On Top of the World – Two years in Solu Khumbu, Nepal

Sometimes it’s the old adventures that are the best ! Having recently got around to scanning some old slides (it only took me 30 years !), I’m now finally able to share some of these journeys from the 80s and 90s. Back in the early 1990s, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to spend an interesting couple of years living in the Solu Khumbu Region of Nepal (I once briefly covered this topic previously – hopefully the pictures and description here provide a better overview).

When I arrived in Nepal in 1991 I’d just recently left university having studied Geography and Natural Resources Management – back then, it really seemed the whole world was my oyster and I was looking for new experiences and adventures; the more remote and exciting the better. I’d always been fascinated by Nepal and the Himalayas in general, having read endless books about the Sherpas and expeditions to climb Mt. Everest  and so I wasn’t going to give the chance a miss. 

I worked in Nepal for 2 years as a VSO Volunteer with the Community Forestry Development Program and was based in the characterful village of Phaplu near the District center of Salleri, which is located in a remote valley at around 2,500m in the Solu region. Although you can now get there by a tortuous road trip from Kathmandu, at that time it was accessible only by a hair-raising flight onto a grassy ski-jump of a runway carved out of the side of a mountain below a Buddhist monastery. The only alternative to this was a long, cramped bus ride on winding mountain roads to the small town of Jiri, followed by a tough 3 day tramp over 4,000m high mountain passes. Even by the standards of the Scottish Highlands, Phaplu was remote.

Following a little bit of searching around, I was lucky enough to find a great place to live in a cheerful looking and recently constructed Sherpa house just a couple of hundred meters below the village. The owners of the house, an aging Sherpa couple, had just constructed it for their son to live in; however he had moved away to Kathmandu, whilst their other son lived nearby in the village. The couple had small subsistence farm, or smallholding, where they grew a variety of basic crops such as maize, potatoes and wheat, set amongst apple orchards and peach trees. 

I often used to go around to the old couple’s house to collect much needed provisions, particularly potatoes, or milk from the resident cow. This always turned out to be a major social event – the couple’s faces lighting up with excited shouts of “Raksi ! Raksi !” when I appeared at the door (raksi of course being the local Nepali moonshine, which my landlord produced in copious quantities from his own illicit still). “No !”, was certainly not considered an acceptable answer in these circumstances. Consequently, I’d usually end up staggering out a few hours later, head spinning and shortly to be followed by an uneasy realization that I’d left the potatoes behind. Then the whole cycle would repeat itself the very next day.

Phaplu was situated a couple of miles up the valley from the District capital of Salleri. This was generally where I went to do most of my “big” shopping – there were of course no supermarkets or large shops there and so most provisions were purchased from the weekly market in the town. This was another big social occasion – it being virtually guaranteed that you would bump into any number of acquaintances and be invited for tea in the various emporiums that encircled the market place. The Nepali people are almost always open and friendly and are keen to have a chat and a laugh. It’s almost impossible to feel lonely there, or to be alone for that matter. However, that can also be a problem in itself to us more antisocial Westerners.

In terms of population structure, the Solu Region boasts a very diverse composition with many different ethnic different groups living side by side in relatively close quarters, the makeup of the communities changing markedly between one locality and another. Many of the villages found in lower elevations in the South of Solu comprised of largely Hindu populations including higher caste groups such as Brahmins and Chetris.  Other villages were the strongholds of independent hill tribes of more Mongolian origins and appearance, such as Tamangs and Gurungs as well as small groups of Rai people. These groups often possessed their own distinct language, culture and traditions, although most people nowadays speak the Nepali language as well, which is taught officially in all schools.

The forest office where I was working as a VSO volunteer was also based in Salleri. It certainly couldn’t be described as a great hub of activity by any stretch of the imagination, unless of course the boss was in town – which in reality wasn’t that often ! The week after I arrived, the first District Forest Officer was chased out of town by an angry posse for some supposed political shenanigans. It took quite along time for his replacement to be arranged, however when that happened it did mark a considerable improvement in the administrative arrangements. 

My other colleagues were a somewhat eclectic bunch (or a motley crew depending on your perspective) comprising of local forest guards and rangers from other parts of the country. Although the pace was often frustratingly slow, the staff there slowly warmed to me, the strange westerner, in their midst. The working routine, for want of a better term, was unpredictable to say the least; sometimes after days of inactivity and when I’d given up pretty much all hope of anything happening, my colleagues would knock unexpectedly at the door at 6am inviting me to join them immediately for a week’s fieldwork in a remote part of the District – it was all or nothing it seemed.

