KHOLE PHEP! – THE SHERPA FAREWELL

 The last post of the Sherpa Life project

The worst of a farewell isn’t not to have to leave up everything you’ve known but realizing everything you haven’t come to know 

One of the first things I learned when I arrived at Khumbu was that that ubiquitous, almost magical word, Namaste, which everyone uses in Nepal to greet each other, is not a Sherpa word but Nepali. Its use is so widespread that when Sherpas address a foreigner, they never use their equivalent Sherpa: Tashi Delek (or Trashi Dele). They were these words that opened more doors for me and gave me more smiles when I visited Sherpa people during my stay in those valleys. This and two other expressions, khole phep (goodbye) and thuuche thuuche (thank you) is all my baggage for social relationships, in the Sherpa language, that I took home. Many will think, limited, right? Well yes but learning Sherpa language was not part of my goals when I prepared the Sherpa Life project.     

This introduction helps me to start this post, which is a brief reflection to answer the questions that many friends, including the subscribers and followers of my blog, have asked me over the past year: it has been worth the sorry? What is your assessment of your experience?

To put it in context I want to remember what the three objectives of the project were:

  • To observe, know, understand and disseminate the life of the Sherpa inhabitants of the Khumbu valleys in Nepal, in the 21st century
  • To analyze the economic, social and cultural impact of trekkings, expeditions and tourist activities on the inhabitants of these valleys, in the last 75 years
  • To analyze the impact that the arrival of information and communication technologies has had on the life of Khumbu people

A POSITIVE BALANCE

To achieve these goals, I planned to spend a whole year in the Khumbu, to live with the Sherpas of those valleys, beyond the tourist seasons. It seemed to me a practical, perhaps unscientific (or not at all) approach to the reality that I guessed was very interesting, though unknown to me. That entire year became, even before it started, two 5-month periods due to the limitation of visa periods by the Nepalese government. And finally, as you know, they have only been 7 months because of this virus that surrounds us and has changed our lives.    

To the question of whether it was worth it, I must tell you that the answer is: very, very much! I have to admit that when I left home, despite being very motivated and convinced of what I was going to do, I also had my worries about how I would adapt to a way of life so different from ours. Both for the physical challenge (health, diet, high altitude, always walking, age) and emotional (far away from home, family and friends; will I get bored? will it take me too long?). So, I am very pleased with how I overcame these two challenges.   

Health was the biggest concern I had and luckily it respected me a lot. In this I was very reassured by the research project that Dr. Carme Comellas, from the CIMETIR of Clínica Sant Josep (Althaia) in Manresa (Spain) (https://www.clinicasantjosep.cat/serveis-medics/unitats-especialitzades/cimetir ), decided to carry on about the impact that a long stay in very high altitude (between 3,500 and 5,500 m) could have in the health of a person over 70 years. This forced me to do daily check-ups of various health parameters, which I periodically sent to Dr. Comellas and of which she returned with her comments to me. This follow-up gave me a peace of mind that for myself I probably would not have had.

The enthusiasm to develop the project, the good acceptance and the support from local people (especially my friend Pasang and his whole family) made the emotional challenge easier for me. The technology available in most of Khumbu areas, allowed me to feel closer to home. And the family visit in mid-October was like a reset for me (and for them, too, I’m sure).   

 MY FAMILY’S VISIT

It has been such an intense life experience that at no point did I feel bored or lose my enthusiasm. In fact, there was so much to discover and learn, so many people to meet, so much to tell, that the days passed quickly and plenty of findings and emotions.

As for the 3 goals I set for myself, I consider them well achieved. The 27 posts I posted and the pictures on the web (www.sherpalifeproject.com ) and Instagram (#sherpalifeproject) I think are the most tangible example of the result. I’m just as proud of what I’ve been able to do and, above all, of have been able to share it with so many people.

THE PROJECT IN FIGURES In this post it seemed me interesting (or at least curious) to add a few figures on the development of the project. Here they are:

Project duration: 6 and a half months

Days spent at the Khumbu: 177

Walking distance: 1,215 Km

Walking time: 435 hours

Maximum height: 5,643 m (top of Kala Patthar)

Cumulative elevation gain: 56,023 m

 Cumulative elevation loss: 60,904 m

Villages or hamlets visited: 50

Schools visited: 13

Monasteries visited: 23

Hospitals visited. 2

Health posts visited: 11

KHOLE PHEP (GOODBYE)

It’s been 12 months since that first post I titled Preparing the Road from Catalonia to Namche and what was once a project is now a reality. What was the anxiety of starting the adventure now is the satisfaction of everything I’ve learned, all the people I’ve met, all the places I’ve visited and all the support I’ve had.

It’s time to open a parenthesis between what I’ve done so far and what I’d like to do from now on. Some exhibitions, audio-visual material, outreach talks and maybe a book. If you count among those friends who have insisted to me to write a book, I will try. I’ve a lot of material and I’m very excited. We will see what comes of it.

So, as a Catalan folk song says, it’s not a goodbye forever, it’s just a goodbye for a moment. An instant that will be a bit long but in the end I hope to meet you again to continue sharing. Thuuche thuuche (thanks) for being there and see you soon!     

DUMCHI, DANCES AND FIRE TO CONNECT WITH THE FORCE OF LIFE 

The celebration with the strongest community spirit of the Sherpas

If you come to ask me what’s the worst thing I lost for having to come back home earlier than expected, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment: the Dumchi, the most important festival of the year for the Khumbu’s Sherpa community. This year, despite the country lockdown, they have been able to celebrate it and they told me that there are people living in other areas of the country, including Kathmandu, who have managed to climb up the Khumbu and enjoy “ his ”festival.

ORIGIN AND ORGANIZATION

The Dumchi is a festival originated when the monasteries of Pangboche, Thame and Rimijung were founded, 375 years ago. After a time when it was almost lost, it has recovered its importance in recent decades. It is currently celebrated in eight Khumbu villages during the monsoon season, in late June or early July (this year 2020 was July 1-4). It is just when planting potatoes is over and before the herds of cattle are moved, for the three months of summer, to the grassy pastures in the high areas of the valleys.

It also the return home time of the Sherpas who have been working on trekkings and expeditions during the spring season. Many Sherpas living in Kathmandu take advantage of this festival to spend a few days in Khumbu to gather with family and friends. For all these reasons it is the most important festival from the social point of view, for the Sherpas of Khumbu.   

 Representation of Guru Rinpoche

The main purpose of the festival is to celebrate the birth of Guru Rinpoche, who according to tradition was born in a lotus flower in the early eighth century and is considered the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. In many places, this festival is also dedicated to more local spiritual leaders. In Khumbu they also honour Lama Sangwa Dorje, who founded the Pangboche monastery, and Lama Ralpa Dorje, who founded the Thame one. The Dumchi also aims to prevent misfortune and promote peace and prosperity in all people.

In each village where it is celebrated, the Dumchi is sponsored by eight families, known as Lawa, who alternate each year on a rotating basis. Despite the responsibility and expenses involved in this sponsorship, for Sherpas families it is the recognition as an independent family and a member of the community of their village. Currently, due to the high costs that this organization entails for Lawa families, there is a growing movement to limit costs and ask other people in the village to make small contributions to help the organization.

