Section 14. Limi Valley
13 July. Rest Day in Simikot. 0 km. 0 hours. 0m up. 0m down. I spent the whole day in the hotel doing digital duties on my fiddly little smart phone. I was frustrated by the wifi which was very erratic due to the wet weather and mist. The large communication dish which connected Simikot to the rest of the world did not function well in this damp atmosphere. Sending 90 photos in 10 emails proved very time consuming and frustrating and took about 12 hours.
The others relaxed and washed clothes except Ramesh who went into town to rent a kerosene stove and buy provisions for the next 4-5 days. It took him all afternoon, but by evening he was packed and we were ready to go. We had separated all the stuff we did not need as we would be returning to Simikot after a 10-day anticlockwise circuit via Limi Valley to Hilsa and then back to Simikot. Hilsa was the end of the GHT but there was no way out other than a US$1500 helicopter or a 3-4 day walk back to Simikot via Muchu
14 July. Simikot to Lek Dinga. 17 km. 6,5 hours. 1280m up. 770m down. It was overcast with many mist patches when we left at 0800, and you felt rain was never far away. We walked up the road towards the west as it climbed up to a small pass. A Nepali with a rucksack caught us up. I recognized him. He was the cook from the World Expeditions group and they were a day early. I asked about their client, Brian, who had also walked the whole way from Taplejung in the east. He was just a few minutes ahead, so I sped up to catch him.
He had gone from Phoksundo Lake, where I last saw him to Jumla over Kagmara La Pass, then north to Lake Rara and then up the usual way to Simikot. He had been ill on route and blamed it on an apricot; the same as Santos. As we chatted we entered the mist and a few minutes later our paths split. He headed down to Darapor in the Karnali Valley while I continued along the road which would take us to Yakba. It was a shame I did not get a chance to chat for longer.
We walked along the track and I recognized many of the simple hamlets we passed when I walked along the path here 11 years ago. The track was built over the previous path. The track was generally firm but when it went through a hamlet it became muddy again. After a good hour the track started a series of zig-zags down to the valley via the Hepka Khola side valley. There was a path which shortcut all the zig-zags down a bridge over this large side stream. Here we left the road, which apparently continued to Hilsa and headed up to Yakba. As we started down the shortcuts I met a French anthropologist, Tara, returning from Limi. She had been studying pastoralism there. I could have chatted in depth with here about the topic as I researched pastoralism with Kurdish transhumants for my anthropology degree. Unfortunately she was just leaving Limi after 3 months there.
In Yakba I asked for the local shop, a posal. However everyone I asked said there was none. I was starving and I am sure the others were. I waited for Bharat who can always sort something out. He asked and got an affirmative reply. There was a posal but it was in someones house and it was very low key. We went along the muddy lane in the busy congested village iuntil we found the house then Bharat returned to find the others while I was ushered up to the rooftop. There were about 10 beehives up here and I noticed a few on the other roofs. However there was nowhere to sit and rain looked imminent so I went back down the log ladder to the first floor and went into the kitchen.
The others arrived soon afterwards and we all piled in. It was a Lama household but apparently the population of Yakba was very mixed, with a few castes. The kitchen was quite large, but dark with a stove in the middle. Santos cooked us noodles and spinach while the others chatted to the hosts. After the noodles we made milk and sugar tea, while the hosts made Tibetan tea in the large wooden tulum, a wooden tube and agitator. However when it was served they had our tea and we had their salty tea with butter. “Cultural Exchange” joked Bharat. We paid for the noodles and spinach and then headed off as the rain stopped.
We now had a steep 600 metre climb up the west flank of the valley. Initially it was scrub but soon we were passing some huge spruce. These trees were the dominant conifer of the day. The rain started again as we climbed. I noticed a couple of woodpeckers working a nearby spruce as I went past and managed to get a poor photo. The mist came and went as we slowly climbed through the atmospheric forest. Soon we got to a bowl which was full of terraces with crops growing. It was about 90 minutes walk up from Yakba. There were a lot of smaller stone houses in a cluster here and from the map I could see it was called Lek Hepka. There were about 20 houses here all stone built and all smaller versions of the ones down in Yakba. A few had blue tin roofs. All had a ground floor with a small door for the animals to go in. It was just big enough for the small cattle here. In the yard were piles of Bhutan pine needles for the animals bedding. Upstairs would be the living quarters and above that more storage rooms on the flat roof. Each floor was connected by an external log ladder. I assumed this village was where the people of Yakba come at a certain time of year to graze their animals and cultivate the fields.
The mist came and went as I continued to climb. I knew there were grassy areas above but I was not too sure of the route. Not wanting a repeat of the long walk into the dusk on empty stomachs I was worried I might have missed the grassy area. However then another hamlet appeared it was Lek Dinga. Beyond it I could see flat grass. Lek Dinga was also a seasonal hamlet and was currently empty. The houses here all had stone with flat roofs. There was no tin roofs. Like Lek Hepka the ground floor was for animals and the first for living. The passages and spaces between the houses were covered in dock leaves, which seem to thrive where animals might gather. A lot of the lower doors to the animal quarters were open but the living quarters were locked. I thought about camping here so Ramesh could use the animal quarters as a kitchen but thought better of it.
