email a friend iconprinter friendly iconBest New Trips: Hiking Nepal's Great Himalaya Trail
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Both in sheer number of peaks and in elevation, the Himalaya dwarfs all other ranges on Earth. Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia, reaches only 22,834 feet, a height too lowly by Nepalese standards to guarantee the dignity of a name. About 40 to 50 million years ago—just yesterday, in geological time—the land destined to become the Himalaya was hidden beneath the Tethys Ocean. Then the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided, and the earth reared up to form some of the planet’s youngest, craggiest, and most active mountains, pushing five millimeters a year farther skyward. Even in the oxygen-starved air atop Everest you can still find fossilized seashells. Far below those heights sit the uncountable undulations of the Middle Hills and the steamy southern plains of the Terai, where, in places, rhinos and tigers still roam.

Nepal’s diversity is a geographer’s dream but a politician’s nightmare, the imposing natural features carving the land into hundreds of zones with scant connection to one another. In a country scarcely larger than Iowa, 92 different languages are spoken by 103 different caste and ethnic groups, including Sherpas, Thakalis, Tamangs, Newars, and Gurungs. Political power and the spoils of government have long been restricted to elite Hindus in the Kathmandu Valley, and the status quo—separate but not equal—sparked the revolution.

On the bumpy road to becoming a more equitable nation, Nepalis are attempting to learn the fate of thousands of people who vanished during the conflict; integrate 19,000 rebel soldiers, currently housed in UN-monitored camps, into the national army; and draft a new constitution, with a May 2010 deadline looming. The prevailing outlook in Nepal is cautiously optimistic at best, especially after the country’s prime minister, former Maoist rebel commander Pushpa Kamal Dahal, resigned from his post in May after a dispute with President Ram Baran Yadav. But the overarching goal of Nepalis is clear: to unite the country in a way that it never has been before.

I had experienced Nepal’s disconnectedness firsthand when it took two days to travel from Kathmandu to Humla—the same time it took me to reach Nepal from the United States. For an adventurer, the near-complete isolation of certain districts is a good thing. As our two-week journey through Humla continued we didn’t see a single other trekking group. The Lonely Planet crowd was definitely missing out. The scene that unfolded before us was cinematic, not fully plausible, like one of those Lord of the Rings landscapes juiced up by Red Bull–chugging digital effects artists.

A few days after the sleeping bag incident, I spotted a single white tower in the middle of all that nature. It was perched high on a mountain slope that climbed all the way from the river to a line of purplish summits crowned with white. Twenty minutes’ hiking from the trail brought me to its base and the site of the Yalbang Monastery. It had white walls, a red tile roof, and intricately painted window frames and doors. In the walled central courtyard, young monks in dark red robes had apparently abandoned their meditations for an afternoon game of volleyball. One of them approached. “The rinpoche has requested to see you,” he said.

A rinpoche is a particularly exalted level of lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The young man led us into the living quarters, seated us in a fire-warmed room framed by heavy wood beams, and served cups of steaming salt butter tea. Like virtually every comestible in Humla, it tasted strongly of yak. A few minutes later, after walking down passages and up stairs, we were ushered into the rinpoche’s sanctum.

Padma Riksal sat cross-legged atop a high platform. When he spoke he leaned forward, eyes intense; when he finished he shifted back, round belly bulging beneath his robes, eyes glinting as if amused by an off-color joke. He explained Humla’s uniqueness in the landscape of Tibetan Buddhism. The religion had been present in Humla since at least the tenth century; the gompa (monastery) in the village of Halji, which we would reach in another week, is believed to be the oldest such structure in all of Nepal. The rinpoche who preceded Riksal lived in Tibet, but in 1959, during the run-up to the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese destroyed his monastery. Riksal’s ancestors were forced to flee across the border into Humla, where they could practice without disturbance.

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  • I think that the main picture for this article has been digitally altered in a MAJOR way! Maybe Nat …
  • ok beautifull scenery and people but why to claim to be the first one ? A french trekking company Te…
  • at the time of civil war
  • at the time of civil war
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