The Great Himalaya Trail – in the dusty shade of the yak caravan

I tighten my cap, swing on the hood of my insulation jacket and zip it at the fullest. The wind is howling straight into my face and I feel some ice christals forming on my ugly, wide beard. To my left, the Lhashamma peak (6412m) is being swallowed by the clouds. The first such weather for weeks. It has been crisp for ages now.

Ascending towards Kagmara La, Dolpo District, Nepal, Himalaya

Ascending towards Kagmara La, Dolpo District, Nepal, Himalaya

I feel like running the marathon, exhausted but still 5km until the finish. Every step up it takes, my lungs cry for oxygen and my muscles cry for help. 200m ascend until the 5100m Kagmara La pass is reached. I’m allready higher then any possible summit in the Alps, but the ridges and gloaming peaks around me just laugh with that thought.

Near the Kagmara La, Dolpo, Shey Phoksundo NP, Nepal

Near the Kagmara La, Dolpo, Shey Phoksundo NP, Nepal

I still cannot distinguish the prayer flags at the pass for which I long so much. A golden eagle swoops without any effort in a thermal. My thoughts swing away back to Simikot, which we left in the hot, baking sun 2 weeks ago, with a compass heading south-east.

A farmer with his cattle herd on the small trails along the Humla Karnali river, Humla, Nepal

A farmer with his cattle herd on the small trails along the Humla Karnali river, Humla, Nepal

We were about to follow the turquoise Humla Karnali-river into the Mugu-district. At lower elevations (we descend into the Middle Hills at around 1500m-2000m), the ever rising and plunging down along the river was easier to digest.

Through the Humla Karnili gorge towards Mugu-district

Through the Humla Karnili gorge towards Mugu-district

Dense, mixed, conifer, birch, oak, walnut and rhododendron forrest are opened up only for some of the most primitive villages we have ever been through. Huge cannabis plants border the wheat fields and spread with a small breeze its deep, sweat smell over the trail.

Dal bhat with fresly dried goat meat, Surkeghat, Humla, Nepal

Dal bhat with fresly dried goat meat, Surkeghat, Humla, Nepal

Time has come to a halt here centuries ago. Children don’t beg for balloons, pens nor chocolates in the villages of Dharma and Rimi. Englishis is an unknown language. It’s half-way october and the fields shine like gold. Harvest is closing-in soon now. This time of the year people can feed themselves (and us). We do not want to imagine how life must be here after winter when all food is gone. Life is harsh here in Mugu. Tourism is below infancy. The Great Himalaya Trail will hopefully boast the region in some way in the coming years.

Children run along, when we walk through Rimi-village in Mugu. They keep chanting namaste untill we dissapear in the forrest far away from the village.

Children run along, when we walk through Rimi-village in Mugu. They keep chanting namaste untill we dissapear in the forrest far away from the village.

The scenery changes with every curve of the river altough in this part of Nepal you will not find the extreme, high 8000m fluted peaks for which the Himalaya is known. Walking here is a flash back in time, where modern world has not touched down yet. People are poor and underdevelopped, but that ever welcoming smile burries ever such taught.

The Mugu Karnali River joins the Humla Karnali further south, dropping out of the HImalaya into the Ganges Plains in India.

The Mugu Karnali River joins the Humla Karnali further south, dropping out of the HImalaya into the Ganges Plains in India.

We cross the suspension bridge over the Mugu Karnali river and step into a dinstinct world. Gamghadi is a radical change. Everybody is preparing for the Dasain-festival. Painting is going on. And a gravel road construction is on the way from Jumla, 3 days walking away. It’s an up and down of mule caravans on the steep forrested trails, transporting out the famous red rice, cultivated in Mugu, and bringing in consumer goods, transported into the region via the only road, which ends in Jumla.

Jumla-streets are filled with goat and sheep blood, as villages people sacrifice for the Dasain-festival, the main celebration of the Hindu year.

Jumla-streets are filled with goat and sheep blood, as villages people sacrifice for the Dasain-festival, the main celebration of the Hindu year.

