Dolpo to Mustang Trekking
The Himalayas offer an endless variety of landscapes, cultures and people. This unbounded diversity makes it a destination you can visit over and over again. It even becomes more interesting and fascinating with every time you return. After trekking in central Nepal a few times I am now eager to explore its west, a relatively untouched area north of the Dhaulagiri massif between Dolpo and Mustang.
I got the idea on last year’s trek to Mustang when I saw the small trail branching off near Kagbeni, leading up a mountain flank and soon disappearing. My curiosity grew even more by answers to my questions - 'it goes to Dolpo; very difficult and far away'.
What started as a fancy became more and more solid after reading and hearing about Dolpo. Finding information proved difficult, but once I got to know the right people organizing was smooth and went quickly.
To be quite honest, I did feel a bit scared before the trek. I was organizing it and responsible for our 'mini-group'. My friend Thomas is in great shape but has not been trekking before, for me it will be the most strenuous trek I have ever done.
The route we are attempting starts at Juphal in Lower Dolpo. After walking some days in dense forests we will reach Ringmo. The village lies admidst lush fields near the beautiful Phoksumdo lake. From there we continue northwards along the lake, after crossing the first high pass the scenery changes all of a sudden, and we are in Inner Dolpo. A horseshoe of high mountains incloses the area, endless barren hills and ranges dominate the landscape. After visiting Shey gompa we turn south again towards the Tarap valley where we will find wide golden barley fields instead of desolate deserts. From Do we try to get to Kagbeni, which will probably be the most difficult part of the journey. Apart from two villages the area is uninhabited and wild, often trails are non-existant, bridges are missing and camp sites not easy to find.
Much of Dolpo’s past will probably never be known. According to legends the hidden land Be-yül was discovered by Padmasambhava, a famous Indian scholar who travelled through the Himalayas to spread Buddha’s teachings. It is assumed that people of Tibetan origin settled down in the area two thousand years ago. They had cultural and economical ties with Tibet and the Lo kingdom in the east. The kings of Lo governed it until the end of the 18th century. When the Gorkhas took control over Nepal, Dolpo gained larger autonomy because Mustang's influence was reduced. But due to the isolation it suffered culturally and most likely also economically. When modern Nepal was founded, only little changed in Dolpo because the government in Kathmandu was far away and not very interested in the region.
China’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s made life even more difficult. Husbandry became very difficult, all of sudden the winter grazing grounds in Tibet were closed off, and the meadows in the south were not as good.
Foreigners have ‘discovered’ Dolpo only recently. The Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi was probably the first but he was just passing through on his way to Tibet aroun d1890. Less than 10 foreigners visited Dolpo in the following sixty years. Even after the opening for tourism ten years ago it remains relatively untouched. It is still a restricted area and high visa fees keep away many tourists, the costs are increased further by the lack of infrastructure. The armed uprising of Maoists in Nepal's west has not reached Dolpo yet, but you should try to get the latest info when you consider visiting the area.
If you are interested in the route described in here, consider that snow can make passes uncrossable as early as October. We started at the end of August and had some expected post-monsoon rain, but this was rewarded by green fields and lush vegetation. Since it takes about 23 walking days (6-8 hours a day), make sure you are in good shape. You will spend most of the time above 3'800 metres and cross six passes above 5'000 m, but technically they are all very easy.
Upper Dolpo is difficult to reach and very arid. Few people live in the harsh climate. They are farmers, traders and shepherds – often all in one because this is the only way to survive. Agriculture on a large scale is impossible because fertile land is scarce. In the southern parts of Dolpo one finds a varied vegetation, farmers can plant a large variety of fruit, vegetables and grain. This contrast will probably have an effect on the culture and the people themselves, and the different scenery should also make our trip very interesting.
Day 01: Nepalganj – Dunai
After two days in Kathmandu we set out for Nepalganj, a shabby town near the border to India from where most flights to Western Nepal start. After spending an afternoon in sultry monsoon atmosphere I am happy to board the plane the next morning. After a long, long time of waiting our tiny plane takes off, marking the starting point of our trek.
The cloud cover opens up occasionally, swollen brown rivers flow through thick forest. Heavy clouds build up at the first low mountain ranges. Trees grow to the very top, among the terraced fields are small villages that cling to their flanks. For a few minutes we fly right through clouds, there’s nothing around us except the bright white of the clouds. This is a bit scary since the plane doesn’t look as if it had fancy technical equipment and there are more and higher mountains before us. The liaison officer enjoys that part of the flight even less than I do. Once out of the clouds we approach a narrow valley whose steep walls covered by small forests of conifers growing up the slopes. A river flows at the bottom of the gorge, small paths run parallel high above it connecting the few villages. This could be the Bheri river, which comes from Phoksumdo Lake and Do Tarap, two of the places we will pass on our way. We have left most of the clouds behind us and enjoy the bright sunlight and pleasant views. After a sharp right turn we descend quickly towards terraced fields. They come closer and closer fast. Five seconds later we touch the ground and land on the STOL on a small plateau. The name means Short Take Off and Landing, an accurate description.
The air is fresh and the temperatures are much more pleasant than in Nepalganj. It feels so much better here at 2100m than in the Terai which is only a few hundred meters above sea level. It is as if somebody suddenly removed the plug that was in my lung and I finally get large amounts of fresh air.
A few groups of tourists are waiting and board the plane. We watch in amazement as the little airplane takes off: shortly before the abrupt end of the runway the plane is in the air. I’m happy to fly out of Jomosom; the runway there is quite a bit longer.
Our trekking crew is waiting for us in one of the nearby lodges. They are shuffling and preparing their loads while we enjoy our first lunch by Padam Rai, our cook. Thomas has not expected such varied and delicious food on the trek, and cannot believe me that it will be like this for another three weeks. One hour later we leave Juphal, after a short walk through the town and its nice flat-roofed houses we are in the midst of an abundance of colourful fields. The tints range from yellow and light green to brown, it is truly a great first day of trekking. Rice and buckwheat ears are waving in the wind, young corn is grown and there are even fruit trees. We descend down to the Bheri river whose source is near the watershed that separates it from the Kali Gandaki. If all goes as planned, we will cross the – hopefully much smaller – stream in a fortnight. The valley wall on the other side is very steep and doesn’t allow for agriculture, we see only a few goats grazing on the green meadows. Steep walls surround our side of the river, too, but a stretch of relatively flat land between the mountains and the river could be terraced. High conifers grow in the sheer rocks above the fields.
The people have the reputation to be lazy because they don’t take as much care of their fields as they should. But the area that can be cultivated is so large that careful plantation would take a lot of manpower. And the maintenance of the terraces requires even more time; rockslides can be seen everywhere and despite their small size they destroy much farmland which has to be re-claimed with much hard work.
After the monotony of Kathmandu, which was intensified by grey monsoon clouds, the play of tints is liberating. A small ochre path takes us through green fields, white clouds on the dark blue sky throw black shades on the hills far ahead. The scenery is fantastic, in addition to the fields even the rock faces shine in an eerie green, small patches of this bright colour grow out of a darker green.
A small Hindu temple indicates that we have not reached the area of Tibetan influence yet, but we are not in an area of orthodox Hindus either. The people are not as religious as their counterparts further north and south, they revere old mountain gods but integrated Hindu and Buddhist deities. One hour later we pass the first prayer flag whose fluttering sound in the wind is familiar and comforting.
The sheer rocks, the warm wind, its sound in the pine-trees and the small paths through what looks like olive groves make me feel like walking in Spain’s Costa Brava. Most striking is the sweet smell of herbs. I’m usually not that attracted by such a landscape and I prefer the barren scenery above 4’500 m, but this is a perfect day in peaceful surroundings. It is very relaxing, and starting with such a pleasant and short walk should be a good omen.
Three hours after starting in Juphal we reach the first houses of Dunai, the ‘district capital’. The town’s location in a broadening of the valley is nice, but the village is dirty and not very inviting. Our permits are checked for the second time, policemen seem to make up a quarter of the town’s population. They are all very friendly but speak hardly any English so after 3 minutes our conversation runs out of words. I have postcards to deliver to the owner of Blue Sheep Trekkers Inn, which is where we stay. He is near Ringmo where he works as an engineer and supervises the construction of a hospital. I meet his brother instead, and conversations with locals like him are always very insightful. Especially since he has been abroad and has more criteria to measure the effects of recent changes than simple villagers. This is not meant derogatory, but after having seen some problems of the Western society you are probably less likely to embrace everything that comes from ‘us’.
Dolpo has suffered because the numbers of tourists have steadily declined. They shun the area because of rumours of Communist unrest. Further west near Simikot it really is a big problem, incidences happen daily but the conflict has not afflicted tourists in Upper Dolpo. But many agencies do not offer trips to the area anymore. I assume that the high prices for trekking in Dolpo – provisions must be flown in or carried by porters for several days, restricted area permits cost $70 a day, it takes two domestic flights to get here – might be a bigger deterrence than the violent unrest. Nevertheless, Dunai has seen some development in the last two years: There is a phone now, a generator further upstream produces 200 kW electricity (though this is just a test and not publicly available yet), a boarding school and a hospital have been established. A Buddhist monk from Chharka who made his Geshe degree in Dharamsala plans to open a monastery in Dunai to provide education and help in religious matters.
Tonight is the only night where we have to share the camping place with two other groups. They have just finished their trekking but were not very lucky. Their supplies didn’t get to Juphal so they started 4 days later and - because of that delay – following the itinerary was impossible and they had to cancel a sidetrip to Saldang. Dawa tells us the next day that their guide used to work as a cook for Sherpa Society, but was fired because he was not good, and more than once did he mislead the other group, because he was never in Dolpo before. I did not pass that information on to the Frenchmen, they were angry enough already. They also had heavy rain every night and almost every day, sometimes it was so bad that they had to camp for a few hours during the day and wait for better weather.
For us so far everything has been very smooth. Everything was ready in Juphal, our cook is world-class, Dawa a friendly and knowledgeable guide with very good English, and the rest of the crew is also nice. The weather was perfect, the scenery was lovely, I cannot imagine a better start.
Day 02: Dunai – Serpka
It was such a warm night that I could enjoy the luxury of not needing a sleeping bag. After porridge and toast we leave shortly after 700.
The routine will always the same every day; we wake up at 600 and have our first cup of tea. After washing and packing, breakfast is ready some time later. While we enjoy toast, porridge, omelettes, scrambled eggs, pancake, rice pudding, and chapati (this is the menu of three weeks trekking and not that of a single day!) the porters pack their loads and we leave half an hour later. After three hours of walking we stop for lunch. I can set my clock after my stomach, shortly after 1000 I start to feel like I’m starving. The porters are a little behind because the stop for early lunch, the kitchen crew usually walks about as fast we do. Waiting at the lunch spot and smelling the food is always a minor torture. The two-hour lunchbreak allows for interesting excursions in villages or relaxing naps, afterwards it is another three hours to the camp. Tea and biscuits are served around 4 o’clock, a British custom which I have come to enjoy only after three years of trekking. The sun sets quickly and it gets cooler (or even cold, depending on the altitude) soon after dusk. We finish dinner often around 1930, but we are tired and there is not much to do so I am often asleep at 2000 already. Of course this program has to be changed on some days because of weather, possible lunchspots, availability of water etc.
It has not rained during the night and we will walk in warm sunshine most of the day. A good bridge crosses the Bheri; we follow it downstream for an hour until we reach the Suli Gad. This side of the river looks much different than the side we walked yesterday, instead of dense forests and steep cliffs it is hilly, almost treeless and not used for agriculture. Dzos (a crossbreed of cows and yaks) and sheep are grazing higher up where only grass and single trees grow. A large variety of plants grow at the river, flowers in all sizes, shapes and colours; lavender and mint give the air a fresh smell.
The river is very broad but must have carried even more water just recently, the trail has been washed away in many river bends. Its source is the river from the Tarap valley and the Barbung Khola which springs in mountains that form the natural border to Tibet and Mustang. Fine black sand gives it a dark colour. In total contrast the Suli Gad - the river from the Phoksumdo lake - is light grey, which gives the confluence an odd colour mix.
We will follow the Sali Gad and the narrow valley for the next two days until we reach Phoksumdo, a likely highlight of the trek. The path runs along the river, again the landscape changes suddenly. The vegetation and reddish rocks remind me of the valleys and canyons at the Californian coast. It’s also rather hot, the clouds that are piling up on the southern ridge and towards the north seem further away than they really are. There is another route higher up which passes through two villages, but they are said not to be worth the extra effort.
The trail is in a good condition, but needs to be maintained all the time. The villagers are responsible for ‘their’ trails, when they need building supplies like thick ropes or steel cables, the government provides it for free but all the work is unpaid. The stones are broken out of the rock, hammered and cut in the right size, carried on people’s back to where they are needed. Halfway to our lunch spot we meet three men who carry those rocks to a ‘nearby’ construction site. This is incredibly hard work and now it becomes clearer why being a porter for trekkers is not the worst job one can have in Nepal.
The creek is almost completely whitewater, small rapids follow small rapids. Three hours after leaving Dunai the valley becomes wider, in the middle of it lies Yara, a tiny village of pretty houses with flowers on their roof. Just below it is a watermill where corn is ground into flour. The water is diverted far up and brought to the mill in a small channel. Through a hollow trunk it falls on a horizontal water wheel which is directly connected to the millstone in the building above it. The turning of the stone shakes the funnel and releases the grain which then falls into in the hole in the middle of the millstone. Only the filling of grains and the collecting and packing of the flour must be done manually. The miller is just coming down from the village and seems to be proud of his neat and clean millhouse. I get the impression that he is more satisfied than the millers in Upper Mustang, who belong to the group of Garas and are considered lower class.
A few dzos are grazing in the small forest near the stream, the wide horns give them a dangerous look but they are rather shy. Two boys collect dry wood and tear off small branches from the few remaining trees. Deforestation is a problem in Nepal, quite a number of landslides and loss of fertile land could be prevented if there were enough trees. The problem has been recognised and some re-forestation programs have been started, tourists (who were responsible for a small amount of wood-consumption) are also more aware and the situation seems to improve. But if we Westerners were really so concerned about the environment we should ask ourselves ‘where does my electricity come from’ more often instead of critising some farmer in Nepal who simply has to cut down a tree to cook his meal, or has to collect firewood because otherwise his family would freeze to death in winter. When you have heating, electricity and hot water at your fingertip all the time it is very easy to complain about deforestation and people’s shortsightedness in a distant country!
