Tsum Project

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Tsum Project

How it  Started

On 24th April 2014 a small group of my friends and I, accompanied by a local guide Chime, mountaineer and wild life photographer Samir and our tourist company representative Bhupen went for a trek to the remote Tsum Valley in Manaslu area of Nepal. Tsum is one of eight Buddhist Secret Valleys. It is considered to be a very special pilgrimage place and I had wanted to go there for a long time. It takes about 7 hours drive and 5 days walk to reach Tsum valley from Kathmandu. We were lucky to be dropped by helicopter to the tiny village of Philim on the Manaslu circuit – a day walk from where Tsum Valley begins. Flying there we circled Manaslu, admiring the mass of snow on the slopes. Samir commented that it was an unusual amount of snow and it would be difficult to cross the pass. There would also be a danger of avalanches.

We spent a night in the tents above Philim and started walking early next morning. The narrow trail was crowded with trekkers and caravans of mules headed for Larkhe Pass on the Manaslu circuit. We walked along it for about 2 hours. Then before the hanging bridge the path split into two — one toward Larkhe La, another toward Tsum Valley. The endless stream of people and caravans turned towards Larkhe La. We headed toward Tsum. From that point on we were alone on the narrow path. After about an hour of strenuous climb we stopped for a short break in a tea shop of Lokpa village. The whole village was about 10 houses and 2 newly build guesthouses. It started raining while we were sipping our tea and we were tempted to halt but then decided to continue. Rain soon stopped and we entered Tsum Valley through a formal gate. The scenery was amazing – lots of trees, bamboos and rhododendrons covered with pink flowers against a blue sky and mountains all around. The sun was shining but the breeze from the mountains was cool so it was not hot. I felt deeply happy and alive and whole.

We had barely walked for about 1km in the valley when first earthquake struck. We were very very very very lucky and blessed that we decided to have an early lunch because we spotted a nice clearing next to the river. We sat near the water joking and unpacking lunchbox when suddenly everything went still. Everything was silent and only the murmur of water continued. Then a sound like that of 10 huge planes taking off spread from everywhere and nowhere. The earth started shaking so violently that we could hardly stand. In that moment I still didn’t realize that it was an earthquake.

For some reason I was not scared. From the very beginning to the end I felt protected and sure that nothing bad would happen to us but we did have a very narrow escape. If we had not stopped for lunch or had been a little early or late, we would have been on the narrow path with nowhere to hide from the stones, broken trees and rocks falling from the mountain.

As the earthquake continued we ran across the river to a small island covered with bushes and trees and took shelter behind a big tree. Later we discovered that the island was full of nettles and we all were badly stung but at that time nobody noticed it. The tremors were very long up, to 55 sec and they came again and again. We could hardly see anything around because of the dust from fallen rocks and landslides. Chime and my friend Rita were so scared they hugged the tree, clinging to each other with one reciting Buddhist prayers and the other – Christian. Chime stayed in shock and misery for the next days. He actually felt responsible for the earthquake because just before it started he cut a brunch of a tree and he was convinced that this must of offended a powerful local protector deity.

Bhupen and Samir were very calm, alert and protective throughout. Samir is a tall man with long arms and he literally flung them around us as protection from one side with the tree on the other and the stones and rocks falling all around. One small stone hit his back. Fortunately he had his toughened protective camera bag pack on. That small stone was like a bullet – it broke through all protective layers and smashed his camera lens.

For about an hour we stayed on that island. I phoned through satellite phone to my son Urgyen in Delhi who told us that the magnitude of the quake was 7,9 and that we were about 20 km from the epicenter. All of a sudden there was another one. It was not as strong as the first but it seemed to do even more damage. Many more rocks and stones than before were falling.

At that time we got concerned about both fire and water. Fire because we could see multiple sparks flying around when rocks hit each other and water because the fast strong narrow river was getting blocked with huge rocks and boulders posing a danger of flooding of our small refuge island. After some time we decided that the safest was to try to get back to Lokpa village. The path we came by was damaged so badly that instead of 20 min it took us more than 2 hours to come down; crawling under the broken trees and climbing over fallen rocks. In Lokpa we met some locals and an American couple called Jennifer and Andy. It was total chaos with some of the people crying, some trying to pull out belongings from damaged houses, others sitting silently with frozen faces, and still others gathering in small groups, exchanging experiences. Frightened animals were running helter skelter. We were told that the road to Philim was destroyed by the landslides and a whole caravan of 11 mules went down with it. The owner of the mules was sitting in the dust. His face was covered with blood and he was sobbing continuously. He almost lost his life and he had certainly lost all his livelihood. The next few hours people kept pouring in with more stories — another caravan lost half of the animals… one more caravan’s mules got stuck under a big rock, badly injured. The owner was running from one person to another crying: “Help me to kill them!”. But nobody dared to approach the poor animals out of fear of the falling stones and they kept screaming and screaming.

