Mahakulung: A Place to Visit

A guest blog by Michael Fueschle

Mahakulung, an ancient Kulung territory located close to the southern slopes of Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is known as Lower Everest to the western trekkers.  Fourteen years ago, while doing his porter job in the Everest region, a school boy called Dilip S. Kulung met Mr. Michael Fuechsle, teacher (now retired) from Germany. Mr. Michael has been investing his effort to support the Mahakulung people since the 2015 earthquake. In last October, Mr. Michael made his first ever visit to Chheskam with 3 more respected trustees; Mrs. Helen Crook, Mr. Paul Crook & Mr. Charles Barton from the UK.

“15-Hour Jeep Ride from Hell“ and “Unpaved Road to Nirvana” are two reports about the trip from KTM to Salleri to be found in the Internet. Fortunately, when we left KTM at about 6 in the morning on Oct.11, we had no idea of what was lying ahead of us. The last monsoon clouds gave way for a short glimpse of the snow-clad mountains, before we engaged on the road following the Sun-Koshi River. We were making good progress on the partly newly tarmacked road, until the winding roads were increasingly blocked by small landslides, the tarmac was gone, yet our attention was centred on the beautiful scenery each new bend offered. But then the “turning-point”: two bikers told us the road ahead was unpassable – which meant we had to fall back on our track for two hours and go south towards the Indian border in a long loop.

The rain had left its traces: roads flooded and partly swept away, mudslides and blocks of all sizes on and along the road. When we finally stopped at around 21h, we were shocked to hear it was “only about 100 to 120km more” to go! Glad we couldn’t make out the abyss on the left or right and all the other obstacles we passed in the darkness, we fell into a kind of half-sleep, half nightmare, and we could only just admire the unrelenting stamina, caution and surety of our driver who, when we woke up from our stupor, had safely taken us to our lodge in Salleri after 20(!) hours of driving!

Having seen the devastating effects the 2015 earthquake had left not only in Kathmandu, but still more so in some rural parts of the country, many people in Germany and all over the world felt urged to contribute their share to help. Dilip was among those who directly organised a campaign immediately after the disaster by purchasing 3000 tents and tarpaulins for the people affected in Chheskam and two other communities of the Mahakulung region. To support his efforts some of his friends abroad collected and sent money, and my friends and I were happy to contribute our share. During my visit in October I was astounded to see how successful the local residents have been in their reconstruction work: in stark contrast to Kathmandu, nearly all the houses and most schools have been restored or newly built with infinite skill and hard labour.

As a former secondary-school teacher with 40 years of experience, I know how important it is for teachers to motivate the students’ work with interesting material. But I also know how needy the schools in Nepal are with respect to basic equipment. It was therefore a natural idea to provide the schools in Chheskam with some desperately needed stuff to support teachers and students in their daily work, but also give them the chance to relax and entertain themselves with sports equipment and some games. What our porters took there in October can only just be a beginning – more material will always be welcome!

After our long jeep ride to Salleri, we were happy to finally “foot it” to Chheskam – but then we found out that it was harder than we had thought: the paths turned out to be a never-ending series of steps of various height so that we were forced to carefully watch every single step we made, certainly not an experience for the common European ‘Nordic-Walker’! But the ups and downs also gave us many occasions to catch our breath and look around to admire the fantastic scenery: fairy-tale forests alternating with lush fields of rice, millet and corn in their rich autumn colours interspersed with the white and blue of the newly-restored houses and the snow-clad mountains in the background– what a spectacle, when the rain finally ceased and the sun made the landscape shine like a splendid painting!

To the common European traveller the settlements come as a kind of surprise: they are hard to ‘see’ as villages, as the farms and sheds are not built closely around each other, but are widely dispersed across the fields and terraces piling up for hundreds of metres of altitude – what an incredible challenge for the farmers tilling the soil, ploughing and sowing and harvesting the produce in these little patches without any of the machinery that we know! And yet: wherever you go, you are always greeted with a friendly “Namaste” be it by elderly farmers with a huge load on their backs or young children hardly able to walk on their own – and they all seem to be smiling all the time: on a day’s hike you most certainly see more smiles than during a whole week here in Europe! This alone makes it worth travelling to Nepal and the beautiful Mahakulung region!