The monks of the village monastery, if any, and if not monks from other monasteries for the occasion, are in charge to prepare the altars and ritual objects, also take part in the organisation.

The eight Lawa families offer lunch and dinner to all attendees during the four days of the festival, as well as tea, chang (rice liqueur), tongba (millet liqueur), beer and refreshing drinks. They are also in charge of placing the long poles with prayer flags at the place where the ceremonies are held. In Namche, this festival takes place in two different spots. The first day ceremony takes place under a large boulder where a huge image of Guru Rinpoche is painted, located outside the village a little above the monastery. The rest of the ceremonies and social activities take place in the monastery itself, where there is a beautiful courtyard, cloister type, which, over time, has become a kind of social venue for the village.  

Places of Dumchi festival in Namche 

In Thame, it was formerly held in the village monastery until 1952 when it was converted into a monastery of celibate lamas. Then the celebration of the Dumchi moved to Upper Thame, where they built a large chorten (stupa in Nepali) surrounded by a large area that each year was covered with tarpaulins to protect themselves from the monsoon rain during the celebrations. In 1998, with the help of the Austrian organization Eco Himal (www.ecohimal.org), a building was built for this celebration. The two earthquakes of 2015 collapsed everything.     

The Sherpa community rebuilt the chorten in a very short time and thanks to foreign donations from Japan, Britain and Germany, the Thame community built a Community Centre which, besides to celebrating the Dumchi, is used for social and educational activities throughout the year.

THE FESTIVAL PROGRAM

The date of the Dumchi festival is the same in all villages and the program is basically the same. In this post I tell you the program followed in Thame.

Preparations for the festival last 11 days and begin on the first day of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar (this year it was June 22). 

During these days, the Lawa families finish the organization of the festival, prepare an altar for the occasion, and repair the damage that has occurred in the chorten since the previous year. The abbot of the monastery blesses the colourful butter that the Lamas will use to make the tormas, which are figures of various shapes, very elaborate, made with a dough made with boiled rice.

On the last preparation day, once everything is ready, they repaint the chorten and make a “reconsecration” of the place. It is this day when, early afternoon, neighbours and lamas gather to place long poles with the prayer flags around the small shrine of the village. Finally, they distribute a ball of boiled rice (drubzhag) to all attendees.

On the 12th day (this year on July 2) the actual celebrations begin and will last for 4 days. The ceremonies usually start in the mid-afternoon and last until late at night.

The first of the 4 days is the Lhapsang, a ceremony with offerings to please the gods, including the goddess Khumbi Yullha, protector of the Khumbu. It follows a ceremony to scare away evil spirits. When it gets dark, the logpar begins, a ceremony to “domesticate” the earth and to protect its inhabitants. There are five dances, some with masks, performed by the Lama monks of the monastery. Then they light a bonfire where, while the Lama monks perform some dances, they throw tormas and liqueurs that provoke spectacular flames of orange colours. The day ends with the logcham, a dance to connect with the life force.      

The second day begins with the performances, by the Lama monks, of two pieces from the so-called Northern Treasure (revelations and a source of knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism). After a break, the Lawa families arrive dancing and singing, carrying bags of rice to hand out to attendees. While all this is going on, all kinds of drinks (tea, beer, chang, tongba) are served to the attendees. A meal of rice and potatoes is served in the middle of the afternoon, and everyone receives four little bags of rice.

The eight Lawa families of the following year are chosen and receive a white torma which they will keep at home until the next Dumchi. The day ends with the Lawa families of the year and the newly chosen ones, singing and dancing traditional Dumchi songs, while offering chang to the monks.  

On the third day in the morning, the Lama monks perform an incense offering and meditation ceremony that ends with the blessing the attendees. In the early afternoon, Lawa families serve tea and noodle soup, accompanied by delicious pickles of vegetables, to the monks and other guests. Later, the people of the village and the surrounding area begin to arrive in their best costumes and jewels, to attend the blessing ceremony for a long life (tsewang) and once finished, with the “victory to the gods” prayer, ends the Dumchi.   

But the party continues. Rice and potatoes are served accompanied by all kinds of drinks to all attendees and people, especially young people, begin to dance until well into the night, forming long lines, side by side, with their arms intertwined. by the back, singing their lilting songs, while the complicated steps of their traditional dances evolve. It is the night of the full moon.

The last day, although the festival strictly speaking ended the day before, is the time to tidy up the place of celebration, and to gather and return to its place all the sacred objects that have been used. They do this, in procession going up to the monastery. Halfway, when they are on the ridge that separates the two neighbourhoods of Thame, they perform a final ceremony with offerings and incense burning. Sacred objects are kept in a shrine of the monastery and … until next year!

As you will not miss, the recurring elements of these celebrations (fire, dance, songs, food and drink) can be found in many of our popular festivals. This makes me think that the cultural and religious differences between two worlds such as Sherpas and ours are, perhaps not so great. This is the beauty of life!       

BEAUTY AND IMMENSITY – THE FOUR SEASONS IN THE HIMALAYAS 

All art is nothing but the imitation of nature (Seneca)

(To liven up the reading of this post I leave you the link to a short version of the Vivaldi’s four seasons https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnygRClLHU4)

Often when we talk about the beauty or size of a place we have visited, we say that they are indescribable. Really we mean that we have been so impressed that it is hard for us to find the words to describe them. When I arrived in Khumbu area in July last year, the fact that it was the monsoon season and the landscape was partially hidden by the clouds made me realize how different it was compared to the other times I had been there.

Something similar happened to me when I arrived in Namche after a couple of days of hiking, almost alone, on the way up from the small airport in Lukla. I suddenly came across a quiet village, where during the tourist seasons there is a bustling village, full of people going up and down.  

The feelings that these two events provoked in me led me to look for words to describe the changes that the different times of the year produce in the landscape and in the environment and life of Namche. And that’s how, from the beginning, I started writing about the four seasons, and despite missing the spring due to my unexpected early return home, I wanted to finish what I started. This is the result.

Summer

July 29. Lukla. 2/4 of 8 in the morning. After a half-hour flight through morning clouds, I cross the village with wet and empty streets I take the path that in a couple of days will bring me to Namche. I’m alone. I walk without haste. Ideal for observing and thinking.       

It is cloudy, no peak is seen. Every time I look up the trail and see what is around me, my eyes fill with intense green. A green that will accompany me all summer wherever I go, as far as the vegetation goes. There are waterfalls everywhere. The rivers flow extremely fast and noisy. All in all, for me, who had only been there in the fall, it is a surprise.      

Mornings are not raining. It is in the afternoon when rain comes, and a lot. This allows me to reach Namche without opening my umbrella, even enjoying the sun. From what I could see for the rest of the summer, the heavy rains in the second half of the monsoon shifted for a month and a half, ending well into the fall. Another effect of climate change.

Once settled in Namche, the walks through the village revealed to me a different Namche than the one I knew. Very few tourists, only one shop open (luckily there is the weekly market), most hotels, lodges and cafes also closed. Quiet streets, with the people of the village sitting banging and watching the few foreigners we moved through the streets. The feeling of peace and tranquillity, although I expected it, surprised me. It was like living in a village that was off the tourist circuit.     

At the highest part of Namche there is an exceptional belvedere, the View Point. I made it my point of observation of the changes in the landscape all the time I lived there. A place with spectacular views, not only of Everest, but of all the mountains surrounding the Khumbu valleys. I went up there two or three times a week to document the changes in the landscape.

