Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Nepalis Call Them Hills, I Call Them Mountains

This past week I travelled to Simikot in the remote northwestern corner of Nepal to give a presentation at a journalism training program the Embassy sponsored. To get there required a flight to and an overnight stay in Nepalgunj, which is Nepali for "Land of Many Mosquitoes." Early the next morning (exact flight times are rarely known in advance) I flew in a 12-person plane that was at least 50 years old, based on the upholstery of the seats. It had an open cockpit, which I hate because I don't want to see what's going on in there, especially when we're about to take off and the pilot - I kid you not - attaches a Garmin device to the plane's dashboard.

Simikot is an isolated village in Humla, one of the most remote districts in Nepal.
Nepal is a small country, but it's geography is extreme. Within 45 minutes we had travelled from the lowlands in the south (500 ft above sea level) and through the hills toward the Himalayas. We flew pretty close over the hilltops and I could see the imposing Himalayas ahead (through the stupid open cockpit). I kept wondering when the pilot was going to go higher, but just as I was about to panic, he banked left and I could see Simikot sitting on a small plateau at 10,000 feet above sea level.

One of many such towers built to scare off evil spirits
Simikot is very remote and isolated. About 90% of everything the people consume and use has to be flown in from the outside. There are no cars, motorcycles, or bicycles. Although most inhabitants are Buddhists, Simikot looks like any other Nepali Hindu village. Polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands) is still practiced in a handful of villages in Humla, but it's dying out. Lots of Indian tourists pass through Simikot on their way to Mt. Kailash in China, the supposed resting place of Lord Shiva. It seems odd to me that a Hindu god would head north to China to die, but there it is.

One of the most prevalent castes in Simikot is the Lamas; not only an ethnic group, it's also a vocation (as in the Dalai Lama). On my second morning a guide took me for a hike outside of Simikot. She explained that the people erect a series of rock towers at the edge of the villages to keep out the bad spirits. Stones with Tibetan scriptures written on them are added to the towers for extra luck.
During the hike, my guide invited me to her sister's house for some Tibetan tea. Preparing Tibetan tea is quite complicated and the end result tastes like cream of butter soup. 

Inside the kitchen of a Lama household

It was a wonderful and informative morning. I learned a lot about how people live in the hills (I wasn't technically in the Himalayas, even though we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks). While I truly enjoyed the visit, I think living there would be difficult and, frankly, tedious. I admire the people who live there and make it work.