“Sewa,” says a young dimpled-faced girl as she straddles her schoolbooks close to her chest and walks through a field of tall millet that almost hide her face. Buffalos munch on grass and inquisitively look on with big brown eyes. Roosters crow to the high sun, and a queue of mules navigate the rocky footpath, carrying heavy loads of rice and flour from one village to the next, on their way to Namche on the Everest trail.
From across the valley, the constant sound of flowing water can be heard from the Hongu River and the many waterfalls that topple their way down mountain faces and ridges. The blue roofs of houses are scattered amongst the fields and the forest is thick and lush from the recent monsoonal downfall. As the sun descends, the soft scent of burning wood can be smelt from each homes’ fireplace.
This is the exquisitely remote region of Eastern Nepal known as the Mahakulung, where the people smile in the face of unbelievable hardship and without hesitation, offer you the food of their crops, endless cups of tea, and even their modest beds, choosing to sleep on the mud floor instead if it means you will be comfortable.
This is the home of the Kulung people, an Indigenous ethnic group yet to be officially recognised by the Nepalese government for their ancestral connection to this land and to each other.
Yet, it takes one smile, one handshake, one gaze into another’s eyes to sense that this community is unique. That this community has seen, lived and felt some of the highest of highs and some of the lowest of lows …
It’s taken me a few weeks since returning from Nepal to wrap words around this experience, and I’m afraid, I’m still going to come up short, but that’s ok. This isn’t my story, this is the Kulung’s, and in time we will have a documentary filled with their stories told their way.
For now though, I will share a five-part series of stories reflecting on the making of Carrying Everest to take you on the journey.
It begins with walking and it ends with walking…
If you want to go to school, you walk. If you need to see a doctor, you walk. If you want to work, you walk.
And that’s how our journey began. It takes two full days on foot from Salleri where the road ends before you reach Khorodo, the first village of Mahakulung after crossing the Dipli bridge.
And this journey is not for the faint-hearted. There are steep, treacherous climbs up and down rocks and mud traversing valleys, waterfalls and rainforests. During our 26 days on the trail, it rained more often than not because the monsoon continued well beyond the season, with farmers hardest hit by the affects of climate change. When it wasn’t raining, the sun board down on us, reaching temperatures of 25-30 degrees.
And there were leeches. Lots of leeches.
Once you enter the Mahakulung, you realise just how far away from the rest of Nepal (make that the world!) you are. There is no reception, very limited power and basic sanitation facilities. Houses are few and far between, except in the main Village Development Committees (know as VDC’s) of Sotang, Bung, Chheskam and Gudel.
And there is one lone path where everything enters and everything leaves.
No wider than a one-metre in width, this path IS the road, IS the river, IS the life source for the region. It brings people, animals, trade and (very little) tourism in and out of the Mahakulung, and always has. There are no cars, bikes, trains or planes.
There are just the feet upon which you stand.
Women and men, the elderly and children, carry huge piles of grass, rocks, sticks, steel – anything that is required in this area – on their backs within baskets that have a strap, which rest on their forehead.
The challenges are vast and geographical isolation is one of the main reasons.
We interviewed a lady in her 60’s who had been bitten by a snake twice on her foot the week earlier when she was farming. “It hurts. I can’t walk on my foot without it hurting… It’s hard. I live alone down the valley near the river. My family took me to the village clinic to clean it, but for medicine, I must go to the hospital and that’s a three to four day walk away from Chheskam. I can’t walk that far. I can’t afford the medicine. I still have to work on the farm.”
We met with a 22 year old porter who has carried loads as much as 90kg since the age 15 to support his family and now wife and two-year-old son. “I remember the first trek I went on and the whole time I wanted to stop. I didn’t want to carry the load anymore. My back, neck and head ached, but I knew I didn’t have a choice… It’s easier now. I’m away from my family for sometimes very long periods if there is work. It’s dangerous work. I want to be manager. Maybe of a hotel, or work in an office. I don’t want to do this forever.”
We spoke to a mother with four children all under the age of 13 years who lost her husband in an avalanche when he was portering close to Mira Peak during the earthquakes that shook Nepal last year. “I worry all the time. I can’t sleep because I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford to pay for my children to go to school. To find work, I must leave the Mahakulung and work as a cleaner in a tea house or sell produce at the markets in Namche.”
But then there are these stories…
We spoke with a loom business owner who lost his mother as a child and was poorly cared for by his father and had very little clothing. As a child he dreamed of having clothing to keep him warm and clean, and wanted to do the same for other kids in his community. “That’s why I started my loom business. It took me three weeks to transport all the equipment from Kathmandu to Chheskam, and now I have 28 staff who create traditional Kulung clothing for our community. I love my community.”
We chatted with a porter who is nicknamed the ‘champion porter’ among his friends because he has worked as a porter for more than 20 years, summiting several peaks and has never had an injury or fallen sick, carrying loads heavier than most with as little as a grimace. I asked him if he dreamed of a different future and he laughed. “I like portering. It worries my wife all the time because it is very dangerous, but I love being up among the mountains with my friends. I’ve always been a porter.”
The opportunity and exploitation run parallel in every story and every encounter.
I can’t help but feel that separation from the humdrum of the modern world has protected the Kulung in a way. From the corruption, greed and depression that are inevitable battles that come in tow with progress and development in many other societies.
This place, the Mahakulung, is unlike anywhere I have been before and I can confidently say, unlike anywhere else I will go again because to be honest, I’m not sure if there is anywhere else left like here in the world.
And steeped in the essence of what threads a community together.
Despite the challenge, there is respect, integrity and pride for what it means to be Kulung, in every smile, handshake and gaze.
This story is first of a five-part series sharing our experiences creating Carrying Everest alongside the Kulung community. Stay tuned for the next one! Support and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
**Sewa is a the Kulung greeting for hello, which means ‘I honour your soul.’
** Words by Leah Davies
**Photography by Jason Di-Candilo