During the summer months, many days the peaks were hidden by clouds and that was when, even if it was not sunny, the intense green of forests and meadows stood out. A green that, on sunny days, was overshadowed by the sight of the snow-capped mountains.  

There, summer is the time to collect mushrooms. Everyone goes out to look for them, and by the way, they are delicious! Mostly freshly harvested. They dry them in large quantities and have them all winter long, which is when the few vegetables available are usually scarce.

Fall

The delay of the rains greatly affected the beginning of fall and the quintessential tourist season. All the villages and especially Namche suffered the consequences of the late rains. Planes and helicopters could not fly between Kathmandu and Lukla and therefore tourists did not arrive, and reservations were cancelled or dates changed. Until the end of the first fortnight of October the situation did not return to normal and then yes, Namche was invaded by hundreds of tourists filling the streets, shops and accommodation places. The tranquillity was over. It is time for business and the village seems to be transforming.      

After monsoon rainfall season, the landscape began to change from the green of the grassy meadows to the brown of the dry grass, and from the mud of the paths to the dust, a fine dust that gets everywhere when you walk. But it is also a time of flowers, many flowers. It seemed to me like a springlike fall.

The rivers greatly decreased in flow. I watched as the waterfalls went thinner day by day. By the end of November, they were already starting to freeze. Winter was knocking at the door. Guides and climbers were already waiting for it because that’s when the trekking and expedition season ends, and the climbing schools start the ice training. They don’t have to go very far from home.      

Autumn, for the people of the country, is the time to make money and for tourists it is the best time of the year as the weather stabilizes and the days are sunny. Although the nights are getting colder, if it is sunny, it can get hot during the day. I saw many people hiking in a short-sleeved t-shirt early December.

December is also the time to collect dry leaves in the forest to make fertilizer, and to cut firewood. As the trails cleared of tourists, many local people invaded the trails carrying great amounts of firewood. It’s time to prepare for winter is about to come.

Winter

Although it was still a week away from the astronomical winter, I already had a little taste of it going down from Namche to Kharikhola, on my way home for Christmas. The day after leaving Namche, the sky darkened, the fog fell, and the snow fell hard to low altitudes. Namche was left under 50 cm of snow.  

The snow also whitewashed a stretch of trail to Kharikhola. My friend Pasang and I experienced the effects of the snow, especially when it is less than a handful thick, when it mixes with the dust of the trails and the excrement of the hundreds of mules that pass through it. A kind of mud is formed that slips more than if it was fat. Standing, even with the help of poles, is a challenge. On the third day of the way down we arrived at the lodge where we spent the night, very dirty. We had to wash gloves, pants, socks and boots. Thanks to the lodge stove, we stayed clean and dry for the next day.

Although it was not a very snowy and cold winter, at the end of January in Namche there was a snowfall of more than 1 meter thick, which in Thame was more than 2 meters. It was a winter of small snowfalls (10 or 15 cm), very frequent, which, thanks to the force of the insolation at those heights, melted quickly. Of course, where it didn’t melt right away, it would freeze at night and then stay there for many days.   

This winter, in Namche, the minimum temperature “only” was -9.9 ºC. The most common is for the minimum temperature to drop to -20 ºC. However, once there, I was able to see the less visible effect that most affects everyone’s daily life, the icy water pipes. Many of the houses and lodges above 3,000 meters are left without water for two or three months, with the difficulties that this entails. Everyone must to fetch water with drums from one of the village springs or from the river, which rarely freezes. And when that happens, the last resort is to melt snow.

You may be wondering what people do in winter in these conditions. So, those who can, go down to Kathmandu where they do social life. The luckiest ones travel to tourist areas of the country or abroad. It’s also wedding time. Currently most Sherpas weddings are held in Kathmandu. That’s why in the whole time I was up there I couldn’t see any of them.     

Schools are closed. There are almost no tourists. Lodges and shops are also closed. People, when it is sunny in the sunny corners, chat with each other and because they are very curious, they are always about to give conversation to any foreigner who walks down the street. Towards the end of winter, the Sherpa New Year (Gyalpo Losar) is celebrated, the school opens, tourists begin to arrive for the spring season, and little by little, shops and accommodations begin to open. It’s like getting out of a hibernation.

Spring

This year, in early March, the Nepalese government banned all international flights to Nepal and the flow of tourists, which had begun in late February, came to a halt. The tourist spring season vanished before it began. Take in account that the season of expeditions is the most lucrative business in the region. There were none this year. And the few foreigners we were there, we magically disappeared in a few days.    

Aside from tourism, spring is the most splendid season of Khumbu. It is the time of flowering but also of planting the potatoes that are the main crop in the area and a staple of their diet, along with rice and lentils.

From what I know, the spring’s bursting is impressive for the wide variety of flowers that grow everywhere and the flowering of the trees. Especially the rhododendron (rhododendron arboreum) which in Nepal are very tall trees. Its pink flower is the symbol of Nepal. In Khumbu there are vast forests of rhododendrons, which live up to 4,000 m.

The “spring” photos I add to this text are the ones my friend Pasang sent me. I hope that soon I will be able to come back there and enjoy the spring of Khumbu personally, and share it with all of you.      

Last Everest view on the way down home 

 As you have seen, an experience, the mine, that had to last four seasons, like Vivaldi’s concert, which has finally lasted three, but lived with intensity.

MANI RIMDU, THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MASK DANCE FESTIVAL

Mani Rimdu is a religious festival dedicated to Chyenrezig, the deity of dance and compassion, who brings peace and harmony to the world, and who is invoked when the well-known mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is recited (Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus!)

Having left Khumbu so early due to the Covid-19, I missed the last two and most important Sherpa festivals, Thame’s Mani Rimdu and Dumchi, which will be held in several Khumbu villages at first of July. Sherpas celebrate many festivals which, in addition to the religious aspect, are the occasions that families and friends have for fun, social life and relax.

In this post and the next one, with the collaboration of my friend Pasang, I will try to explain the origin and meaning of these two festivals. 

 Map of Nepal and Tibet with Thame and Rongbuck monasteries

The Mani Rimdu of Thame

From what I am told, this year has been an unusual celebration as, due to the lockdown of the country, only people from the villages around Thame were able to attend. This has made it an “intimate” festival for the Sherpas of that area.

In the Khumbu is celebrated in Tengboche Monastery in November, and in Thame Monastery in late May or early June, as appropriate according to the Tibetan calendar. It lasts two weeks at the end of which there are three days with public attendance, which this year were from June 1 to 3.

The celebration of the Mani Rimdu was introduced to Khumbu just over 90 years ago from the Rongphu monastery in Tibet, where unfortunately this tradition was interrupted in 1959 when this Tibetan monastery, like so many others, was destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In the 1980s the Chinese government authorized the reconstruction of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. In 2002, after the Rongphu one was rebuilt, the monks wanted to restore the tradition of celebrating the Mani Rimdu but none of them knew how it was done because they had never seen the dances that are the essence of the celebration. With the support of the Mountain Institute of Nepal, the monks of Rongphu went to Thame Monastery to learn the dances and in 2004 they restored the celebration which has been celebrated since then every year. Rongphu can be said that has a “return” celebration.

