It was Monday 2nd October 2000 when I first set eyes on Humla, flying just below the valley peaks in a twin otter aircraft, which was an experience in itself. The snow-capped mountains of the Saipal range glowing in the distance with a pure light that captivates you.
Looking out of the window the turquoise blue of the Karnali river was clear to see, surrounded by steep valleys where farmers attempt to feed their families, growing staple foods in steep terraces that must be back-breaking work. Simikot loomed in the distance, the sun reflecting off corrugated roofs, the dirt runway suddenly came into vision and within a minute we had landed, a loud cheer, inquisitive eyes peering out of the windows and even more inquisitive eyes peering back. We had arrived at one of the remotest places on earth, Humla, North-West Nepal – a land that time seemed to have forgotten.
The clock goes forward and it is now October 2007. I can see Simikot in the distance – the same corrugated roofs, but more of them now and this time our arrival is on foot, having trekked from Jumla in the South for the past 2/3 weeks, with our group of porters and cooks, numbering 50 in total. A local Nepali passes us going in the opposite direction with the largest piece of timber I have ever seen a human carrying – it’s tied to his shoulder and the silhouette of his torso with the wood looks like a crucifix – a poignant reminder of how life is a continuous struggle in this remote corner of Nepal.
We were nearing our personal Shangri-la, otherwise known as the Nepal Trust Guest House at Simikot – a solar shower – a bed – a flushing toilet – a small bar – what more could you ask for!
It was strange that the trek we had just completed was the one we had intended to do in 2000, but Maoist activity around Rara Lake had prevented us then and it was depressing to see that many of the Nepal Trust projects had been damaged by their activity; villagers displaced and many of the bridges destroyed. It seems to me that if you were trying to recruit local people to your cause these would be the facilities you would try to preserve, but perhaps that is just Western logic.
Having rested for a few days at the guest house our party split into two groups –one going to Kermi to see the Health Post and the other going to Torpa Health Post and onto Railing Gompa – the monastery that was restored by the Nepal Trust.
I was in the latter group, but was envious of the others, having been part of the “Trek to Build” team that constructed Kermi Health Post, but it would give me the excuse to go back to Humla and Kermi in a couple of years time to see it all refurbished.
I remember Torpa well from 2000 – the wonderful entrance to the village – a stone archway with a Buddhist mural on the roof depicting the cycle of life. The village is predominately Buddhist and this shows in the clean and orderly way the village is run. We walked through the village, the smiling faces of the children waving to us from the flat roofs with the crops drying in the sun.
Just on the far side of the village is the Nepal Trust Health Centre, which I remember well from 2000 (aided by my diary) and we were proudly shown around with everything neat and orderly. The Health Worker was administering to a couple of patients who had walked for a day to get there and you genuinely believed that the Nepal Trust was making a big difference to the quality of life in this valley.
Sadly this was not the case in 2007 – there had been rumours that the centre had been blown up, but fortunately the walls and roof remained, but the building had been completely ransacked; solar panels removed, floor boards burnt for fuel and nothing remained inside apart from discarded rubbish. With the structure still standing there was hope and the villagers wanted us to know how pleased they were to see that we hadn’t given up on them.
We camped by the Health Post and the following morning were welcomed by a group of the village elders. Richard Leworthy, a fellow trekker, who was also a dentist, already had a queue outside his tent waiting for morning surgery – it was 7am! There might be no technical means of communication, but word had quickly got around that we were travelling with a dentist!
The village committee were so appreciative that we were there, letting us know that the Health Post had been in this state for many years, but they knew in their own hearts that we would be back. We arranged to have a meeting back at Simikot in a few days time when Mike Love and his party returned from Kermi and we would want the Maoist representative to be there.
Before we set off for Railing Gompa we spent some time at the Health Post preparing an estimate of the work and cost that would be required to get it up and running.