We steadily gain altitude while walking through fields of flowers and high grass. The trail disappears completely in the manhigh bushes, it is a funny sight to see only a row of baskets walk through the field, and the porters who carry them are invisible. Down in the gorge the river roars louder than before, the amount of water flowing in such a narrow river is incredible and the rapids become bigger and bigger. From a hill with a stupa on top we look down on a flat area where a dozen prayer peak out of a green jungle. This is one of the winter villages of the people in Ringmo, now completely deserted. Weed grows 3 meters high and the grass on the roofs does the rest to completely hide the houses. The village is even hard to detect when we walk right through it! This is one of the funniest towns I have ever seen on all of my Himalayan journeys.
We continue to walk high above the river, after one hour we slowly descend into coniferous wood and cross the river over a solid bridge. Plants and undergrowth become denser here, the path is muddy and slippery. We have to walk up and down more often, as you would expect from walking in a jungle. On one of the few clearings is an old hut which uses a big overhanging rock as part of the roof, a nice looking construction that was used as campsite before. One hour away is a newer and nicer campsite. The plateau is just large enough for some cornfields and a large house. We will spend the night in Serpka. We’ve just arrived in time to watch a downpour while sitting in the kitchen in an adjacent hut. It is a really simple kitchen, an earthen oven is fired by wood beneath it, and something is boiling in the two pots. The cupboard is filled with a few jars of jam, sugar, a toothbrush, some medicine and that’s it. A gurgur, which is used to make butter tea, indicates that we have reached the Tibetan culture. I decline offers to have a cup of Söl-cha (salt-tea) - not because of its taste but because I am extremely careful (read: paranoid) and afraid of stomach problems.
The rain is pretty strong and it must have been miserable for the porters, the trail was slippery enough before the rain - and we walk in hiking boots and not plastic slippers - and their only protection is a piece of plastic sheet. Luckily they arrive not much later, their speed and endurance is really amazing.
The house has been built recently with the idea of serving as a guesthouse in mind. We get to enjoy dinner under a rainproof roof on the first floor with a nice view of the river and the valley. The rain must have been exceptionally strong further north; within a few minutes colour of the river has changed from a light green into a dark brown. Mist moves slowly down towards the valley floor, gradually hiding the trees behind a grey haze. When sitting over tea and biscuits in the dry it is very comfortable to watch, walking in that moisture would be something quite different. At dusk the fog is gone and so are the clouds. When you sleep in tents and have to walk the whole day, it is very comforting to see a few stars on the sky when you go to bed.
Many local people on their way also stay here for the night. A few girls from Pungmo arouse interest and a bit of excitement in our crew. The didi (manager of the guesthouse) was making apple brandy this afternoon, plenty of it is available and I expect to hear singing until late at night. The porters last year took every chance to dance and sing all night long, yet the next day they were always in good shape. This year’s crew seems to be more serious or maybe it has to do with the fact that playing instruments is not allowed in national parks, but while dozing off I only hear laughter and chattering but no music or dancing.
Day 03: Serpka – Murwa
It hasn’t rain during the night for the second time, are the summer rains finally over? Very soon heavy clouds cover the sky and more are coming from the south. As we start walking a light drizzle begins, my raingear keeps me perfectly dry but this does not improve my mood. After the checkpoint we are in the forest again. The scenery is similar to yesterday afternoon: dense forests, ferns, bamboo, moss-covered stones, but surprisingly few birds or other animals.
The climbs and descents become steeper and more frequent, but are rewarded by great views on waterfalls far below. Very tall conifers block the rain, the fallen needles make the trail soft and pleasant to walk on. But slippery stones ask for attention, especially when walking on small ledges high above the river. The previous week a kitchen boy of another group fell down, he managed to let his basket go just in time to grab some bamboo. At one point it goes straight down 30 metres, at some curves the trail goes over piled boulders which serve as a foundation. It does not look very stable. The bridges are generally in good condition, only once do we have to cross one that stands precariously tilted and is very slippery because of the spray.
After 1½ hours the trail goes straight uphill for a long time, taking us out of the forest and over a pleasant meadow on the upper valley wall. After the various greens of the jungle it is a welcome change to walk through colourful flowers and fields. The slight rain which has fallen on and off the entire morning has stopped and the sun seems to break through the thin clouds. It is frustrating to see how it gets brighter and brighter but starts to rain again eventually. Yet at the same time this is what makes trekking so remarkable: life is temporarily cut down to basic things like weather, food, sleep, and health. It is stunning how fast you get used to this “reduction”. I know that this simplicity probably would not satisfy us Westerners for very long, but it is a good experience which I am often remembering. It makes me appreciate the luxuries I have back at home. Even though the river is far down no attention is required because the path is flat and broad now - thoughts can wander freely.
The lunch spot is down at the river, we stumble down a steep and muddy trail once again. How the porters with 30 kg on their back get down these slopes without slipping is incredible. The constant up’s and down’s have made me a little tired, but I know that I need two days to get in shape so I am not worried.
The bio-diversity in the Himalayas is surprisingly large, particularly in the valleys in north-south direction that get much rain in the summer. The disadvantage is that trails are often in a bad condition: taking this route in July seems impossible. Rock and mudslides destroy all human efforts. The summer trails higher up are more strenuous and only taken when absolutely necessary. It is easier to follow the trail near the river, which is possible only because the water level has decreased in the last few days. The slabs along the shoreline are an inch or two higher than the torrent.
After twenty minutes of trying not to get wet feet the river becomes broader and relatively calm. The valley also opens up, many pine-trees grow and would make this a perfect picnic spot if it were not for - yes you guessed right – the rain. We have lunch under an overhanging rock to escape a heavy downpour. Although rain has not been bad so far - just occasional and short drizzle - it also seems to influence our crew’s mood. After a sparse meal we set out again in less rain, the scenery is the same as in the morning but less strenuous because we walk closer to the river and have to climb across side valleys less often. A few smaller creeks contribute to the Suli Gad, whose colour has turned from the light grey it had yesterday to a light green. It is very surprising how few animals we spot. We are on the main route to Ringmo, but that the few people scare away all birds and other animals seems strange.
All of a sudden the colour of the river turns into a darker green. We are at Sumdwa, where the Suli Gad from Phoksumdo and the Pungmo Khola from the west meet. This is the place of military post and – probably more important – the Tapriza school. Marietta Kind, a Swiss ethnology student who spent 1½ years in Ringmo, helped establishing the school. She gave me some letters and postcards for two teachers. Senduk Lama has some time to show me around. 43 children from Ringmo, Pungmo and a village further west get their education here. The school is quite successful in its second year, but the beginning was difficult. Parents did not want to send their children to school because they did not understand the value of it. But now parents are happy, and after hearing their kids speak English those owning restaurants and guesthouses suggested that Tibetan should be dropped and more English be taught instead. Even the younger pupils speak good English, and I’m relieved that they understand my Tibetan. So it cannot be that bad. Of course Nepali is also taught, in addition to math, Buddhist culture and handicraft. Since this diverse curriculum with much emphasis on local culture certainly does not promote the ‘hinduization’ as envisioned by the central government in Kathmandu, I’m surprised to hear that the school gets a little government support nevertheless. Needless to say the 4 teachers are more motivated than the teachers who are usually sent to rural schools by the government. Often they are Hindus, used to life in the lower parts of Nepal, e.g. the Kathmandu valley. Suddenly they find themselves in a harsh climate amongst a culture they do not really understand and sometimes even see as inferior. Often they leave before their time is up, and they never stay longer than they have to.
I hope to meet Senduk Lama at Ringmo again. Tomorrow is full moon and people have asked him to hold a puja. The prospect of seeing a Bon ceremony is certainly enticing. I will not understand much, but I might receive profound explanation afterwards.
Since the porters cannot cook with firewood near the checkpoint, we camp halfway between Sumdwa and Murwa. I’m not unhappy to stop here, it rains a little and it has been good but tiring walking. A lonely house is just being built, it looks like a future guesthouse. So far only one part of it has a roof, in the smaller room the kitchen crew sets up their stuff, in the other one lives an entire family. The fire is the centre of the room, in the far corner an old, old grandmother (or more likely a grand-grand-(grand?)-mother) is sleeping and after waking up takes care of a 2-year old girl. Her mother is making rakshi, strong liquor out of wheat. Several pots are set on top of each other, the cracks are sealed with clay. The lowest pot contains fermented wheat, by heating it the alcohol rises. The third pot contains cold water and when the alcohol reaches that bottom it condenses and drops into the middle pot. At least that is how I imagine it works, maybe I am wrong.
Nearby the groundplan of another, much bigger building is drawn with chalk on the ground. When the hospital is finished it will offer Western medicine as well as Tibetan and herbal medicine. WWF is supporting the study and collection of herbs around Ringmo, I assume they also finance this project.
Everybody here is really friendly and we have a good time playing with the kids. Despite the rain that has hit us harder than yesterday this was also an enjoyable day, mainly because I’ve spent more time with local people.
Day 04: Sumdwa – Ringmo
The clouds and fog in the morning come as no surprise, I woke up twice at night and heard the sound of drizzle on the tent. I put on my raingear and although the rain stops as soon as I’m wearing it, a cold wind does not make me regret it. Bits of blue sky shimmer through the clouds only a few minutes later; weather changes happen incredibly fast here.
Soon after the checkpoint a steep and long climb starts to the ridge which separates the lake from the valley. Another valley branches off on the right-hand side, on the way to Baga La and Do one passes the yellow and green fields of Pisang. Slowly they disappear in mist and heavy fog from the valley reduces visibility to 200 m. The trail becomes flat for a few minutes, a welcome rest before the real ascent begins! It takes another hour of fast walking to get to the top which is almost 3'800 m high. A waterfall is roaring deep, deep below us. It is one of the highest in Nepal, we wait a few minutes in hope for a good view. In vain, only the snakeformed white river breaks through the mist for a few seconds. Most of the porters we passed on the way up have caught up and even the liaison officer arrives a little later. He speaks little English but seems to be a friendly yet reserved man. Hopefully he won’t turn into a fussy bureaucrat when the time comes to make decisions.
A small hill is the last obstacle before Ringmo. I am very curious to see the village, I guess it is one of the highlights of our trek. Huge red-coloured rocks are to our left, bright green fields on gentle hills to our right. The stark yet natural contrast of such sceneries is what makes trekking so enjoyable. The clouds suddenly disperse when we reach the first chorten. Soon another chorten follows and we pass the first maniwall on its right side. This feels very strange, normally you should walk around it clockwise in the direction of the Buddhist’s wheel of life. But now we are in one of the few remaining areas where the pre-Buddhist religion Bon is still practised. Their philosophy and iconography is now very similar to Tibetan Buddhism and for amateurs like me very hard to distinguish.
According to Bon legends their religion was founded 18’000 years ago by Tönpa Shenrab. Historical facts show that it was widespread in Tibet, practiced from Guge in the west to Amnye Machen in the far east. It was only little organized, and this lack helped increase the importance of Buddhism around 900 AD. Afterwards Bon added structure and consistency to their philosophy and included some Buddhist concepts and iconography. Buddhism on the other hand adopted many Bon practices like prayer flags, protector deities and local gods and demons.
Ringmo’s biggest chorten has paintings of figures which seem to be Buddhist, yet they all appear in the Bon religion. Once the dominant religion in Tibet, it was replaced with Buddhism by Padmasambhava, a scholar from India who was also the founder of the Nyingmapa sect. Monasteries of Buddhism and Bon can both be found in Upper Dolpo, and both share the same problem: their influence is on the wane, monks and nuns are becoming rarer. Families would rather their children speak good English instead of being to able to understand old Tibetan scripts. In earlier times Dolpo was also not famous for large monasteries - there were none – but for learned and pious lamas.
It feels great to arrive in Ringmo. The atmosphere is quite different from the villages further south, this is emphasised by the wide surroundings and the sudden improvement of the weather. Fields and flowers, dense forests and the pleasant temperatures make this seem to be much lower than 3’400 metres. After the rainforest and the narrow valley Ringmo is an even merrier place. The village is built along a small hill; all houses are quite large and share the same brown colour and architectural style. The only thing standing out is the whitewashed chortens.
I cannot wait to see the splendid lake, after the cloudy morning I was prepared to see no lake at all. So when I reach the last hill before the camp a feeling of happiness and gratitude overcomes me when I see the green-blue lake in front of me. This is one of the few cases where the term ‘turquoise’ is the only word to describe a colour. The same fantastic colour spans from the shallow shore to the very end. Since steep rockcrags form the other shores, no vegetation fades or blurs the lake’s colour. Within a split second all the (relatively little) rain of the last two days is forgotten. We camp on the meadow near the lake’s shore, a fantastic spot.
Padam’s Western meals are very good, but we like his Nepali dishes even better so we have ordered dal baht for lunch every day, with potatoes or vegetables as a welcome side dish. I hope we did not offend him by suggesting such a simple meal, but it is hard to imagine something else that tastes so good and gives so much energy. This is our first day at ‘high altitude’ and the body should be given some rest, but anybody who spent the afternoon in the camp would be crazy.
I take the chance for one of the rare ‘head-to-toe’ baths, even though I am not very dirty yet. I will probably not be that clean again the next two weeks since the water won’t get any warmer. And trust me, it is very, very cold already.
After another fantastic lunch - mixed dahl - and a bath in the lake I am eager to do some walking and exploring.
A herd of yaks and dzos are driven to a meadow at the other side of the lake. A very narrow path runs 20 m above the waterline. After the forest the trail disappears, there seems to be a zigzag path upwards but it is very steep and leads into a precipice. I wonder if that is the way to Shey.
The views must be even better from higher up, after a very slow climb I pass three chortens and reach the top of the hill a few minutes later. The lake is an important part of the scenery, but by far not the only one. A mountain range forms the valley wall in the south, the most prominent peak is a pyramid of ice and snow, probably Norbu Kang (6005 m). The eastern wall of the Ringmo valley is formed by steep rocks, a dense forest lies just below those dark mountains. On a clearing between the steep walls and the lake are the ten buildings of the Bon monastery. Light green wheat and yellow grass grows between the forest and the Sali Gad river, which is the lake’s draining off. The actual village lies on this side of the river, the two dozen houses are situated between wheat fields. The number of colours and their composition is perfect.
This would also be a good spot to watch the life in the village if I had brought binoculars. I am 200 metres away so it is impossible to tell what people are doing exactly, but much of the work is done on the roofs and it is interesting just to sit there and watch.
We will have enough time to visit the monastery tomorrow, but since it is still a long time to dinner and the weather is so fine I take another walk, motivated more by the scenery than by the cultural relevance of the monastery. The afternoon sun gives the fields a yellow touch, it is very quiet and I will remember this stroll as an especially pleasant one. The path splits shortly after the bridge, I continue towards the lake, passing a few chortens that stand in the midst of the green fields. After ten minutes I am in a Mediterranean pine-tree forest with the unreal blue of the lake below me. The faint sound of splashing water adds to the errie atmosphere. It is almost too perfect to be true. I can see the fluttering prayerflags and the monastery on the cliff already but it takes another ten minutes till I get to the monastery complex. It consists of ten buildings, many seem abandoned and all are locked.
