Discovering the Trans Himalaya Trail of Nepal

A journey into the Trans-Himalaya Trail of Nepal for the first time: In the aid of health, development and peace in the midst of a Maoist insurgency in Nepal
April – May 2003

– Jigme Lama, Project Director,  Kumar Karki Trekking Leader

“The true distance the team and I have covered is written in the blizzards of the steep mountain passes we’ve been over. It is written in the sandstorms of the dried-up riverbeds, written in the paw prints we’ve seen of leopards, in the kindness of local people everywhere, written in the pounding of our hearts during the toughest moments and in the laughter of my Nepali team, even when they were exhausted.”
–    Rosie Swale Pope

In 2003, in the midst of a Maoist insurgency and the context of deteriorating tourism and development in Nepal, a 56-year-old grandmother adventurer from UK; Rosie Swale Pope took on an epic adventure along the Trans-Himalaya Trail of Nepal to spread the message of peace, development and hope. The expedition was lead by Kumar Karki with Jigme Lama as the Project Director.

Starting from Hilsa in Humla near Mt Kailash Tibet, the journey began with the mighty Karnali river through narrow gorges,  with trails ever-running up and downs, harsh climatic conditions, rugged terrain and the looming unpleasantness of the armed conflict. The journey was tough, but the team was always charged by pristine nature, biodiversity and the warmth of people living in these remote corners. It was also not always easy to retrace the ancient trails hidden beneath the shade of time and neglect, but the team was surprised everyday by fascinating landscapes, diverse people, cultures and rich biodiversity.

Rosie Swale-Pope, born 2 October 1946, is an author, adventurer and marathon runner who has successfully completed a five-year around-the-world run, raising funds for various charities including one that supports orphaned children in Russia[1] and to highlight the importance of early diagnosis of prostate cancer.[2] Other achievements included sailing single-handed across the Atlantic in a small boat, and trekking 3,000 miles (4,800 km) alone through Chile on horseback.

The following is a journal prepared by the team including expedition leader Nir Kumar Karki, Project Director Jigme Lama upon the successful completion of the expedition in 2003

Civil war in Shangri-La
Nepal, a paradise for most adventure seekers and peace lovers across the globe was going through a violent civil war between the government and Maoist guerrillas, leaving heavy human casualties on both sides. By 2003, nearly 9,000 lives were lost. All industries including tourism were anything but thriving. Thousands of people were jobless, many of whom were leaving the country for menial jobs in the Gulf. Rural villages were either deserted or used as arm posts for Maoists guerrillas or the Army, or survived by old people who had nowhere to go. Youths had escaped to find safe haven in the cities and overseas. The whole populace had lost any hope for peace and prosperity. There was an urgent need felt by the tourism industry and other concerned people to do something, to make a situation more favourable for tourists, to increase the confidence of visitors, and to save the ever declining number of tourists.

An act of courage and kindness
Among some of the rare initiatives in these difficult times, a 56-year-old grandmother- adventurer from UK, Rosie Swale Pope, decided to walk along the Trans-Himalaya Trail with the Nepal Trust to spread the message of peace, promote tourism and raise funds for the much needed health care projects in Humla – one of the poorest districts in Nepal and one of the most heavily affected regions during the conflict.

We, the team at Tailored Treks (previously independent trekking guides), had the opportunity to set up the Trans-Himalaya Trek for Rosie Swale Pope in 2003. This was a great opportunity, but this was also a tough job because no one had done this before, least of all not in the middle of the Maoist insurgency. But we were excited to contribute to this noble effort.

The journey of a lifetime
The journey from one end of Nepal to the other was 1,700 kilometres (1,060 mi) and the team established a new world-record time of 68 days. The expedition was supported and recognised by the Nepal Tourism Board, the British Embassy Kathmandu and Rotary International.

Kailash Zone and then the Peacock River
The journey started from Hilsa in Humla district bordering with western Tibet and its Mt.  Kailash region. Besides its fascinating landscape and rich biodiversity, Mt. Kailash holds great significance as one of the most sacred regions for most of the people living in the subcontinent.  It is also a source of four great rivers: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Karnali, which are the life veins of great civilisations throughout the subcontinent. The Karnali river, – one of the four major rivers and known as Mapcha Khabab (river originating from peacock’s mouth) in Tibetan that enters Nepal from Hilsa – and the expedition team flowed together southwards. The team followed the river basin, encountering the various tributaries of Humla and Mugu districts, visited Rara lake, Bajura, Jumla and Dolpa crossing through Khasa, Thakuri, and Bhotia villages amid beautiful meadows and mountain passes. In each district headquarters local communities, government authorities and leaders greeted the team and expressed their appreciation, encouragement and support for the journey. Everywhere the villagers and people seemed overjoyed by the message of peace and hope that was so dear to them. The team was welcomed by flower garlands, khadas (Tibetan scarf) and abir (blessed colour).

