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‘Hidden Himalaya’

Trekking the first stretch of an ambitious mountain trail

Trekker Sam Voolstra on an overlook of Nepal's Karnali River Valley on the first day of a trip on the Great Himalayan Trail, two hours from Simikot. Trekker Sam Voolstra on an overlook of Nepal's Karnali River Valley on the first day of a trip on the Great Himalayan Trail, two hours from Simikot. (Dmitri Alexander for The Boston Globe)
By James Vlahos
Globe Correspondent / June 20, 2010

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SIMIKOT, Nepal — We were four people with one sleeping bag and no tent. Night had fallen in the Himalaya, and the temperature was below freezing. But to Jamie McGuinness, a Kathmandu-based guide, there was no cause for panic. The time he and his sled dogs had gotten lost in the Arctic during a whiteout, that was a crisis. The blizzard in Dolpo when the villagers thought he was ghost, definitely a problem. But tonight? We would figure something out.

“I’ve got a warm jacket,’’ McGuinness said. “You guys can share my sleeping bag.’’

Our trek was in Humla, the most remote district in Nepal. Tucked into the country’s far northwestern corner, Humla is mountainous and roadless, and home to only 43,000 people, most of them clustered around the district headquarters of Simikot. The southern reaches are relatively lush, encompassing the deep gorge of the Karnali River, rhododendron thickets, and pine-shrouded slopes that rise to snowy peaks. The north is more arid and includes the Limi Valley, windswept and vast. Limi is the site of the Halji Gompa, established in the 10th century and believed to be Nepal’s oldest Tibetan Buddhist site.

While parts of Nepal have arguably become too popular — the wilderness vibe suffers when you can order a latte mid-trek — much of Humla is as it has been for centuries. Jim Donovan, who works for the Nepal Trust, a local development agency, calls Humla “the hidden Himalaya, where life is as it always was.’’

Fortunately, due to its isolation and near-total lack of tourist infrastructure — visitors sleep in tents rather than in cushy teahouses — Humla has yet to be mobbed by the Lonely Planet crowd. Unlike in more established tourism areas such as Annapurna or Everest, you can trek for a week or more without seeing another foreigner.

On our first day, after landing on a gravel airstrip in Simikot, we had set out at a pace so rapid that jogging was sometimes required. We soon outpaced the porters and horses trailing behind us with tents and other vital gear. The trail hugged a mountainside, with the Karnali, churning with rapids, a thousand feet below at the bottom of the gorge.

In such a remote place you can’t tromp into a village after dark and expect chardonnay and a hot tub, but there was certainly hospitality. After spotting light coming from a small stone hut, we walked in and introduced ourselves. The woman inside was friendly and served us soup heated over a wood fire and chattered with McGuinness in Nepali. Her husband peeled potatoes as he looked on.

But the problem remained. Though the porters knew we were supposed to stop in this village for the night, we realized, in hindsight, that we had started the trek too late in the day. It seemed entirely possible that they were moving too slowly to meet us here. The choice seemed clear. We could either shiver together outdoors under the one sleeping bag or share the hut. But after an hour we heard the porters’ voices outside. A smile and the faintest I-told-you-not-to-worry look flashed across McGuinness’s face.

The trek was scheduled to last for two weeks, but in theory it could continue for months. We were on the opening stretch of a new route known as the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT), which consists of a series of loop treks linked together like a string of pearls crossing Nepal through the heart of the Himalaya. Our plan was to trek the trail’s westernmost circuit, beginning and ending in Simikot. All told, the trail’s combined circuits run for 1,000 miles and top 20,000 feet, crossing glaciers, winding through subtropical forests, and passing eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Everest.

All over the world, it seems, people are going long, even in the Twitter era of 140-character attention spans. The super-size trails range from well-signed paths complete with overnight huts to routes that have been designated on maps but have only scanty real-world presence. You can trek across the Scandinavian Arctic or the Australian bush, between temples in Japan or Holy Land sites in Israel. The Sendero de Chile, scheduled to be operational this year, will cover more than 6,000 miles from the northern deserts to the southern glaciers. New Zealand’s Te Araroa, opening in February, is slated to run through forests and over volcanoes for 1,800 miles.