In Jumla we hire 2 new porters before setting of for Nepal’s least inhabited district: the mystical Dolpo. Fortress-like settlements are very scattered, so we need to carry more food and kerosene. Dolpo, like the Limi-valley, is tied culturally to Tibet. Budhism is the way to go. Manis, stupas, gompas and prayer-flag ornated monasteries. Dust-throwing yak caravans are just mere dots in the arid red-rolling mountain desert, set against ever blue skies and radiating sun.

Thick forrested ridges before climbing onto the Dolpo desert

Thick forrested ridges before climbing onto the Dolpo desert

Huge stands of cannabis plants at the entrance of Chaurikot, Dolpo district, Nepal

Huge stands of cannabis plants at the entrance of Chaurikot, Dolpo district, Nepal

Exhausted I reach the 5100m Kagmara La and I fail miserably in limbo dancing the prayer flags (not recommended in thin air). Another steep walled valley splunges down in front of me. This is the Shey Phoksundo National Park, encompassing the major part of the Dolpo district.

Kaghmara Pedi bivaouc, 3900m, Shey Phoksundo NP, Dolpo, Nepal

Kaghmara Pedi bivaouc, 3900m, Shey Phoksundo NP, Dolpo, Nepal

Herds of blue sheep jump the ledges of an impossible steep, granite wall above our bivaouc spot. They are the main food source for the magical, mystical, elusive snow leopard. Under a full moon we fall asleep under the tarp (yes it works in the Himalaya above 4000m!), while the howl of a wolve reminds us of our remote, wild whereabouts.

A wild dog followed us closely for 3 days over the 5100m Kagmara La pass. In the first village we cross, he lost interest in us.

A wild dog followed us closely for 3 days over the 5100m Kagmara La pass. In the first village we cross, he lost interest in us.

We reach the deep, blue Phoksundo Lake at medieval Ringmo village and visit the ancient Bon gompa at its shores.

Bon Gompa at the shores of Phoskundo Lake

Bon Gompa at the shores of Phoskundo Lake

As we still have not enough for this stretch of the Great Himalaya Trail, we cross the 5100m Baga La pass and 5300m Nama La pass in a tyring and cold 48-hour stretch. The scenerey get more arid with every step we take now. As for high altitude desert, they surely have thrown with superlatives here. It is hard to soak on in all the views here. My brain is too small for this huge landscape.

Leaving Ringmo village, with an impressive stupa garding its entrance

Leaving Ringmo village, with an impressive stupa garding its entrance

The fluted Kanjiroba Himal to the northwest hides the world’s remotest valleys for which we should return one day when its acces permit hopefully may be less steep. At the southern horizon 8000-peak Dhaulagiri blocks the monsoon rains and to the north the vast Tibetan plateau still awaits its freedom.

Yak caravan storming its way down from Baga La, 5100m, Phoksundo NP, Dolpo, Nepal

Yak caravan storming its way down from Baga La, 5100m, Phoksundo NP, Dolpo, Nepal

Collecting specimen of Thamnolia vermicularis Lichen for the Adventure & Science project

Collecting specimen of Thamnolia vermicularis Lichen for the Adventure & Science project

We plunge into the Tharap valley, which must be the perfect resume of what forbidden Tibet must be all about. A steep, wild gorge brings us back to thicker air and greener valleys where a flight from a frightning airstrip in Juphal brings us back to the lowlands and into the splurges and hot shower of Kathmandu.

A dusty yak route into remote Tibetan Dolpo

A dusty yak route into remote Tibetan Dolpo

The Dhaulagiri-chain blocks the monsoon rains from the south

The Dhaulagiri-chain blocks the monsoon rains from the south

The impressive Ribo Bumpa Gompa, high above the Tharap Valley, Dolpo

The impressive Ribo Bumpa Gompa, high above the Tharap Valley, Dolpo

We are gearing up for a 5-week Rolwaling-Khumbu Alpine traverse for which we will need to cross glaciated 5750m Tesi Lapcha, 5780m Amphu Lapcha and 5415m Mera La passes. On the way we do an attempt on 6476m Mera Peak.

