Daniel C. Taylor begins his book “Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery” with a story about footprints. More specifically, he begins with an account of the pseudoscientification of animal prints (usually snow leopard or bear) in the Himalayas into the now well-worn tales of the abominable snowman said to haunt the reaches of Mt. Everest and beyond. “Giving credence to the debate,” he explains, “are always the footprints. That footprints were being found was never in doubt. Some ‘thing’ was making footprints. Still today, the mysterious prints continue to be found. Photographs are repeatedly taken. Thus, the Yeti is real, for imagined animals do not make footprints.” (2017: xii)
And yet, I would argue that they do.
During the roughly two years I spent working and researching in Mustang, itself located high in the Himalayas of Nepal on the border with Southern Tibet, I too had an encounter with the Yeti. Though, my encounter had less to do with a mysterious ape-man wandering the snow-packed slopes at high altitudes and more to do with the tense and fleeting relationships between the peoples of the Himalayas and the Western trekkers who fuel their local tourist economies.
In the village of Kagbeni, I met a young man named Samdup. Samdup occasionally worked as a local guide and Jeep driver and spent the rest of his time helping to manage his family’s teahouse on the outskirts of the village. As we chatted over Tibetan bread and chai one morning, Samdup surprised me with a question: “What is a Yeti?” He asked.
At first, I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. I, like many Westerners, simply assumed that the stories of the Yeti were as much a part of local Himalayan legends, histories, and cosmologies as they were standard to cryptozoology in the West. But Samdup pressed on. “I mean,” he motioned out the front window, “we have Yeti hotel and Yeti buses. We have Yeti airline, too. But what is Yeti?”
I tried my best to explain, using what little Tibetan terminology I knew. But, in the end, I realized I could only describe a creature from my own imagination. I talked about “myths of ancient ape creatures” and “a big, white, shaggy monster-man that wanders the mountains.” I even tried to relate something of a sense of paleontological history, linking the stories of the Yeti to scientific concepts of fossils, ancient hominids, and plate tectonics relatively familiar to everyone who is even tangentially involved in Himalayan geography. When I finally finished, still at a loss, I shrugged and made some overtures towards an understanding of the Yeti as a popular myth among Westerners. That it wasn’t real.
Samdup looked back out the window. “Real enough.” He said. “Real enough to have a hotel. I don’t have a hotel. But, you know what, if you want to go find Yeti, I can take you. I know where to go.” I chuckled at this but it was in that moment that something else occurred to me. Whether or not the local Nepalis considered the Yeti to be any kind of real animal hiding somewhere in the crags and niches of remote and forbidding mountains didn’t actually matter. This was a place where “yeti” had already become more of a broadly Himalayan brand name than a reference to any actual creature. Samdup didn’t care whether or not there were actual Yetis somewhere on his guide routes, he cared that we thought there were.
This was not the last time I would encounter “yetis” during my time in the Himalayas. Taylor makes note, in his book, that oftentimes cryptozoologists approach their subjects as though they are simply demonstrating respect for village perceptions, for “scientifically marginalized groups,” or that they are “learning about animals which traditional people already know.” (2017: 13) But despite Richard Greenwell’s (secretary for the International Society of Crytozoology) contention that “the fun of cryptozoology is trying to determine if the native peoples are right or wrong in ways science will accept,” the “knowing” in this case isn’t quite so straight forward. The Yeti is not a simple division between “primitive myths” on the part of Himalayan peoples and “science” on the part of Westerners (a false dichotomy I know all too well from my work with Shaligrams or sacred ammonite fossils), rather, it is a complicated set of cross-cultural interactions and encounters that people have with one another throughout Mustang and elsewhere.
Enticing trekkers with opportunities to “find the Yeti” is common parlance in Mustang. It’s also a method for drawing tourists into Buddhist and Bon monasteries, usually to look at some Yeti-typed artifact or bit of fur supposedly kept inside the sanctum for centuries, for a small donation of course. “Yeti” is also a way to brand the Himalayan tourism industry as a whole; where planes, tea houses, gear shops, and guesthouses all bear some symbolic association with the beast as a way to communicate “exotic adventure here!”
