21 Feb Mustang. The last lost kingdom.N
epal, three months after the earthquake.
The image I have before me could have come from a war scene: destroyed buildings, mountains of rubble, and people who are unable to erase from their faces the reflection of what surrounds them.
The image is plastic, even aesthetic, however it is the representation of horror, darkness and death. The problem is that this is real. Bhaktapur, Nepal. Agosto de 2015.
Text & photography: Fede Arcos
While in Granada, I received an email from the Spanish Council of Architects echoing the Nepalese government’s request for help. A few days later, they were calling on all government organizations and NGOs based in Spain to collaborate. I would go there at a key moment to be able to work, three months later, after the initial intervention and as the diagnosis and reconstruction phase was commencing.
At that time, no Spanish organization had anything planned, so after learning from the experience of some friends, I thought of directly helping.
Three months after the earthquakes, Omar Havana guides us through Patan, a population on the outskirts of Kathmandu that was greatly affected by the earthquake. A while later we had coffee in his modern apartment while looking through some of his photos. As a photojournalist, he tells us many things about the situation he experienced in those days, the repercussion in the international media, the government´s position and his own personal experience.
He paints a rather black picture. Apart from the endemic problems of logistics and management, the government taxed international aid at 48% of its estimated value, as an airport charge. NGOs could not send back aid that had arrived in huge amounts, because they did not have enough economic resources to do so. And so, food rotted in airport hangars, perishable medicines expired as minimal conservation measures could not be guaranteed, and the best material goods were shared among members of parliament.
Upon learning about that, some organizations dropped cargo mid-flight, trying to reach the people directly.
Amit Bajracharya, executive member of the Association of Nepali Architects (SONA), is working on rebuilding the temple in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. After discussing details of the construction process and with some degree of confidence, he confesses that the real problem there is a lack of training of the technicians when faced with an earthquake. 81 years after repeating the same tragedy, protocols for an immediate action plan are still inexistent.
Walking around Durbar Square and later traveling around the country, I can corroborate Amit’s words. The problem is inherent to the building process, there are no robust construction systems, outside the capital there is no technical supervision on-site and traditional buildings do not follow basic standards.
Of all the natural disasters, earthquakes are the only ones that can´t be predicted. The geopolitical location of Nepal, with the Indian plate embedded in the Himalayas, makes the country an area of great seismic instability.
What happened this summer will happen again, as in 1934, and which will devastate the country again in the future. Nepal has an urgent need for an action plan, ready-prepared emergency services and technical reconstruction guidelines. These actions are not taking place.
The government has prioritized reconstruction of monuments over residential houses, under different programs managed by two architect organizations of Nepal and the UNESCO program, which in spite of many difficulties is making some progress. However, there will be no assistance for rebuilding private properties. It is the old complaint of humanity. Feast today, famine tomorrow.
There are other interests given priority over training the next generation of architects: the need to recover tourism fast, an activity which, according to the World Trade Organization, is the country’s second largest foreign income.
The request for foreign architects was just a timely gesture in the face of the international community. Indeed, a few days later I could confirm it with some local architects. Nevertheless, there is enough work there for thousands of technicians.
A government that treats its people like this cannot then hold out its hand and ask for help that it does not share. A lot of help has arrived, perhaps because of the character of its people, from the mobilization of climbers and mountaineers, because Nepal has been good to them.
The mountain and its raw materials generate many benefits that do not reach rest of the population, and so the number of those displaced by the earthquake is compounded by the phenomenon of economic migration.
Each day several direct flights leave to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, filled with young and old workers who will roam the streets of the Arab Emirates in an attempt to settle there and live in miserable conditions, trying to save as much money as possible to send back to their families.
Perhaps the UN could place more pressure on the government to force it to open up and invest in its own country, to improve social services and its infrastructure, thus taking its people out of poverty and generating profits in the medium-term.
However, the political situation is somewhat more complex. There are many interests in the region. Nepal rises up from the jungle to the summit of the Himalayas, it has vast natural resources and lies in a strategic geopolitical position, critical to the Asian giants.
China is investing huge amounts of money in the region, building infrastructures, installing tents in refugee camps, opening up safer passages, but this is not free and investment should be programed and fall within a set of guidelines, as many ethnic groups live there, all with their different customs and needs.
