Dhulikhel and KTM

I’m writing this from a rooftop café in Kathmandu called the Organic Green Cafe. Of all things, I got a Chicken Caesar salad to go with my tea. Not very Nepali but it was what I was craving.

I’m tempted to say that the past week has been a blur, but that would only be half true. It’s been a vivid blur, perhaps, with a 18-hour trip to Dhulikhel (on the other side of Kathmandu) with three of our crew, and the following days filled with seeing and working with a professional rammed earth crew. The crew members that we brought were Sandip, Ratna, and Laxmin. Sandip speaks perfect English, and has recorded everything about our travels and the rammed earth process itself. He had no notebook, so I lent him mine:

Sandip's Recordings


Some of Sandip's Recordings

Some of Sandip’s Recordings

Interface of Concrete and Rammed Earth (which do you prefer?)

Interface of Concrete and Rammed Earth (which do you prefer?)

Sandip has also been translating for us along the way, as well as teaching me Nepali swears, much to Laxmin and Ratna’s amusement. My Nepali has progressed to the point where I can have a basic conversation with others – asking people where they’re going, what they’re selling, what they did yesterday, if they’re feeling cold or hungry – without simply regurgitating memorized vocabulary words or phrases. The words just come out, albeit slowly, as I think of them. Already, I can tell this will be a huge asset while working with our crew on the project, not only to communicate directions, but also to bond with our workers.

Ramming a Test Block

Ramming a Test Block (standing on mold to keep it anchored)

Laxmin is our best mason, Ratna is our best carpenter. Like the rest of… well.. everybody at Kopila (especially the Nepali uncles), they thought the idea of building with earth and no cement was a joke. They don’t think so anymore, and Laxmin especially has fallen for the process and the look. I’ve emphasized this whole time that getting our workers to buy into our building material is an absolute necessity before we start working, so this trip is already a success. All of them still insist on using some cement (around 4% as opposed to 14% in concrete), and I’m not sure I disagree. Structurally it’s  unnecessary, but there is always the risk of pesky kids trying to peel off rocks exposed in the wall.

Laxmin, Ratna, and Sandip

Laxmin, Ratna, and Sandip

We spent three nights in Dhulikhel. Laxmin stayed there while Sandip, Ratna, Terri and I returned to Kathmandu for the night. Terri and I had a lot of meetings (including one with Prabal Thapa in a couple of hours), and Sandip/Ratna are going on to Gorkha to learn about building bamboo trusswork and roofing. Tomorrow, Terri and I return to Dhulikhel to continue learning about rammed earth. We’re working with Nripal to develop a modular, and cheap/easy-to-build formwork for RE, which inflicts some serious load on its molds as it is rammed. I think we’ve got something good, and I’m excited to get back to Surkhet and start building it.

One of Nripal's workers' projects - building a hammock from only bamboo.

One of Nripal’s workers’ projects – building a hammock from only bamboo.

A finished hammock.

A finished hammock.

Nripal’s farm has 10 buffalo and cows, and they grow all of their own food. They make their own cheese, wake up to watch the sunrise, use biogas to cook their food, and sit around a fire once the sun goes down. It’s paradise, and I hope that Mom, Cass, and Pete can get there when they visit me in Nepal.


The view from Nripal’s farm in Dhulikhel is astounding. The farm is on a steep hill, and is therefore terraced. At one spot down the curving road, where I went to meditate for 10 minutes every day, there is a open clearing of terrace that juts out from the land. There is a 180 degree view, and you can soak everything in. To the right, the path curves away as it bends around the topography of the mountain behind you. Beyond the path are green hills, as large as Killington, stretching up the sky and banded with hundreds of terraces. Houses are scattered throughout, and occasionally you can see farmers tending to their rice or walking the elegant paths that connect their different levels. These slatted hills stretch on to the left, and then down into a valley half a mile below, where the houses get thicker. At night, the mountains are spotted with the lights from houses, blending into the starry sky. Right below my “spot,” one farm sits atop a hill like a giant helicopter pad, with the terraced land dropping off on every side of it. On the left, and to the North, are more mountains – each visible, even as their distance increases, due to their rising heights. And beyond these are the highest mountains in the world – the snowcapped, jagged and looming, peaks of the Himilayas. Even 50 miles away, they’re nothing short of breathtaking, and the red morning sun lights up their frosty faces with a warm glow. My internal clock has me waking up at around 6:30 am and going to sleep at 10 pm, and I’ve gotten to watch the sunrise over these peaks every morning in Dhulikhel. One morning, I called home (calling the US is, somehow, only 3 cents/minute), and was pleasantly surprised to hear my sister answer the phone. I think I’ve become a softer soul, because I’ve been stirred to tears so many times in the past month. This was the first time I had heard Cass’ voice in months, and to be speaking with her in real time, knowing she was home with Mom and Dad and Pete – having just finished up a pasta dinner and crowded around the wood stove – while watching the sun rise over this incredible scene, perhaps the most beautiful I had ever seen… it was all so much. I struggled to describe what I was seeing to Cass, and must have sounded drunk or depressed or horribly ill. She told me she’d draw what I described, and I received this picture from her the next day:

