White, gray, green
A ship asail a sea of land
Hull red of rhododendron
Masts of granite skyward
Nepal rests between Tibet and India. Home to a hefty portion of the Himalayas, the country rises from just 194 feet above sea level to an astonishing 29,029 feet. The country is at most 155 miles from North to South. On a satellite map, Nepal has three distinct regions: the low green plains to the south known as the Terai Region, the central green rolling mountains home to Nepal’s biggest cities Pokhara and Kathmandu, and the white labyrinth of magnificent peaks that marks the northern boundary with Tibet.
I am a sucker for mountains. From the vibrant haze of my earliest memories, the whitecapped peaks I saw of high ranges across the world ignited a thrill and imagination that has carried me ceaselessly into adventures.
There is an undaunted love
For a skyline of
Granite and glacier
A wonder as deep
As the eyes of a child
A jagged coastline
For ocean sky
Even more compelling to me were the mountains than space exploration. My favorite childhood photo is one where I am standing in the yard of my family’s home in my snowsuit with strap-on skis. I am in a state of absolute ecstasy, hands to the sky, the essence of joy in a grand smear across my face. This is how I feel on a fresh day in the mountains; the world evaporates into a moment of wonder—an undying gaze at the beauty of fractal flow in rocks and plant forms, the hypnosis of moving water, the rich energy of being in a place both forbidding and inviting, dangerous and nourishing for the spirit.
It’s my unwavering love for mountains that makes Nepal a magnet for my high country soul, and since coming, the affinity has only gotten stronger.
As I’ve become engulfed in the patterns of the watersheds in India and Nepal, it’s come clear that here the mountains are the river’s roots.
Imagine yourself flying above the Bay of Bengal peering out the porthole window on the north side of the airplane. The waves flutter across the deep blue surface, leaves on fluid limbs, a canopy of water balancing the earth. Above the Andaman Islands, you look down, romanced by the nests of humans in their tropical haven; tourists bronzing on the beach and snorkeling along the shore.
Soon, the coast appears, a web of branching channels funneled through mangrove forests that ray out as far as the eye can see. There salt meets the flowing fresh water. On over the land the mangrove fades into jungle and farmland, and the innumerable branches of water begin to wander together, eventually forming a discernable trunk. At certain points, especially just after the big city of Dhaka, the trunk of green water, the Padma River, splits in two here becoming Ganga on one side and Brahmaputra or Tsang Po on the other. These trunks wind through the plains, perambulating across the fertile soil, until they reach the hills. There, like in the mangroves, the main trunk divaricates into smaller streams eventually reduced to a trickle at the foot of enormous spaces of white punctuated with crevasses and granite peaks.
A glacier is the mother of a river. You may recall that I saw this in Gangotri before. From the Garwhal through all of Nepal’s Himalayan Range, the south face feeds the Ganges while the north face feeds the Tsang Po, later called the Brahmapura, through Tibet and India. The twin sisters meet en route to the Bay of Bengal and form the Padma River before they diverge in a delta that stretches through all of Bangladesh and beyond.
Nepal is a landlocked maze of mountains between two supersized nations, China and India, two nations that are outgrowing their natural resources and have expansionary habits. Here in Nepal, geopolitics are as evident as the lack of flat surfaces.
The Himalayan region has long been a strategic zone for the powers that be in Asia and South Asia. When the British ruled India, the Kingdom of Nepal showed strong resistance to being colonized, though for the British it was a priority to maintain a buffer between the Empire’s largest territory and China. For much the same reasons and an appetite for resources China invaded Tibet in the 1950s.
China and India together represent 2.6 billion people, fully one third of humanity. Such nations function on a scale that shifts the very earth and water from which we survive. A recent study by Nasa showed that India’s (combined with other Eurasian nation’s) increased water use has caused the earth to change the pattern of its axial wobble towards the east. For Nepal, the gravity of India and China shape the political stage, and one of the things that means for Nepal is dams.
In 2014, Nepal signed deals to build dams primarily with India accounting for over 1,800 megawatts of power. At the time that was three times as much power as the country produced, according to Ramesh Bhusal an environmental journalist working for ICIMOD, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. Some of these projects have been initiated or completed, others are still in the bidding or have faced rejection.
These hydropower projects, largely funded by Indian power companies and government programs, were designed as ways for India to utilize Nepal’s immense hydropower potential. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepali politicians tout a relationship of “hydro diplomacy.” In actuality, the relationship between Nepal and India is largely one of Indian exploitation with little return for Nepal: in an article about the Upper Marsyangdi Project published by the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, author Himanshu Thakkar writes that, “the most obvious point is that the majority if not all of the project’s energy output is being evacuated to the Indian NEWNE grid.”
The terrible irony of Nepal’s wealth of water resources is that until recently, most of Nepal suffered from tremendous “load shedding” or power cuts. In a project spearheaded by Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) Managing Director Kul Man Ghising and Minister of Energy Janardan Sharma, the government is trying to put an end to load shedding. Only recently have they seen success by purchasing electricity from India, some of which is produced in Nepal.
Just a decade ago, Nepal was still a monarchy. In 2001, in the midst of a ten year civil war, the royal family, including King Birendra Shah and Queen Aishwarya, was massacred in Narayanhiti Palace. The massacre, destabilizing the monarchy, made space for the Maoist insurgency that resulted in an ongoing era of shady democracy and rampant corruption, defining features of Nepal’s current political atmosphere.
The harsh political climate in Nepal came as a surprise to me. Ever since I heard my first stories of climbing Everest, I romanticized this place for its great mountains and vibrant high country culture. This romance is still, but it is coupled with the reality I have experience during my time here.
More than any other event, the earthquake in 2015 revealed the Nepali government’s disregard for the people. With foreign humanitarian aid coming to Nepal in heaps after the quake, the government blocked many shipments of goods and sealed routes for money to enter the country without first going through government offices. Victims were promised 300,000 NRS (apx. $2,750) to rebuild, but only a select few people have received this help. Much of the recovery money appears to have been siphoned off by officials.
Walking along the Bagmati River the other day, Kathmandu’s most sacred, revered river, I was excited to see a pagoda temple that I had not yet been to, that was not on google maps. In front of the temple were two buildings that had fallen in 2015 and a few people milling about. Walking around the temple I saw food carefully laid out to dry in the sun, freshly washed blankets, and other signs of daily life. I looked up and saw the phenomenally ornate teak woodcarvings that are so characteristic of this place. The beams supporting the lower canopy of the pagoda with fantastical etchings of the Kama Sutra beneath deities.
These surprise temples are all over Kathmandu and the surrounding towns. Built over the last two and a half millennia, this city is abundant with beautiful monuments to divinity. In courtyards and on street corners are altars and statues of Buddha or Hindu deities.
Consider us marble
Some rivers are black
Smelling of sewage
Some rivers so clear
I cannot see the water
Marble is hewn over time
With waves of impurities
Black upon silicate white
Black upon silicate white
Hewn over time
I cannot see
Consider us marble