I had been scrambling up a near-vertical cliff for the past half hour to reach an abandoned Buddhist meditation retreat, impossibly cradled at the entrance of a cavern situated at a height of 3,750 metres. Crumbling stone walls, broken wooden columns and fading murals presented a tantalising mystery that drew us to the dilapidated refuge that once must have been a secluded haven for monks in this far-flung valley. The secluded village below was a collection of traditional mud and stone houses flanked by a sheer cliff on the right and rockfall debris stacked behind it. Ancient culture, a historic monastery, and stunning mountain scenery — all hardly altered by modern developments. As I took in the view from our vantage point, the valley’s compelling contradictions kept playing out in my mind.
In this remote trans-Himalayan valley, well worthy of being described as “stuck in time,” the women wore long necklaces bearing Victorian-era ₹1 silver coins from India. The men drove China’s state-owned Dongfeng trucks. An old trader spoke of sourcing maple wood from India years ago. A young man talked of making a future in Taklakot in China. Many young people migrate to India to study in the free Tibetan schools. Chinese goods flood the shops.
Only, the valley I was in, is Limi Valley in Nepal.
Frontier lands have an uncanny way of bringing out the absurdity of modern boundaries and the practicality of ancient connections. Geographically, I was very close to both India and China. But logistically, it took me a couple of flights and many days on foot to get here from Kathmandu. Set on the banks of Karnali river and cloistered within mountains soaring in every direction, Limi Valley, situated on the border with Tibet in far western Nepal, is a bundle of complex contradictions. Even though it is in Nepal, the state presence is practically non-existent due to Limi’s extreme isolation and distance from the Kathmandu government.
Limi lies almost cut off with little or no access to modern developments, infrastructure or government support. But in the past, the valley was hardly an outlier. It was at the heart of a thriving caravan trade with its neighbours, India and Tibet.
Situated close to the tri-junction of India, Nepal and China, the isolated Limi Valley adjoins Tibet Autonomous Region and is home to three high-altitude villages — Halji, Jang and Til. Less than 200 families inhabit this harsh but spectacular region where ancient Tibetan culture thrives, impervious to the Cultural Revolution just across the border. Located at a strategic junction of trade routes connecting India and China, the centuries-old trade has resulted in unusual manifestations seen even today.
I was in Limi with a bunch of researchers and officials to attend a trade fair meant to be a hark back to the past when such trans-boundary markets were commonplace. Halji, the largest village in Limi and home to about 80 families, was our destination. The long avenue to the village was lined with an array of giant stupas. Halji is home to the 1,000-year-old Rinchenling Gompa, an ancient monastery built during Buddhism’s second renaissance, whose only contemporaries now survive in India’s Alchi, Tabo, and a few other sites outside of Tibet.
The field adjoining this village was the site of the fair celebrating the centuries-old trans-boundary trade between Humla and Tibet. People from nearby villages had walked for days to attend the festivities and showcase their vibrant Tibetan culture. Men wore fine silk shirts underneath flowing robes. The women wore deep maroon robes embellished with colourful patchwork and jewellery adorned with turquoise and amber gems. One curious addition to their elaborate ensemble was rupaiya mala or coin necklace. These coins feature King George or Queen Victoria, and some go as far back as 1887. I learnt that these coin necklaces were a way to display wealth and prosperity. But to me, it also signalled the trade ties with India that go back at least a century or even longer.
This was confirmed when I ran into one of the oldest people in the village, 63-year-old Phurbu Tamang. An energetic man wearing a muddied robe and sporting flashy green goggles with a fancy Tibetan brocade fur hat, Tamang told me he began trading with India at the age of 15. He chuckled as he recounted his experience of securing the release of 12 of his friends from Himachal Pradesh’s Rampur jail where they had been held for buying maple wood. . Maple is used to make traditional Tibetan bowls known as phuru, and they continue to fetch high returns across the border.
Hushed conversations with the villagers also hinted at a past when they were also involved in wildlife trade, smuggling parts of tigers and snow leopards to China from India. However, with the intervention of the monastery, the Dalai Lama, and the introduction of Project Tiger in 1973, wildlife trafficking came to an end (Saxer, 2013). From knowing nothing about Limi Valley to stumbling upon this bizarre, long-standing history, I went from curious to wide-eyed in the space of a day.
While technically Limi is in Nepal, culturally, ethnically and geographically, it is more Tibetan than Nepali. The valley has been so sheltered that even today one can find fraternal polyandry, a practice largely associated with remote agrarian Tibetan communities. Polyandry was once pervasive in many Tibetan regions such as Nepal’s Mustang and India’s Ladakh and Kinnaur, but the practice slowly died with the times.
