After seeing a number of small villages here, I am amazed at the differences in their ambience and design. Compared to Muktinath and Jomsom and even to Kagbeni, Marpha is a precisely designed, ultra-clean tightly-woven community. The paths are narrower than Kagbeni, making it even a little difficult for motorbikes to traverse. They are all paved with fitted stone slabs. A welcome feature. Marpha is the home to many Thakali, an Nepali ethnic group once active in the salt trade from Tibet and across the mountains in western Nepal.

What a traveler might not initially notice is that there is water flowing underneath those slabs, coming all the way from streams at the north end of town which are channeled by complex stonework causeways between and underneath houses, flowing along the walkways, diverted across paths underneath to public access water posts in the village and out into cultivated areas.


A long stone sluice-box on the right.


Flowing water visible in the underground spillway on the left and a concrete platform for public water spigots on the right

It is so plentiful, there is a feeling of abundance here, maybe not quite prosperity, but certainly sufficiency; the satisfying accomplishment of generations of planning and vision of a self-sufficient and sustainable future. How can this be? The only possible improvement, not insignificant, would be to create a shared water storage system. The best thing about Marpha is that through-traffic follows the main road and does’t pass directly through town. How enlightened.

Off the main paths in town are offshoots winding between structures set at every possible angle, an intricate (and intimate) maze that, from above, looks like a puzzle works fitting everything together into a functional whole. Only at the outskirts of town do the stone paths give way to dirt. And there are portals at both ends, bringing the visitor through a small shrine complete with prayer wheels. A different world.



Everyone has roof access and everyone stores firewood on the roof.

And yet Marpha is very different from other villages in some ways. They are all sedate, bordering on depressed. From what I’d read about Muktinath, I’d have expected more visitors. But even more curious has been the relative absence of traffic and commerce in the larger towns at lower elevations like Jomsom. We are headed into monsoon season toward the end of this month. The weather is relatively warm. I would have expected at this time of year that there would be more travelers here. These towns not only have a depressed air about them, there is also desperation in the appeals from shopkeepers and hotel operators.



Perhaps it’s because of the earthquake, that for at least two weeks now, there have been  no tourist arrivals at the Kathmandu airport. It’s been enough for them the handle the airlifted supplies. People have been leaving, not arriving. Eighty percent of pre-paid tourist itineraries have been cancelled. Forty-five thousand tourists have left Nepal. There have been special flights to evacuate Australians, French, Germans, Norwegians and probably more. Imagine how many tours were cancelled, how many treks. The towns in the trekking areas depend on that income. And there were rumors that some of the fees paid in advance for those treks were not being returned. After all, how were people in these areas supposed to live while so many resources were being directed elsewhere?


I wasn’t fast enough with the camera here, but there was a procession in Marpha this morning, drums and cymbals and monks walking through the narrow lane, followed by a long line of people each carrying a bound sutra, touching the heads of bystanders with they passed, one by one.


Marpha Gompa

DSC02679   More editorials have been written and more scorn is being heaped upon the government for its antiquated patriarchal feudalistic bureaucracy. In my own simple and limited experience, there seems to be at least one redundant administrative step introduced into even the smallest structured process–like buying at ticked for a boat ride across the lake here in Pokhara. Or paying admission to a historic site. There are extra people, extra rules, extra hurdles to cross to do anything official.


Trucks ply the roads between towns. Tractor pulled flatbeds do most of the local hauling.

This is now haunting Nepal, as supplies and medical teams are held up at the airport; relief supplies are delivered to effected areas and not distributed. The customs department was levying import taxes on relief supplies until someone pointed out how ludicrous that was. Yet the department continues to complain that control and documentation is a barrier to corruption. They are probably right. Yet feudal bureaucracies dedicated to the acquisition and the retention of power also create a culture that itself becomes an enticement to corruption. “You got yours. Now I’m getting mine.”


Convenience storefront. About every third store is identical-snacks, beverages, chocolate, essentials-like beer.

According to Seira Tamang, writing in the Kathmandu Post:

The state, based on inherited feudal structures and cultures of government, has built upon and expanded patronage networks prioritizing the distribution of state funds among elites and has continued to treat inhabitants as subjects and not rights-bearing equal citizens.

The crisis point at hand is not merely dealing with the after-effects of the earthquake, but how the earthquake is challenging the Old Story. We see the forces whose existence depends on the perpetuation of the Old Story meeting real conditions that demand that old structures be re-evaluated and creatively overcome, being replaced by more equitable, non-hierarchical, more transparent and more direct delivery systems. And if this were to occur, even in small and local ways, it will be very hard to return to the Old Story. But according to Tamang, nothing less than a fierce and searching critique and resistance by all citizens is now required.


The trail to Jomsom

6 thoughts on “Marpha

  1. Beautifully written, again, Gary. Two comments: 1) Buy travel insurance. I would not expect all those deposits on all those treks to ever be returned. That money probably has already been spent. 2) It sounds like Nepal now has its “Hurricane Sandy” moment: reinvent itself or wait for the next one, and the next one. Hopefully the youthful energy you’ve described will seize the moment. Be safe. PJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Doc. I hope what we will see is reinvent itself AND prepare for the next one. Rebuilding infrastructure and homes and feeding people is not quite the same as rebuilding lives.

      Now that I am back in Kathmandu, I intend to be posting more about that youthful energy.


    • It is fascinating. Very tranquil. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to corral one of the residents to show me the water source and explain the system. And, they grow apples, and also did not know that they make a fine apple brandy that is known throughout Nepal. They are Thakali, as I mentioned, renowned salt traders between Tibet and Nepal for generations, if not centuries. Very accomplished. There are no Thakalis among the poor of Nepal.


      • Yeah, I would have liked to hear all about the water system. I keep seeing medieval aqueducts Nepali style in my head. And as for that apple brandy I wouldn’t mid a topple of that to fight of the chilly weather. It sounds like a peaceful place filled with interesting history.


  2. Thank you again! You always allow me to enjoy a short moment of traveling around again. Especially I love the Buddhist contexts I see here and there:)
    Have a safe time in the wounded area!


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