Instead I carried on to the top of the hamlet and found a large meadow full of wild flowers with great campsites. There was water nearby in the form of a hose which went to a standpipe in the hamlet. We put the tent up and explored the area. There was a small lake nearby but the water here was too dirty to drink. When i got back Ramesh was ensconced in his kitchen beside a large stone. We fixed up a tarpaulin in case it rained; and that looked likely. The last forecast I saw predicted 50mm tomorrow for Simikot. As I wrote the blog in the tent I gazed out frequently to look as the mass of wild flowers outside in the verdant green meadow.
15 July. Lek Dinga to Dakyob Khola. 25km. 8 hours. 1410m up. 1060m down. It was very misty when we woke. All the wild flowers were covered in dew which was dripping off them. Dawa made breakfast for a change, but it was quite cumbersome and mine was not Santos’s usual standard. We set off up the path we saw yesterday evening and gained the track which looked newly made. The track slowly rose up to a gentle pass called Chhubang Lagna at around 4100m. There was little to see except the immediate vicinity, but it was a high grassy plateau. Occasionally I could hear the whistle of a Golden Plover type upland bird. Once we started the descent to Thangur Khola stream the visibility improved a bit and one could make out closer ridges covered in the tall slender firs. Occasionally we got a glimpse right down the valley towards the forests on the north side of the Karnali. We followed the track most of the time with the short cuts being full of rubble from the track. At the stream there was the small watermill which I remembered, but it was now dilapidated and the roof had collapsed.
The climb from the stream to Sechi La Pass, 4530m, was about 1000 metres. Initially through large firs and then smaller juniper trees and finally juniper scrub. The track was carved into the hillside up this once remote side valley and it made a scar. Hopefully with time the track will green over as I cannot see many vehicles using it. It was probably a project which had been allocated money in the local budget and the construction team and excavator were part of a company which the official who sanctioned the project owned. As I climbed I began to feel unwell. I was burping the whole time and was full of gas. Eventually half way up the pass Dawa’s breakfast came up and I felt a bit better for a while.
We each made our own way up the track shortcutting at will and randomly. Across the valley I could see three herders shelters and I remember spending the night in one of them with Bharat, Rasu, the young host who was a teeneager and his younger brother. Also inside, in a small pen, were three calves. It was a shame I was not on the other side, where there was a path also, otherwise we could have dropped in. The last few hundred metres to the pass were hard and I now had to dash into the dock leaves and squat as my stomach continued to rumble. I was watched by 150 curious goats who were marching up the hill devouring all before them, but still going faster than me. The track went to the top of the pass where the philistine of an excavator driver carved the road right through a previously pristine small pond and totally destroyed it.
The descent down to the Sechi Khola stream was short and steep. The scars the excavator had made here would take a decade to start to heal and the whole hillside, which was a sandy rubble was on the move down due to erosion now. At the bottom Sechi Khola flowed out of a magnificent and large pasture which was totally flat with the braided stream meandering across it. The pasture was about 3-4 km long. It was being grazed by about 20 horses who must have belonged to the 4-5 herder camps on grassy plateaus and knolls on the north side of the Sechi Khola valley where their animals had easy access to the higher pastures. We passed a few herders and all seemed to be from the village of Kermi. They all asked where I was going and then the next question was could I give them rupees, at which I walked off.
The track now went down the north side of the Sechi Khola and this was perhaps the only place where the track would last, and even here there was the odd landslide. The valley here above the treeline was full of Chauri cattle grazed by the herders. Higher up on the high misty pastures I could make out flocks of sheep and goats. There was a phalanx at the head of the flock and the rest followed in their wake. Soon the track entered the birch woods and then half an hour later the fir forests as the stream and the valley tumbled down to meet the larger valley with the Salli Khola stream. Here the track split with a fork used by a tractor to bring diesel to the excavator going down to Kermi, and an unused fork apparently heading for Limi. As we rested the tractor appeared and drove across the Salli Khola. Had the stream been 30 cm higher it would have been very exciting as it might have been washed away.
We were now to head up the Salli Khola for 5-6 km. It was a spectacular valley with huge rock faces on each side going up perhaps 1000 metres. Unfortunately the mist and drizzle which had been intermittent all day returned and these high faces were largely obscured. At one point I saw a waterfall, albeit, wispy and small, which must have plunged down some 500m in one drop. A dhzo driver, with two huge bulls lumbering along under their 70 kg loads, passed us. They are a male outcome of a cross between a cow and yak, while Chauri are the female outcome.
Now my energy was sapped and the tank was empty. For the next hour and a half I endured a personal hell as I slogged up the track towards the Dakyob Khola stream. The track was initially easy and then became very easy as it levelled out, but I was making hard work of it. The others were waiting for me at this large meadow with about 10 herding units. We were shown a place to camp near some stone and tarpaulin shelters. Then the owner of the tents said 350 rupees to camp, and if we wanted a further 550 to use a shelter for cooking. The shelter seemed OK but to camp in this open pasture for a fee seemed extortionate and I told the tent owner it was “lobi” (greedy). However I was too tired to move on and with the rain on and off it would be nice for Ramesh to have somewhere comfortable to cook in. We put the tent up and I went in and fell asleep quickly. It was the nice dreamy slumber of an afternoon nap. When I eventually woke to start writing it was getting dark. I went out to locate my emergency toilet in the meadow should I need it. I did manage a small dal bhat which Ramesh served together with a mug of hot Chauri milk. It was truly delicious and what my body craved. I think I was just run down and tired and it was nothing to do with Dawa’s breakfast. I think the stress and effort of trying to send the 95 pictures on the frustrating wifi in Simikot was a major contributing factor.