In Simikot, the team visited the only district hospital to observe the health camp organised by Rotarians and Nepal Trust, where thousands of people from remote villages came for treatment. In a population of nearly 50,000, there is one MBBS doctor who also hardly stays for 3 months due to the district’s remoteness and ‘other responsibilities’. Health camps, which are organised occasionally, are the only opportunity for treatment for thousands of these people. Men and women and mainly women were lined up in the hundreds every day to see specialized doctors and nurses. With the deep feeling of connection and responsibility to these impoverished communities, Rosie continued her adventure.

Jumla and the pristine Rara , jewel among lakes
The team then trekked through Mugu, the pristine Rara Lake, and the beautiful valleys of Jumla; the capital of an ancient and once powerful  Khas kingdom that extended its territory through western Tibet and influenced the matters of neighbouring kingdoms in modern day Nepal. It was moving to see the poverty and lack of basic needs, but the hospitality of people and the beauty of Rare lake, mountains and the lush valleys was fascinating. At Rara lake the team relaxed and experienced this jewel of the region.
Upon walking the terrains of Humla along the Karnali river, Rosie expresses, “When God made the ‘Hidden Himalaya’ he must have got hooked on straight lines. So, he said it has to be steep up, down-up, down all the way! He gave the people here giant hearts to match the mountains. I feel compelled to jump forward just for fun today.”

The Land of Caravan to the goddess of harvest
The team then trekked through the rugged terrain and Tibet-like village settlements of Dolpa and reached Mustang and Jomsom in the Annapurna region.

In her journal about this part, Rosie wrote: “During the last 7 days I had the misfortune and yet marvellous adventure of being caught out in some of the worst weather of my entire life. Yet, I have seen sights so powerful, fair and beautiful amid the great emptiness and towering landscapes of this part of Nepal. In the last 7 days of trekking I have experienced so much humanity and in the midst of so much raw nature. Although, I’m 56-years-old and have travelled widely, this last leg of the trek from Dolpa to Jomsom alone – 7 days in all – would almost in itself justify a life’s worth of experience.”

Here, she visited Muktinath temple (the god of liberation) and washed at 108 taps, which the Hindus believe will purify one’s soul.
The team then trekked through Dharapani, crossed Larke pass (5,100m) reached Manang and visited the office of King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation.  The team then continued through a steep valley to Arughat (Dhading), met many people and “saw the first motorcycle transportation for ages in Arughat.’’ Rosie expressed her surprise and excitement, “It was quite a shock to see a bus! We then followed the old mountain route used by kings of Nepal from Gorkha to Kathmandu (once called Nepal).”

The mid Hills and Bagmati
The team then trekked through Katunje, Trishuli bazaar and reached Kakani, near Kathmandu valley where they were resupplied, as well as welcomed by Rotarians and Nepal Trust members.  They had walked 41 days by this time, and crossed 900 km west to east.

The Everest Region and the 50th Anniversary
On 29th May, the team reached Everest to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1st Everest summit ascent on 29th May. It was a “dream come true” for our team. They had trekked, climbed, and run nearly 1,400 kilometres since leaving Hilsa, Nepal’s furthest north-western point in April.

One of the team members recalled one of the monks saying with a smile, “Not many have walked so far to be with us.”
At Everest Base camp, Rosie and the team paid homage to Sir Edmund, Tenzing Norgay & all the brave mountaineers, Sherpa & porters on this day of days (from the shadow of Everest itself). The whole world, it seemed, had gathered for the festivities at Tengboche, at the very heart of Everest National Park. There was a mass of media, famous faces, and celebrities, displays of singing and dancing and speeches. There were tents everywhere and Sherpas cooking in gleaming pots. Rosie wrote  about the experience, “It was not only a global celebration, but an intimate day of love and respect for the mountains.”

After hearing from Peter Hillary and spending special moments with him, the team continued on their journey to Deboche (near Tengboche) and eastwards, walking past the beautiful vast Khumbo Glacier where the ice blocks are pushing giant rock boulders. The roaring of water beneath the glacier and ice pinnacles rearing up – a mixture of a place of great danger and a fairyland – and all within sight of Mount Everest’s south summit at 8,751m. Surrounding this spectacular view were other peaks, such as Pumori, touching the sky. It wasn’t only the beauty and struggle and altitude – it was the atmosphere (Rosie Swale Pope)
The team then walked via Taplejung and on to Ilam district, ending their trek at Pashupatinagar amid fascinating valleys of tea gardens and the beautiful smiles of people of Ilam.

Rosie and the team finished their 1700 km trek across Nepal setting a brand new record of 68 days from Hilsa on the Tibetan Border in the NW of Nepal to Pashupatinagar in the far East!