Asia Co-Op

Exploration of Nepali Tenets and Culture

Story and photos by Alexander Anderson

For my Spring 2022 co-op, I embarked on a journey to Nepal to research the impacts of climate change on the Khumbu glaciers and assist in installing the world’s highest weather station sensor. Given that I had never traveled to Asia, I was ready to experience a unique cultural shift. I arrived in the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, a bustling city rich with both Bhuddist and Hindu culture. Interestingly, learning from the locals, Nepal is more or less split 50/50 in its Buddhist/Hindu demographic. Yet, rather than conflict, particular traditions, tenets and beliefs from both cultures have shaped how each religion is practiced. Simply put, by living in tolerance with one another, ideas from each religion have begun to form new gradients of shared culture between the two practices.

In the Khumbu region, however, the religious alignment is considerably more Buddhist. Substantially different from Kathmandu, the Khumbu region can essentially be described as the dense wilderness of Northeast Nepal, which one must traverse during their journey to Everest. Beginning our journey in the Khumbu, we flew from Kathmandu on a 10-person charter plane to Lukla, the premier landing strip of the Khumbu, consisting of a single strip overhanging a sheer cliff drop-off. To help set the Khumbu scene, every day, our main objective was hiking through mountainous switchbacks and different climate zones (changing as we gained elevation) to make it to a village before sundown. Besides bridges and trails, these villages were the only infrastructure of the region. In the villages, we would eat, rest and recuperate within a lodge. In the lodge, we often gathered around the hearth in the central room, conversing with each other and the locals through translators. We would learn of many cultural practices and the importance of the Buddhist religion in the region.

Throughout the entire Khumbu trek (14 days), one of our expedition party’s traditions would be to order dal bhat for every meal at every lodge. Dal bhat is a traditional Nepali dish consisting of rice, lentils and mountain vegetables, such as spinach, potatoes, okra and curry. Not only was it delicious, but its nutrition content was especially crafted to help provide proper nutrition for intensive high-altitude physical activity. All said, not one of us got tired of eating it for our breakfast and dinner meals every day. Furthermore, the land of the Khumbu is considered so sacred that no animal is to be slaughtered on its grounds. Granted, every local is vegetarian anyways, but any meat must be brought into the region, not produced on it. Regardless, I was happy to abstain from eating meat, given my taste for dal bhat. And fortunately, I didn’t eat any meat there, given how it was transported into the region. Due to the rugged mountainous terrain, using cars or any other traditional means of transport was out of the question. This resulted in the employment of a very particular type of animal: the dzokyo. Dzokyos are half yak half cow, cherished for their resilience to the cold and thin-aired atmosphere. They are also expert navigators of the winding, treacherous switchback trails. In addition to seeing convoys of over-encumbered dzokyo, at every stretch of the trek, no matter how remote, you will surely see colorful banners of red, green, yellow and white prayer flags. Symbolizing the elements of the earth, the Nepalese place these banners across the trails to bless the surroundings. Furthermore, it is believed that, should a traveler pass underneath one when they are fluttering in the wind, their motion symbolizes good luck.

Another important aspect of Nepali culture is the sanctity of the last name. In fact, one of the most common Western misconceptions revolves around the meaning of the word “Sherpa,” often interchanging it with “guide.” However, this is not correct. Sherpa is not just a word but an ethnic identity honored as a last name of a particular lineage.

I am so grateful for my time in Nepal, and there were so many other cultural nuances I was able to experience firsthand. From learning about all of them, their core tenets can be summarized as follows: be mindful of yourself with respect to your surroundings and be mindful of your journey with respect to the journey of others.

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