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October 26th 2014
Published: October 26th 2014
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It is often difficult to summarize a trip of a few weeks in just a few paragraphs. This trip, because of the diversity of landscape and experiences is no exception.

The idea started almost 10 years ago, my friend Angela and I had wanted to travel to Tibet to do the kora around Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain for Buddhists, Hindus and Bon. Her partner Mark and his Norwegian friend Kim had also wanted to go there, so about 2 years ago, it was decided that we would go, no matter what, in the fall of 2014. We were to go on foot, using the old caravan trail, exploring the Humla region at the same time, and returning by the Limi Valley, where we could maybe see a snow leopard...

Only thing is, we couldn't predict that the Chinese government would not issue permits this year. But once we found that out, we decided to go to Humla anyway, and just skip the Kailash portion. So we all met in Kathmandu, spent a few days there to get organized and visit some of my Nepalese friends, and a few days later, we flew to Nepalganj and then to Simikot, from where we started the trek.

We had a local team with us, Jigme as cultural guide, Krishna as lead guide and manager of the local team, 2 horsemen, one cook, 4 assistant cooks, and 6 mules and horses. We sometimes had an extra assistant guide with us too. We went with a company called Tailored Treks, which is one of the rare companies who traveled the entire Great Himalaya Trail (a project that I have in mind) at least twice, and who did a wonderful job: if you need a trekking agency, I highly recommend those guys.

The first few days, we trekked around Simikot and surrounding valleys. This was a true cultural experience, and because our local team was from that region, we were treated like celebrities, welcomed to many houses, participated in ceremonies and festivals, and often had a welcoming committee when we entered a village: people giving us kata (silk scarf to wish us well and/or welcome us), apples, cheese, milk, tibetan tea, chang (local alcohol- only for the brave stomachs) and something that really surprised us and that we were not too crazy about: yak butter that they would put on our head. With extremely limited opportunities to wash our hair, this was a custom that we had to simply accept, and not think about the smell after a few days in the sun... Luckily, after about a week we visited hot springs and could wash it off.

We visited monasteries, local lamas, meditation caves, met with a local bee keeper responsible to train and assist other people with their bees, saw community greenhouses, and we also tried the local dresses. We even had the chance to visit the family of Jigme, met his mother and "youngest father" (Bhotias in that region used to follow a polyandry system, which explains why the villages mostly kept the same population for hundreds of years, which is important in a region where resources are very limited). We also had a chance to discuss with lamas, which was one of the most memorable moments for me.

After the first few days around Simikot, we started our 6-day trek towards the Tibetan border. We trekked from the Bhotias (buddhist) villages to the Thakuri villages (hindu). We discussed with the local women about their challenges to produce enough food for the whole family, water shortages, and local projects such as greenhouses. We visited schools, nursing stations and monasteries. Jigme was an amazing ambassador. Everybody seemed to know him and we could tell that they respected him immensely. He was very involved over the years in many development projects.

Eventually we reached Hilsa, the border town with Tibet, after an incredible hike over the Nara La. There is now a road that goes from Tibet to Nepal, sponsored mainly by the Chinese. We had many discussions with the locals about the impact of a road. For us, it is easy to say that we are sad to see roads that change the lifestyle of people. There used to be lots of caravans, local people were employed to transport and trade different goods, and as trekkers, we like to be on trails rather than roads and like to discover old cultures and traditions. But for local people, a road means access to more food and other items, potential access to education and health care, etc. The region where we were is so remote, even for Nepal standards, that they have a hard time to find Nepalese teachers to come and work in the small villages. And to go to a clinic, people may have to walk for several days. But of course, more goods also means more garbage, and it was sad to see big piles of beer bottles, packaging and old shoes accumulating in many places. Things are brought in, but never leave. Interestingly, I found many similar issues in Humla as what we are facing in Northern Quebec. Jigme and our group spent hours discussing ideas and solutions to some of these problems.

We went from villages with ancient traditions to villages changing really fast. We were witnesses of disappearing cultures, something that is happening all over the world. We often talk about loss of biodiversity, but we are loosing cultures just as fast. But again, it is easy for us to stay, we live in a comfortable modern world.

After Hilsa, we entered the Limi Valley. For this, we had the permission to cross into Tibet for a few hundred meters, to access the trail to Limi. We laughed because usually, countries put a big welcoming sign at their border, but in China, the sign said: "Severely suppress the illegal exit and entry of the borders". We could see the paved road that would have taken us to Kailash, less than 2 hours away, but we couldn't go...