16 July. Dakyob Khola to Dzang. 28km. 9,5 hours. 1290m up. 1380 m down. While I slept the others were in the tent owners other tent drinking. I had previously agreed to let Dawa come on this Limi leg as a favour on condition he and Bharat did not encourage each other to drink. They came to bed about midnight and then Bharat snored enough to keep me awake; as I had slept much of the afternoon. In the morning as the alarms went at 0530 I woke Bharat up. This time I did not read the riot act but gave him both barrels for about 5 minutes in front of the others. I then had a word with Dawa saying I was disappointed in him. Then I caught Santos and Ramesh in the kitchen tent and said I had no issues with them at all. I also told all 4 of them I was going to Dzang on my own and that they were to go to Tholing, a good 90 minutes from Dzang, camp the night there and then meet me in Dzang the next day at midday when we would all go to Halji. I felt a special connection to Dzang and did not was my space cluttered by them. Everyone was very sheepish when I left at 0645 with the words “see you tomorrow”.
The track was very misty, so misty I could not even see the zig-zag above to short cut. The track was a nice gradient and within 30 minutes I had already climbed 200 metres. Now and again the mist allowed me a view down to the kharkas where we camped and I could see the tent still there. They were probably still having breakfast, a bit shell-shocked about my outburst. After an hour I got to a beautiful lake about half a km long. The other side was just visible, but the far end was obscured by mist. As I reached the pastures at the far end the mist cleared to reveal some 5 herders tents. Men were herding their Chauri cattle down and the women were milking them. The Chauri seemed to enjoy being milked and many were making their own way down.
From here the track zig-zagged up the hill for almost 2 hours until at last I saw the prayer flags. I pretty much just followed the track as it was gentle and easy. On the west side however the track was covered by snow. It looked like it would take a month to melt. Indeed at the top the drizzle was actually snow. The old path was still there and it went into a stony bowl, and then down a loose rocky spur until it hit the track much further down. There was now the easiest descent possible for the next 8 km as the track slowly traversed down the even hillside for 4 km until it met the valley floor, which it followed for 4 km. It was raining but the wind was at my back from the south so I hardly noticed it. I could stroll along hands in pockets, looking at the vast pasture below me. There were perhaps 25 herders shelters over the entire 8 km. Last time I came here there were perhaps just 6. Most of the herders did not look Tibetan but were probably from the Karnali valley to the south or from Yakba. The last part of the descent down the valley was a sandy floodplain, full of flowers and grazing calves. The river cut a lazy meandering path through it.
I had a choice now either go the longer way and ford the Ning Khola or a shorter way and ford the merged Talun and Ning Kholas and then the Traktse Khola at their confluence where the valley was wide and shallow. I chose the shorter way and followed the track across the river. It was not deep but surprisingly strong and my walking poles were quivering in the current. On the other side of Talun Khola the track continued past another two clusters of herders camps and then down the west side of the lake. As it went north it climbed and I got a great view of the lake and some geese which were dabbling on it. One seemed to be nesting on and island. The path continued to climb and I could look down to the Ning Khola coming out of a valley to the east across the lake. As it entered the lake it made a huge alluvial fan which was eating up the lake. Just to the north was the remarkable white sand dunes on which some black bushes were growing making a striking contrast. Below all that was the pasture of Traktse. However on the track I would be missing all of that, as I went round the west side and then dropped down to the stream again. which I had previously crossed, but now it was also joined by the Ning Khola which came into the lake.
As I headed for the crossing point I noticed some buildings on the other side. This was the badly planned government school which had been built at a ridiculous place at the confluence of two rivers without a bridge over either, and in the middle of nowhere. It would also be impossible to get teachers to stay at this bleak place a good 2 hours walk from anywhere. The locals shunned it because of the proximity to the river and the dangers that might pose to the children, so the whole thing was built and then put into mothballs at once. It was an ill-conceived idea and the current force leading the NGO section of teaching in Limi, Michael Duabe, was furious about the waste of resources. Michael Daube, in effect took over from Deanna Campbell for whom I raised money in 2009.
As I reached the confluence of the rivers I planned my route. The first crossing was the merged Talun and Ning Kholas, the second was the Traktse coming down from the north. The track forded both here, but that was just in the drier season. Right now the rivers were big. I took off my shirt and was just in my shoes and shorts. Steam emerged from the river bank beside me as hot springs well out of the ground, but that did little to warm the first crossing. I was up to my waist in cold water as it lazily flowed across a sandy bottom. The crossing was easy and I was now beside the mothballed government school. The second crossing was faster and rockier but the Traktse Khola was braided and I wove a route between islands with the water never above my thighs. On the north side I picked up the track again which headed for Dzang.
The weather was more settled here in Limi now as I had crossed the pass and all the Himal ranges to the south. Limi was essentially a part of Tibet, both culturally and geographically, which by historical quirk was part of Nepal and therefore never got annexed by China in the 1950’s. It was a beautiful valley for the two hours down to Dzang. The river was mostly lazy, but being swollen gave it some urgency. On each side of the river, especially the north side were great pastures. I passed the tiny hamlet of Thorling, but kept going until eventually I rounded a corner and there was Dzang. I spent a few days at Dzang 11 years ago and loved the place. It was at the same time H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche visited and the valley was in fervour with his visit. With him came Khenpo Tashi, his right hand man, and Deanna Campbell. The pair of them had formed a society to raise money for schools here, called Antakharana. Based on what I saw, essentially all in Dzang, it seemed a very worthwhile project and I did an 8 month trip in Norway (www.skipaddlenorway.com) and raised US$13,000 for their project. It paid for teachers salaries for 2 years. When Antahkarana faded in 2011-12, Michael Daube of CITTA, took over and is still going strong today. So Dzang has a special place in my heart.
