Climbing our last mile of along day, we pass a rock painted with an image of the great Buddhist master, Padmasambhava. A white peak of the Shringi Himal appears, lit by late light. We enter a village gateway: bright green fields spread out before us, with clusters of tall trees in spring leaf, monasteries, and stone houses beyond. A cheerful man in bare feet greets us and invites us to his home. His name is Dorje and he belongs to the royal family of Prok.
Our intuition that this village named Prok is a treasured place within a beyul, a hidden valley, is confirmed when we chat with our host that evening. It is believed that Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century, hid many valleys called beyul throughout the Himalayan region and provided such forces as snowstorms and mist to protect them. These treasured and peaceful valleys would be discovered once the world faced destruction, hatred and lawlessness.
The stone house sheltering us was once the palace of the king of the Nubri valley. Though Dorje was born a prince, he practices as the village amchi (traditional healer). His daughter Jhangchuk, schooled in Kathmandu, alternately consults as a health researcher and gathers fodder in the forest. The kitchen shelves that are chock-full of brass plates and cooking utensils, also hold a TV. We break our discussion of Jhangchuk’s maternal nutrition research to watch the horrors of the corona virus as it is being reported on BBC. The climbing number of cases in the US is relevant to this family: the elder daughter is employed as a babysitter in New York City.
Traveling with me to Prok is my friend and co-author, photojournalist Thomas Kelly. On the sunlit morning of the next day, Thomas photographs Dorje’s family altar and an image of his father, the king. Dorje shows him his scar from a bear attack and describes how the village was wracked by earthquake. He points out his photo with the Dalai Lama. The conversation deepens our understanding of how lives are led here in Prok. Hardships balanced out by faith: Dorje is reading his prayers when Jhangchuk guides us to a monastery that the community has reinforced with ample cement. Even though the beyul was not spared the earthquake, people here survived.
A principal from a school in Kathmandu joins us. He is on his way to visit his grandpa in a village tucked in the forest high above. In that remote village the elders meditate and live peacefully, and the principal deems it the safest possible refuge from coronavirus.
At the end of our tour with Jhangchuk, Thomas and I discuss what to do. We have been trekking for over a week by the time we’ve arrived in Prok. Since Kathmandu has gone under full lockdown over the virus, should we even try to get back to our homes there? What if we were to suggest to our guide and two porters that we should all explore the beyul at least for another week?
But we pack our bags and press on. Weeks later we will both find ourselves thinking back on Prok. And Jhangchuk will be communicating with us by Messenger. She will send a video from a recent ceremony supported by donations collected from the villagers. We will play that video many times, watching the monks of Prok performing masked dances, dancing to keep the corona virus at bay.
Our trekking group originally numbers six. We receive our trekking permits on the last day for the season. The country is just beginning to take measures to curb COVID-19 (which people here tend to simply call “corona”). We have all wanted to trek the famous Manaslu circuit before the road being constructed through it to Tibet drastically alters the landscape, interrupting the ancient trail of salt traders and their mules. So in early spring our group is ascending the steep valley cut by the raging Budi Gandaki. We have the support of our experienced guide Manshanta, and two porters, Lucky and JB.
“Mules coming!” Manshanta shouts and we press ourselves to the inner side of the cliff as a train of mules comes jingling through, oblivious to us if not wholly impolite. The mule herders are fit young men with smart haircuts and t-shirts promoting rock bands. Like the mules, their future will be uncertain once there is a road.
The mules’ days have grown more arduous since the 2015 earthquake. Now they carry loads of rebar and other building material. Thomas and I have not travelled together since we completed a book, Himalayan Style, about vernacular architecture of the Himalayas. On day three we pass through the poor village of Rana where nearly every house is under construction. New roofs in Rana and other villages are bright blue metal sheeting. Gone is the integrity of traditional building, but in its place is something lighter, safer. First the earthquake, then the road and now coronavirus: I have always resisted calling the people of Nepal “resilient”, as it implies they have a choice. But here in Rana is evidence of how people endure, adapt, rebuild.
