Hope in the Himalayas: a trek like no other

A filmmaker’s quest to help Nepalese children return home has inspired a physically – and emotionally – rewarding journey, says Claire Wrathall

Snowland Journeys’ treks include camping in Shey Phoksundo National Park
Snowland Journeys’ treks include camping in Shey Phoksundo National Park | Image: Mark Hakansson

What would you sacrifice for your child’s education? If the answers are school fees and time spent home schooling, consider this: parents in the High Himalayan villages of Nepal voluntarily forgo seeing their children grow up – bidding farewell to their wide‑eyed four-year-olds as they set off for a school hundreds of miles away in Kathmandu – in the knowledge that they will be 16 or 17 when they next set eyes on them. Assuming, that is, they ever see them again.

Such is the perilous journey from these mountains to the capital – several days’ hike across snowfields and along precipitous mountain paths, followed by hours on buses – there’s no question of going home for holidays. Nor is keeping in touch via video calls an option: connectivity is patchy and, in any case, subsistence farmers don’t tend to have smartphones.

Founder Zara Balfour in the Himalayas with village children
Founder Zara Balfour in the Himalayas with village children | Image: Mark Hakansson

London-based filmmaker Zara Balfour first learnt of the parents and pupils of the Snowland Ranag Light of Education School in Kathmandu in 2014 and made them the subject of a feature-length documentary. It traced three students, now “streetwise city kids” fluent in English and Nepali, as they made the epic journey home for the three-month break between taking their Secondary Education Exams, sat at 16, and starting their two-year School Leaving Certificate courses.

Children of the Snow Land won multiple awards and secured a cinema release. But Balfour wanted to do more for the school, its students and their communities, so she founded Snowland Journeys, a charitable enterprise that will enable several groups of two to four students to make the long trek to (and from) their villages, accompanied by no more than 10 paying guests. The cost of the guests’ trips will include that of the students’ journeys home, and their additional sponsorship will go to support the children through higher education, workplace training and developing the villages.

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This is no relaxing holiday. Rather it’s a tough trek, with up to seven hours’ walking each day, some of it at altitudes of 5,000m. (The journey undertaken in the film by three students, Tsering Deki Lama, Jeewan Mahatara and Nima Gurung, as they returned to their respective homes in the Humla, Lower Dolpo and Upper Dolpo regions that border Tibet, involved three to 15 days on foot.) “But the scenery more than makes up for it,” notes Snowland Journeys’ director of operations Phil Briggs, a former Royal Marines commando and medic with vast expedition experience, who leads the groups, accompanied by local guides, porters and cooks. No wonder Nima, who, with encouragement from Balfour, is now at film school, says he wants to build a hotel by the sublime, preternaturally turquoise Phoksundo Lake. These little-explored Himalayan landscapes are some of the most spectacular on Earth.

There will also be rare opportunities to visit monasteries such as Shey Gompa and extraordinarily beautiful Yangser Gompa, and perhaps glimpse a snow leopard – as Nima did on his trek back to school. Overnight, the group will stay in tents and teahouses, which can be made “quite comfortable”, says Briggs.

Morning assembly at Snowland School in Kathmandu
Morning assembly at Snowland School in Kathmandu | Image: Marcus Stephenson

The journeys are also not only physically but emotionally testing too. When the children arrive at the villages, the greetings are not bear hugs and tears, but coolly formal, almost ceremonial. “I was expecting a kind of Hollywood movie moment,” says Balfour. But parents had coped, she learnt, “by switching off memories of their child, shutting down their emotions.” As one girl says hopefully of her mother’s apparent froideur, “I think she was hiding her feelings”. Another mother explains her composure as “the pain in my heart just melting away”. It takes time for parents and children to reconnect: “No mother would ever want to send her child away from her,” Tsering Deki eventually comes to understand, “but she wanted me to have a brighter future and good life. So, with a stone in her heart, she let go of me.”

“All these young people have issues of abandonment,” says Briggs. “They need preparing mentally, as well as training to get them used to the outdoors.” Additionally, many of the children have lost their local dialect, making communication hard, and, while educated, none is trained in farming skills, so at first they don’t know how to help out in the fields. 

Locals use goats, donkeys and yaks to carry supplies in the Western Himalayas
Locals use goats, donkeys and yaks to carry supplies in the Western Himalayas | Image: Zara Balfour

Those joining the trek won’t be present at the reunions. Each student will walk the last four or five miles accompanied only by a guide or sherpa, while the rest of the party makes camp. “It’s a very emotional time, so it’s important there’s none of us there. Ultimately, we’re there to return these children to their parents,” Briggs stresses.

The chances are, though, that an invitation to visit the village and meet the family will be forthcoming. “They are very hospitable people,” he adds. “And they’re usually keen to meet westerners.” There may even, as happens in the film, be an elaborately prepared, dressed-up-for reunion feast, followed by dancing. A way, perhaps, for the families to release long-buried emotions.

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The more these educated young people are able to reconnect with their communities, the likelier it is they’ll be able to help them connect technologically, thrive economically and educate their children locally. Tsering Deki is now studying fashion, a popular choice in Nepal driven partly by its textile industry and garment trade and also because the Kathmandu-raised, New York-based designer Prabal Gurung, whose designs have been worn by Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge, is a hero for many. But Tsering Deki is interested in more than clothes. Astonished to learn that her mother did not know why she bled each month and had neither pads nor underwear, she wants to start an NGO that, in working to improve the villages, also teaches women about menstruation and provides them with sanitary protection. As she says: “If everyone from the villages just left for the towns, after a few months they would forget our culture and traditions. They would forget our way of life.”

“Our long-term goal is to help develop villages to the point where the children can be educated at home,” adds Balfour. “People say ‘Why don’t you just build schools?’ but our aim is to help them build industries to bring money into their communities.” It’s a big ambition, one she hopes will inspire contributions from around the globe. But it’s one that she believes will grow. She points to an alumnus of Snowland School who will graduate from medical school this year and plans to return to Dolpo to establish the first permanent doctor’s practice in the region. Education is not just a way out, it can be a way back again too. 

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