November 2009
Nepal's New Path
After a decade of civil war, the birthplace of adventure travel is back with a new 1,600-mile, trans-Himalayan trail. It may be time to re-rank your life list.
Text by James Vlahos

I dreamt in music, of singing and clapping reverberating through the starry blackness of a Himalayan night. But when sunlight hit my tent at dawn, the serenade was still going. Following the sound, I crossed terraced fields that stairstepped to what looked like a medieval castle. It was built of intricately chiseled stones, laced by crooked alleys, and topped with colorful, wind-whipped flags. The midnight singers were gathered at the base of the southern wall. They were processing the barley harvest and, to judge by a suspicious level of graveyard shift enthusiasm, had been working—and drinking—all night.

Someone passed me a beer. It was chang, a citrusy beverage that, at 6 a.m., hit the stomach pretty hard. Then a man gave me a woven basket. In a place more accustomed to tourists, I might have been marked immediately as a fleece-wearing ATM. But in Humla, a yet to be discovered destination in a country otherwise well-known for trekking, a guest was something more elemental: an extra set of hands. The man showed me how to scoop barley from a chest-high mound, then shake it so that the chaff fell through. Easy enough, but after half an hour of work, I had sore arms and a sweaty brow. I got another cup of chang, and this time took a deep, satisfying draft.

As the sun warmed the valley, the memory of a subzero night faded. The golden barley mounds around us mimicked the forms of two peaks in the distance—snowy, arrowhead-shaped giants jutting literally miles into a deep-blue sky. I pictured a blindfolded person being flown around the world and deposited in this hidden valley. When the mask was removed, he would almost certainly guess where he was, for there was only one place on Earth this could be: the Himalaya. The world’s greatest mountain range. Nepal, where the modern adventure travel industry was born, and where its focus has newly returned.

Imagine yourself as a surveyor for the British Raj in 1852, forced to scope the height of Everest from a hundred miles away in India. Hiding the very roof of the world would seem impossible, but that is what the Kingdom of Nepal effectively did by restricting all foreign access until the middle of the 20th century. Compelled to get creative, mountaineers attempted to climb Everest from Tibet, and two of them, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, famously perished only a few hundred meters from the top in 1924. It wasn’t until mid-century that King Tribhuvan finally cracked open the hallowed gates.

Traveling adventurously is surely as old as time, but “adventure travel”—the industry, the lifestyle, the passion—didn’t yet exist. It would be hatched in Nepal, its godparents some of mountaineering’s all-time greats, starting with the Englishman Bill Tilman, whose 1949 Himalayan wanderings are considered the very first trek by a foreigner. In 1950 Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal did what no human had ever done before by scaling an 8,000-meter peak, Annapurna I; in 1953 Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summited Everest. People were only slightly less astonished by these feats than they would be when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

The travel revolution began in earnest when Col. Jimmy Roberts, a military attaché to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, had an idea that was radical for its time: If porters, equipment, and guidance were supplied, enthusiastic travelers, and not just mountaineering superheroes, could experience the Himalaya too. He founded Mountain Travel and in 1965 led three American women on an Everest trek. Two years later he and Leo Le Bon, a rock climber and travel agent from Berkeley, California, guided the first commercial Annapurna trek. Le Bon helped launch an American counterpart to Roberts’s enterprise, which has grown into the adventure travel titan now known as Mountain Travel Sobek. The company has since expanded its offerings to all seven continents, but for Le Bon, Nepal will always remain the center of the adventure travel landscape. “You have eight of the 14 highest mountains on Earth,” he says. “Rhododendrons that grow 50 feet tall and spectacular glaciers. Hundreds of tribes with all of their customs. The mix of cultures and religions, Buddhism from Tibet, Hinduism from India. What more do you want?”

But only recently has order been restored to the adventure travel universe, as Nepal shakes off a decade-long civil war that pitted Maoist insurgents against the government and resulted in more than 13,000 deaths. After a peace settlement was negotiated, elections were held in April 2008 to form a new government, and the Maoists emerged as the leading party. The assembly’s first vote transformed what was formerly the world’s only Hindu kingdom into its newest democratic republic. The royal dynasty, more than two centuries old, was toppled, banknotes swapped a portrait of dethroned King Gyanendra for an image of Mount Everest, and thousands of people celebrated on the streets with the words “New Nepal” painted on their faces. At the time of my visit last fall, the new government hadn’t even celebrated its hundred-day anniversary.

