Video of the Week: We are Staying in Lo Manthang!

The new music video for the Nepali song Lomanthang Mai Basam, by Ramji Khand and Sangita Thapa Magar (featuring Ramji Khand and Sangita Thapa Maga), was shot on location in Upper Mustang, Nepal, and features many breathtaking images of the country’s revered glaciers.

The video is meant to encourage young people to remain in the high mountain valley of Lo Manthang, a rural municipality within the Gandaki Province of Nepal. It was released on January 1st “to promote reverse outmigration and tourism,” explained former GlacierHub writer, Tsechu Dolma.

The remote settlement of Lo Manthang was established in 1380 as the capital of the Lo Kingdom. To this day, it is surrounded by an ancient six-meter-high wall made of earthen materials. A Tibetan Buddhist heritage exists inside the walls, and many palaces and monasteries preserve the region’s culture. Located only 50 kilometers from the Tibetan border, the settlement remains an important trade outpost, where clothing, salt, and food is still transported between Nepal and Tibet by mule. The Mustang kingdom prevailed until Nepal became a republic in 2008, and Monarch Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who was the 25th descendent in a direct line of kings dating back to the foundation of the Lo Dynasty, lost his title.

According to Nepal Glacier Treks & Expeditions, “This secret place is located in the rain shadow of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range, and was forbidden to explorers until 1992.” This region is still restricted to a limited number of visitors, thus “it’s possible to hide the secrets of a large number of caves dispersed carefully its red cliffs.” The Mustang region is also home to over fifteen percent of Nepal’s glaciers.

The song’s chorus translates, “Swear to Muktinath by Kagbeni / Do not leave, we are staying in Lo Manthang / We are staying in Lo Manthang / Swear to Dhaulagiri by Nilgiri / Do not leave, we are staying in Lo Manthang / We are staying in Lo Manthang.” Muktinath and Kagbeni are villages in Upper Mustang, and Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri are two of its notable mountain ranges.

Another section translates, “A sanctuary where the paradise lies / Nature is the abode of the God of Nature” and is accompanied by striking images of the local culture against a backdrop of the rugged, snow-capped Himalaya––a paradise, indeed.

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Anthony Bourdain Discussed Bhutan’s Glaciers in Season Finale

Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter bio simply reads “Enthusiast.” This succinct description captures the spirit of the television personality and chef who died by suicide in June. It was his aptitude for traveling, or simply experiencing, that brought Bourdain to Bhutan for the season 11 finale of his show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which aired on June 24, 2018. In this episode, like many others, Bourdain experienced the country, its culture, its people, and the food that tied them all together. For Bhutan, the environment cannot be fully acknowledged without understanding the impact of the region’s glaciers.

Darren Aronofsky and Anthony Bourdain in Bhutan in 2018 (Source: ZPZ/Twitter).

A mountainous country in the eastern Himalaya, Bhutan has a complicated relationship with its glaciers. On one hand, glacier water fuels the hydropower dams that account for Bhutan’s largest export; yet, climate-related impacts like glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) also threaten lives and have been responsible for some of the most catastrophic events in Bhutan’s recent history.

Bourdain did not overlook the impact of climate change on Bhutan’s glaciers during his travels. Along with his friend, filmmaker and writer Darren Aronofsky, he traveled to the Punatsangchhu hydropower dam in the final episode. The dam lies about 80 kilometers east of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. High above the dam’s edge, with the rushing glacier water far below, the two were able to speak with Nawang Norbu, director of the School for Field Studies’ Bhutan program.

“There are many studies showing that the Himalayan glaciers will disappear in about 50 to 60 years,” warned Nawang Norbu, to which Bourdain appeared shocked. “Whoa, whoa, whoa— that’s soon!” he said.

Construction is underway for the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Project in Bhutan (Source: Ritwick Dutta/Flickr).

“Both Anthony and Darren were keenly aware of our connections to nature and were genuinely concerned about the fate of our planet,” Nawang Norbu told GlacierHub. “We were also acutely aware of how we were still so reliant upon nature despite our technological prowess.”

Nawang Norbu stated that they went on to discuss how Bhutan, as a small country, is dependent on nature and its cycles, recognizing that climate change will have a serious future impact on the region.

“I found Anthony to be a deep thinker, highly intelligent and very curious about our world and its cultures,” Nawang Norbu said.

