Upper Humla Valley

Western Nepal, Nepal

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Upper Humla Valley Trek, Nepal

The Humla river rises high on the Tibetan plateau, disappearing into an impenetrable gorge through the peaks between Tibet and Nepal, then winds, seemingly forever, down through the impacted Himalayas of western Nepal, becoming the great Karnali of the Indian plains.

The valley has for centuries been a route for trade and for pilgrims on their way to the fabled Mount Kailash in western Tibet, the axis of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu cosmos.  Few pilgrims come this way now, but trade is thriving. While salt mined in Tibet used to be hauled down to India, it is now Chinese salt, rice and sugar that are hauled across the mountains on pack animals; the roadhead in Tibet is closer to the high hills than any road from the Nepali heartland.

The walk starts at Simikot, a tiny landing strip half way up a mountain at 3,170m. It is many days from the nearest road, so you fly in, weather permitting: we were held up for a day at the hot, dusty nothing-town of Nepalgunj before we could land.  The flight is gorgeous: low, forested ridges rising to grassy mountains and finally bare crags.  To the north, the snowy rampart of the high Himalayas gleams in the morning sun.  The landing involves a last-minute twist and wing-scrape on a hillside that makes the old Kai Tak airport at Hong Kong seem boring.  Our pretty stewardess hands us cotton wool to protect our ears from the engine noise.

We plod up to a caravanserai, an L-shaped compound of little rooms, each sprouting a burgeoning family. Heaps of baggage are scattered on the grass in the middle. Here we meet Dendi, our Sherpa guide. He exudes competence - he is tackling Everest next year – and has deeply ingrained smile (or is it glare) lines. We are immediately very comfortable with him.

After a repacking delay, we are off through the streets of the market town, which are heaving with pack animals and their drivers, past walls on its edge draped with bright washing, then into the fields above. It is the tail end of the monsoon, and everything is bursting with life.  The mountains are green, the crops are yellowing, flowers are twining out of every crevice.  I am infused with passionate happiness at the sweet, fresh, thin air – if somewhat breathless.  This place is so remote that there is no reference to it in our Nepal guidebook.  It is expensive to get permits to walk here, and there are few other trekkers.  After lunchtime on the second day, we do not see another westerner.

At the top of the ridge, we look back on the terraced bowl which nourishes the town, the quiet mountains all around.  We then plod nearly 1,000 metres (3,000ft) down to our campsite on a perfect little grassy platform beside a thundering river. We gratefully accept tea and biscuits and survey the hamlet, with its terraces clinging to the steep hillside. It is getting dark, so we hurriedly wash, change and have a happy, Laphroaig-fuelled supper.  Not much sleep this night: the first under canvas is often thus.

We are officially up at 6 a.m. the next day, although the horsemen were calling to each other long before, as they rounded up the ponies scattered high up the far hillside.

A porridge and omelette breakfast sets us up for a long day, and we stride out at 7.30 a.m.  We are soon back into the main valley, entering a gorge, which narrows and deepens as we climb.  Across the river, waterfalls tumble, down great cliffs amid virgin pine forests, into the river as it roars, in full spate, through the narrow inner canyon.   On our side, millet fields change places with scrubby bush. Peaceful hamlets drowse in the gentle warmth of the morning sun. Far above, the peaks soar into the empty sky. In the vivid green of the monsoon, it is extravagantly beautiful. We meet our first train of motley pack mules.

We pass below a high waterfall, then clamber up steps hewn into a cliff that rises sheer above the river, pressing ourselves into the rock as a long baggage train plods down the trail. Being on the outside can be fatal.

A cluster of blue butterflies mobs an unappetising-looking bush outside a village nestling in the roots of huge walnut trees. Then it is lunch, basking on the earth roof of a hut by the trail.

In the afternoon we climb high up above the river, traversing a steep, grassy hillside dotted with the charred stumps of felled trees. We reach a notch in the ridge, walking under a wooden arch marking the boundary of the area controlled by Nepal’s Maoist insurgents. A long clamber down into a deep, forested valley takes us to a campsite in a sparkling meadow in the valley bottom, which is clearly heavily used by the passing caravans.