The Limi valley is fabulous. Landscape that is hard to describe, a very steep valley, with amazing passes and views from up there. We camped in an incredible area. After the Namka La, we descended into Til, Halji and Jang, the only 3 villages of Limi. Such beautiful places. Again, we were welcomed everywhere, invited for tea, and when people in Til saw Westerners, they immediately organized a kind of "municipal council meeting" to request our help in financing the building of a road. This was all done while drinking chang and tibetan tea, but at that point my digestive system shut down for the rest of the trek, so I politely had to refuse.

From Limi, we climbed up another couple of passes to reach the Tibetan plateau, the Changtang. The scenery changed again completely, and a very cold wind made the trip very challenging for everybody, but also for the mules and horses. The next morning, we went to a viewpoint from where we could see Kailash (it was cloudy when we got there, so we couldn't see it. My 3 travel companions stayed a few more hours in the cold until it cleared up) and then came back down to Takchi, because our horses couldn't stay up in the Changtang. I was glad to be in a "warmer place"! We stayed a few days in Takchi, hoping to see a snow leopard, but we only saw blue sheep.

From there, more passes to get back towards Simikot. Again, the scenery is hard to describe. Surprisingly, they are building a road in that area too, to reach Jang. It seems like a huge investment for such a small village, but there is a lot of trees in the area and probably logging is quite attractive.

We eventually went over the Langdok La, our last pass. From there the view was again fabulous. We could see all the mountains to the south, and we could see a weather system coming. I remember thinking that these clouds looked like bad weather clouds, but since the monsoon was over, I really didn't give it a second thought. Usually, at this time of the year the weather is quite good and not much of a worry. We went to bed that night under a starry sky.

But at 4 in the morning, the snow started falling, and it was still snowing when we got up. Heavy, wet snow. This was planned as a rest day, to explore the valley, and we only had one more day of walking to make it back to Simikot. But with the weather conditions, it was agreed that the best thing was to leave as soon as possible, in case this would continue. We couldn't explore anything anyway, it was foggy and there was nothing to see.

But our smart horses and mules, probably sensing the storm coming, had taken off during the night and were nowhere to be found. So Krishna had to find a solution to carry our gear back to Simikot. It took a few hours, and finally the horsemen stayed behind with most of the gear, and the assistant cooks carried our duffle bags. We all felt very humbled by this situation, us with our high-tech gear and day packs, following the locals with all the gear, dressed quite minimally considering the conditions. And yet, they never complained, and did an amazing job.

It was a cold and epic day. Walking in the snow first, we had to go down for 1.5 hour on a steep trail that became a creek with all the rain. And then we had to climb for over 2 hours on the other side. We were wet from either sweating or being rained on, or both, and luckily when we stopped for lunch we stayed in a tiny tea house, where the family made a fire right on the floor to help us stay warm and dry. It was a life saver! From there, we hiked to Simikot, to the guest house where we stayed the first night, and got there just before dark. We made a smoky fire in the stove (the chimney fell into the stove, but heck, "a bit" of smoke didn't bother Angela and I, as long as we could be warm and dry!!!) and enjoyed the luxury of having a roof.

The last day, we celebrated with our local staff, who had managed to find the horses and brought all the gear back. It was quite touching and sad to have to say goodbye after 25 days. We flew the next morning, and this is when we heard about the storm and tragedy in the Mustang and Annapurna regions. I was very touched by the number of people who worried about us and I send my best thoughts to the families and friends of people who knew the trekkers and locals who died in the tragedy. I personally knew Sylvie, who was a very dedicated woman, working to better the working conditions of adventure guides.

I spent 2 days in Kathmandu. Always such a great place to be after a trek. The shower was wonderful and we ate a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, curd and ice cream. And big fatty desserts.

This is a long post, but it's only some of the highlights of this amazing trip. Although Nepal is a popular destination, Humla is seldom visited by Westerners, although there is great potential. Of course, if China had given permits to go to Kailash, we would have seen more tourists, but it was in a way very nice for us to be almost "alone". A memorable trip, as always in Nepal. I am only disappointed that I don't speak Nepali, this would bring a brand new dimension to the experience.

So back at work now, and time to think about the next big adventure!

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