Our work involved developing and supporting local community forest user groups around the District to give local people more say in how forests were managed. We were also undertaking work to regenerate existing natural forests and to establish new plantation areas – this was a complex task in reality as it involved retraining poorly paid (and often, less than motivated) government staff. Originally the emphasis of community forestry in Nepal was upon the establishment of plantations of exotic species. However, these were often of little use to local people and were susceptible to pest and disease problems. In the longer term it was found to be better to focus efforts upon the regeneration of the natural forests though better management and through excluding grazing animals – developing a local sense of forest ownership by local people was key to this.

In the typical middle hills areas, people just have to live on what they can produce from the land themselves. In these areas, there is no social security or financial safety net for families – sometimes the nearest hospital being located over 3 days tough walk away. People are dependent upon forest products for fuelwood and as fodder for their everyday existence – mostly it’s the women who do this work and who have a detailed knowledge about the forest. This can create difficulties in some communities when it comes to consulting local people as the women are often more passive in public meetings and traditionally let the men do the talking.

Deforestation in Nepal has meant that terraced fields and even whole villages are more vulnerable to being swept away by landslides and erosion, particularly during the summer monsoon period. By contrast, the Middle Hills landscape has traditionally been much more forested with hedges, fodder trees and cover crops to supply local demands and help to reduce erosion issues. 

Initially government policy resulted in the the forests being nationalized and they were fiercely protected by government forest guards. However this was seen to be largely unsuccessful, as the people then had no sense of ownership of their forests. Sometimes corrupt staff would even extort money out of people caught cutting wood, for turning a blind eye to what would otherwise mean, a prison sentence or a high fine for those caught in the act.  The whole system gave locals little incentive to manage their forests sustainably. 

The forest rangers were therefore being retrained from a “policing” role to acting as community facilitators, which wasn’t an easy task. Huge cultural variation existed in the District, each ethic group having a different social structures and power dynamics. In some villages with a larger Hindu population, the people attending the meetings would generally be men. This created challenges, as it was the women who often possessed a detailed knowledge of the forest and who could bring about change through their daily routines and activities, such as by not allowing cows and goats to graze certain areas. 

 

To rectify this the forest rangers were involved in training workshops to encourage greater participation of women in the community forestry process, thereby encouraging them to have a greater say in meetings. This wasn’t such a problem for the Sherpa communities where the women generally possess an equal social status to the men. It was often however more a problem for the forest rangers themselves, who usually came from a different cultural perspective and who would tend to relate better to their own kind.

Training events also involved getting out into the forests and talking with locals who were collecting firewood and fodder. The aim was to understand where resources were coming from and how they could then be managed more sustainably. The hope was that the forestry staff could learn to listen to the local people and to better understand their needs, thereby helping them to develop realistic management options for the long term.

Phaplu, the village, where I lived was mainly characterised by its Sherpa population. The Sherpas form a distinct ethnic group in their own right who migrated over the high passes from Tibet a few hundred years ago to settle in the Region. Whilst Sherpas are best known for their involvement in trekking tourism and climbing, many also make their living of the land, particularly in the Solu area where I was based. Often these Sherpas have not had the same economic opportunities as their relatives in the Khumbu to the North who have benefited more from tourism. 

Generally, I felt very comfortable in the company of the Sherpas who were generally good natured, open and quick witted and a pleasure to be amongst. In some other communities, however I sometimes felt more of an object of curiosity, particularly in remote places where Westerners were less often encountered.The Sherpas are Tibetan Buddhists and aspects of Buddhism dominate the cultural landscapes and everyday lives of the Sherpas.  Most villages have a small Buddhist temple or “gompa”, sometimes with a resident Lama. There are also some bigger Buddhist monasteries in the area, particularly at Tuten Chulin near Jumbesi on the Everest Trail , which boasts a population of a few hundred resident monks. 

Aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are evident throughout the whole landscape, which functions effectively as a giant mandala, or model of the cosmos, connecting together sacred monuments and local power places through a network of well worn paths. Along trails, you will frequently encounter “mani walls” – comprising of carved stones bearing Buddhist symbols and the ever present “om mani padme hum” mantra. In addition, there are stupas, which are larger dome shaped constructions, often contain religious relics or important texts. These structures should always be passed on the left or circumnavigated in a clockwise direction according to Tibetan Buddhist practices. The mani walls also frequently include prayer wheels which are spun by all passers-by using the trails.

Chiwang Gompa was our local monastery and is situated dramatically on a cliff top overlooking the valley above Phaplu. Every year Chiwang pays host to the Mani Rimdu Festival. This is a 3 day spectacular where Tibetan Buddhist monks celebrate the prevalence of Buddhism over the pre-Buddhist Bon-po religion of Tibet through enactments and dances which feature an array of dazzling outfits. In reality, Tibetan Buddhism is strongly influenced by its more animistic predecessor and has incorporated elements of symbology and traditions from the Bon Religion; this is perhaps similar to the way that Celtic Christianity adapted some of the more nature based elements of former pagan religions in ancient Ireland and Scotland.

In addition to its significance for Tibetan Buddhism itself, the festival at Chiwang Gompa is also a big social gathering for the local Sherpa people, with much drinking and dancing going on into the wee small hours – away from the more auspicious formalities going on in the gompa itself of course. Without a doubt, the Sherpas are always up for a party – with chang, a type of local rice beer, or more potent “raksi”, flowing liberally on such occasions, sometimes with highly undesirable consequences. A friend of mine, for example, observed two somewhat inebriated monks in an argument about whose monastery was the better – eventually the whole thing degenerated into chaos when one of the affronted duo took a swing at the other. I’m not sure which of the duo won the contest in the end but it certainly wasn’t a good advert for “the Path”.

Away from such grandiose events, much of my life in Solu focused upon the immediate surroundings of the house and the smallholding where I lived. There was always some activity going on; whether it was milking the cow, harvesting maize or the fruit trees, winnowing the grain or routine maintenance work such as replacing the wooden tiles on the roof, something which occurred every few years. The scene was always changing according to the seasons; vivid green and lush during and after the monsoon, through to more washed out hues of tan and russet in the dryer winter and spring months. Likewise the routines of the place alternated in tune with these seasonal cycles.

 

Along with the agricultural routines, the views across the valley from my balcony also varied with the seasons and climatic patterns. When it was clear, particularly during the autumn and spring, there was a tremendous vista up the valley to soaring 7000m snow peaks of Numbur and Karyolung, suspended between somewhere remote between earth and sky. During the summer monsoon, however, the world collapsed inwards to the immediate confines of the valley; clouds scurrying along below eye level and then billowing up to engulf the house in their conforting mass.

Whatever the season, however, there were always friendly locals around to chat to;  Sherpa ladies keeping their small kids amused, people doing various jobs about the place or my landlord checking up to see how his latest batch of “raksi” was doing. There were also some farm dogs, one of which always having litters of pups and which was a greater scavenger, another which used to follow me on walks up the hill, until it was sadly killed by a wild predator of some unknown description. A particularly soft one was selected to be a guard dog and was chained up half starved, a thing that I found hard to accept.

Sometimes there were strange goings-on, like the two men in fancy dress who woke me up by unexpectedly blowing trumpets and reciting incantations outside the house in the middle of the night. The next day they appeared at the door wanting a contribution for this unrequested and unannounced service. I asked my landlord and he explained to me that they were the local “ghost busters” and that they had been there to exorcise the house of evil spirits. They apparently visited all the village house once a year and would receive payment in rice (or, if you were a foreigner, in cash of course !).

It was also nice to have some other company around, including fellow VSO volunteers Sharon and Martin. The lived in a house just within a stone’s throw and were always good company. Sharon was working as a public health advisor in the local health clinic and was always a great source of enthusiasm and motivation whenever the going got tough (usually telling me it was my fault for ever thinking of complaining) – her partner Martin worked as an English teacher in the local primary school. There were also one or 2 other overseas residents including Toshi, who I spoke to in Nepali (our only mutual language) and a couple from Switzerland who were working for a local hydro electric project. 

