In the Himalayas, an isolated Sherpa village offers a cosmopolitan touch

McClatchy NewspapersMay 8, 2008 

TRAVEL WLT-NEPAL 1 MCT

Namche Bazaar sits in a bowl high in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal. It is a favorite resting spot for trekkers, many of whom go on to Mt. Everest Base Camp. (Tim Johnson/MCT)

TIM JOHNSON — Tim Johnson / MCT

NAMCHE BAZAAR, Nepal — Trust me, it's not easy sharing a suspended cable bridge over a Himalayan gorge with a yak caravan. The bridge undulates and bucks, and one tends to freeze up and grasp the cable handrail.

That was only one of the hurdles in getting up to this picturesque village, gateway to countless Himalayan climbing expeditions, including to Mount Everest. Another hurdle is the altitude. Unless you are from a mountain state, you'll be huffing and puffing like I was during the eight-hour hike from the only airstrip in the area.

But once a hiker arrives in Namche Bazaar, a historic Sherpa trading center that now caters to a cosmopolitan array of trekkers, the hurdles are worth it. The village, with its 45 guesthouses, four bakeries, quaint shops and stone alleys, is well worth a visit. There's not a car in sight. Except for the occasional visit of a cargo helicopter bringing supplies, the internal combustion engine doesn't exist around these parts.

No road penetrates the Himalayas as far as Namche (pronounced NAM-chay), and fans of the village are glad it's so, keeping tourist numbers down. While as many as 1,200 hikers might arrive a day during the peak seasons (October-November and March-April), that's the limit.

"You have to be quite determined to get here," said Jonathan Mitchell, a British photojournalist and author of an e-guidebook on the area (www.khumbuguide.info). "This is a good thing. . . . It's still a very unsullied place despite the thousands and thousands of trekkers who have been here."

Namche, the last outpost of civilization before trekkers reach the harder, higher Himalayas, is a tourist outpost with unusual beauty. It's situated in a horseshoe-shaped saddle between two snow-capped peaks, and the panorama changes constantly. In winter, snowstorms suddenly dissipate, ushering in azure skies. Spring brings an explosion of rhododendron and magnolia blossoms.

"Tourists started coming in large numbers only in the 1990s," recalled Pemba Gyaltsen Sherpa, the 32-year-old manager of the Khumbu Lodge, a well-established hotel.

That's when word got out of Namche's spectacular mountain scenery and its window on the culture of the Sherpas, hardy mountain people often used as porters and guides. Sherpas, who are Buddhist, have a unique language and culture, more similar to that of neighboring Tibet than to the rest of Nepal.

It's also when more commodious guesthouses and bakeries arrived, offering visitors frothy coffees, pastries and pizza. Internet cafes, with satellite hook-ups, sprang up. And restaurants began opening terraces to take in the scenery.

From there, one can watch the constant arrival of porters laden with the goods that keep the village alive. Almost everything one eats here arrives on a porter's back.

"They are like little trucks. Some of them can carry 120 kilograms (264 pounds). They do it for the money," Gyaltsen Sherpa said.

I wouldn't have believed it. Except as I hiked to Namche, elevation 11,300 feet, I'd observed Sherpa carrying five cases of beer, bags of noodles and rice and assorted other goods, sidling alongside me, listening to my panting. Sherpas make as little as $3.50 a day carrying the heavy loads.

Broad changes first hit Namche in 1983 with the arrival of electricity.

Blackouts cripple much of the rest of Nepal, but the area around Namche has steady power, thanks to an Austrian-financed hydroelectric project.

Also ushering in change is a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter that brings in timber, large appliances and other heavy goods on a charter basis, landing at a dirt airstrip an hour's hike from the village. In season, it arrives four to five times a day.

For visitors returning to Namche after long absences, its new face is striking.

"I come back here after 10 years, and it's amazing! This bakery. Fresh coffee. Apple pie. They have everything," said former mountain guide Tenzin Choephel as he dug into pastry.

With the world knocking at the door, residents have seen their lives improve dramatically. They've moved from rustic wood buildings to sturdy stone lodges.

"When I was a child, the houses were not so good. There was no electricity, no telephone service, no good bathrooms," said Phura Sherpa, a 23-year-old resident.

Along Namche's streets, one sees wind-burned mountaineers as well as adventurous hikers from Europe and North America, some of them well into their 70s.

"Most of the tourists come from Britain, the United States, Japan and Australia. They are not all climbers. Some are just walkers," said Tsering Sherpa, a retired guide.

Photos and letters from famous visitors, such as former President Jimmy Carter, Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth, actor Robert Redford and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, adorn the walls of the Khumbu Lodge.

Hiking is the main pastime in Namche Bazaar, and trails lead in all directions.

"After three hours of walking, you always find a teahouse," said Pemba Gyaltsen. "You don't even need a guide. I think you can come by yourself."

Above the village, at the Sagarmatha National Park headquarters, a lookout offers dramatic views of the two big peaks on either side of Namche: Kwangde Ri at 20,298 feet, to the southwest, and Thamserku at 21,729 feet, to the east. Further along a trail, one sees a splendid view of Mount Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam.

Namche has a small museum, a shrine to Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who scaled Everest in 1953, and the countless Sherpa guides who have made climbing expeditions in the Himalayas successful.

How long Namche Bazaar will retain its isolated charm is uncertain.

"There have been several Austrian and Swiss companies who've talked about putting in cable cars. Then you wouldn't have to kill yourself getting up the hill," said Mitchell, the guidebook author.

But a road would be too much, he said.

"It's anathema to the whole place. If you build a road, you would incur mass tourism, and the place can't support it," Mitchell said.

TRAVEL TO NAMCHE BAZAAR

How to get there:

Daily flights go from Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, to Lukla, the closest airstrip to the Khumbu Valley. Airlines include Yeti, Agni, Gorkha and Nepal. From Lukla, the hike to Namche Bazaar is seven to nine hours. Ask around in Lukla if you need a porter to carry your gear.

Once you arrive:

Lodging in Namche Bazaar ranges from the high-end Yeti Inn and Sherpaland Hotel to numerous guesthouses that offer private rooms but tend to be more like expanded Sherpa households. One sits around the yak dung stove, drinking cup after cup of tea. Room charges are as little as $3 a night.

Guests are expected to eat meals with the host family. During my stay, meals ranged from pancake breakfasts to delicious lunches of momos (similar to meat-filled Chinese steamed dumplings) and dinners of buffalo steak. Actually the meat is from the "dzo," a hybrid between a yak and a cow.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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