Manaslu Conservation Area
Interview with Lhakpa Lama
Lhakpa Lama is an experienced trekking guide. He has been in the travel and tourism field for over five years and is also an Assistant Community Leader of Lho village (Lhakpa’s village) in Northern Gorkha. It falls along the trekking route to Mt. Manaslu.
In this interview, Lhakpa shares the difference he observed between remote villagers in Nubri’s concern about COVID-19 to those living in Kathmandu. According to Lhakpa, villagers in the Manaslu area seemed more concerned; however, those living in Kathmandu seemed to live a relatively normal life.
Virtual interview date: 26th January 2021
Kunsang Choden: Have tourists started coming to the Manaslu area, and is the area open for tourists to visit?
Lhakpa Lama: Yes, recently, the Nepal government has opened the tourism sector. It was not opened earlier [during the peak COVID-19 time June, July], but now a few local tourists have started to visit here. I also see a few recent updates where people post tourists visiting places like Rho and Samagaun [upper Manaslu areas]. The tourism sector is open in Nepal.
KC: What are the current Covid-19 protocols from the government of Nepal?
LL: In the past, those entering the Manaslu area were required to bring PCR tests with negative results. They were not allowed to engage with the community people and were asked to stay in quarantine for two weeks. But now, these rules are no longer in action. In a month or two, the COVID-19 vaccine may be available. When I was in the village, I haven’t seen much social engagement between villagers and outsiders. But as I came here to Kathmandu, everything seems normal here. The only different thing was the number of people wearing masks. Other than that, things seem normal here. Even then, if you go to a village, there is not a particular type of restriction. Hotels are opened.
KC: Have you been on trek this year?
LL: Ah, this year, it’s zero.
KC: So you came from the village to Kathmandu. What kinds of health safety measures did you observe the local lodge owners follow?
LL: In most cases, it’s looked normal to the most part. Some hotels and lodges might be washing the bedsheets after every customer. It’s based on what I hear from them. Else, it’s normal.
KC: Do they (lodge owners) wear masks?
LL: In the village, they don’t wear masks, but as you come down valley such as Marche Khola and below, people wear masks.
So the most important thing was that if you are coming from Kathmandu, you need to have the PCR test completed with a negative test result because until now, the Manaslu area is COVID-19 green zone. I feel it’s essential to have a PCR report.
KC: In the past, people were not allowed to go from one place to another, so an individual who traveled had to show their PCR report. Do people now also have to show their PCR report?
LL: Right now, there is no mention that you have to show, and there is no one to check too. But just to make sure [you are COVID-19 free], it is good to check.
KC: During the peak COVID-19 time (June-July 2020), people used to stay in quarantine in Jakat. Is that still practiced? If it is no longer in practice, when did it stop?
LL: I can’t recall the exact month, but it has been around three-four months since it stopped.
KC: Personally, which health safety guideline do you mainly follow?
LL: I limited social gatherings, wore masks, used sanitizer, and paid attention to personal hygiene. I have an elderly family member here, my mother, so whenever I head out, I wear a mask, and when coming home, I wash my hands. There aren’t many new implementations here. In the past, there was quarantine in Jagat. Now that’s lifted. Government officials themselves travel around between villages during COVID-19 time, so we can’t stop the local people from traveling if the government officials fail to become good examples. Although things appear normal, they may not be 100% normal.
KC: Do you think that trekking at this time is safe for you?
LL: Looking at the current situation, it doesn’t feel 100% safe to trek. Covid-19 is not fully controlled in Nepal.
Now, although Kathmandu seems to be running normally, there are chances of getting the disease. If I happen to trek during this time, and if the disease spreads in the Manaslu area, the blame may come on me. It is a risk that I do not wish to take.
Also, we hear the number of COVID cases each day in the news. It’s still going on. So, to feel 100% safe is not possible right now.
KC: So, do you think it is safe for the visitors to come trekking?
LL: The Manaslu area is 100% safe for tourists because we have no COVID-19 cases here until now.
KC: What about the people living there? Will they feel safe having visitors in the area at this time?
LL: Now that depends whether the visitors are free of COVID-19 or not.
KC: Do you think that people living in Kathmandu are taking enough safety precautions?
LL: Here in Kathmandu, people are taking safety precautions, but people living in the Manaslu area are better and safer than here [Kathmandu].
KC: In a day, how many people around you wear the mask?
LL: Around 95% wear a mask.
KC: What about in the public buses? Do people wear mask?
LL: I don’t use public buses right now. It’s either my friend’s scooter or I take a taxi.
KC: From where do you get information about COVID-19?
LL: Actually, I don’t remember that, maybe from Facebook and news channels. I don’t have a specific channel, but I used to watch Kantipur Television and BBC news for COVID-19 updates in the village. Also, whenever we are around friends, the discussion is mostly about COVID-19.
KC: Do you feel that people in remote areas such as Nubri (higher Manaslu area) are more concerned about COVID-19 than those living in Kathmandu?