I walked down the main lane of Dzang passed the house I previously stayed at and to wider bit where there was a cluster of buildings. Someone beckoned me over and he spoke good English. Fortuitously, he was the teacher so I showed him the pictures and told him I had raised money for Antakharana. He was lively, bright but smelt of raksi. He said he would arrange a homestay and we went back to the same house where I stayed before. He explained all to the host and his daughter-in-law. The teacher was very close to this family and came and went regularly and had even painted murals on their kitchen. The host was a dear old man in the robes of a Buddhist Lama, and indeed he was the Lama for Dzang. He was 76 but looked a good 10 years younger. He could not speak English, but his smile said it all. His daughter-in-law spoke good English having been educated at a boarding school at the Dalai Lama’s school in north India but her tone was quick, sharp and very to the point.
I chatted with the teacher Dhendup, while the Lama and his daughter-in-law made up a bed for me in the large prayer room, which looked like the prayer room of a monastery. It was a simple carpet on the floor with some blankets. I managed to lock myself into the prayer room by fiddling with a large wooden lock with some pegs in it and had to be rescued by someone who knew how to operate the lock. The prayer room was large, perhaps 5 by 5 metres. It had a long alter with tablet books and pictures of Rinpoches including H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche. There was the Lama’s drum and seat for puja. There was a bed for him and masses of rich decoration. The struts and beams in the room all had come from Salli khola by yak generations ago. Around the 3 walls of the prayer room which were not the altar were large chests.
The house was open and roomy with large rooms. Downstairs it was dark with cellars for the animals in winter time, but upstairs it was light with at least 4 big rooms. They mostly had flagstone floors which must have been very heavy and were resting on the struts below. In the midst of the rooms upstairs was a courtyard open to the elements above. It got wet but there was a drain. In the courtyard was a log ladder to the flat mud roof. Here there were two very large three sided shelters which were used to store grass for the yaks and other animals in wintertime. They were empty at the moment and still waiting to be filled.
The daughter-in-law made a dalbhat for me for supper using peas instead of dal. It was a novelty but not so tasty. After that I went into the prayer room to write and sleep. The lama came in an hour later. Before he went to bed he had a long ceremony. There was a lot of chanting from a tablet book in a repetitive almost meditative manner. It was broken by the ringing of a couple of bells he was holding and some banging on the table. He then made some full bows to the altar and went into his box bed. I tried not to look but it was interesting. I had a great day in all with a long brisk walk and then a warm welcome in Dzang and a cultural feast in the evening at the Lama’s house. It was nice being free of the others for a while who after last night were like worrisome children. It was all I wanted from a day.
July 17. Dzang to Halji. 9km. 2,5 hours. 120m down. 330m up. In the morning the Lama again had a small puja after getting up with plenty of full bows. It must have kept him supple. Then, just before my breakfast of tsampa and buttery salt tea Bharat and the others turned up. I told them to meet me here at midday not 0730! I could not be bothered with them at the moment so sent them on their way to Halji, the next village where I would go later, some 3 hours away, and went back up for breakfast. After a chat with the teacher I went along with him to the school. There were 8-9 pupils altogether in a new schoolhouse. The government one that was here in 2008 had been destroyed by heavy snowfall. This new one had been built my Michael Daube’s CITTA. It too had been hit by a small snow slide which had broken all the windows and scattered books in the snow. Dhendup, the teacher, said he was picking books out of the snow for weeks as it melted. The schoolhouse had desks and chairs and was a vast improvement from the previous time in 2008, when the pupils were sitting on sacks on the damp floor!
I had a brief look at the school and met the shy pupils and then went off to look at the monastery. It was a large rambling building in need of some maintenance. It was centuries old but looked tired. Last time I was here at the visit on H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche it was vibrant and newly painted. It was the last time he visited and it looked like nothing had been done since then. The door to the courtyard was not locked but closed so I went in. It looked like it had been abandoned with sheep wool blankets lying around in piles and windows tied shut because the latches had broken. I wandered around the courtyard and then went upstairs to the upper courtyard and explored there too. Someone was drying vegetables in one of the rooms. There were a few locked rooms to the main gomba, where the tablet books, altar, drums and other pieces of prayer were, some no doubt very valuable, but in general it seemed this monastery had seen better days. Of the 3 villages in the valley Til has 25 houses, Dzang 35 and Halji 85, so Halji has always been the main monastery and it is some 850 years old.
I went back to the homestay for lunch of chapati and mashed potato, more buttery tea and some sema, a delicious mix of mashed rice, butter and sugar. As I wrote the blog the Lama sat nearby in his robes making momos filled with minced dried yak meat for the schoolchildren who were coming here for lunch. I would also meet the teacher, Dhendup, for future contacts in Halji and Til, his home village, before I headed to Halji in the afternoon. He gave me names of people in both Halji and Til. In Til it was his sister. I said goodbye to the gentle Lama and is forthright daughter-in-law, who like many Tibetan women of Nepal would always come out on top in an argument with any husband. Dhendup walked with me to the new kami gate, built of concrete and quite lacking in charm. We said goodbye and he was quite moved. He was a very gentle, kind, genuine person. I was sad to leave Dzang.
