For most people on the trekking superhighway from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, Namche Bazaar, at 3,440m, is just an acclimatisation stop. But hang around for the weekly Saturday market and you will be able to take in the trading rhythm of the capital of Sherpaland.
Not long after the sun clears the eastern ridge of the amphitheatre-like Namche, the Saturday market is bustling with traders from far and wide. Tibetan traders come loaded with cheap Chinese goods: shoes, blankets, readymade clothes, and even solar panels. Lowlanders journey up, sometimes 10 days from the nearest roadhead of Jiri, loaded with rice, meat, toilet paper, Coca Cola, and instant noodles. All these to be sold to Sherpa hotel owners, some of whom descend a thousand metres every Saturday from as far as Pheriche and Lobuje to stock up for the week.
Until the middle of this century, the Sherpas themselves went north, and over the Nangpa La to trade in Tibet. Yakloads of sugar, butter and paper were exchanged for salt and wool and again bartered southwards with grains. But after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, the mountain trade came to an end.
Luckily for the Khumbu people, that was about when Nepal opened up to mountaineering, and Sherpas became high altitude guides, porters and hotel owners. That is why the "new" traders in the bazaar now are villagers from down south. Cash transaction has replaced barter trade and the grains, vegetables and imported beverages human porters carry up goes to feed the 50,000 climbers and trekkers, their guides and porters that visit the region each year.
This once-a-week market was initiated by the government thirty-five years ago and has acquired significance far greater than anyone could have imagined at the time. There were over two hundred merchants at the bazaar on a recent Saturday morning.
Gopal Tamang, a trader from a village six days south of Namche, was worried. More traders means stiffer competition, and less profit.
"I sold eggs for fifteen rupees," says Gopal Tamang, who makes the trip twice a month in the tourist season. "Now it\'s gone down to four rupees. What can you do? I\'m losing so much on Coke-I sold a box for twenty five hundred. Now I can\'t even sell it for thirteen hundred... I\'m losing a lot this week." Even then, this seasonal income is still a lot more than what Tamang and others like him earn from farming alone. So they continue to come up by the hundred for the weekly bazaar.
Tsering Topgay travelled 13 days from Tibet, with 10 yaks loaded with Chinese carpets and blankets, Nike shoes, thermos flasks-items prized for sturdiness in the Nepali hinterland. With his waxy black hair plaited and bound in scarlet tassels, Tsering stands out in his sheepskin jacket. As he talks, he touches the clump of turquoise and coral, threaded through each ear, to indicate other things he is willing to sell.
He speaks no Nepali, but manages to do business.
"We use calculators to get around the language problem," says Tsering. "If we want to sell something for 100 rupees, we press one, zero, zero, on our calculator. If Nepalis want to lower the price, they\'ll press their number on their calculator..." Negotiations continue, until both Tibetans and Nepalis agree on a price.
"Trekking tourism occupies an important place in the region\'s economy today," says Sonam Gyalzen Sherpa, Chairman of Namche Village Development Committee. "It fills the vacuum left by the demise of Tibet trade." As for Namche\'s bazaar-that too has evolved. From a centuries-old trading post, to a one-stop-once-a-week-shopping centre.