LL: Yes, yes, people in the village are very concerned about COVID-19 than those living in Kathmandu. For example, it has been twenty-five days since I have been here in Kathmandu. When I was in the village, we were very concerned. Once I reach Kathmandu, I thought that I wouldn’t be going outside, but once I reached here, it was totally different from what I had imagined (laughs).
KC: Have you heard any contradictory information about COVID-19 from the different sources you receive news about COVID-19?
LL: I believe everyone has different views on this. Some say that it’s the U.S. government’s plan against the Chinese government (laughs), and others say, “No, no, the Chinese people eat seafood, and it came from that.” So different opinions and I am not 100% clear on this.
KC: So, of the sources, you get your information from, which sources do you think are most trustworthy?
LL: For global updates on Covid-19, I’d say the BBC news, and for the local update, I go for Kantipur Television. I feel they are more reliable because they speak based on data, unlike discussions with friends and families.
KC: What do you think should be done to control COVID-19 better?
LL: It’s not just through the air by air, but through one sick person to the next person, so it is important to identify and control the sick person from getting in contact non-sick person.
KC: What do you think should be done in updating people about the best practices?
LL: In the village, around five hotel owners have TV and a few other people, but the rest of them get information from social media such as Facebook through their cell phones. Also, only the hotel owners have Wifi, so I go there if I have to use the internet.
KC: Do you feel fully informed, and what about the villagers?
LL: Yes, I do. We also have village nurses who train and inform people about COVID-19. They teach them about ways to stay safe, social distance, and take nutritious diets.
Manaslu Conservation Area
Interview with Sonam Bhuti
Sonam Bhuti, from Tsum valley (3,200m above sea level) in upper Northern Gorkha of Nepal, is a finance and project coordinator at Earth C-Air (NGO). In addition to six years in the trekking field as a professional guide, Sonam is a trained rock climber and an emergency helicopter rescuer. In this interview, she shares the need for social responsibility from Nepal’s government, her first-hand observation of COVID-19 safety lodge protocols in action in the Solu Khumbu area, and her personal opinion if the travel and tourism industry should be open to visitors at this time.
The following interview was conducted virtually on January 24, 2021.
Kunsang Choden: What are the current COVID-19 health safety guidelines from Nepal’s government for travel and tourism?
Sonam Bhuti: Social distancing, wearing a mask, international travelers need to show their PCR report, and hotel owners are asked to limit the number of people they host. These rules are quite similar at the village level because Gaunpalika follows the government protocols. But I haven’t seen a strict implementation of these rules and regulations. You are aware of how the government of Nepal works, right?
KC: How are you compiling with health safety protocols?
SB: I change my mask each day, wear and change gloves regularly. I use hand sanitizer. Those coming from remote villages won’t have such facilities.
KC: At your current workplace, what of the health safety guidelines you find is most effective?
SB: At my workplace, each person is assigned a room. I feel such management is effective and feel safe. For example, if we have fourteen people in the past, now we are limited to eight people. Before, we used to have lunch in a group, but after the pandemic, we take our food to our offices. If we have to communicate with each other, we do it through phone calls.
KC: After the start of the pandemic, have you had the opportunity to travel?
SB: Yes, I made a private trip with my friends. We climbed Mera Peak and Lobuche Peak. They’re in the Solu Khumbu area, and it took us 22 days.
KC: What were the health safety protocols that you all followed?
SB: We wore masks, used hand sanitizer. Everything else was normal. We were careful. There wasn’t much income from the travel and tourism industry this year. Community people were welcoming to us.
KC: So during your trip, what were the hotel and lodge owners’ health safety protocols?
SB: They also made us wash our hands as soon as we arrived. I was impressed. If it’s a two-person room, they allow only one person per room. We were socially distanced during dining time.
KC: Do you think that trekking and climbing at this time are safe for you?
SB: I don’t think so. People here don’t take much caution. I also advised my clients not to come this spring. We all have a different immunity system. So I’m a little reluctant to take this risk at this time. So I advised my clients to come next October. It’s very crowded here, and people don’t take much caution. We don’t know when the vaccination will be available here. So it’s very risky right now.
KC: Do you believe that wearing a mask will slow down the spread of this disease?
SB: I feel wearing a mask is very important. Even if 20 people out of 100 wear masks, it saves lives. Since this disease is spread through the air, a mask is important. But one must make sure that it’s a good quality mask. I use N-95.
KC: Do people in Kathmandu wear masks?
SB: 90% wears a mask. The 10% who don’t wear masks are mostly the ones who can’t afford it. For example, I haven’t seen people who live in the street wearing masks or trash collectors. It’s normal and crowded here. To some extent, this also provides a calmer state of mind to see people continuing everyday life. The government hasn’t done much in regard to COVID-19 control. Hunger drives normal people to continue daily chores. Neither the government nor the people can control hunger. And if the government wants to control COVID-19, they have to perform their duty well. One of the biggest problems in Nepal is the government’s inaction.
KC: Where do you get COVID-19 related news?
SB: I follow CNN news on social media. The routine of Nepal Banda used to update about COVID-19 cases in Nepal quite frequently.
