Brought to the attention of those interested in matters Himalayan and Tibetan by the likes of Tucci and Snelgrove in the 1950s, and then to a wider world by zoologist George Schaller and writer peter Matthieson, Dolpo is of particular interest today as an enclave of pure Tibetan culture. Situated in the rain shadow of the Dhaulagiri Himal, this arid high mountain desert does not sustain a dense population. Dolpo is a land of howling winds, open spaces and enormous skies, of blinding sunlight, remote monasteries, yak caravans and the scent of juniper. Dolpo is Tibet in Nepal.
Today much of Dolpo lies within the boundaries of Shey-Phoksundo National Park, the inner core of which is also a restricted area requiring the standard US$ 700 permit for a ten-day visit. One route does exist, however, which provides a taste of Dolpo and takes in some of the best high mountain scenery in the district without incurring that prohibitive permit fee. This is the trek from Jumla to Juphal via Ringmo and Do Tarap. Along its cource you experience all the wonderful variety of landscape and mountain environment that the west has to offer-from grassy lekhs, lush meadows, forests of maple and walnut and idyllic clear mountain steams near Jumls, to snow covered high mountain passes, glaciers and sweeping views of barren, seemingly lifeless hills stretching northwards into Tibet.
Jumla to Hurikot
The first eight days, from Jumla to Hurikot and on to the village of Ringmo on the shores of Phoksundo lake via the Kagmara La (5115m/6782ft), constitue a challenging enough outing in their own right. Almost immediately this route enters really wild country and as you stand on the Pattyata Lagna in the afternoon of the long first day heading east from Jumla and look down into the beautiful alpine meadeows of Gothi Chaur, your heart will sing. This is trekking country to live for. Sweeping down from the pass is a treelined pasture of unbelievable verdure, spangled with bright orchids, forget me nots and geraniums. At the bottom of the magnificent basin into which the trail then descends, a gushing spring issues from a series of pools and a more pictruesque camping spot could not be imagined.
From Gothi Chaur to Chaurikot across the Mauri Lagna (3960m/12993ft) the trail is fairly gentle, breaking you in slowly and acclimatising you for the rigious ahead. Climb to a small grassy knoll above the pass for a panoramic view east to the distant Dhaulagiri himal. Just beyond Rimi the trail divides, with a more southerly route heading off over the Balangra La (3750m/12304ft) and on to Juphal and Dunai. The more challenging and rewarding option followed here is to turn left into the valley of the Garpung Khola adn make for the sensational Kagmata La (5115m/16782ft) and Phoksundo. A huge amount of potent hashish is cultivated in the area, and in autumn the sweet fragrance of village planations is discemnible on the breeze from miles away.
Hurikot to Ringmo
Just beyond Hurikot, a charming mediaeval village and site of the most important Bon gompah in the district, the trail enters the Shey-Phoksundo Natioal park. Almost immediately the going gets much harder. After a grunt of a climb, an airy traverse and a precipitous descent to cross the Jagdula khola on a fine cantilever bridge, a police post is reached at Toijem. The carefully tended garden is home to yet more specimens of Cannabies sativa. From here the valley climbs with unremitting steepness to Kagmara base camp (4100m/13450ft) and the pass. A rest day before going over is definitely recommended. From camp, you can cross the tiny steam that the Jagdula Khola has by now become, and ascend an easy grassy ridge to the west for sensational viesw of the entire Kagmra Himal - a range infinitely more impressive than their heights (none top 6000m/19690ft) imply.
Set off before dawn to cross the dramatic but straightforward pass. From below the range looks impenetrable without resorting to mountaineering techniques, but in fact the way is not so difficult. Head north up Valley for thirty minutes from camp. and then turn east into a broad cwm and follow lthe surprisingly good trail up steepening zigzags for 650m (2133ft) of ascent. The final snow covered slopes are less steep. After a rest, ascend the ridge rising north from the col to a height of 5380m (17652ft) for a stupendous 3600 panorama taking in Kagmara, Kanjiroba, La Shamma, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and dozens of lesser peaks. A good campsite (4460m/14633ft) is reached after an hour of steep descent.
