THROUGH THE LAND OF DOLPO
A Trek In Western Nepal by Chris Townsend

On the edge of the Tibetan plateau north of the great mountain of Dhalaugiri lies the remote and little-known land of Dolpo; a high, cold, arid region of bare rocky hills, narrow ravines and broad sparsely vegetated valleys. In the rainshadow of the Himalayas Dolpo is unaffected by the monsoon rains which makes it very dry and very hot in summer but, as much of the region is above 4000 metres, it is snowy and bitterly cold in winter.

Despite its inaccessibility, high altitude and inhospitable climate Dolpo is not an empty land. Small villages dot the valleys and hillsides. Traders cross the passes with yaks and horses, carrying goods between Tibet and lowland Nepal. However in winter most of the inhabitants of the high villages head downwards and southwards, some even travelling as far as Kathmandu. Just a few people overwinter, staying to watch over the flocks of goats and sheep. A centre of Tibetan Buddhism, there are also many gompas (monasteries) in Dolpo and the passes and trails abound with mani (prayer) walls, chortens (Buddhist monuments) and prayer flags.

Walking through this land means walking through an ancient culture, one that has remained the same for thousands of years and which is still almost untouched by the modern world. Few are the places where the mountain trails are the highways of the local people, where there are no motorised vehicles, or indeed machines of any kind.

Living a marginal existence dependent on grain imports from the south the few inhabitants of Dolpo cannot feed travellers so trekkers in the area have to be self-sufficient. Access to much of the area is restricted with only a few organised groups, who must be accompanied by a liaison officer, being allowed in each year. Strict environmental rules apply and everything carried in must be carried out. In this way the problems of over-use and environmental damage that have arisen in other areas of Nepal will hopefully be avoided.

Just getting to Dolpo is difficult, involving flights first to Nepalgunj then in a tiny plane down a dramatic gorge to the tiny mountain village of Juphal where there is a STOL airstrip (STOL is an acronym for Short Take Off and Landing, itself a euphemism for a sloping field on a mountainside).

Courtesy of TGO magazine and Karakorum Experience I visited Dolpo to trek, along with ten others and a thirty strong support crew, from Juphal to Jomsom in the Kali Gandaki valley in the east. For the first few days our route wandered through the rich, forested Bheri river valley to the Tarap Gorge, a narrow steep and impressive rocky ravine which was our gateway to the high valleys of Dolpo.

Although it's only about twenty-five kilometres in length the Tarap Gorge rises from 3000 to over 4000 metres. (Distances and altitudes are very approximate as the best maps, which aren't very good anyway, are at a scale of 1:250,000 while the heights were taken from an altimeter which, with no spot heights available, couldn't be reset during the trek).

Gaining so much height quickly isn't a good idea if you want to avoid altitude sickness so we spent three days slowly ascending the gorge. As we did so the trees gradually dwindled in numbers and height until the last one was passed and only thorny brown bushes and sparse yellow grasses remained.

The narrowness of the gorge makes for exciting walking with sections of trail carved straight up steep cliffs or else traversing skimpy sloping ledges. In places these airy rocky walkways vanish altogether, leaving gaps that the local pathmakers have bridged with thin poles - some of which look frighteningly old and rotten - which are then overlaid with flat slabs of rock.

The path climbed repeatedly over steep sided spurs that ended in cliffs at the rivers edge, each time descending back to the valley bottom. Eventually, tired of such ascents and not liking the exposed look of the next one, we decided to ford the river. This proved harder than it looked, the ice cold water being deep and strong, and most people, including many of the porters, needed help to cross safely. Trek leader Kit Wilkinson spent a long time out in the middle of the river helping people across, mainly because at 6' 3" he towered over nearly everybody else and was the only person who could stand up at all easily in the full force of the water.

Eventually the gorge began to level off, the steep sides draw back and we entered the broad flat upper Tarap valley. A series of small villages line the river here and we camped by the first of these, Dho Tarap, a wild place with the air of a medieval town. Visiting Dho is like visiting the past. Out in the tiny terraced fields villagers were threshing the barley with wooden flails while others ploughed the dusty soil with metal tipped crude wooden ploughs dragged by yaks. Children with large wicker baskets on their backs prowled the nearby slopes collecting yak dung which was then spread out to dry before being used as fuel for fires. It's the only fuel available in this treeless land. At dusk herds of goats, sheep and yaks came back from distant grazing grounds. The people, especially the children, were friendly and curious, watching everything we did. Trekking groups visit Dho regularly so foreigners are not totally unknown. Even so we were clearly of great interest to many of the locals.