After resting and enjoying the views of Kanjiroba Himal, I return to the camp just in time for tea and biscuits. Two cute kids stop by and give us flowers and some plant seeds in exchange for whatever we are willing to give; we trade half a cereal bar for their flowers.
The colour of the lake changes constantly. When the sun is hidden by a fast moving cloud, the lake’s green turns into a darker, more blue-ish tone. The subtle different colours that appear at the same time are wonderful but probably impossible to capture with a camera. I have to restrain myself from taking picture after picture; the colour always seems a little better than five minutes before.
A legend describes the formation of the lake. A local demon was being chased and hunted by Padmasambhava, the Buddhist scholar from India. While fleeing she offered the villagers a large turquoise if they did not tell Padmasambhava her whereabouts. The villagers agreed and received the stone. When the Buddhist master arrived, he guessed what had happened and turned the turquoise into dung. The villagers felt betrayed and told him where the demon was hiding. She in turn took revenge by flooding the village. [Supposedly a Japanese team scanned the ground of the lake with a submarine but could not find any remains of a settlement. I don’t know if that story is true or just another funny story about the Japanese in the Himalayas.]
When the sun disappears behind the Western ridge it gets chilly within minutes. The lake is now dark blue which increases the feeling of cold temperatures, the turquoise colour of the afternoon conveyed a certain tropical feeling.
After dinner I fall asleep - tired, slightly sunburned and very happy.
Day 05: Ringmo
Today is our first rest day. We don’t actually need to rest after only four days of walking. But it makes sense to plan one in Ringmo, because 1) it is a charming and interesting place 2) it is a good idea to stay here to get used to the altitude 3) flights to Juphal are not very reliable and an extra day to catch up can be very useful.
I enjoy sleeping in but wake up early enough to watch the first sunrays hit the lake and the mountains around it – while sitting in the warm sleeping bag and enjoying a cup of tea. The morning is wonderful, blue sky with a few white clouds, a slight breeze and a fresh smell.
It is nice not having to hurry in the morning for once. The few remaining clouds have been blown away by the time we finish breakfast and leave for a short walk to the waterfall. It can be seen from two different sides, the one we came from yesterday and from a hill on the other side of the river. After passing the village and walking through fields we reach the coniferous forest. It is very quiet in here, our steps are swallowed by thick carpet of needles. A local from Ringmo is returning from the Tibetan border with Chinese goods (his packhorse carries some bottles of Chinese beer). He took the route via Saldang and Do, the casualness with which he describes the journey on dangerous paths and with little equipment is just mind-blowing. Even more so when compared to our luxurious and (relatively) easy trekking. When you hear trekkers talk about their trips in the Himalayas it often sounds as if they walked 2000 km in two weeks on their knees in a snowstorm with 200 kg on their back and no food for days. Admittedly, there can be a difficult day occasionally, but usually it is very easy, you do not have to worry about anything, the heavy bag is carried for you and you get plenty of clean and tasty food.
After leaving the forest we find ourselves on a wide and gentle hilly alpine pasture. We hear the waterfall already but continue to climb until Khami finds the perfect spot on top of a small hill. The river falls down about 250 metres in several steps, spray forms a rainbow next to it. Just below the village are green fields, a high peak of the Kanjiroba Himal towers above it all, but clouds conceal the upper part of the mountain. Its peak and glaciers are visible just for a few seconds. The lake is a small dark blue dot which contrasts nicely with the ochre tones of the mountains and the green of the pine trees. The only great view of Ringmo missing is the one from the path to Shey, and hopefully we will get to see that tomorrow.
After a long rest at the waterfall we start walking back. Before going to lunch at the camp we visit the monastery. Again it is a very pleasant walk, again nobody is there. It is surprising because of a monastery with 10 buildings you would expect to find a least a few monks. They might be in retreat in a separate gompa, during a time of 3 years, 3 months and 3 days they are not allowed to visit the village. The remarkable site of the monastery helps me over the disappointment of not meeting anyone here. I wonder how important the monastery still is to the villagers. I hope that their culture can keep its relevance even when they are moving towards a more Western way of life.
Many tourists are looking for the ‘untouched’ place where things are as they were hundreds of years ago. When they notice that ‘modern times’ have also started in regions so far away, they complain and cannot understand why someone wants electricity, radio, medicine etc. Admittedly, many Western inventions are expensive, useless, stupid and threatening, but one should not forget that modern infrastructure has the potential to make locals’ lives easier. Therefore we have absolutely no right to complain, especially because after satisfying our curiousity for a week we will board the plane to return to our normal, luxurious lives – and normally do not pay much attention to the problems we have seen.
In the afternoon I wander around the village. I am a bit shocked how many things I have missed and how little I have noticed yesterday, my focus so far has been mainly on the fantastic scenery and not the village itself. The architecture is quite different from anything I have seen in Nepal, Tibet or Ladakh. The houses in those regions are usually two-story-high whitewashed stone buildings with a flat roof, small doors, a few small windows and a little woodwork. In Ringmo they feature a small building on the roof which makes an extra story. The windows are also small to keep out the cold and heat, but they have a nicely carved wooden frame. Doors are wider than usual and open into a stable and storeroom from where a ladder goes to the second floor. Every house has a porch before that door, carved pillars support this construction. A few of the doors have a small ledge above it on which carved manistones or pictures of deities are placed. The bare rocks which form the house’s wall are not whitewashed, or maybe the rain has washed the paint away. After each one-foot high layer of stones follows a long horizontal plank which gives the wall stability and also a nice visual structure.
Except for old men only women and children are in the village during the summer. The men are away on business, some go as far as India to do trading, others travel north to Tibet. I wonder if they are back for harvesting season or if the women do it themselves. Right now they spend most of the time on the roof or on a weaving machine in the garden. Maybe I am wrong, but women here are much more independent and self-assured than in Hindu society. The children have lots of time, they sit in front of the tent for half an hour hoping for chocolate or ask 20 times for a pen. Some idiot must have given away balloons recently, all the kids ask for them. It is difficult to sit down without being hassled by the kids.
Although this is a delightful place I am not unhappy to leave one day earlier than planned. We saw the path along the lake already and I cannot wait for the views from up there.
Day 06: Ringmo – before Kang La
Today’s destination is only 200 m higher than Ringmo in a valley to the north, but to get there we will have to reach the end of the lake first. From there we will follow the Phoksumdo Khola upstream. The beginning is a small trail along the shore, after crossing a bridge the trail is chiselled in the rock above the lake, after half a mile follows a glacial valley, then the trail climbs very steeply high above the lake. After that point it is a gradual descent to the lake’s northern shore.
The first part of the trail is not for people afraid of heights. This would include me, but I feel fine except for a few spots where the path is only one metre wide and the lake 20 metres right below me. It looked more dangerous from far away. Still, how the dzos walked this way will remain a mystery.
Pine trees and large bushes grow in the small flat glacial valley, which looks very idyllic with its forest and white pebbles at the shore. Glacier water comes from a 6'000 m peak in a little stream. The riverbed is 50 metres wide, it is hard to imagine the mass of water that must flow down at some point of the year to turn the small stream into such wide river. The yaks we had seen in Ringmo were driven up to the pastures just below the glacier. Walking in the forest is a pleasant change, for after a few minutes in the shade a steep one-hour climb in the hot morning sun begins.
It is a steep slope covered with bushes. We zigzag up the hill, climb a ridge high above the lake. Lizards dart across the path, large mice hide behind rocks. Apart from that the world seems to stand still. No sound, no wind, no movement – only the fantastic scenery. When we get to a pile of stones and a prayerflag the highest point has been reached. I am surprised about the relative ease of the climb, considering the 400 metres which we have gained I’m not breathing or sweating very much. Getting to Ringmo two days earlier felt more strenuous, we have either acclimatised well or simply walk slower. Thomas felt sick during the night, but judging by his walking speed, seems to have recovered.
The views have been splendid since our start two hours ago. The gentle hills of Ringmo have become smaller and smaller, the lake has unfolded like a turquoise blanket and taken more and more of our view, the summit of Kang Norbu in the south appears as a completely white triangle. Now we are at the best viewpoint and enjoy the scenery while resting. It is breathtaking. Within the dark green forest lie the bright fields of Ringmo, the monastery on the ledge is already in the sun while the forest still lies in the shade.
The difficult part of the today’s route is behind us, from now on it will be either flat or downhill. While traversing a steep wall we see the lake’s other main inflow on the opposite shore to the east. A small stream runs in the middle of a broad and very flat valley, high mountain ranges rise next to it. We continue to the northern confluence through pine and silver birch forests. The yellow leaves accentuate the lake’s green colour, the pine trees’ sweet smell adds to the peaceful atmosphere. After half an hour of fast walking we reach the northern shore. It forms an exact half-round, the geometrical form looks strange in the otherwise rugged landscape. The lake near Ringmo was completely flat, the waves at this end give it quite a different atmosphere. Huge white clouds are over Ringmo, luckily they are blown away and we set out in perfect sunshine after lunch. It is hard to imagine a nicer lunch spot than here; lying in the grass under a large birch at the lake’s pebble shore.
The flat valley is several hundred meters wide and completely covered by knee-high thorny bushes. Snow-covered peaks with glaciers form the western wall, the opposite side is barren rock, reminding me of the mountains of Ladakh and Zanskar. As the valley becomes more narrow, the vegetation gets more diverse, young pine forest with yellow-greenish trees, high conifers like in Scandinavia, high bushes, flowers. Most of the wood used for construction in Dolpo comes from here. Many small streams flow in the valley, young birch trees grow at the riverbanks, the rest of the valley is covered with plants and flowers. From the left come crashing sounds but we never see what caused them, it must be either the glaciers’ movements or avalanches.
We cross the river several times, but since it does not carry much water jumping from stone to stone is easy. I expect it to be different tomorrow and I am not looking forward to it. The two Frenchmen we met in Juphal had to wade through it a few times and the trail was in very bad condition. Although it did not rain much in the last few days I do not anticipate a nice trail and rebuilt bridges.
This would be a pleasant walk but Thomas is feeling very sick which spoils it for me, too. He was walking fine until lunch and ate a little bit, but now he has stop more and more often because he feels very weak. I tell Dawa to camp at the next possible spot, and when we reach it half an hour later Thomas just lies down to rest. While the kitchen crew and I wait for the porters and the tents (a slight drizzle has started) we have big fun staging a shot-putting contest. Padam has to laugh so hard before even throwing a stone that he never gets very far and everybody starts cheering him up – with the result is that he is even less concentrated and has to laugh more than before.
We get to watch an incredible downpour just a few minutes after having put up the tents. It stops after a minute and I hope it is over, but soon it starts again is accompanied by a strong gales. We are in the middle of a big storm. The wind is tearing at our tent. I wonder how much rain it can handle...
Until last night everything seemed perfect, the weather was exceptionally good, we were healthy and in a good mood. Now things look bleaker. Thomas is seriously sick, the weather terrible, and the rivers will be swollen tomorrow. But then again maybe I am just too pessimistic. Thomas could be fine again tomorrow and gain strength quickly so we could continue as planned. I knew that this was going to be an adventurous trek and so far everything worked out well, so I have no reason to complain.
There is much time for reflection, maybe too much time. I am sitting in the tent, now enjoying the drizzle on the tent because it makes things more cozy. Rain is decreasing and it looks bright outside, though maybe this is just wishful thinking. Thomas seems to be getting some rest finally; he is not sleeping but at least feels comfortable. The rain has almost stopped now and comes from isolated grey clouds, further north the sky is blue again. The freshly snowed in peaks look fantastic in the light just before dusk.
When I go to bed two hours later the sky is absolutely clear, the stars shine brightly and even the Milky Way can be seen.
Day 07: Kang La – before Mendok Thing La
The orange morning sun is shining on the snow on the mountain flank. A day that begins with such a view is destined to be a good one. Thomas slept well and seems to be fit again. All the problems of yesterday afternoon are forgotten.
It is rather cold and the humidity makes it even colder. Therefore the porters are eager to leave, we also have to catch up one hour from yesterday’s early stop. I feel bad when I see them waiting and freezing. If we had known this we could have packed earlier but nobody told us. So we leave after breakfast at the usual time, luckily once we start walking the temperatures get pleasant.
The valley narrows even more and does not leave much space except for the river and small silver birch forests along it. I thought that it was all glacier water but many springs flow out of the nearby rocks. Their water is crystal clear, whereas the river is slightly blue. It is no wonder that the vegetation is still so rich at 4’000 m, the quality of the soil is like mould. After one hour the river separates, a narrow and deep gorge branches off to the east, but we have to follow the less exciting looking main valley to the left.
We walk along the broader river and climb up until we reach a big green amphitheatre. The right part of the valley is a slope covered by bushes, on the lush meadow further north we see herds of yaks grazing. The white tents and small stone huts of the yak-boys are barely visible. Walking through the bushes without a trail is strenuous, but the view of the valley from the top is worth it. The lake is a blue triangle from which a broad valley slowly turns into a gorge. It is interesting how the valley changes in such a short distance.
At sunrise not a single cloud could be seen, one hour later the sky was overcast but at noon it clears again and gets almost too hot. Even the massive mountain just across the valley with its impressive glacier is visible now.
While waiting for lunch a gaily decorated yak is coming down from further up, leading a group of 30 big, hairy yaks that carry little bags. I wonder what makes those big, sturdy animals so fascinating, is it their archaic appearance, thick long fur and big horns, or because they seem so carefree and modest? Getting them to walk in the specified direction is no easy task and three tough looking men are busy throwing stones to guide the animals. Just three minutes later the spectacle is over and it is as quiet as before, making the short encounter seem unreal.
Life without yaks would be impossible in Upper Dolpo. “The yaks are our parents. We could not survive here without them. Like our children, each one has a different name.” They are yak thabo when they are black with white spots, yak dongbo when they have a white star on the forehead, yak kawa when they a white head, tsen yak when they are golden, yak ralden when their horns are not symmetrical. They are lha yaks when their fur is immaculate. These are scared and never killed for their meat. Their fur is never cut. They will never carry loads that are considered impure – boots or clothes. Every year, a ceremony is given to honour them. When they grow old, they are left in peace, and when they die, like the Dolpo people, their bodies are cut up and offered to the vultures. The yaks give their strength to carry loads for man. They provide milk, meat and leather. Their fur is used to make ropes, sacks, and the Drok-pa’s black tents. On the high plateau, “where there is not even a word to describe a tree”, yaks furnish the only source of fuel: dried dung. [Valli]
The little creek takes a left turn, grass grows on rock cliffs and further up is a glacier. The right side is not covered by any vegetation, it is a barren slope. After crossing the river it becomes clear: we will go up, up, up. First we climb through gravel, then up a grassy ridge, up another slope with small flowers and bushes, and finally across another gravel field. I walk slowly, trying to safe as much energy as I can for acclimatisation, for we will spend the night above 4’500 m.