Historically, the economy of Limi largely depended on bartering grains for salt from Tibet. The Tibetan highlands were a good source of salt and wool, and the people of Limi were adept at growing grains in the high altitude as well as sourcing food from the lowlands in Nepal and India. One night at an official event attended by many dignitaries, I watched with my mouth agape as the men walked in wearing some of the finest Chinese silk brocade robes, , which could reportedly fetch as much as $50,000 in the market today. Obviously, Limi Valley had been very wealthy when the caravan trade was active.
In a strange twist of fate, it was a modern development that ended Limi’s dream run. The salt trade declined with a goiter eradication drive in the region, when Tibetan salt was replaced by iodine-rich Indian salt. And the end of the caravans marked the beginning of the end of Limi’s position as an important trading outpost. The official Sino-Nepal Treaty in the 60s also put an end to the transhumance, crippling Limi’s animal husbandry. In Tibet, the arrival of a road from China brought connectivity and put an end to its food dependency on Limi. Roads also brought in infrastructure and economic prosperity. Today, it’s China that helps bolster the economy in Limi.
“It is better to be educated than be involved in trade today,” said Tamang, in the course of one of our conversations. Limi currently rides on its prosperity from the past but the importance of education hasn’t escaped the people here. Given the valley’s extreme remoteness and Halji’s barely operational primary school, that isn’t an easy proposition. It turns out a vast majority of the youth are sent to free Tibetan schools in India, and a few to Kathmandu, for schooling and further studies. No wonder almost half the village speaks Hindi.
On the afternoon of the trade fair, the entire village gathered at the monastery for speeches and celebrations. Masked men came out in force to put up a riveting Cham dance performance. Old women sat on rooftops recording the event on their mobile phones, while young children gathered around more phones playing games. Only, Limi Valley and, in fact, most of Humla district, has no network connectivity. But frequent travel to China for work means buying the latest mobile phones. They use them while in China and then bring them home to be used only for selfies and games in Limi.
The China connect doesn’t end there. Every shop in the place is stacked with Chinese products — from soft drinks, batteries, candies and noodles to eggs, alcohol, and more. Soon, it became clear why. Since the district is yet to be connected by road to the rest of Nepal, all supplies have to be airlifted to Simikot, the district headquarters, which in turn results in a steep price hike. Importing goods from China across the border is cheaper and far easier.
Taklakot in China’s Purang County, 30 km from the Nepal border, has a booming economy and acts as the source of income, goods and employment for the people of Limi. They work as daily wage labourers or traders in the bustling markets and construction sites of Taklakot for six months through a special work permit issued by China every year.
From the Nepal side, the valley can be reached only after a long trek, but it is well connected by road with China. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that the only running vehicles here were five trucks procured from China, which were also running on fuel bought from China. If I were Rip Van Winkle and woke up in Limi one fine day, I’d have decided I was in China and not Nepal — such was the dragon’s pervasive influence over the lives and landscape.
On the evening of the trade fair, I ran into Kunchok Dorjee, a cheerful, young man from the neighbouring Jang village. He had studied in Andhra Pradesh, far from the usual Dharamsala, Mussoorie schools. Growing up in a Tibetan valley, he said, it was easier for him to learn in India rather than in Kathmandu with his limited knowledge of Nepali. Dorjee and his wife, who works in Taklakot as a labourer, earning much more than she could have in Nepal, are living proof of how India and China continue to influence life here.
The irony of China supporting an ignored Tibetan valley wasn’t lost on me. On the part of the Tibetan Nepalis in Limi, the alignment with China couldn’t possibly be construed as indifference to the plight of Tibetans elsewhere as much as perhaps being a matter of mere sustenance. It’s the same with respect to ties with India. Bitterness over India’s economic blockade of 2015 continues to surface in conversations with Nepalis elsewhere, but in this corner, India is still a gateway to modern education.
After three days, it was perhaps fitting that I made my way back to Simikot packed first in the back of a Chinese truck, and then into one of the newly-introduced Indian-made Tata trucks till the point the road ended. The complex yet localised geopolitics at play reminded me again that borderlands are like self-sustained islands, worlds within worlds, shielded from external concerns and conflicts. At Limi Valley, history was repeating itself, and for practical reasons everyone seems the better for it.
The itinerant writer and photographer has lost her heart to the Himalayas over several journeys. This article was supported by a grant from ICIMOD.