KC: Have you heard any contradictory news from these different sources?
SB: No. But I think CNN is the most trustworthy. I don’t listen to hearsay or social media.
KC: What do you think should be done to control the spread of COVID-19?
SB: Nepal tourism industry has opened since last October. My personal opinion is that the trekking industry remains closed this year for public safety because it will be very difficult in case this disease is to spread in remote areas. Right now, this disease has not spread in remote areas. Because this disease’s symptoms are not shown immediately and hard to tell, I feel it will be better if the trekking industry is not open at least this year. But since the government has opened the tourism industry, people cannot control it, right? It will be good for the Gaunpalika to come up with rules and regulations, but it is difficult to follow these rules and regulations in Nepal.
KC: do you feel that you are fully informed about COVID-19
SB: Yes, I feel I know well enough and am aware of how to take care of sick people.
Manaslu Conservation Area
Interview with Pema Norbu Lama
Pema Norbu Lama was born and raised in Tsum valley, with a spiritual depiction of Beyul Kyimulung, a hidden valley of happiness in Northern Gorkha of Nepal. He has been leading trekking groups to Manaslu, Mustang, and Annapurna regions since 2013.
Pema recently returned from a camping trek in Rupinala and recommends it as an alternative for resuming wilderness adventure during COVID-19.
Interviewer and transcriber: Kunsang Choden (KC)
Interviewee: Pema Norbu Lama (PN)
Virtual interview date: January 21, 2021
Kunsang Choden: What are the current COVID-19 health safety guidelines from Nepal’s government for travel and tourism?
Pema Norbu: We had strict lockdown during peak pandemic time. Nepal was doing well then. People were following safety protocols, but now, there is no rule. I think after an extended lockdown, the country went into a dire state of economic hardship. More than the pandemic, people were worried about fulfilling daily needs such as food.
KC: So what about safety guidelines?
PN: As for me, I do wear a mask, maintain social distance and use sanitizer.
KC: In terms of the Manaslu Conservation Area or Nubri gaunpalika, what are the health safety protocols followed at the village level?
PN: I have not been to the village during the peak COVID-19 time, but I was in the lower Manaslu area. A fourteen-day of quarantine was in place in Jakat (a village that falls midway to Samagaun and Tsum). But with the start of Dashain, quarantine was removed. People were allowed to travel. So when we (Pema and friends) made a trip to Rupinala, a week-long wilderness trek, I didn’t see much of the rules and regulations being followed. So, in general, I think it has a lot to do with what the central government was going through (pointing to the country’s economic state mentioned earlier).
But in terms of my village, Tsum (Chkkampar), certain numbers of people were restricted from entering village during peak COVID-19 time, which lasted for a short period.
KC: Was this travel restriction strongly followed by tourists or local travelers?
PN: During the peak COVID-19 time, traveling, as I mentioned earlier, was very limited. But in the present context, since the government has opened the country, some domestic travelers from Kathmandu make trips there (remote areas such as Manaslu).
Also, there was one Ph.D. student who wanted to focus his study on Tsum. During Dashain, he was not allowed to travel but later was allowed. When he came back from the field, he mentioned that he had a really good time. He didn’t experience much stigma around COVID-19 there. But that might have been because he had a local guide, my friend, to show him around.
KC: Has anyone in the Manaslu area gotten COVID-19?
PN: As far as I know, the answer is no. I haven’t heard anything.
There was a rumor about a boy who traveled to Phillim (a Gurung village on the way to Tsum and Samagaun), but I can’t say that’s true because you cannot say (that it’s COVID-19) without a test. Nepal doesn’t have such facilities for remote places such as Tsum or Nubri area.
KC: So how are you complying with those health safety guidelines?
PN: Wearing a mask? I do that 100%. Every time I head out or while meeting senior people, I wear a mask. It’s a simple thing to do. Washing hands and using sanitizer, I do those.
In terms of social distancing, I did follow that in the beginning. But I think there comes a time where it is not practical, especially in places such as Nepal, where there are many people and many still not maintaining social distance. So in terms of me, maybe it’s (social distancing) not practical.
The majority of people around me hardly follow health safety guidelines. Some wear their mask, and some don’t.
KC: In terms of travel and tourism, do you think it is safe to travel?
PN: It might not be safe because we don’t have a proper management system capable of dealing with this situation. With that being said, I don’t think it is safe for people to get exposed to outsiders in terms of Nepal’sHimalayan areas.
I may go outside of your question (smiles), but it is very important if you look at it economically. There are certain ways where you can make travel happen i.e., through camping trek.
Camping trek is a way to maintain isolation from the local community. You can still hike, camp, take photographs, and climb mountains. Maybe that is possible.
Otherwise, based on safety concerns, it’s not recommended for the moment.
KC: As a trekking guide, do you think it is safe for you to go trekking right now?