With every hill I climb my expectations for a great view grow, but all I get to see are just other, higher hills. After two hours I finally reach a point where the trail goes down again – at least temporarily. A high ridge forms the horizon, on its centre stands a huge block of red rock, to its side are red-brown coloured hills which resemble dunes. Small streams flow down from the top and cut the dunes into pieces, each of which has its own tone of colour. Somewhere up there is Kang La, our first pass over 5’000 m. We will set up a ‘base camp’ on one of the pastures below. This sounds easier than it is – finding a flat stone free area near the river proves quite difficult. Dawa and Khami who went ahead to look a suitable spot are rewarded by spotting blue mountain sheep. By the time we get there they are gone, but with a little luck we will see more tomorrow near Shey.
I don’t feel very tired but it is good to rest anyway. Closeby hills invite for further climbs, but after a day of walking I am not eager enough, although the idea of standing atop one of the high points is very tempting. Who knows how much energy I will need tomorrow?
Day 08: Mendok Think La – Shey
I wake up early in the morning after a night of relatively good sleep – considering the altitude. When I look out of the tent to make sure that the sound on our tent is only a quick shower I am surprised. Sleet is falling, the whole valley is filled with thick clouds. The ground is not covered yet, but it is not pleasant to walk with snowflakes and cold wind hitting your face.
The trail climbs steeply again, when looking back I have a deja vue, it looks almost as yesterday afternoon. A small river runs at the bottom of the valley which is covered by yellow grass. The little waterfall from yesterday is missing, otherwise it is an exact copy. One of our porters is sick, luckily we have met a local from Shey yesterday who agreed to guide us and carries the porter’s load. Dawa was here 5 years ago and since there are no trails it would have been difficult for him finding the quickest way to the pass in this weather. The guide is nicknamed ‘Lama Guide’, because he is the assistant of the Shey lama. He literally runs up the hill with his 20 kg load, nobody has the slightest chance of keeping up with him. Every few minutes he turns around to make sure he is not too far ahead, but nevertheless he has to wait more than 15 minutes near the windy top. He only wears a thin chuba and does not even button up his shirt. It is still snowing.
The ‘normal’ route to Shey goes over Kang La, but the guide knows a better way and we continue westwards towards Mendok Thing La. This pass is also above 5’000 m high but much faster to reach from where we camped. To protect the face from the cold I keep my head down, thus also becoming more familiar with the details of Himalayan flora. Suddenly all those little flowers, lichen and moss becomes highly captivating. We get to the ridge fast, and after fixing the broken prayerflag there is not much else to do – snow, clouds and wind do not make this a place where you want to spend much time – so we head down on the other side. The regular path follows the mountain flank, but most of us choose the shortcut down a steep black gravel slope. It consists of very small slate pieces and the boots sink in comfortably - running down taking big jumps is a lot of fun and also much faster.
Everybody stops at the first maniwall where Lama Guide points to one of the ridges. A large boulder resembles a person’s head. It is the place of a local goddess, the lama’s assistant tells stories of miraculous births, and mentions that it even worked for a child-less American couple who came here twice just for that. The liaison officer wraps fist-sized stone in a kata and adds it to the wall in hope of getting a son. They have three girls already but a son is important in Hindu culture.
After descending on slippery stones near the river we climb up the valley’s right wall until we reach the ridge and hold right to cross another small valley and another creek. There we have to walk up again where the trail seems to disappear. This route is for definitely for locals only, nobody else would ever find it. I have to use both my hands to climb across some bigger rocks. It is slippery and falling would not be pleasant since it is rather steep.
We all walk without taking breaks. Far down in the gorge are patches of green, it is a pity that low clouds make it impossible to get a better view. We stop only once on a small plateau near a sharp turn. People who passed by have erected dozens of small stone piles resembling houses. We might be walking the last part of the kora around Crystal Mountain, a few places seemed familiar from books I read. The more religious porters and sherpas in our group take their time to add another careful construction. This is the house in which you live after a bad reincarnation, as a precaution I also build one though it is not nearly as fancy as the others are.
The intensity of snowfall has been varied since we left the pass two hours ago. Now that the deep valleys are behind us it is clearing up. The remaining mist is blown from the valley floor towards the pass and burns off on the way, opening the view over a wide green valley with a handful of red buildings. This is the famous Shey gompa. The monastery lies amidst gentle hills, and except for a snow-covered mountain range at the horizon there are only few high mountains, most of them are grouped together in little massifs. A large herd of yaks makes the scenery even more picturesque. This is our first glimpse of the so-called characteristic Dolpo landscape. Although the term is mentioned in many books and articles, it seems to be just a tourist simplification and not an accurate description of the landscape which is much more diverse.
The weather has improved and the end of today’s walking is in sight. A flock of roughly 40 mountain sheep graze on the mountain to our right, but they spot us before we see them and walk slowly further up. It is mentioned in old biographies that the lamas of Dolpo have always tried to convince the villagers not to hunt, which was not an easy task. The Shey lamas must have been quite adamant, the rare blue mountain sheep can be found in large numbers here. The zoologist Peter Schaller did some research here thirty years ago. He was accompanied by Peter Matthiessen who wrote the rather overrated book ‘Snow Leopard’, which undeservedly became a best-seller while Schaller never quite received the attention he deserved.
I suddenly spot a monastery on a ledge in a steep red cliff to our left. Dawa doubts that somebody is there, which is not encouraging. I am almost convinced to go to Shey directly when Thomas spots a small figure on the monastery’s roof. This part of Dolpo is sparsely inhabited and not as rich in cultural highlights as other areas, so it is wise to use every opportunity. The group splits, the porters and the officer head directly to Shey while we follow Lama Guide.
The monastery is built on a sheer rock cliff. The small ledge in the reddish cliff is a few metres wide and the three houses seem to cling to wall. Only the red main building seems inhabited, a young boy in a monk’s robe peaks curiously out of the balcony. A dog is barking furiously when we approach the monastery, as a precaution I grab two big rocks, but am relieved to see that the dog is chained. Another one is barking from further away but also proves harmless thanks to a rope around its neck.
We are told to wait a few minutes and then allowed to enter. I cannot see a thing in the darkness, after a few seconds the eyes get used to it and I climb up a steep stair to a narrow corridor.
I find myself in a very tastefully decorated room, and am even more surprised to face the same young boy from the balcony sitting in a dignified position on the lama’s throne. This has all come very unexpectedly. I have never been in such a situation before and despite the fact that I know a thing or two about local customs and religion I seem destined to make a horrible faux pas. Slowly I walk towards the boy, folding my hands, bowing and stammering a (hopefully) solemn sounding ‘tashi deleg’. I cannot have been completely wrong, the young lama smiles and touches my head to give me a blessing. An older monk whom I have not noticed so far shows me to sit down on one of the nice carpets near the balcony. I relax and have time to study the room in more detail. It is about 4 x 4 meters wide, the small entrance is near the window, on the opposite wall is a rack of Tibetan books. Colourful paintings and Thangkas decorate the walls, wooden red pillars go up the ceiling.
He is the 17th incarnation of the Shey and Tsakhang lama, his predecessor died nine years ago. Two years ago this child was found in Phijor, a village three days north from here. At his birth auspicious rainbows could be seen and he was treated like a lama by the other children. A few other candidates were also found, the Karmapa at Tsurphu monastery identified this boy as the reincarnation. He is leaving for Kathmandu tomorrow to be educated in Pullahari Monastery. After completing his studies, he is supposed to return to Shey. This is very hard to imagine. In Kathmandu you find all the luxuries of modern life, deciding to come back here and lead a lonely and hard life takes a lot of conviction and compassion. The boy’s father goes with him, the mother – who was not happy about her son being chosen as a reincarnation - stays in Phijor where she works as a farmer.
Finding the old tulku’s predecessor proved quite difficult. When the 15th Tulku died in the 1920 after smallpox, the head of the Kagyupa sect gave some hints about the place of the reincarnation. The written instructions were quite clear and included a description of the house, number of family members and even their names. But it fitted too many candidates, and after a few years of unsuccessful searching the search committees returned to Lhasa to ask the Karmapa for more information. He did not know more and sent them off again. Eventually they found the family near Manang, a village north of the Annapurna. But the father denied having a son because he did not want him to go away. Important people in Dolpo and Upper Mustang to convince the father to let his son go and succeeded - after two years.
The young 16th Tulku was not very virtuous and left Shey after ugly arguments. He went to Tibet to continue his studies there. After returning to Dolpo he was more serious, and went into solitary meditation for a few years. People brought him food which he picked up during the night. Many were afraid he died when they saw nothing of him for three months. After nine years of solitude he received many local people who asked for his advice. When he died at the high age of 73, he was preserved in salt, a common practice for high lamas.
Back to the present. The old monk who stays with the young Tulku came from Darjeeling to take care of the boy. He speaks little English but the complicated translation (Tibetan to Nepali to English) works good enough.
The monastery is called Tsakhang, tsa (or tah) meaning ‘red’, khang is the word for ‘house’ or ‘building’, because of its location in the red cliff. It belongs to the Kagyupa sect, famous for its scholars Tilopa, Marpa and Milarepa. The most widespread sect in Tibet is the Gelugpa, also called ‘yellow hat’. Founded by Tsongkhapa they have stricter rules regarding marriage, alcohol etc. than the older ‘red hat’ sects. Gelugpa gained political influence all over Tibet but never got to the remote and relatively uninhabited areas. I suppose it would not have been successful here anyway, not because of philosophical reasons (I am in no way qualified to say that) but simply because it is not very practical. The villages here are not big enough to support a community of monks. The monks and lamas also have to work and if you do work on the field like normal people why should you not get married and enjoy the things normal people also enjoy?
Most monasteries in Dolpo are either Bon or Kagyupa, although there seems to be a trend to convert to Nyingmapa, the oldest sect founded by Guru Rimpoche. There are some Sakya monasteries, but unlike in Mustang the tradition is not practised anymore. I am quite surprised how similar yet different these two areas are, situated next to each other they are separated by only one mountain range but the people have distinct faces – especially the women – and also culturally it seems to be quite varying. It seems that the Dolpopa have more connections to their neighbours in the north and south, where the old trading places are.
We leave the monastery in high spirits, such coincidental encounters are a great change in a normal walking day. Having received blessed strings and the lama’s blessings also convinced Dawa and Khami of our detour – they were not very eager to go but now they are also happy.
The small gorge joins a larger one further down which leads to Samling, Phijor and the Tibetan border. It becomes wider in the opposite direction, eventually turning into a green plain where two rivers meet, on a little plateau stands Shey gompa. It is surrounded by half a dozen red-coloured buildings, three houses are built high above the valley and two small stone huts stand on the grassy plain near the river. This might well be the best-known place of such small size in the world: Shey gompa. We decide to camp near the huts of the yak-herdsmen. All the yaks are further up, only cows are grazing down here. They do not give much more milk than yaks, are less robust and cannot carry loads and are mainly kept for crossbreeding with yaks.
After some rest we visit the 650-years old gompa. The maniwalls are so long that they have to take many, many curves in order to fit in the complex, thus looking like a labyrinth. The quality of the carvings varies greatly, some features nice Taras, others contain long texts in small letters, but the majority is much simpler. After walking clockwise around the whole gompa we reach the assembly hall which does not look very inviting. An ugly wooden fence locks the front porch, the caretaker lives in the adjacent building and shows us in the main room. He is a friendly but not very learned layman and cannot answer many questions. The walls were painted recently, some figures in good quality and detail, while the colour of others is much too bright and the compositions are not in proportion. It was done by a local artist but when and by whom nobody can tell. A number of artefacts and musical instruments are standing around but do not seem to be used regularly. I assume that in the years between the old lama’s death and the finding of the young boy the monastery was not called upon very often. The people do not support their monastery as they should, complained the monk from Darjeeling. I am a little disappointed, I have expected more from the famous gompa. Sure, its location is superb, but the monastery itself seems without life. I might be wrong and it is simply because people are busy in the summer months, away on trade or on the pastures with their cattle. The monastery might come to life during the festivals.
The largest gathering takes place around July when villagers from all over Dolpo come to Shey. They meet for a pilgrimage around ‘their Mount Kailash’ - Crystal Mountain. When you do the kora more than a dozen times you can see Mount Kailash from one of the passes. The annual festival lasts for several days and is not only a religious matter. There is time for sharing news and doing business, drinking, dancing and singing.
Three distinguished looking men with nice horses come out of the courtyard of a nearby building. With my little knowledge of Tibetan I find out that they are on the way to Tsakhang to pick up the young Tulku and bring him to Juphal.
The porters stay in the caretaker’s house and enjoy the sunny weather on the roof. The views from up here are quite nice. Climbing down is not easy, thick smoke comes from the kitchen below and trying to find the steps of the steep and narrow trunk in the dark is already difficult enough. The second floor is one single big room which serves as a storeroom and kitchen. An open fire burns in a corner, the twigs produce a smell like incense, the smoke burns in the eyes. Sitting down makes it endurable since all smoke goes up through the hole in the roof.
A large pan is put over the flames, two women are busy roasting something. My question about the content of the big bags is answered by giving me a handful of warm barleycorns. They are roasted first because otherwise the grain would steep. It has not been ground into tsampa yet and taste delicious, this would be a tasty snack for on the way. The grains are thrown in the pan together with black sand, the cracking noise sounds very familiar and after sieving the sand out we are offered Tibetan popcorn. The locals seem to enjoy our company, tourists who speak Tibetan do not sit in their kitchen everyday. They are very hospitable and offer everything from butter tea and sweet tea to Chang and rakshi. But since health is more important than politeness, I usually decline. It also feels strange because I have nothing to return, it's a good idea to always carry some biscuits or chocolate. It is easy to refuse here without offending anyone, and I have already taken my chance today when I drank butter tea at Tsakhang.
You are expected to drink the first cup and when it is refilled finish the second and third one. There is even a saying that your enemy will drink a cup but friends will drink three. Luckily this rule does not apply to tourists, sipping only a half a cup seems acceptable. Maybe I am too paranoid, but it is better to be careful than sorry.
After this very interesting excursion to local cuisine we enjoy one of Padam’s own creations for dinner: We call it Padamosa, an odd mix of pasta and salad in a samosa, which tastes excellent.
