Photo Essay by Emily Yeh.
In July-August 2016, I was very fortunate to be able to join the Sacred Himalaya Initiative of the India-China Institute at The New School, in a trip through Humla to Mount Kailash. Led by Ashok Gurung, we were a crew of Americans, Nepalis, and Indians supported by a number of cooks and porters. Although the centerpiece of the journey was Mount Kailash, we spent much more of our time walking through Humla District in the Karnali Zone and in the northwestern corner of Nepal, much of which was once part of Ngari in western Tibet. Its district headquarters, Simikot, is currently accessible only by plane or foot. We spent five days walking in the Tibetan Buddhist Nyin valley to the east, home of Tshewang Lama, a former politician as well as lama, businessman, and organic intellectual who accompanied us throughout the trip. Then after returning to Simikot, we split into two groups, one taking the shorter route to the border at Hilsa through Muchu and Tumkot, and the other (including me) the longer northern route over the Nyalu pass through the isolated Limi Valley.
Humla is home to both Hindu (Chhetri and Thakuri) and Tibetan Buddhist communities, with the former living in the south and the latter mostly to the north in and past Dharapuri. The region was once quite prosperous from the trade that brought salt from Tibet in exchange for grain from lower Nepal. With the change in border policies and broader shifts in the political economy (including the advent of iodized salt), however, Humla has now become a food deficient region, and one of the poorest and least developed districts of Nepal. Consequently, Simikot is home to many international and Nepali NGOs and receives considerable food aid.
Our initial primary goal during the more than two weeks we spent in Humla was to better understand the region’s pilgrimage routes and other connections to Kailash and Manasarovar, both past and present. In the course of our walking and conversations with Humla residents, though, we also learned about road building and shifting livelihoods, particularly with increasing labor outmigration.