Of course, the government is not the only thing that’s changed since the pioneering treks of Roberts and Le Bon. When I arrived in Kathmandu, I was bombarded by the shouting, smog, horns, and motorcycles of a rapidly modernizing, if not fully modern, city. Pedestrians bustled between warrens of half-completed buildings, and local elites squeezed down lanes too narrow for their gleaming black SUVs. Sushi restaurants and fluorescent-lit clothing boutiques stood down the street from crumbling temples patrolled by monkeys.

I rode in a taxi to Thamel, whose restaurant-jammed alleys and intricately carved wooden buildings have lured travelers since the Age of Aquarius, when the first waves of hitchhiking seekers arrived after crossing Europe on the Hippie Trail. The visitors these days looked more likely to be humming Katy Perry than Cat Stevens. They wandered in a happy daze amid dozens of stores selling maps, ice axes, sleeping bags, and the world’s largest supply of counterfeit Mountain Hardwear jackets. Everybody was gearing up for long expeditions, or, with chapped lips and sunburned faces, just coming back. Roberts’s original Mountain Travel outpost was long gone, but it had sired countless guide service progeny who were at the epicenter of an international industry.

As we inched around bicycle rickshaws and street vendors, touts sidled up to the open taxi window and whispered, “Hotel? Trekking? Hash?” Business for all three was booming. Though travelers were never targeted during the war, visitation plunged by nearly half. In 2008, however, nearly 550,000 tourists came, an all-time high. The government, which relies on tourism as a leading source of revenue from overseas, wants the positive momentum to continue. Prachanda Man Shrestha, chief of the Nepal Tourism Board, hopes for one million visitors by 2011. “Tourism,” he says, “is not a choice but a compulsion for the development of Nepal.”

Not coincidentally, the country is creating what is sure to become a magnet for adventure travelers: the Great Himalaya Trail. At 1,600 miles, the GHT is like the Appalachian Trail but on a diet of red meat, anabolic steroids, and nails. The route traverses the length of the loftiest mountain range on Earth, passing subtropical forests, remote villages, and all eight of Nepal’s 8,000-meter peaks. Hiking the entire trail takes four months, about a month less than the AT, and you can hire a single outfitter to coordinate your trek. The alternative, if you don’t have the luxury of that much time, is to cherry-pick GHT segments and enlist outfitters as needed. I had five weeks to test-drive the proposed route, so I carefully selected three of its most spectacular portions: Humla, Annapurna, and Everest.

In a country recovering from civil war, the symbolic value of a nation-spanning route is obvious. But a symbol only means as much as the reality it represents, and Nepal’s route to prosperity is long and perilous. A trail won’t do much, but at least it articulates the promise of the unified nation Nepal would like to become. And it showcases the country’s crown jewels as well as the Himalaya less traveled—places that have remained just as veiled to most outsiders as they were when the only view came through a surveyor’s scope far away.

A roadless, Delaware-size region tucked into the northwestern corner of Nepal, Humla has a mere 43,000 inhabitants living in an unspoiled realm of peaks, pine and rhododendron forests, and deep river gorges. Fewer than a thousand travelers visit annually, consisting mainly of pilgrims making their way to Tibet’s holy Mount Kailas and paddlers drawn to Karnali, one of the greatest, if not best known, expeditionary rivers in the world. Only a handful of visitors make it into the lonely, Tibetan Plateau–like countryside of the Limi Valley, where I had stumbled upon the barley harvest in the village of Til.

I was traveling with representatives of SNV, a Dutch organization that is spearheading the GHT. The agency wanted to test the tourism potential (very high) and infrastructure (very low) of Humla and see how the GHT might spur responsible development along the length of the route. Joining us was Kathmandu-based guide Jamie McGuinness, who in the late 1990s was one of the originators of the GHT idea.

Today, two provisional GHT routes have been identified and will be finessed as their planners get feedback from trekkers and guides. The Main Route has the most economic development potential because it proceeds through the Middle Hills, mostly below 10,000 feet and home to about 45 percent of Nepal’s population. The more spectacular Extreme Route, meanwhile, breaks off to climb into the heart of the Himalaya, crossing dozens of high passes and topping 20,000 feet. As with much of the Continental Divide Trail in the U.S., new pathways didn’t need to be created through the wilderness. Nepal’s mountains are minimally developed, but they offer a wealth of trade and pilgrimage routes. The GHT elegantly connects these existing paths without blazing a single new trail.

