PICS: YOGI KAYASTHA
Gothi village, two days walk east of Simikot
A fifteen years working in the Kathmandu Valley, biking daily from my home in Bhaktapur to work in Kathmandu or Patan, I decided enough was enough. I packed my bags and left for Simikot, headquarters of Humla.
Humla is a different world from Kathmandu. Human settlements range from 1500 metres above sea level in southeastern Humla to a staggering 4000 metres in the Limi valley. Simikot itself lies at a daunting but refreshing 3000 metres above sea level. Although the second largest district, Humla has a population density of just 7 people per square kilometre. Compare this with Bhaktapur, the smallest district, which has a population density of 1780 people per square kilometre.
The life of a Humli villager is a harsh one. Most live on steep mountain slopes and struggle to survive. Some seem content with their lot, but others bitterly resent it. Schoolteacher Nanda Bahadur Rokaya from Yangu village, which sits in a deep valley cut by the Karnali river, gestures at the gushing Karnali below and complains, "This river has been flowing for thousands of years but is of no use to us. It neither gives us water nor electricity." Rokaya's frustrations are shared by many of his fellow-Humlis.
Humli children from Yangu village
Yet Simikot is an easier place to live in than Kathmandu in many ways. There are no power cuts, except during regular maintenance of the local power station. Potable water is abundant and telephone connections are good. Locals enjoy 25 TV channels and, thanks to the recent Humla Development Initiative (HDI), email and internet access too. Most Humlis haven't ever seen a traffic jam. The local biodiversity, which includes many medicinal plants, is sure to thrill botanists. Simikot is hemmed in by high, snow-capped mountains, but the weather is generally pleasant. In May, for example, when it was a blazing 42 degrees in Nepalganj, it was a cool 20 degrees here.
However, Simikot is so remote it calls to mind Soviet-era Siberia. Unless you want to walk 7 days from Accham's Sanphe Bagar, you will have to hop on to two-50 minute flights, from Kathmandu to Nepalganj, and again from Nepalganj to Simikot, to get here. To make matters worse, this is the most expensive air route, and yet still half as expensive as the next best thing: choppering in from Surkhet. Even if you have the money, you're likely to get stuck in Nepalganj for anywhere upto a fortnight. Too many Humlis have missed exams or job interviews in Nepalganj because of flight delays.
Humli Buddhists doing a Thaikur dance
The expenses don't end there. Most things in Humla are three to five times more expensive than elsewhere in the country since they have to be flown in. Consider this: an egg costs Rs.30 (Rs.8 in Kathmandu), a kilo of sugar costs Rs.180 (Rs.55, Ktm), a litre of soybean oil costs Rs.360 (Rs.110, Ktm), a bar of washing soap costs Rs.60 (Rs.12, Ktm), and a packet of instant noodles costs Rs.35 (Rs.15, Ktm).
The government does subsidise rice and salt, and last year spent 60 million rupees transporting rice and salt from Nepalganj and Surkhet to Simikot. This is a well-meaning gesture. But like many Humlis, I wonder when the government will realise that it may make more sense to invest that money in job creation or sustainable food production. Maybe then, more people like me will flood into this remote paradise.
Yogi Kayastha is working in Simikot as Programme Manager of the Humla Development Initiative.
Lost in translation
Making lakkad, buckwheat bread
Soon after I arrived in Humla on an assignment, a member of the field staff asked me, "Sir, asuro sanga lakkad khanu hunchha?" (Would you like to eat lakkad with asuro?) Perplexed, I asked what asuro was. He looked at me quizzically and answered "It's a pickle made from choti."
It went on like this for a while, but I finally understood that he was asking if I wanted something akin to radish pickle with my buckwheat bread, which Humlis know as lakkad.
Humlis also use much simpler verb conjugations, like aya (to come), gaya (to go), khaya (to eat), diya (to give), and laya (to bring), with all pronouns. It has been established that Humlis speak a variant of Nepali popular during Prithivi Narayan Shah's day.