THUBTEN CHHOLING, Nepal -- “Nepal is 100 years behind the times,” Ang Dawa Sherpa lamented as we watched a farmer plow his potato field behind a team of cows.
I couldn’t help but notice the farmer had a cell phone in his pocket. Time refuses to keep a fixed presence in a place where distances are measured in hours and the world’s biggest mountains are also its youngest.
You can’t escape the sense of time traveling in the Himalayas.
As we walked past earthquake-shattered homes on the way to Sagarmatha National Park, the cadence of stonemasons shaping blocks with hammers and chisels plinked like one of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks – now speeding up, then slowing to a tentative stumble. Pack trains of mules passed with chiming bells. Yaks carrying heavier loads tolled deeper tones.
It typically takes three days to travel from Phaplu to Lukla, Sagarmatha’s unofficial gateway, on foot. Or you can take a plane, which you might share with a load of cement or beer and noodles, and arrive in 17 minutes.
Everything in the Solukhumbu arrives either on foot or by air. No roads reach this place, although the Thubten Chholing Monastery has its own road from Phaplu to its mountain redoubt. It’s currently impassable because of landslides.
So other than the landing gears of the airplanes, there are virtually no wheels in the Solukhumbu. Adventurers in the United States often grouse about the ban of bikes and game carts in places like the Bob Marshall or Mission Mountains wilderness areas. Imagine a place where everything from eggs to stove iron to window glass gets delivered on foot. Every time we sat on a Western-style toilet, we thought about the effort it took to pack that porcelain at 13,000 feet above sea level.
Halfway between Phaplu and Thubten Chholing is the village of Junbesi, a Sherpa community dating back to the 16th century. Its splendid Tashi Thongmon Monastery features ornate woodwork rarely seen in other shrines of the area. But it has no resident monks.
Thubten Chholing itself dates back just to 1959, when Tibetan Buddhists fled their homeland. Founding Abbot Trulshik Rinpoche started building the community in 1969 as a temporary home for refugee Tibetan monks and nuns.
But as the Chinese dominance of Tibet solidified and Buddhist leaders were barred from returning, he began rebuilding the monastery as a permanent home in 2001.
“Thubten Chholing is one of the only authentic Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world,” said Dennis Ramsey, who helped direct the electrification of the community over the past decade. “Even in India, when the Dalai Lama went to Dharamsala after fleeing Tibet, the Indian government imposed conditions on him. Only those lamas who were able to come to Nepal were free to practice all their original traditions.”
In addition to being one of the teachers of the present Dalai Lama, Trulshik Rinpoche ordained Lama Namchak Khempo, the abbot of Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee. Ramsey said when the abbot realized he was a permanent exile, he recast the monastery’s purpose.
“It’s constructed not to last just 100 years, but in perpetuity,” Ramsey said. “It’s unbelievably well made. They don’t have the wheel up there, so everything is traditional blacksmithing, using hand tools, hand-chiseling blocks into perfect squares. It’s supported by massive concrete pillars, but they’re made the way concrete was done in ancient Roman times. They’re living in the ancient world.”
Today, it houses almost 500 monks and 400 nuns, nearly all of whom are Tibetan or local Sherpa. In October, many of them were moving out of tents where they’d endured Nepal’s monsoon season after their small homes were wrecked in the April Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks.
Thubten Chholing faces challenges both cultural and environmental. It’s an artificial community, gathered around the teaching of Trulshik Rinpoche, who died in 2011. The men and women who live there are what Ang Dawa calls “practical monks” – people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to Buddhist study and meditation. That also means a life of celibacy, and prohibitions on commerce or labor.
Its leaders acknowledge numbers are slowly declining as young people consider other options besides monastic life. At the same time, housing 1,000 people in a remote mountain valley puts a huge strain on the local water, wood and food supplies.
To adapt, the monks have appealed to Western organizations and donors to modernize their homes. That brought people like Dennis Ramsey, whose Eugene, Oregon-based Renewable Energy Development International added solar-powered lights, efficient kitchen stoves that also heat water, and recharging stations for the batteries that power their flashlights and radios.
But when Ramsey proposed adding a bio-gas facility that would turn the community’s sewage into cooking fuel, he said the lamas told him the project might upset the spirits of the mountainside. Locating a monastic community in Nepal involves a swirling mix of modern engineering, available land and religious contemplation.