Humla exemplified the GHT’s promise of little-known trekking treasures. Snowcapped peaks jutted into a brilliant blue sky. Sheer mountainsides plunged to the Karnali River, turquoise and frothy. Waterfalls plummeted from both sides of a narrow, dark-walled gorge. And this was just the first day. Riding some kind of trekker’s high from the scenery, we cruised way ahead of the porters schlepping our gear. Night fell and the temperature plunged below freezing. We were four people with one sleeping bag and no tent. Only McGuinness was unfazed. “I’ve got a pretty warm jacket,” he said. “You guys can share my sleeping bag.”

A veteran Himalayan wanderer in the finest tradition of Tilman and Roberts, McGuinness, 43, was used to improvising. In the mid-1980s he had dropped out of the University of Auckland to prospect for gold in the Australian outback. Afterward he says he “traveled really rough in a denim jacket and a pair of board shorts with $10,000 stuffed into the pockets.” He guided tourists in Egypt, sold Trans-Siberian Railway tickets, and trained sled dogs in the Arctic. Nepal, as is the case for so many adventure travelers, was the ultimate destination, the place he graduated to after apprenticing elsewhere. McGuinness arrived in 1988 and basically never left, logging thousands of trail miles. All of this walking inspired his simple, superb idea. “Imagine a trail from one end of the Himalaya to the other,” says McGuinness. “Imagine hiking it.”

As the night deepened we reached a stone hut and ducked through the doorway into a cramped room with a dirt floor. Flickering lamplight revealed a woman preparing watery soup over a woodstove. Her husband squatted to her left. Another man—possibly her second husband; polyandry is not uncommon in Humla—sat to the right peeling potatoes and staring blankly into space. “Namaste,” McGuinness said heartily and began chatting in Nepali. The ambience was Deliverance II: The Himalaya, yet McGuinness was chipper. “It’s a toss-up who’s smarter, the potato or the man peeling it,” he quipped.

The hut was smoky and crowded, so I stepped outside into the bracing air. A few other faintly lit huts stood on the slopes nearby, but otherwise the darkness was complete. I heard the trickle of a creek on its long, unhurried journey to the Karnali. A yak stood on a shelf of flat ground by one of the huts, and I imagined that we were of the same mind, thinking about next to nothing and enjoying the chance to be still.

When I heard the voices of the porters an hour later, faint but drawing closer, I was relieved that we would have places to sleep—but disappointed to be less alone. I took a deep breath. The mountains hulked above, dark and indistinct, their masses swelling as if to merge with the blackness of the night itself.

Both in sheer number of peaks and in elevation, the Himalaya dwarfs all other ranges on Earth. Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia, reaches only 22,834 feet, a height too lowly by Nepalese standards to guarantee the dignity of a name. About 40 to 50 million years ago—just yesterday, in geological time—the land destined to become the Himalaya was hidden beneath the Tethys Ocean. Then the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided, and the earth reared up to form some of the planet’s youngest, craggiest, and most active mountains, pushing five millimeters a year farther skyward. Even in the oxygen-starved air atop Everest you can still find fossilized seashells. Far below those heights sit the uncountable undulations of the Middle Hills and the steamy southern plains of the Terai, where, in places, rhinos and tigers still roam.

Nepal’s diversity is a geographer’s dream but a politician’s nightmare, the imposing natural features carving the land into hundreds of zones with scant connection to one another. In a country scarcely larger than Iowa, 92 different languages are spoken by 103 different caste and ethnic groups, including Sherpas, Thakalis, Tamangs, Newars, and Gurungs. Political power and the spoils of government have long been restricted to elite Hindus in the Kathmandu Valley, and the status quo—separate but not equal—sparked the revolution.

On the bumpy road to becoming a more equitable nation, Nepalis are attempting to learn the fate of thousands of people who vanished during the conflict; integrate 19,000 rebel soldiers, currently housed in UN-monitored camps, into the national army; and draft a new constitution, with a May 2010 deadline looming. The prevailing outlook in Nepal is cautiously optimistic at best, especially after the country’s prime minister, former Maoist rebel commander Pushpa Kamal Dahal, resigned from his post in May after a dispute with President Ram Baran Yadav. But the overarching goal of Nepalis is clear: to unite the country in a way that it never has been before.

