National Geographic : 2003 May
northeast India through Tibet because Nepal was closed to foreigners until 1949-they hired strong young Sherpas in Darjiling to be porters. A Sherpa contingent became essential for every climbing expedition; when the British expedi tion of 1953 became the first to reach the roof of the world, the final assault team comprised one New Zealand climber, Edmund Hillary, and one Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. The conquest of majestic Mount Everest caught the imagination of the world, bringing an unprecedented number of climbers to Khumbu each spring and fall. It also brought the Sherpas a generous and indefatigable benefactor in the person of Hillary (see "My Story," page 38). To speed construction of the hospital in the village of Khunde, Hillary over saw the construction of the airstrip on a dra matic mountainside in Lukla-a runway that has had the unintended result of fueling the massive tourist trade. Quickly, each of Khum bu's 25,000-foot-plus peaks was topped, with Sherpas playing a central role in the expedi tions. Even more crucial to the Khumbu econ omy was the development of the trekking industry, in which Sherpas lead tourists on week-long hikes from Lukla to popular desti nations like Kala Pattar and Gokyo, stopping at inns and cafes along the way. "Those boys out there, most of them, are planning for jobs in the trekking industry," says Mahendra B. Kathet, the headmaster of the Khumjung school, as we watch the high school boys booting a soccer ball around the school's hard-mud playing field. "But if the trekkers don't come, where are the jobs?" r- coming in 2002. They were deterred not only by the events of September 11 but also by the state of emergency the Nepa lese government declared in November 2001 after negotiations with the Maoist rebels failed. Nepal's ferocious domestic insurrection was launched in 1996 by a secretive, self-styled Mao ist known as Comrade Prachanda. He wanted to replace the constitutional monarchy with a socialist republic. Prachanda put together an army, apparently 60 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2003 several thousand strong, of impoverished rural farmers who are frustrated by an unresponsive government and see civil war as the only solu tion to the sheer misery of their lives. In the west ern regions of Nepal, people live on what they can grow, never seeing a penny of the tourist in come that pours into trekking regions of the country or the foreign aid that flows to Kath mandu. The Maoists, both men and women, attacked police, soldiers, and other govern ment employees, hacking off their victims' limbs one by one with farm sickles. The rebels regu larly looted banks and bombed bridges and communications facilities; they kidnapped teach ers and thus shut down the schools in rural regions. The Royal Nepalese Army reacted with large-scale assaults on rebel hideouts by helicopter-borne infantry units. Since November 2001 more than 4,000 people have died, most of them alleged Maoists killed at the hands of security forces. The rebels publicly stated that they would not target tourists; while some trekkers were forced at gunpoint to make "contributions" to the rebel cause, there's no record of tourists be ing killed by the insurgents. Sherpas told me countless times that the Maoist rebellion was restricted to western Nepal and had no impact on life in Khumbu. Perhaps they don't want to scare away tourists, but this reassurance is demonstrably untrue. The influence of the insurrection on Sherpa country is plain for anyone to see. In the seemingly peaceful Khumbu town of Namche Bazaar, soldiers in green fatigues patrol the streets with automatic weapons over their shoulders, enforcing a curfew that has essentially ended nightlife. Even the centerpiece of social activity in Namche, the Friday night movie-it's actually a video shown on a large-screen TV has been suspended because of the curfew. The headquarters of Sagarmatha National Park, on a green meadow at 11,600 feet, was once a pop ular tourist spot. The park was created in 1976 to protect the area from environmental degra dation, turning virtually all of Khumbu into a state-regulated area. It offers trekkers their first clear view of Mount Everest, the mighty peak floating above a fluff of cloud to the northeast. But today the park headquarters is a forbidding place, surrounded by sandbags,barbed wire, and tense soldiers on the lookout for Maoists.