Ancient trade route to Tibet

Ancient trade route to Tibet
Christine Amour-Levar recounts her all-women team's 13-day trek to the sacred Tsum Valley of Nepal in the Himalayas to raise money for oppressed women.

Though we have returned to the warm embrace of our families in Singapore, a piece of our heart is lodged in the sacred Tsum Valley of Nepal, captivated by the thousands of smiles we got during the arduous yet haunting journey.

Tsum, also known as a beyul or sacred land, is one of the most secluded of Himalayan valleys, becoming accessible to tourists only in 2008. The valley, once part of Tibet, is different in its people and culture from other parts of Nepal.

The 4,000 or so inhabitants in the valley belong to an indigenous ethnic group known as Tsumbas. They maintain a Tibetan-Buddhist way of life, and due to the geographical characteristics of the area, their bond with Tibet is in many ways stronger than with Nepal.

Climbing 4,400m in seven days

Our journey required our team to push our physical and mental limits, conquering fears and dealing with extreme cold and exhaustion, while climbing to increasingly higher altitudes.

We were nine women under the banner of Women on a Mission, on a quest to raise awareness and funds for oppressed women. Fuelled by this aim, we gained a total of 4,400m altitude over 150km in fewer than seven days.

We started in Soti Khola, in the lowlands, visiting sacred caves and secluded villages. The ascent gave us views of vegetation that changed from thick tropical foliage to lush pine forests.

Continuing our journey on steep mountainous trails, we passed brightly coloured prayer wheels and stupas or small Buddhist shrines.

As we gained altitude, the temperatures plummeted while the landscape became thickly blanketed by powderysnow on the surrounding peaks.

We came across caravans of mules and yaks laden with supplies on their way to and from Tibet. The people in this region of Nepal have been trading with their Tibetan neighbours for centuries.

Moments for meditation

After an intense week of trekking, we reached Mu Gompa (3,700m) for a three-day retreat and a taste of monastic life in the century-old monastery.

Here, we set aside quiet moments for reflection, as we rested and prepared for our challenging day climb to the Ngula Dhojhyang Pass, perched at 5,093m, on the Nepalese-Tibetan border.

Finally, the time came for us to scale the pass. An intense 14-hour climb lay ahead.

Luckily, the weather was glorious.

A freak blizzard storm in the Annapurna mountain range in late October, just a few weeks before our climb.

At least 43 people were killed in one of the deadliest mountaineering disasters in Nepal's history.

A few other obstacles lay ahead of us on this highpass attempt: We had to cross six landslides in darknessand again on the way back.

Nevertheless, our determined team left Mu Gompa Monastery with head torches on at 4.30am in below freezing temperatures.

The cold was so intense that the water in our camelbaks remained frozen until 9am.

We crossed vast windy plains, traversing numerous icy rivers, scrambling over slippery rocks and small glaciers, and scaling a total of 1,400m at one go.

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