I had experienced Nepal’s disconnectedness firsthand when it took two days to travel from Kathmandu to Humla—the same time it took me to reach Nepal from the United States. For an adventurer, the near-complete isolation of certain districts is a good thing. As our two-week journey through Humla continued we didn’t see a single other trekking group. The Lonely Planet crowd was definitely missing out. The scene that unfolded before us was cinematic, not fully plausible, like one of those Lord of the Rings landscapes juiced up by Red Bull–chugging digital effects artists.

A few days after the sleeping bag incident, I spotted a single white tower in the middle of all that nature. It was perched high on a mountain slope that climbed all the way from the river to a line of purplish summits crowned with white. Twenty minutes’ hiking from the trail brought me to its base and the site of the Yalbang Monastery. It had white walls, a red tile roof, and intricately painted window frames and doors. In the walled central courtyard, young monks in dark red robes had apparently abandoned their meditations for an afternoon game of volleyball. One of them approached. “The rinpoche has requested to see you,” he said.

A rinpoche is a particularly exalted level of lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The young man led us into the living quarters, seated us in a fire-warmed room framed by heavy wood beams, and served cups of steaming salt butter tea. Like virtually every comestible in Humla, it tasted strongly of yak. A few minutes later, after walking down passages and up stairs, we were ushered into the rinpoche’s sanctum.

Padma Riksal sat cross-legged atop a high platform. When he spoke he leaned forward, eyes intense; when he finished he shifted back, round belly bulging beneath his robes, eyes glinting as if amused by an off-color joke. He explained Humla’s uniqueness in the landscape of Tibetan Buddhism. The religion had been present in Humla since at least the tenth century; the gompa (monastery) in the village of Halji, which we would reach in another week, is believed to be the oldest such structure in all of Nepal. The rinpoche who preceded Riksal lived in Tibet, but in 1959, during the run-up to the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese destroyed his monastery. Riksal’s ancestors were forced to flee across the border into Humla, where they could practice without disturbance.

Humla’s protective isolation, though, had perhaps outlasted its utility. The poverty of far western Nepal made it a fertile recruiting ground for the Maoist revolutionaries, and the region was aching for some of the benefits that a more unified Nepal might bring. As Paul Stevens, a tourism adviser for SNV, told me: “Job creation is the best way of keeping ex-combatants as ex-combatants.”

Riksal’s eyes widened as we told him about SNV’s plans for the Great Himalaya Trail. Just as political power has traditionally been concentrated in Kathmandu, the lion’s share of trekking revenues has always gone to the Everest and Annapurna regions. The GHT would help put other equally deserving places on the international adventure map. “We need to tell the world about Humla so they will want to come here,” Riksal said. “We need more tourists.” I tried to frame a suitable, unpatronizing reply. But the rinpoche, as if sensing my thoughts, neatly shifted the focus to economic problems elsewhere. He had a radio, he said, and occasionally pulled in news broadcasts from the BBC. “What about this subprime mortgage situation?” he asked, eyes twinkling once more. “This is a real problem, yes?”

The slope got steeper. The bike picked up speed. The handlebars bucked, trying to spring free from my grip; the water bottle exploded in its cage, spraying me from knee to chin. I skidded to a stop, and Ranjan Rajbhandari, a guide for Nepal Mountain Bike Tours, rode up. He glared. “More slowly, please,” he said. His advice was sound, but the temptation was simply too great: a Himalayan slope pitched at 20 degrees, the bottom far below.

I was riding on the Annapurna Circuit, the legendary route whose incorporation into the Great Himalaya Trail was a no-brainer. Nearly two-thirds of the hikers who come to Nepal head for the Annapurna region, whose signature trek makes a 16-day, 180-mile tour around the glaciated giants of the Annapurna Massif. The trek boasts history—Herzog with his near-deadly climb in 1950; the pioneering trek of Roberts and Le Bon in 1967—and offers unrivaled scenic diversity. You start at 2,493 feet in subtropical forests and slowly climb to the snowy, 17,769-foot Thorung pass before plumbing the Kali Gandaki, the second deepest gorge on Earth after China’s Tsangpo. Along the way are top-quality teahouse trekking facilities, meaning you only need to tote a sleeping bag and a change of clothes as you travel from lodge to lodge. There are better routes for wilderness solitude, but other than that, the variety of the Annapurna Circuit makes it one of the best treks to do if you’re only going to do one hike in Nepal.