Day 09: Shey – before Langmosia She
I would love to hike up the narrow gorge towards Samling, but our route is different and we follow the eastern valley. In the next two days we will walk southeastwards close to a ridge, afterwards we will enter the Tarap valley to Do. Shey gompa soon disappears behind a curve, a small path branches off to the left, after a day one would reach Saldang. Dawa decided to take the direct route to Do and we continue to walk in the black gravel of the riverbed for another hour. After a sharp right turn it becomes steeper, at the last flat spot we stop for lunch, although it is still early.
This will be the last waterplace for the next few hours, and without a good meal climbing would be difficult for us, and probably even harder for the porters who do not eat as much breakfast as we do. After eating huge portions of rice and some yellow dal they start with the ascent. While we are having lunch the thick clouds disperse and to the north we see endless round and barren hills. Due to summer rains some are covered with a little green, therefore it does not appear completely desolate.
Until now we have mainly walked in valleys, for the next two days we will be at higher altitude while walking along a ridge and get completely different views. We leave in hope to reach the top in time to enjoy the blue sky. With a stomach full of dal baht it is easy to go fast, after half an hour we reach the colourfall prayerflag which marks Sela Munchung La, 5’063 m high.
We sit rest under the fluttering prayerflag and enjoy this perfect moment: White clouds drift on the dark blue sky. The huge variety of mountains in different colours and shapes is magnificent, only two slightly higher mountains to the south are hidden in clouds. It looks as barren and hostile as you can imagine. What a contrast to the side we have just come from with its inhabitable valleys, vegetation, and mountains that were grouped together in small massifs that stood out of the landscape. This side is just mountain after mountain, hundreds of peaks and ridges that look like waves in an endless ocean.
The trail slowly descends and I expect an easy walk, but instead we have to cross numerous side valleys. Surprisingly the officer has been able to keep up (more or less), but now he literally crawls across some steep but not dangerous slopes. Maybe he is afraid of heights or feeling dizzy.
We cross one side valley after the other, this is a neverending afternoon. I start to feel the effects of walking at high altitude and develop a slight headache. I felt comfortable at Shey and have never had any altitude problems before, so I do not worry, but the lack of energy is annoying. This trail must be a nightmare after strong rain and would slow us down immensely, luckily a strong wind blows all the heavy clouds over the ridge and towards Mustang. No camping place is in sight therefore we stop at the last remotely suitable spot before the pass: we find some space for our tents and a rivulet far down that carries a little water. It is late afternoon already and this must have been a tiring day for the porters, too.
We set up the tents quickly, hoping that the strong wind won’t blow them away. I am a little worried about the big tents of the porters and the kitchen crew, our small tent should be fine. The officer’s tent was certainly very nice in earlier times, but now it offers little protection against rain and the extra plastic sheet is of little use.
The sun goes down behind the ridge soon, making this the coldest evening so far. I crawl in my sleeping bag early since I feel a bit stomach sick. I miss the most delicious dinner so far, momos filled a great mix of vegetables. It is really difficult to skip the fantastic food, luckily Padam has more of the exactly same ingredients and promises to make the same momos again when I feel better.
Day 10: Langmosia She – before Numa La
I do not sleep perfectly well, but I guess this is normal when spending the night above 4’500 metres with the wind trying to tear your tent apart. My stomach feels fine again, and the hot noodle soup and omelette gives me back some of the energy I missed from skipping yesterday’s dinner.
The sunrise is striking though not as you usually imagine it with golden sunrays on a dark blue sky. Dark, windswept clouds are floating above the mountain ranges, the sun breaks through and hangs as a light grey circle in the sky. Isolated big rays illuminate the scenery in a grey and ochre light. It is a most impressive demonstration of nature’s raw power, a sight which will stick in my mind for awhile.
One last sidevalley needs to be crossed and then we stand near the foot of Langmosia She, a black slope giving way to high mountains with glaciers on their top. It’s too bad the fog does not let us see the scenery more clearly. After a steep climb I hope to see the prayerflag, but it is another half-hour of strenuous climbing. The achievement of the porters is immense, but I am almost more impressed by Pradip Kharel, our liaison officer. He certainly is not used to hiking, his boots look brand new, his equipment is not very fancy, but he crossed all the passes and never complained. This pass must the highest point so far, according to the map the peak to the left is over 6’000 m and it looks very, very close. It seems so near that is immensely tempting to climb it, and I don’t even remember why we decided not to. The peak opposite seems even higher but is covered in clouds, so are all the mountains in the south. On the horizon to the north we see the range we have crossed yesterday.
We descend quickly, maybe too quickly. Dawa told us that we would have a rest day in Do tomorrow and that there is only one pass to cross today. This is impossible according to my map but he knows the area and maybe there is a ‘secret way’. Instead of heading straight to Numa La north, we follow the river down the valley. The path over muddy meadow is very slippery, and the many boulders just call for sprained ankles. When we arrive above a deep gorge a familiar turquoise colour at its end indicates that we have completed the circle to Upper Dolpo and are (relatively) near Phoksumdo lake again. It also shows that instead of taking the straight way to the Tarap valley we have walked around the whole mountain range and have to cross another pass to get to Do.
The main path slowly descends in the flanks of the opposite mountains, a thin yellow line chiselled in the greenish rocks. After crossing more mudholes we reach the path where walking becomes easier and even enjoyable. Half an hour later we reach a crossing and take a small path up a valley. We have now joined the way from Ringmo to Do and camp at the first possible spot near the creek.
Day 11: Numa La – Do Tarap
It is very foggy and the heavy rain softens to a drizzle only after we have reached the pass, the 4th one above 5’000 m. Because of thick mist we cannot see more than 70 metres most of the time. After the 2-hour climb I reach Numa La. I was hurrying, not that the speed pays off in any way, on the contrary. A thin layer of snow covers the ground, the cold wind does not invite to stay long at the top. The first porters leave while I wait for the others. The few erected stone pillars make this place seem even lonelier than it already is.
Yellow fields and a few houses appear out of the fog for a few seconds, letting us guess how great the view would be. It has started clearing up and halfway down we see the rugged mountains that stretch over a great distance from north to south. The pass we probably should have crossed yesterday is to our left; a small stream comes from that direction and disappears between the yellow fields in the flat valley further down.
The view of Tokyo and its fields lets us forget the miserable morning quickly, we are excited again and could go on without lunch, but the prospect of a big portion of rice and lentils does not sound too bad, either. We have climbed and descended over 2’000 m and this shows in my appetite. On the other side of the river is Shering Gompa. The monastery is built on a plateau, a fascinatingly unpretentious building with a simplistic yet effective architecture. A villager from the nearby hamlet left five minutes ago and now nobody is here to let us in the monastery, but the small detour was worth it nevertheless.
We are in no hurry and stop quite often, enjoying the easy walk through the golden fields in the wide and long valley. I expected Do to be one big village surrounded by fields. But instead of a single settlement the houses are spread in the whole valley, often in groups of two or three closely built next to each other. According to the map there should be a few monasteries, but I see only the fort-like houses.
A woman invites us into her house and unexpectedly I find myself not in a stable but in an assembly hall. It does look a bit poor and does not seem to be used often. The room is not well cared for and instead of Thankas cheap paper copies are hang up on the joists. Nevertheless it features a large and fine statue of Buddha Maitreya.
After passing a few more houses and chortens we reach an elevation with a village atop. The houses are built above light green terraces that rise out of the yellow fields and barren ochre hills behind it. Even Kagar’s chortens are more colourful than usual, the auspicious Buddhist symbols and luck-bringing elephant are painted in red colour on the whitewashed surface.
The shade of clouds is making the scenery even more interesting. A complex far down in the valley glows in front of a dark hill. Just below this gompa lies Do where we will camp on a flat meadow near the river. On the way there we pass through the valley’s school and health clinic, both are sponsored by the French government. At first I think the school is a monastic one because the school uniform has the same red colour as monks’ robes, but is a normal school that is open to anyone. If the donors spend as much on books and good teachers as they do on sport and leisure equipment (badminton, soccer balls, balloons) then the school must be excellent.
It is Friday afternoon and we catch up with some children who are on the way to their villages. I wonder if they go home every night or just on the weekends – as in most religions, Saturday is the holiday in Nepal and Sunday just a normal day. After overcoming their shyness they are curious and we have a great time talking in English and Tibetan. Time runs fast, our entertaining companions keep me very busy and without really noticing it we reach Do, the centre of the valley.
The afternoon has been offering great views - large barley fields, nice chortens, pleasant villages, farmers at work – and the morning is forgotten. The gompa above Do is a worthwhile site to visit which overlooks the valley and its endless fields. One also sees what is going on in the villages. I notice a big assembly on one of the fields. Since nobody is at the monastery and I am too tired for further strenuous climbs, I decide to watch them for awhile.
Two dozen men have gathered, their age and appearance varies, some look like young Khampas with purely Tibetan faces and the typical red strings of wool in their hair, some look like old monks with a shaved head, some have long hair or plaits, some wear traditional clothes while others prefer jeans. They sit in a circle around three men behind a low wooden table with jar and a vase filled holy water. Two of them have long hair and wear a chuba, they have the appearance of lamas, and the third man looks like a normal villager. I suppose I am watching a court session, the only woman is sitting in the middle, complaining and arguing with the three men. While they discuss the issue, some throw in their two cents of wisdom, and the woman leaves dejected. After handling this serious matter the normal village session resumes, the three men do not voice their opinion as often as before and merely seem to be organising and directing the discussion. Every third comment seems to be a joke, there is much laughter.
Many children followed their fathers or uncles but are not interested in the talking at all – which is understandable. The babies are cared for by their fathers, the older kids are bored and since I am the biggest attraction they teach me a game. Eventually this results in an alternative assembly, the kids’ meeting. At times ‘we’ are much louder than the village assembly, I feel slightly embarrassed but the villagers pay hardly any notice.
The sun is setting and turns the side-valley to Ship Chok into a fantastic light, far away lie snow-covered summits, the ochre range in front of it is brightly lit and the ears shine golden, while the another range is pitch dark.
It is almost time for dinner and the assembly also slowly dissolves. I take a detour to our camp because the direct way passes through the back entrance of a house and I noticed a big mastiff there when I went up to the monastery. I have a huge respect, you might also call it fear, those dogs really deserve the name 'watch dog'. Shortly before dusk a large flock of sheep and goats arrive from the pastures. They spend every night near the village, probably because of wild animals and because it is easier to milk them here.
The Tarap valley is the liveliest place so far, much busier than Ringmo. It is worth spending some time in the valley, at least we will be here another day.
Day 12: Do Tarap
We have not yet decided what to do on our free day. We could sleep in but shortly after 700 I am already in the village. The sun shines so fierce that staying in the tent is too hot. The houses are still in the shade, smoke is coming out of the roofs and increases the quiet and sleepy atmosphere. Not much is going on in the village. Quite a few houses are locked up, I suppose people are away on trade or watch the cattle in the pastures. I was surprised about the absence of people my age, there are many children under 12 and people over 35, but the generation in between is completely absent.
Once again I walk up to the Nyingmapa monastery from where the views of the valley are splendid, somehow it looks much different than yesterday afternoon. I am about to climb further uphill in hope for even better views - Thomas has had the same idea and is a few minutes ahead – when I recognise a man coming from the fields below as one of the three ‘leaders’ of yesterday’s meeting. He wears his long hair in a topknot which is strange sight at first when you are used to the images of Gelugpa monks with their shaved head. Somehow I manage to understand and answer all the questions he asks me in Tibetan, which is a total coincidence: My vocabulary is not large and understanding the local dialect is not easy – I am probably much more surprised and impressed than he is!
Lama Namgyal invites me into his house, and although people generally have been very friendly I have seldom seen such hospitality. A young girl takes me in the kitchen and after getting used to the darkness and smoke I see a large family sitting around an open stove and everybody inviting me to sit on the carpet next to the fire. It is crowded, half a dozen children, two women and the lama are having breakfast. They fill their cups with tsampa and soup from the pot. It smells tasty and I have not had breakfast yet, it is very tempting to accept their offers. But butter tea so early in the morning could be a shock for my organs of taste. The lama’s oldest daughter speaks good English though needless to say the vocabulary taught at school is not quite sufficient to answer a curious foreigner’s questions. Lama Namgyal has to laugh when I ask if the two women and a large number of kids are his family. No, he says, another family lives in the same complex and they share most of the rooms. He himself cannot live of being a lama, he owns a few fields and yaks are away for the summer.
The young Tulku from Shey seems to be the region’s pride. The lama talks of him with some admiration. He has visited Shey thirty times so far, hearing that we just came that way and met the Tulku at Tsakhang pleases him.
Even though the house looks like a monastery from the outside it mainly serves a quarters for the families. A high wall is built around a forecourt, a small wooden door leads to the ground floor for storage where I have just had a brief face-to-face encounter with a calf, so it is also a small stable. Two stories higher is the kitchen, the centre of the house. Large pots and other utensils decorate the dark room, making it the most interesting and comfortable place of the house. Since the lama is busy taking care of a newborn baby he asks one of the older girls to show me the chapel. It serves a study room and is not very elaborate, but the adjacent assembly hall is well kept and contains many books and quite a few fine statues.
Such conversation make me realise how the people really live. Yet at the same time I see that their lives are so completely different that we will never really understand it, no matter how well we think to know other cultures.
Sunny rest days do have one big disadvantage: you feel obligated to take a bath in the cold river. I finally convince myself and am as clean as I was two weeks ago, at least that is how I feel. Saturdays seem to be kids’ bathing day also, it is a bit of relief to see that some are even less eager than I am and sit on the warm boulders watching the others enjoying the bath in the freezing water. After cleaning myself it is time to do the laundry – clothes do not look much cleaner than before but at least they smell better.
Two small villages at the end of a little valley seem an interesting and easy to reach destination, on the way we pass another village that looks like a castle. Since all facades have the same colour and brush-wood is stacked on all the roofs it appears as one long wall surrounds the village. The blue sky and white clouds above the roofs make it a very impressive view. The valley looks similar to the main valley but on a smaller scale, it ends abruptly when it turns into a deep canyon one mile later. The terraces are emphasised more clearly because it is slightly steeper. Since the creek can irrigate not all the fields in the broad valley people have dug channels further up and divert water there. Water seems plentiful and there are only two villages, Ship Chok and Do-Ro, so it should be easy to distribute it fairly amongst all villagers. In Upper Dolpo where there is much less water every village has strict rules regarding water distribution and the fields. The villagers throw dice to determine who receives how much water, the one with the lowest number will come last. A big threat to the crops are goats and yaks, within a few minutes they can trample and eat a large area of vital grains. The owner of the field must then be compensated, the fine is a big cup of barley for each step in his fields.