The preparation of the Mani Rimdu lasts 7 days starting with the ceremony for the protection of the people and the land (this year it was May 25). During the following days monks prepare the tormas, which are figures of various shapes, very worked, made with a dough based on boiled rice, and a mandala made with dyed sand of many colours and which are real watermarks that can only be done with infinite patience like they have.

Monks also prepare and bless the rilbu which are reddish pills, which are attributed long-life properties, and which are distributed to the attendees during the last days of the celebration. They also rehearse the mask dances and performances that will take place in the last three days, already with the public.

On the first day of the public acts the blessing ceremony called Tsewang is held during which the rilbu is distributed among the attendees. On the second day the lamas perform the Chhaam, a spectacular mask dance. The celebration ends on the third day with the zigshag which is an offering ceremony with fire, for the deities.

The next morning the llamas make a final offering to the spirits of the water and throw the sand of the mandalas into the river.

Rilbu, the pills of health and long life

These pills are made with rice flour mixed with various ingredients that include plants and other medicinal substances, powder of 5 precious metals (gold, silver, copper, brass and iron) and various blessed substances. They then put them in bags that the younger monks spin to dry, while walking around the monastery. Once dry, they are painted red with the product obtained from a medicinal substance called tshal. Once the elaboration is finished, they bless them, and they are about to be distributed to the attendees.

The coloured sand mandalas

Mandalas, in the Buddhist tradition, are a representation of the universe or a space bounded by a circle where deities are invited through various rituals or mantras.

Although its form and structure may vary according to the deities it includes, the basic elements are always the same, the palace of the deities, their gates, and the protective circles. The palace, usually a square, is in the centre on a cross of vajras (mystical weapon), which rests on a lotus flower, a symbol of the purity of the universe. The palace usually has four gates adorned with porticos of very elaborate designs, crowned by a Dharmachakra (Wheel of Dharma) and a pair of deer. The square is usually surrounded by two protective circles, one of vajras, symbolizing the indestructible nature of reality, and a circle of fire.    

Mandalas for special rituals are made with powder, grains or flowers of different colours. For Thame’s Mani Rimdu the mandala is prepared on a wooden board using very fine sand coloured with vegetable dyes. The drawings are created, from the centre to the edges, depositing small amounts of coloured sand using a chakpu, a very narrow funnel.

Dresses, masks and hats

The dresses, in a wide variety of colours, are very heavy, Chinese-style, and are made of silk fabrics.

Masks are considered sacred objects and when used for a long time are believed to be endowed with the power of the deities they represent and have a life of their own. They are made with a clay mould, which when dry is covered with layers of glued cloth. Then they break the mould, paint it and decorate it with hair, ribbons and handkerchiefs. Some are crowned with a diadem with several skulls. To simulate hair, they use yak tail hair.     

They have a great diversity of hats. During the ceremonies, the lamas wear the tsezha, a yellow felt hat in the shape of a cook’s comb. The abbot of the monastery uses the so-called pering, made of red felt and with a peculiar shape with a pointed end. In the picture of the presidency of this year’s dance ceremony at Thame Monastery, you can see four lamas wearing the tsezha and on the left the reincarnated lama (who is a 10-year-old boy) wearing the pering.

 Thame 2020 Mani Rimdu presidency (at left the reincarnated lama, a 10-year-old boy)

For some of the dances, the monks wear hats called shanags, also known as black hats, which symbolize the existence of the world.

As you can see in the pictures, the costumes, masks and hats are real craft works.

Chhaams, the sacred dances

The second day of the public part is the day most awaited by the inhabitants of the area. It is the day when the lamas dance the Chhaams and to do so they transform using the spectacular dresses, masks and hats, special for the occasion.

The dances take place in the courtyard of the monastery where they place a very elaborate altar and the mandala that they have prepared in the early days.

The program lasts all day and consists of 15 performances among dances and acts, where dances are mixed accompanied by simple instruments (cymbals or drums) played by the dancers themselves, with other dances where the characters evolve to the music of long horns and cymbals. There are two comic interludes, Mi Tsering (The Old Man) and Thogden. The latter performance can last up to 1 hour and is the most awaited by people. During the performance, in between jokes, he takes the opportunity to pass religious messages. 

 Thogden performance

 The program ends at the evening with the Ensemble dance in which all the dancers who have performed during the day take part and at the end they return in procession to the interior of the monastery.

At the end, the attendees go home for dinner and later return to sing and dance Sherpa folk dances while drinking chhang until well into the night. A secular end for the most important religious festival in Khumbu.

I had already seen Mani Rimdu on other occasions but then I knew neither the Sherpa culture nor the meaning of the dances and rituals of this festival as I know it now. That is why I am convinced that the day I can return to Khumbu and attend this festival, I will no longer see it only as a spectacle, which it is, but that my western eyes will have a filter that will allow me to see beyond it, and better understand its meaning. Knowing the simple way of life of the Sherpas and how they keep their culture, a saying comes to my mind: savour every moment and you will savour the life. And that’s what they do! 

The Mani Rimdu of Thame 2020 pictures were provided to by Pasang Gelje Sherpa, from Namche

GLACIER REGRESSION, THE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL WARMING IN KHUMBU

 When we respect our environment, we respect ourselves (Gyalwang Drukpa) 

Before telling you about the influence that global warming has on glaciers and the climate of Khumbu, I would like to highlight the high degree of awareness that people of these valleys have about the impact their way of of life, the increase of construction during the last 60 years and the tourist activities, have on the Khumbu’s environment. If we add to this the effects of global warming on the temperature and level of precipitation (water and snow) throughout this area, we have an explosive cocktail producing a very important changes in the surface of forests, glaciers and glacial lakes.

During my trips through the glaciers of the Khumbu high areas I could ascertain everything I had read in several disclosure and research papers on the impact of global warming on the glaciers of the Himalayas and especially in the Khumbu area .

In this area there is a large concentration of glaciers that are in a strong regression. Of the four most important I could visit three: the Ngozumpa, the Khumbu and the Nangpa. My unexpected departure from Nepal due to the Covid-19 left me half a day away from stepping on the last one I had yet to see, the Imja and its glacial lake the Imja Tso.

Map of Khumbu area glaciers 

 The Ngozumpa Glacier

It is the longest glacier of the four. In August 2019, with my friend Pasang, I tried to get it but the bad weather and a little snowfall when we were in Gokyo prevented us from doing so. We went back in late November, when the fall season was over, and on the afternoon of the 26th, once settled in the Namaste Lodge in Gokyo, we climbed to the ridge of the lateral moraine of the glacier and… what a awesome and thrilling views! In front of us it was an ice river 32 km long, which comes down from Cho Oyu (8,188 m), on the Tibet border, to a below Gokyo. The immensity of the glacier and the sunset’s light made it unique.     

 The next morning, at dawn, from the top of the Gokyo Ri (5,360 m), we were able to enjoy unforgettable views of the glacier and the glacial lake of Gokyo, with a backdrop of 5 peaks over 8,000 m, Everest included.

As you can see in the photos, glaciers are largely covered by debris that give it the appearance of dirty ice just sprinkled by small green or grey lakes. The loss of ice mass is evident in the photos where the height of the side moraines of the glaciers can be seen.

The Khumbu Glacier

It is the second longest in the area and the highest in the world. It extends from below Everest to a little further down of Lobuche (4,900 m).  

