At the entrance to Namche Bajar, a group of armed soldiers relax, chat and greet this season's first batch of European tourists.
Nowhere else in Nepal do security forces seem so friendly and at peace, and for good reason. The Sherpas laugh when asked about the Maoist militants. "It's too much hard work. They'd have to be expert climbers to cross the passes and come all the way down to Namche," says Mingma Sherpa, who runs a trekking inn at Phakding, a four-hour walk from Lukla airport. "Only Sherpas can do that. None of the Maoists are Sherpas," adds her husband.
Mingma invested over Rs 800,000 to renovate her hotel during the last couple of months, and is confident that with tourist arrivals looking healthy, it will be worthwhile. "The investment will attract more tourists to my hotel. Besides, we never worry about tourists. This is Everest and everyone's full of hope," says Mingma.
Preparations for the tourist season are in full swing right up the trail from Lukla. Up to 15 flights from Kathmandu landed in Lukla's famous inclined runway during a break in the weather last week. Porters and yak trains can be seen carrying tons of supplies like kerosene, gas cylinders, mattresses, beverages, and chickens.
Many hotels are being renovated and redecorated to welcome even bigger crowds of Europeans expected next week. In Kathmandu, trekking agencies report only minimal cancellations, and those who had booked treks in other parts of Nepal have shifted to the Everest area.
Ang Tshering, a veteran expedition leader, says that this will be the last week that Namche is quiet. "From next week, you have to be very lucky to even get a room for the night. The trail to Tengboche will be full of trekkers," says Ang Tshering, who was on his way to Lukla to fly out to Kathmandu to receive 100 Australian clients, when he talked to us in Monjo.
The lingering monsoon showers this year have made the trail wet. But up here, there are no leeches and the rain is confined to the night. The forest is luxuriant, birdlife abundant and the scenery through the breaks in the clouds, breathtaking. Throughout the monsoon, owners of the 37 or so lodges in Namche have been repairing and cleaning. There are enough hotel beds to accommodate 1,500 trekkers per night. Locals admit the rest of Nepal's loss has been Namche's gain, but they aren't happy about it. They know they prosper if Nepal as a whole prospers.
The only disruption here has been the Maoist blockade of the Jiri road and the harassment of porters on the trail from Jiri to Junbesi. Nowadays, most supplies are flow in on cargo helicopters, which makes many food and consumer items expensive. Some porters do manage to make it through Jiri, but only at tremendous risk. This has given suppliers an opportunity to rip off customers, who have no choice but to buy from them at any cost. Currently, a kg of buffalo meat costs Rs 400 at Namche's Saturday market.
"Tourism in the Everest region has hardly been affected. I haven't seen any change in the tourist turnover for the last 10 years," says Mingma Sherpa, owner of Chukung Resort. He has walked three days from Chukung to Namche with 80 American trekkers. Like most hoteliers in the Everest region, Mingma expects about 6,000 tourists this season, most of whom are expected to come starting next week. "It's better for Nepalis to book in advance as they will never get a room once the foreigners arrive. This road will be packed," says porter Dawa Sherpa, as he heaves his 60kg pack up the steep uphill to Namche.
Despite the curfew in Namche from 7PM onwards, the security forces are quite lenient and residents often walk around the market area until late at night. "Curfew in Namche sounds odd, we just ignore it," says Dipesh Chettri, a local trader.
A night patrol walks by at night sometimes, and they make casual inquiries and don't bother anyone. It seems everyone knows nothing should be done to spoil the chances of a trekking rebound this autumn.