The Making of Carrying Everest # 1: A Sense of Place

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Untouched.


Physically unforgiving.


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

The Hero of Chheskam

A guest blog by Tonya Dreher

Adhish article 2In October of 2015, I took a team of 7 people to trek to Everest Base Camp to raise money for my charity, the Hope for Gus Foundation.  The trek raised over $50,000 and exposed us all to a country beautiful beyond words.

Nepal was only 6 months out from the devastating earthquake of April of that year, and we almost canceled our trip.  In the end, we decided to go because we knew that the country desperately needed what little we could add to their tourist industry and economy after that horrific event.  We knew the people were suffering, and we weren’t at all sure what our experience would be like, in light of the recent tragedy.

What we experienced was beyond our wildest expectations. The mountains of the Himalayas are breathtaking, unlike anything we had ever seen.  But it was the people of Nepal, specifically those in the Everest region, that made all the difference.

We flew into the village of Lukla, at the foot of the Himalayas, on a foggy morning.  We had to take helicopters, as it was too dangerous to take an airplane.  One of our guides, Dev, was with us.  He is from the Langtang region of Nepal, north of the Kathmandu Valley.  He told us that we would be greeted by our second guide and the porters in Lukla.

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We were warmly greeted by a young man in a red down coat, with a huge smile and handshakes all around.  His name was Adhish and he was from the village of Chheskam in the Solukhumbu District in the Sagarmatha Zone of north-eastern Nepal. Our porters were also from that same region.  We later learned that their villages were not accessible by car, and they had walked for several days to be with us on our trek.

And so we began, walking for 6 hours that first day.  The porters scampered on ahead of us, to deposit our luggage at the tea house, and make sure our rooms were ready when we arrived.  Adhish walked in front of us, setting the pace.

Unfortunately, the bags for 2 of our team members had been left at the airport in KTM.  Dev was on the phone most of the day, trying to figure out how to get their gear to them.  When we reached our lodge for the night, in Phakding, he told us that the bags were finally in Lukla, sent out on the last plane of the day.

Adhish spoke rapidly with the porters and suddenly, the youngest, Utum, sprinted back down the trail.  We asked where in the world he was going!  Adhish laughed, “To get the bags, of course!”

That young man must have run the entire way, as he was back with the bags and a smile by bedtime. We asked how we could compensate him for working 3 times as hard as he had expected to that day.  Our guides said, “Our clients are our priority.  We are here to take care of you.”  The men whose bags he had brought slipped him some rupees anyway.

As the days flew by and we got closer to Everest base Camp, I began to notice some things regarding the interactions of the Nepalese on the trail.  Dev was very well acquainted with the lodge owners, as he has been guiding for years.  But Adhish….it was as if he was a celebrity!  Almost every porter or guide we passed called out his name and came over to shake his hand and exchange a few words. When we stopped for the night, he would often slip off to visit a friend who had a shop or a house in the village.

Adhish is only 23 years old.  So young, from a Western standpoint.  But here he was, taking excellent care of a group of unexperienced Americans on the EBC trail, and socializing like the mayor!

One morning I discovered that the zipper on my duffle was broken.  I had resigned myself to buying a new bag, when Adhish went running out into the village.  He was back within a few minutes with some kind of tool and a new zipper and my bag was fixed!

I could see now how valuable Adhish was to Dev on these treks.  He knew people in every village and could get things done.

I had spent quite a bit of time talking with Adhish on this journey, so I finally had to ask him, “How is it that you know so many people?”