The Kagmara Himal really marks the boundary of Dolpo on this route. From here onwards the villages are purely Tibetan, consisting of sold square, stone and timber built houses with prayer flags fluttering on the rooftops and elaborately decorated chortens marking the boundaries. Much accomplished spinning and weaving takes place, but the prices asked, even in remote farmsteads, are very high. As is so often the case in the Himalaya, much of the height so exhaustingly gained on the ascent to Kagmara is lost again before the steep climb to Ringmo begins. Prepare to sweat!
Take a day's rest of Ringmo. Visit the crumbling whitewashed temples of the large Bon gompah on the lakeside east of the village, and marvel at the ever-changing azure hues of Phoksundo Tal as clouds scud across the afternoon sky. With binoculars, watch the progres of yak caravans making their ponderous way northwards along the steep shores of the lake to the kang La, Shey Gompah and distant Saldang. To follow them you will need to have secured a restricted area permit in Kathmandu.
Ringmo to Champa Gompah
Those with less time amy choose to head back to juphal directly south from Ringmo, but if you want to make your trek in Dolpo really special head east again into the Manduwa Khola. This is the way to Do Tarap via the Baga La and Num La passes, and to reach Juphal this way requires another week at least.
Initially very steep and exposed, the way into this valley is quite sensational, affording breath taking views of the waterfall where the Phoksundo Khola plunges into the valley south of Ringmo, and back west to the Kagmara Himal. Do not succumb to the temptaiton to camp at the idyllic Manduwa Kharka, but press on and spend the night at the head of the valley (+ 4100m/13450ft), immediately below the notch into which the trail steeply ascends towards the Baga La. Eat a big supper and get to bed early, for the next two days are the most strenuous and rewarding of the entire trip.
Reasonably fit and acclimatised trekkers should make the 1100m (3610ft) ascent from this camp to the Baga La (5190m/17028ft) in under three hours. All the way from Jumla the scenery gets increasingly arid, and by the time you make the 600m (1970ft) descent from the Baga La to camp at Pelungtang the transition to high altitude desert is complete. There is not so much as a single stunted Juniper bush to be seen, and the diet of the numerous yaks grazing herebouts consists solely of dry grass and gravel. The mountain views from the camp are more impressive than those from the pass, which is but a narrow cleft in a steep rocky range. The same cannot be said of the Num La. From camp the trail descends a couple of hundred metres before commencing the long, steady pull to this next pass at 5318m(17448ft). A major trail to Saldang and Shey Gompah cuts away north across a vast open mountainside just out of camp, and as you gain height again your descent route from the Baga La is clearly visible behing you, with the Kanjiroba Himal to the northwest. From the windswept col a bleak but breathtaking 1800 panorama west, north and east is revealed, though in order to fully appreciate the magnificence of your location a little more energy must be burned. Immediately above the col to the south rises a small peak, Num Ri (5575m/18292ft), and the view from its vast, flat plateau of a summit will have you running out of film before you know it. To the north the desolate brown hills of Dolpo sweep away towards Shey and Tibet. To the west, Kagmara, Kanjuiroba and the distant peaks of Humla line up along the horizon. To the south Putha Hiunchuli, the Churen Himal and Dhaulagiri are visible, and to the east the trail to the Chharka La. It is, quite simply, out of this world.
Given time and acclimatisation there is a very tempting ridge-walk around a cirque to the south, finally descending steeply to rejoin the main trail down from the pass into the Tarap Valley. Camp at Chamba Gompah and spend a day or two savouring this wild, tibetan valley. This is as close to the real Dolpo as you can get without paying for an expensive restricted area permit, and the area is popular with trekking groups. If you have time to linger here and befriend the initially shy village folk, you will soon be sitting by a smoky stove sipping salt-butter tea, or learning to thresh barley in the fields.
Dhampa Gomah to Juphal
The walk-out to Juphal down the Tarap Gorge takes four days and involves traversing some very airy trails and bridges that would not be out of place in a circus act. Late in the season many of these can be avoided by wadifng the river. Stop for a dalbat feeast at the Blue Sheep Lodge in Dunai on the last day, but don't overdo it with the beer and chang the final climb to Juphal is a gruelling three-hour flog. Send a member of your crew on ahead a day in advance to reconfirm your seats, and be prepared for an adrenaline rush as you take off from the shortest of Nepal's STOL airstrips and immediately bank steeply away to avoid the enormous boulder opposite the end of the runway.