Nepal: Photos of 2015 Earthquake in Helambu Region

The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal killed over 8,000 people and injured over 21,000. These numbers, however, don’t begin to capture the extent of the damage and the hardship the earthquake, which occurred almost exactly one year ago, has created throughout Nepal.

Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and entire villages were destroyed. The economic effects of the earthquake on both the people and the government are staggering.

Recovering from this devastating event is a slow process and will take years. Here are just a few photos of the effects of the earthquake as seen one year after it occurred during our brief trek through the Helambu region of Nepal, which was particularly hard-hit by the earthquake.

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Collapsed hotel in Chrisopani.

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Nepal: Chitwan National Park

We had just exited the narrow, pirogue-type canoe leaving the rest of the tourists to float farther down river. My guide Krishna and I climbed the bank and stood at the edge of the jungle. Krishna became suddenly serious.

“We are now entering jungle,” he began speaking in broken English. “This not our world. This animal world. Can be dangerous.” The jungle we were about to enter was not like the jungle I imagined. It was not dense Amazonian jungle or even like the jungle I had seen years ago in Costa Rica. Rather, this was more open forest with medium-high trees and low brush.

Krishna continued, “Walk close behind me and don’t make noise. If I see animal, I signal what to do. If dangerous, I signal back up and move away.” Krishna carried only a three-foot long stick for our protection. He then began to enumerate the dangers of the animals we might encounter. “Rhino have poor eyesight. Can only see close-up maybe twenty meters. But have very good smell and hearing and can run very fast. If too close, we run back quickly. If attack, try to climb tree higher than eight feet.” I looked around at prospective trees and calculated the likelihood of my being able to climb them. Of the trees sturdy enough to support my weight, none seemed to have branches appropriately spaced for climbing. Krishna continued, “If can’t climb tree, go behind big tree. Rhino can’t see. If rhino come right side, you go left side. Wait and hide until rhino pass, and then we run and hide behind other trees.” Play hide-and-seek with a two-ton Indian rhinoceros I thought.

“Wild elephant can be dangerous too,” Krishna continued. “If elephant attack, we run. Sloth bear dangerous too. For bear, we stand and make lots noise.” Okay, I think I got it—run and hide, run, and stand and make noise.

“Jungle also home to Royal Bengal tiger.” At this point, Krishna paused. Male Bengal tigers can weigh almost five hundred pounds and be ten feet long in length not including the tail; females are only slightly smaller. For some reason, purposely or otherwise, Krishna didn’t give any advice on what to do if we were attacked by a tiger.

There is something truly sobering about going into an environment where there are man-eating tigers that can potentially attack and kill you. Particularly in an underdeveloped country like Nepal where seemingly anything goes, and particularly when accompanied only by a five-foot, five-inch Nepalese guide carrying only a three-foot-long wooden stick.

After he had finished his instructions, we stepped a few feet down the trail. Krishna stopped again. “That tiger track.” I gazed at a large single dusty imprint on the trail.

This was all happening in Chitwan National Park on the southern boundary of Nepal along the Indian border. Chitwan National Park is Nepal’s first national park and encompasses more than 360 square miles. It was established in 1973 and became a World Heritage Site in 1984. It is noted for its diverse wildlife including wild elephants, rhinos, buffalo, sloth bears, deer, leopards, crocodiles, scores of different bird species, and—yes—tigers. And lest you think I exaggerate, on average four or five people are killed in the park area each year by tigers, along with a lesser number who are injured. A little more than a year ago, a woman was killed very close to where we were walking that day. Three months ago, a Dutch tourist spent two hours in a tree avoiding a tiger.

I had taken a six-hour-long bus ride to Chitwan from Pokhara. The first thing I noticed when I got off the bus was how hot and humid it was. If had taken the time to look at the weather forecast, I would have seen that temperatures were predicted to be above 100 degrees Fahrenheit all week. Sweat formed on my forehead and rolled down my face. When I mopped it up, it immediately reformed. Also, I noticed all the guides and staff at the hotel where I was staying were also hot and sweating copiously. I thought this a particularly bad sign that the local people were also hot and uncomfortable. They should be used to it I thought.

The lodge where I am staying has dozens of rooms, and sits along a narrow river with crocodiles in it. It is like camp. When I arrive, I am given an itinerary at the outdoor reception desk, where I am to meet for all the activities.