He laughed.  “These are my people. Didi (affectionate name meaning older sister)!  We are the Kulung.”Adhish article

 

I later learned that the Kulung are an indigenous people in Nepal, living close to Everest in the Sagarmatha Zone. The Kulung community is one of the most isolated ethnic groups in the country. They live in remote hilly areas, and have very little access to drivable roads, and basic necessities like health services and even clean water.  Most of the Kulung are farmers (as is Adhish’s father), but the land is not very amenable to growing food.

In recent history, they have had to leave their homes to work in the tourist areas, mostly as porters, carrying back-breaking loads up the mountain.  Adhish told me that he started working as a porter at age 14!  Many of the make porters we saw were in their 50’s or 60’s and the idea of someone doing this difficult work for decades is unimaginable.

They are not all as lucky as Adhish, securing occasional guide jobs.  Or perhaps it is not luck, but his charm and industrious nature that has helped him move up in the trekking industry. But even Adhish has limited opportunities.

When I asked him what his dream for the future was he said that he wanted to be a full time lead trekking guide – but that it was probably not possible.  He said his English is not good enough and he cannot go back to school, as his family could not afford it.

I could see that this was the fate of most Kulung men and women working on Everest.  They are the backbone of the trekking industry in this region, but their pay is abysmal. However, they cannot move up in the industry without education (first aid and English classes etc…), and they cannot take time away from work because they must provide for their families.

One final recent option is for young men and women to go live and work in Malaysia, sending money home.  However, conditions are poor there and it can be a dangerous gamble.  Communication with their families back in Nepal can be limited, and some never hear from their sons and daughters again after they leave to work in a Malaysian factory.

Adhish told me that his older brother was currently in Malaysia, because he has a wife and young children to support. At this point, I had spent 3 weeks with this young man and felt very connected to him.  I made him promise me that he would not go to seek work there also.

“Don’t worry, Ama! (He had moved from calling me sister, to Mama) I am a mountain boy!”

And that he is. Scampering over the trails like a goat, respectfully helping and greeting everyone he meets, and always with a smile on his face and hope for his future.

I was fascinated by the stories and the fate of the Kulung people, so I was thrilled when Adhish invited me to come back to Nepal and visit his family in Chheskam.

I will return this coming July, so this story is to be continued…….

Changing Seasons in Mahakulung

Chheskam, as viewed from Gudel

By Dilip Kulung

At the end of February, my people start preparing for the change in season. We gather firewood to cook meals and Himalayan bamboo to roof our homes. We build sheds for our pet animals and collect cooking items like salt, oil and sugar, which we cannot produce ourselves. Once we have collected and managed all necessary items for the approaching Summer, those that are physically capable head to the Everest region in search of a trekking job in early March.

The Kulung, one of Gurkha clan, are famous worldwide for being warriors of strength yet poor by wealth. You can guarantee that a Kulung will be smiling despite their hardship and the huge weight they carry on their shoulders while on the Everest trails. The ancestral home of the Kulung people is called the Mahakulung, which lies in the lap of Mount Everest. I love my home and honestly believe it looks like a piece of heaven in the summer season, surrounded by green farming lands and rolling hills.

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In Spring, most parts of the Mahakulung look dry, but some parts are decorated by Himalayan blooming flowers like Rhododendrons and Orchids. Because Spring season is not too busy for farming, some of the Kulung women can be seen knitting traditional clothing on a large loom outside their houses. Anyone who is physically able is most likely on the Everest trails at this time. Only children and the elderly remain at home.

During Spring, my people bring their pet animals from the jungle to their field because it creates good dung manure for farming. You will hear people on the fields and at the sheds singing traditional songs in groups or by themselves. Hundreds of warbling birds join in adding to the joy.

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By May, the Mahakulung valley looks green again as millets, maize, potatoes, wheat and barley mature. In June and July, Mahakulung looks so green as this is Summer season for us. My people are so busy during this time doing agriculture work. The Kulung will come back from the Everest trekking trails to assist their family members with their farming activities.

