The First All Women’s Trek Through Humla. Nor Cal nurse’s non-profit promotes maternal health in remote region of Nepal
By Sarah Ferris, Founder of the Bodhi Tree Foundation
Photos by Donna Reid, A Day in Your Life: Photography
Dr. Else Uglum, Pediatrician, on top of Sankha La(14,700 feet), highest point on our trek.
Arriving in Kathmandu, amongst the hordes of tourists, climbers, and locals, you start to wonder how many of these people are going to be on the trail with you. If you are headed to the Khumbu or Annapurna regions you would probably see many of them again. But in Humla, the most remote and northerly region of Nepal, this is not the case. In fact, you may not see another tourist at all.
The stimulus overload of Kathmandu is quickly forgotten as you board a plane to Nepalgunj, the first leg of an indirect journey to the Humla. Once you land you realize you are now next to the Indian border. The heat and humidity bear down on you as you make your way through the Nepalgunj airport (or Nepalgrunge, as we have named it). There are few cars and most people travel by bike or horse and cart. We are fortunate enough to get a jeep with a trailer. The 12 of us, all women from the U.S. and Canada, most of us from the Lake Tahoe area, pile in and make our way to the only star-rated hotel in town, the Sneha.
We are scheduled to depart first thing the next morning, but of course this is Nepal and it is the middle of Dasain (the 15-day national festival of Nepal), so after a day hanging out at the airport we go nowhere but back to the Sneha.
After a second day of flight cancellations, catching up on movies and hanging out on the street people watching (and being watched as well) we decide to organize a two-hour car ride out to Bardia National Park for a jungle hike the next morning.
Bardia is located on the sprawling Gangetic Plains and is the perfect habitat to catch a glimpse of wild tigers, rhinos and elephants. Unfortunately, all we see are the many leeches that attach themselves to our various body parts.
With great excitement, day four finds us boarding our flight to Simikot, the district headquarters of the Humla region. Humla is one of the most remote districts in Nepal, located in the northwest corner adjacent to the Tibetan border. It is extremely isolated due to rugged mountains, deep river gorges and lack of infrastructure. There are no roads here so travel is limited to a 2-day (or more, in our case!) flight from Kathamndu or a 10-day walk from the nearest road.
Humla is a poverty-stricken area with food deficits up to six months of the year, female literacy rates of less than 5 percent and extremely high infant mortality rates (81/1000 births compared to 7/1000 in the U.S.). But it is also has an abundance of scenic mountain vistas and wonderful cultural opportunities, including exposure to Hindu villages and ancient Buddhist monasteries. It is because of all of these reasons we have chosen to come here.
Roots of the Tree
I was introduced to Humla eight years ago when my husband, Mark, and I volunteered with another non-profit organization in this region, the Nepal Trust. During those seven months, we learned as much as we could about the area, the people, their different castes and religions, and we made life-long friendships.
In 2006, after a 16-day trek around the Annapurna Circuit with our then 2- and 4-year-old daughters, we decided it was time to go back to Humla.
In 2007, Mark and I established the Bodhi Tree Foundation from our home in Truckee to raise funds that would support and promote maternal-child health programs primarily in Humla. Our focus on maternal-child healthcare stems from my passion and experience as a registered nurse working with labor and delivery, postpartum and newborns at a small local hospital in the Sierra Nevada.
Yak Butter Blessings
The one-hour flight from Nepalgunj to Simikot is uneventful, but full of endless scenic views that range from the flat humid plains of the Terai zone to the top of snow-covered 7000-meter peaks into Tibet. We land on the bumpy dirt runway and skid to a stop, dust and rocks flying about.
As we leave the aircraft and head up the trail into town, we are greeted by a line of Humli women. Since we are the first all-women’s trek in Humla they have come to meet us with the customary Nepalese greeting “Namaste” and give us a traditional ‘safe journey’ blessing by smearing yak butter on our heads.
These women are traditional birth attendants and community health volunteers that have come to Simikot for a five-day Safe Motherhood Training that is funded by the money from this trek. The money raised from this trek also paid for 300 clean-birthing kits as well as a small supply of essential children’s medicines.
The next morning we are awoken with a tap on the tent and the pleasant words of, “Tea please?” This is a delightful way to start each day on the trek and one can easily get used to it.
An Up and Down Existence
Humla has very little flat ground, pretty much just the airstrip, so each day is a lot of up and a lot of down, with the average being about 2000 vertical feet of gain and loss.
Our journey leads us from the mixed religious area of Simikot into Buddhist populated villages the first few days, before following the Karnali River south into the Hindu villages. The first four days take us to a height of 10,100 feet and a low of 5590 feet. We cross fields of barley, corn, hot peppers and marijuana (which the locals do not smoke), and over huge suspension bridges as well as wobbly little stick bridges. We meet women who tell us of birthing with only the help of their mother-in-law and no access to appropriate medical services, children who arrive in camp with no clothes at all, and one pregnant woman already burdened with caring for two blind sons.
The morning of day five leads us straight up 3500 feet, up and away from the Karnali River. We cross the Dhera La the next day at 11,430 feet and proceeded to go straight down again. The trail here is very primitive, steep and full of landslides. We make it down the other side of the pass and wait to see if the pack horses will also make it. The last time I led this trek we took porters since, we were told, the trail was too steep and difficult for pack animals. Apparently, our horsemen disagree.
Breathtaking and Unspoiled
After two more days of trekking along the Kuwadi Khola we arrive in a huge open valley that leads up to the base of Saipal (7619 meters, nearly 25,000 feet). This remote summer herding ground at 11,000 feet is one of the most beautiful places you could ever camp. The views are breathtaking from your tent and again the entire next day as you trek up and over the Sankha La (14,700 feet) and look over the border into Tibet.
The trail slowly winds back towards the Karnali River and the village of Yalbang. In Yalbang there is a peaceful little monastery that we visit early in the morning and listen to the monks chant and pray. Later we visit the local boarding school and participate in a small medical clinic for the children. The children here are well behaved and enthusiastic to learn and since there is very little tourism they have not become accustomed to begging for candy, pencils and money as they do on other well-trodden trails.
Trekking in Humla is like going back in time. There are virtually no modern conveniences except for a single light bulb in many homes that is powered by a micro-hydro project and only comes on for a few hours each evening. The Humli people live a simplistic life, day to day, barely getting by and yet are full of smiles and always happy to meet you. This was an incredible adventure for everyone and I look forward to going back again this year.