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Hidden Stories of the Hidden Himalayas

ECS Nepal | , March 2013

Humla? Do you know it is the most rural part of Nepal?
Humla? 2900 meters above sea level! You are going to freeze to death!
Humla? Make sure you pack loads of food! People are starving there and you might as well.
Humla? Now you’ll see the “real” Nepal!
Humla? I just read news about salt shortage there.

With all these warnings, anticipations, and 5 kilograms of salt (NRs 16 per kg), Declan Mccormack from Flooded Cellar Productions, Suraj Ratna Shakya, a freelance photographer, and I, a fragile intern at IFAD, set off towards Humla on a four-day video shoot. But the moment we arrived at Simikot airport, we were greeted by hundreds of salt sacks stacked at the cargo station. There was no salt shortage. In fact, salt was much cheaper in Humla – NRs 9 per kg. 

Following our arrival at Bijay Hotel Lodge and Restaurant, only a few minutes away from the airport, we were offered the most amazing cup of cappuccino. Surprised to be holding a grand cup of cappuccino in the most secluded area of the country, we were quick to tweet our joys. And though we did not have attached bathrooms, our rooms at the hotel were more than what we could ask for – warm blankets on cozy mattresses, a window view of the Himalaya, flowery wallpapers, and a poster that said “For those who dream to fly.”

Humla is a wonder-mix of breathtaking landscape and fascinating cultural diversity, making it one of the most mesmerizing yet least explored regions of Nepal. It is the gateway to Mt. Kailash and the Hidden Himalaya Trek – the two main reasons for tourists to visit Humla. We, however, had a different purpose. Our trail derailed from the touristy tracks, steering us towards the inner villages to witness the harsh lives of the Humli people. We were there to explore poverty.

Funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), this trip was part of a mission to capture the progress of Western Upland Poverty Alleviation Project (WUPAP) on film. We focused on five different themes: infrastructure development, remittance, connectivity, self-help group and microfinance. Since 1978, IFAD has been supporting various development projects in Nepal aiming to enable rural people overcome poverty. WUPAP is one of its four ongoing projects.

Formed under WUPAP was a community organization investing in the production of herbs – our first stop. There we met a 64 year-old woman who had recently joined the group in hopes of earning enough to settle the NRs 5,000 she had borrowed for her daughter’s medical treatment three years ago. While her daughter did not survive, she was left unable to repay the loan that has now amounted to NRs 10,000.

“Do you want to see something?” she asked us, uncovering rice grains hidden under the blanket she was sitting on. This was all she had left, enough only for the next few meals. Land here is too dry and infertile for agriculture, making life very difficult for the natives of Humla. Yet, before we left, she offered us the last remaining apple on her tree. Her generosity, even at the most difficult of times, touched our hearts.

The next freezing morning, we started our journey early, crawling up rugged uphills and rolling down slippery downhills, on our trek to Kharpel. 

It would not be an exaggeration to list this small and dry village in Kharpunath among the most isolated and underdeveloped villages in Nepal. For the people of Kharpel, electricity was once a phenomenon many had only heard stories about. But with a small hydropower station built by WUPAP three years ago, the villagers are now able to enjoy electricity. 


“I can now do my homework at night after I finish all the chores,” said 12 year-old Kamala Shahi, pointing at the only fluorescent bulb in her house. The way villagers valued even the most basic forms of electricity was amazing. This was where people celebrated electricity.

On our way back the next day, we were met with yet another inconvenience of rural Nepal - the hardship of transporting goods across mountains. Mules are among the few options of transporting basic items, such as salt and rice, in Humla. And on the day we were travelling, a group of mule herders had an accident – a mule got stuck on a makeshift wooden bridge. Following an hour of tussle, the mule was finally freed, but only after one of the herders suffered a head injury, with no proper medical treatment available nearby. 

Later that day, we were glad to see the herders returning from the market after finishing their deals. The herder, who was injured, received treatment at the market and was smiling back at us – “All ok.” We, however, were not. Though we did manage to get back to our hotel in Simikot, we were barely able to move a muscle. And for the rest of the day, we enjoyed the pain of our accomplishments on our beds. 

We are now back in Kathmandu, engulfed by the conveniences it has on offer. And it all seems like a dream – as if we never slept on cold floors, sharing a single piece of yak skin; as if we never bruised a hundred times tumbling over stony trails; as if our hearts never skipped a beat when the alarm echoed across the airplane while flying through rocky mountains towards Humla. 

But the glorious smiles of the people of Humla, facing the most difficult lives we can possibly imagine, were not dreams. We will never forget them. 

the hidden stories of the hidden himalayas
kissed my heartaches away
they have sadder stories
harsher lives
painful memories
yet, full of smiles
they hide their tears
and welcome you with hugs
although hungry themselves,
the last apple on the tree is yours
the hidden stories of the hidden himalayas
sad stories
yet, full of smiles…

Text: Lorina Sthapit
Images: Suraj Shakya

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