One of the social highlights of the year in Solu was the Dudhakunda festival which was located by a glacial lake at over 5000m under the watchful peaks of Numbur and Karyolung. On midsummer night we partied here here in the full moonlight accompanied by a mad assortment of humanity; shamans drumming and dancing, Hindu sadhus stoned out their heads and trendy young Sherpa guys blasting out Michael Jackson on their ghetto blasters, whilst knocking back copious amounts of “chang” and “raksi”.

The Dudhakunda Lake is a sacred power place for both Hindus and Buddhists; some people, even in their 80s, had walked (or been carried) 3 days or so over rough trails just to get to this spot which is 5000m in altitude, believing that if they persevered, their karma and their reincarnation in the next life would benefit. In the night, far off in the distance, over the plains towards India, we could see amazing electrical storms erupting out up the cloud inversion stretched out below. The devout pilgrims, circumnavigate the lake and then bathe in the waters at dawn – I must admit to giving that one a miss.  What a wild experience that was; a party like no other that I’ve been to before or since.

There’s a great walk along the top of the ridge above Phaplu behind the Chiwang Gompa with views across to the mighty 8000m peaks of the Khumbu region including Makalu, Lhotse and Everest itself (the highest mountain on earth, first climbed by Sir Edmond Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay back in 1953). Although it doesn’t appear far away as the crow flies, the scale of the landscape is indeed deceptive and vast. To reach the Khumbu from Solu requires a walk of 3 or 4 days, with a knee jarring descent of over 1000m from Traksindo La pass to the village of Jubing in the Dudh Kosi Valley with its banana trees and sultry climate.

 

From Jubing the trail winds up the main valley of the Dhudh Kosi through a landscape of small Sherpa and Rai villages, terraced fields and through some dense forests away from the settlements. The path is often steep with precipitous drops down to the Dudh Kosi. I used to sometimes trek this path alone to get to the Northern part of the District and this was the only part of the trail which unsettled me. In one more remote section of trail, the bodies of a couple of trekkers had been found lying in a steep gully, the cause of the fatalities unknown. Generally though, Nepal is very safe for trekking and the people you will encounter will either be hospitable or curious about you. However I know from my own experience that it can be easy to take a tumble from the trail and to suddenly find yourself in a tricky situation. It really then makes more sense then to trek in company rather than alone.

Traversing the Dudh Koshi Valley it’s possible to bypass the tourist hub of Lukla with its famous and unfeasibly steep airport runway. This is generally the gateway for tourists to the Khumbu Region and the start of the Everest Base Camp Trek. It is generally full of tourists scrabbling around to get much prized plane tickets to Kathmandu or sitting around dejectedly because their flights have been can cancelled for days on end, due to bad weather or other unforeseen events. The more sensible visitors, with time on their hands, will do the long walk out (or in) from Jiri, through Jumbesi and the Solu Region to the South. Admittedly this involves a great deal of up and down against the natural grain of the land. By comparison with the Khumbu, the Solu area where I was based, is much less touristed and the long trek in is a great way to get a taste of real Sherpa and Nepali culture amidst beautiful landscapes. Meanwhile a steady stream of small aircraft disgorge their payloads of crazed adrenaline junkies making for Everest Base Camp at breakneck speed – sometimes with disastrous effects in terms of inevitable acclimatization issues and potentially acute mountain sickness.

 

A particular issue in the approach to the Khumbu Region around Lukla has been the environmental impact of trekking and tourism. This has historically been responsible for a large amount of deforestation in the area, particularly just to the South of the Mt. Everest National Park boundary. Forests in this area were not accorded so much protection, however also acted as the main source of timber and firewood for the adjacent Sagamartha National Park. Consequently, when I was there, huge stacks of firewood were in evidence outside tourist lodges on the main trail towards Everest. Tourists demanded hot showers and complex European menus which further increased the demands placed upon the forests. Wood was also in considerable demand for construction of new tourist lodges in the area particularly in Namche and the Pharak area.

 

One of our tasks with the Forestry Program focused upon these issues and the challenges of attempting to reduce the impacts caused by tourism in this area. This involved the establishment new forest user groups which aimed to encourage higher levels of cooperation and participation by local people. Noticeably, the Sherpa women had a much greater say during these meetings than in the meetings held in the Middle Hills areas of Solu further South. The work also involved contacting the owners of tourist lodges in the area to investigate how they could reduce their overall reliance on fuel wood and to therefore help the forests to regenerate through more sustainable long term management practices. A project started by Sir Edmond Hillary had also been developing new tree nurseries in the area to deal with some of the more seriously degraded forests.