Surprisingly only two houses in Lokpa were damaged and a small village above it was also intact. It gave us a hope — may be in spite of looking so clumsy and unsteady these houses are really strong and earthquake resistant? May be people here knew how to build? Our hopes were shattered at night when a few foreigners — a Spanish couple Eli and Pol and American girl Sandy walked in falling with exhaustion. They managed to walk along the destroyed path all the way from Sardi – the first of 20 Tsum Valley villages. They saw how the village of about 60 houses was wiped out till the last house. It was unbelievably fortunate that nobody died and only few people sustained minor injuries. This happened because one of the Tsum monasteries was holding it’s annual festival in a big open field next to the monastery. People from all neighboring villages gathered there and so the houses were empty. Sandy told us that the next village was also completely flattened out. Aftershocks came continuously one after another every 1-2 hours and after some time people almost stopped reacting. I said: “Just pay attention to the birds. If they stop singing, it’s serious.” Bhupen looked at me and said: “I think it might be not a reliable sign any more. Even the birds have got used to these endless tremors.”

At night we didn’t dare to stay in the concrete building of the guesthouse but pitched a tent. Even there we hardly could sleep waiting for the next big one. In the morning we were trying to figure out what were our options. The only way out of the valley – a narrow path toward Philim was badly damaged but villagers told us that it was still possible to move along it. All foreigners and Nepali guides got together and after a short discussion everybody agreed that it was too dangerous to walk that path as loose stones were continuously falling down. We had enough food and nobody was hurt so we decided to wait for a few days and then slowly start walking towards Arughat Bazar from where starts a paved road to Kathmandu. At the same time Bhupen and Samir were constantly in touch with Santosh – the director of Fantastic Nepal Holidays tourist company, the one who organized our trek. Santosh spent two days between the airport and the Ministry of Home Affairs and with a lot of help from many people he achieved the impossible – on the third day the helicopter came and we were transported to Kathmandu. The landscape on the way back was drastically different from what we had seen just 3 days ago. Most of the villages were flattened out and bright orange polythine sheets were stretched everywhere. Blocked roads, broken trees, mountains and hills split open – the whole land was like a twisted wounded body.

I started writing this on the plane coming back home. I needed to write about it. I felt like a soldier who came back from the war – I couldn’t think about anything else, those Nepal memories were somehow more real then the reality around. At the same time I couldn’t talk about it with people who haven’t been there.

I spent in Nepal earthquake only 3 days but it feels like months. My experience was very limited and nothing compared to that of others but as soon as I close my eyes I see it again and again – wounded mountains, flattened villages, broken trees, broken bodies. I remember that when it just began and everything was moving around and I still couldn’t accept that it was an earthquake I had a distinct feeling that my life has been changed forever. Later, in Lokpa, at night in the tent I was trying to understand why this was. I still don’t know the answer. What I know is that I have to help to rebuild broken lives.

Common sense and what I saw in Kathmandu and the villages tells me that in big organisations the money and efforts might be easily wasted, especially when there is such little coordination such as we saw in Nepal. So we are planning on keeping it small. Also we will choose one area and concentrate our efforts there. Maybe Tsum Valley or any other place which does not get adequate help.

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How it  Developed

May 20th, 2015, New Delhi

During the last few days I met twice with Ajit Chadhuri who is a general manager of  Tata Sustainability Group specializinng in delivering aid for disaster hit areas  and an old friend.  Ajit gave me a crash course in how it is usually done.

He said that within 2-6 months the goverment normally announces a compensation  package. Until people receive it they dont want help from NGOs because otherwise they will lose the package. According to his experience even if you are a  ten family village each family wants a different house and people prefer to build it themselves. You can offer assistance but it should be individual and mindful. It is another story with the community buildings like schools etc. Tsum villages didn’t have proper shools even before the earthquake. It seems that this is where we can offer help.