PN: As mentioned earlier, I do have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I feel it is safe to travel. It feels like I am immune. Right now, the environment outside is very normal. There are people everywhere. So with that picture in mind, you know, it feels like COVID-19 is not that serious for Nepalese. This makes me think that it is okay for people like me, a trekking guide, to make trips. And me being a youth, may be I am immune to it. But if you realize and think seriously, maybe not (good to travel), I don’t know. I might infect my guest, or even my guest might come with the disease.
KC: Where do you receive your COVID-19 related information?
PN: I use social media, Kantipur news, and our government did an excellent thing. The ministry of health has a Viber group (MoHP Nepal COVID-19) to disseminate detailed COVID-19 related updates. The Routine of Nepal Banda was very popular too.
KC: Have you heard any contradictory information from these different sources?
KC: In what way do you feel COVID-19 information can be made accessible to everyone?
PN: In Nepal? Change the government (laughs jokingly). The answer is the same. Try to abide by the government’s health safety protocols. I don’t want to solely blame the government because they too need to deal with the country’s economic situation. But maybe there are some grey areas where the government could play a role like proper management and proper supervision. I also observed that local governments working at the ground level were also not very effective, the issue of corruption comes into play. If these situations were changed to some extent, then the situation might have improved.
KC: COVID-19 situation in Nepal is decreasing based on the various statistics. Do you think travel and trekking will resume by October of 2021?
PN: I am hopeful. But Nepal is already open, you know. Nepal is open. But the thing is, do travelers want to travel at this time? You mentioned the numbers decreasing, but local people don’t pay much attention to the numbers. We don’t trust or rely on that.
KC: If safe travel is to resume, what do you think could be done to ensure better health safety?
PN: Exact suggestion, I can’t say, but amongst my friend circle, we try to compare with countries similar to Nepal like say Bhutan. Bhutan is also very tourism-oriented country. It is doing pretty well and has a very low number of cases. I think there have been strict rules, and people were following them strictly. I don’t know, but maybe, it’s not too late (for Nepal to make changes).
KC: Do you feel you are fully informed about COVID-19?
PN: In general, yes, I feel I know enough. I don’t have other doubts, but that will be another topic of discussion.
Manaslu Conservation Area
Interview with Nyima Samdup Gurung
Nyima Samdup Gurung is an experienced trekking guide from Dang, Gorkha. In 2020, he climbed Mera peak (6470 meters) and Lobuche peak (6190 meters). In this interview, Nyima highlights 1) the current COVID-19 situation in Nepal, 2) why camping trek is safer and more expensive than tea house trekking and 3)provides personal anecdotes in the form of observational narratives from his recent expedition to Rupinala and Khumbu [Everest region].
The following interview was conducted virtually on January 20, 2021.
Kunsang Choden: So, Nyima, what do you do in the trekking business?
Nyima Samdup: Umm, for this year, I am jobless, but I am still a trekking leader. I lead trekking groups to different parts of Nepal, but especially in the Manaslu area and Tsum valley. Recently I have completed training to become a trainer, which means that I can now train and mentor those entering the adventure tourism business in Nepal.
KC: You mentioned that you lead trips particularly to the Nubri and Tsum area earlier; with the start of COVID-19, have you led any trips to these places?
NS: Actually, before the start of COVID-19, I had two trekking groups planning to come from America to trek in the Manaslu, but that got canceled. With six or more months of lockdown, we were stuck at home and nothing to do. Thamel, the most touristic location in Kathmandu, was empty. Many people were expecting to do a lot more business this year because it was Visit Nepal 2020, but you know, the COVID-19 took everything down. All the trekking guides and mountain guides had to stay back at home. People who had trekking gear shops in Thamel all suffered a lot. Some people had to shut down their stores because they could not pay the rent.
For me, I stayed at home for eight months. After eight months, things started to lighten up, and the government opened the city. I have two-three friends from Tsum valley. We made a short hike to Shivapuri. During this trip, one of our friends suggested that we go camping to a place where no one has trekked before, and it may open the possibility to discover a newer trekking route for future trekking. It was a small idea, but after two or three weeks, it became a reality. It was at the end of September, the beginning of October. I was stuck at home for over eight months and wanted to get out of the valley. I was happy, and it was fantastic to join my friends for the Rupinala trek. It was a four days camping and wilderness trek with no tea houses on the way. We didn’t meet anyone on the way. It was super!
We tented and cooked our own meal and picked wild mushrooms on our way. I had not experienced wilderness trekking before. It was super! The view was beautiful, and everything was perfect. But we didn’t make a trip to Manaslu. We came down [to Kathmandu] after the trip.
KC: What are the current COVID-19 health safety guidelines from the government of Nepal, Gaunpalika, and other agencies?
NS: Recently, there were some updates. They [the government] keep updating [COVID-19 safety protocols] every once in a week, so it keeps changing, and I am not sure. But what I have heard from my friend who owns travel agencies is that you have to obtain a visa to come to Nepal from the respective embassy. If there is no embassy, you will want to contact travel agencies in Nepal to guide you with the Visa and everything. Before, everybody coming to Nepal can get an arrival Visa upon arrival, but now with the current situation, it’s not possible. You have to go to the embassy and get a Visa. You will also have to have many documents. You will need to have $5000 COVID-19 insurance to come to Nepal and travel insurance. So basically, you’ll need two insurances. You will also need to have your hotels pre-booked in Kathmandu. Stay in quarantine for seven or fourteen days, I guess so. After that, you can start your trek. These are the rules right now, but they can change in a week or two. So it’s not sure.
