I met Lopsang Tsering Sherpa nearly 40 years ago. I was there to climb Hiunchuli, an insignificant twenty thousander by Himalayan standards. In those days, the Kathmandu airport had one airstrip and a couple rickety buildings. As we got off the plane, this wiry fellow sprang past the officials and greeted Eric Simonson, a veteran Everest climber and our expedition leader. He was our support team foreman or Sirdar. He greeted the rest of us before giving me a long look.
We’ve all experienced deja vu at some time in our lives, but this was different. We’d never met before; but, to this day I’d swear we recognized each other. He grabbed my rucksack, gave me a bear hug, took my hand and walked me to the customs shack.
That was that — we were business partners and brothers from that moment on.
A couple years ago, I visited my 78-year-old brother from a different mother. As usual, Lopsang snatched my rucksack and walked me to customs. The next day we began the walk from road’s end to Bhandar.
There are few images more striking than watching a Golden Himalayan Eagle rising through the mist to catch the early morning air.
The hike from Jiri to Bhandar would take me two days. Locals do it in half that time. Lopsang’s hometown is situated a few days walk southwest of the Mt. Everest Himal. It is the evolution of Bhandar that I write about here.
Bhandar is located in a hidden valley, isolated in the Himalayas. Before dropping to the 7,500 foot valley floor, we had to climb to Deoralli la (“la” means pass) at 9,500 feet. Deoralli had a couple lodges and a long mani wall lined with prayer wheels and flagstones inscribed with the ubiquitous “Om mani padme hum.” Like most villages, Bhandar only had a few hundred permanent inhabitants but served as a hub for a much larger rural population.
Not that long ago, there was only one school that served an area of nearly 100 square miles. Children walked up to 10 miles each way to attend classes. Over time, adventure seekers and expeditions passed through the village. This exposure gave the locals a mixed bag of good and bad glimpses of the outside world.
My last expedition in Nepal was in the 1990s. After three decades of trekking the remote paths through the highest peaks in the world, I was not prepared for the changes.
Deoralli La had TV, shelves filled with packaged and canned food supplies and expedition grade clothing for sale. School was about to start and dozens of little blue uniforms surrounded me asking for “school pen.” Every child I met spoke to me in passable French or German, or Chinese, or Japanese, Hindi, or half a dozen dialects of Nepali. We settled on a combination of trekking Nepali and English. I felt like a linguistically challenged idiot.
The valley walls were lined with hundreds of verdant terraces. I could see a dozen, six-foot diameter solar ovens dotting the landscape. There were two schools and an agricultural college with two full professors and 20 students. There was a clinic and locally trained nurse. Everyone seemed to have a cell phone. The main street was a cacophony of commerce, chatter and blaring radios. There was a pharma (pharmacy kiosk) with a large family planning poster. Another advertised fresh, refrigerated milk from an experimental Swiss dairy farm a half day away.
I was used to seeing manure patties plastering the walls and rocks. I expected the acrid smell of dried dung cook fires. Instead, there was a shiny metal manure digester that captured methane for cooking.
That evening I was invited to the Sherpa Lodge at Deorali la for a regional counsel meeting. Lopsang had told them I was a scientist and wrote about climate change. It turned out I had nothing to teach them.
Item one on the agenda focused on adapting planting and harvest to changing seasonal climates and monsoon patterns. The glaciers were receding and the community would have to lay a new pipeline a couple kilometers farther into the mountains for fresh water.
The village elders thought schools should be teaching conservation and recycling as part of their Science Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math programs. They actually had a STEAM school in Bhandar.
The following week the regional nurse would come by to teach family planning and birth control at the clinic.
They needed to clean up the trash. People must be reminded not to simply throw their plastic away. Some of this trash was left by trekking and expedition groups headed for Tangboche or Kala Pitar. They decided to charge a rubbish fee for camping permission when these groups passed through.
The last topic on the agenda astounded me. They wanted to get everyone to contribute what they could to a community solar farm and battery storage station. That way, they would no longer be dependent upon unreliable wire transmission lines from Jiri.
Before the meeting broke up the lodge proprietor reminded everyone to come back with their families that evening. NOVA was going to have a documentary on Artificial Intelligence and robotics on his TV.
In the decades I have been tramping through the Himalayas, I’ve seen one of the poorest third world countries leap in a single bound from the eighteenth century to the 21st. I witnessed enormous advances in education, sustainable energy, infrastructure, family planning, and the necessity to adapt to climate change. Bhandar is just one village. It may even be exceptional, but it shows what can be done. Nepal’s economy is still one of the poorest, but these bright, industrious people are no longer just the loyal bearers for rich adventurers. They are becoming the heroes of their own story.
Before I warmed my hands and put my down jacket on to leave, a counsel women asked me, “How are things going in the U.S.?”
I still wonder how to answer that question.