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JOURNEYS OF THE HEART

Text: Sachitra Gurung and Aakriti Maya Aryal

Neelima Vallangi

A travel writer and photographer, Vallangi introduces herself as a nomad with no home, harbouring the desire to see as much of this world as possible.

Follow her on Instagram: neelimav
Follow her blog: www.travelwithneelima.com

Have you ever seen something you never thought you would while travelling?

Recently I have had the privilege of spending a few weeks travelling in Nepal’s remote and beautiful Humla district. While the entire journey was spectacular and memorable, I did not really expect to see Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar from Nepal. However, it turns out that there is a 5000 metre high pass called Lepcha La on Nepal-China border from where one can clearly see both the holy mountain and lake. It definitely ranks as one of the most wonderful and most surprising things I have seen on my travels in recent times.

What was the scariest travel experience you have had?

Once during a cycling expedition in the Indian Himalayas, I fell dangerously sick at an altitude of 4500 metres with no quick escape and no hospital facilities nearby. For three days, I had to battle high altitude sickness while I was being evacuated via road to the nearest city with the help of concerned friends and kind strangers. Those three days certainly felt like an eternity but I am grateful that I now live to tell that tale.

Some of your expeditions

My first two visits to Nepal involved doing the usual things that tourists do because going off the beaten track in another country is often quite difficult without the support of locals. The first time, I escaped the 2015 earthquake by hair and took refuge in the forests of Chitwan till the situation stabilised. I hiked the Manaslu circuit the second time. For my third visit, however, I was part of a research team travelling to a place called Limi Valley in Humla district. After reaching Simikot, the district headquarters, we travelled a section of the Great Himalayan Trail on foot, on ponies and on trucks to reach Limi located very close to the border with China. Only a handful of tourists seem to have ever strayed that far. The natural beauty of the valley and the unique culture of its people were spellbinding, to say the least.

What has been the most memorable meal that you’ve had? 

I once had lunch with the Adi Minyong tribe in their field surrounded by a ring of mountains. Our lunch was cooked over the fire in five hollow bamboo stems stuffed with rice, hilsa fish and chicken wrapped in Ekkum leaves (a banana like plant) and water. The only condiments added were salt, garlic and dried bamboo shoot powder that gives a tangy flavour to the fish and meat. Rice and fish taken out of the hollow stems were served with bamboo spoons on fresh banana leaves along with a serving of delightfully spicy red chilli and ginger chutney. At first, it felt a bit weird to eat from the leaves sprawled on the dirt. But after one bite into the piquant fish, I was stuffing myself silly with the fish and rice mixed with the spicy chutney that came with it. Everything for their meals is sourced from the forest – bamboo hollows are used as containers to cook, fish are caught from the abundant streams and leaves are used to wrap the food and to serve as well. In the age of tin cans and packaged food, an elaborate meal made entirely out of organic produce and equipment seemed infinitely fascinating.

What aspects of your travels are you trying to convey to through your vlogs?

I would like to call myself a storyteller before identifying as a writer or a photographer or blogger or even an Instagrammer. The emphasis always has been on telling a good story, one that will say something meaningful and interesting about the places and communities I visit. As of now, I convey my stories using words and images, primarily for print and digital media publications. I also occasionally use my social media channels such as Instagram to tell immersive and unusual stories, a recent example being a deep dive into my days and thoughts on a 14-day expedition in the Indian Himalayas. In my stories, I always try to bring in a sense of place and some sort of deeper understanding of the environment and culture.

Your travel destination for 2019

I usually tend not to have specific destinations in mind when it comes to travel. I follow stories and opportunities as they come. But if I have to pick a few, I would certainly like to revisit Nepal and maybe spend a few months exploring either South America or Africa.