Leaving the city for the country can be transformative. The designation of the break obviously influences the tenor of one's activities and what one gets out of the experience. But all journeys share common features, and when it's the Great Himalayan Trail in far northwestern Humla you're headed to, the experience is all the more extreme.
Once the decision is made to leave, anticipatory excitement or reflection is soon crowded out by the minutiae of planning. You have to pack, not just for the journey ahead, but the life you are leaving behind, so as to resume where you left off. Some people enjoy this, but it can be so consuming it's only when you bid your farewells and sit back in car, train, bus or plane that you can shift gears and relax.
Leaving behind obligations, deadlines, and even attachments, the mental and physical clutter of the urban landscape and lifestyle begins to subside. The boxscape of Kathmandu, through which fuming serpents of roads wind, falls away. Settlements become sparser, padded out by neat cultivated squares, until they too are lost amidst rising ridges and valleys, human endeavour terribly insignificant from a bird's eye view.
When you arrive, you are somewhere else. The contempt with which you treat the familiar vanishes, and your most mundane observations are tinged with wonder. You may reach out to your former life through the ever-expanding tendrils of technology, and catch up on the day's news from the capital. But soon, if you go far enough, if you are in Humla, those traces will dry up and disappear. Away from Simikot, along and beyond the rocky hillsides rising sheer above the raging Karnali all the way to the Nepal-China border at Hilsa, there is barely any mobile or internet coverage. And when there is no state except for a police post at Muchu, what need is there of news of the state?
This disconnect can be disorienting. But it is more likely the slowness of the unmooring will leave you open to the new environments you are passing through.
Simikot is perched upon a small plateau a shade under 3000 metres, and at harvest makes for a pretty, verdant sight. As we moved up the Karnali through Dharapuri to Yalbang, the culture morphing from Hindu to Buddhist, the landscape became both more imposing and less munificent. Shrubs replaced trees, the vegetation progressively more miserly until it disappeared altogether in the scorched sienna gradations of the Tibetan plateauscape of Hilsa. Turning southeast into the Limi Valley, giant, broken red boulders haunted by blue sheep and vultures at least betrayed some life, animal and plant. It was brief respite leading up to the windblasted glacial valleys before the Nyalu pass at 5000 metres, below which we spent a freezing night staring at an exploding Milky Way. But after descending the pass and following a river some way, the transformation was sudden and total. Coming up a rise we entered lush, autumnal birch forests laced with pine through which mountain rivers surged furiously, and in clearings belled yaks seemed to question our intrusion. It's a revelation that cannot but affect your spirit permanently, if you will it so. Could it be that we were stripped down and reconstituted in the course of our journey? That we became somehow simpler, purer and then regenerated? It's easy to laugh off such notions, which in some part are the privilege of the tourist. But as local Jas Bahadur Singh told me on our last day, "How you feel about Humla is similar to how we feel about Kathmandu, I love to go wandering there."
Coming to the end of such a circuit, it's natural for your thoughts to turn to home and hearth. You round off your experience and appreciate all you have gone through. Inevitably, you yearn for your attachments, and the burden of your obligations will once more weigh on you. But in the memory of a dozen butterflies shying up from a waterlogged path you are crossing, or the cheeky smile of a child who trades you fresh-picked walnuts for sweets, nothing seems insurmountable.
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