Navigating Nepal

A trip to Nepal showed one filmmaker just how important tourism is to the country

0
Luke Mislinski

Luke Mislinski had been in Nepal for a month by the time he met two of his friends in Kathmandu. The three Americans were milling about the intricate temples and fountains of Durbar Square in the country’s capitol when a Nepali man approached the group, offering a tour of the historic site for around 200 Nepali rupees per person — less than $2 each. Mislinski’s companions, new to the country, politely declined his offer.

“They said, ‘No, we’re not interested. We just want to see things ourselves,’” Mislinski says. “It’s that natural hesitance, whether it’s bred out of mistrust or a sense of independence we have as Westerners that we want to do things ourselves.”

Within 10 minutes the Americans had walked through the whole square.

As the group walked back through the square, the Nepali man approached them again, courteously, Mislinski says, this time with a binder in his hands. Inside the binder was his tourism license — a requirement for all Nepali guides, whether they lead treks or cultural tours — and page upon page of letters.

“The thing was full, like an inch thick of handwritten letters with photographs pasted to them of all these people from all over the world that had hired him as a guide — people having the time of their lives with him,” Mislinski says. “So we went with him and had the best tour I’ve ever had anywhere.

“He really had a lot of pride in his country, and that’s something we saw over and over again — so much pride,” he says. “You hear it over and over again, and it’s hard to soak in and understand, but after being there for two months you really believe it: [people] say that to [Nepalis], guests are like gods. Tourists are like gods to them. Hospitality is one of the most important parts of their culture. And it’s the most important thing to them economically too because they recognize how important it is for them to keep that money coming in. It’s that type of message I’d like people to pick up — you can go here and make a difference in people’s lives and have a wonderful time yourself.”

To deliver this message, Mislinski has spent the last year working on a documentary about this recurring theme he saw as he traveled Nepal for two months: people in nearly every region of the country leading localized, sustainable tourism ventures to create better lives for their families and communities, using tourism to finance educational opportunities, infrastructure for clean water and electricity, and basic medical care facilities and staff for communities that lack these critical systems.

Folks can join Mislinski as he discusses sustainable tourism in Nepal at a fundraiser at Neptune Mountaineering on Thursday, June 18.

“It’s about [creating tourism] that can provide employment and resources for people in a community,” Mislinski says, “and for people working in tourism generation after generation, in a way that sustains the tourism industry in positive ways that give back to the community.”

Ultimately, Mislinski says, it’s about creating a better quality of life in a beautiful, friendly country that has endured widespread poverty and political uncertainty.

The long-time photographer and first time filmmaker says his goal with The Karma Documentary, its working title, was always two-fold: first, to show that Nepal is a diverse country, culturally and geographically, with much to offer travelers beyond the storied peak of Everest; and second, to show a different way of traveling — one that might make some Westerners a bit uncomfortable.

“There’s a different way to travel that can help the people [in Nepal] that is different than what we typically do as Americans,” he says. “It’s fine to use travel agents to do initial planning, to get your plane tickets and maybe get set on what part of the country you want to go to, but once you get there it’s better to meet the local guides — let them know your needs and they’ll take you through the whole country. They’ll introduce you to their friends and family. You can stay in people’s homes if you want, you can stay in nice hotels if you want — they’ll make all the arrangements for you, and in that way you put as much money into the hands of locals as possible.”

But while the underlying mission of the documentary has remained steadfast, the scope of the film has grown. It started in 2013 when Mislinski got a call from his friend Glen Young, a life-long alpine guide and outdoor educator. Young was calling to ask if Mislinski wanted to travel to Nepal in the spring to photograph the first trek a locally owned tourism company in a village called Sibuje made with clients. Young, along with a man named Karma Geljen Sherpa, founded the company, Higher Path Treks and Expenditions, to help the village.

Sibuje is a small farming community near the border of the Everest region in Nepal, home to just more than a dozen families. Within the village there is no medical clinic, road, electricity, plumbing or sanitation system. School in the village is taught only to third grade by a teacher who is funded year to year by an NGO. Climate change has altered rain patterns, making crop yields unpredictable for this community of mostly subsistence farmers. While Glen Young met Karma Sherpa in 2008, it wasn’t until 2011 that Young traveled to Sibuje and saw the conditions that shaped his tenacious friend.

“It was a difficult experience in some ways, to see what life was like on a daily basis,” Young says. “But the spirit of people… they were so gracious and kind in having us there. Before we left, Karma asked if there’s some way we could help.”