  

In early September 2019, we trekked along the villages between Namche and Gorak Shep, the last inhabited place before Everest Base Camp (EBC). The monsoon was still very active but luckily the weather opened a small window that allowed us to see the glacier all the way from Lobuche to the EBC, as well as all the peaks that surround it: the pyramid of Pumori ( 7,165 m), the ridge and summit of the Nuptse (7,864 m), the Lhotse (8,516 m) and Everest (8,848 m).

 Khumbu glacier from Kala Patthar and the Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse in the background

    

This glacier is currently only 10 km long and is shortening about 30 m. every year. In the EBC area, the glacier moves down 70 m / year while in the lower part it moves only at 10 m / year. Another fact that helps us to understand the rate of melting of this glacier is that EBC is currently more than 50 meters lower than when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summited the Everest for the first time, in 1953.

Changes in the Khumbu Glacier
a. The lower tongue of the Khumbu Glacier, covered with remains, shows the contemporary glacial surface in relation to that of the Little Ice Age (1500–1850). b. Surface elevation change at Khumbu Glacier 1984-2015. The extended locations are: c. Lobuche and d. Everest Base Camp.

 Glacier speeds (2016-2017) calculated from images from PlanetScope satellites.

 

The Nangpa Glacier

This was the first area I visited after arriving in Namche. We followed the valley that goes up to Thame and from there we followed the valley that climbs to the Nangpa La pass. This trail, which follows the course of the Bhote Koshi River from Thame to the north, is the route used by caravans of merchants and yaks to travel between Khumbu and Tibet through the Nangpa La at 5,716 m., to that China completely closed this pass.

 We followed it to Chhule (4,600 m), the last settlement in the valley, currently uninhabited, where several glaciers converge, the most important of which is the Nangpa. From here, the trail to Tibet continued over this glacier to the top of the Nangpa La pass. It is also the trail used by the first Sherpas to reach the Khumbu just over 500 years ago.

From above the place of Chhule we could see the glaciers coming down the valleys and the footprint they have left for centuries, now more visible with the retreat of the ice due to global warming. At this point, the front moraines of several glaciers converge, forming a chaotic and spooky landscape. Despite being the third longest in this area, the place where it is located is the most open of the four glaciers and is of impressive grandeur.

The Imja Glacier and the case of the rapid growth of Lake Imja Tso

This glacier is the smallest of the four glaciers referenced in this post and is located at the foot of the Imja Tse (Island Peak, 6,189 m).

The interest of this glacier is not so much because of its characteristics but because it is the origin of the glacial lake Imja Tso, located at 5,000 m., at the end of the glacier. It was formed in the 1950s with the beginning of the melting of this glacier, which moves back about 75 m each year while the lake grows about 2.5 Ha yearly. As this posed a high danger of the lake bursting and causing severe flooding throughout the Solukhumbu district, in 2016 a drain had to be built to drain it.   

As the mass of water grows, the influence of its temperature increases the rate of melting of the glacier. This phenomenon observed in the Imja Tso suggests that in a few years a glacial lake will also form at the end of the Khumbu Glacier.

Conclusion

According to a study published in 2009 by Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa and sponsored by ICIMOD (International Center for Integrated Mountain Development), between 1992 and 2006 Khumbu glaciers decreased by 9 Ha. and the area covered by snow was reduced by 11,344 Ha. This phenomenon caused the simultaneous increase in the surface of glacial lakes (most are less than 50 years old) and the appearance of many new lakes, which increased by 236 Ha. This gives us an idea of ​​the magnitude of the change that is taking place.

Because glaciers help regulate the climate and keep temperatures lower, as glaciers disappear a loop is created that raises temperatures at an exponential rate.

In the short term, as glacial melting increases, no water supply problems are expected, but in the long term, as glaciers run out, the region may face a water shortage crisis of difficult solution. This is just one example of the myriad effects that climate change could have here and is also happening on a global scale. Because the long walks through those valleys left me a lot of time to think and meditate about everything I tell you in this post, this anonymous phrase comes to my mind: “We are not what we do or what we think, we are only the footprint we leave ”.    

THE SHERPA WHEEL OF LIFE

“Do not take refuge in the past, do not dream on the future, concentrate your mind on the present” (Buddha thought that, in my opinion, nowadays we may apply to the times we are living)

Sherpa’s religious and cultural rituals remain almost unchanged for the most important passages of life: birth, marriage, and death. The Sherpas “inner culture”, which drives the important passages of life, remains relatively unchanged despite the obvious changes in many aspects of the “outer culture” such as housing, clothing or educational and economic opportunities.

Despite the months I have been living in this area, I haven’t had a chance to attend any of the three passages of life, except a brief observation of a funeral prayer, but I’ve been able to talk with people about it. This and some research on anthropological studies and other publications, allows me to tell you how Sherpas live the three main steps of life.

The wheel of life
The Wheel of life is a mandala, a complex picture representing the Buddhist view of the universe. The Wheel is divided into five or six realms, or states, into which a soul can be reborn.

THE BIRTH

Tradition says that children should born once the three stages of the marriage have been completed, but the most common is that children are born before the Demchang (last stage of the marriage process). This way is considered a bit “polluted” among Sherpas, but they solve it with the offering of holy water by the father’s family to the mother’s family as a gesture of purification. Easy and practical!

Families attach great importance to having at least one boy to ensure the continuity of the clan, which in Sherpa society follows the lineage of the father. However, the birth of a girl is equally welcome because in their society women are considered, at least in theory, just like men. Then, in practical terms and from a westerner eyes, this is no longer the case in many respects.

Sherpa child

The child’s naming is the most important ceremony of the beginning of life, apart from the birth itself. The identity of the Sherpas consists of three names. The first name of Sherpa child, girl or boy, generally comes from the day of the birth. This fact has an effect of uncertainty because when you have to meet someone whose name you only know, until you meet him or her or see a picture, you don’t know if you’ll meet a woman or a man. Other names are also given after a lama consultation.

The second name is chosen by the family by drawing lots from a wide range of names that distinguish between women and men. They are names with meanings such as fortunate one or long life, for boys or healthy and joyful or wise one, for girls.

The third name is the same for everyone: Sherpa. It is the sign of belonging to the Sherpa ethnic group.

THE LONG WAY OF MARRIAGE

Sherpa wedding traditions are still followed very strictly in Khumbu and with slightly changes among the Sherpas living in Kathmandu or even abroad. Currently, the celebration of the last wedding celebration of Sherpas living in Khumbu, usually takes place in Kathmandu during winter season, as it is a time when there is no work in Khumbu and many families spend the winter in Kathmandu.

Until a few years ago, marriages were arranged between families but today this has changed, and most are love marriages. According to Buddhist ideas, to marry a girl who is unwilling or to arrange a marriage by the parents, is a sin (digba).

Photo of an old Sherpa wedding

Marriage is a long process that involves three stages and can last up to three years or more. The process begins with the Trichang which is the marriage proposal that the boy’s family makes to the girl’s family, it is the ritual of engagement. After a while, the second stage arrives, the Longchang, which is the confirmation ceremony by the bride and groom and the families, of which everything goes ahead. Before the third stage there is a small but important step in deciding the exact year and date of the final wedding ceremony.

