The Long Way Home – on the road to Dolpa

7183090The Long Way Home is a story of hope and happiness. It is set in Nepal. It is a story of sacrifice and love. It is a story of opportunity – or more accurately a lack of it. It is a saga of sadness and despair as well. There is drama and adventure and there is laughter and tears. There are many a paradox in this tale.

The story commences in the ancient and magical city of Kathmandu and then it moves to the beautiful but rugged Himalaya mountain ranges. It is a tale of journeys; these are both emotional and physical – the former on a path to adulthood and the latter to a place called home.

The characters in this narrative are vibrant and colourful – not because I have written them this way but because it is the way that they are. There is a holy man who is the reincarnation of one of the manifestations of the Lord Buddha. His name is Rinpoche and he is the founder and patron of a school for the children of Tibetan refugees. There is the granddaughter of the man who first climbed Mount Everest and there is a quirky and affable traveller from Taiwan. There is a collection of trekking guides and there is my younger brother Richard. There is me too but I am a minor player – I am more a recorder of events.

The central characters are a group of six Nepalese children. Their names are Karma, Pema, Saharata, Bikash, Bishunath & Ayush. Karma is the only girl in the group and her village is the furthest away from Kathmandu. The children are all either 16 or 17 years old – so they are on the cusp of adulthood. The children come from villages in a region that is so far away from Kathmandu and so remote from society that there are no roads or electricity or telephones. There is no Internet or television or other things that we people from first world countries take for granted.

These children come from the Dolpa region of western Nepal. The Dolpa is a very secluded and isolated part of the country that is of such a high altitude that the mountain slopes are constantly covered in snow. There are no accurate numbers of the occupants of the Dolpa and the upper Dolpa regions however it is estimated that no more than 15,000 people reside there. The occupants of the land are direct descendants of the Bon. This is a religion that pre-dates Buddhism – however it has morphed into what is now been labeled Tibetan Buddhism. The people who live in the Dolpa are sustenance farmers. They grow what they eat and if they do not grow enough then they starve. They are rugged and tough mountain people.

They are survivors.

The six children that this story is about were chosen by their tiny communities to go to Kathmandu. They were identified and then selected at an early age as being the smartest of their lot. The sole purpose of them going to the nation’s capital was to get an education. At the age of seven all six of these children – and five others from this year group were collected together and with adult guides they first walked and then rode and then walked again for more than two weeks. This walk involved climbing in some parts over mountain that were more than five and half thousand meters high. There were no roads to follow – only tracks that had been used by shepherds and other villagers for more than a thousand years.

Along the way these children and their adult guides slept in caves and they carried their own food and their meager possessions. This was a change of clothes and little else and they wore battered shoes passed down from older brothers or sisters. After fourteen days of walking, and as they got closer to Kathmandu -they were able to catch local buses. Don’t think buses as we imagine them – these are old and worn jalopies crammed full of people and animals and other livestock. Some of the children rode on top of the jalopies, as there was no room inside. The vehicles lunged and rattled down roadways with perilous drops into crevices and valleys then crawled their way up steep inclines. Finally, after nearly four weeks of travel these tired and frightened children arrived at the Snowland school. Here older children – also from the Dolpa – and all of who had made the same journey when they were the same age, met them. In some instances the younger children had elder siblings already at Snowland.

Thus began what was a ten year stint of education and none of these children were to visit home again in this period. The journey was simply too far and beyond the means of their families. All of this was only made possible by the efforts of the Holy man and monk Rinpoche. He established the school for the children of the Dolpa and Mustang regions of Nepal in 2002 and he named it Snowland – a most appropriate name for children from the Dolpa region.

This year – in 2014, or 2071 in the Nepali calendar there are one hundred and thirty six children at the Snowland school. The age range is from seven to seventeen. Snowland is where they live and they go to school. It is their home away from home. Classes are conducted six days of each week with small breaks for the many Buddhist and Hindi festivals that occur in Nepal. The school and the children are principally supported by the funds that the monk Rinpoche raises through his many followers although other charities help out as well. Mine is one such charity.

The children of Snowland more commonly know Guru Ranag Rinchen Rinpoche as Dolpo Buddha – or simply ‘Guru’. To me he is Rinpoche – and whilst I am not a follower or devotee of his, he has become my good friend. He is actually Taiwanese of birth and he divides his time equally between Taipei and Kathmandu. He is a healer and he has followers from around the world. His temple – or monastery – lies in amongst a cluster of other monasteries known as Shey Gompa – and it has been the seat of his ancestors called the Dolpo Shel-ri Rinpoches for more than one thousand years.