KC: What about health safety protocols in the Gaunpalika (rural municipality)? Are the guidelines the same, or have they changed?
NS: When I was coming down from Philim, I heard that outsiders were not allowed in the area. Only local people were allowed. And the rules in the Gaunpalika are also not fixed. They keep changing according to the situation in Kathmandu. They are never fixed. Sometimes they allow people to come in. Other times it’s a no. This is also because Philim is the main Gaunpalika office for the Manaslu area.
KC: How effective are these guidelines?
NS: If someone is coming from outside, 60% of them may follow the health safety protocols, but the Gaunpalika protocols change quite frequently. It’s never sure out there. It has to do with the political agenda. I also heard that the few tourists who come to Kathmandu follow the guidelines quite strictly than someone who has already been living in Nepal.
KC: As a trekking guide, how are you complying with these rules?
NS: I am following the guidelines. If I receive emails from my international clients hoping to come to Nepal, I send them the government COVID-19 protocols saying these are the rules you will have to follow if you want to come to Nepal. I send them the whole list. If they are happy [with the COVID-19 health safety protocols], they may come. If they are not happy, they may not come. So, it’s up to them. Because for me, I have to follow the protocols or guidelines. If I don’t, then it’s not possible. I have to follow government rules and regulations.
KC: Do you feel that trekking or climbing at this time is safe for you?
NS: Ah, that’s a hard question to answer. Well, I’ll say the answer is in the middle. Because last year too, in 2020, the prince of Bahrain came to climb Manaslu and Lobuche peak in Nepal. They were the only people on the trekking team in 2020. It was during serious COVID-19 time, in October.
KC: Given the current COVID-19 situation and the protocols, do you think that it is safe for tourists to come and trek in Nepal at this time?
NS: Now, over here, COVID-19 is more or less normalized. Everything is open, I think so. The shops and malls, schools and colleges are also open. Everybody is out in the street. I also see some people not putting on their masks. Why not put on your mask, you know? It’s for safety purposes. Everybody is back to their normal life here. Now it’s wintertime, so some people from the village have also come here. They are shopping here and there.
In my view, I think it’s safe to travel and trek in Nepal if you follow the rules. Some colleges are also open. Some are giving exams. Given the current situation, people are focusing more on the political issue than COVID-19. Last year, like three-four months ago, they [government and news agencies] were more focusing on COVID-19 each and every day. You hear the news about people dying and getting infected by COVID-19. Now today, you don’t hear much about it. You hear more about the political news, disputes in the parliament, and amongst parties. So not much news about COVID-19. A couple of trekkers want to come here, but now it is impossible to come because of the winter season too. Maybe by spring, around April, a few will be coming to Nepal. I think so, and it’s not 100% sure.
KC: Do you believe that taking precautions such as wearing a mask will help slow the spread of this disease?
NS: Of course, it will help slow down the disease’s spread if people wear masks, social distance, and use hand sanitizer. I don’t know, some people here walk on the street without their masks. It’s so funny to see them without a mask because we have been using it for like eight months and are used to putting it on.
KC: Percentage-wise, roughly how many people do you see wearing masks?
NS: In the context of Kathmandu, I will say there are 2% who don’t put on masks. Even while circumambulating around Boudhanath Kora, they don’t wear mask. In Kora, there are many people.
KC: So from your observation during your recent trek to Rupinala and Khumbu, do people wear masks, and did you guys wear masks?
NS: When I was trekking in the Rupinala, until Barpak, we were all putting on our masks to show that we were protecting ourselves and not letting the spread of the disease. But after we crossed Barpak, we did not put on masks because we were amongst our own friends. But heading back, when we reached Philim village, we saw a few people wearing masks, not many. It was kind of free to walk without the mask. But when I went to Khumbu, the Everest region, people here were taking it seriously. Even when they were walking, they would put on a mask. People were scared. There was a point where we had finished climbing the peak and were returning back to Namche. We were passing by this village called Khumchung. Me and my friends were walking on the side, and we saw an elderly Sherpa lady. It took us by surprise to watch an elderly Sherpa lady. As soon as she saw us, she started putting on her mask, maintained distance. Obviously, we were outsiders, and she might have been worried about getting exposed to us.
KC: From where do you get information about the COVID-19 pandemic?
NS: Usually I receive COVID-19 news from social media. We have this Facebook page called Routine of Nepal Bandha. They post the latest ongoing news on politics, COVID-19, and social news happenings in Nepal every day, including the number of people infected and the number of deaths from COVID-19. So, that’s where I receive news about COVID-19. Besides this, I also check the Ministry of Health website in Nepal, but most of the time, I get my news from the routine of Nepal bandh.