Do-Ro is small, consisting only of 5 houses. One of them is a small temple, but the lama is not here. The steep canyon walls behind it are a contrast to the round hills on the other side of the creek, a similarly small village is situated there.
Ship Chok lies in front of round hills that resemble dunes across the rivulet. A red-coloured building must the monastery, supposedly fine paintings can be seen there. A large family is sitting outside, a woman is weaving and the rest of her family and other villagers sit around, chatting and drinking tea out of the Chinese Thermos. I have seen so many of those bottles that I bet it is the most successful Chinese export product. And old man gets up and shows us to his house, after another adventure on a notched trunk we are in the private chapel, a clean room with a few artefacts and masks. The views from the roof are great, especially over the wall of chortens down into the valley. Afterwards we visit the official gompa, the paintings in the anteroom must have been repainted, they are very simple and not as great as I hoped.
After getting back we enjoy a lazy afternoon with tea and cake. This treat makes it even harder to develop a real appetite for dinner, but once it gets chilly a spicy soup and hot food is greatly appreciated.
Day 13: Do Tarap – before Charka La
After the rain during the night the wonderfully dark blue sky is astonishing. The sunshine makes everybody happy, but also a bit lazy. We rest more often and longer than usual, but since this is a short day it is not a problem.
The trail goes up to Do-Ro, once again the lama is away and we go on without visiting the gompa. The broad valley becomes narrow and splits into two smaller canyons shortly after the village. Soon after entering the southern gorge the trail disappears in a steep slope where a narrow footpath on the black slates requires attention. A wrong step sends rocks sliding down into the river. This is the worst trail so far, it is not used by many locals and only a handful trekking groups a year, therefore it is also not maintained. The most difficult part is over when we reach another fork half an hour later. Knee-high bushes with thorns slow us down a little but we steadily gain altitude. Several hawks pass us just a few metres away, make a turn far down in the valley and disappears behind the high ridge.
We could either camp just below the pass or cross it today. Since we are in no hurry and have enough time to reach Jomosom, we decide to stay on this side. If we went on we could spend an entire day in Charka, but the village is quite small and probably not too interesting. The pass just ahead of us looks much higher than 5’093 m, it might be the barren rock without any vegetation that makes it seem higher than it is according to the map. Landslides come down the very steep gravel hillsides quite often, to see if last year’s site is still there Khami walks ahead. He waves from higher up and we follow him, reaching today’s camp shortly before noon. Some clouds have built up during the morning, but the weather at the pass is still fine.
Who knows what the weather will be like tomorrow - I decide to walk to the pass today just for a glimpse of the scenery. Another foggy ‘pass-photo’ would be frustrating. Everybody thinks I am crazy, including Thomas, but he joins nevertheless. It is hard to guess how long it will take, because no tree or other object is there to help identify distances. I guess half an hour, but it takes almost twice that long and I am about to return halfway because I don’t seem to get any closer. But the thought of the fog on Numa La gets me motivated again. I reach a plateau and see neatly piled stones, but no mountains yet. Hopefully the real pass is not too much higher... five minutes later I stand on a plateau. The view blows me away.
Untainted stark wilderness, barren hills and high mountains lie beneath and in front of me. It is similar to Sela Munchung La, but now we are much closer to the range that separates Dolpo from Mustang. The only thing looking remotely ‘alive’ is a broad green valley straight ahead. A nearby black slate mountain with regular vertical stripes of snow on its flank looks strange, like a gigantic zebra. The big massif behind the Do Tarap valley is in clouds already, the peaks of Mukut Himal are also hiding. One of the two triangular summits to the east could be Dhaulagiri. After a few minutes I start descending because the wind is rather cold and I did not bring a jacket.
Walking on the stamped trail is slow, tiresome and hurts my knees. After two minutes I take a steep shortcut, running and jumping down the gravel slope Ten minutes later I am at the camp again where lunch is waiting. After this extra tour it tastes better than ever.
A really energetic hiker might walk to the nearby cave, explore the valley or climb one of the peaks, but I am ready for a rest and climbing one pass just for fun is enough of a noteworthy sidetrip for me. Dinner is exceptionally delicious tonight: potato soup, potato samosa and curried pulses.
It is one of the totally clear nights again when the stars shine so brightly that you think about sleeping outside but soon change your mind because it is freezing.
Day 14: After Do – Keheng Khola
During my usual nightly excursion (too much tea) I find myself standing in thick fog which lets me see 5 metres, a few hours later it is as bright as fullmoon although the moon is only a small crescent. With great expectations I open the tent before 600, and I am not being disappointed. A cloudless sky, the sun just throwing its orange light on the glaciers and peaks of Norbu Kang – a perfect day.
After a hearty breakfast we climb the pass, taking the same way as yesterday. In spite of carrying my backpack I feel like flying to the pass and reach it with much less effort and also faster. The view is as stunning as yesterday, but the clearer weather makes it look lovely, whereas the day before the clouds gave the scenery a threatening impression. The high mountains of Mukut Himal rise behind the black slate wall. The evenly snowy peaks towards Mustang which I mistook for Dhaulagiri yesterday have no name (though one looks like Thorung Peak), the same goes for the broad summit which dominates the desert to the east. The peak is large and flat and covered by glaciers, reminding me of Kilimanjaro and the volcanic mountains in the Andes. Because it is such a strange sight for European eyes used to lusher scenery, it takes some time to find the endless hills and barren valleys beautiful.
Being the first on the pass gives me some time to build a small stone pile, by the time I am finished everybody else - except for the liaison officer - has arrived and starts constructing their own. Needless to say, my construction looks very clumsy compared to their elegant and quite artistic sculptures: Khami has built a high tower, Dawa constructed a modern-art house with slates. After a long time the officer finally arrives.
The descent is quick, once again the steep mountainside allows jumping down in the gravel. When the valley becomes flat we have more time to enjoy the walk and views. Ochre tones and gentle curves dominate the scenery. The landscape is fantastic, it is hard to believe that we walk in the area that looked so hostile from Sela Munchung La.
Further down the valley is a herd of yaks, the tents of the ‘yak-boys’ are at the foot of a steep hill. The three brown tents with the thick ropes look like spiders on the green meadow. The kids watch the cattle while the older people stay at home. Dawa went ahead and talks with an elderly man in front of his tent. He is the amchi, a Tibetan doctor, from Charkha and spends the summers with his wife and two other families in the pastures. He uses the season to collect rare herbs which are used for medicine. They stay at one place for a few weeks and then move on to other grazing grounds with their yaks and sheep. The yaks are rarely slaughtered. The sheep are sold wholesale in Jomosom, mainly for the Dasain festival, an important Hindu festival that requires the sacrifice of animals. The locals feel slightly guilty since killing – let alone sacrificing – animals is not welcomed. But they have to make a living and husbandry is one of the few ‘business opportunities’ (read: means for survival) up here where nothing else than grass grows.
The man is very famous for his cheese, he half-jokingly claims that people literally rip it out of his hands when he arrives in Jomosom. I try some of the fresh white balls which are laid out to dry in the sun. They taste like dry cottage cheese and are much better than the final product, dried cheese balls. I feel like chewing on a strange tasting pebble, it is definitely not one of highlights of the Tibetan kitchen.
To us this seems like an isolated place at the end of the world with little opportunities for its people. Yet the amchi’s son went to study in Dharamsala where he gained the Geshe degree. He is living in Kathmandu near Bodnath, and Dawa even trekked with him here some years ago when it was very difficult to find people who knew the area.
The couple invites me to have a look at their spacious tent. The most noticeable thing is the altar in the back, which is not as elaborate as in chapels but very nice. Seven bowls of water are placed under a row of pictures and several statues. The hearth is next to it, a teapot stands in the glowing fire, and herbs are laid out for drying. Bags with food are stashed in the corners next to rugs and blankets. No vegetables grow here, the main dish consists of tsampa which is ground with a small mortar that stands at the entrance.
The two other families have young children who watch us curiously but are very shy. A teenage boy leads a herd of 100 goats down the steep mountain, by the time they arrive everybody is ready: the sheep are separated and tied together. The women and children bring pots from the tents and start milking the animals, even the young kid who is barely five years old get a small cup and joins his sister.
The old man is asking for binoculars, but all we have are our cameras with zoom. He gets as excited as the kids who look through it, but focuses quickly on a snow-peak to the northeast. A local protector deity is said to live on its top and the amchi’s giggling and his exclamations make you believe he sees something that we don’t.
On our way up the small valley we pass half a dozen similar camps of herdsmen. Quarrels about land rights are rare and mostly arouse after too much Chang, they are not difficult to settle. Most of the people here are from Chharka, one of the two villages between the Barbung Khola and the Kali Gandaki. While the people in the Tarap valley have much land for agriculture, it is much more difficult here and the Chharka people depend almost solely on husbandry. Only thorny bushes grow on the hills which are sparsely covered by grass and flowers, and even this little vegetation can be found only near the river.
To my surprise we meet a large number of people. Many are on the way to the tents, the most forthcoming of our porters tries to persuade three girls to join us but after five minutes of laughing and flirting they go on. We set up the tents on a plateau in front of a low pass. The kids watching the cattle show more interest in us than they should, shortly before dusk they have to walk high up to find their sheep.
The colour of the sky changes from blue to black, slowly submerging the dark windswept clouds in the north. Soon afterwards the wind makes the temperatures drop fast. The joy of getting into the warm sleeping bag after washing and brushing your teeth in the cold is immense. It is also such simple things that make trekking so special.
Day 15: Keheng Khola – after Charka
I hear footsteps in the night, they sound like someone walking around on snow with plastic bags over their shoes. It is one the sounds I have coem to dread, that’s why I remember it so well. I get up. But nobody is there, it was probably just a grazing animal. The sky is absolutely clear again at night, in addition to the countless bright dots on the firmament I spot two shooting stars.
Thick fog in the morning creates an uncomfortable cold that is increased by the shade. If I had known that the sun will reach the camp half an hour later I would have suggested to start later than usual: taking down the tent, packing, serving food must be miserable for the helpers. Once we start walking the cold is gone.
A large male yak runs down from the pass and I am not the only one looking for escape routes in case the animal comes too close. Luckily it passes us in some distance. We camped at the source of Keheng Khola, now we cross the watershed on whose other side springs a creek that flows into Barbung Khola soon afterwards. The mist comes from all sides, when it descends over the ridge and slowly hides the valley it gives it a fairytale touch which impossible to capture on film.
The view south into the Barbung Khola valley is totally different. Although the sun has not yet dissolved the fog completely, the lower part of the broad valley is clear. It is bound by steep dark mountains, the river which runs in it makes a 90° turn near the pass. Far ahead are snow peaks, to our right is the Dhaulagiri range but it is too cloudy to see the summits. I vainly wait for it to clear up, and after a few minutes on the cold pass I follow the others who went ahead. The sun’s warmth has burnt off the clouds by the time I catch up with them. Huge white mountains become visible to our right, after fifteen minutes of waiting we see Dhaulagiri II to V with their enormous icefalls and glaciers. A large black mountain hides the summit of Dhaulagiri I, hopefully we will have nice weather and see it the massif’s highest peak from Sangda La.
The blue river turns away from us and disappears in a narrow valley. When it meets with the Tarap river three days downstream it changes its colour and name into Bheri. At Dunai the Bheri is a broad black-coloured stream, the same river before Charka is a much “small” glacier-creek. When people back home ask me how many miles we walked I am bewildered at first because I have never thought about the distance in kilometres. After four days of walking you start measuring distances in terms of peaks, passes, rivers or changing landscape.
For the entire morning the scenery is desert-like and offers little variety. The low bushes on the yellow mud are not captivating, but the blue river and steep mountains are spectacular. The chorten far ahead is a relief, it is probably the first announcement of Charkha, we reach a second more elaborate chorten a few minutes later and overlook a small plain of barley fields and a village. Many chortens are built on the surrounding hills, looking like turrets defending the two dozen houses of Charkha. I imagine that they do offer a feeling of safety and protection from bad luck. The village looks like a fort, tall houses are built close to each other, its outer walls connected. A few buildings are scattered around it, a landslide destroyed the monastery across the river, it has been replaced by a new one below the entrance chorten.
A number of maniwalls and chortens have to be passed before reaching the village. It is almost impossible to pass them correctly, the first two are Bon, and the third one is Nyingmapa. Or maybe it is the other way round. Closeby is a Bon monastery and the monk has time to show us the two main halls. The more important looking one has not been finished, the walls are not painted yet, but it already contains some statues and racks of books. The masks worn at festivals are kept in the larger adjacent room, which is empty otherwise except for a large statue of a lama.
A villager who died some weeks ago will be buried this afternoon. The monk asks me if I want to see the sky-burial. The body is carried to a special place on top of a mountain where it is hacked to pieces and left there for the vultures. Although it is very tempting, I decline - not because I am disgusted by it or because of the 3-hour climb to the site. But after all it is a burial and I have absolutely no right to disturb it.
The village is impressive, most buildings have high outer walls that are 4 metres high and appear like fortresses. The houses we have seen in Dolpo were all unpainted, but here some houses have been whitewashed, making the scene even more reminiscent of Mustang. Although politically still part of Dolpo, the culture and architecture seem to be influenced by Lo Manthang. I wonder if that similarity can be explained by a similar climate and the same building materials or if it is intended.
From our lunch spot at the river we enjoy nice views over village to the rugged mountains which we have crossed this morning. Groups of loaded yaks suddenly are coming from the east, accompanied by yak-herdsmen. Each group consists of about a dozen animals, and an elder man on a horse leads each caravan of four groups. They bring wheat and rice from Tibet where it is cheaper than in Jomosom. Because of the large numbers I first think that the caravans are from all Upper Dolpo, but they are all from Charkha. No wonder did it take us so little time to explore the town, the inhabitants are either on the pastures or away on trading. If the number of yaks and sheep are an indication of a village’s wealth, then Charkha is far more prosperous than it appears.
The amount of wood on the roofs could be a sign that like in Mustang the village is not completely abandoned in winter. The last winter was very mild, even the high passes remained free of snow. This reduced the amount of melted snow which is needed for irrigating the fields. On the other hand, winters can be too harsh: three years ago a vast number of livestock died in the Charkha valley and people had so much meat to sell that a leg of mutton was traded for a piece of soap (which costs about 20 cents in Kathmandu).
Usually the snow retreats in May, soon afterwards flowers and grass cover the ground. I imagine this to be the best season for trekking: snow covered mountains with blooming valleys. At that time of the year the agricultural season begins, irrigation channels are full of water and have to be cleaned to prevent them from overflowing. Two months later monsoon clouds cover the sky, heavy rain and storms are nothing unusual. In September it becomes very dry, harvesting begins and last until the end of October. Snowfall marks the beginning of the long winter, decades ago the villagers brought their cattle to nomads on the Tibetan plateau, but I don’t know if this can still practised. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has destroyed century-old business practices, and the influx of Tibetan resistance fighters was a burden to the local economy in the late 1960s.
