THE PASSAGE OF TIME

In September 1992 I planned to visit Nepal with my friend Fergus Kinmonth. The plan was to meet up with Dominic Sass and D’arcy Lodel (two former British Army Gurkha officers) and trek up to Annapurna base camp. Dominic and D’Arcey left by an earlier plane PIA Flight 268 on September 28th. Unfortunately they crashed into a mountain and none of the 167 people on board survived. By tragic coincidence a former college friend of mine Deborah Leon was also on that flight, but I didn’t know that until I saw the list of victims. Fergus and I went to Dominic’s lodge in Birethanti via Pokhara and spent time with his relatives.

After a few days we set off up the Annapurna trail, by this time time I was suffering with a violent stomach upset, which with my poor reaction to altitude forced me to turn back just before Annapurna sanctuary. After a few days recovering in Pokhara and Kathmandu some friends of mine from Los Angeles asked me if I wanted to travel with them up the Langtang Valley. I guess they felt sorry for me that I had missed out on Annapurna. So with just a few days before I had to return to London we set off to Langtang.

Now in all honesty I am not the perfect trekker because I keep needing to stop get my sketch book out and draw the landscape. These interruptions combined with my retro style trekking gear ( woollens, oil skins and ludicrously heavy boots ) meant that I was always the last person to arrive at a destination and all the beds in the lodge were already taken.

By the time I arrived in Langtang I was totally exhausted. Just short of the village I had laid down in a quiet meadow for a while, I told myself, and I dozed off on my back spread eagle over my backpack. When I woke up I noticed that a group of vultures had started circling over me. I dozed off again and woke up to find they had landed about 20 yards to my right. “Mmm Interesting I thought”, but I was too tired to move. It was only when they started hopping towards me, putting on napkins and saying their grace that I realised I had no choice but to get up and carry on.

When I arrived in Langtang I was in such a bad way that I was put under the house with a hot water bottle and surrounded by hanging Yak carcasses. And everyone above me was running a book on whether I would be alive in the morning. When the next day dawned I arouse to find myself surrounded by snow-capped mountains and set about sketching. I was so restored by the extra ordinary landscape that I hardly noticed the walk up the Kyging Gongpah. Here the small village was enclosed by the most amazing snow-capped peaks and glaciers. I spent the morning avidly photographing and sketching.

At lunchtime I realised that I had three days left before my plane left Kathmandu for London. So I had to set off back down the trail. Although I am a very poor climber there is something about the way my legs are strung that makes me an exceptional descender.

So much so, that by 6 am the next morning I emerged bleary eyed from a Land Rover outside my hotel in Kathmandu. So it was that I could return to England having had my mountain experience.

Some months later I had a very successful exhibition of my watercolours at Godalmimg Museum entitled “Surviving Nepal”. For years following Langtang was in my mind a place of great beauty. I found a way of depicting the mountains in very large watercolours.

In the early Spring of 2014 I travelled to New Zealand to visit my sister and my nephew Dave, who at the time was living in Queenstown at the centre of the New Zealand Alpine district. What is more Dave was in the car-hire business, so he managed to get me a 4×4 at half price. So after the obligatory Bungy Jump at AJ Hackett I set off to paint the mountains in New Zealand.

I found Glenorchy exceptionally beautiful although somewhat tainted by its association with “The Lord of the Rings”. None the less I learned how to do mountains in Oil paint.

In the spring of 2016 I had an exhibition of paintings at the “Richmond Hill Gallery” and one painting in particular proved to be a great success. “Aoraki”( the Maori name for Mount Cook )

sold for 9.5 thousand pounds the day before the exhibition opened and 2 hours later someone came in also wanting to buy it.

Suddenly the gallery expressed an interest in more mountain pictures from me. I searched on the Internet for Langtang and was horrified to learn that the whole village had been destroyed by a landslide a year earlier, the very time that I had been painting in New Zealand. I donated some of the money from the “Aoraki” sale, to a charity run by a former Langtang resident Pasang Bhuti, as a gift from one mountain to another.

The charity was collecting photographs of Langtang residents. I sent a photograph that I had taken in 1992 of 3 girls who had been working in fields close to Langtang village.

They approached me with a fairly forceful request for some chocolate. Pasang Bhuti contacted me immediately, with news that two of the girls were alive and that when I visit Nepal I should stay with Neema and her family to help them prepare for the coming winter. In my minds eye I imagined myself trowel in hand, helping her build their house. I thought she and her family would be living under a tarpaulin waiting for me to come and rescue them with my building skills. But when I eventually managed to wheeze my way up the valley, her house had already been built. She and her husband Lama Tenzing had been buried and badly injured by the landslide. But within a few short months they had rebuilt their house and were able to offer three double rooms to passing trekkers.

Neema also had a small shop offering essentials to visitors such as lavatory paper, chocolate bars and fiercely strong cigarettes. She turned out to be the tallest woman in the valley with a very powerful voice. Her one vice was taking snuff, strictly for medicinal purposes you understand. When I tried it I felt as if my ears were being blown off!