Day 1

2:15 Lunch
4:30 Tharu village + Elephant Stable Visit + Short Nature Walk
7:00 Dinner
7:45 Tharu Cultural Show

Day 2

6:30 Breakfast
7:00 Canoe Ride + Jungle Walk + Elephant Breeding Center Visit
12:00 Lunch
12:45 Jeep Safari + Crocodile Breeding Center Visit
8:00 Dinner

Day 3

7:30 Breakfast
10:30 Elephant Bath (please tip to elephant driver)
12:00 Lunch3:00 Elephant Safari
8:00 Dinner

Day 4

7:00 Breakfast
7:30 Depart

Despite all the rooms, I am told there are only two other guests staying in the lodge at this time, a Nepalese couple I have yet to see. My room is on the third floor with faded walls and mosquito netting draped above the bed.

“You got the standard room,” the host says, “so there is no air-conditioning.”

“You have a fan,” he says gesturing to the ceiling fan, “but there is no electricity.”

With that, he turns and leaves.

Promptly at 2:15 PM I arrive in the restaurant for lunch. Three or four workers are resting at the tables. Apparently I am the only one here for lunch. I get a bottle of ice-cold water from the cooler, sit alone at one of the many tables, and the waiter Bhewan brings me lunch: a small bowl of tomato soup with two wedges of white bread, chow mein, a dozen French fries and some cut-up cucumber and carrots.

After the late lunch, I go walking with my guide Krishna, who has apparently been a guide for 28 years in the park. We go several hundred meters from the hotel to the river. He points to several log-shaped objects in the river—crocodiles. There are two types of crocodiles. Gharials have long narrow snouts with fine razor-sharp teeth. The males have a bulbous growth on the tip of the snout. Gharials mainly eat fish. The other crocodile is called the mugger, which looks more like the stereotypical Australian or US crocodile. Muggers are larger (growing up to seven meters in length) and can attack humans. Indeed, a short while later as if to reinforce this point, I hear a guide telling a young woman to back away and not stand so close to the bank.

Krishna and I continue walking and pass several soldiers with rifles at the entrance to the park. For safety reasons, you are not allowed to walk alone or enter any part of the park without a guide. Krishna points out a red deer on the far bank, and then a rhinoceros with its thick armor-like grey plates lumbering and grazing in the grass fifty meters away across the small river.

Within another few minutes, we have seen a mongoose and countless different birds. Then an elephant comes wandering out of the low bush coming toward the river. Elephants are kept by the government nearby and this particular elephant is old, a 73 year old female, and she is let out and roams in the jungle during the day but every night returns to the compound, returning home as it were. We watch as she sloshes across the shallow river following a well-worn path towards the compound.

Later, we see more elephants in the compound itself. Female elephants are in small enclosures surrounded by electric fence. Male elephants, which are notably more aggressive, cannot be held by the electric fence, in part because their tusks don’t conduct electricity and they can just bash their way through the fence, so instead they are chained around both legs to giant stakes in the ground.

We pass the area where the government elephant drivers, the men who train, ride and control the elephants, live. It is a series of run-down, dirty shacks near the elephant compound. I couldn’t imagine living there. Krishna says elephant driver is a good job—but dangerous. Sometimes elephants go mad, he calls it, and without warning.

Dinner than night is similar to lunch. I eat alone at a table outside: a bowl of greasy chicken soup and two wedges of white bread, rice, potatoes and a chicken leg. It has grown dark and while I am eating, insects swarm around me. A large black beetle the size of a walnut lands on my arm. Another bug dives into the thin gravy on the plate and begins swimming around. I leave the cultural show early. There is no electricity at night back in the hotel. It is impossibly hot and humid. I sleep under a pink mosquito net, which when draped over the bed looks like a pink jellyfish.

The next morning, other tourists from other hotels and I float down the river in the narrow canoes. I don’t put my hands in the water, although I am told the water is too shallow here for crocodiles.

When Krishna and I enter the jungle, after seeing the ominous—at least for me—tiger track, we walk slowly. Soon we spot a herd of small spotted deer. Near a watering hole, there is a deep hole diving laterally into the bankside. “Crocodile live in there,” Krishna says. Then he begins pounding on the sides of the hole hoping to entice the crocodile to come out. I can see marks in the earth where the crocodile has slithered into or out of the hole. Krishna continues pounding and staring down into the hole. Nothing comes out.

