I am sitting in a tiny, remote village in the Himalayas, 4000m above sea level. And, bizarrely, ‘Gangnam Style’ is pumping.
To my left, nestled amongst a ring of colossal siblings, is Mount Everest. It tumbles upward in craggy folds, its peak misshapen under a thick blanket of white. A few tiny cottages stud the slopes, but there are no other signs of human life.
To my right, two Nepalese guys are huddled over iTunes, carefully contemplating a switch to Pitbull.
These are the mountains of modern Nepal: a place of disorienting paradoxes.
Life here is fiercely tied to the rhythms of the past. Yaks and donkeys bear sacks of rice along trading paths worn over hundreds of years, and motorised transport is non-existent. Everywhere, signs of a resilient and vibrant culture are tucked into the foothills. Prayer stones and flags gaily bedeck the trails, and traditionally dressed Sherpa women tend patchwork fields.
The remoteness of this place both beckons and holds modernity at bay. The steep icy trails that make these villages so inaccessible have also brought an influx of adventurers, new money, and destabilising changes.
Last year Nepal welcomed 600,000 tourists. The vast majority come for ‘mountain tourism’, drawn by the mythology of the Himalayas and the challenge of the slopes. In a poor and unstable country with 45% unemployment, the tourism sector provides 750,000 jobs and 3% of GDP. It has long been Nepal’s largest industry, and is the largest foreign income earner after worker remittances.
This windfall, however, has not come without cost. The national parks of Nepal face severe erosion problems, associated with rising demands for fuel. Pollution of water supplies and reserves is also of increasing concern, as tourists discard pieces of rubbish in the thousands. Locals complain wearily of disrespectful and brash tourists who have little understanding of the customs governing village life. Even more seriously, rapid economic change has exacerbated Nepal’s political instability. A simmering, decade-long Maoist insurgency ended in 2006, after 11,000 deaths. But tensions surrounding Nepal’s rigid caste system and unequal distribution of wealth remain sore points in a country divided along sectarian and religious lines.
Despite the uneasy peace, Nepal remains politically deadlocked. Following the bloody zenith of the civil war when King Gyanendra dismissed the parliament, the main political parties reached an accord with Maoist forces. These major parties then subsequently deposed the monarchy in 2008, drawing upon public anger at the Royal massacre committed by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001. The country has remained politically paralysed since. No new constitution has been written, and repeated elections have failed to resolve the stalemate.
Such unrest feels far removed from the slow rhythms of mountain life. Here, a blossoming prosperity is increasingly visible. Gleaming teahouses line the paths, promising WiFi and Snickers bars. Government health clinics are being rebuilt after decades of absence, and rosy-cheeked children bound along newly cobbled paths.
For the people of these mountains, tourism is extending a fragile, golden lifeline out of poverty and conflict. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to smooth over Nepal’s fissures in the long term. Without political stability to reassure visitors of their safety, the golden goose may well vanish once more.