'Old as the hills'
We like to describe venerable things as “old as the hills,” but that doesn’t work well in the Himalayas. The geological plate India rests on collided with its Chinese neighbor about 50 million years ago. The result now forms the border between China and Nepal.
It was the tectonic version of a demolition derby. When the plates started separating from the original Gondwana supercontinent about 120 million years ago, they parted at a speed of 5 centimeters a year. Then about 80 million years ago, the movement rate tripled to 15 centimeters a year. Just 2 million years ago, Tibet’s capital of Lhasa sat at an altitude of 3,000 feet above sea level. Today, the altimeter reads just shy of 12,000 feet.
By contrast, the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States date to between 300 million and 500 million years old. The Rocky Mountains running through Montana popped up between 80 million and 50 million years ago.
The April 25 Gorkha earthquake didn’t change Mount Everest’s 29,029-foot elevation, but it did move its peak southwest by about an inch and a half. On average, the Himalayas continue to rise about half an inch a year.
Just outside the capitol of Kathmandu, the earthquake lifted a swath of land 55 miles long and 18 miles wide by 3 feet.
Ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay topped Everest in 1953, a cultural earthquake has rattled through the local Sherpa culture. Between Phaplu and Thubten Chholing, between half and three-quarters of the farm houses were unoccupied. Many fields lay fallow.
A May 12 aftershock smacked the heart of the Solukhumbu region southwest of Mount Everest. It ruined Junbesi’s elementary school, which was endowed by Hillary. A new classroom building is almost finished, supported largely by Sherpa mountaineering companies like Nepal Myths and Mountain Trails, who’ve donated construction materials back to their homeland.
“We’ve helped 137 households with roof materials,” said NMMT trekking guide Lhakpa Sona Sherpa. “We weren’t sure if the government would provide new standards, so we tried to provide things for people.”
“The mountaineering industry has pumped a lot of money in the high mountains,” Ramsey said. “People got involved and became well-off, and then they wanted to send their children to boarding schools in Kathmandu. They wanted to be connected to the world. So although their business was dependent on the mountaineering industry, some moved their entire families to the city. Places like Namche and Pangboche became depopulated of people. The only ones left behind were the old and poor.”
Retired University of Montana anthropology professor Sally Thompson has been studying the impact of modernization in the Himalayas. In places where new roads have arrived, she’s seen self-sufficiency undermined by access to cheaper food and products from metropolitan markets in India and China. Malnutrition, alcoholism and flight away from the hardships of agricultural life are common results.
“There’s a diaspora, where young men and women are leaving remote areas for the cities,” Thompson said. “You take economies that were based on people giving things to each other, with no cash involved, and then suddenly they’re forced to find ways to make money.”
But Ramsey sees another side of that change – one in part helped by the earthquakes of 2015. Nepal has skipped most of the downside of the Industrial Age, but arrived in time to enjoy the refined results: cellphones, LED lights, tiny computers with more calculating power than Mission Control needed to put a man on the moon.
“I think the earthquake made people want to go back to their villages,” Ramsey said. “It’s counter-intuitive, in a country that’s screaming for food and jobs and employment, it seems odd this would be true. The modern world is offering lots of other things to do besides the back-breaking work of a farmer. But there’s available land, and it’s lucrative work. I think we may see a repopulation of the Solukhumbu.”
I have wanted to visit the Himalayas ever since my parents gave me a copy of Galen Rowell’s “Mountain Light” when I was learning about photography in 1982.
Over the years, more and more connections between my home mountains in Montana and their brethren on the other side of the world became apparent. This spring, the International Reporting Project accepted my proposal to explore many of those connections.
I spent 20 days exploring everything from knitting factories in Bhaktapur that export sweaters to Missoula to Thubten Chholing Monastery’s connection with the Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee.
In two days' walk through the Solukhumbu, you climb from Phakding’s unharvested fields of green cabbage at 8,500 feet elevation to dead leaves and brown pastures in Khumjung, 4,000 feet above. It’s like traveling from August to November in 48 hours.
Much of the time, I traveled to the tick-click of my walking sticks without a watch. Their metal tips never left a scratch on the rocks of Nepal.