It appears that Bourdain’s concern for such sobering topics was not limited to when the cameras were rolling. “I think he was truly taken away by the care and dexterity with which Bhutan has been able to conserve its culture, values and environment; he was genuinely concerned about how we may be better able to steward the wellbeing of our planet,” Nawang Norbu added.

This attitude toward the natural world is fitting in a country that is tied so heavily to its environment. Earlier in the episode, Bourdain’s narration explains that “policy-wise, Bhutan is something of an environmental wonderland.” He was referring, in part, to the constitutional requirement that 60 percent of Bhutan’s lands remain forested. The country is currently exceeding 70 percent. This, along with the country’s rapidly growing hydropower sector, has allowed it to become the first carbon-negative country, meaning Bhutan absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases.

“Respect for the natural world is fundamental to Bhutan’s spiritual identity,” continues Bourdain. This stems from the country’s official religion of Mahayana (tantric) Buddhism, a faith practiced by 75 percent of its people. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index is a further reflection of this identity. “The pursuit of happiness is collective,” according to the Center for Bhutan Studies, and happiness isn’t measured by subjective well-being.

“Our happiness is very much linked to our respect of, and the wellbeing of, our natural environment,” Benji Dorji, often referred to as Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” told GlacierHub. He discussed nature, Buddhism, and their connection in Bhutan during a home-cooked meal with Bourdain that consisted of recipes that had been passed down through generations of Bhutanese farmers. The conversation progressed from the dwindling number of days with snowfall to the disappearance of some glacier lakes before coming to the respect for nature seen in tantric Buddhism.

“You don’t mess with nature,” agreed Bourdain during the episode.

Clay Stupas that are used in the Bhutanese Death Ritual at Burning Lake, Bumthang (Source: Richard Furlong/Flickr).

Benji Dorji found Bourdain “most respectful of Bhutanese culture and traditions,” which carried throughout the show and culminated in Burning Lake, where Bourdain and Aronofsky took part in a Bhutanese death ritual.

“We debated the fate of the country, the fate of the world. He was perplexed as to how mankind’s endless hunger to consume could be curtailed,” wrote Aronofsky in an article for CNN following Bourdain’s death.

Bourdain spent his time in Bhutan witnessing the enduring beauty of the high glacier-covered peaks and Bhutan’s efforts to protect them. These efforts fall in step with the people’s gentleness and drive to create happiness wherever possible.

Bourdain captured the effect that traveling the world had on him in his book, “The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones.” “Travel changes you,” he wrote. “As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

To read more about tracking glaciers and rivers in Bhutan, check out our previous article.

Nuns in Nepal Rebuild Sustainably

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Two hundred nuns sleeping under one big blue tarp. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

For more than eight months I have been working on a project to help restore a remote mountaintop Tibetan nunnery in Nepal, which was devastated by the earthquake last year. These activities draw directly on the religious traditions of the nuns and on indigenous building practices of the region.

Four days after the earthquake on April 25, 2015, I took a private rescue flight to Bakhang, Sindhupalchowk district in Nepal. I found a ghostly landscape of flattened and damaged buildings.  The earthquake killed one nun and left all the others, about 200 in all, homeless. Thirty of them were seriously injured.  All the nunnery houses—which had been hand-built by the nuns—were destroyed. Sixty-four residents of nearby villages were also killed. In this rugged landscape, with glaciated mountains reaching over 5000 meters in elevation, active landslides created additional damage.

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Construction of the model home using containment reinforcement with wires. Local Sherpa masons and carpenters were hired and trained. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

The conditions were extremely difficult. Two hundred of us slept under one large blue tarp. Many nuns kept crying, mourning the dead and expressing great distress. Moving out from the shells of their homes created a spiritual crisis for the nuns, because they felt they violated their faith; according to Buddhist beliefs, it is not permitted to leave in the middle of spiritual practice, even in the face of a disaster like a fire or a flood.

I was soon joined by my colleague from the Mountain Resiliency Project, a social enterprise dedicated to strengthening remote mountain communities in Nepal, and by others from the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund. We stayed for three weeks, providing psychosocial counseling to the nuns and assisting them with the first steps of the recovery. During that time, we did not receive any assistance from any government or international aid group. The members of our Tibetan and Sherpa communities in Kathmandu were the first to mobilize support. To date, more than half of the funds we have gathered are individual donations from within our community. American Jewish World Services, a non-sectarian humanitarian and emergency relief non-profit organization, has granted also $287,000 to our rehabilitation effort.

