Humans of GIVE:
Lhakpa Tamang Jangba
By Daniel Trevor
Lhakpa Tamang Jangba had just walked into his bakery, a bakery passed down to him by his late father, when the earthquake struck. It was 11:56 AM on April 25, 2015, a “Black Day” in Nepal’s history; one that will never be forgotten by those who lived through it. Arguably no region suffered more through this tragedy than the alpine communities of the Langtang Valley – Lhakpa’s home.
Lhakpa Tamang Jangba in front of his bakery
During the initial shocks, Lhakpa watched in terror as the walls of his bakery’s kitchen and dining room began to crumble all around him. Just moments after the quake had finally subsided, a “big blasting noise,” sent him running for his life. He had heard avalanches many times before, but nothing even close to this magnitude. He ducked behind a concrete barrier outside the bakery as his neighbors sprinted past him in terror, trying to get as far away from the terrible sound as possible. Lhakpa called as many people over as he could, offering shelter from the 200 mph gusts of snow, stone and debris making its way up the valley. The ensuing blast was so powerful that people could barely breathe for several minutes. Had it gone on much longer, Lhakpa believes they all would have suffocated to death.
When the avalanche finally settled, the scale of its destruction became devastatingly clear, with the crumbling remains of homes, businesses and monasteries strewn throughout the village. For 2-3 minutes, Lhakpa could hear nothing except a ringing in his ears, only to have that silence broken by the screams and cries of his neighbors as his hearing returned. He was relatively unscathed, but all around him people were suffering; he did everything in his power to help the most critical among them.
Kyanjin Gomba Post-Earthquake (Courtesy of the Toronto Star)
Lhakpa’s thoughts soon turned to his family. His wife had taken their children to school in Kathmandu just a few days before, but his mother’s home was in the community of Langtang, which seemed to have been hit directly by the avalanche. So, he made his way down the valley, dodging boulders as they tumbled from the mountains above. When he finally arrived in Langtang, a village he had visited earlier that morning, he could barely even recognize it. Where hundreds of homes, guesthouses, restaurants and monasteries had stood just hours before, there was only snow, ice, rock and, heartbreakingly, the bodies of those who did not survive, including Lhakpa’s mother.
It is estimated that 243 people died in Langtang that day, but the loss was far greater than that. Langtang was the biggest settlement in the valley, so everyone from the surrounding villages had family there. With limited access to modern banking, this is also where most families stored their savings; valuables such as money, jewelry and gold they had been saving for up to 40 years. Not only did these people lose members of their family, most of them also lost their entire life savings. As Lhakpa describes it, “You had to restart your life from zero.”
Langtang Village Before & After the Earthquake (Courtesy of NASA)
It was four days until Lhakpa was able to board a rescue helicopter out of the Langtang Valley. Four days living outside with a few hundred other survivors, searching for food amidst the rubble and sleeping behind boulders to protect himself from the elements. Upon arrival in the nearby town of Dhunche, he immediately informed local officials of the desperation in Langtang and asked them to send additional food and rescue personnel. He then made his way to Kathmandu to be with his wife and children, who had fortunately survived widespread destruction in the capital city.
As the days passed, Lhakpa learned of other survivors who had been rescued and relocated to Kathmandu, so he and other local leaders gathered as many people as they could to discuss the next steps for their fragmented community. This core group found a large, old monastery in Kathmandu, where resident lamas allowed them to establish a refugee camp. Using this camp as a base, they searched all over the city’s airports, hospitals and refugee camps for more survivors to bring back to camp. With everyone now organized in one place, it was much easier to make quick decisions on how to move forward.
Langtang Valley Survivors Discuss Plans for Rebuilding in May 2015 (Courtesy of Sustainable Steps Nepal)
One key decision was made right away: they must return to the valley and reestablish tourism as soon as possible. Prior to the earthquake, 85-90% of families were dependent on tourism and, given the restrictions on agriculture in this protected alpine region, there were no other viable sources of income. Local leaders worried that, without tourism, the younger generation would leave the valley in search of greater economic opportunities in neighboring cities and countries, and the older generation wouldn’t be able to rebuild on their own. They feared that the loss of tourism could ultimately lead to the loss of their cherished history and culture.
Lhakpa and other local leaders successfully rallied survivors around this mission to return and save the Langtang Valley. They started by establishing temporary shelters where their homes had once stood, and then utilized their local and international connections to secure funding for building materials and transportation. From there, the villagers worked together to slowly rebuild their homes and infrastructure for the tourism industry. In Lhakpa’s words, “It’s all about local leadership. If we had waited any longer to organize and start rebuilding Langtang, our community could have been lost. During this rebuilding period we suffered a lot, but we didn’t lose hope… To live on, you have to push everything aside and move on.”
That hope is clearly evident when walking through the valley today. Most families’ homes have been rebuilt, dozens of guesthouses and restaurants are up and running, and tourists are once again trekking through this stunning valley in the heart of the Himalayas. Starting in May 2019, GIVE is incredibly excited to begin our own journey into the Langtang Valley. Where we will be working alongside community members to rebuild the Langtang Primary School, teaching English to local children and adults, and further promoting community development through social tourism initiatives.
Overlooking Kyanjin Gomba in June 2018
Towards the end of each trip, we’ll also get to spend two days in Lhakpa’s village of Kyanjin Gomba. His bakery is once again open for business and I wholeheartedly recommend you stop by for a hot cup of tea and a slice of his famous apple pie. More importantly, pull up a chair and listen to the incredible stories this man has to tell. The stories of a local social entrepreneur who is dedicated to bringing hope back to the Langtang Valley, one slice of pie at a time.