It is hard to imagine a more appealing village in Nepal than Marpha. It has clean streets, quaint houses and cheery locals. Open a window of your hotel and you see apple trees. Tourists saunter down the narrow street, awestruck by the preserved cultural gem. It is a place that makes a case for not giving in to crass development.
Sitting in a corner of an arid landscape, it has the look of an oasis. And it is a haven of sorts. The road that was built a couple of years ago has transmogrified architecture in Thak Khola. Old style houses – rammed earth roofs, stone walls – have all but disappeared in many villages. Concrete came with the road, and now it is the material of convenience. But Marpha never put out the carpet for the road. Instead, it put the road several hundred meters away from it, with a buffer of apple orchards. As a result, Marpha is like it was years ago—at least architecturally.
Marphalis have always had a knack for keeping out threats. The original site of the village, a small plateau an hour’s hike west from the current location, is testimony to that strategic thinking. There is only one access route, a narrow trail, to the plateau. On three sides there are precipitous falls. It was a carefully selected site, an anthropologist told me. Bandits from Tibet often raided the villages in the past, so the topography helped to thwart attacks.
The ancestors of modern day Marphalis moved down to new Marpha later, possibly to be nearer to the waters of the Kali Gandaki. Now for a couple of months a year, they find themselves on the path of a torrent of trekkers. Many villages have undergone a character change in the face of tourism. Not Marpha: it is known to anyone who has done the Annapurna trek as a shining example of how to ride the tourism wave without compromising one’s identity. There is Wi-Fi, apple pie and hot baths in the village, but there are also stacks of firewood on the roofs that were stowed by the lodge operator’s parents. When there is a wedding in the village, business is closed for a day to attend the ceremony. (I was made acting lodge operator for a couple of hours when the owners went to a relative’s wedding.)
In a way, Marpha can feel a little staged. After spending time in Thak Khola’s villages, whose chief characteristic is to provide for tourists – rooms, food, drinks – Marpha can seem too good to be true. On most mornings, the village elders sit near the village’s northern gate, basking in the morning sun, chatting. It looks like a cultural show put on for the visitor. But that is Marpha; its main charm is that it is itself at all times.
And then there is the sensation of having arrived in a place where hurrying is prohibited. Its narrow street (it has only one) is peopled at most times by middle-aged Tibetan women who sit chatting with each other until a newcomer passes by. Then they try to sell trinkets but the efforts are never aggressive. It’s like the selling was an excuse for striking conversations and exchanging smiles.