Today’s Sherpa wedding

Finally, on the agreed day, the Demchang begins, which is the ceremony consisting of a great celebration, which can last for days, during which the exchange of rings takes place. Since there is no tradition of dowry in the Sherpa culture, the bride receives the part of the family inheritance that belongs to her at the time of the wedding and is when she formally goes to live with her husband. There is no tradition of honeymoon. They themselves say, half-jokingly, half seriously, which is because after the big celebration they have no strength or money left for the honeymoon.

As a result of the length of the whole process and the high cost of the wedding ceremony, it is increasingly common for the bride and groom to live together and have children from the second stage onward, and many couples no longer celebrate the Demchang.

In terms of divorce, it is quite common among Sherpas and is estimated to happen in 30% of marriages.

THE STEP TOWARDS THE NEXT LIFE

The funeral rituals of the Sherpas are strictly followed by both those living in Khumbu and Kathmandu. When a person dies, one or more lamas are immediately called to perform the rituals to generate good positive energy for the deceased.

Because the heat of the body may leave through the soles of the feet, hands, eyes, nose, ears, mouth, or the top of the head, the spirit of the dead person is considered to follow the same direction as the heat. If the spirit of the dead leaves from elsewhere it is considered that the next life will be bad. If it comes out through the nose or eyes it will be able to re-incarnate in an animal or person. If it comes out from the head it may go to their heaven, called Dewachen.

Although there are different customs, the body is usually kept at home for three days during which the lamas and the family perform rituals to help and guide the soul in the transition to the afterlife. After these days, the body of the deceased is taken to the place of cremation, accompanied by a procession with lamas, religious music, flags, umbrellas, banners and incense.

After cremation, once a week for seven weeks, a lama performs a ritual (Dun-tsig) at the deceased’s home. Within three or four weeks after the death, the family also makes offerings called Sheto which is the ceremony that the family can perform for the welbeing of the soul of the deceased. These offerings can last between three and fifteen days, depending on the financial situation of the family. Every evening, the family puts a tsampa offering on the embers of the fire for the spirit of the deceased and offers food and drink to family and friends who accompany them.

The remains of the cremation are mixed with clay and turned into Buddha figurines or medallions called tsawar that are stored in a memorial cairn (chulung) or in a cave under a large rock. This happens after 49 days of death, which is the space of time that they consider to be between two lives. At the end of this period, the person’s next life is determined and may be reborn.

And from this point the wheel of life of Sherpas restarts, which Tengboche Rinpoche, the re-incarnate lama and abbot of Tengboche Monastery summarises it thus: “When you die, what do you take with you? Your money, your house, even your wife and family do not go with through” 

MONASTERIES, THE EPICENTER OF THE SHERPA LIFE

“I was lucky today, I woke up and am alive, I have this precious life and I will not waste it” (Buddhist philosophical thought) 

All these months I have been living in the Khumbu have allowed me, among many other things, to discover Buddhist monasteries from a very different perspective than when I visited them during a trekking. I also understood that Buddhism, more than a religion in the sense the Christian world gives to religion, is a philosophy and a way of life for the Sherpa people.

I have found that monasteries (gompa or gonde in Sherpa language), together with schools, hospitals and health posts, are one of the three basic infrastructures of today’s Sherpa society. From the Westerners point of view, it may seem strange to consider monasteries at the same level as the other two infrastructures, but the fact is that, in the  21st Century, this is the case and I would venture to say that it is the same throughout Nepal.  

Until 60 years ago, the absence of schools and health facilities, made monasteries the centre of Sherpa life. Lamas were almost the only literate people, and they had a huge influence on the entire population. In addition to religious activity, they established lay rules in villages and established some of religious festivals and celebrations also with a very important social role because, with the lack of the current communication systems, they were the only occasions that locals in the valleys could meet family and friends. That is why all celebrations last for several days.

BUILDING MONASTERIES

In the area where I developed my project, that is, from Kharikhola to the upper valleys that reach the bottom of the mountains, there are 24 monasteries, of which I have visited 22. The oldest were built under the initiative of the religious leaders of those times. The first three were founded between 1667 and 1672 by three Lama brothers who were part of the third generation of Sherpas established in the Khumbu: Sangwa Dorje built Pangboche, Ralpa Dorje Thame and Khenpa Dorje Rimijung.   

Later on, monasteries were built thanks to economic contributions and the work of Sherpas of each place. Over the past 50 years some new ones have been built, such as the anis (Buddhist nuns) monastery of Thamo in 2002, the one of Kharikhola in 2008 or the Tekhongma of Rimijung in 2019, with significant economic contributions from foreigner people and institutions, which also funded the reconstruction of many monasteries damaged by the two earthquakes of 2015. Maintenance is mainly funded by the contributions from each monastery community.   

Although most monasteries belong to the Buddhist community, some are private as they were built and maintained by a family and are part of the family property. One of the surprising things I discovered during this period is that anyone can build a Buddhist monastery and it doesn’t require any permit.

THE LAMAS LIFE

For 300 years lamas used to be married and the management of the monasteries passed from one generation to the next, following the family lineage. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that some monasteries began to evolve into celibate monasteries. Even today, in most monasteries coexist married and unmarried lamas.

A common occurrence in all monasteries is the ups and downs in the number of lamas living and their activity in them, which mark the splendour and decline times. Another aspect to note is the dramatic decline in new lamas over the last twenty years, mainly as a result of widespread family planning in the country, which has reduced the number of children in families. Because the tradition was that the third boy became a lama, and now most families have only two children, there are few new lamas. One of the consequences is that in most monasteries there is only one lama for maintenance purposes, or nobody lives there.   

Of the 22 monasteries I have visited, only four have a permanent community of lamas (Lukla, Rimijung, Tengboche and Thame) and two have a community of anis (Debuche and Thamo). The life of the lamas in the monasteries is essentially studying, praying and meditating; organizing community celebrations and festivals; and conducting private ceremonies (weddings, funerals, and other family ceremonies).  

In places where there are no lamas or they are not enough, are the lamas of the nearest monasteries, who cope with these duties. The lack of lamas is also balanced by the village lamas, who are people who, without being lamas, are properly trained in conducting private ceremonies.

TULKU, THE REINCARNATED LAMAS

One aspect that has caught my attention from day one, and is difficult for me to understand, is the existence of reincarnated lamas in various monasteries and the procedure by which they are recognized.

The reincarnated lamas, called Tulku in Tibetan, come from the successive reincarnations of the 25 major disciples of Guru Rinpoche who was an 8th century Buddhist master, also known as the Second Buddha. Tradition has it that when a reincarnated lama is about to die, his disciples ask him to reincarnate, and he decides whether to do so or not. If he decides that, then, once he dies his disciples wait for signals from a boy born in the area after his death. It can take time, usually years, until a boy is identified as a possible reincarnate. After a series of tests done according to very strict protocols, ends up being recognized as a reincarnated lama. He is then transferred to his predecessor’s monastery and begins a period of training that lasts for many years and includes university education, often in foreign countries.     

During my visits to the monasteries I had the opportunity to meet two tulku. One is the abbot of Tengboche Monastery, Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu, aged 85, with whom I had the opportunity to talk about my project and his vision for the Sherpas future. He is a man with a great influence in the area, not only religious but also political. The other was a 9-year-old boy, at Thame Monastery, who was reincarnated as the former tulku of the monastery and is now in the beginning of his education process. A boy apparently like anyone else who, during a monastery ceremony I attended, was sitting at a prominent place higher than all the other lamas, sometimes reading the sacred books, and sometimes looking at the ceiling and looking bored. As any other child would had done.