The community wanted electricity through a micro-hydro system, but Young had no background in micro-hydro systems, and his initial research indicated such a system would be expensive and require extensive infrastructure. So eventually, after many Skype conversations with Karma, the men came up with a more sustainable plan — a local tourism company that would ultimately fund the microhydro project and more going forward.

The story was so compelling that Mislinski suggested he not only photograph the trek, but make a film — his first film, in fact.

“That’s another piece to it, too — we wanted to show that with the confluence of technology, video enabled DSLRs, if you have a good story you can still make a film. You don’t need a huge film crew, you don’t need a huge budget, but you have to have a great story.”

And maybe a friend to help out: Mislinski invited his childhood friend Christen Babb along for the journey. While Mislinski describes Babb as “tough,” having grown up with her in South Dakota, she’d never trekked before, and actually bought her first hiking boots for their 18-day trip into the Himalayas.

“She loved it. We wanted to show that you can get into the Himalayas even if you aren’t a hardcore mountaineer,” Mislinski says. “I’m not a hardcore mountaineer. I’m a skier, a little rock climbing with my brother here [in Boulder] — just enough to be dangerous. I backpack and do long canoe trips. I’m middle of the road as far as that stuff goes.

“We saw many other people in their 50s or 60s trekking the same trek we were trekking,” he says. “Even if the mountains and outdoors aren’t your thing, it’s an incredibly diverse country culturally and religiously.”

A group of four Americans — Glenn Young, his girlfriend Rebecca, Mislinski and Babb — began their adventure in Lukla, where all treks to Everest basecamp begin, and by their fourth day in the country they were in Karma Sherpa’s village of Sibuje. They trekked to Mera Peak, the highest trekking peak in Nepal, where a number of the folks in the group reached the summit of the 21,000-foot peak. Their final journey took them back to Kathmandu.

Mislinski then spent a few days in the village of Changunarayan on the outskirts of Kathmandu with Babb and a couple of other friends before his traveling companions made their way back to the U.S. Mislinski was originally planning to head to India for a month to visit friends, but it was during those days on the hillside village overlooking the Kathmandu Valley when Mislinski changed his plans.

“Meeting the shop owners and restaurant owners and the guest house owners and just the villagers — they treated us like family. Telling them about the film and they were saying, ‘Go here, go here. Tourism touches this, and it touches that.’ That’s when it dawned on me I need to stay in Nepal and film for another month and see the rest of the country and really dig into this element of tourism,” Mislinski says. “I was learning everyone else in the country is very much attuned to what’s going on in the Solukhumbu District (the Everest Region). They’ve seen the development that’s happened. They see the benefit that the Sherpas and the other mountain ethnicities have gotten from this. They’ve seen schools being built. They’ve seen investment.”

And for the next month, Mislinski traveled to the three major geographic locations in Nepal — the Terai region (the flatlands of Nepal), the Hill region and the Mountain region — learning about how each region has built its tourism industry, the struggles they face from competition (whether it comes from cheaper tourism options in India or China, or the magnetic pull of Everest), and even how tourism has changed social relations in a country that still feels the effects of the caste system.

Just as the film was ready to enter post-production, the earthquakes hit Nepal. Mislinski restructured the film’s fundraising campaign to support additional filming in Nepal. This second phase of filming will be done in totality by a Nepali film crew — again, putting money directly in the hands of people who need it most.

“Tourism is needed in Nepal now more than ever because people have built their lives on tourism, some people for 20, 30, 40 years,” says Young. “With changing climate and agricultural practices, people can’t live on subsistence farming anymore. After the earthquake, the media projects a lot of images of hardships and those things are true in specific areas, but adjacent to that are people who have businesses that are relatively undamaged. They can do business and it’s perception that’s stopped them. I’m getting emails and photos every day after the earthquake saying, ‘My lodge is still open, tell people to please come.’”

The film, thus far, has been funded almost entirely out of pocket by Mislinski and Babb. Mislinski says he’s now applying for some grants, and hopes to have the film edited this fall and ready to submit to film festivals across the globe. But there’s still a long way to go, for both the film and the people in Nepal. In May, Mislinski launched a GoFundMe campaign to help collect funds for additional filming and for disaster relief on the ground where it’s needed.

To donate to The Karma Documentary and ground relief, visit http://www.gofundme.com/uash96xk.

ON THE BILL: Nepal Fundraiser with Filmmaker Luke Mislinksi. 8 p.m. Neptune Mountaineering, 633 S. Broadway St., Suite A, Boulder, 303-499-8866.