A rain shadow world where time passes to the ever-present wind and cold, snow leopards stalk the crags and Buddhist mantras fill the air.
Now that the pubs are all closed, Saturday nights for me have become a time for sitting in front of the smart TV, exploring BBC wildlife documentaries and searching for mountain gems on YouTube.
A few weeks ago I explained how much I’ve been enjoying Dave Brophy’s short video diaries from the Great Himalaya Trail. I still catch up with those every week as he posts them daily. Last week he passed through Manang on the northern part of the Annapurna Circuit, and I augmented his videos by watching a classic 45-minute documentary about that very region.
In the Shadow of Annapurna, Nyeshyang was filmed in 1988 and explores the lives of the people from seven villages in the Nyeshyang Valley, better known as the Manang or upper Marsyangdi Valley. The seven villages – Pisang, Ghyaru, Ngawal, Ongre (or Humde), Braga, Manang and Khangsar – will be familiar to anyone who has trekked the Annapurna Circuit. Manang is now a veritable metropolis, much the biggest place on the Marsyangdi side of the circuit, and most trekkers stay there a couple of nights to acclimatise before crossing the Thorong La pass.
Filmed using Kodak Super 8 cine film, a popular format for filming home movies in the good old 1980s, it’s now so old and dated that the screen flickers in a way that flatters some of my own YouTube videos (though I should point out that the camerawork is considerably better). This was a distraction at first as I spent the early part of the film trying to guess how old it was, but I soon became used to it as my interest in the film’s content grew.
Manang lies north of the enormous Annapurna range of the Nepal Himalaya, in a desert region that is more Tibet than Nepal. The film explores the climate and ecology of the region, and how its people have adapted to changing times. This change had already started happening by the time Bill Tilman visited Manang in 1950, when he was surprised by a Manangi who whipped a camera out to take a photo of him.
Anyone unfamiliar with Manangis may register a similar surprise while watching the film. Some of the scenes involving yak herders sleeping in stone buildings and farmers following behind dzos as they drag a rickety old plough across a field, may fool you into thinking they lead a primitive, sheltered life.
But these scenes are interspersed with interviews with shaggy haired locals who speak fluent English in accents very close to the Queen’s received pronunciation. One of these locals, Michung of Thorong Phedi (who sadly died earlier this year), goes on to explain how he has travelled to Thailand and Malaysia to trade gems.
In truth, the Manangis are a well-travelled people. The film explains how they were granted special license by the government of Nepal to travel across the border into Tibet, and they became traders.
This clash of cultures is a theme of the film, and it continues to resonate today. Herders sit around a fire, discussing snow leopards. They explain how they would kill the snow leopards if they attacked their goats, and how they would use their fur to make hats. Snow leopards are a protected species today. They are rarely seen, but they still hide up in the mountains feeding on the wild blue sheep (or bharal) that skitter up and down the higher slopes.
Even in the 1980s, conservation and sustainability was a major issue. The Manang Valley was a protected area until 1977, but in the 1980s tourism grew and the Annapurna Circuit became popular as a trek. By 1988 there were 5,000 tourists a year visiting Manang. This is a tiny number compared with today, but it was already having an impact on the ecology.
Prior to our arrival, the Manangis could sustainably harvest the pine forests for firewood and timber. There is some amusing footage of a Manangi struggling to butcher a log with an axe. But times were changing. Trekkers were being provided with hot water for showers, and these were heated by firewood (these days almost all showers on the Annapurna Circuit are solar). This was placing a burden on the scant forest resources, and these environmental issues are explored in the film.
Watching In the Shadow of Annapurna was an interesting nostalgia trip for me. I visited Manang when I trekked the Annapurna Circuit in 2006, and again when I returned from the Naar and Phu valleys in 2008. In 2006 I visited Lama Tashi, a monk who lived in Phraken Gompa, a cave above Manang, with his wife. He gave me a blessing to cross the Thorong La. I was thrilled to see him in the film, not looking very different.
I haven’t been back to Manang since 2008 and I know that the region has continued to develop rapidly. Now there is a road, and I expect the teahouses will be unrecognisable as they improve their facilities every year. The Manang Valley has always struck me as a good place to base yourself for several weeks as you go off exploring the surrounding peaks and valleys. There is plenty to do there.
In the Shadow of Annapurna offers a glimpse into an earlier age, when things were rapidly changing but many of the old ways remained. I expect a few people will watch it and argue fiercely about whether things were better or worse. But change is part of life. We need to adapt and we need to do it sustainably. These things needn’t be incompatible. Right now, as we sit at home in coronavirus lockdown, none of us are going anywhere, and perhaps we’ll explore less in the future.
If you’ve trekked the Annapurna Circuit, then you will enjoy this film and it will hopefully bring back happy memories. If you haven’t, then just enjoy the scenery. It’s spectacular.
Special thanks to my old mate Siling Ghale of Braga for unearthing this cinematic gem for me.
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