After the kami gate the track seemed to continue. I followed it down past a large piece of grass on the riverside where the Limi Youth Club put on a show with much fanfare and horsemanship for H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche when he visited in 2008. I remember one rider picking up a handkerchief at full gallop. After that the track was quite barren for 4-5 km as it followed the north side of the river. There were some remarkable wild flowers and the wild roses were heavy with light mauve and purple blossom. I reached a flatter area at Sunkarni, which would have made a nice meadow were it not so arid. There was a single new house here which looked totally out of place. I later found out it was the police station with about 10 policemen stationed here. I passed one and his rifle looked like it was one stage up the munitions evolution ladder after the blunderbuss. If the government was going to build a school somewhere this would have been a better place rather than the remote, bleak place at the confluence of the rivers which they did.
The track in fact continued all the way to Halji. It slowly descended with the river at the bottom of the V shaped rocky ochre valley. There were very few side streams on either side as I descended the rocky track. Some 3-4 km after the police station I saw a large kami gate at the bottom of a ridge and knew that just after it was Halji, which lay on a large alluvial fan on the north side. I walked through the kami gate and at once saw the green fields and then a bit later the 85 houses clustered together where the stream entered the oasis. I walked along the path now as the road made a detour round the spur and then rejoined the road at the village. There were two solid Chinese lorries parked here, there wheels covered in cloth and yak skins to prevent the UV destroying the tyres, so they were obviously used very rarely and only when the pass was open.
I went straight to the monastery as I remember the entrance to it was a gathering place for people to sit. Again by chance I met 2 of the 3 teachers from the school. Their English was great and they helped me find somewhere to stay as the names Dhendup had given me were away. The person I was to stay with was in fact the third teacher called Nima. His English was OK but at once I could see he was an up and coming pillar of Halji society. We went to his house where he had one of the wooden block locks and he explained its workings to me. It was quit ingenious how it functioned and was reasonably simple. His house was old and solid built well over 100 years ago. On the ground floor it was dark as there were many rooms in the depths of the rocky foundations. Some rooms had great boulders in them, too difficult to break up, and the cellars had been built around them. These 2-3 rooms were for the animals in the winter when the snow was a metre deep outside. Nima had a few horses and these would stay here along with the yaks. The second floor was all storage with much of it being set aside for grass as the fodder. There was also a toilet here which dropped onto the ground floor where it would mix with the animal dung and go out to the fields in the spring. The third floor was all living space arranged around a courtyard open to the elements. It had a kitchen, couple of 3 sided rooms and a large all purpose room with horse bridles, and a puja room off it with a small altar and pictures of the Dalai Lama and H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche. I was to sleep in the all purpose room, but was warned there would be puja at 0500 tomorrow morning.
I then went for a walk around the village and the 850 year old monastery, one of the most important in the area. The monastery was guarded by a Tibetan temple dog on a lead. It was a yapper and I am sure it would bite so one of the other teachers pacified it and we went past. There was single monk here and he unlocked the main and the secondary prayers rooms for me. They were surprisingly modest for such and important monastery. They had all the usual tools of worship like an altar with butter lamps, the drum, the tablets of books and pictures. There were some old tablet books found nearby in a cave on high quality paper and they were given to the Songsten Library in India established by H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche. These are thought to be over 1000 years old. Someone I know, Astrid, is working on the photocopy replacements translating them and filling in the missing pages. I went up onto the roof and had a look in a few of the other rooms. Last time I was here it was heavily decorated for H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche’s visit and now it looked much more bland.
I had a wander through the streets and down by the river which flooded occasionally due to an ice dam in a lake far above. Last time it destroyed two houses and the monastery is not entirely safe from it in this time of climate change. The lanes between the houses were a good metre wide and wove through between them. Boulders had just been incorporated into the walls. There were frequent tunnels and arches were houses had been built over the passages. The houses were all massive with tapered walls. I noticed all the doors had the large wooden peg locks and wooden keys. I met Bharat and Ramesh and they said they were staying in a Limi Youth Club building by the health clinic. They were happy there and had a kitchen and enough food. I had to pay 1200 rupees for this but was glad of the mental space and freedom it allowed me not to worry about them. In the morning I told them I would visit the school at 0900 and then we could all leave tomorrow for Til at 0930. I warned them it would probably be the same arrangement with me staying in a homestay and them fending for themselves.
I returned to Nimas house before dusk. A friend of his, Dawa, dropped in. He was the translator for Astrid translating the old scripts. He was very knowledgeable about the area and in fact most things. He was tired having walked from Hilsa but stayed and chatted for nearly 2 hours. Nima’s wife in the meantime made me vegetable momos for supper. I paid 1200 for the other 4 to stay in the kitchen and another 1000 for Nima. The Limi Youth Club run a rotation on homestays and I had upset the rotation by staying with Nima but apparently it will be adjusted. The flat rate was 1000 rupees per person per day. I could have stayed with the others and saved money but there was no cultural experience in that any more.
