The Hidden Himalayas - Path to Shangri-La

Features Issue 107 Sep, 2010
Text and Photo By Emma Finney

Hidden deep within the Himalayas is Humla – the highest, most northern and remote district of Nepal.

This district is home to Limi Valley, an area untouched by modern changes and, for many, still represents the mythical Shangri-La. This valley is the only remaining place where the original Tibetan culture and costume still exist, unaffected by the Cultural Revolution of Central Tibet.

I was out here on a reconnaissance trek, exploring new routes in a remote area unfamiliar with modern tourism. Starting in Simikot I traced the route of the ancient salt caravan heading towards Hilsa, where Nepal meets Tibet.

Each day, traversing this route provided something different, never did my eyes feel the fatigue of gazing upon similar scenery; the scale of things here is grand. Rich green terraces lined the valley as if carved from creation; overhead eagles effortlessly soared, whilst wild yak basked in the cool turquoise waters.

Here, a curious paradox exists. Humla is poverty stricken, possibly one of the poorest regions in the world. Yet, amidst all hardship, the people were glowing. Like beacons, their auras shone with a full spectrum of color; the color of hope, acceptance, of compassion. It was here, amidst utter poverty, that I witnessed (for possibly the first time) an authentic sense of wealth.

The route out of Simikot was initially quite steep, but after crossing the pass, there was approximately two hours of descent. The descent was tough on the legs, and a couple of times, I skidded and lost my footing. Two non-government officials joined me to deliver essential items en route to the more remote villages.

The beauty of trekking in this region is that it doesn’t suffer the monsoon rains that affect the rest of the country. Here, it’s amazing to look out across deep green gorges, to see snow capped peaks and to lay both scenes above the gurgling turquoise waters of the Karnali River below. The sense of remoteness out here is quite astonishing.

As I made my way to Kermi, the realisation of walking the ancient salt route suddenly hit me. Here I passed numerous sheep caravans; each sheep loaded with a saddle bag containing 12 kg of salt.

Mules and Uncle crossing the Tankchhe Khola

The scenery was glorious, an isolated piece of paradise. Here, as if worn by time, the ancient trade route literally carved its way through the valley wall and waterfalls spouted from the skies above.

From this serene enclosure, Eden’s garden, it wasn’t long before I was scaling the valley sides once more. Small villages could be seen scattered sporadically at the top of the mighty gorge.

Assisting me out here is possibly the world’s cutest little mule, grey in color and quite rotund, this little mule has the most incredible flatulence problem. Apparently, on a previous outing, a traveller had bet $20 that the mule (known locally as ‘short nose’) wouldn’t be able to fart for 10 minutes. The muleteer, armed with a feed mix of lentils, dhal and chhyang (a Nepali alcoholic beverage usually brewed from millet) simply fed the animal, stood back, and 10 minutes later, he was $20 richer.

On my route, I encountered a nomad tribe living at the foot of a pine forest. The children here were sick, suffering from gastric problems as well as some sort of fungal infection covering their faces. It would seem that as a ‘white woman’ travelling in this region, one automatically assumes the role of ‘medicine woman’. This was fine in the few instances where I could actually offer advice and assistance, but those instances were too few and far between and, on numerous occasions, I was confronted with conditions far beyond my medical capabilities.

Today was sheer agony, the route seemed to go continuously up and down, my pace was excruciatingly slow and, at times, I think I may have even been going backwards. It’s amazing how much extra effort is required from a small hike in altitude. By the time I had reached that night’s camp spot, the weather had changed. I was camping at the foot of the Chongsa basin, a huge, eerily dark mountain, where an icy chill filled the air. The wind howled through the valley, mist plummeted down the rocks and the rain lashed at me.

After a night of sleet/snowfall, I set off in poor visibility to make it to the 5,000-m Nyalu pass; right now, I feel like I’m living the script of the ‘never ending story’, each day a new challenge, a new initiation that leads onto the next.

Cconcealed rockface shrines

I rode the horse over the pass, and OMG, this scared the living heebie-jeebies out of me! If there’s one thing scarier than riding a horse as it climbs up over steep boulders, it’s a horse bumbling down steep boulders, and worse still... doing this on an altitude-weary horse.

