Nepali Times Asian Paints
Namche in winter


Climbing up to Namche always feels like an achievement: the second half of the incline seems endless, the trail always much longer than I remember it. Bend after bend, walking on until finally reaching the entrance to this ampitheatre which is still on the other side of the slope from the main bazar. Here chickens dart across the trail, porters rest their loads on the slate ledges and tourists (or anyone who looks like one) are usually accosted by "Namastes!" from children.

Taking either the higher or lower path into Namche, it is always a little bit of a shock being confronted by the bulk of the town. Every visit, there are new buildings, the confines of the town creeping ever so slightly upwards and outwards on the slopes that cradle it.

Located above the point where the Bhote Koshi and Dudh Koshi converge, hotels and lodges are everywhere. In peak season (March-April and October-December) these lodges are crowded with trekkers, each with their own plans to head further on up the trail to Tengboche or Gokyo or Everest base camp, or more rarely in the other direction up the Bhote Koshi towards Thame. Others are on their way down, full of monotonous tales of how far they got, their altitude sickness or lack thereof and their flight uncertainties in Lukla.

Come winter, things are slightly different. After the first snows around the end of December, the fir trees on the hill are bent with their load. Entering or leaving Namche can be an adventure on its own. Snow melts, only to freeze into ice. Walking is a delicate and often embarrassing process. I remember an undignified slip a few years ago that made my journey down the first part of the Namche hill considerably faster than expected.

Local schoolchildren don't seem to mind though. Skiing Khumbu style consists of tying lengths of polythene pipe to one's shoes and careening down the ice, counting on a convenient snow bank or possibly a strategically located rock wall as a landing pad. Although never quite brave enough to try this myself, I have gone down a certain slope in Khunde seated on half of an old jerry can, the accepted substitute for a toboggan. I can recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind walking stiffly for the next few days.

Winter isn't all fun and games though. It's bitterly cold, particularly in the foggy mornings and afternoons. For the weeks before it snows, terrific winds blow up dust everywhere-going outdoors is difficult and unpleasant. In the villages, livestock is brought down from the summer pastures. The ground floors of traditional houses are crowded with animals, piles of firewood and dried dung cakes, collected and stored to burn through the winter, along with potatoes harvested before the earth froze.

Snow brings its own problems: travelling becomes difficult or impossible, and snow blindness, frostbite, avalanches and problems ranging from the sniffles to pneumonia are always a possibility. More minor irritations include having perpetually wet boots and socks, eggs with frozen yolks and on one memorable occasion, having my hair freeze with little icicles on the tips after I'd foolishly attempted to wash it one January afternoon.

Winter is time for trading. The Saturday haat bazar in Namche is a microcosm of the variety the human race has to offer. The down-valley Rais and Chettris, tourists from all over the world with their rainbows of down jackets and tinted glasses, the occasional government bureaucrat, the Khampas and of course local Sherpas, all mix together in a riot of colours, languages and nationalities.

The mix of goods on offer is astounding-essentials like sugar, flour and noodles that people from villages like Thame and Pangboche come to collect to stock up for Losar, exotic Turkish apricots and Bulgarian salami abandoned by large trekking expeditions on their way down and jackets and tracksuits that the Khampas have bought over on their yaks from Tibet. As the day wears on, the snow around the bazar turns brown and slushy under the hundred of boots. By late afternoon, most are ready to leave.

The fog rolls in as the sun dips down. The mountains-Thamserku, Khongdi and Khumbila gradually fade into the mist. The temperature drops rapidly with another late-afternoon flurry of snow. Days are short and everyone is happy to be in warm homes by dark. The traders from below Namche set off down the hill, the Khampas return to their tents and the tourists head back to their hotels. Fortified by a few glasses of warm chaang, those from further afield turn towards home with large loads of goods.

All of this is familiar, yet different, every winter.

Jemima Sherpa was born in Khunde Hospital above Namche.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)