I was born at the foot of Mt. Kangchenjunga in Nepal, in a small village bordering Tibet. I spent my childhood in my mother’s hometown of Ghunsa village at the base of Jannu or Kumbhakarna, as many local people call the mountain. The sunlight hits the Ghunsa Valley late in the day, blocked by the hills on the dawn side. There, the houses are built from mud, stone and wood. Rocks help keep roof shingles in place on windy days. The beautiful blue-grey water of the Ghunsa River runs through the valley. In deep winter, sixty percent of the residents go to warmer places, such as Phale, Taplejung and Kathmandu, to feel the sun.
When I was growing up, my parents raised potatoes in Olangchung Gola, and my father also traded in Tibet and India. But there was no modern transportation–no roads–so he ferried his loads of merchandise by yaks or by porters, walking miles and miles from town to town. Once, a Korean and Russian team came to Ghunsa village. At that time, there were no local lodges or teahouses. The villagers went with the mountaineers to Kangchenjunga Base Camp to earn income as low-altitude porters. Even then, I was not aware that tourism would bring both big opportunities and lifestyle changes.
There are many mountains in the area; but, of them all, Kumbhakarna is considered the Holy Mountain. Many people believe that it has spiritual powers. Sherpa and Tibetan people also refer to Kumbhakarna as “Khangju Zoanga,” which means “mountains or hill of five sisters,” for the five shoulders, or peaks. The villagers pray to the mountain as part of their puja, and they believe it is connected to the divine. They believe that the mountain will protect them, their animals and the village, from any natural disaster or unseen power.
During the mid-1980s, my family moved to the bigger town of Taplejung. My father continued to trade and my mother opened a small lodge where villagers stayed when they came to do their shopping. My father died suddenly when I was about eight years old, leaving my mother to raise four children alone. She sold homemade sweaters to supplement her income from the lodge, and we bought cheap rice from the local Yogi. Meanwhile, I rose to the first division in my classes and left for Kathmandu, where I studied to gain entrance into business school. Once I enrolled, I found a job as a junior accountant at a trekking company.
In 2006 I finished a master’s degree in business. By then, I was the manager of the same trekking company. Six years later, I began my own trekking and mountaineering agency, Dream Himalaya Adventures, based in Kathmandu. I have been providing logistic services to many alpine clubs and western outfitter companies, and I have operated several mountaineering expeditions to the world’s highest peaks, including Chomolungma (Mt. Everest).
Meanwhile, as mountain tourism increased in my home region, our way of life transformed dramatically. Of the fifty houses in the small village below Kumbhakarna, a quarter of them have been converted into summer lodges and teahouses for trekkers and travelers. Villagers still farm potatoes, but only rarely as their main source of income. In the off-season, many of the locals now live in Kathmandu. Their children attend good schools in Kathmandu, Taplejung and Darjeeling.
But as former residents leave the villages, their absence also has an impact on our traditional culture–there are not enough young people when they are needed on special occasions, such as local religious festivals. Both local and Kathmandu-based nongovernmental organizations are now working to protect the traditions of the area through cultural awareness programs.
I still visit the village of Ghunsa once a year. As I walk down the street, smoke rises from the teahouses, and then disappears against the grey and white walls of Kumbhakarna.