Here the backers of the Great Himalaya Trail hope it will contribute to Nepal’s recovery after a decade-long Maoist insurgency and civil war. It has been more than two years since the country, fresh from a peace agreement, held elections to form a new government. But hopes for a greatly improved “new Nepal’’ have yet to be realized as the country’s leaders wrangle over drafting a new constitution (in May, narrowly averting a collapse of the government, the deadline to approve the constitution was extended by a year) and integrating 19,000 rebel soldiers into the national army.

In a divided land, backers are promoting the GHT as an urgently needed symbol of national unity. The development organizations sponsoring the route see it as a means to reap the peace dividend, fostering environmentally responsible, economically lucrative tourism in the most impoverished reaches of the Nepalese Himalaya. “We’re not going to persuade tourists to forget about Everest, but we’d like to motivate them to explore other areas as well,’’ says Paul Stevens, a senior adviser for SNV, a Dutch development organization that is spearheading the trail project.

The trek in Humla gradually increased in elevation until the fourth day, when we topped the 15,912-foot Nara Lagna and admired a view that extended south to the snowy peaks of the Saipal Himal and north to the sprawling Tibetan Plateau. From the crest of the pass the trail made a dizzying sequence of switchbacks, dropping nearly 4,000 feet to reach the Tibetan (Chinese) border before branching northeast and heading into the Limi Valley.

The feel became altogether lonelier: hardly any yak caravans, no more boisterous Karnali River. The valley was broad, with boulder-strewn slopes on either side, and the villages were hours and in some cases days apart.

After a couple of days of walking we turned up a side valley where a series of small, terraced fields stairstepped to what looked like a medieval castle — a stone complex of buildings, threaded by narrow alleys and topped by colorful flags. This was the village of Til.

The next morning, I approached a group of villagers who were processing the annual barley harvest. Rather than treating me as a tourist, they simply handed me a basketful of grain and put me to work. Imitating them, I shook the basket vigorously; the barley separated from the chaff and fell into a triangular mound that echoed the shape of the snowy mountains that rose above the head of the valley.

With the trek going so smoothly, something had to go wrong. First one of the women in the group twisted her ankle so badly that she could barely walk. Then we found out that the mountain pass at the climax of our trek — the 16,371-foot Nyalu Lagna — was covered in snow, possibly too deep to cross without mountaineering equipment. The injured woman as well as the horses could never make it over and would have to trek back out the way we had come. But McGuinness, a couple of porters, and I could continue onward and make the climb, maybe, if we were willing to take the chance of having to retreat.

We were. Two days later McGuinness shook my tent to wake me up at dawn for the ascent. A survival literature junkie, I was prepared, maybe even perversely hoping, for the worst, but the “Into Thin Air’’ vibe was compromised by blissful weather. Under a cloudless sky, glittering snow slopes ramped up to the pass. As the sun rose higher it thawed the surface of the crusty snow, and by midmorning I was sinking to thigh depth with every step.

Exhausted but happy, we stood on top by lunchtime. Wind whipped the prayer flags that marked the crest of the pass, with jagged peaks all around us and a turquoise lake visible in the valley far below.

When I finally made it back to Simikot the following day my overworked legs were near collapse. But my spirit was not. The whole country lay ahead on the Great Himalaya Trail, and I was ready to tackle the next circuit.

James Vlahos can be reached at jamesvlahos@earthlink.net.

If You Go

How to get there
To reach Simikot, the gateway for treks in Humla, you must first fly from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj, spend the night, then catch a connecting flight in the morning. It is much easier to have your guide service book your flights rather than trying to do so yourself from abroad.
Where to stay, eat
Nepal Trust Guesthouse Simikot
011-977-1-437-2354
ntrust@wlink.com.np
Private rooms, a hot shower, a small bar-restaurant, and a sunny garden. Doubles $11 per night.
Outfitters
Eco Trek 011-977-1-20-90-369
www.ecotreknepal.com; ecotour@wlink.com.np
The 17-day Humla trek costs $1,990 per person for a group of four or more including airfare from Kathmandu and lodging.
World Expeditions 800-567-2216
www.worldexpeditions.com; info@worldexpeditions.com
In February the company will lead a full, 157-day journey on the Great Himalaya Trail; clients can do the complete trek or choose from any of seven segments, which last from 18-30 days apiece. Contact outfitter for pricing.