The Mahakulung has countless natural resources provided by our hilltops and worldwide known snow-capped mountains, from our meadows to our dense forests, including many important medicinal plants. But unfortunately, this area remains highly isolated from modern-day facilities. It’s time for more people learn about our piece of heaven.

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Photo Essay: Solukhumbu and Mahakulung

The Dzi Foundation recently posted an amazing photo essay of the very villages at the centre of Carrying Everest. Many of the photos were taken by our friend Heema Rai, who has contributed many of the photos used on this website.

Take the time to view some of these amazing photos from such a rarely-photographed region and see where the Carrying Everest crew will be heading in 6 months.

https://dzi.exposure.co/twentybridges

Dilip’s Story

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Dilip Kulung is a committed social activist who has been working the past 12 years to empower his people, the Kulung.

He was born and raised in Chheskam in Eastern Nepal, a village just a few kilometres south of Mount Everest in the territory called the Mahakulung.

The Mahakulung is geographically one of the most beautiful places in the world – perched at the earth’s summit – but is also the ancestral home of the Kulung people who are a hidden and marginalised Nepalese ethnic group who are not yet legally recognised by the Nepalese government.

The Makakulung encompasses the Hongu valley in the Lower Everest region, comprising of the Gudel, Chheskam, Bung and Sotang villages, and is home to more than 21,000 people. Twice a year for the bi-annual trekking season, the Kulung leave their homes for up to three months during March – May and September – November to work as porters, cooks, house workers and vendors to support the Everest trekking industry.

“The Kulung are physically capable of carrying large loads – nearly as much their own body weight – on their backs at high altitudes. They also typically do domestic work in different hotels on the way to Everest Basecamp and run small trades on the same trail to Everest.”

They do as much as 80% of the labour in the Everest region, but have not been rewarded with increased affluence or livelihoods.

Instead, they live in the shadows of Everest and the recent earthquakes, which almost wiped these villages off the map, have proven this even more so to be true.

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“My people live a simple life. We live in a remote and highly isolated area away from the rest of the world and are not accessible by road. It can take some two days to reach our villages,” explained Dilip.

“We are the major pillar for Everest tourism industry, but unfortunately, we are treated as the mountain’s slave,” Dilip explained.

“We face many challenges including high rates of poverty, vast unemployment, an unproductive farming system, a poor education set up, environmental threats and unsatisfactory healthcare. Despite all the difficulties though, we live from a place of peace, harmony and mutual respect.”

“It’s one of the characteristics that sets us apart actually,” Dilip added. “We are positive in the face of adversity, smiling despite our troubles.”

The Kulung people are the most primordial indigenous group in the country.

“We have a separate language, our own traditions and cultural attires, a distinct social structure and lifestyle, and our kindness to others sets us apart. The Nepalese government has not yet formally acknowledged our indigenous status but our lobbying efforts are getting us closer,” he encouraged.

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Earnestly campaigning and advocating for social change with and on behalf of his community, Dilip is currently working to provide urgent temporary shelter to the thousands of homeless families in the Lower Everest region following the twin earthquakes, which destroyed their homes.

“The monsoon season is almost here and the threat of avalanches, landslides and more aftershocks is very likely in the coming months.”

“Under the collective leadership of more than 250 young volunteers, we are planning for the future. We are working to develop sustainable and shock resistant infrastructure across the region to withstand any future threat of a natural disaster.”

“During recent years, we have successfully produced 45 kilowatt of electricity, erected a telephone tower, built taps with drinkable water and additional classrooms in our schools.”

Carrying Everest is a film about the Kulung people of Eastern Nepal. Despite being one of Nepal’s most sidelined and disadvantaged communities, they are also some of the most courageous and gifted people. Carrying Everest will tell their story.

Dilip explained what this film means to the Kulung.

“This film is a first for the Kulung. It will provide us with an opportunity to be truly heard; our voices, our lives, our perspectives. It is my hope that people from all corners of the world will feel compelled to support the Kulung and improve the quality of our current living situation. We have big hearts and much talent, but in the shadow of Everest, we remain unseen.”