We travel around the Last Lost Kingdom thinking about these issues, trying to retain in our mind the timelessness of the region, because it´s likely to be the last time we see it so pure. Soon these territories will be connected by highway with Tibet, that is to say, with China. The consequence will be irreparable, they will lose their traditional way of life and ancestral customs, living tied to a communication route that will impoverish them.
And if this is the case, how long will it take for Nepal to become just another province of the dragon?
In Kagbeni, a Tibetan boy shows us the historic center. A small cluster of houses built with earth that in any European country would enjoy the maximum level of urban protection.
The village is located in a remote area in the Upper Mustang, in the valley of the Kali Gandaki River. In the past, it was one of the main trade routes of salt and barley between Tibet and India.
The route was permanently closed after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. This factor, together with the overthrow of the Mustang King, has turned it into a harsh region swept by dust from the prevailing winds, far removed from the system and with minimal subsistence levels.
Here there are no so-called refugee camps, perhaps because the whole Mustang area is a huge Tibetan refugee camp that migrates to Pokhara in the winter. This season is so tough that it leaves the region empty for three months. Even so, the local population, as much as they can, has adjusted itself among the rubble because here are their houses, their animals and their livelihoods.
The need to invest in social services should not mean a loss of cultural identity of its inhabitants. They need hospitals and fuel with which to warm up, not limits in their territory.
We managed to drink the only decent coffee in weeks at Luigi Feni´s home, an Italian guy who has been working for 17 years on restoring the mural paintings at the monastery in Lo Manthang, capital of the Upper Mustang, located very near the Tibetan border.
In fact, it is a small village situated on a strip of cultivated land snatched from the desert, where the monastery and palace seem to occupy almost half its surface area.
Lo Manthang, like Tsarang, is a lost settlement from the dawn of time, a journey that we count in centuries rather than kilometers and helps us understand the concept of timelessness.
Luigi began working for the royal family through a program at the Italian university. Today, after the ousting of the king, he continues for the love of his own work to pay the $50 daily fee the current government requires from every foreign citizen for each day they stay in the Upper Mustang. But Luigi not only restores works. Since he began his work, he´s been training pastors in the art of painting and restoration. Today many of them work together with him in his company.
After chatting a while, we leave his house. The sun is starting to hide behind the mountains. Luigi asks two child monks for the keys and takes us to the temple. As the two huge solid wood doors opened at the same time, we glimpsed the golden silhouette of Buddha, illuminated by a faint light that filtered from the roof´s skylight.
Our eyes had just begun to adjust to the darkness when a flashlight turns on and illuminates the wall closest to us. A chill runs through us as our eyes follow the light and we realize exactly what we are seeing. The feeling is so strong that I need some time before I can even speak. It is a sensation deep within that I´ve been pursuing for years, familiar yet remote, ancestral, one which only makes sense on the grassy plains of Mongolia, or in the frozen Baikal, reminiscent of the beating of eagles’ wings or the howling of wolves in the Siberian winter.
The sensation is the same, primeval and pure. The other is emptiness.
Now I understand Luigi’s commitment to live in this place and continue developing the company. The paintings we see there could live up to the Renaissance frescoes by the great classical painters. The difference being that the atmosphere has remained unchanged for the last seven centuries, yet it has also felt the effects of the earthquake.
Throughout our journey we have been able to perceive to a greater or lesser extent the consequences that earthquakes have left on the buildings and the local population, and how it has united people to reconstruct the houses and surrounding buildings with their own hands.
There is no machinery here, no auxiliary equipment, not even a wheelbarrow. It is the women who carry the stones and bricks in baskets hanging from their forehead.
And after everything, perhaps the most impressive observation was how dozens of free men, without technical supervision or help of any kind, were working together to rebuild a social center. Because, for the Nepalese, the shared goal prevails over individual ones and community is more important than singularity.
I cannot imagine this mentality of submitting to the common good over private property in our civilized Europe, and yet we saw this attitude wherever we went, from the refugee camps to the urban centers.
The Nepalese people are cheerful, resolute and proud, and knowing that they have nothing, neither asks nor acts like a victim. And therein lies the key to their mental freedom.