• Adventure
  • 23 September, 2019

Sherpa Culture and Spirituality in the Thangme Valley

Sherpa Culture and Spirituality in the Thangme Valley
En route to Thangme. Photo by simonsimages/Flickr

While the Everest Base Camp trek is a classic, for trekkers in the region who wish to encounter traditional Sherpa agricultural life and quiet expressions of Himalayan and Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, there are alternate trips in the Everest Region of the Khumbu. For those on the EBC itinerary, plan an extra day or overnight hike west from Namche Bazaar through the Thangme (Thame) Valley. Many trekkers visit this valley as it is a good place to acclimatize before heading to higher elevations. If making the walk to Thangme from Namche a day trip, it is advisable to depart as early as possible to provide ample time to explore Thangme village and the gompa (monastery) before returning to Namche. But, if possible, it’s best to stay the night in Thangme or Thamo and continue trekking north via the shortcut to Khumjung the following day.

Since 2003, I have enjoyed four trips up the Thangme Valley, and observed Himalayan tahr (a large, majestic woolly mountain goat), white-bellied musk deer, countless Himalayan monal (large pheasants, of which the males are very colorful like peacocks), domestic animals such as yaks and dri (a cross between a yak and a cow), and other birds and wildlife. One November I trekked three weeks from Jiri up to Thangme and back down to Salleri, escaping the crowds for an unforgettable private and spiritual adventure. Sherpas have long believed the Thangme Valley is the entrance way to a beyul, or “hidden valley”, a safe, fertile and spiritual home for sincere seekers. Walking up from Jiri or Salleri is highly recommended for the solitary views, charming remote homesteads, enchanting forests, delicious local cuisine, out-of-the-way temples and monasteries, and constantly changing local cultural scenes in the lower Solu Valley villages populated with Sherpa, Tamang, Rai and other groups.

Sherpa Culture and Spirituality in the Thangme Valley

Khumjung Monastery, on the way to the Thangme Valley. Photo by Elen Turner

To enter the Thangme Valley, climb west out of Namche Bazaar by the Namche gompa, along the well-worn trail that weaves through large mantra stones up on the ridge. Enjoy the view of the Himalayan ‘metropolis’ of Namche and proceed along the path that follows the valley. Once you pass the western ridge of the Namche bowl, the path becomes less steep, a pleasant and gradual ‘Nepali flat’. The trail continues above the Bhote Koshi, a river that originates at the Tibetan border below the Nangpa La (pass) and a tributary of the Dudh Koshi (not to be confused with the Bhote Koshi further west in Sindhupalchowk District). Don’t worry about packing lunch as there are small teahouses in Thamo and Thangme.

Along the way, the track passes beautiful restored stupas on each ridge, and bubbling clear creeks in each small valley. After roughly two hours, the trail rounds a bend and enters the village of Thamo, which means ‘warm place’ in Sherpa, as it sits along a south-facing valley that provides ample sunshine and protection from wind. From this vantage point, the remnants of landslides are visible, caused by the catastrophic 1985 Dig Tsho Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, which wiped out the almost complete Namche Small Hydroelectric Project and more than a dozen farmhouses down-river of Thangme.

Sherpa Culture and Spirituality in the Thangme Valley

Large mani stones can be found all through the Khumbu. Photo by Elen Turner

Thamo is home to the headquarters of the Khumbu Bijuli Company (KBC), the cooperative micro-hydroelectric provider for 18 villages in the Khumbu Valley, and owned jointly by three community users groups broken down geographically. Developed with the assistance of the Austrian government and fully turned over to local management in 1999, KBC was one of the first cooperatively owned and locally managed electric companies in Nepal, and has served as a model of inclusive economic development. KBC’s powerhouse lies across the river from Thamo on the southern bank of the Bhote Koshi in Hungo village (3600m). Since most transmission lines are buried underground to maintain the valley’s pristine photogenic views, and the powerhouse was built to mimic a traditional Sherpa house, most trekkers don’t even realize there is a hydroelectric plant here! KBC also spearheads a number of sustainable development and environmental programs in the area, including a high altitude nursery and drinking water projects.