Tibetans face difficulties in seeking help from the Nepali government, since they are largely refugees who lack legal documents. As refugees, they were also cut off from their families. The majority of the nuns come from my mother’s home district in southern Tibet, Dingri, the northern base of Mt. Everest. Many of them are my relatives. The nunnery itself is less than a day’s walk from the border between Nepal and Tibet, five to seven days’ walk to Dingri. The nunnery is located high on a mountain, a day’s walk from the nearest road. Where cars cannot travel, mountain people journey on foot. The nunnery has sheltered many Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese occupation to exile in India.

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3D image of the design and construction of a home. (Image: Hunnarshala Foundation)

The nuns were sent by their parents to Nepal at early ages— typically in their teens— because of the lack of prospects for them in Tibet. Their average age is now around 38.  Isolated from their relatives for decades, they lack familial support systems. Nonetheless, their childhood memories of home and strong cultural ties are central to their lives. In recognition of this identity and affiliation, our team emphasized the importance of reconstruction with a strong inclusion of traditional Tibetan building techniques while also incorporating techniques to make the buildings resilient in the face of earthquakes. This team included the Mountain Resiliency Project, along with the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund, and a local service society that supports the nunnery.

“Many people in Nepal are lulled into this false sense of security with reinforced cement buildings and put off natural building materials as poor man’s resources. However, if another big earthquake hits the region, the cement homes will cause devastation of catastrophic measures,” Mahavir Acharya, Managing Director at Hunnarshala Foundation, stated.

At present, we are building a nunnery that will house up to 207 women. It is made of 99 percent naturally-sourced, sustainably-acquired and locally-available resources. Each home is built with stone masonry mud mortar that is held with thin wire extended from foundation to ceiling and wrapped around the house. This process creates reinforcement. We started in January, and with a completed model house and dug foundations, we plan to finish 40 houses per month.

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Nuns digging mud clay to use for their home construction. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

Initially, I was very worried about how to make sure the nuns were at the forefront of the decision-making. At the Mountain Resiliency Project, we spent many hours leading small focus groups and having individual conversations to make sure the nuns understood the importance of their voices and leadership. As the project developed and construction started, the nuns spontaneously emerged forward. The nuns are leading the building process as they have been salvaging wood and stones from fallen homes. They have also been digging clay mud 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with the hope that they can return home and resume their spiritual practices as soon as possible.

Tibetans have unique, traditional construction songs that date back centuries. There are songs and dances specific to every stage of construction, from excavating the planned building area to pounding the mud on roofs. Currently, the nuns are singing earth excavation songs that are filled with messages of hope and determination to rebuild.

༄༄ས་འདི་ཁྱེམ་གོ་གང་ལ་ སྒྲུབ་པའི་ལྷ་ཁང་བཞིང་ཡོད་།

On this very earth we are consecrating a religious home

ལྷ་ཁང་ནང་དུ་བཞུགས་མཁན་ སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་།

Inside the home lives the Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem

སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་ འགྲོ་བ་ཡོངས་ཀྱིས་སྐྱབས་གནས་།

The Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem is the protector for all beings

ཁྱེད་ཀྱི་གཟི་བརྗིད་འོད་ཟེར་ བོད་མི་ཡོངས་ལ་ཁྱབས་ཡོད་།

Your rays of brilliance has spread to all Tibetans

During my most recent trip to the nunnery, nuns were starting to put small religious materials in the foundations of their homes, a traditional practice blessing the building. One of my nun relatives told me, “This is a start of a new beginning with traditional aspects for us. This type of construction work almost feels like being back in our motherland [Tibet]. We are the first mass permanent housing project [post-earthquake] to start in Sindhupalchowk and hopefully the region can use us as an example of sustainable and resilient building.”

Many of the hired masons and carpenters from nearby villages are also directly learning from the nunnery construction. Bal Bahadur, a local hired mason for the nunnery, told me “We are waiting to build our permanent homes after the nunnery not only because our salary here pays for our houses, but also because this type of natural technology seems very feasible and resilient.”

For now the nuns are laboring hard and singing, feeling a closer connection to a sense of home. Knowingly or unknowingly, the Bakhang nuns are setting a model of inclusive rehabilitation unprecedented in our community. As a Tibetan woman myself, I find it deeply heartening.