Marpha, Apple Capital of Nepal, Lower Mustang Valley

Measuring Wealth in the Himalayas

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I stood on the stairway leading to the Buddhist Monastery in the Himalayan town of Marpha, holding onto the railing for dear life as as gale force gusts shredded the gauzy Tibetan prayer flags cascading down from the hilltop. Like every other day in Nepal‘s Lower Mustang Valley, ferocious winds had begun roaring down from the mountaintops in mid-morning and would continue until early evening. Struggling to keep from being blown over, I perused the tiny village that spread beneath me.

Incessant winds rip down from the mountains every afternoon in Lower Mustang, shredding prayer flags on the hilltop monastery

Incessant winds rip down from the mountains every afternoon in Lower Mustang, shredding prayer flags on the hilltop monastery

Marpha is notable for it’s many-storied old stone houses, built by hand without benefit of mud or mortar, and for the delicious apples grown in the lush valley that snakes between the Nilgiri and Dahlugiri Himalayan ranges. While I found those facts intriguing, what most caught my attention were the stacks of split firewood that lined the edges of the flat roofs of every home in town.

Looking down on flat rooftops of Marpha, edged with piles of firewood

Looking down on flat rooftops of Marpha, edged with piles of firewood

Piles of split wood are piled on the flat roofs of the old stone houses of Marpha in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal

Piles of split wood are piled on the flat roofs of the old stone houses of Marpha in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal

Kamala, owner of the Neeru Guest House explains that wood equals wealth

Kamala, owner of the Neeru Guest House explains that wood equals wealth

Later that same day I was sitting in the common area of the Neeru Guest House with the owner, Kamala, when I glanced up and noticed soaring piles of firewood lining the hotel’s roof. “It must get really cold here during the winter if you need that much firewood,” I said. “It does get cold, but we never use the firewood,” Kamala replied. “Most people move down into the Pokhara Valley for the two coldest months of the year. But we keep the wood for several reasons. First, it’s a decoration for our flat roofs. But more importantly, having a lot of wood on your roof means you are wealthy. We’ve never touched our wood – there are logs up there that were cut by my father and grandfather.”

Wealth in Marpha is gauged by the amount of split wood stored on the roof

Wealth in Marpha is gauged by the amount of split wood stored on the roof

In a desolate landscape barren of trees with the exception of the apples trees that have been planted along the river banks in recent times, it made a great deal of sense that wood equaled wealth. But while the commodity that implies wealth in Marpha is different from what defines wealth in the U.S., the human need for security and personal status are surprisingly similar.

9 Comments on “Measuring Wealth in the Himalayas

  1. Who would’ve thought that wood equals wealth. What an interesting article that provides insight into the lives of these people in Marpha. And I love that 3rd picture of the old stone houses! :)

    • Hi Wan: The homes in Marpha were nothing short of startling. In some cases, the walls went up three stories, with absolutely no grout between the stones. I constantly marveled over how they stood upright, but they’ve been standing for centuries!

  2. What an interesting read! I never would of known this about the wood had I glanced upon it myself! It is funny how we all really are the same around the world in terms of needing certain things like you mentioned personal status and security!

  3. If they still have wood from their grandfather, then I’d suggest they have a better idea of saving than most modern day westerners.

  4. If the landscape is barren of trees, where does the firewood come from? What an interesting glimpse into Nepalese culture.

    • Donna: I hadn’t thought about that, but it does perhaps explain why wood is seen as having such great value.

  5. I think it’s fascintating. And to think they have wood from their father and grandfather.. it’s speak more than just wealth I think. Great story.

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