In the villages of Bihi there is WiFi powered by solar panels. I call my husband who is in Kathmandu nursing a broken leg. Thomas only reaches the answering phone of his father who is spending his 99th birthday in quarantine at a nursing home in New Mexico. A heavy rain falls throughout the night, almost ensuring that the Larke pass, our crossing point to the next valley, will be blocked by snow. Our group discusses flying home by helicopter. As we lie at night withrain pounding on the new metal roof, we face all our fears about what the future holds.
But crossing the village of Namrung the next day, we enter a new realm: entrances to villages are marked by Khanyi, gateway chortens on which the painted eyes of Buddha look protectively in four directions. We are now in the Nubri valley, distinguished culturally from Kutang as people here are descendants of Tibetans. The famous mountains of the region, Himalchuli (7,893m) and Manaslu (8,156m) rise before us. The trail becomes treacherous and were we to slip we would sail down the snowy cliff to the river. When at last we arrive in the large settlement of Samagaon, we receive news that Larke Pass is closed for the season: too much snow and a lack of tourists. The choice is to retrace our steps or helicopter out. While our friends decide to pack their bags, Thomas and I set off to explore Samagaon.
We follow the call of a conch shell to a juniper grove above the village. Through the dense fog we see monks and nuns hurrying to take their places inside an ancient gompa. We enter shyly, respectfully, to listen to the chanting, drums, and murmured prayers, and to absorb the mood of peace. Rituals are being performed for a villager who died 49 days ago.
When we return there the next morning, the worshippers share with us their butter tea and tsampa. We observe the offering of a torma in a ritual to help the deceased reach the afterlife. A young monk places the torma on a white-washed wall. Crows descend to peck at it, knocking it to the ground where it is consumed by a mangy dog.
From the gompa I watch tiny figures, our trekking mates, boarding a helicopter parked in a Samagaon field. The helicopter rises and makes a wide circle over us. I wave. With my friends suspended in the air, the solemn rituals following death, and the shared disquiet over the virus, life has never felt more fragile. As the helicopter vanishes into clouds, my tears come hard.
“Connection, Faith, Vulnerability”. These words come to me swiftly as my friends lift from the mountains to their families in the city. For Thomas and me it will be many days before we reach home. I reflect on FAITH: it is what the death ceremony has strengthened in us before we journey on.
By afternoon we are passing a long prayer wall in the kermo kharka and our trail is thick with snow. As the peaks rise all around us we feel like Lilliputians in a large white bowl. We cross avalanches, none too recent but one after another, and are stunned by the peaks surrounding us.
Three lammageiers hunt in the fields as we approach the village of Samdo. Lucky waves from the entry gate. He has found the only guesthouse that is open. It is hardly a refuge: the solar power is frozen and crampons are required to climb the icy steps to the bedrooms. It is run by twin brothers, Pemba who studied hotel management in Kathmandu and Dorje who remained at home. Now the brothers are reunited, sharing fears that the virus could even reach a place as inhospitable as Samdo.
In the morning we are not too woeful to return back down the valley. In my crampons I fly across the trail, re-crossing several avalanches, thrilled by the views. But the news in Samagaon is bleak: the whole country is in lockdown. I call my husband who is chirpy: “No need to hurry back. Enjoy!” For Manshanta the news brings increased responsibility and he worries how to get us all home safely.
We continue past families lounging in the sun on the terraces of their earthquake-damaged houses. “Why should we work if we are going to die?” they joke. With their mobile phones they track the progress of their children coming home from schools in Kathmandu. As we descend the trail, local people are working together to dig steps and spread pine needles on the steepest and snowiest sections, ensuring a safe passage.
The school children from Nubri are among an estimated 1.5 million people who set out from Kathmandu just before it went into lockdown.“I was training to be a bartender,” a young man on the trail tells me. “But there is no work now.” He hurries to catch up with his charges, four little boys who throw snowballs. “Have a good life!” he calls back to me.”
In Lho we find Pasang Diki weaving pangden. Her focus is on keeping straight the order of colours in her stripes, but now and then she turns her gaze to her four children who play cricket in front of her empty guesthouse. Two of the children have not returned home for five years. The mood is jubilant: only because of school closings have the children had this chance to play together.
The next day finds us in the peaceful village of Prok and our point of indecision: to stay in a realm of apparent safety or to head home.