Neema was very flattered that such an obviously unfit old man should have travelled all the way from London to give her a framed photograph and a long awaited bar of chocolate. Lama Tenzing noted the bond forming between us and and asked me one afternoon if I liked Tibetan women. I replied that I did. They were strong, attractive and hard working. Whats not to like? Then he said that I could have Neema because he had grown tired of her and anyway he had plenty of younger women up the valley who took care of his needs on a regular basis. Neema glared at him and he retreated into the yard and started kicking a few stones around. OMG! He was serious! I retired for a quick nap to mull the whole thing over. When I emerged I told him that I was sad that he felt that way about Neema, after all they had gone through. They grinned at me and said they had been joking.

Coming from London I a familiar with the concept of what we call “The wind-up” but these people were in a whole different league!
Slowly I realised that this was more than a trick, it was a test of my character. If I had said: “whoopee! have her scrubbed and sent to my room forth with” I would have failed the test. As it was I had earned Lama Tenzing’s trust.
So much so that he volunteered to talk about their experiences in the landslide to camera.

Norgay, Langtang’s former school teacher and my mountain guide had told me that many documentaries film crews had tried to get interviews with Langtang survivors, but had been met with an extremely hostile reaction, because they had wanted to exploit the grief of the survivors.

But the message I wanted to put over in this film was that Langtang is open for business. The Lamas talk as he sat with Neema as his side was very powerful and moving.Although he speaks in Tibetan, Neema listened and provided a translation of his words into raw emotion. At times she directs lens shattering angry looks at the camera. Emily our camera woman did well to keep the camera running.

A couple of minutes after we switched off the camera the valley echoed with a landslide on the opposite hill side. The falling rocks sounded like a slow recording of clashing snooker balls. Lama Tenzing smiled reassuringly and said that it was only a small one. Tshomo (a Langtang landslide orphan and niece of Neema) had travelled with me up the valley. She had been my city guide in Kathmandu and asked me if I would be her father.

I said yes of course but deep down suddenly felt my age. I was no longer the 32 year old Adonis who was here in 1992 but a father figure. I asked her what she wanted to do when she had finished her studies. She replied that she wanted to be a nurse and was getting top marks in her science subjects at college. I said that in that case why didn’t she want to study to be a doctor. Her face fell and she said that doctor training was too expensive for her.

Tshomo on this journey was coming to terms with the loss of her parents. I was pleased to see how her mood lightened as she meet friends from her past and learned the latest news. Neema was very pleased to see her.

Over the past 20 years many Langtang children had left the Valley to study in Kathmandu. The children are of course the lifeblood of the local community, so it was good to see them coming home if only for the school holidays. In the evening there was much singing and merriment. Tshomo was particularly good at satirising the Chinese militaristic style of singing. One morning Tshomo, Neema and myself set out across the landslide towards Kyanjin Gompa.

The stark white boulder field had flags marking each death. It is a place of great sadness and desolation but Tshomo, walking at Neema side, showed great courage.

About halfway to Kyanjin Gompa we stopped for lunch at Tsering Dolma’s house, she is a sister of Neema and one of the other girls in my photograph. I presented her with the photo and of course the chocolate. (pic 13) She was so pleased and particularly pleased to see Tshomo.

She and her family were busy building two beautify houses with ornately carved wooden doors and windows in the traditional style.

Then on we went to Kyanjin, stopping for tea with yet more relatives. On cresting the hill before Kyanjin I was suddenly confronted with a vision of metropolitan utopia. In 1992 there had been only 8 o 9 single story houses. Now they had been replaced by 3 or 4 story hotels their giant solar panels glistening in the afternoon sun.
I was ushered to a hotel run by yet more close family of Neema and wouldn’t you know they actually had a sit on lavatory and hot showers! I fell asleep on my bed exhausted. In he night the sky was clear and I leaned out of my window to see the mountains looming high above the valley.

The following day dawned bright and clear, after a good breakfast I set out to sketch, I wanted to find the places I had sketched on my previous trip. This vision had haunted my dreams for the past 25 years.

The monastery, set above the village stood against the most beautiful mountain background, but was sadly still in ruins after the earthquake. Its hallowed precincts had been encroached on by the construction of two small hotels.
Thousands of prayer flags fluttered in the wind where in the past a couple of hundred where deemed enough to hold back the mountains.

At the head of the valley stood the mountain called Gangchempo, but from this vantage point it seems to be further away than it had been when we saw it from further down the valley. From Mundu, it is possible to see the whole mountain, but here it is dwarfed and obscured by surrounding peaks.

Norgay told me of a traditional story in which a King and Queen were travelling up the valley. The Queen became disheartened at how Gangchempo seemed to be further away the closer they got to it. She blamed her husband for this. I imagined her saying “Its your fault, I should have listened to my mother she always said you were no good. Honestly when I think of all the other princes I could have married,” etc.

After a couple of days of sketching I set off back to the home comforts of Neema’s house. I set off early and descended at a respectable rate, stopping for lunch at Tsering Dolma’s.
After lunch Dolma’s daughters; Tupten and Bhuti volunteered to take turns carrying my backpack down to Neemas in exchange for a coupe of Snickers bars. As we traversed the boulder field at Langtang, the girls started photographing each other doing movie star glamour poses.

At first I felt that this was a bit disrespectful but when I realised that this was about new life, regeneration. These girls were blossoming like the small plants that were beginning to grow between the boulders of the landslide.

Tears were replaced by smiles and new hopes for the future. Langtang was indeed back in business.

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