It's six o'clock on Saturday morning, and Namche Bazaar is buzzing. Saturday is market day in the town, the main trading center for the Sherpa community of Himalayan Nepal, and Namche residents mingle with hundreds of Tibetans and other Sherpas from nearby villages who are here for their weekly shopping.
From my vantage point on a hillside above town, where I am camped with my husband, three other Americans, a Nepali guide, and a dozen Sherpas, I can see Namche spread out across a basin formed by the sides of two adjacent mountains. The market is off to the left, on the edge of a steep drop to a lower valley. Far to the right, above Namche, stands a group of pink-and-white rhododendron trees, and the colorful dresses and head scarves of the Nepali women dot the pathways below. Nearby, Buddhist prayer flags snap in the wind like clothes on a line. Brass bells clang faintly from the necks of yaks brought in by the villagers to carry home market purchases.
Like many Nepali enterprises, the market is small and simple. Vendors spread wares--ranging from boots to water-buffalo meat and thermoses full of chhang, a Nepali liquor made from rice or corn--on blankets. Shoppers and yaks cram the market's narrow rows, fighting for space. Haggling is de rigueur, so transactions take a while. But by Saturday afternoon, the trails from Namche to other villages in this region just below Mt. Everest are peppered with Sherpas returning from market.
RUGGED WAYS. The Sherpas, the largest ethnic group in the area, are descendants of Tibetan mountain people who migrated to the Nepali Himalayas in the 16th century. Their way of carrying a load is distinctive: They lean forward as they walk, balancing against the pressure of thick tumplines across their foreheads that support oversize baskets on their backs.
The Namche market has operated with little change for generations, says Buddha Basnyat, a doctor from Kathmandu who is our guide. In fact, most of the Sherpas' rugged ways have changed little over the centuries. Their lives are infused with spiritual matters. Prayers are carved into rock tablets on the trails, and the Sherpas show respect for their gods by passing to the left of those rocks.
As Buddhists, the Sherpas believe that virtuous, enlightened actions in one life affect the quality of the next. That means, in part, not focusing on material things and doing their best at whatever their work is--including leading Americans like us huffing and puffing through their country. A spiritual quality permeates their everyday life and appears in their devotion to work and family and in their respect for the mountains.
That lifestyle may not last much longer. A hydroelectric project sponsored by the Austrian government is bringing power to Namche and many surrounding villages. It is only a matter of time before the Sherpas obtain the radios and TVs that will give them sustained exposure to Western ways--exposure that may poison their desire for traditional Sherpa life. Already, Namche has 24-hour electricity, and a dozen or so smaller villages have power for several hours a day.
POPULATION BOMB. Certainly the Sherpas--indeed, all Nepalis--desperately need the prosperity that technological advances bring. Per capita income in Nepal is roughly $170 a year. Progress will also bring modern medicine. My husband, a doctor, accompanied Buddha on a house call to an asthmatic woman who has to walk six miles on a mountain trail to get to the clinic that has her medicine. And that clinic is there thanks only to the foundation created by Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander whose expedition was the first to climb Everest.
Birth control has never really caught on in agrarian Nepal, and with the population of 19 million expected to double in 25 years, natural resources are strained, particularly now that medical advances are pushing Nepalis' life expectancy to 53, up from roughly 47 in 1980. In the mountains, including the Khumbu region where we are, villagers have stripped hillsides of trees for fuel, causing mud slides and loss of farmland.
Technology has already altered parts of Nepal, such as the Khumbu and the Annapurna regions, where tourism and trekking are popular. A Japanese-owned hotel sits near Namche, complete with a special pressurized room where the guests can gaze out at the mountains without any fear of altitude sickness. New Sherpa-style fieldstone houses are being built in every town we hike through.
A day's walk from Namche, Buddha introduces me to a lowland Nepali and translates as the villager explains that he is in the mountains to build houses for the Sherpas. The builder scoffs at the Sherpas' building skills but allows that they, unlike his fellow lowlanders, can afford new houses.
YAK PACKS. Do the Sherpas really want all this progress? Buddha says that the main things villagers ask for are roads to replace the mountain trails. There are no motor vehicles anywhere in the Khumbu, and the only way to travel between the villages is on foot or, on rare occasions, on the yaks that are used to transport construction equipment and medical supplies. Much of that comes from the outside world. The Nepalis, who lived in almost complete isolation until the 1950s, are grateful for whatever charitable assistance comes their way. "Nepal lives on foreign aid," Buddha says.
Even now, the lives of most Sherpas remain untouched by the rest of the world. In a village near Namche, our head Sherpa, Passan Temba, takes us to see his family's fieldstone house. We sit on a long bench on unfinished wooden floors below small windows that are the only source of light in the main room, watching Passan's mother prepare tea over an open hearth. The vent above the fireplace was a recent innovation, Passan says. Many Sherpas believe the smoke from a fire is what heats a room, so despite frequent and severe respiratory problems, they are loath to let it escape. For added warmth in the bitter Himalayan winters, Passan's family keeps its herd of yaks in a big room on the ground floor.
As a special treat, Passan's mother offers us Wasa bread, Scandinavian crackers that Passan carefully saved from a trip three years ago to the Everest base camp, above 16,000 feet, his most daring trek. After tea, Passan shows us a resplendent Buddhist prayer room with a set of over 100 sacred Buddhist texts.
Whether Passan and other Nepalis will retain this spirituality after sustained exposure to Western ways is a question I ponder as we continue our trek through the Himalayas. With their minuscule earnings, these people may become frustrated as they are exposed to things far beyond their grasp. Worse, they could cede their land to developers in order to get the money for Western products they grow to covet. Already, a German developer wants to follow the Japanese by building a luxury hotel next to the Tengboche monastery, one of the country's most sacred sites. Nepal may live on foreign aid. But aid in the form of electricity may prove to be a jolt that will change the country forever.