Nepal // Trekking //

Nepal’s mountain peoples


The inhabitants of Nepal’s northernmost, highest-altitude regions are culturally close to their Tibetan cousins, on the other side of the range. While many have developed their own local identities, most famously the Lo-pa of Lo (better known as Mustang) and the Sherpas of Khumbu in the Everest region, Nepalis collectively call these peoples Bhotiya. This means, broadly, “Tibetan”, but usually conveys an unfortunate derogatory sense of “hicks from the sticks”.

Farmers, herders and trans-Himalayan traders, the highland peoples eke out a living in the harsh climate by growing barley, buckwheat and potatoes, and herding yaks and yak hybrids. Their villages vary in appearance: those in the west are strongly Tibetan, with houses stacked up slopes so that the flat roof of one serves as the grain-drying terrace of the next, while in the east houses are more likely to be detached and have sloping, shingle roofs. Like Tibetans, they traditionally take their tea flavoured with salt and yak butter, and married women wear trademark rainbow aprons (pangden) and wraparound dresses (chuba). That said, jogging pants with a fleece or down jacket is practically a uniform in tourist areas.

Almost all highland ethnic peoples are Tibetan Buddhists. Their chortens (stupa-like cremation monuments), mani walls (consisting of slates inscribed with the mantra Om mani padme hum), gompa (monasteries) and prayer flags (lung ta: literally, “wind horse”) are the most memorable man-made features of the Himalayas. Unencumbered by caste, highlanders have fewer restrictions than many Nepali people: women, in particular, play a more equal role in household affairs, speak their minds openly, are able to tease and mingle with men publicly, and can divorce without stigma. Trekkers are likely to encounter many highland women running their own tourist lodges and businesses while their husbands are off farming, yak herding or guiding.

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