The Guru’s monastery is in the very faraway region of the upper Dolpo and sits at about five thousand meters above sea level. Monks constructed it by hand on a narrow precipice and in some places it has been carved out of red rock. It is located within a cradle of the Himalaya ranges and lies in the shadow of a sacred mountain called Shelri Drug Dra in the Nepali language – but is known as the Crystal Mountain by we Westerners.

All of the students at the Snowland School are from these mountain regions that lie against the border with Tibet and they were born in villages from the Solukhumbu, Mustang, Mugu, Jumla and Humla districts of the Dolpa. Many of their families are in fact refugees who fled from the Tibetan side of the Himalaya when the Chinese invaded and occupied the country in 2008. They fled for their lives. The mountain people who reside in these regions that buffer Tibet are all Buddhists and were persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Fancy that.

I will write more of the Guru Rinpoche a bit later – you will have to buy the book. His story and his history is a fascinating one and it is central and interwoven with the tale of the six children.

I have been visiting Nepal for many years now. It is not very far from where I live in Singapore – only five hours on a plane – although Australia is actually my home. Nepal is quite far from there. Everywhere is quite far from Australia. I am an expatriate and I have been living in Singapore now for more than five years. My work requires that I travel a lot and particularly to India. I work often in Delhi and Kathmandu is even closer to there. It is a little over an hour by plane and flights are cheap.

They are as cheap as chips.

Who I work for or what I do for a living is of no consequence to this story and the tale is not about me anyhow. It is about the children and the Snowland school and it is about going home.

I first went to Nepal with a group of people at my work following a general invitation by a girl named Jessie. I didn’t know Jessie at all then but now she is a dear friend. We went to teach children English in a small village called Katunge.

Say it Kar-tun-jay.

Katunge is only a couple of hundred kilometers from Kathmandu but it is still very remote. The road to Katunge from Dhading was first built only ten years ago and it is not really a road anyway. It is a rutted and pitted track that only four-wheeled drive vehicles can travel and even then only for four months of the year. During and after the monsoon rains the road turns to mud. I am always physically battered and bruised when I travel to Katunge for it is a very bumpy ride. My ass gets sore.

Very tough journeys are often required to reach the best destinations.

I learnt this a long time ago.

I was spellbound by the beauty of the vista of Katunge and even moreso by the people of Nepal – particularly the children. I like to sit on the verandah of the little visitor centre that we built up there at night. I can then see lights coming on in the village on the other side of the valley. I can’t remember its name.

They also appear from some scattered farms down near the river. They are pale lights that flicker and I think that they are lanterns. There is never any sound at night. None whatsoever. It is surreal and serene and it is very peaceful. Where I live in Singapore there is always noise of traffic and people.

Katunge is a good place for reflection and contemplation and consideration and I do that often up there. To get such moments in such places is very rare and it is almost magic. We need to snatch these moments when we can and make the most of them. I learned this long ago as well.

My friend and work colleague Jessie and I returned to Singapore after a week in Katunge all those years ago and we decided almost instantly that we wanted to return. We thought we could help better the school that we visited and provide more opportunity for the mountain children. Thus began our own journey and one that we continue to day and will continue forever. That is my hope at least.

Jessie and I started a program to add buildings to schools and to sponsor the education of children – particularly the girls of Nepal who were denied more opportunity than boys – not that there is a great deal of opportunity of boys though. We formed our own little NGO and we raised funds to build physical properties. Many of the children we first visited walked for up to two hours each day to get to school and a further two hours to walk home. They walked up and down mountains and through great valleys.

I have a passion for renewable energy so we also decked them out with solar energy. There is no electricity in the mountains and even in Kathmandu load shedding is a constant. It is the norm for the city to be without power for more than twelve hours each day.

Fancy that as well.

We decided too that we needed to get more people involved in our program and to do this we had to get people from Singapore and Hong Kong and Australia to visit Nepal. We hoped that they in turn would connect – as we had – with the children of Nepal and this would help get their support. This was Jessie’s forte and she focused on arranging groups of volunteers to visit Nepal three or four or five times a year. She still does. We discovered as well that the quality of education was dependent on the quality of teachers that were in the schools so we established connections within the education system in Kathmandu and we hunted for and then found good teachers. Then we paid their salaries – a little bit more than they would normally earn.

We still do.

