Journey to the Himalayas: Exploring the Nettle of Nepal

Journey to the Himalayas: Exploring the Nettle of Nepal

December 06, 2017

As the sun started glowing, we piled out of our cozy apartment and into the streets as they started to bustle in synchronicity with the first chirping birds. Daybreak is always warm in Boudha, no matter how crisp the air is. We made our way down the cobblestone lane with our backpacks hoisted high, as neighborhood shops opened their shuttered doors one-by-one and local devoted Buddhists shuffled their way to Boudha Stupa for their morning kora and rituals.



We crammed our backpacks into the claustrophobic taxi cab and made our way to the airport. It would be our first time visiting this Nettle Collective in far Eastern Nepal. Given the remoteness of the region and the fact that very few tourists visit, we were offered one of the oldest aircrafts in the fleet (the newer ones are reserved for Pokhara and other popular trekking destinations).

We piled into the little old airplane with our production manager, Leila, and as the engine started to rattle, we noticed the duct taped ceilings and torn up carpet beneath our feet. “Better hold on,” I said as the plane starts moving. After 45 minutes of sweaty palms and a luke-warm coca cola, we began our descent to a worn out runway that stretched across some fields next to a small pastel yellow airport. 

 

After descending the steps of the plane onto the runway, we were ushered towards a chainlink fence where a wagon-like cart was being pulled by a man in a uniform - the baggage claim. We grabbed our bags and exited through the chainlink gate. Finally, we ventured into the sleepy town where one of the two guesthouses in the village is located. The place was under construction, but they had reserved two rooms in the back of the sawdust ridden hall for us. We dropped off our bags and met in the lobby to review our itinerary for the following day. After a hefty dal bhat dinner and a little meandering around town, we retreated to our rooms for the night.

A bumpy jeep ride at 6:30 am got us moving in the morning, and after three hours of nauseating roads, we arrived at the trailhead. This was the dead-end of the road before the vast expanse of hills and villages that extended up into Makalu and eventually the Everest Region. We had a quick chai break and set off for our much-anticipated visit.

 

After 7 and a half hours of making our way through hilly terrain and traversing across farmland, we arrived at a rickety old bridge that led to a small village at the base of the mountains. We made our way across and were led up a narrow path to a small guesthouse where we met Karma, the founder of the only lodge in the region.

We had a chai and changed out of our sweaty clothes before Leila said it was time to head down to the workshop. “More walking?!” we thought... but were pleasantly surprised when she lead us to a small stone building on the side of the river. As we approached the front door, a small woman about 4’ 10” walked out wearing a big smile and holding two flower necklaces. She said, “Namaste, I’m Lakshmi” as she placed the garlands over our heads and offered us each a tikka (red dot) on our foreheads to welcome us in traditional custom.

As we made our way inside, we could hear more voices speaking Nepali upstairs. We followed Lakshmi up the steep creaky stairs to find a room full of women with the warmest smiles. The small upstairs room was packed full of 15 women who all looked delighted to see us. As we made our way around the room with introductions, Lakshmi translated our questions and conversations. 

Most of the weavers had grown up in the region, save for one who had left her children and husband at their small farm in the Terai so that she could earn extra income weaving nettle in the off-season. Although most of the women were married, few of their husbands still lived in the region, as they had left to find work in Kathmandu or abroad (Nepal has one of the highest rates of foreign workers, with 1600 men leaving the country every day in search of labor jobs overseas).

After almost two hours of back and forth, we received hugs and “thank yous” from each of the women as they ventured back to their homes. We followed them out of the workshop, full of warmth after this intimate experience and made our way back up to the lodge for dinner.

We would spend the next several days around the village and in the workshop, meeting the elder weavers who started the workshop and learning the ins and outs of how this prickly plant from the jungle is an optimal fiber for creating durable textiles. 

Every year a limited number of permits are offered for the harvesting of the Wild Himalayan Nettle from the dense protected jungles of the National Forest. The weavers camp for multiple nights to collect their harvests before carrying them back to the village.

 

Once their harvest arrives back home, the bark is peeled from the stalk and boiled for 4-5 hours in a large pot.

Once boiled and softened, the fiber is taken to the river to be washed and pounded to further soften and clean. 

After the fiber is washed in the river, it’s bleached with ashes leftover from the fire used for boiling and hung out to dry. 

Then, the tedious and most important step of extracting, separating and spinning the fiber begins. This is the step that determines the quality of the yarn, and ultimately the quality of the fabric. This is also the reason our collective is most renowned for the quality of their finished product.

 

Once the yarn is spun, it’s set on the loom and woven into the final product.

     

This material is pretty mind-blowing, as are the women who make it. It's produced without the use of any toxins or electricity, and the entire process is carried out with a renewable resource found exclusively in the jungles of the Himalayas.

 



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