Rajbhandari and I had flown to the village of Jomosom to sample one leg of the circuit, a three-day, 6,000-foot descent through the Kali Gandaki gorge that is good on foot and even better (more thrilling, at least) on a mountain bike. The ride began in the high desert of Lower Mustang, at the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Leaving town, we rode into a tawny valley strewn with rocks and dotted with spiny shrubs and gnarled junipers. From our stopping place for the night, a small lodge called Kalopani, we saw a hint of the subtropical lowlands we’d soon experience: a monkey dangling from the branches of a lichen-shrouded tree. The next day we entered the heart of the Kali Gandaki. The triple massif of Nilgiri North, Central, and South loomed above the jungle green. Higher still stood Dhaulagiri (26,811 feet) to the west and Annapurna I (26,545 feet) to the east, each rising more than 18,000 feet above the valley floor.

When Le Bon passed through in 1967, he was impressed not only by the dramatic topography but by the hospitality for which Nepal has become famous. In Tukucha he met the provincial governor, riding on a white horse and being fanned by bearers with parasols. The attendants draped Le Bon with colorful garlands, and the governor insisted that Le Bon sit beside him on a wooden dais as he presided over a town meeting. The only blemish to the encounter came when the governor leaned over to ask if Le Bon was an agent of the CIA.

The villagers we passed seemed happy to see us too, even though trekkers were hardly a novelty anymore. Perhaps it was the sight of foreigners flocking to Nepal again after the lean years of the conflict. Children raced after my bike and begged for rides. An old man invited me into his house and served Roxy, a fortified millet wine that tasted like barely sweetened gasoline. On one trailside break I joined a group of old men playing the Nepali version of Texas hold ’em and drew a slam dunk: 6-7-8 suited. But when I flashed my poker face, everybody folded.

The biggest change in the Annapurna region since Le Bon’s time is a new road. For centuries the Kali Gandaki has been a logical route across the Himalaya for traders exchanging salt from the north for food and cloth from the south. In recent years a dirt road was cut through the gorge, and soon trucks will rumble through.

But the gorge isn’t letting traffic in just yet. We reached a massive landslide, one of several that had taken out the would-be motorway. “Put your bike on your shoulder and carry it across the river,” Rajbhandari said, pointing to an impenetrable-looking tangle of rhododendron trees on the far bank. “There’s a trail on the other side."

Last fall Leo Le Bon took a trip to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the modern adventure travel industry. There was never really any question about where he should go: Everest. The summit and its surroundings have been a beacon to generations of the world’s most passionate wanderers, and after making their pilgrimage, many people struggle to craft a fittingly grandiose description. “Far higher in the sky than imagination dared to suggest, a prodigious white fang—an excrescence from the jaw of the world—the summit of Everest appeared,” George Mallory wrote. Le Bon chooses more modest phrasing to explain why seeing the mountain should top every adventurer’s life list. “You go to Everest,” he says. “Of course you go to Everest.”

The mountain draws trekkers with such tunnel-vision intensity that they discover only by happy accident that the Khumbu region has many additional charms. The trail-laced, 440-square-mile Sagarmatha National Park is spiked by a multitude of Himalayan summits, including Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, and the triangular pinnacle of Ama Dablam, surely one of the most breathtaking. Sagarmatha is home to the Ngozumpa Glacier, the longest in Nepal; a dazzling string of turquoise lakes; tiny, manicured Sherpa villages; and the brilliantly colorful monastery at Tengboche.

The gateway to the upper Everest region is Namche Bazaar, and on the trek there, for my third and final GHT segment, I got sick from something I ate. I rented a horse near Lukla, which got me through the worst of the nausea that lasted less than a day. Still, you don’t know humiliation until you’ve been taunted by a 60-year-old German woman in pink Lycra. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, using that horse while we’re all walking?” she shouted smugly.

