got in an escape that is so close to the valley that we call home. A part of the Great Himalayan Trail, the Old Helambu Circuit, which is one of the first trekking routes in Nepal, is witnessing revival spurred by sustained efforts by tourism entrepreneurs. When I returned after a soul-stirring 4 days, I left a portion of me in the snow-capped mountains, amidst the cloud covers that I stared at every morning from my window, and in the mellow sunsets that painted the sky an enchanting blood orange. It is a calling that will make you yearn for a return.
Heaven in 5 hours
Thank you Facebook! It is just by sheer chance I came upon an advertisement when the lockdown was just about beginning to slacken in Nepal and people were breaking the shackles of isolation to venture out of the confines of their homes. Yangrima Eco Lodge, as many other lodges and homestays, not just in Helambu but all over Nepal, was waiting for the tourist trickle to begin.
The 5-hour drive that ensued on a slightly chilly winter morning, soon saw the paved roads of Kathmandu give way to the forests of Gokarna and then beyond to the rushing waters of the Melamchi, onto the uneven roads that spiraled through sparse human habitation upward through the district of Sindhupalchowk. It felt almost surreal that one could leave the city life behind so quickly and venture into the sounds of rustling trees, sparkling mountain streams that one could drink from, and be thousands of metres high, crossing vantage points that offer an eagle’s eye view of the earth below. One almost feels close to God and the skies. It’s a feeling that has to be experienced.
Sermathang is best experienced through walks – ‘the idyllic paths that cut through what used to be hills leading into the village is interspersed by gumbas (monasteries) and one can see playful young children alongside the elderly. The traditional houses have a unique feel. However, modern cemented structures that dot the landscape and are a fallout of the prosperity that hails in the form of remittance income, do stick out like sore thumbs in a setting that is still largely untouched by the frenzy of modern civilization. The winding roads can take a traveler back to a way of life that is unhurried, and a reflection of the surrounding mountain-scapes.
A Shot in the Arm
Yangrima Eco Lodge, which is interestingly a part of the Climate Trek Nepal initiative, is one of the many lodges that is making a seen renewed global interest in the region, through collaboration with Atmosfair and Alternative Tour Operators Association in Germany, who promote low emission tourism worldwide. I put up at the lodge under the caring and heart-warming hospitality of Khandu Lama and Gopal Lama. The Eco Lodges are built around comfort and promote the use of natural materials and local resources in building – the outer walls of Yangrima Eco Lodge are built of a composite of hemp and lime; the hemp bales are made in Janakpur in Nepal. The lodges make ample use of solar power and invest in recycling of water, apart from promoting local fare.
Gopal Lama, who has passionately worked over the decades to raise the tourism and economic prospects of the region is part of a progressive collective that is lobbying for increased infrastructure and access to the region alongside the likes of Raj Gyawali, Mingma Sherpa, Amrit Ale, Chhewang Lama, and Jitendra Jhankri. Government investment is necessary to help rescue the industry – one of the initiatives that the locals reminisce and which has fallen off the radar is the sad story of the famous Helambu apple orchards. Wild trees have reclaimed land that was once covered in orchards and the pride of the region. Dilapidated government buildings are a stark reminder how continued efforts are necessary to foster any industry and to engage locals that otherwise migrate to foreign lands for employment citing lack of opportunities in their homeland.
Through initiatives such as the Mountain Tourism Protocol that has been adopted by the Nepal Tourism Board and the Visit Helambu campaign, efforts are on to encourage initiatives that will hopefully attract tourists back into the region and help revive the massive blow struck by the pandemic. The silver lining in 2020 however has been the revival of domestic tourism. Nepalis have contributed to the tourism landscape of the country by traveling across the nation when foreign tourists, the mainstay of the tourism sector, have stayed away.
Maya Gurung, an ace mountaineer, and a member of the Seven Summits Women Team that has climbed all the highest peaks from the seven continents, also echoes similar thoughts of promoting local tourism in the next decade. “Nepalis should travel more within the country and locations such as Helambu are perfect getaways for the time and budget conscious,” she says. “The feel of the majestic Himalayas is just a short drive or trek away and increasingly there is interest in making these regions more accessible to local tourists. Although there is the prevailing fear of overcrowding, pollution, insensitivity toward ecologically critical sites and natural heritage, she feels it is through continued exposure and education that attitudes toward preservation can be changed nationally.” One couldn’t agree more.
Although the pandemic brought hopelessness to hundreds of
thousands in Nepal, as in the rest of the world, for the domestic traveler it
opened up a landscape that was hitherto uncharted mostly. Internal tourism did
get a boost and the lack of foreign visitors encouraged tourism entrepreneurs
to market the country’s natural bounty more aggressively to Nepalis. Evidence
of such efforts is rife and currently going strong over Facebook and Instagram.
Nepalis have taken to traveling their country post lockdown taking advantage of
bargains that were previously unattainable. The tourism industry has really
woken up to the potential of domestic tourism. This is a fantastic time to
travel, to explore Nepal like you have never done before and the winds of
change can only herald better fortunes for the economy, the sector, and the
nation as a whole.
As we travel more, we become aware of the huge potential our country has to offer to ourselves and the world. We become aware and more sensitive of the need for conserving the bounties that have the potential to being in wealth not just in terms of income from foreign visitors, but from domestic tourists alike. Infrastructure and change of attitude – both among domestic tourists and the industry people – has seen a massive shift. Now we can truly believe that in every problem we face there lies an opportunity and a calling for good!