Humla, located at the edge of west Nepal, is the land of my ancestors. A true-blue Humli, I had been meaning to visit my native land for the past few years. It was easier said than done, as my busy schedule made me put my travel plans on the back burner. When the government announced a nationwide lockdown in March 2020 – to combat the spread of coronavirus, I took it as the perfect opportunity to travel. So a few days before the lockdown was imposed, I dusted my hiking boots, packed my bags, and set off towards Humla, my ancestral village. As my plane flew past the hills and mountains, a sense of peace descended upon me. It felt great to leave the chaos of Kathmandu behind.
Born in Simikot, the district headquarters of Humla District, I had left my home at the early age of five and never returned. After 27 years as I made my way home, my heart thumped with excitement. I couldn’t wait to explore Humla. Yes, I had plans to discover the hills and valleys that lay beyond my ancestral home.
One of the least explored trekking destinations in Nepal, Humla is a paradise for those seeking an authentic cultural and wilderness trekking experience. The lower and the middle portion of the region is home to the Khas ethnic communities (Chettri, Bahun, Thakuri, Damai, and Kami), while the upper section is populated by Buddhist communities that migrated from Tibet ages ago.
Humla is covered by vast acres of virgin forests and pristine Himalayan rivers. Endangered animals like the snow leopard, Himalayan tahr, blue sheep, etc., roam freely in the wild.
Remote and difficult to access, most villages in Humla remain untouched by modernity. People still follow the age-old traditions and customs. Though the government and non-profit organizations are trying to improve the lot of the locals by building roads, health centres, and schools, progress and development are moving at a snail’s pace.
Humlis believe that the five elements (water, earth, fire, wind, and space) influence their day-to-day existence. Shamanism, an ancient method of healing, is widely practiced. People accept that shamanism is important as it restores the balance between nature and humans. The shamans (dhamis and jhankris) in Humla are revered and treated with respect.
Saunpauni, a four-day-long festival celebrated by the Chettris in August, is a festival of the shamans. During this festival, all the important shamans from the different villages congregate at the main temple (Madhu) and connect the people to their patron deities through various rituals. It is indeed a phenomenal sight to see them swaying and convulsing wildly to the tunes of the panche baja (a set of five traditional musical instruments) as the spirits of the deities take over their body.
I had the opportunity to witness a shamanic ritual a couple of days after my arrival. One of our jhumas (a cross between a yak and a cow) was lost while grazing in the forest and my mother was anxious to find out its whereabouts. So I accompanied her to the temple (Madhu) of our clan to consult the shaman. She had brought along with her oil, rice, lentils, and money to offer to the shaman. As my mother made the offering to the shaman he began to convulse wildly. Throwing a handful of rice at my mother, the shaman began to speak in a strange language. My mother bowed down and paid her respects. Later as we made our way home, I asked her what the shaman had said. According to her the shaman had declared that our jhuma was still alive and grazing in Nhin valley, about 4-5 hours walk from our village. I never got the chance to discover the veracity of his prediction as I left for my trekking adventure after I reached home.
A cousin, who was employed with a local internet provider, had to visit Limi Valley for routine maintenance work and invited me to join him. I jumped at the opportunity and within no time, got ready. My mother packed Dhesu (a traditional Humli bread made of buckwheat with sugar) along with some radish and chili pickle to have it on our way. After bidding her goodbye we commenced our trek.
Limi Valley was a no-entry zone for outsiders till 2002. It was only after 2002 that trekkers were allowed to explore the valley. Picturesque, remote, and stunningly beautiful, Limi Valley is rightly called the ‘Jewel of northern Humla’. Dotted with Buddhist gompas, snow-covered mountains and green pastures, this pristine valley is home to nomadic herders who follow Tibetan culture and traditions.
Leaving Simikot we followed the rough jeep track piercing through the ancient salt trading and pilgrimage route. After crossing the Lagna Pass (3000m), we arrived at Hekpa Khola. A suspension bridge took us across the river. We continued walking past barley fields till we reached a narrow gorge. We had to cross the Buddhist village of Kermi and a dense pine forest before finally arriving at Namkha, our first stop on our journey. We stayed at a hotel where we were the only guests. The owner welcomed us with traditional Tibetan tea prepared with yak butter and salt. It felt great to finally drink something warm after trekking for 10 hours.
We woke up to the chirping of birds and the incredible sight of the mountains glowing in the morning light. Before we resumed our trek, we visited the Namkha Khyung Dzong Monastery, the biggest monastery in the region. Though we were not allowed to enter because of the pandemic, we explored the ancient monastery from the outside and prayed to the gods for protection.