Be sure to stop at Ang Maya’s Lodge in the center of Thamo village for a delicious cup of salty, buttery Sherpa tea (think of it more as a broth!) that provides the fat, energy and salt needed to stay hydrated in the high alpine climate. Then, visit the recently renovated Khari Ganden Tenphel Ling Ani Gompa (‘Nunnery of Sky Mountain, Joyful Island Spreading the Dharma’), at the top of Thamo village, just before the path continues westward to Thangme. The nunnery was established in 1963 on donated land by the Khari Rinpoche Lobsang Tsultrim, a revered Buddhist master who fled from the original Khari Gompa in Tibet via the Nangpa La. The nunnery is home to about 30 Buddhist nuns who maintain a rigorous daily routine of prayers and meditation, which are open to the public.

The handsome new prayer hall was consecrated and opened in November 2014, after over fifteen years of laborious construction work, primarily performed by the nuns themselves. A unique aspect of the prayer hall are the three main statues of the Buddha Sakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava, and Je Tsongkapa. The Khari Rinpoche enjoyed a close connection with Trulzhig Rinpoche, who founded the Thupten Choling Gompa above Junbesi and became the most important teacher for the Sherpa people, often providing protection and blessings to mountaineers before attempting dangerous summits such as Chomo Langma (Mount Everest).

Sherpa Culture and Spirituality in the Thangme Valley

The Sherpa town of Khumjung, in the Khumbu region. Photo by Elen Turner

Another unique hermitage, the Lawudo Gompa is perched about ninety minutes’ walk above Thamo at 4000 m., backed by imposing granite boulders in a sea of juniper trees. It is well known to followers of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the Abbot of the Kopan Gompa in Kathmandu, a well-known international Buddhist teacher. Visit Lawudo to acclimatize, sit quietly in the holy cave, and experience the peaceful surroundings of a secluded mountain hermitage. For those who wish to spend some time in retreat, Lawudo offers retreat rooms for long-term meditation practice.

From Thamo, continue walking roughly two hours west to Thangme village and Thangme Gompa. The trail follows the river upstream through juniper and pine forests, by waterfalls, paintings of mantras and Buddhist images, and eventually crosses the Bhote Koshi on a suspension bridge over an impressive raging torrent of glacial runoff. After the bridge, the trail ascends the southern side of the valley to the hamlet of Thangme (3800m), which means ‘Lower Plain’, referring to the large flat area where the Bhote Koshi turns west from its northern origin, settled due to its suitability as pasture and farmland.

The Thangme Gompa Dechen Chokhor Ling (‘Dharma Wheel of Great Bliss’) was established by the legendary Buddhist master Rolpe Dorje in the 17th Century, and lives up to its high name. At roughly 4000 m., the affecting power of the spectacular view from the gompa, tucked into the imposing cliffs, and the almost 500-year-old temple itself, is unmistakably palpable and unforgettable. Almost thirty monks reside there, who perform traditional lifecycle and blessing rituals for the local Sherpa households. Each year in May or June (depending on the Tibetan lunar calendar), the monks at Thangme perform the famous Mani Rimdu festival and sacred lama dancing known as cham, to inspire virtue in the minds of the community members and dispel demonic forces.

There is a small restaurant with a big view just below the Thangme Gompa, so make time for a snack before turning around or continuing upward. From Thangme, the path along the Bhote Koshi turns north toward Renjo La (5340m), one of the famous passes crossed on the Three Passes Trek of the Upper Khumbu, and eventually reaches the Nangpa La, on the traditional trade route to the Tibetan highlands.

Rather than swiftly returning to Namche, trekkers can pick from a number of charming and quiet family-run guesthouses that have mostly been rebuilt after the earthquakes of April and May 2015, as well as guesthouses in Thamo. After all, why rush through an enchanting hidden valley with deep history beneath every step, rich culture around every corner, and stunning mountain views all along the way?

This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.

Top image by simonsimages/Flickr

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