THE BUDDHIST RELIGIOUS BOOKS

There were no books in the Buddha’s time, and it was not until 4 centuries later that his disciples wrote down his teachings in various books in the Sanskrit and Pali languages and later were translated into Tibetan. The two most important collections are the Ka-gyur and the Ten-gyur. The Ka-gyur (108 volumes) records the Buddha’s teachings and words as recorded by his disciples. Ka means Buddha’s word and gyur means translated.  

The Ten-gyur (226 volumes) is a set of commentaries on the Ka-gyur written by Buddha’s followers. It is believed that there are about 8 Ten-gyur in the Solukhumbu.

All the monasteries have a collection of these religious books who keep on the shelves in the main hall where the ceremonies take place.

In addition to these collections in monasteries, there are also other collections of books for home use. They are the Boom and the Domang.  

Boom are 16 books with 100,000 verses that are like a diary of Buddha’s thoughts. Many families have the Boom and call lamas 3 or 4 times a year to read them.

The Domang is a single book with an extract from the most important parts of the Ka-gyur, which most families have, and they read at least it once a month.

THE ROUTE OF THE MONASTERIES (link)

There are three aspects of the monasteries that make them interesting to visit: their colourful architecture and decoration, their history and the places where they are located. That is why I thought it might be useful to open a new section of the web that is like a small guide, with a map and a list of all the monasteries in the area, with the basic data of each one.  

UNEXPECTED FAREWELL TO NEPAL

The Sherpa Life project continues from home lockdown

Just two weeks ago I sent you the last post I wrote, still from Namche, telling you how the crisis of COVID-19 affected the Everest region. I could hardly imagine then that a week later I would be heading down to Kathmandu, in a hurry, to try to return home as soon as possible and ending my stay in Khumbu three months earlier than scheduled. This was what I told to all my blog subscribers in a short message sent on March 20.

The project will be fully developed between my friend and guide, Pasang, and me. He from Namche and me from home. I still have a lot of material to work and share with all of you and with the help of Pasang I will be able to finish it. It will not be as planned and we would have liked to have done it, but we had to adapt to the circumstances.

These two weeks have been for everybody, and for me, 15 days of vertigo in which events in many countries have developed very fast changing the situation in each country hour by hour. And so it continues, day after day.

It was a bit of a surreal escape as I was leaving a country with a single registered contagion to a country where the number of infected and death were counted by thousands. But it was a go back home and it was more important than anything else.

There were no known coronavirus cases In the Khumbu area, but the effects of the damn virus were still there. In a few days I saw and experienced how the beginning of the spring season turned to a suddenly stop of trekking and expeditions.

Namche had been emptied of tourists and workers who had arrived by the beginning of the season. Even “my” barber, when I went to cut my hair and beard the day before leaving, told me that the next day he was returning to Kathmandu because he had no longer work there.

The day I got off from Namche to Lukla to catch the small plane that had to take me to Kathmandu, I only met 5 tourists going up. Less than in any winter day. All the other people I met were locals. I also found some mule caravans carrying supplies up to the Khumbu, which by now may have disappeared completely. All in all, a bleak picture.

On the way and with great surprise and happiness, I met Lama Seru and his wife (see post 13 – http://sherpalifeproject.com/en/lama-seru-una-vida-dedicada-a-millorar-els-camins-de-leverest/), already recovered from his serious illness, who were heading, just for prevention, to the lower part of the Solukhumbu district. Greetings, exchange of good wishes and selfie.

Unexpected encounter with Lama Seru and his wife, on the way to Lukla

Arriving in Kathmandu early on Sunday morning, I realised that the traffic was very smooth and calm, and there were far fewer people than usual on the streets, in a country that lives on the open air. The lockdown had not yet been decreed, it was only a recommendation from the government to people stay at home.

At those moments I did not know if I could leave the country or I would have to stay indefinitely. It had been days since when no foreigner or Nepalese could enter, and the government had just declared a suspension on all international flights, both in and out.

I an earlier visit to the airline’s offices to whom, before leaving Namche, I had bought a ticket to travel to Barcelona, ​​I was noticed that a slight modification of the suspension order for international flights departing the country, it had temporarily left its void. No one, however, knew how long it would last.

Early visits and long queues at the offices of the few airlines still operating in Nepal, where foreigners tried to confirm their flight or buy a ticket. Tickets that doubled their price every 12 hours. Some reached 10 times their usual price. Finally, in the evening, a call from the airline confirmed to me my flight for the next day and gave me the information to get in the airport. Everything seemed to indicate that my trip back home was on the right way.

On the day after it had already been decreed to close all activities except the essential ones. This left some unusual pictures of the Kathmandu centre, with its empty streets and closed shops. An image that only the curfews had achieved in the last days of the monarchy when trying to stop the Maoist guerrillas, which, by the way, now are part of the country’s government.

One detail. The streets of Kathmandu, as in other cities of similar countries, usually are plenty of people insistently offering you all kinds of objects. In the two days I have been there, I don’t think than more than two or three approached me.

On Monday, it leaked the news of the second recorded case of COVID-19 in the country, prompting the government to decree the immediate country’s lockdown, closing all borders and suspending all domestic and international flights, from Tuesday morning. I read this in the newspapers when I already was in Doha airport (Qatar), during the flight stopover to Barcelona, so I couldn’t see the effects, but I can imagine.

Of course, these effects haven’t to be the same in the most populated towns and areas than in the remote villages I visited during the months I have been living there. I can’t imagine the villagers being locked up at home without going outside. Those engaged in tourism do not have a job but there are other agricultural and livestock jobs to do. For example, now is time to plant potatoes, the main crop in the Khumbu area. When they have other jobs during the tourist season, they hire workers from other parts of the country to help with agricultural work, but this year they will not need them. They will do it themselves.

Finally, I arrived home on Tuesday 24th thanks to being able to take advantage of the open  ” window ” for international flights, that only lasted 24 hours. I was saved by a narrow escape of being stranded in Kathmandu “sine die”, because the flight suspension has been extended at least until April 15th.

All this was taking place in a country that, today (March 31), has officially registered only 5 cases of COVID-19 and has adopted the strategy of isolating itself from the outside to try to avoid the virus entry and spread, aware that with their weak health infrastructure it would be very difficult for them to cope with an emergency like the one we are experiencing in here. I wish them all the luck in the world.

COVID-19 – HOW IT HITS THE EVEREST REGION

It’s a very strange feeling these days when I’m keeping up with what’s happening around the world, and especially in Catalonia, where I have all my family and most of my friends, with this COVID-19 pandemic.

From this corner of the world that is Namche, I see how the most advanced countries in the world are unable to cope with a situation that nobody expected just two months ago. But above all, the anguish and the uncertainties that make so many people suffer, make me sad.

Nepal has recorded only one case, at the beginning and he is already recovered. At least officially, Nepal is a virus-free country as of today (15.03.2020). It is a country where the fear of the outbreak of this virus is very great as it is a very poor country, with very weak health infrastructure and in some remote areas, non-existent. Their capacity to face emergency situations of health, such as this we see in the worst affected countries, would be very small.