What cannot be denied, however, is the continual link between the Yeti and an imagined, wilder, past. The Yeti, like Bigfoot and other giant ape- and wolf-men, is a projection of desire. Desire for a relationship with nature that is chaotic and feral; an association with dreams of a lost world where people are not so separated from the environments around them. As a wild hominid (or paleo-hominid, depending on who you ask), the Yeti’s footprints might be said to trace a path from the uncivilized to civilization, binding people together across a heavily populated planet but originating in a place more often described as untamed and out of time.
Mustangis are generally aware of their region’s reputation as a kind of “Lost Kingdom of Tibet.” Travel literature and trekking brochures (and a few coffee table books) often trade on Mustang’s vast, untouched, landscapes; old monasteries; traditional medicine practices; and relatively restricted border access to claim that the former Kingdom of Lo has been preserved since ancient times, pure and unaffected by the outside (read: modern) world. As any anthropologist can tell you, this is, of course, nonsense. Mustang is just as much a part of modern South Asia as Kathmandu is. But it is unsurprising that the Yeti would figure similarly.
Samdup and I headed out of Kagbeni later that morning, trudging up the steep slopes that would eventually take us towards the temple of Muktinath and into the Thorong La pass beyond. We passed shepherds tending flocks of goats and small herds of yaks, smelled the bread and soups being cooked in house kitchens along the road, and did our best to dodge rumbling buses and trucks laden with pilgrims and goods: all the trappings of civilization that kept “the wild” at bay. Wandering sadhus (Hindu ascetics) made camp in the hillsides, begging for a few rupees or a tin of food, offering prayers or chanting mantras to the wind, and acting as gate-keepers to villages and shrines for miles up the mountain side.
“Maybe you ask Baba-jis if they see Yeti?” Samdup mused, gesturing towards a small group of sadhus laying out their blankets and rugs in the sun. “But maybe no.” He started again. “I don’t think Yeti can be seen by Nepalis.” I paused, unsure of what he meant. We switched to speaking Nepali for clarity. “Up here, they see us as wild men.” For Samdup, “they” in this context meant Western trekkers. “So how can a wild man find a wild man?” “I’m not sure I understand.” I replied. “Do you mean that trekkers think Mustangis are uncivilized?” “Foreigners come here to escape their homes, I think. They all talk about getting away from their countries because there are too many cities. Maybe we are Yeti, I think.”
While I understood that many Westerners visited Mustang with either a sense of conquering nature (usually in climbing a very high mountain) or escaping civilization (“getting back to nature” as it were), I was disturbed by the idea that Samdup and his fellows might be thinking of themselves as the “uncivilized wild-men” of Western imagination. I expressed my concerns but he only smiled and waved me off. “Don’t worry.” He said. “We all look at things in our own ways. I like that people are always looking for something, even if they will never find it. When people go searching somewhere, they have to think about where they’ve been. And then they have to think about where they will go next. Like you, you will always think about us and about Mustang. Let’s get some tea.”
I left the Himalayas in 2017 but Samdup was right, I am always thinking about them. And whenever I see the wide variety of Yeti-themed merchandise or Yeti-teasing books and documentaries, I am reminded of the deep contradictions within the modern Himalayas. Just as the environment in which we live is shaped by the way we live in it; our ways of living have become a kind of unintended consequence of the environments we’ve reshaped. In other words, we live in a world that inhabits a conceptual gap between natural and unnatural, where nature is more of an idea than an actual physical space. This is where the Yeti lives. For trekkers and tourists looking to experience something of the untamed wilds, the Yeti lurks behind every rock fall and peak. One last great discovery yet to be made in an otherwise dull and completely knowable technological world. For Samdup and many other Mustangis, the Yeti is a narrative, a way of communicating something about how foreigners are expected to experience the Himalayas and, in that way, experience the local peoples. This narrative has since been commodified into branding for the burgeoning tourist industry in Mustang, which now boasts daily vehicle transportation up and down the mountains, tea houses and restaurants stocked with pizza and burgers, and hotels boasting free WiFi as high up as 6000 meters. Everywhere you turn, the Yeti is an adventure hat, an adventure drink cooler, and an adventurous cartoon character.
But the promise of a secret path to unknown Enlightenment is embedded in the very rocks of the Himalayas. Whether it’s a Buddhist sage or a Hindu holy man lecturing on the true meaning of life from a hut at the top of a mountain or an intrepid explorer combing the landslides and snowpack for evidence that the Yeti has passed by, streams of people are continuously coming to the high Himalayas in search of something. They’ll never find it, of course. But as long as they don’t, they’ll follow in the footprints of the Yeti forever.