Over the hills and far away

  • Limi valley is full of ironies and opportunities where its biggest potential lies in tapping the Chinese market
- Amish Raj Mulmi

Sep 21, 2018-

The Limi valley is filled with ironies. It is one of the remotest places in Nepal, and yet, it can be the easiest connection we have with China. The economy of its three villages--Til, Halji and Jhang--is centred around subsistence agriculture, but consumer products from China fill the shelves of the few shops run by youth clubs. There’s a mobile tower in Halji village [3700 m] that has been nonfunctional for the past seven years, but everybody in Halji seems to possess a smartphone they use to watch pre-downloaded YouTube videos or films. The residents of Limi practice a culture that is more similar to pre-1950 Tibet than to lower Humla, where Khas culture prevails. Yet, there is a conscious attempt to ‘Nepali-cize’ the valley--visible through children as young as five singing Nepali film songs during a ‘cultural’ programme marked to welcome visitors at the Cross-Border Travel and Trade Fair held in Halji between September 4-5.

To say Halji is remote is an understatement. A dirt-track road is half an hour’s walk away, and much remains to be done. Like most trans-Himalayan regions in Nepal, it offers a unique perspective on trans-border livelihoods and inter-country relations, especially at a time when Nepal-China relations are at their best.

The dirt track from Lapcha Pass, an unregulated border pass at 5000 m and the only place in Nepal where one can see Kailash-Mansarovar, to Tungling was built on the initiative of local MP Tshewang Lama (or Chakka Bahadur Lama, as the Nepalicised version of his name reads) eight years ago.  The excavator was imported from Kathmandu via Kerung, and in contrast to the Hilsa-Simikot road, which saw 30 kms of roads being built in 16 years by 2011-12, the Lapcha-Salli road saw over 100 kms of roads being built in less than three years. An offshoot of this road leads towards the Limi villages of Jhang and Halji from Tungling.

Like most Himalayan communities, Limi valley’s residents were historically nomadic pastoralists--herders would graze their animals among the high-altitude grasslands of the Karnali and Limi valleys during the summer and in Tibet during the winter--with the salt-for-grains barter trade arising from such animal caravans. The import of subsidised iodised salt from India replaced salt from Tibet, while the border demarcation in the 1960s with China and an agreement between the two countries in the 1980s to halt transborder grazing practices forced its residents to reorient their way of life. The import of subsidised iodised salt from India also hit the salt trade.  

Today, there is a dramatic reversal of roles that can be seen in other similar regions as well. From exporting grains to Tibet once upon a time, Nepal (and Limi valley residents) today is seen importing almost everything from the north. 

Modern times

As far as Simikot is from Limi, Purang (known to Nepalis as Taklakot) in China is that much closer. It’s far easier for Limi valley residents to travel to the Chinese border town, located 30 kms inland from Hilsa. The border is a hard day’s walk from Halji. As border citizens, residents have special permits that allow them to find employment or conduct business in Purang for several months at a stretch. Anecdotal evidence suggested more than half of Halji’s population was in Purang at the time of our visit. I met a few traders who owned shops in Purang in partnership with others, shelling out nearly 30,000 Yuan at the beginning of the lease, and 2,000 Yuan a month thereafter in rent. These traders sold furu, the traditional maplewood bowl highly valued by Tibetans, along with handicrafts and jewellery from India and Nepal. ‘Whatever you find in Bouddha, you can find in Purang,’ they said.

Far more interesting was the story of those who went to China to find employment at the many construction projects that dotted Purang. Almost every local had a story about working in China: the shifts were 13-hours long, with little time for breaks; the pay varied between 200-260 Yuan a day, lower than official rates, but far higher than rates in Nepal; the men worked on more physically demanding sites, such as offloading cement sacks--“once you offload them, you cannot just throw them around like in Nepal. You have to arrange them properly”; the women worked in homes as maids or cleaners. I met a man from Jhang who had travelled from Kathmandu to Halji for the fair. He was travelling onwards to Purang, where his wife worked as a cleaner in one of the housing projects.

Unlike the rest of Nepal, the Middle East doesn’t hold as much promise for foreign employment as China does--but even then, there are challenges. Locals spoke about how those from lower Humla have also begun offering their labour services in Purang, and now there was increased competition for the same jobs.

Conversations towards connectivity

One of the most interesting conversations I had at Halji was with a group of women from Tangling village, a day’s walk from Simikot. While the road network was top priority for most, the women were clear they’d prefer a mobile network in their village. Currently, they walk an hour uphill to make calls, they told me in broken Nepali. “The reason we are telling you this, despite our difficulty in speaking the language, is because we hope you can do something about it,” one of them said.

The erstwhile telecom company Hello Nepal ran mobile services in Halji till 2011, after which it shut down services. The desolate four-pronged mobile tower sits in a field of uwa, the most picturesque mobile tower in Nepal perhaps. The radio set at the Sunkhani police post on the road between Halji and Jhang went bust a few days before we arrived, and they sent it back to Surkhet for repairs on the helicopters that brought VIPs to the fair. At the Halji VSAT telephone booth, an inspector shouted instructions to his counterpart: “The VIPs have left from Halji. I hope you’ve received the radio set. Over.” Later, some of the police personnel told me their post had no electricity, and now that their radio set was busted, they needed to walk to Halji or to Jhang to file any sort of a report.

While there has been considerable progress in the push towards a road network, all roads in Humla will eventually lead to Simikot, which still needs to be connected to the rest of Karnali, and Nepal. Locals believe these two interventions--a well-maintained road network, and mobile connectivity--will impact livelihoods as greatly as a quarantine centre at the Hilsa border, which is essential for them to export agricultural produce and livestock.

‘Bikas’ in Limi

In our conversations with several stakeholders and government officials, it was apparent that much is needed to be done in Limi and similar trans-Himalayan regions, despite the opportunities in tourism and commercial agriculture. And contrary to expectations, a lot  is being done. The question however is one of priority. Other regions will have their own needs, but in Limi, the biggest potential remains in tapping the Chinese market across the border, and there’s no better time than now to pursue it. Any exercise in improving livelihoods here will then be a case study in understanding other trans-Himalayan communities and their needs.

Travel to Humla was made possible by Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) and the Ministry of Forests and Environment through an ICIMOD story grant.

Published: 21-09-2018 07:55

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