TREK FROM HUMLA TO MOUNT KAILASH
The opening of the border between Humla in northwest Nepal and in southwest Tibet in May 1993 marked a turning point in the history of this sleepy backwater. Pilgrims and traders had long been permitted to cross into Tibet from Nepal in carefully monitored groups, but the coming of western tourist traffic was something quite new and a real eye-opener for Humla is like passing a parade of the most exotic cultures surviving in Nepal today.
Flights to Simikot now make Humla readily accessible, though getting yourselves and all your food and equipment there on a given day requires some logistical acumen and luck. You will be competing with experienced Humlis bent on getting crates of fresh fruit and other bulky treats for their families onto the flight at Nepalganj. Charter flights regularly carry freight on this sector, and having an agent arrange this in advance of your arrival is a good idea. You also have to register with the police at the check post south of the airstrip on arrival, and if you need to organize any porters in town you'll be very lucky to get away the same day.
The population of Humla can roughly be divided into Hindu Chhetris and Thakuris, and Buddhist Bhotias and Nyimbas - Tibetans living in upper Humla. You will find that the Thakuris and Chhetris of Simikot are reluctant to carry loads. They also tend to live at lower altitudes and be more introverted in their communities than the Buddhists, who tend to live in high, open country and are comparatively astute in business and outward looking.
A British charity, The Nepal Trust, has been working amongst the Nyimbas for several years, building community health-care facilities in outlying villages, as well as a multi-purpose centre in Simikot which serves as a basic restaurant, hotel and information centre.
Simikot to Yari
If you fly in to Simikot, it is sensible to make your first day a short one and walk over the ridge north of town and on down to Masigaon. This is an 800m (2625ft) descent and should give you a better chance of a good night's sleep unacclimatised. There is a small, filthy teashop here run by friendly old dhami, and limited camping space on the terraces below.
The trail to the Nara Lagna and Tibet from Simikot has been a major trade and pilgrim route for many centuries, and walking it today is a cultural education in itself. In the course of a day you will meet white turbaned dhamis with huge gold earrings and billowing sulpa pipes, barefoot soot-black ragamuffin urchins herding their flocks to pature, traders with hundreds of laden sheep and goats (each animal carrying a 10kg load called a lukal in small panniers), portly lamas heading for Bodnath or Kailas, almost naked trident-bearing saddhus from India, school teachers and government officials from all over Nepal, processions of singing village women carrying firewood down from the hills and men spinning wool as they walk. There's never a dull moment in Humla.
Allow yourself more than the minimum five days required to reach Yari, the last village in Nepal on this route. Visit KermiGompah and the Nepal Turst's health post at Yangar. Pause at the vast, verdan meadows by the Karnaliriver at Yalbang and imagine the month long meal that used to go on there every October. Time seems to pass at a more natural, primitive pace in Humla, and to rush through on a tight schedule is to miss much of what the place has to offer.
The Nepal immigration control is at Muchhu, and the customs post a day further on at Yari. There's a dusty camping ground right in front of the police/immigration post at Muchhu, but a much nicer spot can be found half an hour beyond, down by the river. If you've arranged to be met by your Tibetan or Chinese hosts on the other side of the Nara Lagna, try to camp above Yari to give your selves plenty of time for dealing with bureaucracy the next day. The highest karkha on the Nepal side is at sipsip (4330m/14207ft), but those not acclimatizing so well should camp lower- there is a meadow at 3950m (12960ft) from which the pass (4500m/14765ft) can be reached in two hours.
Yari to Tibet
Descending north from the bleak, windswept Nara Lagna and confronted with Tibet's sweeping vista of inhospitable and completely barren brown hills, you may fell like turning tail and fleeing back to Nepal. The river in the valley before you is indeed the HumlaKarnali, now completely transformed from the mighty torrent you followed for so long in Nepal. Here it is a much diminished stream, flowing shallow and clear in a desolate wilderness of sand and stone. A new suspension bridge was completed at Hilsa (a tiny hamlet at htefoot of the Nara Lagna on the north side - surely the most remote piece of real estate in Nepal!) in 1997, and from here it's just ten minutes walk up to sher, where a tattered Chinese flag flies noisily against the perpetual howling wind proclaiming this the most distant out post of Chinese rule in Tibet.
The 125km (78mile) road from sher to Darchen, starting point for the pilgrim route or kora around Mount Kailas, is rough and difficult for anything other than a four-wheel drive vehicle. The Chinese do bounce Dong Feng ('Liberation') trucks along it, but travelling this way is not for the faint hearted. Be sure to visit KhojarnathGompah on the way, and have a wander around Purang (also known as Taklakot). The State Bank of China at the head of Purang's dusty main street, despite its ostentatious facade, does not accept travellerscheques. Exchange procedures are excruciatingly lengthy, so if you are with a group pool all your cash and make one transaction.
You'll probably be obliged to stay in the Hotel for Tourist in Purang. This dusty compound used to be used as accommodation for pilgrims travelling from India across the LipuLekh and facilities are very basic. There are no toillets. Don't be fooled either by the Happy Drinking Room at the entrance - it's a brothel!
The accommodation in Purang may be bad, but the rooms offered at Darchen are much worse. you'll have to stay there on the way in, to arrane yaks to carry your kit around Kailas, though it can easily be missed on the return journey in favour of a camp by the shoes of Lake Manasarovar. The food available at these places and provided by the Chinese for trekkers on a trip around Kailas is diabolical (fine if you like noodles), so it's a good idea to have your outfitter in Kathmandu arrange for you Nepali trek crew to accompany you into Tibet.
Tibetan pilgrims make the 52km (33miles) kora around Kailas in a single day (mostly travelling clockwise), leaving Darchen well before dawn and returning late at night. Most foreigners take a more sedate four days, allowing and appreciation of the stunning scenery in the region and a chance to acclimatise to the extreme altitude. Darchen is at 4560m (14961ft); the highest camp used by trekking groups is at JarokDongkhang (5210m/17094ft) above DiraphukGompah on their second day; and the Dolma La is at 5660m (18570ft). Nowhere is the trail really difficult, and as you slump wearily on a wayside rock to rest you will be cajoled and encouraged by cheery Tibetan ladies twice your age.
Take your timeand absorb the wonders of Mount Kailas. This is the spirtual heart of Tibet the holiest of holies, and witnessing the piety of pilgrims here - both Hindu and Buddhist - will dispel any doubts you may have been harbouring about the resilience of the human spirit. I defy any one not to be moved by this place.
Walk-out via Limi
Those in search of further adventure may wish to consider a difficult but rewarding diversion on their way back to Simikot. From Sher (on the Tibetan side to the HumlaKarnali) a trail heads off into the Nepali restricted area of Limi. The Bhotias living in this, the most remote of all Nepal's mountain communities, traditionally maintained close links with Tibet, traditionally maintained close links with Tibet, grazing enormous herds of pashmina producing mountain goats on the Tibetan plateau and manufacturing huge quantities of rosewood bowls on stirrup lathes which were highly sought after as far afield as Lhasa.
The rugged trail back this way follows the TakcheChhu east through Limi, tums south at GummaYok and Tshom Tso and crosses the 4800m (15749ft) NyaluLekh before finally descending the ChhungsaKhola to rejoin the HumlaKarnali. Allow at least a week to reach Simikot from Sher by this route. There are many variations possible, and for those properly provisioned and equipped, with sufficient experience of this type of wilderness trekking, Limi is a fantastically rewarding and scenic walk.