By Namche I was back on my feet and leading the poor horse, Tashi, who seemed to be ailing worse than I was. White-walled lodges with red, green, and blue roofs sparkled under clear mountain sunshine. Everything looked freshly scrubbed, as if a cleaning crew of elves swept through nightly. Namche’s cobbled lanes were crammed with stores selling crampons, ice axes, beaded jewelry, and prayer wheels. The tents of the Tibetan bazaar, set up flea market style in the center of town, were busy with shoppers speaking half a dozen languages. The waiters at the patio cafés looked happily harried. To the backers of the Great Himalaya Trail, the Everest area is proof of concept: Trekking can electrify a local economy. Namche was a simple mountain village, but compared to the settlements of Humla, it was Las Vegas.

I met an Internet café manager, Santos Adhikar, who recounted how business bottomed out during the conflict. “When I came here in 2003, Namche would hardly see 150 people a day,” he told me. “Now that has gone to 700.” Last October was the busiest month that anybody could remember; some guesthouses were so packed that trekkers were sleeping on dining room tables and in caves. “The bottom line is we don’t care who rules the place,” he said. “All we need is peace so that people aren’t afraid to travel.”

At the Namche Inn, manager P.K. Tamang was more opinionated about which side had prevailed. The “people’s war” had succeeded because it was genuinely popular, he said. In a country controlled by landed elites, the rebels promised to promote equality. Women, who suffer much higher rates of illiteracy and poverty than men, now hold a third of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly. Ethnic minorities have also increased their share of seats. “I like that everybody can get food, everybody can get job, everybody can get to hospital, everybody can get happy,” Tamang said.

From Namche almost every trekker was heading the same way: to Everest Base Camp and the overlook at Kala Patthar. That’s an excellent walk, but I was hiking up the next valley to the west, which has far fewer people. A three-day hike from Namche would bring me to the top of Gokyo peak, from which even more of Everest was visible. McGuinness had promised that it was one of the finest vistas in Nepal.

He was right.

The summit was narrow, rocky, and crisscrossed by strings of prayer flags. Ducking between them, I climbed atop a boulder that overlooked the world. The Ngozumpa Glacier spilled down a broad valley like a frozen version of the Nile. The glittering waters of Dudh Pokhari lay to the south. And four of the world’s six highest mountains reared into the sky.

The dome of Cho Oyu crowned a long, white wall. Makalu jutted skyward like a knife. Lhotse looked like a stub only because it stood beside the black rock pyramid of Everest. Clouds, fiery in the setting sun, streamed from its top like lava from a volcano. The site of so much striving and tragedy, Everest had a look of dignity and endurance. As a national icon, it is as good as any for Nepal today.

On one of my last days in Nepal, the morning after scaling Gokyo, I was hiking in the darkness, the water in my bottle frozen, my headlamp illuminating little more than white breath in front of my face. After a couple of hours the sky turned gray, then pale rose. Finally the sun crested the mountains and the world burst into life.

After reaching Cho La, a pass at 17,487 feet, I fell into step with my guide, Phurba Sherpa. The fairy tale pinnacle of Ama Dablam filled the sky before us; a river glinted in the valley below. I talked about my family, he talked about his. It turned out that we were nearly the same age. He had three children, the oldest of whom was almost 20; I had only just celebrated my first wedding anniversary and hadn’t yet started a family. He was born in a small Sherpa village of lower Khumbu; I was from the Bay Area. Our lives were as different as could be, but that didn’t matter. We spent an hour scheming how we could arrange for him to visit me in the United States.

The ambitions of SNV and others behind the GHT—to bring wealth to the poor and peace to the embattled—may sound borderline quixotic. But a long trail can certainly break down one rather stubborn barrier: that which exists between two people. Who knows whether the route could accomplish anything more for a country struggling to be reborn. Nepalis have good reason to be hopeful—the end of the war, the unprecedented inclusiveness of the new government. But darker portents loom. The 19,000 Maoist fighters could all too easily become an active force again, especially with their wartime commander, Dahal, having left the unity government. Poverty and discrimination, the root causes of the conflict, have not yet been significantly reduced, according to an August report from the UN. And even if the government succeeds in drafting a new constitution by next spring, that doesn’t guarantee a stable future. Nepal has had six new constitutions in the past 60 years.

So when I asked Phurba if he thought Nepal’s future would be better, there was only one way he could answer.

“Maybe,” he said. “I think so.”