Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hidden Stories of the Hidden Himalayas

by Lorina Sthapit

“Humla! Do you know that it is the most rural part of Nepal? 
“Humla! You will freeze to death!”
“Humla! Make sure you take lots of food. People are starving there and you might as well”
“Humla! Now you’ll see the real Nepal”
“Humla! I just read in the news that there is salt shortage there”.

So with all these warnings and anticipations, Declan McCormack from Flooded Cellar Productions, Suraj Ratna Shakya, a freelance photographer and I, set off for a four-day video shooting in Humla with mixed feelings and five kilos of salt from Nepalgunj; rupees 16 per kilo. But as soon as we arrived at Simikot airport, situated at 2900 meters, we saw hundreds of salt sacks stacked at the cargo station. There was no salt shortage, in fact, salt there was much cheaper; rupees 9 per kilo. We were fooled by the media. 

Humla is a mixture of beautiful snow-capped mountains, breathtaking landscapes and fascinating cultural diversity, making it one of the most mysterious yet least explored areas of Nepal. It is the gateway to Mt. Kailash and the Hidden Himalaya Trek, the two main reasons for tourists to visit Humla. But our team had a different purpose. Our trail derailed from the touristy tracks to the inner villages to witness the harsh lives of the Humli people. We were there to explore poverty.

This trip was a part of International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) documentary making mission to capture the activities of Western Upland Poverty Alleviation Project (WUPAP) under five different themes: infrastructure development, remittance, connectivity, self-help groups and microfinance. IFAD has been supporting development projects in Nepal aiming to enable poor rural people to overcome poverty since 1978. WUPAP is one of its four ongoing projects.

During our stay in Humla we were startled by the remoteness and poverty of the villages we visited but we also managed to enjoy the exoticness it had to offer. As soon as we arrived at our hotel, Bijay Hotel Lodge and Restaurant, which was only few minutes away from the airport and facing the beautiful snow-capped mountain range, we were greeted with the most amazing cup of cappuccino. Surprised to be holding a grand cup of cappuccino in the most remote area of the country, we immediately published the good news on our facebooks and twitters. Although we didn’t have an attached bathroom, the hotel room was more than what we could ask for, for rupees 500 per night: cozy bed with warm blankets, beautiful window view, personal television set, flowery wallpapers and a poster that said ‘for those who dream to fly’.

After taking over the overwhelming excitement, we started our shoot. The first stop on our itinerary was to visit a community organization formed under WUPAP and now investing in herbs production. During the shoot, we met a 64 year-old woman who had recently entered the group with high hopes of earning some money to pay off her debts. She had borrowed rupees 5,000 for her daughter’s medical treatment three years back. Her daughter couldn’t make it but she is still struggling to pay back the loan which has now added up to rupees 10,000.

“Do you want to see something?,” she asked and slowly uncovered the rice grains laid under the blanket she was sitting on. This was her food storage for the rest of the year enough only for next few meals. It was heartbreaking to see that the Humli people cannot live off the little amount of cultivable land and harsh climate. This poor woman shared with us her stories of scarcity and before we left, she offered us the last apple on her tree. This sense of generosity even at the most difficult times touched our hearts.

Later that day, we were informed that the local community radio will be broadcasting about our arrival and the purpose of our visit to Humla in the evening news. With much excitement we decided to visit the radio station, Radio Kailash. Having worked in radio stations in the past, both Suraj and I were very glad to see a well equipped and a well managed radio station in remote Nepal. We enjoyed our few seconds of fame with smiles.  A grand dinner marked the end of the day.

The next morning, we started our journey very early. It was freezing cold but we had to shed our thick clothes since we would be walking for next five or six hours. Yes, for the first hour it was walking but later it turned into crawling and then dragging. We literally crawled up the steep mountains, dragged ourselves through the rugged uphills and rolled down the slippery downhills.  After six hours of painful journey through the merciless trail, we arrived at Kharpel, a small dry village in Kharpunath, a few hundred meters below Simikot. This is where people celebrated electricity.

With a small hydropower set up by WUPAP three years ago, the villagers are now able to witness electricity which they only heard about from their friends who had visited India and China. Here we met 12 year-old Kamala Shahi who studies in grade six. Pointing at the only fluorescent bulb in her house she said, “I can now do my homework at night after I finish all the household chores”. We were amazed to see how people here valued the small amount of electricity they owned.

Kharpel is one of the most rural and underdeveloped villages we had ever visited. With vultures revolving and thousands of flies buzzing around in every household, we realized that we should have brought soaps to distribute instead of salt. Land here is too dry and infertile for agriculture and so the villagers are forced to live off the limited production of few crops including a type of highland rice called ‘cheeno’, radish, walnuts and pinto beans and that’s what we were offered for lunch. We ate two plates full.

The next day on our way back, we had a reality check. A group of donkey herders had an accident. One of the donkeys got stuck in the makeshift bridge. Donkeys, sheeps and chauri gai (a female hybrid of yak) and few other animals are the only medium of transport in Humla. The villagers use them to transport salt, rice and other items back and forth their villages. It took a while to pull the donkey out of the bridge and in the process one of the herders was badly injured on his head with no proper medical treatment available nearby. Seeing all this: a donkey stuck in a bridge, people struggling to get it out, a wounded villager, his howling son, rest of the team on other side of the bridge and to top it all, severe period cramps, I was in shock!

After about half an hour of wailing and struggling, the donkey finally fell into the river but safe and intact. The incident left us with chills. But we were glad to see them returning back from the market after finishing their deals while we were still dragging ourselves, well you could say that we were not in our best shape. Amazed at the Humli people and their stamina, we did manage to finally get back to our hotel in Simikot but were barely able to move a muscle. For the rest of the day, we just enjoyed the painful of accomplishment. For those of you who are interested to learn about people and places in rural Nepal than just admiring the natural beauty of its landscapes, we recommend you to take a little detour on your travel journey and meet the real heroes who are living each day of scarcity with glory and smile.

Now that we are back in Kathmandu with all the luxury, it feels like it never happened. Like we never had to share a yak’s skin as a blanket while sleeping on the cold floor wishing that the drunk villagers who were singing, which later seemed like quarrelling, outside would just stop and let us sleep in peace; like we never slipped for like zillion times on the steep mountains; like we never met all those people who had sad stories and starry eyes; like we never flew on a plane without a boarding pass with only six passengers and hundreds of kilos of rice and like our hearts never skipped a beat when the airplane’s siren went off while we were flying in between the beautiful but bare mountains. But we lived all this and more. Well, it might not sound as great an adventure to most of you but for us, who live in the cities with all the privilege, it was something!

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…

Declan: I have never taken a flight that does not descend before landing! (to everyone he meets back in Kathmandu)
Suraj: I should take a time-lapse. (but he never did)
Lorina: I don’t think I can make it. I am too tired. (every next minute on the way back to Simikot from Kharpunath)
Us: Phew! You know we walked 13 hours in two days through the remote villages in Humla.
Them: So? (raised eyebrows)

We are now busy with the post production of the videos. They will be uploaded in in January 2013.

Lorina Sthapit
Intern, IFAD

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