KC: Have you heard any contradictory information from the different sources? If so, what are they?
NS: I don’t know. Maybe from news channels. Nepali news channels, maybe, I don’t know.
KC: What do you think is the most reliable news source based on your personal experience?
NS: I have not checked other websites other than the Ministry of Health website in Nepal. I don’t check them often, but occasionally. The one that I found reliable was the Routine of Nepal Bandha because it is easy to check, and it comes to my page all the time so that I don’t have to go to Google to check again and again. It pops up on my Facebook and Instagram pages. It’s easy. Maybe I am too lazy to check other sources, but it’s the Routine of Nepal Bandh that I use the most.
KC: What do you think should be done to control the spread of COVID-19 better?
NS: My recommendation would be to wash your hands more often, social distance especially when you go to the markets, and put on your masks. Also, use hand sanitizer whenever you can, especially when you go into public spaces.
KC: In terms of travel and tourism, other than the general health safety measures, what other smart health safety measures can be followed to speed up the reintroduction of the trekking business in Nepal?
NS: I think we can convey to our clients that we will do a camping trek over a tea house trek.
KC: What’s the difference between tea house trek and camping trek?
NS: Basically, camping trek is a traditional style trekking where you carry your tents, beddings, and food. You’ll have many groups [cook, porters, guide, and the trekker]. For example, the kitchen group cooks food for you. While in tea house trekking, you get in touch with the hotel or lodge owner [basically hotel/lodge stay] and stay there.
Basically, to protect yourself and avoid the spread of COVID-19, camping trek is much safer because you will not stay in the guest house’s rooms. You will be camping away from the guest house where you will have your own big field, a big kitchen group, guides and porters and everything. You are getting in touch with the local people in the area too [to some extend]. But if you go for a tea house trek, you are more in contact with people around you. And I think for your travel, it will be better to use the same bus. Say you are planning on the trek to Manaslu. In this case, you take a bus from Kathmandu to Arugarth and from Arugarth to Soti too; you [I recommend you] take the same bus. Using the same bus is much safer than changing the bus. If we change the bus, it is riskier and there is a chance to get COVID-19.
KC: I am curious to learn how cost-effective camping trekking is over tea house trekking. Have you approached any of your clients with the idea of a camping trek?
NS: No, not at the moment. It requires much planning. Need to organize porters, do many shoppings. It’s a crazy amount of work. For us, tea house trekking is more convenient. But again, if our client wants a camping trek, then we can make that happen too. The thing is, we have to organize more and find more people for a camping trek. Hotel owners will not benefit much from such trekkings. With a tea house, the local business will benefit more. There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides. Camping trek is a big group. If I am the trek leader, I will need to find an assistant guide, porters, camping sites, and serve the guest. Maybe you have three clients, but you will need around fifteen other team members to make the camping trek a success. It’s more expensive and more work than the tea house.
KC: Is there a travel and tourism health safety app, website, or podcast in Nepal?
NS: I don’t think so. I think websites and maybe developing apps will also be useful.
KC: What about podcasts? Do you listen to podcasts?
NS: No, me not really. My friends do, but not me. We don’t have Spotify in Nepal. Only people who have accounts in the U.S use it. People here listen to podcasts from the news.
[March 1, 2021 update from Nyima stated that COVID-19 insurance and the seven days quarantine are no longer a requirement. As long as you have the COVID-19 test certificate, you can trek easily.]
Interview with Dhawa Gyanjen Lama
Dhawa Gyanjen Lama, from Tsum Valley, the founder/co-owner of Asia Khamsang Tour and Trekking Pvt Ltd., is an experienced trekking guide, social worker, and freelancer. He has extensive field research experience working with internationally recognized researchers in mountain conservation, development, and multimedia. In the following interview, Mr. Lama provides honest advice to international travelers regarding the essence of health, health safety measures (cultural and spiritual views) and how local villagers might respond to travelers post COVID-19.
The following interview was conducted virtually on January 21, 2021.
Kunsang Choden: Chocho (means brother in Tibetan, a respectful gesture for seniors) Dawa, what are the current COVID-19 safety guidelines and protocols from the Government of Nepal, and also from your Gaunpalika and other agencies? Are these guidelines similar or do they differ? If no, please describe and if yes, how effective are they?
Dhawa Gyanjen Lama: I will first start from my point of view. So, myself, I continue on my daily routines such as yoga, exercise, and having tea, except for going outside because I have two beautiful children, and older parents to take care of. I also know myself better as to who I am, what loneliness is and the meaning of social and of health and peace of mind. Even if you are very beautiful, rich and intelligent, without health, you are nothing. This means, health is very important. Other than my trekking business, I am a social worker too. When I visit places such as hospitals and charity programs, I use my card and wear my mask, change outfits every time I come back from outside.