Up at 6 a.m again on day 3, although this time full of excitement for the day after 5 ½  hours’ good sleep.  We are already efficient with our packing, enjoying a leisurely breakfast of porridge, boiled eggs and honey pancakes as the sun plays on the grand cliff-face across the valley.

We are off at 8, steeply down to the stream we heard last night, across a fine new suspension bridge with superb views back up the valley to distant Dolomite-jagged peaks.

We labour up round a shoulder, back above the main river, and the fireworks begin.  To the left, the torrent has carved a tremendous gorge between two vast, sheer rocks: across and to our right, a series of towers soar, cathedral-like, to distant spires.  Two hundred feet below us, the Humla boils past.  We walk through cool pine woods at the base of more cliffs, amid flowering bushes and vivid mountain flowers; yellow orchids are apparently growing straight out of the mossy tops of boulders.

We wind along an embanked section of trail, sheer above the river and under cliffs so close that the path has been cut into them.  We flatten ourselves against the rock as a mixed train of ponies and dzo (yak-cow) amble past.

Around another corner, a gorgeous view suddenly appears: to the right of the milky glacier-fed river lies a meadow of emerald velvet, some 200m across and stretching away for a kilometre or so.  At its entrance is our first mani wall, a long, waist-high rectangle of stones carved with inscriptions in the flowing Tibetan script. The borders of the Buddhist world: I feel I am coming home.

At the top of the next ridge we hit a goat-train traffic jam. Two caravans of goats with pairs of packs strapped across their backs have met at a narrow gap and are very slowly scrambling past each other.

Shortly after, we are winding above lovingly tilled little fields where a side-stream bursts out of the mountains.  Prayer flags and chortens herald a small monastery above us.

Two men, one above and one below a platform, steadily saw a vast, sweet-smelling log. The path becomes a gurgling streambed and we pass a hosepipe gushing pure water on top of a huge boulder to which drying clothes are plastered.

A wooden arch at the village entrance, and a new school sitting smugly up the hill, are eloquent evidence of the Maoists’ domination of the area.

The view back down the river is breathtaking: as it winds away, bright milky blue, between the fields; spurs of rock and pine trees close in toward the gorge from which we have emerged.

Over the next ridge is a larger village, with new, solidly constructed houses indicating some source of prosperity. Ladders gouged out of half pine trunks and blocks of deep shadow create a cubist composition. 

Beyond the village, a torrent spills down the hillside.  On its far bank, our cooking team are carving up a sheep they must have bought back in the village.  Limbs, a curly-horned head and nameless slabs are draped on a thorn-bush like a Goya civil war nightmare.

We break for lunch under a thorn tree shortly after, followed by a brief, satisfying sleep in its light shade. Our support team departs as we wake up. We are now familiar with them. Two horseman with the four ponies, a tall, moustached cook with his two assistants. One of these is a pretty, cheerful woman who has the men in stitches. We never see her draw breath: she is even machine gun quipping as she plods, heavy basket on her back, up slopes that have us panting.

We enter another prodigious gorge, the river turning through 90 degrees under sheer 300m (1,000ft) walls on the far side.  Our path drops to the riverside in order to find a way through.

Around the corner, the earth changes: from hard, bare rock, it is suddenly deep, loose, sandy soil: is this where the tectonic plates meet, and are we now gazing on the bed of the ancient sea of Tethys, which was forced up by Indian’s impact with Asia to form the Tibetan plateau?

A fraying suspension bridge dangles above the swirling river. A small convoy of mountain cattle staggers drunkenly across.

Our first really tiring climb gets us to a village, through which we plod along a stone-lined, shady track. After another hour, we are down across an incoming valley and round a promontory to our campsite, a little terrace by a farmstead. The river is luminous below its close-cropped little meadows.  It is getting dark, we have been walking for 8 ½  hours, our joints ache  and we swig our waiting tea gratefully.

A brief wash in a stream below the house, its waters probably best concealed by the dusk.  We finish our Laphroaig – a tot each – and guzzle a delicious supper of “pizza”. An exhausted bed.

