Section 11. Lower Dolpo
16 June. Kagbeni to Bhina Lojun La. 15 km. 5.5 hours. 1640m up. 130m down. It took a while to get everything sorted out in the morning as we had to buy food for a good week. We bought it from the hotel who gave us a good price as they sourced it locally. By the time it had been divided up among Ramesh, Santos and Dawa and put into their loads they came to about 35kg, of which 12kg was supplies and the rest camping gear. We set off around 0900 and had to be a little surreptitious as we did not have a permit for Upper Mustang. We were just going along the border for two or three days and there was very little information on it. It was a grey area and we did not want to draw attention to ourselves. Not having a permit also saved me US$1000.
We sneaked past the Annapurna Conservation Area Office which was closed and padlocked. However someone shouted and I was sure it was for me. I ignored them and carried on into the warren of streets which led to the bridge. I was first then Santos and Bharat and the other two were a minute behind. Apparently it was a policeman shouting at me and Bharat said I was right to ignore it as they were powerless. I crossed the bridge and then went up the west side of the Kali Gandaki for half a km before I replaced my new shoes and got my walking poles out. Across the river the old and new monasteries of Kagbeni stood proud and they were surrounded by a cluster of old houses making the town look like an ancient outpost in Tibet or Central Asia.
I walked another half km and then started to climb up a dry arid hillside covered in gravel. The small hamlet of Tirigaon unfolded below me on the banks of the river. It too had a small monastery on a hillock above the hamlet. It was a very rural, ancient looking community. The route now climbed quite quickly up the hillside weaving between thorny scrub bushes, which were probably the only thing which would tolerate the dryness. It climbed up for a good hour to a small lake, called Tiri Tal, above which were a cluster of single storey stone buildings used for herding. The shelters were large and stone built with a compound and a very large section under a flat earthen roof. The walls of the compound were topped with firewood and dry thorn scrub. It was as if all the animals were taken into the compound at night and some vulnerable ones even taken inside. This was an area where wolves roamed freely across the border with Tibet some 40 km to the north.
Above the herders’ large shelters and lake the path climber up to a small pass which was really a notch on the ridge at 3810m, a 1000 above Kagbeni. It was very windy now and a griffon vulture could not fly against the wind and wanted to head south through the pass. It swooped down on the north side, then skipped up on foot to the pass itself, unfurled its wings and rose into the air and slowly punched into the strong wind until it gained some distance from the wind funnel and speeded up. It knew what it was doing and was very skilful at reading the conditions.
From this small pass the path joined a track and traversed up the hillside going into a gully and then coming out to round a spur an hour from the pass. There were some huge views here. To the south I could look across the Kali Gandaki valley to the Annapurna Massif and I think I could see the main peak, Annapurna I, beyond the fluted ridges of Nilgiri. To the north was Upper Mustang, which was absolutely desolate without even scrub bushes. There were just a couple of villages near the river. They must have been located where groundwater seeped out of the rocky hillside to form a green oasis of willow trees around which the stone houses were built in their shade. There must have been enough water to irrigate a network of terraced fields which looked like they had ripening barley and potatoes growing in them. The villages were called Tangbe and Chhusang. Around them and up to the north was a rocky desert with no sign of and vegetation. It was a desolate scene and I wondered how the people of Upper Mustang survived other than by trading. Far to the east were large 6000 metre mountains, dry and brown except for their summits which were covered in white snow and glaciers. It was the very remote Damodar Himal and its melting snows where probably the only water source in that area which was too high for settlements as the surrounding land was about 4500m. There was a trek through the middle of this himal called the Saribung Trek and it goes over a crevassed 6000m pass.
It was to the west I was now heading up a very deep valley which was far below me. The track traversed high above the almost inaccessible valley floor deep in a gorge a good 1000 metres below me. I could see where the valley rose up to a pass to cross a watershed into Dolpo. It looked like it would take at least two days to reach the 5550 metre pass, called Jungben La. First we would have to traverse up the south flank of the valley to reach the remote village of Santa. It was hidden behind spurs and probably a good half days walk away.
From this spur I could see the track went into a side valley and then came out to go over another spur at a notch in the ridge called Bhima Lojun La, 4460m. It was still a good two hours to get there and the others with their heavy loads were far behind. Despite the track traversing the side valley under jagged 6000m peaks with huge snowfields on their north side there was no water as it all flowed under the settled moraine of a now vanished glacier. Occasionally the grass was green and yaks grazed on the pastures but generally it was brown and dry. Further down where the streams emerged from under the moraine it was much greener and the valley sides were covered in Himalayan birch. I had now choice but to head across these dry meadows, where there were some lovely campsites, to Bhima Lojun La and hope there was something on the other side. With tired legs I slogged up the last slope of shale to have a new vista suddenly unfold west in from of me.
I headed west along the track, flushing some very nervous blue deer, for about 10 minutes when I came across a trickle of ground water emerging from a cutting in the track. There was enough of a flow to fill bottles. Just beyond it there was a wider area in the seldom used track which was quite sandy. It was a tolerable campsite and had I passed it the next might be in an hour or three. Given it was 1600 and the others were far behind I decided to stop here and see if they liked it. They arrived an hour later and we decided it was fine so up went the large tent which had been in Kathmandu since Rolwaling. Ramesh cooked a great Dalbhat on the large stove and we piled into the tent at 2000. It was a tight squeeze with the five of us. It was like old times again camping after the luxury of three or four weeks’ worth of teahouses and lodges. The dust of Mustang and Dolpo was going to coat everything though.
June 17. Bhina Lojun La to Ghalden Ghuldun Khola. 18km. 6 hours. 860m up. 1150m down. The sun hit the tent at about 0530. It was easy to get up as it was warm, still and clear unlike the last times we were in the tent when it was freezing. We decided to skip breakfast and just have tea as the village of Santa was just two hours away and it had a rustic shop. I left first after packing up the dust covered tent and headed down the track. There were many kongma (snow grouse) chuckling away beside the track as I walked along it. They took off as I passed and glided down to lower slopes. To the south of me 6000m mountains rose up steeply there glaciers and snowfields melting into small streams which disappeared under masses of moraine debris to emerge well below the road again. The valley below was even more inhospitable than yesterday with a deep crumbling eroded gorge. Here and there were large herds of goats scouring the dry slopes for anything edible. They had been doing this fore centuries and the whole hillside was covered in their small paths.
