“What’s your favorite area in Nepal to go trekking in?” I asked Nema, our guide, as we walked along the trail one day. Nema has been trekking in Nepal since 1972, working first as a porter and now as a guide.
“Upper Mustang,” he answers.
The Upper Mustang area of Nepal is a very remote, highly-restricted area where few travellers go. It is one of the few remaining bastions of un-touched, indigenous culture in Nepal. The majority of the scattered population there speak traditional Tibetan language. Some pictures of the area show it to be a dry, almost moon-like environment with giant formidable mountains reaching skyward.
“What’s it like?” I ask him.
“No trees,” he says and then pauses for a second. “Long time ago, people in Mustang live in caves in mountains. They dig holes in mountain to live to protect from animals. Animals eat them.”
“What kind of animals?”
He gives a single, terse one-word answer—“Yeti.”
It takes me a moment to recognize the word he’s saying and he repeats it several times. “Yeti.”
Yeti, or as it is sometimes called Abominable Snowman, is part of the history and mythology of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Claims by Westerners of seeing a large hairy biped in snowy regions of the Himalaya, or more commonly large human-like bare footprints at high altitudes were reported on numerous occasions throughout the 20th Century. Indeed, Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand fame, along with his partner Tenzing Norgay, reported seeing large footprints while scaling Mount Everest in 1953. At least some scientific research in the 21st Century has showed an unknown DNA sequence in samples from presumed Yeti hair, but the main-stream scientific community remains skeptical.
Nema and I stop to rest under a large shady tree looking down over a valley. A tiny Nepalese village glitters in the distance surrounded by terraced fields.
“The yeti exists? It’s real?” I ask Nema.
“Yes, real,” he answers matter-of-factly.
“Have you seen yeti?” I continue.
“No, no see, but see footprints.” He makes a gesture with his hands demonstrating large footprints, about fifteen inches in length.
“Several times, in snow, most common night.”
“In Khumba region.” Khumba is the area of Nepal where Mount Everest is, and also where Nema’s village is.
Nema continues, “I also see hand. Someone have hand of Yeti and show me. It long and very hairy like this.” Again, Nema extends his own hand and then demonstrates fingers being perhaps nine or ten inches longer than his own.
Nema could be referring to the so-called Pangboche Hand, an artifact from a Buddhist monastery in Pangboche, Nepal. In 1959 Peter Byrne, a member of wealthy oil businessman and adventurer Tom Slick’s expedition to Nepal, reportedly stole pieces of the hand from the monastery. The famed actor James Stewart then allegedly smuggled the bone fragments out of India in his luggage. Examination of the bone fragments by London University primatologist William Hill at first determined that they were hominid and later in 1960, he revised his findings to conclude that the fragments were a closer match to Neanderthal. In 1991 after a TV show Unsolved Mysteries aired on NBC, the entire hand was stolen from the Pangboche Monastery and alledgedly is somewhere in a private collection.
“I also see yeti scalp,” Nema continues. “In monastery, they keep yeti scalp in box. You pay money they let see. I see. Lots of hair.”
“You have to pay?”
“That’s right, you pay and then they take out box and open and let you look at.”
“I haven’t seen long time. Last time I was there, scalp not there.”
Again, Nema’s right. There is or was an alledged yeti scalp in the Khumjung Monastery in Nepal—monasteries seem to attract yeti artifacts. The alledged yeti scalp in the box looks like something you might see in a carnival sideshow attraction years ago. Again, controversy surrounds the artifact; various people have determined that the hair is actually from known animals, bear or boar.
Finally, here is a mock-up of a yeti from the International Mountaineer Museum in Pokhara, Nepal.