Much ado about yetis: Nepal’s latest tourism blunder

Visit Nepal 2020 got off to a flying start when 20 yeti statues that were commissioned for $4,500 a shot were removed by tourism officials because they didn’t look anything like yetis and were provoking too much controversy. But was this fair and does anyone know what a yeti looks like anyway?

In this week’s post, I investigate this important story that has rocked Nepal.

Yeti, meditating Buddha or sumo wrestler? No one's really sure (Photo: Kamal Pariyar / BBC)
Yeti, meditating Buddha or sumo wrestler? No one’s really sure (Photo: Kamal Pariyar / BBC)

Let’s start at the beginning – what on earth is Visit Nepal 2020?

It’s the latest initiative by Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism to get people visiting the country this year. I am often critical of the Ministry of Tourism in this blog, and have previously written about their deceit, their frequent habit of making disingenuous announcements about Everest, and their failure to address widespread fraud.

At the time of writing, the home page of the Visit Nepal 2020 website makes the following promise to manage mountaineering to mitigate overcrowding. It’s a nice sentiment, but this is an issue they have consistently failed to tackle over many years and I have no confidence in them doing so in 2020.

Commitment to tackle overcrowding in mountaineering

Despite these failings, there are many honest and industrious people working in Nepal’s tourism industry. These people are responsible for a thriving tourist economy that has seen tourism numbers rise consistently since the earthquake in 2015, as this chart from CEIC shows. In fact, October 2018 was the busiest month on record.

But what has any of this got to do with yetis?

The Visit Nepal 2020 campaign has adopted a few strange symbols to promote itself. The official logo depicts a woman in a bathing suit holding a parasol in front of a couple of mountains. The yeti is the official campaign mascot. The website has this to say about it:

One hundred and eight larger than life sculptures of yeti, the official mascot of the Visit Nepal Year 2020, will be displayed within and outside the country to celebrate Visit Nepal 2020.

You may be wondering: how big is a life-size yeti? But there are more fundamental questions.

According to the BBC, the government commissioned a sculptor, Ang Tsering Sherpa, to produce a design for this mythical creature. Each of the 108 statues costs 500,000 Nepali rupees. A quick calculation reveals that if all 108 statues are completed then a cool $½ million USD will be spent on them.

But what does a yeti look like? There are no photos in existence. Some people don’t even believe yetis exist. Few living people have ever seen one, so you need to do some research. How did Mr Sherpa approach the task?

‘I did not make yeti’s sketch by reading any book,’ he told reporters. ‘On the basis of stories that I heard in my childhood, and having Lord Buddha at the back of my mind, I made the design.’

This wasn’t the only way Mr Sherpa decided to cut a few corners. He admitted to the Beeb that he decided not to make it furry so that it would be ‘easier to paint’.

This might explain a lot. The version of the statue illustrating the BBC article does indeed resemble a rotund Buddha, but that would be one of the more flattering analogies.

‘In folk tales, the yeti has been described as a big monkey-like creature,’ yeti historian Ram Kumar Pandey told the BBC. ‘However, the recent logo depicts it as a sumo wrestler.’

(It’s a mascot not a logo, Mr Pandey.)

The Nepali Times decided to go out onto the streets of Kathmandu to ask some locals what they thought and capture some vox pops in the following video.

‘Personally I don’t think it’s the right mascot for this tourism year,’ says one man diplomatically (translation: ‘it’s a bit shit’).

But others found the statues more offensive.

Deepak Prasad Shrestha of the Indra Jatra Organising Committee explained that the yetis’ brows had been etched with a depiction of the Kumari, the living goddess who inhabits Durbar Square, Kathmandu, in the form of a young girl.

‘The depiction of the Kumari on the mascots was very insensitive. It was very shocking to see how a significant being like the Kumari … be displayed on a creature that does not even exist.’ he says with what I’m sure is a light smirk.

It’s difficult to know how to answer this, so I’ll just politely cough.

Watch on YouTube

Anyway, I still haven’t answered the main question – what does a yeti look like?

In 1986, the great Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner was trekking through Tibet on a journey to trace the migration of the Sherpas from Kham to Khumbu when he had the following encounter with a strange creature.

The fast-moving silhouette dashed behind a curtain of leaves and branches, only to step out into a clearing some ten yards away for a few seconds. It moved upright. It was as if my own shadow had been projected onto the thicket. For one heartbeat it stood motionless, then turned away and disappeared into the bank.

By ‘bank’, I presume Messner meant a mound of earth rather than a roadside building from where the yeti could withdraw cash.

Messner is famous for being arguably the greatest high-altitude mountaineer of all time. He is less highly regarded for his writing. You will notice that despite standing ten yards away from a yeti he was unable to describe what it looked like, other than that it stood upright. However, the more discerning of you will have noticed that it resembled Messner’s own shadow projected onto a thicket. It therefore must, like Messner, have been hairy.

Reinhold Messner's classic book, My Quest for the Yeti
Reinhold Messner’s classic book, My Quest for the Yeti

However, he eventually became convinced that his ‘fast-moving silhouette’ and an Asiatic black bear that he found in Norbulinka Zoo, Lhasa, were the same species. He even published a couple of photos in his book My Quest for the Yeti (though unfortunately the beast is standing on four legs in both of them).

As you can see from the above photo, my copy of Messner’s book My Quest for the Yeti carries the following endorsement from Jon Krakauer on the cover:

Messner is to climbing what Michael Jordan is to basketball.

It may be a little harsh of me, but I couldn’t help reflecting that Jon Krakauer, author of the infamous book Into Thin Air, about the 1996 Everest tragedy, might be to Nepal’s tourism industry what Mark Zuckerberg is to general elections.

Anyway, luckily Messner isn’t the only person to have witnessed a yeti. In his article On Yeti Tracks, published in Esquire magazine, the writer Bruce Chatwin interviewed a monk whose aunt had seen a yeti and described it as ‘bigger than a man … with terrible yellow eyes, arms almost touching the ground, red hair growing upwards from the waist, and a white crest on top.’

He then met a Sherpani, Lakpa Doma, who was tending her yaks in the village of Macchermo in the Gokyo valley in 1974 when a yeti ‘sprung on her from behind a rock, dragged her to the stream, but then dumped her and went on to slaughter three of the yaks simply by twisting their horns. The beast had the same yellow eyes, big brow-ridges and hollow temples.’

It doesn’t sound much like the Buddha, but I guess it could have been a sumo wrestler.

With much of east Asia in lockdown due to the coronavirus, Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism is likely to have bigger challenges in 2020 than a few comedy yeti statues. However, if you already have your trip to Nepal booked and are keen to drop by Durbar Square to see some of these fabulous figurines, then it seems that you’ll be disappointed.

It has been reported that, with only 22 of the 108 statues so far on display, the controversy has caused the Nepalese authorities to remove the mythical giant ape-like creature from tourist landmarks.

It’s such a shame. Anyway, enjoy your trip.

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