Now Gaunpalika does their best but some of the rules and regulations are not practical because they say that outsiders shouldn’t come [health safety reasons for villagers]. Trekkers were not allowed to travel but whoever works in that position moves up and down frequently. Some of the people in Kathmandu like the school students suffer a lot if they are asked not to come to the village [locked down and financial strain]. Those who have family and money can live in Kathmandu but what about students who don’t have such resources? They suffer financially and mentally. For example, parents [in the village] worry about their kids, and kids worry about their family. Some kids tell me that such a situation gives rise to much psychological pressure.
Travel and tourism is zero for me. But one great thing is that the Bahrain prince came to Manaslu as a VIP guest during the COVID-19 time and completed the expedition. So this is a very good advertisement for Samagaun to the world. That is the only tourist. Their own people [meaning local villagers] are not allowed to travel means how can they allow outsiders? Right? Financial crisis is another problem. People have spent a lot of money. A lot of people were expected to come to Nepal for Visit Nepal 2020, but due to the pandemic, trips were either cancelled or postponed. There is a huge economic crisis in the tourism sector including hotels and lodge management. For instance, some people have been preparing for Visit Nepal 2020 by building lodges, lots of investment and now, these investments are a loss. So this is very sad news. Another thing is that all the guides, and porters have lost cash jobs.
KC: Have you traveled to or from Tsum valley after the start of COVID-19?
DL: I didn’t travel to Tsum, but I traveled below Tsum for official works.
KC: What are your advice for health and safety measures when it comes to travel and tourism?
DL: The first thing is, you have to be prepared mentally. Don’t be scared. It’s happening globally. Whether you are living happily or unhappily, it is happening. Be aware. Be aware. Whatever WHO or guidelines are recommending, try to follow them. If you meet someone? Wear your mask. Maintain social distance. Don’t shake hands, but just do Namaste. If you use gloves or clothes, try to dry them in the sun properly.
In the past, if you changed clothes once a day, now change every day.
Nowadays, I also use many ayurvedic products, drink more tea, and totally stopped cold and frozen drinks.
Always do your exercises. Whatever you want to do, yoga or prostrations or other things.
Make yourself a timetable, a schedule, and make it easy. Not necessary to go outside but always make a schedule and have a schedule. And spend time with your family, more close, share stories. For example, if today is my daughter’s storytelling time, tomorrow will be daddy’s [referring to self] turn [to tell stories].
Eat lots of green vegetables and drink more soup. In the past, if you washed your vegetables once, today you have to wash the same thing twice. Sometimes, I put all my vegetables in the water, add salt and rinse it.
You have to know your body if you are sick. If you are sick, go to the hospital and follow all the safety guidelines. And for birthdays, marriage occasions, or other get-togethers, try to go virtual through an online chat. Don’t involve many people. If we survive, we will join again.
The other thing is don’t listen to fake and crazy news.
Be honest. If someone has COVID-19, be aware but don’t discriminate against the sick person. Show them love and care. Give them advice and connect on social networks. Whether you have it or not, don’t underestimate COVID-19. Please don’t say it’s nothing. In Nepal, people say, “Ah it’s just Coronavirus, it’s nothing, more thing is corruption and politics.”. In some ways, it is true, if the worst situation is to occur, our system [government’s policy] cannot handle them.
It is not that our people are not aware. We eat more organic food than processed food [referring to mountainous areas like Nubri]. You know, our Nepal is more village. When you go to the village, they [houses in the villages] are socially distanced. We don’t expect much from the government because we know that the government is corrupt and careless. We don’t have a guardian. That’s why we take responsibility for ourselves and for the community’s good. If I am sick, I have to take care of myself. So when you yourself follow the law, then it is good.
KC: Do you think it is safe for you to travel, and is it safe for the visitors who come trekking? Why?
DL: Economically speaking, if the person wants to travel free, then the person is welcome. Economically, we’ll get a job. They spend money, and we get jobs. Another thing is, this year we have very few visitors. That’s a good opportunity.
Another thing to consider is, it depends on your immunity system and your health. If you don’t get sick often and are in good health, then you can come. In such a case, even if you get the disease, you may win over the disease itself. But if you have some other disease and effects, then don’t come. Safety is the first thing. If you are alive, if I am alive, then we will travel together again. But right now, no hurry. Just make curry at home, right [says jokingly]. Ya, no hurry, just make curry at home.
The other thing is, this COVID-19 is not just a concern about the economy, but there are more issues about health. If my client is sick, as a Nepali, as a Buddhist, and as a guide, I can’t be unfair towards my client. If she is sick, it’s not in our culture to ignore the sick. No, our Nepali culture is not like that. Mountain culture is not like that. We help each other. So, whether I catch COVID-19 or not, I love to help. Because they are hiring me, it is my responsibility. This is my duty. This is my religion to support those who need help. If a good thing occurs, everything is good. If bad situations come by, in that case too, we have to think. In life, both positive and negative thinking occurs. But 90% try to think positively, and 10% think negatively too. This is to be prepared for what might happen. In this way, you will get some time to adjust and be prepared. So, the benefit is 50/50 if tourists come. I get a job, build a network, and they get to travel. This decision does not depend on me. It depends on them, my clients. We are ready to serve. The most important thing is our client. If they are interested, then they are welcome. But right now, I haven’t received a single email where my client says, “I am coming to Nepal.”. I don’t see that. But if my client says, “I am coming to Nepal.” In that case, I will advise them to check with the government of Nepal’s rules and regulations for travel first. After this, if they decide to come, they are welcome.