After a brisk walk of about 20 minutes, past rocky terrain and pine trees, we reached the village of Yangar. We continued trudging along the well-worn track. A sheep caravan transporting salt overtook us. The sheepherder was riding a horse and a frisky Himalayan dog with a robust bark was herding the sheep. At places where there were internet exchange points, we stopped and my cousin got busy fixing the wires.
Later on, we boarded a jeep arranged by Namkla VDC and headed to Tumkot village for lunch. We drove past the Karnali River and pastures with wild horses and pony grazing. The jeep dropped us at the base of Tumkot village. The claim to fame of this sleepy and quaint village is its ancient gompa which is the only Buddhist Sakya monastery in Humla. After walking uphill, we soon left behind Pani Palwang and Thado Dunga, before finally arriving at Yari, our stop for the night. We stayed overnight at a local teahouse.
The following day we explored Yari Village, before climbing up to the Nara La pass (4,330 m). The trails became secluded and barren as we journeyed further. The wi-fi station that needed some maintenance work was located 100m higher than Nara La Pass. It took nearly three hours for my cousin to fix the glitch. Later we had our breakfast sitting atop the pass. It was by far the most scenic setting for a breakfast that I have ever had in my entire life. We could see the snow capped mountains on the horizon and far away in the distance was Tibet.
Making our way past colourful prayer flags and mani stones we trekked down the pass to Hilsa. We stopped at the home of a jeep driver who offered to host us for the night. After discovering that most of the guesthouses were not taking in guests, we were grateful for his hospitality. The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn to resume our journey. Our destination was Halji, an ancient heritage village in Limi Valley.
A local lady joined us on our trek. It was an arduous walk filled with amazing views of frozen mountains. We were lucky enough to witness herds of Himalayan Blue Sheep grazing on the slopes. At Manipeme (3930m) we stopped for refreshment. Unfortunately, there were no hotels or shops in sight. Tough luck! We were famished and had with us just a few packets of instant noodles. The lady walking with us was carrying cooking utensils and she soon built a fire, filled her kettle with water, and set it to boil. She offered us tea while we offered her our packets of instant noodles. She prepared these on her small soot-covered kettle and we ended up having a hearty meal of instant noodles.
We crossed the Lagna Pass (4,300 m) from where we enjoyed mesmerizing views of the lush Limi Valley and the clear Tagtsi Khola (river). Before arriving at Til Village we explored the Cha-Sa Nam-Ka Dzong, a cave that was used as a caravan campsite. Inside were mani stones carved with the mantra ‘om mani padme hum’. Surrounded by barley fields, Til is the smallest of the three villages of Limi Valley – Til, Halji, and Jang. Home to the 300-year-old monastery of Kunzum Do-Nag monastery, we explored Til before continuing on our way.
Following the Tagtsi River, we entered a narrow valley. After crossing a wooden bridge we took the trail to Halji Village and in about an hour we reached our destination. We had been walking for 11 hours and my feet were about to give in. It was a relief to finally stumble upon the gateway to Halji village. The village headman accompanied by other villagers were waiting for us and greeted us with khadas (silk scarves) and local wine. The company that my cousin was working for had specially sent him on this trek to fix the internet tower of Halji Village.
After a couple of glasses of local wine (chyang) and Tibetan bread, we were escorted to the site of the tower which stood right above the only school in the village. As my cousin got busy fixing the tower, I asked a friendly school teacher to guide me around the village. We stayed the night at the home of an old woman. There are no teahouses in the village. Local families take turns to provide accommodation and food to travelers for a nominal fee.
The next day we accompanied a team from the Forest Department on a hike to Lapcha Syar or Limi Lapcha (4,900 m). From the vantage point, we could see panoramic views of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. It was mesmerizing. By the time we got back to Halji Village, it was already dark. So we decided to spend another night in the village.
The following morning someone informed us that a truck was heading to Simikot to bring back supplies to the village. The headman summoned us and told us that we could ride on the truck instead of making the arduous journey back on foot. We thanked him and the other villages profusely for their hospitality and headed out on the dusty road. The return journey was equally scenic.
We crossed the ancient village of Jang, the hot spring at Chagzur, the stunning Zambuk Lake (4,400m), and the settlements of yak herders. At Sheliman Lake (2,570 m) we stopped for lunch. We feasted on local apples, biscuits, and raw chhurpi (yak cheese). It was heavenly.
Following the serpentine highway, we drove past the lush meadows of Tshongsa and rhododendron forests. After an hour’s drive from our lunch stop, we reached the Sali River. The tipper dropped us at Hekpa Khola where our jeep was waiting for us. We boarded our vehicle drove towards home. The same night we reached Simikot. Dusty, tired, smelly, and sunburnt my mother was glad that I returned home safely.
It was an amazing journey and I would do it again if given the opportunity. Though not an easy trek, I would recommend this adventure to anyone seeking an authentic wilderness and rural Nepal experience.
Article by Bhupendra Raut