18 July. Halji to Til. 10 km. 3 hours. 530m up. 300m down. At last night’s supper I was sure the momos, which should just have contained spinach also had yak lard in them. However, I convinced myself it was butter which I had also seen about in the cooking area. It tasted slightly rancid and left a coating on the roof of my mouth like I remember cold mutton chops did. I dare not say anything though as Nima had started the cooking and I explained to him I was vegetarian, but then his wife arrived and took over and I assumed the vegetarian message had been passed on. I lay in bed with a greasy ball in my stomach and I was just waiting for an eruption at either end as it had been about 5 years since I had last eaten meat. However none came, so perhaps it was butter after all!
In the morning the puja started at 0500. The monk from the monastery came and they went through my room to the prayer room, separated by a thin partition with a door in it. Soon I heard the repetitive drum beat start. It was like the metronome timer for a piano. Then soon after the rhythmic chanting which must take a lot of practice, especially with the breathing. I think the chanting was both on the inhaling and the exhaling breath and it had a bouncing beat to it, almost like a basketball player bouncing a ball. I assumed as the monk chanted he was turning the pages to a tablet book. When the book, or chapter of it, was finished there would be a flourish of cymbals or small bells. Each chant was about 3-4 minutes. The chanting was soothing for me to listen to and it lulled me to sleep but the crash of cymbals woke me up again two minutes later. And so it continued for an hour. For the monk the whole puja must have been quite meditative or even trance-like. By 0600 all was quiet again and I snoozed to 0700 with a delightful smell of incense filling the room.
For breakfast, I played it safe and had my new favourite, tsampa. Every house had a bucket of it handy on a shelf, sometimes without a lid it was used so frequently. It was a finely ground cereal, in this case oats. I had a bowl of dry powder into which I poured Tibetan butter tea and sugar and then mixed it into paste. It was simple, filling and tasty, almost like eating horlicks powder out of the jar. I then packed, paid for Bharat and the others who used the kitchen, paid for myself and made a small 800 rupee donation to the school. Nima was over the moon with the 800 rupees, but when I told him I made an earlier donation of nearly 1.5 million rupees it did not sink in. It was enough for 5 teacher’s salary for a year. I enjoyed my stay at Nima’s, who was a decent honourable kind man, in a lively household with 4 kids, two of his own and two of his brothers.
I went up to the school with 3 of the kids from Nima’s household. Kids were emerging from every house and streaming onto the path and then up the steep hill to the school. In all some 30 kids had assembled by 0900. Two cooks had also brought up enormous blackened pots in baskets. They were going to make lunch. By 0900 no teachers had turned up and the kids were milling around and showing me the classrooms. They even unlocked the school office so I could have a look. The school was built some 6 years ago by CITTA and Michael Daube, who took over from Antakharana and Deanna Campbell for whom I fundraised. The school had 5 classrooms, an office and a kitchen with a large stove. CITTA provided the school buildings and three teachers salaries. The Nepal government provided to fourth teacher but he was absent. The often are.
Then at 0900 something extraordinary happened. A couple of the 10-11 olds made all the others form two lines a metre apart, 15 to a line. Once done, they all started singing morning prayers. Even the 5 year olds where singing like larks. They sang 3-4 prayers for about 15 minutes, during which time the three teachers, including Nima turned up. There was then an orderly roll call organized by, Nyendrak, the curly haired 26 year old teacher, then the kids marched round the yard and into their respective classrooms. It was amazing to see such enthusiastic and voluntary discipline and it would be difficult to imagine it in Europe today. I popped my head into each classroom and said goodbye and started down the steep path. En route I noticed a small meditation place in an old building high up in the rocks above the village.
I went past the monastery and started towards Til. I crossed the bridge and lost the path almost at once, ending up in barley fields. The path soon vanished and not wanting to turn back I found myself in boggy ground following a line of springs beside the Halji Khola as it neared the large Limi Khola. The wildflowers here were amazing especially the columbines, but the price I had to pay was wet feet as I sunk in and water poured into my porous shoes, which had only just dried out. I reached the small bridge over the Halji Khola and with it the path to Til. It followed the north side of the river for a good km and then crossed to the south side over a log and stone cantilever bridge. It was dry and arid here, and for the first time in a week it was sunny with just a few clouds. I had my hands in my pockets as I sauntered along the path with willows and smaller Bhutan pines on each side. It was a very easy stroll down the riverside. The valley was deep now with very ochre rocks on each side. It was almost a canyon, but gorge was perhaps a better terms as the rocks were not sedimentary. After an easy two hours the path reached another cantilever bridge and recrossed to the northside where the Til Khola came down from glaciated peaks to the north. It formed an opening in the valley with a verdant alluvial fan covered in willows. This flat area was called Tiljung. The path forked here with a branch going to Hilsa and another up beside the Til Khola to Til. I took the latter.
It was a hard climb for me as I slogged up some 300m on a relatively easy path. I was tired. At a couple of chortens the path levelled off and I could look up and see the fantastically evocative Til monastery on the hillside above. Soon after I saw the lowest of the terraced fields, a few going yellow with mustard greens. Then the solid grey houses of Til came into view a good km away. It took a while to reach them as I lacked energy and stopped frequently. The two bowls of tsampa had worn off. Just as I reached Til and was about to cross the stream to the village I came across Bharat and the others. They had sent a scout team of Dawa and Santos across the bridge into Til and they had just returned. It seemed the village was abandoned except for the elderly and frail, and infants. All the others had gone to China to work for about a month. Those left could not speak Nepali and their dialect of Tibetan was incomprehensible to Dawa, who being Sherpa had some smattering of it. But apparently there was no local shop. Because there was no shop in Halji either we had run out of food. The political committee who ran Halji decided not to allow a local shop in an attempt to keep alcohol and cigarettes, and indeed sweets, out of the village and it was working. As we were pondering what to do I brought out my notebook and found Sangyal Lhama’s name. She was Dhondup’s (the teacher in Dzang) sister and he wrote the name in the book and told me I could stay there. He also showed me a picture of her.
At that moment a young lady came down to throw some rubbish into the river. Ramesh went down and was chatting to her for a few minutes. Then he disappeared and reappeared 10 minutes later. There was a lot of toing and froing, and other people became involved, all elderly from what we could see. Then Ramesh and the young lady came up to us and said we could stay. I said you look like Sangyal and she was surprised. I told her I had stayed with her brother 2 days ago and showed her a picture. She spoke English, Tibetan and Hindi having been educated at a Dalai Lama school in India. Her Tibetan was modern and Dawa could understand her. We went to her house and it was lovely. As usual downstairs was for animals in the winter. The middle floor was storage and grass for winter fodder and the top floor was the kitchen and main living room with a large opening in the roof. I was bright and fresh and there were plenty of plants growing in buckets under the open area. Dawa and Santos soon worked their charm and took over from where Ramesh had left off and she was pleased to have us. She was well educated but had some health problems and had to return to the village, and the money for her education ran out. She was the only young adult left in the village and was a bit stuck here and quite bored so we were a welcome relief. Her mother was away in China for the month, and her dad was estranged from the family and in China.
After tea she decided to accompany us to the monastery. It was a lively excursion and Bharat and the others in good form. My outburst and their drinking under the bridge now. The monastery was also very old. Like Halji said the Lama who was busy cementing the floor slabs. It had two prayer rooms. A small one for local occasions and a large one for the winter when 4-6 visiting monks came for the duration and stayed. They were very different in character with the smaller one looking more Bonpo with many masks of demons and some of animals. While the larger one was more orthodox with statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and pictures of important Rinpoches like the Dalai Lama, H.H.Chetsang Rinpoche and others. I asked if I could take pictures and he politely said “not inside, but most welcome outside”. I had already taken some 11 years ago of the larger prayer room. We chatted outside for a good half hour with the Lama and he gave us sweets and I gave him a small donation.
We all returned and I went via the school. CITTA and Michael had built this also and it had 4 rooms. However, there was not the children in Til to fill even one class, and certainly not the 10 Michael needed to employ a teacher. The people of Til were also a bit reluctant to send their children to school here, and hoped instead for an overseas sponsor to send their children to a Buddhist school in India. So the school remained shut. I then wandered the lanes and passages of Til photographing all the features. It was the smallest of the 3 Limi villages with about 25 houses, but it was full of character. One feature here were the large metal framed windows which made the living space so much nicer. I returned to Sangyal’s house where Ramesh was making tea. Sangyal was getting on well with the others who were being helpful and sociable. She was loving their company, especially Dawa’s who was on top form. I wrote the blog. In the evening we all slept on the floor of the living room. The glow of mobile phones attracting the moths until we all had out digital fix. Tomorrow would be an early start.
19 July. Til to Hilsa. 21 km. 8,5 hours. 1250m up. 1540m down. Sangyal was up very early getting the stove going and cleaning. We got up at 0500 and I noticed how dark it was now just a month after the solstice. Breakfast was tsampa. I ate two bowls of it, carefully mixing the oat powder to a paste in the small bowl. I tried to pay a generous fee but Sangyal wanted the bare minimum. It was not the usual argument about payment. We left her the pressure cooker, spare kerosene and a few other things I though we did not need. We left well before 0700 on a morning with pretty good weather with just 50% cloud cover and little threat of rain. We were almost north of the Himalayas in a rain shadow now. We walked through the deserted village, save for the elderly and Sangyal, crossed the small bridge, walked past the mothballed primary school and walked into the birch wood nourished by seepage from the irrigation ditch for the verdant terraced fields below. For the next km we walked through rampant vegetation with wildflowers up to our waists. It was wet with dew so before long my cherished dry feet were soaking again. At a fork we took the branch and climbed away from the oasis of Til and up onto the arid scrub covered hillside. The next stop was Hilsa, about 8 hours walk away. It was our final destination and the end of the GHT.
We climbed up to a chorten on a spur with a good view back up the Limi valley. Far below was the faint hiss of the Limi Khola, its roar muted by our elevation. We climbed up still further gently traversing up the hillside sparsely covered in juniper, wild roses and smaller flowering shrubs until we got to junction where the path split. Each branch continued west to the craggy spur ahead, with strings of prayer flags marking the crossing. One branch went up and one down with recent footsteps on both. Frequently a path splits like this if the shorter route is unsuitable for beasts of burden, and mule or yak dung on one trail but not the other is a clue. We took the lower trail without dung, and reached the spur in 5 minutes.
There was a sensational view here. The Limi Khola heading west met the mighty Karnali heading east at the bottom of a gorge perhaps a kilometre deep. The river then turned south and continued down the gorge. The sides of the gorge were immense, very steep, and perhaps 1000m high. Rivulets and gullies had riven the cliffs so they were eroded into monstrous towers and pinnacles, where snow still lingered in their depths. The Karnali formed two sides of an inaccessible triangle with the mountains forming the third side. No human or domesticated animal could get here with great hardship. The small paths on the other side of the Karnali must be formed by blue sheep. This was their domain and nothing could disturb them, except maybe snow leopard and there must be one or two in a lair here high on the cliffs.