A short while later a large eight-foot long snake crosses the path in front of us. But it doesn’t move slowly like the snakes I am used to. Rather, it moves very fast quickly gliding over the tops of the leaves on the forest floor, crossing the trail in front of us and disappearing behind a tree. We see a large peacock dancing spreading its tail in a small clearing.

We move slowly looking for wildlife. Krishna points out the large three-toed footprints of rhino and their giant droppings but we see no actual rhinos. Alongside a tree, Krishna stops to point to linear scrapings about six feet up the trunk. “From tiger,” Krishna says. “Tiger stand and scrape claws on tree.” He pointed off to one side on the trunk, “New ones here.” Indeed, there were some new six-inch long scrapings that looked as if someone had just done carved them out of the tree with a knife.

Krishna extends the walk because I am enjoying it so much. I seem to walk with heightened senses. I look this way and that; I stop and listen to every noise and every stirring of leaves. Occasionally, I look behind me since I’ve read that tigers attack from behind. Of course, most people aren’t aware that they are being attacked before they are attacked, but I take some consolation in my occasional furtive looks backward.

We reach the elephant breeding center of the park where baby elephants are born and cared for, and according to my understanding, eventually raised to be used by the park. The woman was killed by the tiger last year near here. The elephant moms are all chained to posts with their children chained by their sides. All the elephants make a continual rocking motion with their heads and trunks. It is sad to see them chained like this. It is incredibly hot. One of the babies is only one-month old and hides behind its mother’s ponderous legs as I pass.

At lunch, Bhewan and another waiter hover around me like vultures. I talked to both of them at some length before, but we had reached that strange impasse where their lack of English and my lack of Nepalese precluded the conversation from going any farther. Now I just want to eat. It’s weird enough eating alone in a dining room, but to have two guys making slow circles around your table and stopping, standing for a few seconds a foot from the table and then continuing on—it’s unnerving. I just want to eat. I don’t know whether it is because I was friendly and nice and no one else is, or because they are bored, or because they think this is good customer service or some combination of all the above. I set down my fork. One approaches, “Are you finished, sir?” “No,” I answer, “Everything very good,” I add. The waiter drifts away momentarily. The other one shows up over my other shoulder. I had been writing in a small notebook—actually I had brought the notebook to lunch to make it seem I was busy—and the other waiter now reads over my shoulder. “Baya weaver bird,” he says noting an entry I had made in my notebook. “Small yellow bird,” he adds.

I lower my head and continue eating giving the appearance of a man who is very hungry and very focused. Later I will talk with them more, but for now I don’t make eye contact.

In the afternoon, I go on the jeep safari. About eight of us are loaded on seats in the open bed of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and we go off into the jungle. Over the next four hours, we make a wide circuit through a section of the park. There are several Nepalese Army outposts along the route where we stop and a guard checks the vehicle’s permit. Apparently, the outposts are there to prevent poachers who are after rhino horn and elephant tusk. We are told not to take any pictures at the army outposts—I guess they are to remain secret—and that our cameras will be confiscated if we do. We see more deer and more rhinos, some of which are immersed with only their heads showing in thick slimy green water. We pass local people holding umbrellas above their heads while seated on the backs of small elephants. Much of the jungle here is thick grass, taller than a man’s head, and an easy place for tigers to hide I think. We arrive at the outdoor crocodile breeding center, which costs one hundred rupees to enter. There are various pools with different sized gharial crocodiles, the ones with the long snouts. Some of them just stand there at the pool’s edge with their mouths open. They all have those lifeless crocodile eyes that just seem to stare at you.

That night back at the hotel there is no electricity. A member of the staff comes to the door of my room as I lay sweating in the dark. I don’t use my small headlamp because it attracts the mosquitos and I am not quite ready to go under the mosquito netting yet.

“Excuse, sir,” he says, “Electricity not work tonight, here is candle.” And he proffers me a small candle and a box of matches.

The mornings are cool and nice at the hotel. I sit on my veranda and watch the birds in the trees. The baya weaver bird, previously mentioned, makes long conical hat-shaped nests in the palm trees which are just above eye level from my veranda. The nests are unique not only for the elaborate unique design, but also because the nests open downward, an adaptation presumably to prevent snakes from entering the nest. There is a nesting chamber halfway up inside the nest. The male baya weaver, whose crown becomes yellow in color during mating season, partially builds the nest and then advertises it to passing females. Females then inspect the nest, and if one finds it acceptable, the male will then complete the nest, with the female adding a few finishing touches, supposedly a glob of mud here or there.

