Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Clear Division

October 12th, 2012 · 3 Comments

I am generally no great fan of books about mountaineering disasters, but Buried in the Sky really got its hooks into me. That’s partly because of its unique narrative viewpoint: the tale’s protagonists are not the Western adventurers who met with bitter fates on K2, but rather those adventurers’ Sherpa guides. The authors did a fantastic job not only of recounting the guides’ life stories, but also of explaining the nuances of Sherpa culture that help explain why these men were drawn to such perilous work. One such explanatory triumph is the book’s breakdown of the difference between Sherpas and Bhotes, a Nepalese ethnic group to which one of the protagonists belonged—a fact he often concealed, since it make more professional sense for mountain guides to masquerade as famed Sherpas. As it turns out, Bhotes share something rather unsavory with the more traditional residents of Kyrgyzstan:

Bhote, pronounced BOE-tay, stems from Bhot (Sanskrit for “Tibet”), and the Bhotes in Hungung observe many Tibetan customs. With marriage, for instance, the Bhotes of the Upper Arun Valley, like other Tibetan tribal groups, practice bride abduction. When Pasang’s cousin Lahmu Bhote was fourteen, the groom’s brother secured permission from her father, seized her in the night, and dragged her to the wedding. This break from her paternal household may have been ritualized, but it was hard on the bride. “I was miserable for years,” Lahmu said. It took a long time for her resentment to wear off. “When I was twenty-three,” she added, “I finally realized I loved my husband.” Sherpa marriage rites, by contrast, are public-relations campaigns. Before betrothal, a Sherpa couple consults all stakeholders—families and gods—and gets a horoscope cross-check. Sherpas widely consider the Bhote approach, which is less common nowadays, a brutal and primitive practice.

It is puzzling why two such closely related ethnic groups, which have existed in close proximity to one another for centuries, would have such wildly divergent approaches to an essential life event. Perhaps human societies do not influence one another quite as much as those who fear McDonald’s-ization have led us to believe.

Check out more about the excellent Buried in the Sky here.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    Sort of tangentially related – but it reminds me of the Amish in America. Some cultural exchange with the surrounding culture – but still very separate.

    When anti-immigration friends claim that the recent immigrants are not assimilating to the US I like ask about the Amish and Cajuns and how they have shaken the very roots of the American Experiment.

  • Peter Zuckerman

    Thanks for reviewing my book. To attempt to answer your question, I at least have one theory of why the customs, cultures and languages of the various Sherpa and Bhote groups vary so much.

    Although the home villages of the various Sherpas and Bhotes are near each other, they’re much more isolated than it might seem when looking at a map: The mountainous terrain is so rugged that, in some cases, beasts of burden have to be carried across it when they are babies. The villages are relatively near each other in terms of distance, but they’re far from each other in terms of the amount of time and effort it takes to get from one to another. I imagine this was especially true before roads were built.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Peter Zuckerman: Thanks for chiming in, and for writing such an incredible book. Outstanding reporting and storytelling throughout.

    I’m now inspired to find out more about the Bhotes marital practices. Have there been any governmental efforts to curtail the kidnappings? How has the development of more passable roads affected the group’s customs? So many tangents to explore, which is always the hallmark of successful non-fiction–it should inspire us to seek even deeper knowledge.

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