 

June 10, 2015

I came to Ktm for a week on May 23 just to meet people and make a plan for the post monsoon project  of rebuilding schools in Tsum and Nubri valleys. Being here completely changed my perspective and I decided we must do some immediate relief as well. I couldn’t start this work without my nepali  friends Bhupen and Santosh who supported the idea and are working tirelessly to make it come true.

After many discussians with locals of Tsum residing in Ktm we developed a project Cash for Work – building 215 temporary tarpaulin shelters for monsoon. Tata Sustanability   supported the project and gave us tarps but nothing more. To fucilitate the project I appealed to all of you for donations and we met the target $15200 on June 7th. We immediately got in touch with Tsum Welfare Committee for execution of the project but were informed, that by that time enough of tarpalins  were brought into the valley by different agencies.  At the same time with monsoon approaching villages worried that they didn’t have enough food to last them through. In upper Tsum they have enough rice and dal for 2 months but don’t have cooking oil, sugar, salt and chillies. In Lower Tsum people are generally more poor and have less acssess to the resorses. They have only 1 months supplys in stock and asked to rice and dall and the rest for another 1 month. During the earthquake the paths into the valley were completely destroied. It was an attempt by WFP (World Food Program) to open an alternative rout through Larkhe la pass and Nepali government discussed with Chenese goverment the possibility of opening the border crossings one month earlier (usually they open during month of august for the trade of yartsa gumbu). Both of routs if open would give the Tsum residence an access to  the food markets.  Unfortunately both didn’t work because of extremely high amount of snow on the passes.

So we calculated the amount of supplies for Upper and Lower Tsum separately. Both have about 270 households each, 5 people per house plus monks and nuns in about 20 small monasteries across this holy valley. So total comes to 1500 people in each part.  We planned to deliver 1630kg of supplies to Upper Tsum and 8160kg to Lower Tsum. Small helicopter can take up to 500kg, big one 2000kg. With this load we could use only the big ones.  Other then Nepali military ( who refused to give access) the only agency in Nepal who has big heli is WFP. We booked a helicopter them a week ago on June 9. We requested date June 15th for lower Tsum and June 18th Upper Tsum delivery.  Unfortunately with the affected area without road access being so huge and only 3 helicopters operating we were told just to wait for our chance. Every morning (other then last 2 days when we went to Sindupalchok district) two of us went to WFP helicopter office in the airport to remind about our need and every time we were told to be patient. Monsoon is already here. Helicopters can operate only morning hours and not every day. It became difficult to plan how many days it might take us to get out of the valley if we will get in because we can’t fly back with the same helicopter, we have to stay and see the distributing of relief and now we cant be sure when the next helicopter can fly in. So we decided that if we will get a helicopter in the next 5 days we will still carry on with the delivery. If not we have to abort this project and start forming the plan for the post monsoon schools rebuilding.

 

6th July 2015, New Delhi

I am very happy to share that we used your money well and delivered some much needed food relief to Tsum valley villages before the monsoon. We were really lucky to get in touch with Logistics Cluster (transport unit of WFP). Those people are amazing and the work they have done in Nepal has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in remote mountain villages.  We are extremely grateful to our helicopter crew and its captain KC who flew both ways in very difficult monsoon conditions.

Bhupen and I flew to Tsum on June 22 and came back on June 25th.  We monitored the unloading, storage and distribution of the relief (pls see pic attached at the end). Everything went very well  – orderly and according to the list of village households. It was also a joyful event, with everybody participating…ranging from kids of 5-6 years to elders of 80 and beyond.

In Tsum they speak mostly a dialect of the Tibetan Language. With my knowledge of Tibetan I could understand those who were educated and who spoke classical Tibetan quite well but hardly those who spoke the dialect.  According to Bhupen local Nepali was not that easy to understand either.  We both tried to talk to as many people as possible hoping that it will show us how to help them in the best possible manner. 

When Bhupen and I returned to Kathmandu all of us had a discussion and agreed that we want to keep working not only in Tsum but in other mountain valleys as well to help those amazing people return to their normal life. We are still in the process of finalizing our plans and preparing budgets.

Because we managed to get free helicopters from WFP we spent only  $8,560 out of $15,200 which we raised for the immediate relief operation. So we have some money to start preparations for our work after the monsoon.

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