After breakfast—fortunately several new guests have arrived and the waiters are busy with them—I go to bathe the elephants. This turns out to be perhaps the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Down at the river, about ten elephants are in the water with their drivers. All the drivers have either sticks or metal rods that they use to poke and control the elephants. The drivers continually speak harsh commands to the elephants and the elephants obey: standing, walking, stopping and flopping down on their sides in the water. The drivers, most are young, balance themselves standing on the backs of the elephants. When the drivers are in the water and want to get on the elephant’s back, they give a command and the elephant lowers its trunk, the driver steps on the trunk and is lifted upward. The driver then steps onto the elephant’s head and from there onto the elephant’s back. Despite the continual yelling at the elephants, the drivers truly seem to love their animals and most have broad smiles on their faces as they alternately caress the animals and command the huge beasts to do such things as lie on their sides in the shallow river. The elephants seem to enjoy their time in the water also.

It is my turn to sit on an elephant’s back. I strip down to my shorts and enter the river. One of the elephants lies on its side and I grab the rope around its neck (almost like the rope you might see around an animal’s neck at a rodeo), and hoist myself onto the elephant’s back just behind its head. The driver yells his commands and the elephant rises up out of the water. The elephant’s skin is very thick with scattered coarse long black hairs. The driver then gives a command and the elephant lowers its trunk, fills it with water and sprays the water backward at me over the top of its head soaking me. This is repeated numerous times to the delight of the elephant driver and those watching from shore. After a period of time, I am let down and the whole process is repeated with other guests. When everyone is done, we spend some time alongside the elephant, which is now laying on its side in the water. Its trunk is submerged; occasionally the double-nostril tip breaks the surface and sucks in air. The elephant driver uses a rock to rub and remove the mud on the elephant’s skin. We help. The elephant seems to enjoy this or at least tolerates it. I spend a long time with the elephant in the water. The driver than lifts the elephant’s giant feet (more yelling at the elephant presumably “lift your feet, lift your feet”) and with his metal spike digs rocks from the elephant’s feet. Actually the drivers all command the elephants in Hindi, apparently the universal elephant-command language.

After lunch is the elephant safari. A jeep picks up tourists like myself from various hotels and takes us a short distance outside of town where there are platforms a dozen feet off the ground. Four in a group, we climb rickety ladders and wait on the tops of our platforms. An elephant, the driver sitting across its neck, backs up to the platform and we climb aboard sitting on a smaller platform on the elephant’s back, each of us straddling with our legs one of the vertical uprights of the platform. The elephant then takes off. It is a rolling rocking motion, and not particularly fast. There are dozens of other elephants in our group each with four people on their back along with their driver, and we all take off toward another smaller river, first passing a booth perched on stilts where the driver hands a ticket to someone in the booth. It is pleasant and part of the fun is just looking at the whole elephant army moving haphazardly—each driver picks his own route—through the undergrowth toward the river. The elephants stop in the river and spray their underbellies and sides with water, then we move into the jungle. Again, it is not an unpleasant way to travel, and the rolling motion has a calming effect. Occasionally, an elephant will snatch a branch with its trunk as it goes by and eat. We go up and down small hills; branches scrape past on either side. My particular party is generally quiet pointing out birds to one another. We see more deer, and a crocodile half submerged in a pool. After several hours, we arrive back where we started and disembark. The jeep brings us back to our hotels.

There is still an hour or so before sunset. The sky has been hazy my whole time in Chitwan. I rent an ancient bicycle in town, 70 rupees or 70 cents for one hour, and pedal around the dusty streets of the town, then go a short distance out into the countryside where people tend fields. The sun coalesces into an orange blur near the horizon before settling into the jungle.

That night back at the hotel, we have electricity for an hour. I run the fan at full speed lying spread-eagled on the bed feeling as if I am beneath the prop of an airplane. In the morning, I take the long bus ride back to Pokhara.

Nepal: Ghorepani Ghandruk Trek

One of the most popular short treks in Nepal is the Ghorepani Ghandruk Circuit Trek also known as Poon Hill because of the scenic vistas of the Himalayas seen at sunrise from the hilltop of that name partway through the trek. Although generally billed as a 4-5 day trek, I had a plane to catch in five days, so I decided to only do part of the trek, and come back the same way I started, or only if I felt particularly strong, complete the whole circuit in fewer days. I was also a bit tentative hiking alone in Nepal—what if I got hurt days from anywhere?