Cass' Painting!

Cass’ Painting!

IMG_6456 IMG_6525

The real thing?

The real thing?

I’ll probably send a panorama of the real thing, but nothing I have except Cass’ painting actually does the scene justice.

What else? I think I may owe Kathmandu an apology. I was pretty rough on the city when I was last here, three months ago. Yesterday, Terri and I stumbled upon Durbar Square, with it’s ancient wooden stupas, carvings, and narrow alleyways, and I was completely enchanted by the place. The absence of honking cars and petrol farts makes a big difference in my attraction to a space. Now it seems like there are narrow alleys leading to small temples everywhere I look, and outside of Thamel (the main tourist district), the hustle and bustle decreases and the charm shoots up.

IMG_6543 IMG_6550 IMG_6551



Some Pictures from Durbar Square/Alleyways

Some Pictures from Durbar Square/Alleyways

With Nripal, we’ve come up with a structural design of our RE walls, including concrete bond beams, lateral plastic meshes, and vertical rebar tie rods, that we think will be both beautiful and bukumpa rahit (meaning “earthquake safe” in Nepali). I wish I could share my SketchUp design. If we decide to move forward with it, I can share more. This is one of many things on our plate to discuss with Prabal during our meeting today.

Either way, there’s a lot to do, and I’ve already spent too much time on this! Just wanted to give an update.


8 comments on “Dhulikhel and KTM

  1. Josh says:

    Luke, you just keep upping the ante. It’s hard to read your blog, because my eyes just keeping opening wider and wider and reading faster and faster, to the point that I feel like a rubber band! It’s all so good. I can see it on your happy face at the top. You’re a catalyst for them, and they are for you. It’s a perfect definition of symbiosis. Cross-fertilization. Hybridizing! The biological metaphors abound, but I promise I will stop.

  2. kathy says:

    Luke, another amazing and wonderful post. May we all be softer, men and women.’Wmb and Kathy

  3. Wimby says:

    I want to build with RAMMED EARTH!!! How is it in a climate like Vermont?
    Nepal is so beautiful.

  4. jane says:

    hey luke~that was a great blog entry! i loved seeing where you are right now. thanks for all the photos and cass’ painting which perfectly dovetails with your description of the land. it was interesting to take a peek into your notebook. Sandip’s penmanship is amazing. oh, and the interface of concrete and RE is quite lovely. i’m so happy to hear your Nepali is coming along. how nice that you can ask if someone is cold or hungry. i’m excited to visit Kathmandu (and Surkhet, of course). maybe Nripal would like a wwoofer on his farm. please sign me up! love, your mo

  5. Steven Thomas says:

    Softer is better. Keep it up!!!!

  6. hopiec2013 says:

    Not only is Sandip fluent in English, he also has amazingly legible handwriting! I, who am fluent only in English, write in such a way that those reading would swear it is in another and VERY foreign language! So, not only has he taken thorough notes. You can read them! What an asset.
    I love the look of the rammed earth brick… way more than the gray concrete.
    I love the smiles and comaraderie you and your team share.
    I love, love the painting that Cassidy drew for you. I believe it does capture the magical essence of the landscape surrounding you.
    It is all amazing, Luke.
    Thank you for sharing it.

  7. Cass says:

    yay! my drawing really does look like the real scene. ..just speaks to how observant and detailed your description was to me over the phone! you are very present. i loved re-hearing that description of the landscape and what you see — your writing is like poetry. I cant wait to see it myself and see YOU!

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is really really interesting to read…..almost feels like I am there(at least a little bit); please keep it up. Sandip’s notes/penmenship is amazing as is Cass’s painting. Finally…ditto what you dad said and please keep it up!!

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