Himalayan Dictionary


During the trek in Nepal we were introduced to many terms and concepts, some familiar; others less so. If you are like me, maybe you were too afraid to ask: what is a sherpa? What’s the deal with Tibet? And you’ve heard the word “yak,” but you’re not quite sure if it’s an exotic food or an animal (it’s an animal). We’ve got you covered with our Himalayan Dictionary: the definitive guide to the basics of Himalayan culture and society.

AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness is a malady caused by lack of oxygen that can affect visitors to high-altitude areas. Hundreds of years ago, Tibetans believed that the mountains, abode of gods and evil spirits, spread poisonous gas which gave them the symptoms: shortness of breath, headache, exhaustion, and reduced appetite. AMS can become life-threatening (see HAPE and HACE below). At 5,500 meters, you only have about 50% of the oxygen in your body as you do at sea level. The summit of Everest, at 8,900 meters, translates into roughly 30% oxygen levels.

Chautara: A rest stop for porters, to take a break carrying their loads up and down the mountain.

Chorten: Also known as a stupa, chortens are bell-shaped structures that often hold (or are said to hold) the relics of the Buddha or other Buddhist holy men. A chorten is typically used to describe stupas from Tibet or Nepal. Visitors to a chorten should always circumambulate the monument in a clockwise fashion, starting from the left. Observing this cultural custom often provided an additional challenge on the trek. Many trails had chortens rising in the middle of the path - with the right side a gently inclining hill, and the left a steep vertical incline - forcing hopeful pilgrims to work harder for their eventual reward.

Dalai Lama: A living god as well as the de-facto political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama is an important symbol for (and spiritual leader of) the Tibetan people. Currently in his 80s, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese invaded, and he subsequently set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India.

Dal bhat: A traditional Nepali dish consisting of lentils (dal), rice (bhat), vegetable curry, papad (a fried dough chip), and pickle. This is the ubiquitous trekker meal: cheap, nutritious, and endless servings. A common saying you’ll hear on the mountain is “dal bhat power, 24 hour!”

Doko: The traditional basket used by porters to carry their loads, often strung from their foreheads and resting on their backs.

Gompa: Denotes a Buddhist structure that includes a place to meditate, listen to teachings, and pray. The term is mostly ascribed to Tibetan Buddhism, which is a distinct form of Buddhism (as opposed to the many Indian or Chinese variations).

Gurkha: Ethnic Nepalis who have a reputation for their bravery and fierceness in battle. Gurkhas serve in British, Indian, and Nepali armies, as well as around the world with UN peacekeeping missions. An Indian military officer once said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.” These soldiers are known for their khukuri, a traditional curved knife. It is said that once a Gurkha draws the khukuri from his sheath, he can not put the knife back in until it has drawn blood.

HACE: Or High Altitude Cerebral Edema, causes swelling of the brain, brought on by AMS.

HAPE: Or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, also results from AMS, and causes a build-up of fluid in the lungs. As with HACE, the only effective treatment is to descend the mountain immediately.

Hima-alaya: The name for the Himalayas comes from two Sanskrit words: hima, meaning “snow,” and alaya, meaning “abode.”

Kani: The entrance to a Buddhist community - shaped in the form of a gateway - that is meant to cleanse the person who passes under it of evil spirits.

Kata: A white scarf, often made of silk, that is found all over the Himalayan trails. It is a custom to present these scarves to lamas when first meeting them. The katas are also hung on suspension bridges and other treacherous areas in order to help the safe passage of those who cross. To give a kata to someone is a sign of respect, and the scarves are also meant to bring fortune and prosperity to those who don them.

Khumbu Cough: An affliction named after the Khumbu Valley and the Khumbu Glacier, a particularly tricky pass that must be crossed to summit Mount Everest. The cough, resulting from the cold, dry, dusty air, is a rite of passage for every trekker.

La: Translates to “pass.” There are many of these points along the trek. A pass is essentially a low point between two mountains, allowing you to cross into the other valley without having to summit in order to descend on the other side.

Momo: Rivals dal bhat for the title of Nepal’s national dish. A dumpling filled with either vegetables, chicken, pork, or buffalo meat, momos can be steamed or fried and enjoyed in most stalls and teahouses. They say the Chinese invented the dumpling, but that the Nepalis perfected it. We can attest to that - the dumplings are often filled to the point of bursting, and full of juicy goodness.

Namaste: Hello! This is a traditional greeting and salutation that is passed among Nepalis and trekkers alike. Often you press your hands together and bow slightly to show respect. Namaste means hello in Tibetan as well as in Hindu, so you can use this as a greeting in many parts of India as well.

Om Mani Padme Hum: A traditional Buddhist prayer that translates to Om (a religious symbol), Mani (jewel or bead), Padme (lotus flower), and Hum (spirit of enlightenment). The mantra is found everywhere, from prayer flags and wheels to the music playing in the background of every teahouse.

Pashmina: A type of fabric woven from cashmere wool. The fabric originated in Kashmir, India, but is a staple throughout the Himalayan region. The woven wool is available in a variety of softness and intricate patterns, with corresponding prices.

Prayer flag: Inscribed with the traditional mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, prayer flags come in a variety of colors: blue (symbolizing the sky), white (air), red (fire), green (water), and yellow (earth). The flags represent peace, kindness, and generosity, and each flap of the flag sends a prayer into the wind, spreading positive energy to all.

Prayer wheels: These cylindrical spools are found along the trail and are meant to be spun clockwise with your right hand as you walk along.

Sherpa: This term can refer to either the Sherpa people - an ethnic group from Tibet - a profession, or a common last name. Thus, your name can be Lakhpa Sherpa, and you can be ethnically Sherpa, and working as a… sherpa! Over the course of hundreds, even thousands of years, the Sherpa have adapted to the altitude, and they have developed more red blood cells to pump oxygen into their system. As a result, they are known as formidable mountain guides and porters, and act as integral members of any serious mountaineering expedition.

Tibet: The traditional homeland of the Tibetan people, Tibet was once an autonomous region, but was invaded by the Chinese in 1950. It is estimated that since that time, nearly 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed and 6,000 monasteries destroyed. The region is now a province of China.

Yak: The regular beast of burden in the Himalayas, yaks are a type of big, hairy oxen. In many restaurants, you will see yak cheese on the menu, but that is actually a misleading term: yaks are males, while the females are termed nak (so it should really be nak cheese!) These animals are used to transport goods across the mountains, as well as for their milk, meat, and warm fur.

Yeti: Also known as the abominable snowman, this mythical creature is said to live by itself in remote corners of the Himalayas. In Sherpa society, legends abound about this giant, hairy beast. Every once in a while, you will hear about a sighting or footprint of the supposed animal; at one point we even passed through a town where a woman was said to have been attacked by a yeti in the 70s.