Rebecca, my wife, was already heading back to the US—her luggage was lost somewhere in the Middle East—and I was alone in Nepal. I know there are many brave souls out there, but at least for me, there was something a little scary about trekking alone in the Himalayas while the only people who knew me or cared about me were half way around the globe. I would have to be careful.

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Yeti

“What’s your favorite area in Nepal to go trekking in?” I asked Nema, our guide, as we walked along the trail one day. Nema has been trekking in Nepal since 1972, working first as a porter and now as a guide.

“Upper Mustang,” he answers.

The Upper Mustang area of Nepal is a very remote, highly-restricted area where few travellers go. It is one of the few remaining bastions of un-touched, indigenous culture in Nepal. The majority of the scattered population there speak traditional Tibetan language. Some pictures of the area show it to be a dry, almost moon-like environment with giant formidable mountains reaching skyward.

“What’s it like?” I ask him.

“No trees,” he says and then pauses for a second. “Long time ago, people in Mustang live in caves in mountains. They dig holes in mountain to live to protect from animals. Animals eat them.”

“What kind of animals?”

He gives a single, terse one-word answer—“Yeti.”

It takes me a moment to recognize the word he’s saying and he repeats it several times. “Yeti.”

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Nepal: Bus Ride from Melamchi Bazar to Kathmandu

At 7:30 AM, we board the city bus at the bus park in Melamchi Bazar. Bus park means that there are also several other buses parked there all looking in a similar state of disrepair as the one we have just boarded. In fact, off to one side, men are working on a large truck. They have removed one of the bolts holding the leaf springs on one of the back wheels. Now one man is underneath the giant truck bracing his back against the leaf spring to force it upward while two other men with short, ineffectual tools attempt to bolt it in place. Another man attempts to pound the bolt into place with a rock.

On the other side of the road, a woman is bathing a child next to the water spigot. Another woman is stooped down washing pots and pans. A man stops by and splashes water on his face and drinks some of the water and then walks on.

A man dragging a small herd of goats with cords around their necks passes.

Despite the relatively early hour, it is already hot and dusty. A haze hangs over the low foothills surrounding the town.

We are fortunate to be a few of the first people on the bus since this is its starting point for the six-hour ride. Rebecca and I clamber into the front seat of the bus just behind the door and jam our small daypacks at our feet. Perhaps a dozen people have filed onto the bus now. The driver starts the engine. It resists starting for a few moments but then catches. Then with a great grinding and crunching of metal on metal, the driver jams the bus into gear and we jerk forward lurching down the pot-holed dirt street.

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Jalan Alor

Jalan Alor, a famed street noted for its numerous outdoor restaurants serving Malaysian and Chinese food and its carnival atmosphere, is located in the so-called Golden Triangle in the Bukit Bintang district of Kuala Lumpur. Nothing could quite prepare us for the experience of Jalan Alor particularly after New Zealand; by comparison, New Zealand seemed staid and painted in muted tones, while Malaysia was all vibrant colors, sounds and smells.

During the day, Jalan Alor looks almost like any other streets in bustling Kuala Lumpur. But at night it comes alive with wall-to-wall people and a sensory extravaganza of sights, sounds, tastes and smells.

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Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Working our way back to the United States after our two wondrous years in New Zealand, we stopped in Kuala Lumpur for two days. Just outside the city are a series of limestone caves and cave temples most well-known for a enormous (140-foot tall) statue of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity, which dominates the entrance to the largest cave.

A 35-minute train ride from central Kuala Lumpur cost us 2.9 ringgits (USD $.70) each.

Throngs of people come to the site daily. After New Zealand, it was like sensory overload: Indian women in colorful saris, Malaysian women carrying parasols to block the sun, Moslem women often in full black burkas.

Hindu temples with colorful, garish effigies of Hindu gods are scattered throughout the cave area while macaques, a type of monkey, ply the area looking for handouts.

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Famed statue of Lord Murugan at Batu Caves.

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Monkey near entrance looking for handouts.

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Souvenirs for sale.

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Close-up of roof of one of the shrines.

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Brooms

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Hindu calendar.

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Offering lamps in front of one of the temples.

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One of the temples inside the main cave -veiled sunlight from cave opening far above.

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Detail of one of the other temples inside main cave.

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Large statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, the perfect embodiment of devotion and service in the Ramayana.

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In Hannuman’s heart is forever enshrined Ram, an incarnation of God, and his wife Sita.

All photos by the author.