In a remote valley of the Nepalese Himalaya, former student Sonam Lama is making sure that ancient architectural landmarks remain intact in the face of modernization.

Amidst constant headlines of urban destruction brought on by natural disasters, poverty or conflict, we often forget to talk about the slower emergencies that take place over longer periods of time and within more subtle contexts. The preservation of cultural heritage, one of the pillars of sustainability, is one such case.
In a remote valley of the Nepalese Himalaya, former student Sonam Lama is making sure that ancient architectural landmarks of his native Nepal remain intact in the face of modernization. After graduating from our masters program, Sonam and fellow classmates Ana Livi and Silvia Diaz, together with GPS expert Mauro Weber and local expert on Buddhist religion Tenzin Kunchyok, began the walk4heritage project, an inventory study of architectural heritage situated along a trans-himalayan trade route that will soon be affected by the construction of a North-South Highway connecting China and India. The motor road is just one example of the effects of globalization, tourism and mega projects reaching the isolated region.
The remote region of Tsum, Nubri, Kutang and parts of Sirdibas found in the Manaslu Conservation Area, like most Himalayan routes, are accessible only by foot and about 4-5 days walk from the nearest road, a fact which has allowed for the preservation of its pristine and majestic backdrop of 6000m+ peaks and a wealth of architectural heritage that dates back to the 8th century. At the same time, it has posed major obstacles for locals to connect with nearby cities and the rest of the world, making the proposed highway project a double-edged sword: how can we make sure that progress does not threaten the invaluable cultural artefacts of an ancient community?

To date, no inventory of the valley’s architectural heritage has ever been undertaken. This can endanger its preservation if misinformed decisions are taken during infrastructural developments in the area. Walk4heritage aims to collect, document and compile up-to-date field information on architectural heritage that can be useful and accessible to government officials, policy makers, development experts and the local community.
Sonam will be guiding two expeditions through the valley–one took place in October and the next in April–to record the pre-Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist and secular structures situated along the ancient salt-trade route, which still serves as a life-line for traders, pilgrims, wildlife, trekkers and herders.Walk4heritage has partnered with the local non-profit Tsum Welfare Committee, and the Nepal Engineering College is offering both financial and academic support with the aim of sharing knowledge among academia and to encourage research in remote parts of the country where development and planning is often carried out without proper data and basic site information.The team recently presented the project to Nepal Transportation and Development Research Centre-NTDRC, whose manager criticized the government’s loose control on motor road projects and promoted finding alternative models of development for places rich in cultural heritage and ecologically sensitive. Perhaps there are other ways of developing innovative means of transportation without the need for a highway that could pose potential threats on such significant architectural landmarks.
The Walk4heritage team has just finished a month long field expedition and has been invited to UNESCO office in Kathmandu where the Department of Archaeology and concerned stakeholders discussed first-hand field impressions. Sonam’s undertaking represents a first-time and much-needed task aimed at protecting and preserving some of Nepal’s most ancient cultural gems. No doubt his homeland will thank him for it.

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