The Khumbu Region to the North of here is the gateway to Everest and is very much the heartland of the Sherpa people themselves. Namche Bazaar, nestling in it’s natural amphitheater is best known as being the Sherpa “capital” and boasts a thriving tourist industry with numerous hotels and lodges which seem to have gradually added more and more stories on top over the years. Many tourist groups, climbers and trekkers linger here for a day or 2 on their way to the Everest base camp for acclimatization purposes and so it can get quite busy at times, with an assortment of tourist ships reminiscent of Kathmandu’s Thamel District.

 

However, there are also quieter and more traditional Sherpa villages such as Khumjung and khunde, where slower rhythms and traditional Sherpa life can be observed with the spectacular backdrop of Ama Dablam, my favourite peak, towering gracefully over the valley. You will also see Sherpa women working in the fields, digging potatoes or harvesting buckwheat. Meanwhile, many of the Sherpa men will be involved in the dangerous work of serving high altitude mountaineering expeditions. This offers good financial returns but also carries a high price as many Sherpa families have learned to their cost, particularly in 2014 when 16 Sherpas were tragically killed in an accident in the Khumbu icefall.

When Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first scaled Mt Everest in 1953, the region had been effectively closed off from the rest of the world. The life of the Buddhist Sherpa inhabitants of the Khumbu had remained virtually unchanged for generations and mountain peaks, including Everest (or Chomolunga in Tibetan), were considered to be sacred places and the abode of the gods alone. There was certainly no question of the Sherpas wanting to conquer these high places for personal prestige. Following the ascent of Everest, however, all this started to change as the region opened up to climbing expeditions and then to trekkers who appeared in ever-increasing numbers.

The adventure tourism boom brought significant benefits to the Sherpa people who were able to earn wages of up to 5000 dollars a year (compared with the Nepal national average of only 700 dollars) in one of the world’s poorest countries. New schools, hospitals and airstrips were constructed in the Region, including the airport at Lukla. For the first time a new generation of Sherpa children were able to benefit from educational and employment opportunities far from their homeland. However, the stream of visitors also brought problems; these included deforestation, rubbish dumping, social inequalities and the decline of community cohesion and agricultural systems. The creation of the Sagamartha National park in 1976 set out to address some of these problems, but in so doing, inadvertently created additional pressures including the intensification of environmental impacts from deforestation outside the park boundary.

For me personally, one of the greatest highs (both physically and emotionally) must have been an evening ascent of the Gokyo Ri peak which, at 5500m, affords one of the best uninterrupted views of Everest. Gokyo also has the added attraction of being less frequented than the popular Kala Patthar peak, another trekking destinstion located close to Everest Base Camp (the circus and crowds thereof !).

After a long and unrelenting trek in, I climbed the Gokyo Ri one still evening (somewhat recklessly throwing caution to the wind with acclimatization). Upon reaching the summit of the peak, I sat completely alone for a couple of hours, clicking off snaps with my battered old manual SLR, accompanied only by my fleeting thoughts and the sound of the fluttering Buddhist prayer flags which adorn the summit. 

As the inversion clouds slowly drifted up the valley, cutting me off on the rocky island summit from the world below , I felt a wonderful sense of connection to world of rock and ice around me. As the last rays of the dying sun illuminated the lofty mountain flanks, Mt. Everest appeared serene, remote and unassailable.

Everest, was named originally to honour a British colonial surveyor, who never actually went near the mountain but observed it’s height from far away on the distant plains of India. However, instinctively it seems the Tibetan Buddhists possessed a more intuitive understanding of the significance of the peak;  Perhaps the Sherpa name “Chomolunga”, the Goddess Mother of the Universe, is a more fitting title which accords the peak the true worthiness and respect it should be due.

 

 

“Village stay”: Fond Farewells for the VSO Nepali language training class of ’91 Madanpokhara, Palpa District.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing, people on stage and outdoor

Image may contain: 5 people, people standing, people sitting and outdoor

 

This entry was posted in History & Culture, Mountain Treks, Trees & Greenspaces, Wild Places, World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Top of the World – Two years in Solu Khumbu, Nepal

  1. Great memories Ian, well worth the time spent scanning in the photos. Kasto raamro samjhana!

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