Today’s blog is less of a personal account and more informational; however, I still find it unduly necessary for understanding Nepal and my journey across its diverse landscape. These are details to keep in mind when reading my future posts. Whether it be my struggles in documenting everything, observations of Nepali people, or the conditions I faced during the trek—all of things are helpful for better visualization and connection with my story.
Difficulty Capturing the Experience
During my time in the Everest area, commonly referred to as the Khumbu Region, our team had much ground to cover. With treks that lasted anywhere from 5 to 10 hours per day, there was little time for rest. As a result, it was difficult to shoot photography, do research, and collect first-hand accounts from locals—all while in transit. My work had to be done in passing. Because of this, many of my photos were not taken with near the careful consideration I normally prefer. If they had been, the trek might have taken me twice as long. In addition, by the time we made it to our destination each night, exhaustion had so overtaken my body, I would often fall asleep while journaling and recording the day’s events. This cycle of sleeping in a new bed each night, always on the move—and simultaneously trying to gain an accurate understanding of Nepal—was extraordinarily draining. Adventure, when done right, is difficult to document in real time. That is much of why my accounts are in retrospect.
I also learned that many of the Nepali people, particularly in the foothills of the Himalayas, are quite reserved. They typically prefer not to have their photo taken. Out of respect, I normally asked permission. Unfortunately, they often declined. One the most disappointing examples of this was missing out on beautiful photo of a Buddhist monk, his face full of rich age and character, as he was artfully painting a large rock with the traditional Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum. As soon as I pulled out my camera, he smiled, shook his head no, and waved his hand. I politely obliged, but inside I was disappointed not to be able to share this gorgeous scene.
There were many other situations where, as a photographer, accurately capturing the moment was simply impossible. Whether it was the hazy humid skies preventing clear mountain views, the afternoon clouds concealing any sight of the stars, or the logistical nightmare of the wrong lens at the wrong time, I missed many great shots. At one point, I spotted a magnificent mountain goat, standing upon a rocky pinnacle that overlooked a 500 foot drop into the valley below. It was a picturesque moment in the midst of our trek. The only downside was that it was about 50 feet away, requiring me to switch to a longer lens. But with it already being noontime and about 10 miles of trekking ahead of us, I couldn’t hold up the team by changing out my equipment to capture the image. Not to mention, in the time it would have taken to remove my lens from my large stuffed pack, change it out with the smaller lens, and be ready to shoot, the goat likely would have moved from its spot. I had to be content with the equipment available in the moment — thus is the nature of documentary style photography.
Needless to say, wearing the hat of trekker, student, and photographer all at the same time was quite difficult. In the chaos of dusty, steep, and exhausting hikes, I did my best to capture the scenery. Where I have photos, I will share them. Where I have bad photos, I will still share them if important to the story. And where I have no photos at all, I will use words to attempt at painting a mental picture.
Weather in Nepal
Many people have asked about how cold or difficult the weather is in the Himalayas. Of course, closer to Everest, the mountains tend to produce their own unique weather patterns. Temperatures can become quite extreme, dipping down into the teens during summer nights. However, for the majority of my journey, the weather was rather cooperative.
Because of its geographic location, Nepal’s winters and summers operate more as rainy and dry seasons. From September until May is the dry season, when rain is unusual, and vegetation subsides as the cold approaches. Spring and Autumn temperatures are quite cool during the day (60°F or so), but by January, they regularly dip down below freezing at night.
From June until August, Nepal experiences what is called the “monsoon season.” This is when temperatures are significantly higher and it rains just about every day—fantastic for agriculture but rather difficult for trekking. For this reason, these months tend to be the off-season for tourism in the Khumbu Region, as few trekkers care for the heat and rain.
Fortunately, I chose a great time of year for my journey. With May coming to a close, Nepal was at the tail end of its dry season. As a result, we got the benefits of the summer temperatures without the downside of the monsoon rain. Our temperatures were fairly high (up to 70°F during the day and 30°F at night) and the heavy rainfall had not yet hit. Our team was very lucky to experience consistently sunny and beautiful days. However, these beautiful days were not without their struggles. The sunlight above 10,000 feet of elevation can be brutal while trekking and the lack of rain meant extremely dusty trails. Many of us had to shield our eyes and faces from the dust, while using copious amounts of sunscreen to protect from potentially severe burns. Not to mention, the higher we climbed, the colder and windier the weather became. For this reason, I had to pack for two climates—the hot and dry days nearer to Lukla, as well as the cold and sometimes snowy days toward Everest Base Camp. Needless to say, while much better than the rainy summer or frigid winter we might otherwise experience, the springtime weather certainly brought its own challenges.
Regions of Nepal
In order to gain a better picture of Nepal’s social climate, it is important to highlight the countries divisions. The whole of Nepal can be effectively split into three regions—the Terai, the Hills, and the Himalayas. While these distinctions are geographical, they equally serve as social and religious boundaries.
1) The Himalayas
The Himalayas are the northernmost region, bordering Tibet. Far less populated and harder to reach, they are home to scattered people groups in small villages living largely agrarian lifestyles. Much of religious and cultural life in the Himalayas is shaped by Tibet. Across the mountains are numerous Buddhist monasteries, bridges and buildings decorated with Buddhist prayer flags, monuments called stupas, and food dishes similar to that of the Chinese. This is what characterizes much of the Khumbu Region.
2) The Terai
In the far south is the Terai, which is vastly different from the Himalayas in both landscape and culture. It is a hot, humid, and flat region filled with farms, grasslands, and savannahs—closely resembling India. Most of the people living in the Terai are Hindu, and food, music, art, and society are all heavily influenced by Indian customs. The open border relationship between Nepal and India has created a sense of unity between the different nationalities. Not to mention, the people in the Terai even look different from those in the far north. While the Himalayan communities tend to have more Chinese features, the Terai people are darker skinned resemble Indians. These differences have caused for some problems throughout the country.
3) The Hills
Between the Himalayas and the Terai are the Hills, which includes major cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara. This region is sort of a melting pot between the Himalayas and Terai, mixing both Hindu and Buddhist traditions (although there is typically more Hindu influence). While at a higher altitude than the Terai, the Hills are still far below the Himalayas and serve as the economic and governmental center of the country—with both the capital and largest tourism hubs falling within the region.
Division in the Country
Because of the vast differences between the Himalayas and the Terai, Nepal suffers from social divisions amongst its people. Those living in the Himalayas and Hills often look down upon those from the Terai, especially for their tendency to follow Indian culture. The Terai people have gone so far as to advocate for separating from Nepal in order to join India or form an independent nation, causing significant animosity from the north.
Being landlocked between two major world powers—China and India—it is no question why Nepal has such variety in its culture. With Buddhist/Tibetan influences in the north and Hindu/Indian influences in the south, it is easy to understand why the country might suffer from division. Fortunately, those of different faiths and backgrounds tend to get along, but there still exists an underlying tension over the country’s differences.
A Few Thoughts
Much of the information I have gathered has been through speaking with locals across Nepal, whether it be in Kathmandu, the Khumbu Region, or Annapurna (where I am now). In addition, I have tried to supplement my experiences with reading. Online articles, books, scholarly journals, and other sources have been of major value to my gathering of information. My blog is not academic or scientific, but merely experiential. Still, my observations and the anecdotes I share are reflective of a broader story here in Nepal. I hope that my further posts will paint a more vivid and exciting picture.