A small procession of monks and two villagers walk upstream, one of them carries a bundle wrapped up in red cloth. The monks hold a long white cloth, recite texts and play the drums. At the village premises a monk starts carrying the body to a boulder near the river where two women stacked firewood. I am surprised because - unlike in Hindu culture where cremations are common and carried out near rivers- they are rare and happen on hills. It is also strange to see only two villagers – probably relatives – take part in the ceremony. I heard a few women crying when walking through Charkha, but traditionally they do not take part in the final ceremony that happens outside the village. The monks continue with their recital while the body is put on the pile of wood. This is the last thing we see before entering the sidevalley upstream.
After walking upstream five minutes we realize that the small river is too broad to jump across. Dawa tries it nevertheless and falls in – which provokes much laughter from everybody. Eventually I take off my shoes and wade through which is easy, the water is only knee deep and a few steps later I am already at the other side, but I feel little humiliated because I couldn’t jump across. When we pass a huge chorten with a 10 metre long prayerflag on a large chorten I wish the Charka people would at least use some of their architectural skills and wood for the maintenance of bridges.
Huge washed-out mountains form the other bank of the Barbung Khola, we follow the river on the easier side on gentle hills, but eventually take the path down at the water. It is shorter than the summer trail over the hills, but requires more climbing and balancing. Tomorrow we should follow the Thajang Khola which flows into the Barbung Khola on the other side. This means we have to cross the river. The washed away piles of stones on the shore means that the only thing left of the bridge is its foundation. Which means that we have to walk through 10 metres of waist-deep water.
The current is strong, the stones slippery and the water incredibly cold. This will be adventurous. Dawa crosses first, then the kitchen boys with their baskets. They all make it, but it takes them some time and more than once does it look as if they lose the balance and plunge into the icy water. It is our turn now, we start a few metres further upstream which allows us to be dragged by the current without having to worry about it. Camera, film, Walkman, tickets - everything could be destroyed by taking a single wrong step. We start very slowly and carefully. It becomes critical in the middle of the river because of a large boulder which is difficult to walk around when you hold hands with two other people who just walk on as if there was no obstacle. Somehow I get across the large rock. At least all the excitement lets me forget how freezing cold the water is. I hit my foot on some rocks but apart from a few scratches we arrive safely, dry, relieved and happy.
The second kitchen boy arrives and is definitely not happy about the missing bridge. He sets down his basket and stares at the river for two minutes, Padam’s laughing and yelling definitely do not help to cheer him up. Finally he takes off his shoes and throws them over. Then he crosses without too many problems. When the porters arrive a few minutes later the smallest one goes ahead, but when the water reaches his belly button he is afraid of taking a single step in any direction and stands helplessly in the river. Padam totally enjoys this and yells, laughs and screams the whole time, actually everybody does. Finally three other ports start wading through and with their and Dawa’s help the small porter also makes it. The remaining three porters (and my bag) get over quickly, despite the handicap of having to take care of the officer who crosses with them.
We set up camp right here which gives enough time to dry the things that became wet. I get the feeling that our crew enjoyed this little adventure as much as we did. As usually time in the afternoon passes slowly, and the closer it gets to dinner time the more it slows down, but finally the call ‘soup ready‘ signals another great dinner.
Day 16: After Charka – before Sangda La
We start a little later than usual in the hope of getting nice views, but it is too cloudy. Nevertheless, we see all the way to the end of the Barbung Khola valley and the watershed which we crossed last morning. The mountain on Thagung Khola’s other side are a nice example of the powers that have created the Himalayas: layers of stone are mangled in a bizarre way, small springs come right out of the vertical rock and drop as waterfalls into the river.
After two hours in the valley it suddenly turns into very broad plain where three rivers meet. It is an idyllic place, looking like the stage of an amphitheatre surrounded by a black mountain on the one side and red washed out cliffs on the other. We continue to follow the biggest tributary upstream on the winter trail down at the water. During cold winters the rivers freeze and make walking easy - as long as you can follow the river, crossing passes is almost impossible. If the water level were just one foot higher we would have to take the upper and much longer summer trail. Half a dozen times the water is still too high and we have to climb steeply on slippery slate. The kitchen crew with their bulky baskets and slippers are unimpressed. The even parts are not much more pleasant to walk, boulders and pebbles require attention and rockslides slow us down. After three long hours the valley broadens and we stop for lunch.
We progress quickly towards what looks like the end of the valley ahead of us. Huge glaciers must have formed this landscape, for the first time on the trek I notice the sedimentation in the form of gentle hills and dunes. Otherwise it is dullest day of walking, the broad riverbed is not interesting and the grey clouds promise rain.
In the middle of the afternoon we reach a point where the valley splits into two smaller ones. They are separated by a big mountain, somewhere up there is the last high pass, Sangda La. A large herd of yaks is grazing on the meadows below the snow-covered summit, another herd is barely visible on a hill far down the valley. The sun strangely illuminates the dunes, increasing the subtle play of colours. The men watching the cattle live in a small stone hut across the river.
Dawa wants to see if somebody is there who can explain the best way over the pass. The herdsman we meet tries to explain the way, but it sounds very confusing and eventually he agrees (or offers?) to lead us tomorrow. I am not sure if he makes the explanation sound more complicated than it really is in order to earn a few extra rupees. Now I am pretty sure that this was his intention, people’s unharmful cleverness and sense for business always amuses me. Since we are short of kerosene and rice he sells tsampa and lets the porters cook in his dwelling.
The weather changes very quickly, the sky is clear one moment and five minutes later the blue is replaced by dark clouds. I hope it will rain cats and dogs tonight so we will have perfect weather in the morning to see Dhaulagiri and Mukut Himal.
Day 17: Sangda La – before Sangda
During the night it started to rain heavily, and since we have put up our tent a the foot of a steep slope I wake up more than once hoping that the boulders are stable up there. All the rockslides we saw must have come down at one point, most likely after heavy rain... A very soft sound on the tent makes me curious and I get up early. The barren rocks of yesterday turned white, the sun is dimly shining through the mist. It has snowed considerably during the night, but it seems not very cold when we finally get up and pack our things.
Our ‘new guide’ is already here and eager to leave. Because finding the trail is soo terribly difficult he had to bring his friend as an assistant. Dawa is not too excited about having to pay two people, and after some negotiation only one of them takes us up the valley. And even this one guide would not have been necessary. But having a guide is always good, being lost is no fun, especially when there is snow it can become dangerous quickly. I got lost in a snowstorm in Zanskar once, and even though it makes for good stories afterwards it is not worth risking your life.
We climb for a few minutes to get to the spot to see Dhaulagiri I, a pyramid of ice and snow whose summit is 8’000 m high. Clouds in the valley make the massif barely visible. But some nearby peaks against the blue sky, albeit less high, are far more impressive anyway. Finally the snow gives the mountains the majesty they deserve; white 6’500 m peaks simply look more impressive than ochre ones, especially if you are standing at 5’000m yourself.
The sun has melted most of the snow near the river, but it becomes ankle-deep by the time we reach the first chorten. It does not mark the pass but is simply a landmark. We have climbed quite a bit already, it comes as a big surprise to see the pass so high above us.
The sun shines brightly: perfect conditions to become snow-blind. Of course most porters do not have sunglasses – the snow is quite unusual for this time of the year. Some go on completely ignoring the sun, others try constructing sunglasses out of brown plastic bags. It is hilarious to see Padam trying to put a much too small bag over his head. He succeeds and makes to small holes in it to look through. Seeing him like this is probably the most comical situation on the whole trek and everybody laughs like crazy. He has the talent to make amusing situations even more funny and I think I will never forget two scenes: Him standing in the river after Charkha and with the plastic bag just before Sangda La. When we set off I hope that nobody suffers from too much sun.
Our local guide turned back at the chorten after pointing to the trail which can be made out despite the snow. It leads up to the ridge on the left, at first we walk across a flat plain, then a strenuous climb begins. Dawa is literally running ahead, despite the fact that he has to make the trail I have no chance of keeping up. I try not to guess how long it will take to the top and simply follow in his footsteps. But resisting is impossible and more than once do I look up, only to see him far ahead and the pass further away than before. I do stop occasionally for some rest and to enjoy the fine views of a massive mountain to the right of the pass, clouds move in and out of the flanks of Malung Kang (6'120 m). The views back to the broad valley are less dramatic but also worthwhile, subtle changes from brown hills to the white snow under the dark blue sky are pleasing for the eyes.
Behind me is a young porter, followed by Khami and Thomas. I do not realise that the porter is walking barefoot in his slippers, he has to stop more and more often to sit down in the snow and warm the frozen feet with his hands. When Khami passes he gives him a pair of extra socks which offer at least a little bit of protection against the cold. Dawa assured me that all porters were given adequate equipment, shoes and jackets before the trekking. But for some reason two of them sold or traded their shoes with the two porters who left us in Do. Dawa is worried because it takes quite some time until the first porters show up, but eventually everybody has made it.
I can marvel at the fantastic mountains for a few minutes before the fog on pass gets too dense. The climb has been long and exhausting, nobody is eager to stay and we descend quickly on a steep snow-free gravel flank. Fog and mist are constantly coming from the valley, but we can enjoy lunch without being drowned.
A herd of goats is coming from the pass shortly after us. They are not eager to cross the river and it takes the shepherd some time to convince them. Throwing stones proves useless, so he grabs the bell-weather and throws it in the river. Of course the poor animal is running straight to the closer bank and the other animals follow.
Just after lunch we get into a heavy and constant rain which will last for most of the afternoon. A small white stream winds itself down a narrow black gorge, this part of the path is slippery but otherwise fine. But as soon as we leave this ridge and turn left at a prayerflag, the path simply disappears. From a little plateau we look down a steep, steep slope which is filled with small pieces of broken slate. I feel like standing on the rim of a funnel I am about to ‘walk’ down. We do not even attempt to follow the path anymore, instead we just slide down, trying to remain in control of speed and direction. It is difficult and I almost fall more than once. After 20 minutes of such ‘walking’ it becomes more flat and the most difficult part of the trail is over. Crossing from the other way must take at least a day, if it is possible at all. And because there are no places to put up a camp you have to walk to a high altitude without having time for proper acclimatisation. I am glad that Pasang and Jamie were so adament in suggesting to walk from west to east. Visibility is reduced to 50 metres, but since all the different trails run close to each other there is no risk of getting lost - or more exactly - no risk of losing the officer who is far, far behind.
Man-sized boulders on the black ground give a morbid impression when they slowly appear out of the fog as we approach them.
My mood has suffered quite a bit since this morning: it started as a perfect day but now we are descending in mist and rain on a muddy, slippery path and cannot see anything but mist and rain, and a muddy, slippery path. At least my gear keeps me warm and dry, and the umbrella and the Walkman make the rain barely noticeable.
The gravel disappears the further we get down, as we reach a forest of gnarly conifers the trail is getting better and walking is more enjoyable. It is a completely different landscape than the last few days, smelling the resinous scent of trees feels like a luxury. Eventually we reach a plateau with barely enough space for our tents, but Dawa suggests continuing to the next site fifteen minutes further down. It is a little bigger and has enough terraces to set up the tents.
It is still very steep, the river to our left is a constant waterfall. When I see the dark brown water in the creek I am not very convinced that this is a suitable place to stay. Luckily there is a tiny spring just next to the river. We put up the tents, happy to have ended this miserable day earlier than usual.
I could not find a single picture or any information about Sangda when I prepared this trek. Now I know why: snow makes the passes uncrossable as early as October and in summer the valley is too foggy to take pictures. Once again I am too pessimistic, two hours later the fog is dispersing, slowly giving way to nice views of the peaks on our right (Mukut Himal and Tashi Kang I assume) and the precipitous path in the canyon wall which leads to the terraced fields of Sangda.
The view from further up must be fantastic: huge mountains to the right and a deep canyon below it. But I am grateful to have seen just a little before dusk; the impressive valley with the junipers, the glaciers and the village far down. I can imagine what it looks like on clear days, and this is enough for compensation for the hardships and disappointments of a rainy day. Days like this make you appreciate fine weather and views, it is an essential part of a successful trek - as long as comes in well tolerated doses.
Day 18: before Sangda – after Sangda
I wake up shortly before the alarm rings at 500. It is foggy and probably will not clear anytime soon, so I crawl back into my sleeping bag instead of walking uphill for some exciting views. To hear the first rattling of pots in the kitchen tent is cozy.
The air is wet from fog, mist makes walking through juniper trees even more pleasant. After the cool and dry mountain air of the last two weeks I almost feel I can touch the the heavy scents. The fog softens all noises, the silence leads to a strangely solemn atmosphere that is only broken by the singing of a few birds. Half an hour later the morning sun and a strong wind improve visibility. It seems that we will not get another day like yesterday.
The path to Sangda is on the other side to the valley but the direct trail from the pass is much too difficult for non-locals. Khami found a bridge yesterday so it will be no problem. Before we reach the bottom of the glen where we will cross the river we have to descend into a valley just above. The washed out yellow sandstone resembles huge organ-pipes. Not many people take this path, it is not maintained and we walk over muddy rockslides most of the time.
The trail drops quickly and leads to a vertical wall where it looks more like a rock carving than a path. At least 100 metres of sheer rockface towers above us, and it’s another steep 30 metres to the ground - I am not unhappy to have left this part of the way behind me. A solid bridge was built here a year ago but will soon be useless, because the trails leading to it will be destroyed.
After 30 minutes of climbing we reach the trail we saw yesterday afternoon, a thin line in the barren rock. But the path is broad and not as difficult as it looked from the other side. The mist has completely dispersed, but clouds hide the mountains higher up. Part of the mountain we came down yesterday is visible; from here it looks as if one has to rockclimb down since it is steep and no trail exists. I cannot believe we came down the mountain’s flank. Our campsite is one of the very few flat spots on the steep mountain.
Quite a distance away from the village on the opposite side are a few small terraces. People have to use every place for agriculture because there is simply not enough land. The valley is desolate and narrow, we do not pass a single field before reaching the town. Husbandry is much more difficult here than in Upper Dolpo where there is good grass on the alpine pastures. We pass a flock of goats but there does not seem enough food to have several big flocks. The valley is picturesque but not a place made for human habitation. Its beauty comes the barrenness which is nicely contrasted by small spots of vegetation.
The trail goes down a huge washout where a mixtures of big rocks and mud have been eroded by water. Walking beneath a 20 metre high wall of this loosely looking material is impressive but not very comfortable. I just do not want to be here in July or early August, though it would be interesting to see how the rain forms the landscape. After walking down a lovely forest which grows on sand dunes we cross the small Rikha Samba and another side valley. Finally we reach the yellow fields which we have seen from so far away.