In order to aid acclimatisation, we spent a day wandering round the fascinating villages and gompas of the upper Tarap before starting the two day 1300 metre ascent to the first high pass, 5300 metre Charkula Bhanjyang, a broad flat saddle decorated with a large cairn topped with a network of white prayer flags. The view was unbelievably vast, the nearby brown semi-desert hills ringed by distant higher snow-topped mountains, most of them somewhere between 6 and 7000 metres high.

The colours of Dolpo are those of the desert; varying shades of brown and yellow that in places turn to dark red and black or, in contrast, a creamy white. The hills are scree-covered and rimmed by huge eroded half-sand, half-rock buttresses and shattered, unstable cliffs. Dust is everywhere and our belongings were soon covered with a fine gritty film. There is beauty here but it is a harsh, savage beauty, borne out of a searing sun and the rock shattering bitter winter cold.

A steep path led down from the pass into the wide Kahajeng Kohla valley where we camped beside a wide, well-used track. On leaving Dho we had entered the restricted part of Dolpo and for the rest of the trek we saw no other trekkers. There were plenty of local people about though as we found when the first of several large yak caravans advanced on the camp which, we soon realised, had been established on a major trade route. One party camped near us, the traders setting up a large canvas tent with an open ridge to let out the smoke of the fire they lit inside. The yaks, after their burdens were unloaded, were turned loose to graze. By morning they were out of sight. Rounding them up seemed to be a lengthy task.

By now the trekking day had an established rhythm. Tea at around 6.30 am, brought to the tents by the Sherpas, then an outdoor breakfast while the tents were struck and the first porters set off. Three or so hours of walking would see us at the lunch spot where the kitchen crew would set up their big kerosene burners and make a cooked meal. Lunch lasted a couple of hours, so that the porters, most of whom we'd passed earlier, could be well on their way to the overnight camp site before we set off for the few hours afternoon walk. That way we all usually arrived at the site about the same time. Camp was normally established by 4pm, two hours before dark, and we were free to explore the area around, or collapse in the tents, until dinner at 6pm after which most people retired to their sleeping bags as the temperatures fell quickly. At all eight camps over 4000 metres the night time temperatures were well below freezing and frequently below -10C. One night it dipped to -16C.

From a minor top some 100 metres above Mahala or Charkha Bhanjyang, our second 5000 metre plus pass and just a days walk beyond the first one, we had a superb view of the Dhalaugiri range to the south, the huge masses of snow and ice on the flanks of the mountains looking dramatic and frightening in their immensity even though they lay far away. Below, the path wound down the hillside to the Barbung Khola river and, hidden in a fold in the hills, remote Charkhabhot village, in whose fields we were to camp.

Arriving in Charkhabhot, a walled village perched fortress-like on a bluff above the river, was one of the strangest mountain experiences I have ever had. It was the height of the harvest and a frenzy of activity was taking place. Every field was full of people threshing and sieving the barley, great clouds of which were being blown into the sky by the afternoon winds, a wild, fantastic sight.

Two days walking from Charkhabhot up the Thajeng Khola valley led to the highest point of the trek, 5450 metre Sangdah pass. Crossing this took us out of Dolpo and into the southern part of the Mustang region. We were also now coming closer to the high mountains of the Himalayas and the landscape started to take on a more typical alpine appearance. Below the pass we came on some sombre green cypresses, the first trees we had seen for nine days. Ahead lay the Kali Gandaki valley and the views were now dominated by the great curving cleft of the Thorung La, the highest pass on the Annapurna Circuit trek, and the shining peaks of the Annapurna massif.

Our trek was coming to an end and three days after crossing the Sangdah pass we descended the Keha Lungpa valley to Jomsom in the Kali Gandaki valley from where we flew back to Kathmandu. In fifteen days we had walked around 130 kilometres, not a great distance, but the world we had entered was so strange, so different from that of home, that it felt as  though we had been much further.

The trek was run and organised by Karakorum Experience.
For details of this and other treks contact:

Karakorum Experience  
32 Lake Road
Keswick
Cumbria
CA12 5DQ
Tel: 017687 73966 / 72267

E-Mail to mailto:keadventure@enterprise.net