The fourth morning starts in a miasma after a night of back pain.  Another delicious breakfast – thick rice congee and raisins, omelette, pancakes and honey – restores some humour. The Humla disappears into a sheer, impassable gap in the far hillside. We follow the lesser river, which has carved the valley we are in, plod painfully up the hillside for 20 minutes, then snake steadily along the contours.  A half-hour slog up a steep scree slope proves tough at our new altitude.

We are now high above the river. It is getting drier, and we can see bare hills ahead: Tibet approaches. The hillsides across the river are forested, but our northern side is thorny scrub and coarse grass; the rain shadow is that specific here.

We join the wretched remains of a road, which for 15 years the Government has been cutting from the Chinese border.  It has ground to a halt at this end, and consists of unconnected sections, some already collapsing.

We sit under what looks like an olive tree by a stream. A woman and her children appear within minutes to try to sell us Chinese Pepsi and beer.

Around another corner past some very dubious looking huts, we stop for lunch on a patch of cropped grass beside a gurgling streamlet.  Cooking is in busy process –  six people hard at work on a meal for which, at this altitude, we have shrinking appetites. An exceptionally pretty young woman comes to inspect us, her beady-eyed baby swaddled onto her back: another future Mrs. Heyworth?

The afternoon takes us high above the valley, climbing steadily across a long moorland hillside, well above the treeline, with grand views up the valley to the south toward the sharp, snowy peaks that mark the border with Tibet.

We are tiring as the altitude increases, but nothing can dampen the exaltation as the view unfolds to our left: as we pass a hillock topped by a dusty little monastery, we find a flat alluvial terrace in the valley bottom, bisected by an inner ravine. A hamlet perches at its edge, surrounded by its fertile little fields. Behind this comfortable little tableau towers a fantastically eroded hillside, topped with the jagged ridges and scree slopes of the high mountains.
A long trudge along broken stretches of the planned road high up on the hillside, then dropping to a stream and rejoining the ancient track, get us to our campsite on a series of little terraces at around 3,800m. Trains of yak and mules plod patiently past us in the dusk as we sip cups of reviving tea. I have an abiding memory of Reggie in the nearby stream, down to his boxer shorts, while one of our team stands nearby, gazing in frank amazement at this very pale giant tipping cups of water inside his pants.
We are up at 5 a.m. on our fifth and last day, eating a final porridge-omelette-pancake breakfast, as dawn breaks over the mountains far away at the end of the valley.

We start the tough haul up the grassy, treeless valley at 7 a.m.. At our new altitude, this is an uncomfortable grind, but we get into a slow, determined rhythm and make the high pass at 4,580m (15,000ft) at 8.45 a.m. and sit, panting, on the inevitable cairn under prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

After a final gaze back to the jagged Himalayas, we cross to the Tibetan side of the great range.  Far away, a sharp, snowy ridge soars above the reddy-ochre plain.  In the middle distance, a village nestles amid desultory greenery by the great river, which roars far below us, between dry broken mountains into its deepening gorge through the high Himalayan ridge.  This river must be older than the mountains, and have cut through them quicker than they were being pushed up by the impact of India into Asia.

A long trudge down the projected road, here showing signs of continuing work, around a spectacular bowl of cracked brown precipices, brings us to a suspension bridge over the river at a desultory group of huts known as Hilsa.
Here we finally meet our Maoist separatists. A youth in dark glasses, a parka coat, and startlingly new trainers, with an ipod never leaving his fist and ears, is here to take our “donation”. You can see where the Maoists’ extortions are going.  He manages to combine the sinister and the pathetic. 
We eat a light lunch and tip our wonderful team while we wait for our baggage train to arrive; two ponies strayed overnight, so they set off a long time after us.
The rattle of a helicopter announces the removal of the body of an Indian who died of altitude sickness yesterday.  His white-wrapped body is portered over the bridge, slung, head lolling, between two bamboo poles; his widow is supported on each arm by the roughest of Tibetan banditti, followed by his daughter and a long haired Tibetan guide talking into a mobile phone.  A reckless Kathmandu company apparently sends expeditions to Mount Kailash by helicopter across the Himalayas – spectacular and quick, but with devastating consequences.

Our walk is at an end.  Our baggage has arrived, and we sway out across the suspension bridge into Tibet.

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