I followed the track for an hour and a half when it went over a spur and started to drop steeply. I shortcutted the hairpins on the goat paths until suddenly below me were the green irrigated fields and the flat mud roof of Santagaon. It looked like it was still in the fifteenth century with the exception of the blue tin roof on the school. The tractor track we walked along was its only link with the outside world and this was new replacing the centuries old footpath. I went down to the village and asked for the local shop. Almost immediately a lady came running over. Yes she has a shop and she could cook for us. She escorted me down to her house through a warren of passages and led me into the ground floor which was full of hay and farming implements. From here there was a log stair to the first floor where the kitchen and “shop” was. It was mostly a storage room of rice sacks, mule saddles, ropes and more tools. In the open area on the first floor she had a fire under a raksi still and was distilling a pot of fermented corn. The still was simple and the evaporated alcohol condensed on a pot of cold water above and dripped into another pot to produce something around 20% by volume. She started cooking the dalbhat before the other arrived as it always take at least an hour. When Ramesh arrived he jumped into to kitchen to help.
As the meal was cooking I wandered from the village taking photos of the houses and fields. It was a busy village and the fields were lively with people cutting barley and weeding potatoes. One lady invited me into her home to take photos and then tried to sell me weavings and jewellery stones. They were an entrepreneurial village and must have been well organized as all the terraces were surrounded by one kilometre long stone wall to keep the goats and yaks out. The wall was in very good repair and seemed to do a great job as all the irrigated crops were thriving. Back at the house I had my dalbhat with the others and then we set off again. Our host pointed out where we were going by a village called Ghok on the other side of the main gorge. Ghok was higher than Santa by a couple of hundred metres but she explained that Ghok was the winter village of Santa and everyone mover here for a few months. It must be on account Santa was north facing and Ghok south facing.
We left and I went ahead, as the others sampled some of her raksi. The path was a tortuous one as it traversed down into a side valley crossed a suspension bridge and then climber some 400 metres up the ridge on the other side. Here there was a large pasture with one man looking after some 300-400 goats and 25 yak. The path then traversed the hillside for a couple of km passing Ghok on the other side. It really did look like it was from the fifteenth century with no track to it or tins roofs to spoil the flat stone roof harmony. Ghok looked empty at the moment and its fields were uncultivated. After passing Ghok the path dropped down steeply into the main valley and cross the dirty muddy torrent on another suspension bridge. From the bridge there was another steep 400 metre climb up to two huts. The path up was occasionally hazardous and a slip would have been fatal, however the mules managed it. I passed many old juniper trees, probably over 1000 years old on the climb. This was also the only route to Ghok the villagers of Santa on their yearly migration.
The two huts Ghalden Ghuldun Khola were more shelters. One was used by mule drivers and was unlocked but contained masses of sacks of rice and cement en route somewhere. The other hut was clean and empty, and we commandeered it, after sweeping it out with a juniper branch. A mule train arrived soon after and they went into the other shelter. They were also going over the Jungben La Pass, 5550m, tomorrow to trade with Dolpo. Once we crossed the pass we would be out of the restricted area of Upper Mustang and into Dolpo for which we had a permit and although no official would ever come to Santa let alone here it would be a relief.
June 18. Ghalden Ghuldun Khola to 7 km below Nalungsumda Kharka. 27 km. 8 hours. 1380m up. 860m down. I set my alarm for 0445 as we all wanted an early start. Ramesh and Santos as usual were up quickly and got the stove going while the rest of us packed. We had tea and instant noodle for breakfast and then Ramesh gave me cheese, biscuits and a snickers for packed lunch. It was going to be needed. We set of at 0600 and started up the steep slope behind the hut. It was misty which was a surprise in this area. We climbed up through the last of the junipers and berberis on the gravelly slope. The rock here was friable and readily broke into rectangular blocks. I think it was some sort of shale or mudstone and the whole hillside was covered in small fragments. We zig-zagged up it, flirting with the mist which came and went. I was soon ahead as I was not burdened with a 33 kg load, as set off to reach the top in one go while the others paused. Pigeons and kongma were prolific on the climb despite the barren hillside. On one occasion I flushed a mother kongma and she feigned injury to lure me away from her unseen and camouflaged brood. Slowly but surely I gained the pass which was steep at the top and adorned with prayer flags. It was not the real top but just an 800 metre warm up. I was up in two hours so had a snooze at the top while the others laboured up with their loads and arrived after three hours.
From this pass we could look west across a barren valley with a clear stream at the bottom and on to the real pass of Jungben La, 5550m. The valley was not very deep and the path traversed the hillside until the stream came up to meet it so we lost very little height. The stream disappeared from sight to the south were it eventually joined the stream we crossed yesterday in the canyon. I set off for the valley floor first across the hillside and disturbed a small herd of blue sheep. I could not imagine how they found enough vegetation to survive. The traverse to the stream was much quicker than I thought and I quickly reached the foot of the pass where there was a hut. The area around the hut was bustling with marmots which were rightfully very nervous of humans who ate them. We had lunch here looking at the 500 metre climb up to the snowy ridge.
The climb was not as bad as it looked and within an hour I was approaching the crest which was covered in a snowfield which was melting into spikes of snow resembling a stalagmite. Luckily there was a way through to reach the pass cairn wrapped in prayer flags. It was a high pass and there were great views in all directions except the south where the 8000 peak of Dhaulagiri was covered in cloud. To the north was the stream I crossed an hour earlier and it drained a barren basin of red, ochre and brown rocky mountains. The very distant ones were topped with glaciers and they must have been feeding the stream. To the east was the Damodar Himal, also just barren hillsides topped with a dollop glacier. To the south of them was Thurong La pass between Manang and Kagbeni which we came over four days ago.
It was to the west the view was most pertinent as this was the way we were heading. I was delighted to see a gently sloping valley covered in dry brown pastures which would no doubt green up when the sparse monsoon rains watered them. The path down from the pass and across the wide open pastures looked easy and fast to follow as it was nearly flat. I could see yak slowly moving about on the open expanses. The other joined me on the pass after about half an hour and they looked tired. We all decided to have a lie down in the shelter of the large cairn and enjoy the heat of the sun. We slept for half an hour by which time the porters were full of life again. We had a long photo session with various cameras and then prepared to go.
I was well rested so blasted down the path towards the arid pastures. The plants here were few and far between and the small grass clumps had been grazed right down to the roots. It was mostly alpines and cushion plants which thrived up here at nearly 5500m in this arid climate similar to the Tibetan plateau. I photographed many of the plants for later identification. As I dropped down to about 5200m I reached the pastures. Yak grazed everywhere or were sitting chewing cud in the sun. There were many calves here sticking very close to their mothers in this hostile environment. The yak had to share the meagre grass with many marmot who lived underground in burrows in the pastures. It was a delight to saunter down through this easy landscape amongst the yak, marmot and alpine flowers across the open wide valley.
The valley slowly started to narrow as dry stream beds formed and I descended into them. Soon water started to seep between the stones and a small stream formed. I followed it down for a few kilometres until the stream widened out at a confluence. There were greener pastures here but no animals. At the upper end of this pasture was a black tent made from woven yak hair. It resembled a nomadic tent from any Central Asian country, an iconic symbol of nomadic pastoralists. At the bottom of pasture were another five tents, some modern large canvas ones amongst them.
The lower end of the pasture was at the confluence of the Malung and Thasan streams according to the map. Some 4 km below this was Nulungsumda Kharka where I intended to camp. Unknown to me though it was wrongly placed on the map and I was already there, sitting in the sun waiting for the others. When they arrived we all agreed to carry on down to it hoping it would take an hour. When we reached the spot where it should be there was no pasture and no campsite, it was just barren rocky valley with a few hardy shrubs. Fortunately we met a herder going up to the kharka and he told us there was camping another hour down the valley beside a side stream.
The porters were tired as it had been a long day for them and I could see the disappointment in their faces. There was no option but to carry on for another hour down the narrowing rocky valley with no hope of camping. In the end we walked well over an hour before we came across a campsite near a sidestream. It was not as far as the man described but it would do us. We found a sheltered spot behind a gravel embankment to protect us from the stiff, cold breeze and put the tent up. While we put the tent up Ramesh made us all a cup of sweet, milky coffee. It was delicious. The tent was well pitched and the breeze barely ruffled it however Ramesh struggled to get the kerosene stove to work efficiently to cook the evening’s dalbhat and had to use sleeping mats as a windbreak. Inside the tent it was warm and cosy and as one of the porters said it was our home. It had been a long day and we all looked forward to a lie in tomorrow which I had promised.
June 19. 7 km below Nalungsumda to Charka Bhot. 16km. 6 hours. 290m up. 740m down. It snowed briefly in the night and Santos woke us all up shouting “Baloo, Baloo” as he had a nightmare with a bear. But the wind was negligible and we all slept well and had a lie in until 0630, by which tie the sun was already on the tent melting the snow. After noodles for breakfast we set off across the large pasture. The place was heaving with marmots which shuffled across the dry grass and dived into their burrows as soon as they saw us. I also saw a hare sprint across the grass and up a gravel gully. We made good time across the flat landscape for 2-3 km until the valley sides steepened and we went into a bit of a canyon.
Progress was slow now as the path was covered in stones which had fallen from the canyon sides. After a km we suddenly got to an impasse. There was no way we could go along the bank due to a buttress and the stream washed up against the base of the buttress. There was no alternative but to wade the stream to he west side. The rushing water was just knee deep but it was very very cold. I kept my shoes on and crossed first. The other all took their shoes off and came over bare feet with their loads. My feet would have been far too sensitive for this. We wandered down the rocky river bed on the west side until we were forced to wade the stream again. Twice more in the space of a km we had to wade again until at last the canyon opened up a bit and we could see the route. We stopped here to warm our feet. I changed my socks and the others put on their footwear having gone barefoot for the last half km.
It was a short walk out of the narrow gorge to where the Wari Yalkung khola steam came down out of a side valley carved into the ochre hills to the east. We stopped here on some grass beside its alluvial fan and had an early lunch. Luckily it was the end of the gorge section and all we had to do now was climb up the valley flank to gain a shelf high above the main stream which continued in a deep slot. The shelf was a delight to walk on as it slowly descended for well over an hour across the pastures of the arid hillside. Across the valley the river had cut away the rock to display some great folds in the rock strata, which must have taking gigantic forces. I cruised down across the sunny hillside alternating from dry pasture to slower stony sections. I noticed how many different alpines were growing here, with four different yellow ones alone. At the bottom of this section the path veered west and continued along a spur between the Thasen and Charka Khola streams until it could go no further and dropped down the steep bank to a bridge over the clear waters of the Thasen Khola, which we had already waded four times today.
The path now went along a shelf high above the combined streams for 3 km until it reached a bridge to the north side. After the shelf petered out and the path dropped down to the grassy river bank I came across many piles on mani stones. They were curious in that they were on top of a pile of stones a metre wide, a metre high and sometimes 50 metres long. The mani stones were small rounded river boulders which had a Tibetan script prayer carved on them and then stacked on the stones. The quality of the carving was not that good but I have never seen so many mani stones. I wondered if it was the work of one pious man. After crossing the river to the north bank we went past more mani stones in the same style until about a km later we reached Charka Bhot.
Charka Bhot was a special place out of another world. There were perhaps 50 houses here at 4300m in a very remote valley on an extension of the Tibetan Plateau beside the clear stream which was a river by now. It seemed a few of the houses catered for camping groups. I chose one which had a camping area in the compound other houses put their sheep and goats at night. It also had a small two storey building which had a room on the first floor we could use as a kitchen and a small two bed room above that. We took it as some could sleep in the kitchen and some upstairs above it and we need not bother setting up the tent in the compound. It also had a shed which was the toilet. They were containers to get water from the clear river and it seemed all households did this. Once we settled in I went for a wander.
Charka Bhot was a marvel. Across the river were some three or four houses which were extremely old but now abandoned. However they still stood and were surrounded by a cluster of chortens. I wondered if it was an old monastery. The village was on the north side of the river where a side stream entered. This side stream cut the village in two. We were on the lower east side which was basically a long wide path with massive houses on each side. Each house had a large walled compound. The roofs of all the houses were covered in twigs and small branches which were collected from the river side. This fuel was seldom used and it was mostly yak dung which was burnt and the air was full of its sharp scent.
On the west side of the side stream was a higher knoll and there was a cluster of houses here. All seemed massive and looked like small citadels. There was a warren of alleyways between them and I entered them and explored the place. I met a few people up here and they were all perplexed what I was doing, which was just exploring and photographing the houses. The men were all fearsome with rugged complexions and long hair dressed in typical Dolpo cloths of sheep and yak hair. Sometimes they smiled, gold teeth flashing, and sometimes they frowned. The women just scurried past and seemed a bit uncomfortable with me being there. These houses also had compounds with many horses and mules in them. It was the most fascinating village I had been to yet and this high knoll was the kernel of it.
As I returned to our compound camp on the east side I noticed how extensive the fields were. They extended a good km up the side valley in neat terraces. They all seemed irrigated by a network of channels. At the moment all seemed to be planted in young barley which were barely seedlings. As I approached the bridge to the east side hundreds of sheep were streaming down the hillside into the village. There were five to seven people herding them and forcing them across the stream. Women were throwing the young goats into the stream if they were reluctant to wade. This herd of about 300 animals was then forced up the knoll to one of the houses and then they all went into a compound for the night. Then I saw another herd of 300 animals coming along the street in the lower east side and they too were forced across the stream and into a compound on the knoll. I took many photos but the light was poor. Back in the eastern half I encountered probably another five herds coming into the village for the night. One even went into the compound beside us and it was congested with about 300 animals. At last I could get some photos of people under the guise of taking photos of the herds of goats. There must have been about 3000-5000 beasts which were herded back to the village for the night from the surrounding hillsides. I assumed this was what Charka Bhot was founded on but there seemed there was also a history of trade. Indeed there must have been over 200 mules housed in other compounds around the village and I am sure many of these would try and trade with Tibet or other villages in Dolpo.
June 20. Charka Bot to Chap Chu. 14km 5.5 hours. 570m up. 540m down. It drizzled all night, without any thunder or wind. It was the type of rain which soaked into the soil and would green up the brown pastures quickly. We suspected it was the arrival of the monsoon and on the other side of the Himalayas it would be pouring in Pokhara and Kathmandu. We had a reasonably short day so we waited for the rain to ease and then stop and set off at 0900. It was clearing quickly and there were patches of blue sky appearing.
Bharat and myself went into the upper village again clustered around the knoll. It was a fascinating today as it was yesterday but was deserted. Everybody was out either in the irrigated terraced fields or were minding their herds of sheep and goats which seemed the mainstay of the village. After that we climbed past numerous chortons, mani walls and a couple of old kami gates in poor repair to leave the village. The path headed west along the hillside of a short hour until it split. This junction had cost me a lot of thought. Either I went north to for five or six days to Saldang and the Bijer through reasonably flat country, or I headed west over rough country to Phoksumdo Lake and Shey Gompa for 9 days to Bijer. The latter route was certainly longer and more challenging but it included the jewel of Dolpo which was Phoksumdo Lake. I felt the former route to Saldang was shirking a bit so at the junction took the left fork down the hill.
We passed a few herd of goats and sheep being looked after by younger girls. They all had baskets and a mattock type instrument for digging up the scrub so they could return home with a load of wood as well as their livestock. People in these communities on the edge of the modern world have responsibilities thrust upon them at an early age. The patches of blue sky now outnumbered the clouds and the ground was drying quickly as we descended to a large walled kharka where the muddy Chhuichen khola joined the main Charka khola. It was here the open valley narrowed veered south and headed into a gorge which we had to follow for about 6 km.
We hugged the west side walking on the gravel and boulders until the river squeezed up against a buttress and we had the choice of climbing high go over the buttress or wade across to the east side. We knew we had to cross the river a few times so all the others put on there wading shoes for the trip down the gorge and we plunged into the torrent which was bigger and faster than yesterday but considerably warmer. We followed the easy east bank down for a couple of km before a buttress on the east side forced us back to the west side again. The mule trains seemed to take this way when the river was low. Once back on the west side we met the tortuous path which took the high route when the river was in flood, which I am sure the mule trains could not manage.
We followed the west side down alternating between sand, gravel, boulder and occasional landslide for another couple of km passing a lovely campsite where we had a short snooze in the sun. After this the river met another buttress and we were forced back to the east side after another wade. I though the others were following me but they were taking the other route over what looked like an impossible buttress, which the mule trains certainly would not manage. It was the flood route and looked formidable. I wondered what on earth they were doing. I rounded the buttress easily and saw the descent from the flood route the other were taking was equally impossible and very steep. It was a good 100m climb which was quite needless. I was way down the east bank and ready to cross to the west again when I looked back and saw the tiny figures coming down the near cliff face on a very steep path.
Back on the west side I followed the widening bank down until the valley floor opened up quickly and was nearly half a km wide with the braided river weaving across gravel banks. On each side the ochre mountains rose up steeply from the pastures which lined the banks. High upon the mountains were vanished glaciers and extensive moraine fields. The path went over an easy grassy ridge which abutted the river and then down to a large pasture with more mani walls, some of which the river was eroding and undercutting. I found a nice sunny spot and waited for the others who arrived much sooner than I thought.
From this pasture we had to leave the main valley and climb up a side valley to the Chan La pass some 1200m above us at 5380m. On the map there was a campsite marked at Chap Chu, beside a small lake some 200m above us. It made sense to climb up to it today and camp beside the lake. We were all tired and the climb was taxing. I think the last two days were longer than expected. Eventually we reached the small lake by some beautiful pastures. There were already some seven or eight herders tents here but only two were occupied and the others where sealed up with blankets and tarpaulins. A large dog slept outside the occupied tents but the owner was away with his sheep and goats on the hillside and would return in the early evening.
We found a nice sheltered place to camp where a spring came to the surface and put the tent up on the flat grass. It seemed to be in a marmot colony as there were burrows everywhere and a few of the grazing ones shot into their burrows when we approached. They would be confined to their burrows until darkness or until we left early tomorrow. Once the tent was up we had a nice lay around in the sun while Ramesh made us tea. He is the star of the show. I went into the tent and wrote the blog finishing while the sun was up, which was rare. As I finished a herd of goat and sheep piled over the ridge and down to us followed by the wild looking herder.
June 21. Chap Chu to Dho Tarap. 24 km. 8 hours. 1150m up. 1430m down. The alarm went at 0445 and we all got up quickly, especially Santos who went to fire up the kerosene stove. It was already light on this longest day of the year and it was relatively warm for 4300m so all our tasks were so much easier than a few months ago when it was well below zero at these altitudes. As we had breakfast the shepherd came over with his dog for a chat. He had a wife and three children in a monastic school but he himself was mostly nomadic with his 200 animals. It was touching to see how much his dog loved him as leader of the pack and he was affectionate to his dog even though his fur was matted.
We left at 0600 and headed up the valley dropping down from the lake to a confluence of three streams. I read the map wrongly and started heading up the wrong ridge while the others rested. After 10 minutes I heard a shout. Some locals had caught up with the others and told them I was wrong. I traversed across to the stream which all of them were now heading up. The locals were three women from Charka Bhot who were heading to Dunai. We all headed up the stream bed together with the others chatting to the women until their pace proved too much. With my lighter load I could just keep up as they powered up the stream bed past grazing yak, which I gave a wide berth to if they were on the path. After a good hour the women detoured up the hillside a bit to a grassy area and started scouring it. I twigged they were looking for yarsagumba hoping to earn something fro their trip. I carried on and then climbed up the steeper side wall to gain the grassy plateau. As I left I came across some remarkable flowers which I had not seen before. I photographed them for later identification.
Once up on the plateau I sauntered across it in the general direction of the pass. Up to this near level dry grassy area I came across loads of alpines and could leisurely photograph them as the others caught up. When I got to a sheltered sunny spot beside a clear stream I decided to have my packed lunch Ramesh had made up. The others and the women arrived after 15 minutes and joined me. The women had found a few yarsagumba and even Dawa, who was an old hand, found one and gave it to them. His was worth about US$8. After I had finished eating Dawa gave me some instructions on looking for them and I went off to a suitable patch, got down on my hands and knees, and started peering at the grass. After 20 minutes I found nothing and gave up when the others arrived.
We now had a short hours climb to the pass. Again I was busy taking photos of all the alpines until bare light brown friable rock covered everything. Behind us was a great view down the valley but the trudge up to the pass was taxing even though it was just 5380m. There was none of the vigour I had on the previous three 5000m plus passes. At the last few steps a tremendous view to the west bust upon me quite suddenly. Their was a series of yellow, ochre, and brown ridges and valleys stretching off into the middle distance, and in one valley I could make out the irrigated fields of Dho Tarap and the villages above it. Beyond that were barren mountains with snowy caps and ridgelines, and the next two passes we had to cross lay therein. In the far distance was the Kanjiroba Himal with their near 7000m peaks. It was a glorious vista.
All the other arrived soon afterwards but due to the cold wind and my shorts and shirt sleeves I headed off down the west side. It was a very fast descent on soft loose small fragments of rock and I could virtually run down it losing 400m in just 10 minutes to reach the bottom where a stream was forming. I followed the stream bed for five minutes then climbed over a spur and traversed across the hillside above the stream I had just followed to reach a saddle. Here a local man was on his hands and knees searching in the grass. He said he had no luck. I waited at the saddle for the others who were almost right behind me. We all sat down and then lay down. From the saddle the rest of the day was pretty much laid out before us to the NW at it involved a steeper descent down grass and gravel slopes to the infant Tarpi Khola stream at the bottom. Thereafter we just had to follow the stream for a good few hours to reach Dho Tarap. With the afternoons walk apparent we felt we could afford a snooze while the Charka Bhot women sat and chatted.
After half an hour sleeping on the sunny saddle we reluctantly got up and started down the slope. It was short, but the walk down the valley was much longer than expected. The Tarpi khola stream was a trickle so we could follow it at while crossing and recrossing when the path did. It took a good two hours to follow its curves to emerge beneath craggy rocks at the pastures of Maran. En route were more alpines including another purple flower which I could not even guess what genus it might be in. At Maran there was a constructed path and an irrigation channel. Santos had caught me up and we marched down the path chatting until a small hamlet surrounded by beautiful green irrigated fields appeared. The hamlet was called Dhoro.
What really grabbed my attention was the settlement across the stream. It was called Sipchhog. It had about 15 large stone citadel type houses whose ramparts were covered in firewood and brushwood. In the middle was what I thought was a gompa and later found out was one of the most significant Bonpo Gompas in the area. To the west of the village were numerous chortens, probably about 20 and some were very hefty. This medieval village was surrounded by bright green fields with young irrigated barley against the backdrop of barren ochre hills under sapphire blue skies. It was the essence of Dolpo and could have graced the cover of any on the coffee table books on the area. I took photos and then carried on down to Dho Tarap some half hour later. The Bonpo religion is really a mix, a syncretisation, of the ancient shaman traditions of the area with Buddhism and many of the religious symbols and festivals feature animistic masks.
Arriving in Dho Tarap was a joy and I wandered through the fields and lanes looking for the only lodging in the village 12 years ago. All the houses were the traditional fortress type built of small stones and held together with mud. The walls were tapered for stability and covered with brush wood and logs. I wondered if the display of firewood in this way was also a sign of status because there was a lot of wealth in the firewood in this treeless area. I passed a simple hotel, but it was a new sterile building out of keeping with the area, so I ignored it on principle as I continued to search for the one I had stayed in before, and pretty soon I found it. It was exactly the same; a small cramped kitchen and dark cluttered storeroom downstairs and a large room upstairs full of Tibetan carpets, mattresses and blankets and the walls full of photos which the semi-professional owner had taken and had them framed, at great expense. The owner was not here but his English speaking daughter and a bright friend of hers who was also a teacher at the French sponsored school could accommodate and cater for us. I thought the four Nepalis would get on well with the teachers so agreed to stay. Pretty soon Santos arrived and the others half an hour later. It was soon obvious that the girls had very little idea about cooking so Ramesh gently commandeered the kitchen.
I wanted to visit the old monastery here so went up the hillside to it. It was closed but the entrance and stair to the roof was open so I explored. Just as I left a lady appeared and asked if I wanted to see inside. She unlocked it and we went in. It seemed many of the artefacts had been removed but the alter, drums, scrolls and things were still there. It looked like it needed to be restored and there was a fund to do this. I also had a look inside the large chorten which had another chorten inside it like a Russian doll. I bought a book from the lady written by the lama of this monastery and gave here some money for her troubles as she was old and partly disabled.
When I returned to the homestay I found the Santos, Dawa, Ramesh and Bharat getting on fantastically with the two hostesses and their male teacher friend. One of the hostesses said in perfect English it was like all seven were siblings. The four who were travelling with me would get on with anyone and were gentle yet witty and charming, so I was not surprised. When I went up to write I could hear the all singing and clapping to Nepali folk songs. I went down for the daily dalbhat at 7 to find that Ramesh had actually cooked a meal for all eight, us and the hosts. He was the most competent cook in the house by far so it made sense, but it also showed how easy they were to ingratiate themselves.
June 22. Dho Tarap to Numala Phedi. 9 km. 3 hours. 430m up. 70m down. I had a great nights sleep in the large room which doubled as a defunct photo gallery with dated photos, some of which were excellent. The owner now was occupied with politics and was the Congress Party representative for Dolpo, a predominantly communist area so he was unlikely to get elected. The boys had had had a great night and came to bed around 2300 after a fair few drinks with the hosts. Indeed Santos never made it up the steep log ladder to the top floor and stayed in the kitchen. Ramesh, moderate as always, was up at 0700 and made us all tea which we sipped in our sleeping bags enjoying our lie in. Breakfast was eventually around 0800 and we set off around 1000. I felt a bit bitter at the bill because I was charged for the use of a kitchen, and the menu price for noodles rather than the shop price where we purchased them. They said transport costs despite quoting me a quarter of the cost last night when I asked. I fired a shot across everyone’s bows saying I would be angry if their drinks bill was hidden in my food and lodging bill. As it was US$10 I was not going to spoil the mood. The girls even gave us good travel scarves and walked with us up to the Crystal Mountain School, where they sometimes volunteered. It was a French supported private school for the people of the Tarap valley and it was nearing its silver jubilee. I found the girls of Tarap far more chatty and confident than say those of Charka Bhot.
We went through the huge kami chorten of Dho Tarap and reached the school, which was in mothballs for the month as most of the families were up in the mountains with their children looking for yarsagumba. Here we said good bye to the girls and carried on up the valley. On each side of the path women and girls were busy in the fields digging the soil with a type of mattock. It looked hard worked as the digging was done furiously to turn the field as any gentle action would be ineffective. The fields were quite large and I was surprised no Dhzo or even yak had been trained up as most other places with far smaller fields. Where the fields had been planted potato shoots and oat seedlings were just breaking the soil.
All the women of Dho Tarap had the same distinctive hairstyle with a straight fringe and the rest of their long hair in a decorative clasp behind their neck. With their leggings, dresses and Sherpa style apron and belt they looked confident and striking. The older men also had long hair in two braids which they wrapped around their heads with red cotton. They wore smocks with a decorative belt and a knife tucked into the belt. The younger men unfortunately were modelling themselves on Bruce Lee and were abandoning their cultural dress for jeans and leather jackets.
We walked through hamlet after hamlet of large imposing houses stone houses with small windows and even castellated corners. The firewood was stored on the parapets and sparrows found nests within the tangle which was seldom used as yak dung was the commonly used fuel. The open valley was irrigated for up to 30 metres above the river from take off channels upstream and this allowed virtually the whole of the valley floor to be green and lush. Although we did pass a large ceremony with prayer drums and a lama. When we asked we were told all the families of the area had contributed a little money to sponsor a puja to prayer for rain as the seedlings needed it. Occasionally among the hamlets was a monastery, usually painted in a faded red and in desperate need of repair, despite being centuries old. There seemed to be a restoration project for each one which was floundering due to lack of funds. The people of the Tarap valley seemed devout though. I am sure when Tarap gets the inevitable road it will flourish as the people were hard working and its geography will mean it will become the central point of Upper Dolpo.
As we walked up the path connecting the hamlets scores of non-Dolpopa (the inhabitants of Dolpo) people streaming towards us. They were from the hill region, the pahar, of Nepal. They were grubby and had a large sack with their possessions carried on their back with a headstrap. These were the yarsagumba hunters starting their long journey home after a month or even six weeks in Dolpo on their hand and knees searching for the fungus infected caterpillars. They all looked weary and were no doubt looking forward to the familiarity of their villages and houses some four to six days march away from here. One hopes their pockets were full, but the lure of the fortunes to be found in yarsagumba hunting are fading with each year.
Once we left the last hamlet of Taksi I thought we would soon be at Numala Phedi, but I could not see the path up the hill I came down 12 years ago. We passed where I though it should have been but nothing the path continued along the valley floor. Santos had been here before too and he persuaded us it was much further up the valley. We passed a kharka which looked interesting and had a nyak with her afterbirth hanging out and a new born yak calf. Above the kharka was a large yarsagumba hunter’s camp beside the only stream. I drink all water in Nepal from high streams and village taps untreated but I would be reluctant to drink this water so was easily persuaded by Santos. However soon it was obvious to me that we had gone too far, and I insisted Bharat and I go and talk to the owners of the next Kharka we came to. Right enough we had come too far but instead of returning we could easily go up the north side of the ridge rather than the south side to gain the apex. The kharka seemed calm and pastoral, there was afresh spring nearby, there was a flat campspot, the skies were darkening as obviously the villagers’ puja this morning was working, and the occupants of the three tents were all from Dho Tarap and seemed familiar now so we decided to camp here.
As we put the tent up the five or six children from the kharka tents were enthralled and delighted. They ran round pushing each other over and had to be dealt a few gentle blows to stop them hitting their heads off the rock solid, sharp tent pegs or falling on the kerosene stove, their mother and grandmothers shouting approval at us. Eventually they settled down and hung around for a good few hours. More women arrived, carrying baskets of yak dung and a shepherd with 300 animals. Bharat and Dawa went to talk to them and borrow a mattock to dig a trench upslope of the tent in case of rain. They said the three tent owners all had the same grand father and they had 600 animals all together. They came up here each summer as they had done for generations. When they returned the mattock they came back to the tent with a litre of warm chauri milk. Bharat said it was best mixed with the dalbhat rice Ramesh had just finished and it was, just like rice pudding. After the meal the rain finally arrived and we all piled into the cosy tent for an early night. Tomorrow would be an early start as we had our seventeenth 5000m pass to cross called Numa La.
June 23. Numala Phedi to Danigar. 15 km. 5.5 hours. 1010m up. 970m down. Either the lama had significant divine powers or he had looked at the weather forecast and decided to hold the rain puja, because it rained all night. When the alarm went off at 0445 I snoozed it three times and we eventually got up at 0515 when there seemed a lull. Indeed the mist was clearing and there was even some promise of blue sky. At the kharka they were collecting the harder yak dung and putting it under a tarpaulin while a few of the women milked the chauri.
We set of around 0700 up the hillside to the SW to gain the ridge we should have gone up from the other side. We passed a few more kharka, the smoke from the portable yak dung stoves hanging in the air over the clusters of tents. Here too the women were walking calmly among the chauri milking them. It took half an hour to reach the ridge climbing up across pasture gnawed to the roots by livestock. At the top of the ridge we intercepted the path we should have been on from just above Taksi. How we missed it I don’t know it was a 10 metre wide eroded strip up the crest made by 1000’s of yak hooves. It was here I took probably my best ever photo of a caravan of yaks, laden with wood, descending these same eroded sandy slopes emerging from the dust storm they were creating. It was in November 2007 and it was a crystal clear day as most in November are.
We went up the ridge with the mist coming and going making some atmospheric landscapes and we followed the wide path, almost a track, up the ridge, round to the north to traverse into the valley coming up from the north side of the ridge, and then up another gravel ridge to the pass. It was almost too easy. At the top a group a large wild looking male yak were making their way across the small snowfield crossing from one set of pastures to another. They looked very dramatic on the skyline. Unfortunately the mist was returning now with a bit of drizzle and the spectacular views were totally obscured. On a clear day one could see both Dhaulagiri and Annapurna from here. We did not pause but headed down the west side.
It was a long but easy descent for about 90 minutes. The trickle we were following slowly grew to a tumbling brook then a stream and finally a torrent. Something in the water stained the water course red. It was quite a sterile valley with little vegetation and hardly any alpines among the rocks. At one point we had to leave the valley and cross the torrent at a place where it braided into a few channels. The torrent carried on down the valley and eventually flowed into Phoksumdo Lake at its north east arm. Where we left the valley and torrent a path headed off to Numala Central Pass and then on to Shey Gompa and Saldang a few days away.
From the valley we climbed up over a misty spur covered in the purple flowers I saw a few days ago between 4500 and 5000 metres only. Rounding the spur we entered a new valley which was lush and green, but steep. Far below was the white tumbling stream. As we followed the path round the spur more and more of the valley ahead opened up but it was misty here too and most of the landscape above the snowfields was obscured. The lush pastures were full of grazing yak, most decorated with some red thread or even a prayer flag woven into its hairy shoulder hump. The path did not really descent to the stream as it came up to meet it at a place called Danigar where I had camped before on a level pasture. It was here one began the ascent up the next pass called Baga La and I could see the steep pass disappearing into the mist.
Danigar however had become a popular place for the yarsagumba hunters and there were some 10 tents here crammed with people from the hill region. In addition there were a couple of tent bhattis and there was evidence there were three or four which had recently departed. Their pit toilets were now full of broken liquor bottles. The broken glass was scattered beyond them. Plastic bottles and wrappers littered the area round the departed tents. It was a great disappointment and a disgrace that the authorities did not police, after all they took about US$300 from each yarsagumba hunter for a months picking permit. Often Nepalis do not see litter the way Europe does as until quite recently all that was discarded naturally degraded.
We found a place away from the yarsagumba hunters’ tents and the real culprit the bhatti who brought the bottles here and sold them to the hunters. As soon as the tent was up and Ramesh had made us a tea the mist turned to drizzle then the drizzle turned to rain. We all retreated into the tent and then into our sleeping bags. We had a two or three hour siesta as the rain pelted the tent. It was a cosy luxury we could spend the afternoon in a warm slumber like a hibernating animal in its winter den. The rain continued all afternoon and into the evening. I was disappointed in the weather which must have been a particularly wet monsoon rain spell which had even penetrated the Dhaulagiri range which usually created a rain shadow in Dolpo. I was particularly disappointed for Ramesh, Bharat and Dawa who had not been here before. I had 12 years ago on a magical three day trek from Phoksumdo to Dho Tarap with 50 laden yak smuggling wood on a crisp clear November. We travelled with the yak caravan and slept in their camps. The photos I took during those three days adorn my wall back home and I will cherish those three days forever and they were the highlight of the 30 day trip I did from Jumla to Beni.
June 24. Danigar to Phoksumdo. 23km. 8 hours. 1070m up. 1930m down. It rained most of the night. Not a heavy downpour but a constant drizzle. The alarm went at 0500 but I ignored it as it was miserable and misty outside. At 0600 however Ramesh and Santos got up anyway to make us tea and start breakfast. We all followed suit and by this time not only had the rain stopped but there were the smallest patches of blue sky far to the north. By the time we wrapped up the soggy tent and set off the blue patches were definitely getting bigger
We crossed the river and then started a long series of zigzags up a ridge. About half way up Dawa stopped for a rest and noticed a yarsagumba at his feet. We were all summoned to witness him dig it up. I was surprised just how plain looking the fungal growth was from the unfortunate caterpillars head. The caterpillar itself was just below the surface where it burrowed down to spend the winter under the snowpack and before it got infected. We were all fascinated and people said it was worth 1500 rupees (12 US$). Dawa then gave it to me and said I should take it home as a souvenir.
At the top of the zig zags the wide path headed off to the west to the clearly visible saddle which was Baga La Pass. By now at least half the sky was blue and even more far to the north. At last the lads were able to appreciate this part of Dolpo where they had not been. I felt lethargic on the final slopes up to the pass as we curved up the bowl to the prayer flags. There was a great view both directions here but there was a bit of mist. The mountains to the north, between us and Shey Gompa/Saldang were the clearest with the sun shining on them. We could also see the other Numala passes; namely Central and North. We came over the southernmost one.
The descent was quite easy we went down some snow fields and then steep rock for a good half hour to a grassy meadow in the valley which was reasonably flat and where I once camped before. The ground was damp and there were springs everywhere feeding the infant stream. After the high camp the side rivulets swelled the main infant stream so it became a tumbling torrent. The valley we were following dropped steeply down to the pastoral main valley with the Maduwa Khola stream meandering through its pastures the torrent cascaded over a series of waterfalls while the path beside dropped steeply down zig-zags. Path and torrent soon spilled onto the pastoral valley floor which was now sunny. Here there were 27 tents of yarsagumba hunters, housing probably at least 100 of them, all from the hill region. We passed the tents and walked through the pasture to a waterfall tumbling down the steep rock face to the north.
The pastures were full of marmots and as I approached they scurried off to their burrows. Occasionally there was a marmot sentry who sounded a shrill whistle. Wild flowers, especially alpines were everywhere and so were the uppermost of the juniper bushes. At the stream below the waterfall we stopped for a picnic and Ramesh fired up the primus stove so we could have a cup of tea. The sun beat down on us and expunged any lingering cold from the damp night and the cold wind of the pass. I left first and continued down the beautiful valley.
I soon got to the yak kharka where there were only a few yak as most were probably higher now. The long meadow on nearly 2 km was full of flowers and shrubs in flower. There were the small iris, millions of the purple succulents, the other prostrate purple flower, lots of bushes with yellow flowers and this was all surrounded by juniper bushes and small trees which encircled the pasture. The smell of juniper permeated the still warm air. At the lower end of the pasture were five or six old shelters where the herders once stayed. Only a few still looked in use. The lower floor of the hut would house the vulnerable at night like the yak calves while above the herder would stay under a wooden shingle plank room.
After the yak kharka pasture the valley changed. On the south side forests of fir started to appear. I will wager these were the taller and larger Western Himalayan Silver Fir, Abies pindrow, as opposed to the Abies spectabillis we had seen since Kanchenjunga. The Abies Pindrow were slightly taller and more erect but it was difficult to tell without seeing the needles. On the north side of the valley the vegetation became much thornier and the land more arid. A few alpines persisted but ever the hard junipers were few here. As I went further west the path climbed over a spur and it was built up on a series ledges. Some were very exposed and a fall off the path would have been fatal. The yaks had to be especially well loaded so their side loads did not bump them over the edge. Far below on the south side was the hamlet of Muduwa with its cluster of 10 mud and stone, flat-roofed houses all surrounded by green fields of crops.
After the section built up on ledges the route veered north, and left the arid hillside and entered a Bhutan Pine forest. I could here the roar of the Suligad waterfall, one of the largest in Nepal as it crashed over two drops into the large Suligad Khola river. Santos was sitting here enjoying the view. We walked together through the pines passing some old chortens with occasional glimpses of the turquoise blue Phoksumdo Lake and the old village of Ringmo. I was excited to be back here. I came here first in 1992 when I tried to go over Baga La and Numa La passes with a timid and over cautious guide because the permits stated I must have a guide. We failed because the weather was poor in early April. There were no hotels then so we stayed with Sitar and Lesung on the roof of their imposing castille like house in a roof shed full of straw. Lesung fed me tsampa and salty Tibetan tea. I stayed again in 2007 when there were a few small bhattis style hotels and a local shop. As I emerged from the pines I could see Ringmo had changed and there was even a three storey hotel with a blue corrugated roof, the only one in the village. It was an eyesore.
I crossed the bridge over the Suligad and went to Sitar’s house but it was locked and looked a bit unkempt. I met an old man spinning yak hair thread and he said Sitar was away picking yarsagumba and that his wife had died. It was sad news for me as I was looking forward to meet them. He was also a senior in the village and quite devout and had a key for the unique Bonpo Gompa here. If he was picking yarsagumba it would be unlikely I would meet him unless by chance. It was a shame as I cherished the 10 days I stayed on his roof after I stumbled into Ringmo wide-eyed and bushy-tailed.
I shunned the tin roofed hotel and even told the owner it was ugly when he started pestering me and went for an imposing old flat roofed house which had been turned into a lodge. It had character on the outside and comfortable room inside. One of the rooms had a solar charge point and I took it as it would probably be the last power until we reach Simikot in 20 odd days. It had a great view over the village with its large windowless houses and many chorten. Tomorrow I would visit the monastery hidden in the pines beside the lake.
Lower Dolpo had been quite magical. It was the third time I had been here, the first time in 1992 when I stayed 10 days in a house in Ringmo, and again in 2007. I had always wanted to walk from Jomson to Chharka Bhot and then on to Tarap, and at last I had the opportunity to do so, and I found Chharka Bhot and then Dho Tarap absolutely fascinating. The trekking was harder than I anticipated and far from the rolling hills and open valleys which I imagined. Instead it was large mountains riven by gorges and separated by deep canyons. What fascinated me most about Lower Dolpo was the centuries old lifestyle and subsistence of the mixed farming and herding. The people who lived here did so in much the same way their ancestors dis perhaps 20 generations ago, perhaps sometimes in the same houses.
Section 11. Lower Dolpo. 9 Days. 161 km. 55.5 hours. 8400m up. 7820m down.