The village was founded by a family that had to leave Mustang because a member committed some crime. It must have been a heinous crime, because although punishments in those times were harsh (a thief had his hand cut off when repeating the offence) it was certainly not common to expel a whole family. This explains the location of the settlement, I was wondering why people live in such a narrow and barren gorge. Their reputation does not seem to be good even today, allegedly they do not have a lama and simply throw the corpse of a deceased in the river.
Dilapidated houses and washed away terraces can be made out on opposite valley wall. This was the original settlement which had to be given up because the creek dried up. Moving all fields and houses to the other side and creating plateau might have taken around 2 years, during which the villagers did not have time for many other things. This must have been a very difficult time economically, but since there is much more space for fields over here people should be doing better. The wheat is almost ready for harvesting, the season is a few weeks ahead of Tarap.
The people consider themselves to be Gurung, an ethnic group from north of Pokhara. But they are clearly of Tibetan origin and just call themselves Gurung to be somehow included in the Hindu hierarchy. The same happens in Mustang where the higher class and aristocrats call themselves ‘Bista’ even though they have nothing in common with them except for a higher status.
An older woman shows us to a house where the kitchen crew can cook and buy some fuel and food. As usually the outskirts are used as rubbish heap and for once we are about to cross a chorten on the right side when the old woman says ‘Kora kora’ and we walk through the trash on the chorten’s left side. We stop in the courtyard of the first house and stay there for lunch. A young woman digs potatoes out of her garden, I have probably never eaten such fresh potato soup and chips.
I meet our hostess again on the roof. She is very pretty, her features are not the ones of a Dolpo-pa. Khami is suddenly not hungry anymore and spends the time on the balcony; our teasing does not seem totally unjustified. I do not want to make stupid simplifications, but I think the prettiest women come from Khumbu and Ladakh, the girls from Upper Dolpo are not as attractive. This is not important at all, wherever you go in the Himalayas, particularly in the more remote areas, hospitality and friendliness are the same, and this is what counts. One of the pleasures of travelling in the Himalayas is that people are quite self-assured and tourists and locals are on the same level, you are neither seen as superior or inferior.
Exploring the village is not easy because the dozen houses are built so closely to each other that it is almost impossible not to disturb somebody’s privacy. From far away we have seen a herd of cattle and people above the village. It looked like a cattle-market, but it is a caravan in the last stages of preparation for departure. The yaks’ legs are tied together to make it easier to load them. Two hours later they will leave for Sangda La, how they will cross it is a mystery to me after all the problems we had yesterday.
Supposedly the water in the village is not clean, and because it will make tomorrow’s walk shorter we decide to camp outside the village. A strenuous climb begins after the pass the empty school, but after two weeks of daily training I get to the ridge fast. I am in very good shape now, as usually it took me two days to get used to walking but since then I have become faster and faster.
The view is breathtaking, the fields below are an oasis in a mountain desert, not only due to their colour but also because it is the only flat area in the whole valley. The peaks and glaciers are hidden in clouds, but the view eastwards is amazing: a narrow gorge leads to a landscape dominated by hundreds of canyons that characterise Upper Mustang. I wonder if it is the actual scenery or my memories that make me stare in awe, probably both. After spending an hour on the top we continue towards the yellow dots in the next valley.
Our tents have already been put up in a slope which is dominated by a huge black wall with snow on its ridge. The only source of water is a spring far below the tents. Luckily some locals have built a few small terraces, otherwise it would be impossible to camp here. Finding camp places in the Himalayas can be difficult! I know how strange this sounds, but clean water next to flat areas are not so common, and you usually want to set up the camp in the late afternoon which reduces the number of suitable spots even further. At least here you do not have to fight over camping grounds like in the Annapurna or Khumbu area during the high season.
Dozens of blue sheep are grazing higher up. For a quick second I am tempted to hike up there to see how close I get to them, but the sun is already setting behind the mountains and I have to skip the idea. Soon afterwards it becomes foggy, which makes tea and biscuits in the tent an even better alternative.
Day 19: Sangda – Phalla
Once again I have set the alarm clock to 500, once again it is too foggy to justify a pre-breakfast run uphill. After the first glimpse of Mustang yesterday afternoon I cannot wait to see the canyons from closer. The Sangda gorge branches off at a right angle from the Kali Gandaki valley. We will get there in an hour and then follow the broad riverbed for the rest of the day. The views from the ridge should be spectacular.
I climb a nearby hill in hope for better views, and with good weather this really would be a perfect viewpoint: the Sangda valley with the snow peaks, the barren scenery of Mustang and the steep face of Nilgiri and Tilicho in the south. But it is too early, the sun could not burn off the clouds yet and the huge peaks of the Annapurna massif are only visible for a few moments, yet over Mustang there is bright sunshine.
Everybody is far ahead, even the liaison officer passed me. I hurry up and catch up at the next pass from where the view is even more breathtaking. The weather has improved, the good light increases the spectacular views even more. Mustang lies to our feet, the trail from Samar to Shyangboche is chiselled into a hill on the far left, and I think I can even make out the small path leading to Rangchung Chorten, although this must be my imagination. It is incredible how far we see from here: I recognise the plateau near Tsarang but the town itself is hidden behind some hills. Below us are the fields of Chuksang and Tangbe. The oases farther south are Kagbeni, Jarkhot and Muktinath. It is a pity that Thorung Peak and the hanging glaciers which tower above the valley are covered in a thin band of clouds that span down all the way to the south, hiding most summits. On a clear day this must be one of the finest views I can imagine. It is definitely on my ‘Himalayan top ten list‘ under the category ‘most interesting views’.
Actually this was planned to be a short day and it is possible to reach the camp at noon. This would have been most convenient for the kitchen crew but our long breaks and my little sidetrips have taken too much time already, and there might be even more excursions before we reach Phallyak. So we stop at the next river for lunch, the tiny stream is the only source of water between Sangda and Phallyak. It runs dry a hundred meters further down, a few ruins indicate the remains of a village which was probably abandoned because of lack of water. It is another reminder of how difficult and hard life is in the Himalayas. The average tourist marvels at the majestic scenery, which is so stunning that one never thinks about the dangers and difficultiees of living in the highest mountains on earth.
We have reached the last pass of our trek. Down in a wide side valley lies the village where we will stay for the night. The north face of Nilgiri is free of clouds and the view towards north better than during the whole morning. To the left is a small hill which promises even better views, a higher hill is a little further away and after reaching it it is only a few more minutes to the very top. The tough half-hour climb is not easy, strong gales make it even more difficult, but it is absolutely worth it. The world’s deepest valley lies beneath us. It is one of the few north-south corridors between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan highplateau, an incredibly strong wind is an indication of this. We stand on a ridge high above anything else, and enjoy one of the most stunning views on the trek. Barren landscapes seem boring at first, but it simply takes awhile to discover the subtle differences in the scenery, and then it is like a puzzle where more and more pieces are being added with every minute you watch.
The bird’s-eye view of Mustang is spectacular, just across us lie the fields Tangbe, and red canyons rise behind the yellow patches of wheat. A few miles upstream the broad riverbed disappears all of sudden where the Kali Gandaki seems to spring out of a red rockface. It flows through a tunnel there, coming from narrow gorges of Upper Mustang. This also marks a drastic change in the scenery, chaos of red, yellow and grey canyons stretch to the whole north. The views in the other direction are also fantastic, only a few small white clouds drift in front of Nilgiri’s glacier which is more impressive from here than from Jomosom.
Tomorrow will be another day of trekking and we will have extra days in Jomosom, but somehow this seems the right moment to think about the last three weeks. It has been an exciting trek, for some reason attempted by less than ten groups a year. I have expected at least some problems, either logistically or healthwise – it was Thomas’ first trek and I have never trekked for so long and crossed 6 passes over 5’000 metres before. But we were in good shape and it was organised perfectly, so we did not have to care about anything else than our own walking. There were two moments – the long walk in the valley to Sangda La and the miserable 3 hours after crossing the Sangda La – when I asked myself if the effort and money to walk from Do to Jomosom are really worth it. But after a little sunshine and the breathtaking views days all doubts (which were only slight anyway) are gone. It is a fantastic route that requires a good trekking agency, endurance, curiosity, rain gear and a little bit of extra money. But it is rewarding!
I hope that nobody has been waiting for us on the windy pass before Phallyak for the last hour. Phalla looks like a typical Tibetan village from the pass. The whitewashed houses with firewood and prayerflags on the flat roof look like most villages in the Western Himalayas. Pink blooming buckwheat fields which are separated by green stripes of young corn surround it. The large terraces follow the gentle slope down towards the broad river. I think it is their form which gave the town its name, as far as I know Phalla means shingle. Three different coloured chortens above the village with Nilgiri in the background makes it even more picturesque.
After reaching the fields it takes only a few minutes to the village’s entry. A big landslide or torrent has torn down part of the valley, the elevation serves as the town’s outer wall. The main entrance cannot be missed, it resembles the entering of a fort. We camp on a place for thrashing at the outer wall where the curious villagers have sat down already. Despite its closeness to Jomosom – the most visited trekking area in Nepal – only few tourists visit Phalla. I do not spot a single guesthouse or shop, which I am very happy about since we will see those ugly signs early enough tomorrow.
I wonder why so few tourists visit Phalla, as far as I know it is not in a restricted area. At least those heading for Mustang could take the route from here to the pass for the fantastic ‘preview’ of their trek, than walk down to the checkpoint in Kagbeni. It is a much nicer way and less crowded than the standard route.
Day 20: Phalla – Jomosom
Mornings like today are trekkers’ dreams: Nilgiri glows in the morning sun and forms an orange triangular in a blue sky. The light shines on the icefalls and the channels of ice, illuminating the fine vertical lines in the white snow. Just a few minutes later the ‘magic of the moment’ is gone, the light turns from orange to yellow, gets brighter and makes more and more of the north face visible while blurring out the subtle contrasts. Clouds from the south are covering Tilicho already, so once again we cannot see the whole range.
The porters spent the night in the village and show up after breakfast. This is our last day with them, after a short walk to Jomosom they will drop our bags and continue to Beri or Baglung where they will take the bus to Kathmandu. Since we will make a short detour over Kagbeni, it is time to say good-bye. I hope they found the last three weeks as pleasant as we did, I think we were easy to deal with and did our best to help them out when we could. I don’t particularly like the ‘tip-ceremony’, it is always a bit awkward for everybody. Travelling without a good crew would be very, very difficult and could easily spoil the holidays. Just the thought of a bad meal after five hours of walking makes me shiver. You totally depend on your crew, and so far I have never been disappointed.
We walk down towards the Kali Gandaki on different sides of the gorge and see them slowly disappear. The old way to Kagbeni is on this side of the river, but a new long bridge crosses the wide riverbed near Eklabhatti. The red monastery of Kagbeni stands out from far away, it is situated above the green fields near the river. It is a familiar sight and looks as pleasant as last year from far away, but the town has changed considerably since then – for the worse. At least a dozen new guesthouses have opened up, shops and restaurants dominate the townscape. Even the old part of town which was so picturesque shows signs of tourists influence - literally. The old fort is in ruins, some houses share the same fate but the narrow alleys and courtyards let you guess what it must have been like dozens of years ago.
I wonder if Mustang’s and Dolpo’s villages are destined to end like Kagbeni with its ugly tourist infrastructure. Much less tourists go up to the remote regions, but even there tourism is an additional source of income. I do not have a right to complain, because I am a foreigner and will never really know how much easier a villager’s life can be with a little extra money.
The monastery is well cared for and seems affluent, has nice paintings and statues. The assembly hall is still used, but most monks are away right now. The new building whose construction was started last year and is financed by entrance fees or donations is not quite finished, but since the cracks in the old monastery have not become wider in the last year there is no time to hurry.
We soon start our walk back, I am rather shocked by the huge changes that took place in just one single year. Eklabhatti consists of just three guesthouses near the river, and because they don’t dominate the face of a village, it is not as bothering as Kagbeni. The woman who runs it speaks Tibetan and I enjoy the standard 5-minute conversation until I run out of words. I notice once more how our crew seems to getting along with the locals much better than the guides of other groups. Padam stayed behind while we walked to Kagbeni and prepared lunch. Since will probably be the last time I enjoy the triple portion dal baht even more.
The way to Jomosom is very familiar, and I do not like it very much. Punctually at 1100 a strong wind blows from the south, making our walking not more pleasant. The valley is probably interesting for somebody interested in geology, but the broad riverbed and barren hills are not captivating after having seen it three times. The tin roofs of Jomosom blink in the sun one hour later, but it takes at least half an hour to get there and then another half hour to the airport. Modern civilisation has us back... and though I have to admit that I have no distaste for Western luxuries Jomosom represents the worst of both worlds: it is clearly a tourist centre but does not offer real comfort.
The tents are already put up in the backyard of a guesthouse. I spend the rest of the afternoon washing clothes and relaxing. This will be the last dinner by Padam, after eating half the chocolate pie our stomachs are about to explode.
I hoped for a more exciting day, but my mind probably finished the trek shortly before reaching Phalla yesterday. The view from the pass was unforgettable and dramaturgically perfect.
This Dolpo trek was superb. Even though the weather was not great all the time, it could have been much worse. We had great views and enjoyed the stark contrasts of the scenery – from lush terraces in Dunai, through thick forests, the wheat fields in Ringmo with the fantastic lake Phoksumdo, the barren hills and high passes of Inner Dolpo, the wide fertile valley of Tarap and the desolate gorges of Sangda and Upper Mustang. I will particularly remember the people, their friendliness and hospitality. Our crew made the trekking very easy and enjoyable.
But with every tourist the chances grow that things will change for the worse. I hope that my visit has not had negative side effects and that my presence did not change the people.
Day 21: Jomosom-Pokhara By Air.
Other sources of information:
No matter where you go - ignorant tourists have become an all too familiar sight. I find it essential to be well prepared and usually spend quite some time studying books before I visit an area I don't know. I see it is an obligation and am convinced that this pays off for both sides - for you and, more importantly, for the people you meet.
· Caravans of the Himalaya, E. Valli, ISBN 0-7922-2793-X
· Four Lamas of Dolpo, David Snellgrove
· Himalayan Pilgrimage, David Snellgrove
· Christoph Baumer, ISBN 3-201-01723-X
· Mustang, a Lost Tibetan Kingdom, M. Peissel, ISBN 81-7303-002-2
· Tales of the Turquoise, C. Jest, ISBN 1-55939-095-6
· The Snow Leopard, Matthiesen
· Travel Diary Mustang