See you back here around X-Mass.

Namaste
Steve and Katrijn

Thin air dreamers...

Thin air dreamers…

Please have a look in our online photo album from our first 6 weeks in West-Nepal.

You can still follow us real time up here.

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The Great Himalaya Trail – a pilgrimage of the soul

Buckle up, earplugs in. A deafening roar. A breath away we hoover in a small twin otter above the fog between steep forested mountains. The rising sun blinds our eyes through the small cockpit windows. 2 pilots. 5 passengers of which 2 dreamers for mystical high valleys and roaring peaks.

Main Bazar of Simikot, capital village of Humla District

Main Bazar of Simikot, capital village of Humla District

A 50 minute, impressive flight would bring us from the hot and soaking lowlands into the heart of remote, western Nepal. Right into the heart of the world’s highest mountain chain. The Himalayas. Before we realize, we see an airstrip appear through the cockpit’s window. Touch-down Simikot. At almost 3000m asml, the capital village of Nepal’ highest, northernmost and most remote district Humla.

Smokin' fresh tobacco from the fields

Smokin’ fresh tobacco from the fields

The sprawling village has no road access. It takes 14 days walking to the closest road head. This closed-off corner of the world, deep in the Himalayan mountains is carpeted with centuries-old migration paths in and out Tibet, just a stone throw away.

Pen. Chocolate. Mister. Mister...

Pen. Chocolate. Mister. Mister…

We have the intention to backpack in 3 months a considerable distance of the Great Himalaya Trail, which is in contrast to famous long distance trails in Europe or the States, more a suggestion for a traverse along the world’s highest mountain chain, extending through Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan. The “trail” is an unmarked nor signposted route of which you pick and mix your way out of the web of paths through and over the roof of the world.

Colourfull women in Daurapiri, Humla Karnali

Colourfull women in Daurapiri, Humla Karnali

The philosophy behind the trail is to attract trekkers to more remote parts of the Himalaya, where tea house trekking is till a far away known. Its goal is to attract visitors to under-developed and impoverished areas where only few alternative development opportunities exist.

Visiting the doctor in the Health Office from Nepal Trust in Palbang

Visiting the doctor in the Health Office from Nepal Trust in Palbang

We have chosen to explore the more forgotten and hidden valleys, passes and peaks, with the intention to support the local people as much as possible. We did not bring a an expedition crew of porters, carrying kitchen tents and food from far away to cook on campsites in between the villages.

Yak caravan. Humla Karnali.

Yak caravan. Humla Karnali.

In stead we come lightweight, in-Himalayan style, carrying our own gear. Ram, our guide, leads us through the web of ancient old, bad mapped caravan routes and to handle language barriers with all the different ethnic groups of which cultural differences vary from one valley into another.

Climbing up to the Limi Valley with the Hilsa border post down-valley

Climbing up to the Limi Valley with the Hilsa border post down-valley

In the spirit of the the Great Himalaya Trail, we will stay as much as possible with the people, share their table and sleep in their room or on their roof. In the far western part there is nothing yet resembling a tea house or anything worth naming a tourist facility.

Trails carved up impossible steep valley walls, Limi Valley

Trails carved up impossible steep valley walls, Limi Valley

More then once we are invited to stay with families who never had a stranger over the floor. Sometimes distance between the villages would be more then a day walk away so we hire a local porter for carrying some camping food into thin air and wind swept passes.

Charten, high above the Limi Valley

Charten, high above the Limi Valley

We follow yak and mule caravans towards the Tibetan border through the fertile Humla Karnali valley, along medieval stone-build villages. The sound of the wind is broken by women chanting ancient Tibetan songs while harvesting the barley fields. We’d greet “Namaste” to young men wearing the “HortN” Face (no kidding!) jackets and send off “pen” and “chocolate” begging children to school.

Yak butter thea? Noboddy?

Yak butter thea? Noboddy?