Perhaps therefore this week the government took some pretty drastic and unexpected decisions that will hurt the economy of the whole country and especially of the people working in the tourism sector and especially in the mountainous areas.

They have decided to cancel all permits for the expeditions of the spring season, which is the most important of the year, and have suspended the visa on arrival system until April 30, which could be get on arrival only with a previous online application. Now you must ask the Nepalese embassy of each country with requirements that make it almost impossible to obtain.

In addition, almost all land access from India and China have been closed, making Nepal a virus-free country that has itself isolated from the rest of the world to avoid the virus goes in. Will it be effective? There are many doubts, but we will have to wait and see what happens.

All this is already having a devastating effects on the Everest region economy, where I develop my project about the Sherpa people life. It is a situation that, of course, I had not foreseen and which I find important to tell you.

In other posts that I have published I have explained the great dependence on the tourism of the economy of these valleys. Just because of the impact of this pandemic on the arrival of trekkings and expeditions, before the government made those decisions, the cancellation of accommodation and guide bookings, according to some establishments and agencies I have consulted, they were already at 30%.

Now, with these government decisions, very few people are coming. My friend Pasang was telling me yesterday, half-jokingly, that if this continues, in a few weeks I will be the only foreigner in these valleys.

According to the Nepal Mountaineering Association, this spring season, around 10,000 people, including guides, porters, cooks and other related jobs, will be out of work. Most lodges in the Everest region expect to have very few guests, and commerce, especially in Namche, will run out of customers. In fact, there are some lodges and restaurants in Namche that have not yet opened.

Closely linked to mountain tourism is the domestic aviation sector, which estimates a 60% decrease in passengers and cancellations on flight bookings for helicopters reaching 70%.

These days, wandering around Namche and visiting surrounding villages and monasteries, I have realised how few people there are. It’s a weird feeling. It seems like winter or summer, times when you know there will not be a lot of people. But in mid-March, no.

The esplanade of Tengboche Monastery, empty at noon, three days ago

The iconic places like Everest View, with its terrace overlooking the Everest that always boils of clients, is now quite empty. Or the monument dedicated to Tenzing Norgay (the Sherpa who, with Edmund Hillary, first climbed Everest) in Namche, where everyone is taking a picture, no longer need to ask for a turn. Or on the esplanade of Tengboche Monastery, perhaps the most iconic Buddhist monastery in the Khumbu, two days ago, at noon there was not any person. Unexpected for these dates.

In a few weeks I will try to complete this information based on the evolution of the situation, both in the country as a whole and here in the Khumbu valleys..

Maybe you ask yourself, how do people live here? So apparently they don’t seem very worried. When we talk about it, I have the impression that in the face of disasters or misfortunes, they take it easy. They don’t stop smiling, they chat on the street, they play dice in the corners and life goes on. Buddhist philosophy, does it help? Maybe yes!

LOSAR, THE SHERPA NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

In Nepal there are more than 60 ethnic groups, and this means that there are up to nine dates, and consequently nine different celebrations, of the New Year. The main one is that of Nava Varsha (Nepali New Year), which corresponds to the Bikram Sambat (official Nepalese calendar) which has its origin in the Hindu calendar. This year will be celebrated on April 14, the date when will begin the year 2077.

As the Buddhists, and the Sherpas among them, follow the Tibetan calendar, they celebrate Losar, which means New Year in the Sherpa language. And to make it a little more difficult for Westerners to understand, they have two dates for this celebration, albeit with identical duration and rituals.

The first is Sonam Losar, which is celebrated on the first day of the last month (Gyal) of the Tibetan calendar, which was this year on January 25. This is the date when Sherpas in the agricultural area are used to celebrating it, since in many places agricultural work begins in February.   

  

The second date is that of Gyalpo Losar, which is celebrated on the first day of the first month (Chu) of the Tibetan calendar, and this year was on February 24, which marked the beginning of the year 2147, designated as the year of the iron rat. This is the date especially celebrated by religious people, officials and people employed in the services and industry, as well as the many Sherpas who live or spend the winter in Kathmandu.

From a Western perspective, it seems a little strange to celebrate the same event based on the same calendar, in two different dates. But there is also a feeling among Sherpas communities that it should be unified on a single date.

In mid-February, I had just returned to the Khumbu to begin the second period of my project, and this allowed me to keep a close eye on the Gyalpo Losar celebrations in Namche, which is the only village in the Khumbu area to celebrate it in these dates. The other villages had already celebrated it by the end of January.

AND HOW DO THEY CELEBRATE THE ARRIVAL OF THE NEW YEAR?

The celebration lasts 3 days. On the first day the families do a thorough cleaning of the whole house. It is the day to clean the soot that has accumulated on the ceiling throughout the year as a result of fires with firewood or yak dung, and the bad or non-existing evacuation of smoke. Today this has greatly diminished due to the progressive replacement of firewood and excrement by electricity or gas cylinders. However, the tradition is preserved and used for general cleaning. Garbage, inside bags , is taken out of the house and deposited at the closest intersection of streets or trails nearby the house, where they are collected by the garbage collection staff, who nowadays operate almost in every village (see post 4 – Keep the Khumbu clean! http://sherpalifeproject.com/maintain-el-khumbu-net/).     

 For the first day’s dinner, families prepare a stew called gu thuk, which consists of nine different ingredients: potato, carrot, beef, rice, radishes, spinach, dried beans, corn, and a few pieces a rice flour pasta. When cooked, they take some broth and a small potato, put it in a cup and offer it to the gods. Once the offering is made, family and guests sit at a table and share gu thuk.

The second day is a family day at home. In the evening, New Year’s Eve, they light candles, eat khapse (fried pasta made with rice flour), nuts and candies. The first pieces of khapse are also kept to be offered to the gods.  

The third day, New Year’s Day, starts very soon. At 2 or 3 in the morning they make the burn the first incense at home and then go to the village fountain where they burn more incense, make an offering to the gods with the food and drink they have kept and fill a kettle (sangshu) with water from the fountain which, once home, will also offer to the gods for good luck.  

At the fountain, families, in addition to making offerings, eat khapse and candy, invite families that are there at the time, pinch flour on their shoulders as a wish for good luck, distribute katas, and some even dance their traditional dances. 

Late in the morning, the Losar Party (New Year’s Party) begins in a village centre, where the village families gather and spend the day playing cards or dice, eating, drinking, to finish, late into the night, with their traditional dances.

In Kathmandu, I was told, New Year’s day is a family day and it is on the Friday of the same week that different Sherpa groups in the city organise their Losar Party in different venues, where, on in some cases, more than 400 people may gather.

Here in the Khumbu there is a tradition that extends the celebration of the Losar beyond three days. Every evening, a household in the village invites other neighbours to their home to celebrate the New Year and offer them food and drink. And so, day after day these celebrations take place, which, as you can imagine, can last for weeks.

Since it is winter, nobody can’t work here in the countryside and there are few tourists, there is little to do. That is why these dates are ideal for community meetings before the spring season arrives, when there is no time for community gatherings, and in many cases, for family life.

Let me end with three of the New Year’s greetings I have heard or read most:

Happy Losar!

May the year of rat bring you good health, success, joy and happiness.

May this year bring peace and equality to all, and may the right conditions arise to protect and heal our planet and all living beings.