From the prayer flags the path descended down into this gorge for a short distance. Even on the north side, the topography was chaotic with ochre rock spires and ravines. It zig-zagged down for 100 metres into this steep jagged landscape and then began a sensational traverse on a wide rock ledge for a good km. The ledge wove in and out of ravines where the harder base protruded from the softer top as it contoured around the buttresses. It was like being in the Dolomites, except for the fact that half way round there was a large overhang in the upper top layer with a couple of caves and even a tiny spring. It was all that was needed for ascetic Buddhist monks to establish a meditation place here. There were perhaps 15 caves and simple stone shelters where monks would come. Except for a few they were all in disrepair now, and the few which looked recently used were most likely from people travelling to and from Limi Valley. There were many faded Buddhist paintings and murals on the exposed walls and prayers carved into the rock walls of the caves, confirming it was an abandoned retreat.
We left the rock ledge and continued west along the steep valley side until we met the path coming down from the higher path used by the beasts of burden. The merged path then continued to another spur, overlooking the Karnali gorge. On the opposite side the rock strata rose a good kilometre from the river which had exposed millions of years of geological time when the sediments built up, perhaps in a similar fashion to how the sediments are building up in the Bay of Bengal today. From the spur west the north side of the gorge relented and became a huge grassy slope, albeit very steep. The path contoured along it for a few km crossing the odd spring or rivulet to reach Manepeme. There was some camping here where patches between the boulders had been levelled with earth and a small spring nearby to the west. However the area was strewn with litter, and I am sure glass, all of it with Chinese labelling. It was not a pleasant campsite especially as it was perhaps just another 3 hours at the most to the fleshpots of Hilsa. For these 3 hours the path climbed over the top of a couple of massive landslides and then traversed the hillside until the path became a track. It continued west over a few spurs until at last there were signs of civilization. Meanwhile on the south side of the Karnail the gorge had surrendered to a barren arid hillside which swept up from the river to the Yari Pass. We would be climbing this tomorrow. There was a track which came over this pass from Simikot, which then descended the 1000m rapidly in a series of hairpins and sweeping descents round side valleys.
The civilization we saw at the spur was of marked contrast. On the south side of the Karnali was the dusty town of Hilsa. It was trying to pull itself out of the 15 century with its stone and earth houses and oasis of barley fields and become the hub of the Mount Kailash tourist industry. There were many new blue tin roofed hotels going up for the Indian tourists who were flocking to the town after an arduous, but modern, travel involving a few internal flights, a helicopter ride, masses of permits and paperwork and erratic delays due to weather. Some of these would conspire to thwart their pilgrimage. On the north side of the Karnali was a modern village of white concrete houses surrounded by the greenest of perfectly formed irrigated terraces. Below them was a huge immigration gate and buildings of the Chinese state with a well made tarmac road leading off to the plains around Purang and Mount Kailash. There was a stream of pilgrims going from the helipad, through Hilsa, across the suspension footbridge to a fleet of smart Chinese coaches, or vice versa.
We descended the track, steeply shortcutting the zig-zags, to the north end of the footbridge, just metres from the Chinese border. Then crossed the bridge to enter Hilsa. There were a few policeman here and they seemed much more professional than the bored unfortunates in remote postings with their blunderbusses. We asked a couple of them to take group photos of us as this was essentially the end of the GHT. We had made it right to the end unscathed and intact after 126 days of continual walking with no breaks of blemishes. It was the purest of hikes. There was no real emotion or outpouring of emotions and it was as if it was just another day had ended and now we would find a hotel and celebrate with dozens of cans of cheap Lhasa beer.
All day however we had seen helicopters ferrying the Indian tourists from Simikot to Hilsa and vice versa. I had previously spoken to Alex, a Brazillian helicopter pilot from Mountain Flights and he said his company could ferry us back from Hilsa on a return flight for US$1000. I calculated this would save me US$600 on wages and food and lodging over the three days it would take us to walk back, so the helicopter would only be US$400. I had already done that walk 11 years ago before the road was built, so was not too keen to repeat it. I said to the others “right let’s go and get a helicopter to Simikot”. I think they thought I was joking. We walked up to the helipad, I told the ground crews the price I had been offered and they wanted proof. At that moment Alex appeared on the horizon, so I told them to radio him. It was agreed but I had to pay now. I turned round and Santos and Dawa were missing. Ramesh was dispatched to run and find them and their loads and return all at a run. The others soon arrived, the helicopter landed and discharged its 5 passengers, I handed over 110,000 rupees cash and we piled in and took off.
It took just 20 minutes to fly up and over the Yari Pass, then down over the villages of Yari to meet the Karnarli as it emerged from its gorge. We then followed it down over a very wooded landscape passing the valleys of the Salli Khola and Hepka Khola where we previously walked. The helicopter then climbed up over a spur on the south side to gain height, crossed the valley and landed at the tiny Simikot airport. Three days walking in 20 minutes. In another 20 minutes we had walked up to the hotel, checked in and I was in the shower. It was less than an hour from out finishing photo session at the bridge in Hilsa and it was quite surreal. The GHT was over.
Section 14. Limi. 110 Km. 38 Hours. 5880m up, 5380m down.
Complete GHT Totals. 1787 km. 743 hours. 99370m up. 99510m down.