KC: Do you feel that people around you are taking sufficient precautions in terms of travel and tourism given the current situation?
DG: Yes, government rules and regulations require tourists to stay in quarantine. They have to have a PCR report from the airport. Once they reach their hotel or lodge, they have to remain in quarantine for a week. From there, they have to recheck their PCR report, wait for 72 hours. Then only you are allowed to travel where you plan to go. After this process, you may be fine to travel 90%, i.e., from the government officials’ and health workers’ perspectives. But bear in mind, the local people may have doubts. They may not be very friendly because they are aware of the COVID-19 situation and know who is coming from outside. If local travelers come, they [community people] may treat it as normal, but when foreign tourists come, they may be treated differently because it is easy to recognize their faces. So, if they are visiting right now, it is not a good time to feel welcomed [by the local community]. They may love to welcome you, but from a distance by doing Namaste. In the past, if it was, “Namaste, welcome, welcome”. Now, the gesture may be to do Namaste and bow. This experience may be okay for first-time comers and may find Nepalese people very friendly and kind. Lovely nature and good people. But for tourists who have been visiting Nepal many times, they may be shocked. This is because you may not be thinking about COVID-19 all the time. You don’t realize it. You may think, “Oh, what happened (to this person) this year because last year, she welcomed me so, warmly but this year she did not welcome me? What happened?” Only later they may realize that it’s because of coronavirus and have a quick reaction.
KC: From where do you get your COVID-19 related information? What kind of sources do you use?
DG: Mostly, it’s from social media, newspapers, television.
KC: So, what is the name of the newspaper or television shows that you get your news from?
DG: In Nepal, we mostly watch TV news run by the government and private news channels. Kantipur is a common source, radio, social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp. Sharing of information takes place this way. People used loudspeakers and mikes in the past, asking people not to travel around from their van. In hospitals and places where people gather together, they are using placards for social distancing, and people wear masks. This is an indirect way of saying, “We are going through COVID-19, so stay safe.”
KC: So, earlier you mentioned, be aware of the news you hear because it may or may not be real. Have you heard any contradictory information from any sources, and if so, what are they?
DG: The first COVID-19 case in Nepal was a woman. I can’t exactly remember, but she was from Sindupalchok or somewhere. She was the first COVID-19 death, but her baby was not dead or infected. In this case, what is the meaning of social distancing? Because the mother and newborn are in close contact with each other. The baby doesn’t have coronavirus, and the mother was dead by coronavirus? In this case, the meaning of social distance seems to make less sense. The other thing is, we have a couple of friends who play and eat together; one of the friends had coronavirus, and the other friend tested negative. He or she may have some doubt, got checked again after a week, and the result is the same. Sometimes one hospital shows covid-19 positive results, and the other hospital shows covid-19 negative results. In this way, people come to doubt thinking, “Oh, these people are actually making money.” So it could be fake. Some people simply say, “Oh, yeah, Kathmandu is so dusty. So we wear masks.” You sneeze and say, “This is just the flu.” Some say hypothetically that this is just a political issue, a cold war between China and America, and we suffer.
KC: Which reliable news source would you recommend to people wanting to receive information about COVID-19 regarding travel and tourism?
DG: Definitely, WHO is one of the best sources with modern science and technology. The other thing is that we are following other guidelines also. It’s called the spiritual guideline.
KC: Can you tell us a little more on the spiritual guideline?
DG: So, keep your mind peacefully. Follow some of the ritual practices. Read books and meditate. Use herbal medicine which has less chemical content. The morning sun is good. Take food rich in vitamin E, lemon, kachur, yartsa gunbu, sichuan pepper, organic food. Do your karma. Do your yoga. Focus on what you trust and believe. Listen to the spiritual and inspirational people’s talks about samsara, life, and death, meaningful life, positive way—for example, His Holiness, Karmapa, Sadhguru, and Ramdev. I like entrepreneurs like Jack Mark, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and one American scientist called Fauci. You read about his history. Read about great philosophers, writers, poets. Watch movies on bravery. They can teach you about survival and the meaning of life.
KC: COVID-19 is still going on, and we don’t know how long it will last. Looking into the future, what lessons people in the travel and tourism sector may have learned from this situation as we know that the tourism sector is more eco-based and client-focused, at the same time, there are economic benefits that come with it. In terms of health safety measures, particularly in travel and tourism, what is your advice to the stakeholders such as trekking guides, the trekking industry, and clients?
DG: The most important thing is, we have to focus on safety guidelines. This should be from your side, the tourism side, and the government side. Not all porters can afford to pay for PCR tests. Some fundings should be allocated for the porters to get PCR tests and for buying COVID-19 safety materials. The area to keep in mind is what you eat. Take immune booster food. Do yoga, meditate, exercise, and party less.