The sun burns our pale skin while air is getting thinner. In Hilsa, at the border with Tibet, Nepali’s most northwestern border point with Tibet and Nepali’s Great Himalayan Trail western entry point, we swing up even more north into the Limi Valley, only open to foreigners since 2002. A steep trail is cut high up into an impossible looking valley wall, high above the roaring Karnali river.

Rooftop terrace. Til village. Limi Valley.

Rooftop terrace. Til village. Limi Valley.

These steep mountains didn’t stop human looking for living grounds but surely it kept industrial revolution get through. People live on the rythm of day and night, living to live and survive on their own. Development stopped here a couple of centuries ago. Til, Halji and Jang represent villages out of medieval times.

Women of Til village, awaiting the school sponsor

Women of Til village, awaiting the school sponsor

Kids would flock around us and touching us endlessly as we were new toys when we enter the villages. In Til and Halji we sleep in the house of the Lama and visit their 5 centuries old, impressive monasteries.

Til village. Shangri-La?

Til village. Shangri-La?

We encourage the work of some NGO’s, building primary schools, health offices and micro-hydro and solar power into these villages. But in our short time here we discover pathetic flaws into some of their work. Building a health post stocked with pills and to post the place with a flew-in doctor a couple of weeks a year will make things better right?

Children of Halji. Limi Valley.

Children of Halji. Limi Valley.

Close to the health post of Hilja, down by the Karnali river, we discover remnants of half-burnt stacks of out-of-date pills in easy reach of children’s hands. A sign at the health office promises to bring basic health education here but in the village the families don’t have even the slightest clue about basic sanitation. Toilet? Euhm. Out of the village, down by the river. We’re 10 years behind the inauguration of the health office…

Impressive 500-year old Gompa. Halji village. Limi valley.

Impressive 500-year old Gompa. Halji village. Limi valley.

Building a primary school with foreign money. Check. An educated teacher. Check. School furniture. books and utensils. Not so always check. The “sponsor” is doing his yearly tour along the villages. A nice good-looking American, handing out useful and not so useful gifts. Continuing to the next village. Nice? Euhm. But why not checking if the kids really have learn something?

Waving goodbye. Children of the head lama of Halji village. Limi Valley.

Waving goodbye. Children of the head lama of Halji village. Limi Valley.

Solar panels and micro-hydro power. A couple of years later. Half of it in decay. Continuation? And that while famous NGO-representatives sipping expensive bears and chicken wings far away in their nicely built office in Simikot.

Prayer Rolls at the entrance of Yang village monastery. Limi valley.

Prayer Rolls at the entrance of Yang village monastery. Limi valley.

Incredible Milky Way. Bivaouc at the foot of Nyula La pass (5000m).

Incredible Milky Way. Bivaouc at the foot of Nyula La pass (5000m).

River crossings. Still awesome. Especially at 4500m asml.

River crossings. Still awesome. Especially at 4500m asml.

Rural Nepal, ranked in the top 10 of poorest parts in the world needs true and continues development. It needs honest NGO’s with an honest, lasting plan. And a stable, corruption-free government. There has been done great work here, but still…
It all starts with educating the people, young and old.

Climbing up to Nyula La (5000m). Tibetean plateau in the background.

Climbing up to Nyula La (5000m). Tibetean plateau in the background.

Coming down from Nyula La (5000m). Unscaled, unnamed virgin 6000m peaks in the background.

Coming down from Nyula La (5000m). Unscaled, unnamed virgin 6000m peaks in the background.

Heading down back to Humla Karnali Valley.

Heading down back to Humla Karnali Valley.

We’re only 14 days off in the Nepali Himalaya. It already carved a deep impression. It’ a pilgrimage through the highest mountains and deepest valleys of the soul.

We’re heading east now. Into Mugu and Jumla and through Dolpo.

Namaste.

Steve and Katrijn.
Dreamers on the go.

Dreamers on thin air. Humla Karnali. Nepal.

Dreamers on thin air. Humla Karnali. Nepal.

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