Jessie also arranges for dentists to visit the mountain children every second year. She recruits them from her native Taiwan and they set up clinics in dirt-floor classrooms where with their field kits they do fillings and extractions. Yes extractions. It is quite brutal. The program has grown and grown.

We discovered as well that education in the mountains finishes at about age twelve and if children wish to or their families can afford it – they must go and live in Kathmandu. Most families are unable to afford this. Of the twelve million children that reside in Nepal more than fourty percent finish their schooling at aged twelve. I am not making these numbers up – UNICEF publishes them.

Look them up for yourself.

So we started to look for a school in Kathmandu who could cater for these children and in our search we stumbled across a place called Snowland. Well Jessie did actually. It wasn’t what we were after – as it was specifically for the Buddhist children of the Dolpa region – but it and the children’s story first captured our attention and then it captivated our hearts. This was about three years ago.

We did find the high school we were seeking for our mountain children but that is a different story.

I won’t tell it here.

When we talked to the children of Snowland and they revealed that they had not been home or seen their families for a decade our hearts broke. Tears were shed. I am a parent and such separation is unimaginable. So we established a “Going Home program’’ then and there and we have been running it now for two years. For the children that have completed Year Ten we pay for their airfares on the 2 small planes that are required to get close to the Dolpa region. These are old and word propeller planes that take off and land on perilous runways. We pay for bus tickets for the 3 or 4 jalopy journeys that are required and we pay for the hiring of horses. We meet the costs of the mountain guides that accompany the children and we buy appropriate food provisions for each child and guide to take with them. There are no shops and few houses along the way. We buy each child warm clothing – for their return to the upper Dolpa is through ice and snow. None of the children’s families could ever afford such expenses.

The first year we got involved there were seven Year Ten graduates and we hooked up with a small travel agency that arranged all of the transportation arrangements and found us the guides that we needed. Some Nepali friends of ours in Kathmandu took the children shopping with money we gave them to by the clothing and the food. We also gave the children enough money to make the return trip and a little extra for their families – for they would after all have an extra mouth to feed for three months. That first year we wrote the cheques that were required to the travel agent and we handed out the money that was needed – and the kids went home. We did all of this from Singapore.

This year there were eleven Year Ten graduates. I happened to be in Nepal doing some work in the Katunge schools – mainly servicing the solar panels – about the time they were to leave. I was with my younger brother Richard. We go to Nepal together often. When we returned to Kathmandu and went to Snowland we met for the first time the kids going home this year. It was only a couple of weeks before they were leaving and they were very excited.

Richard and I got very caught up in the excitement of it all and whilst I was off assisting with all the travel arrangements and paying our travel agent my brother Richard spent a lot of time with the kids. He got told some of their stories. We were only a few days from leaving Nepal at that stage – me to Singapore and Richard to Australia. The next day Richard told me that he was going to stay on in Nepal and go home with them.

I was a bit gob smacked but not at all surprised. Richard is a bit of dreamer and an adventurer and he is a father himself. He wanted to witness and be a part of these family reunions that were a decade overdue. He did not invite me for he knew that I could not make such a trip – as I would simply be physically incapable of it. Altitude sickness set in for me at a height of 4200 meters a year or so back on my way to see an old mountain monastery. The journey the children were to make was up and over then up again mountains that were 5500 meters high.

I simply could not physically do it.

By pure chance a friend of Jessie’s who was Taiwanese dude named Sylar was travelling in Nepal at that time. Jessie suggested we meet up and we did. When we told him the story about Snowland and the Going Home program he said he wanted to come too.

So it was Richard and Sylar that took all eleven of the children shopping for warm clothing and for food provisions. Five of the children came from a region adjacent to Dolpa called Mustang and they set out with the guides we had engaged and they were equipped with food and warm clothing. The other group of six who came from villages in the Dolpa and Upper Dolpa regions went with two guides who all had warm clothes and food provisions as well. They departed with Richard and Sylar who were equipped with video and still cameras and solar chargers for these devices. They planned to record as much of the journey as they could by film – including interviews with the six children to better understand their expectations for the reunions with their families and their homes – and to find out what they planned to do next. We wanted to know what their dreams and aspirations were and how they had been affected by being away from their villages and their families for so long.

Richard and Sylar are back now and they have many funny and sad and emotional stories to tell. The many memory sticks and portable hard drives they took with them are full. Accompanying my words will be many photographs of the children and the journey and the reunions with their families.

It is the story of the children that I am going to tell in a book I am now writing.Like the rivers during the snow melts in the Himalaya the words are flowing.

It is the story of the Long Way Home

Like the all the best apologues – it is true.

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