After a rather humorous, long hard slog, the pass had been crossed and I began my descent into the next valley. The descent proved equally as difficult – vertigo sufferers need not apply! With fresh snowfall on the ground I longed, in case of arrest for my crampons and axe; at times the route seemed treacherous and quite exposed.

The valley I now found myself in was completely different to any of the others recently walked, this one, shaped like a wide basin, was filled with grass; a large river which collected into numerous turquoise pools, wild yak and rather obscurely, silt.

This place was a paradise for rare and wonderful species of wildlife; there were ground squirrel, musk deer, Himalayan marmot, wild goat and herds upon herds of wild yak. Here, unfamiliar with people passing through the animals, they were not fearful but curious instead; it was wonderful to stand back and watch as they played and frolicked unfazed by our gazing eyes.

As I reached the lake’s end and the edge of the valley, I was soon surrounded by the purest of white, silt beaches; beneath my feet, the grains glistened like a thousand twinkling stars. I feel quite overwhelmed; this whole experience feels like an epic journey, an exploration into new worlds, an unwritten adventure.

As I stood on top of a giant, white silt dune, lost in my daydream, one of the mules took a dramatic fall. Squirming flat on its side, it was sinking further into the silt; with the weight on its back, it couldn’t seem to regain its footing. A sombre feeling came over me and I was once again taken back to scenes from ‘the never ending story’. This moment, as it unfolded before me, reminded me so much of how Atreyu had watched helplessly as Artex slowly sank in the swamp of sadness.

Evidence of landslides above Halji village

As I rounded the corner, I was soon to find myself entering the upper reaches of Limi Valley. Here the scenery took on a delicate transformation. Each step I now took landed in the serene, purple haze that blanketed the ground. To my left, flowing calmly, were the waters of the Tankchhe Khola (khola: river).

As I sit here writing, listening to the soft and uninterrupted birdsong, two Limi women who had been out collecting Yak turd for fire tinder come over. They are fascinated by my tent. Watching me as I write, one of the women giggles, emitting the sweetest of intention filled with joy, she tells us (in a Tibetan dialect) how her own daughter is also left handed. Removing their hair clips, both women look over at me, poised with a knowing, mischievous smile.

The route down the valley was quite thin in places; boulders overhung the distant waters below. Watching the mules clatter into each other as they clumsily tried to navigate this terrain was, at times, horrific.

Here, once again the scenery had dramatically changed and we were now looking across what can only be described as ‘Marlboro Cowboy Country’; deep gorges with steep pinnacles of rock similar to that of the Grand Canyon. The views from the pass were expansive and far reaching, giving me opportunity to look back upon my journey so far.

The ancient route, showing signs of its age was, at times, treacherous. On a couple of occasions, I had to stop, breathe and re-compose myself as my concentration was slipping and my legs were nervously starting to quiver. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, the sheer up-and-down nature of this route meant that I had to fight back my emotions at times. That disheartening feeling of rounding another edge only to be confronted by yet another ascent was, at times, soul destroying.

I was knackered, every part of my body ached. It was so hot, and I kept feeling the spray of glistening, cool waterfalls, seeing how crystal clear the river water was. Yet, I couldn’t indulge; instead I had to keep reminding myself that all the water I consumed out here had to be treated.

The descent to Hilsa on the Nepal-Tibet border was epic. The original route had been blocked so my descent was made cross-country; over loose scree… loose scree overhanging a sheer-edged ravine.

So here I am… after navigating the ancient salt route, crossing high passes, deep valleys, glacial rivers and meeting numerous tribes, I had finally arrived at Hilsa where Nepal meets Tibet. This marked the end of my reconnaissance trek and the start, no doubt, of many more an adventure into the Great Hidden Himalayas. 

Emma Finney is the UK Representative for Responsible Treks, a Kathmandu-based travel company. Emma is an avid traveller with a keen passion for wilderness landscapes, the mountains and the therapeutic benefits such places can bring. She can be contacted at; Website details: