The Impossibly Blue Waters Of Phoksundo Tal
The Impossibly Blue Waters Of Phoksundo Tal

Trekking in Nepal: Dolpo – A Land Behind The Clouds

Guest blogger Mick postponed his trip to go trekking in Nepal after the terrible earthquakes of last year. However, Nepal is now back open for business.

After the earthquake struck the FCO Travel Advisory essentially made travel insurance difficult for several months. I finally had my chance to go trekking in Nepal as planned and what a trip it was. The dust is now well settled, Nepal is definitely open for business and hungry for trekkers to visit.  

Trekking in Nepal: Now open for business and hungry for visitors 

The Worlds Largest Stupa At Boudhanath Is Still Under Scaffolding Whilst Being RepairedThe All Seeing Eyes Of Buddha Overlook Swayambhunath TempleThe Nyatopola Five Tiered Pagoda Temple In Bhaktapur Is Still Standing After 300 YearsThe Undamaged Stone Image Of The Kala Bhairab In Kathmandu

Yorkshiremen go trekking in Nepal

I recently organised a trek for a group of friends from the Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club, a BMC-affiliated mountaineering club, to traverse Inner Dolpo to Mustang, crossing a remote region of western Nepal close to the Chinese border. Dolpo is behind the clouds, protected from monsoon rains by the Dhaulagiri and Churen Himal, giving it a semi-arid climate and a stark, ascetic beauty.

The Kathmandu valley certainly suffered some damage but nowhere near as much as I anticipated from media reports, even in the older parts of Bhaktapur and Kathmandu.  A few temples in the Durbar Squares have been reduced to stumps, some are supported by wooden props, but many others were undamaged. Life goes on and the various deities are venerated by the locals on a daily basis as they have been for centuries.

Trekking in Nepal will bring much needed cash to the area

Much is thus unchanged in Kathmandu: the monkeys at the Swayambhunath temple still amuse the tourists, the Buddhists still circumnavigate the stupa at Boudhanath, the Hindu cremations continue on the ghats at Pashupatinath and tourists still throng the Thamel bazaar.  However, there is still a large tented settlement in the city despite the influx of aid money, but there is also a buzz of activity in the valley as repairs to important temples and other buildings get underway.

Why Dolpo?

Apart from the stunning scenery and mystical gompas, it is remote, little trekked and seemingly largely unchanged. Culturally still tied to Tibet, its hardy people retain a traditional way of life, reliant on agriculture, animal husbandry and trading. The Dolpo-pa are some of the few remaining practitioners of shamanism and Bon religion, the earlier form of Tibetan Buddhism. In the Cicerone guidebook “Trekking in the Himalaya”, Stephen Goodwin says “Dolpo is a succession of revelations for inquiring trekkers, but its stony ways and cold passes test the muscles as well as expand the mind.”  A fair description I think.

We trekked some 230km from the STOL air-strip at Juphal to Kagbeni in the Kali Ghandaki valley with an experienced trekking crew, capably organised by Rimo Expeditions and led by Uden Sherpa with a string of a dozen ponies to carry all our food and the camping kit for 19 days on the trail.  The first few days followed the sparkling river that threads its way through pine forest draining Phoksundo Tal, an impossibly blue lake and Nepal’s second deepest at 145m.

Trekking in nepal - dolpoTrekking in nepal - dolpoTrekking in nepal - dolpo
Wooden statues or totems protect houses in Lower Dolpo against evil spirits

Beyond the lake, a precipitous trail leads onto the upper river valleys and the high Donung La (5310m) pass guarding the approach to Upper Dolpo, Shey Gompa and Crystal Mountain. Shey means crystal which refers to the calcite veins that striate the upper tiers of the mountain. Such crystal is auspicious and many cairns have a collection of these white rocks on them.

A rest day at Shey was followed by a day and a half’s walking over our next high pass, the Shey La (5100m) to Namdung village, then down to Saldang, the largest village in Upper Dolpo surrounded by a mosaic of ripening barley and buckwheat fields awaiting harvest.

Fields Of Barley And Buckwheat At Khoma GaonHeading Down From The Donung La Towards Shey GompaSchool Kids Visiting Our Camp In NumgungA Laden Yak Caravan Crossing The Mo La PassA Laden Yak Caravan Crossing The Mo La Pass 2

Several of the schools we passed are supported by western educational charities. Apart from the regular government curriculum, schools also teach their mother tongue (Tibetan), basic traditional skills and arts together with other aspects of Tibetan culture. Due to the extreme weather conditions, the schools can only function for six months each year, from May through October.

From Saldang our route took us past Khoma Gaon and along the unspoilt Panjyang valley heading for the villages of Shimen, Phalwa and Tinje before a long section of wild terrain took us over another high pass, the Mo La (5027m), past the ancient chortens at Phalwa to the medieval village of Chharka Bhot.  

Ancient Chortens And Mani Walls At PhalwaMani Stones And Chortens Outside Saldang Village

Some of Nepal is like a movie set

Chharka was like no other settlement: high walls and narrow twisting streets, it was more like a fortress. No surprise then that it was selected for the location of the Dolpo village in Eric Valli’s 1999 movie Himalaya, which you should take a look at.

Unlike many other villages in the Dolpo region, Chharka Bhot has limited farmland and the villagers live more of a nomadic life. They spend most of their time with their yaks and goats, moving from place to place seasonally. After cultivating their farmland during May to June, they shift to their summer pasture beyond the Mo La pass for two and half months. This keeps many of the children away from their school which presents an educational challenge.

Chharka Bhot has a long tradition of Bon religion dating back to the 12th century and the present-day gompa is the third monastery situated in the village, constructed in 1988 using timbers from the previous building. The monks in residence gave us access to the main prayer hall which was lit by an array of oil lamps lighting up the deities wreathed in orange silks.

Dancing Masks At Thongdrol Bon Monastery Chharka BhotDancing Masks At Thongdrol Bon Monastery Chharka Bhot 2Thongdrol Bon Monastery Chharka BhotThe Fortified Village Of Chharka Bhot

Beyond Chharka, we trekked along a beautiful wild valley drained by the Thasan Khola with warm autumnal colours glowing above the crystal stream. The river was followed for another day to a higher camp at 4900m at a site used by local herders which set us up for the next day's crossing of the Jungben La, our highest pass at 5557m.

We had a frost overnight and some fresh hail, but the chilly weather which shrouded the mountains in mist gave very photogenic conditions as the sun slowly burned it off, bringing some snow-capped 6000m peaks into view, before the mist closed in at the pass itself as we crossed into Mustang. 

Two more camps brought us to our last pass and a view down into the broad flood plain of the Kali Gandaki, where the town of Kagbeni awaited.

Namaste Dolpo Pa Children At Shey GompaCantilevered Wooden Bridge Over The Phoksundo KholaMani Stone

Dolpo is unique – the landscape is other worldly

Kev Reynolds visited Dolpo in 1995 and it clearly made a huge impact on him despite his extensive travels across the Himalaya. In “A Walk in the Clouds”, his thoughtful book of recollections, he said “Dolpo is unique – the landscape is other worldly, Dolpo-pa culture is very different from that of other Himalayan races and I remain fascinated by what I experienced there.” I believe that he would find that little has changed in Dolpo since then.

Our journey across the roof of Nepal had been an unforgettably varied experience too, contrasting the hustle and bustle in the Kathmandu valley with the peaceful solitude of this beautiful landscape, the ancient Tibetan culture and traditional way of life still little penetrated by modern technology.  But the hardy Dolpo-pa people maintain Nepal’s renowned friendliness to visitors, all overlain with a placid layer of religious devotion. I can’t wait to return.

Last Camp At Sangda LekOn The Approach To The Jungben La Overlooked By Tashikang And Dhampus PeaksThe Flood Plain Of The Kali Gandaki River Some 1600M Below The CloudThe Misty Jungben La 5557M Our HighpointCamp In The Upper Panjyang Valley

Want to go trekking in Nepal? Try these guidebooks:

Or for some armchair adventuring try:

Map of  Nepal
Mick Borroff

Mick Borroff

Mick is an Alpine Club member and current President of the Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club, a 125-year old mountaineering, caving and exploration club who don’t all ramble and aren’t all from Yorkshire! He lives in Nidderdale, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.

View Articles by Mick Borroff

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