“Look at the footprints,” says Sonam, my guide in remote eastern Bhutan.
“That’s the best way of working out if a yeti is following you,” he continues, with all the air of someone experienced in such matters. “If the yeti is following you, then the footprints will make it look like it’s running away from you. But, if it is running away from you, then the footprints will make it look like it’s following you.”
Noting my confused expression, he chuckles and goes on to explain. “You see, yetis are very clever. They can disappear like spirits and their feet face the wrong way. This is to confuse people.”
Although, on this spring morning, the thought of being chased by a yeti — no matter which way around its feet are screwed on — seems somewhat laughable, I know better than to dismiss such talk entirely.
After all, Sonam is far from the first person I’ve met in the Himalayas and Tibet who has told me earnest, if somewhat unfeasible, stories of the yeti. And, here in Bhutan, belief in the yeti is so widespread that the Bhutanese government has actually set aside a massive section of the east of the country as a national park, with the stated aim of giving yetis — which are said to be abundant in that region — a safe home.
This isn’t my first conversation about the yeti. I’d first heard it spoken of as a real flesh-and-blood creature some years earlier, while walking a remote forest trail in the shadow of the world’s third-highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga, in the far east of the Himalayan nation of Nepal.
My guide and I had spent all afternoon hiking through a pristine forest of ancient conifer trees wrapped in Spanish moss, when we suddenly emerged into a small grassy clearing, at the far end of which was a wooden hut. Poking our heads through the door, we found an elderly yak herder with an ancient radio in his hands. He smiled, welcomed us inside and continued to turn the dial on his radio, searching for a signal. But only the sound of static filled the small wooden cabin.
Sighing with frustration, he put the radio down. “Sometimes I go for days without being able to pick up a signal. These valley walls block it all,” he said, glancing out of the dirty window towards the sharp sides of six-thousand-metre-high mountains.
“When my radio doesn’t work, it can get very quiet being all alone in this valley at night. And those are the nights when I sometimes hear the whistling. Long and very high-pitched. Most of the time I don’t mind, but sometimes the sound comes from close by. I have to make sure the door is locked then.”
As soon as the shepherd mentioned the whistling, my guide tensed and said something unexpected. “Yeti. There are said to be many around here.”
The shepherd nodded in agreement. “Once,” he said, “a friend and I had walked over a mountain pass to Sikkim [a small mountainous state in India]. On the way back, we stopped for a night in a cabin in the forest. There was a lot of fresh snow and that night we heard strange noises. When we went outside in the morning, there were the huge footprints of a yeti in the snow all around the cabin. My friend was so scared, he has never walked that way again.”
Unfortunately, the shepherd failed to mention which way the footprints faced …
In between and beyond these conversations, I have travelled widely across the Himalayas and Tibet, and I’ve heard many more tales concerning the fabled yeti. There was, for instance, the time I sat in a village not so far from Mount Everest and listened to a lady tell me a story of how her own mother was attacked by a yeti just a day’s walk from where we were sat.
I also have fond memories of the two nights I spent in central Bhutan staying in the ancestral manor house of an author, enjoying fireside conversations as she told me of the many local myths and legends she’d collected and written down about yetis. There was the time I admired yeti relics in a Buddhist monastery (they turned out to be fakes) and that moment in central Tibet when, sitting in a black felt nomad tent, I listened transfixed to descriptions of three different kinds of yeti.
And how could I ever forget the breathless climb I made to a small shrine and mediation cave perched at the head of a valley some five vertical kilometres above sea level, where, so I was told, a holy man had spent years in meditation aided by a yeti who brought him food and water.
None of these conversations or adventures ever made me actually believe that there was truly a giant ape-like creature living in the snowy wastes of the high Himalayas, but I enjoyed listening to the stories. But then something happened that made me question my doubt and start to ponder whether the yeti really did exist.
In 2019, I was in eastern Tibet, in an area that is now part of China’s Sichuan province. This region of Tibet is very different to how most of us imagine the territory to be. Instead of a barren frozen plateau, it is made up of precipitous six and seven-thousand-metre-high peaks kept apart from one and other by deep valleys filled with dense forest. I had travelled to a remote valley, where a few small farming villages and an enormous Buddhist monastery complex were surrounded by wild forests.
Arriving at a small Buddhist chapel one morning, I was surprised to see three dead, stuffed yaks suspended mournfully from the chapel ceiling. Next to them, though, was something else. Something very familiar, but at the same time a little different. An elderly red robed monk was sat in the shadows nearby and, pointing at the creature, I asked him what it was.
“It’s like a bear but isn’t a bear. It’s much more dangerous and much rarer.” He said the the local name for the creature and my guide exhaled deeply, stood up and, walking over to the stuffed creature to get a better look, said: “The word the monk used means yeti”.
But the monk was wrong. This was no yeti. This was a bear, but a bear so rare that it has become almost as mythical as the yeti itself — the fabled Tibetan blue bear. Until recently, this sub-species of the brown bear was considered, at best, critically endangered and, at worst, extinct in the wild. Even today, we know precious little of its life and movements. We don’t even know how many there are.
But what we do know is the blue bear, with its apparent ability to hide in plain sight, fondness for remote mountain regions and — like most bears — ability to walk on its back legs, is quite possibly the living, breathing source of the yeti legend.