While the whole world was hunkering down because of the Covid19 restrictions, I wanted to get myself out of Kathmandu to some place in Nepal where I had never been before. A trip to Dolpa has been a dream of mine for a long time. I wanted to go there to learn and understand thousands of years of traditions. Their ancient culture is at a high risk of extinction. I made up my mind to go immediately. I was accompanied by a few friends but I will continue to share my personal journal.
Dolpo is a secluded land of mystical wilderness. It was unknown and untouched by the outside until 1989 when the government of Nepal lifted this region’s travel restrictions. The Dolpo region is located in the largest province of Nepal far to the north of Kathmandu. It stretches its geographical wings to the Tibetan Plateau and is surrounded by the sprawling smaller districts of Karnali province. Almost 90% of the land is above 3,500m/11, 485 ft. and it’s home to some of the most highly elevated human settlements on earth.
Dolpo is an ancient treasure trove, protected from the intrusion of modern civilization. Matchless scenery, high mountain passes, ancient monasteries, and its exotic culture blend together to make this place one the most interesting hallmarks of Nepal. Dolpo captured the world’s attention with Eric Valli’s Oscar-nominated movie Caravan (1999) and with the thought-provoking spiritual classic book by Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, which won two US National Book Awards.
It is a living museum of ancient culture, where traditional monks chant and local shamans dance to help you reconnect with nature. It reveals its wonders to those who seek them out and rewards the curious by creating a feeling of pure wonderment.
Day 01: Kathmandu to Nepalgunj
The trip began by flying from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj in the late afternoon. Nepalgunj is one of the most convenient ways to access Nepal’s largest National Park, the Bardia National Park, where visitors can enjoy watching many wild animals.
Day 02: Fly from Nepalgunj to Juphal – Trek to Kagani
My next leg of the trip started from the bustling commercial hub of Nepalgunj. All you have to do is to sit tight and hold your breath for a 35 minutes spectacular mountain flight over the foothills of the Himalayas. I could see the famous Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains. Approaching Juphal in a joggling 18-seat propeller aircraft was a thrilling experience.
The Juphal Airport is one of the entrances to the Dolpo region. Some of Nepal’s most remote trekking trails such as the Great Himalayan trail, Inner Dolpo Trek and the Upper Dolpo Trek all begin or end here. This small airstrip resides at an elevation of 2,499m/8,200ft.
The trek from Juphal was on a steeply descending rough trail. It was harvesting time, so people were toiling in their fields. Large amounts of grains were being scattered on their flat-roofed houses. I passed terraces of chillies, and came across some walnut trees while descending down to the river level, the Great Bheri River. I trekked along the riverbank until I reached the meeting point with another fast-running river called the Suligad River. I crossed the bridge over the Bheri River to find a remote Nepal Army Camp where I chatted with some of the army staff. After a brief 15 min walk up, I entered the Phoksundo National Park. I stopped at a lodge for lunch and then I hiked along the rough trail above the Suligad River, while ascending steadily. I passed through some sheer rock cliffs before reaching the Kagani Village. I found a mountain lodge and had dinner in their cozy warm kitchen.
There is much more to food than just yak meat and butter. Basically, Daal, Bhat & Tarkari (Cooked Lental or Bean soup served with steamed Rice and Curry) is the prominent lunch & dinner choice in the area. Daal is flavored with wild Himalayan herb (Jimbu).
Locals eat Tsampa (Roasted Barley flour), locally grown potatoes and bitter-buckwheat pancake, dry meat, fermented leafy green vegetables or mustard greens etc. Chillies are the key flavoring ingredient here in the harsh and cold climate. Another mountain food is Dhido, which is a thick porridge, made from different varieties of flours such as buckwheat, corn meal, millet. The flour is mixed with salt and water and slowly cooked.
In the garden of the lodge, I saw stars shining in the sky far above the steep and dark canyon walls. Normally, I can’t watch the stars in Kathmandu because of the frequency of clouds which makes this chance for stargazing a special treat.
Day 03: Trek from Kagani - Chhepka – To Reichi
I woke up to the sound of jingling caravans led by cheerful mountain muleteers. I began a leisurely trek through the verdant temperate forest along the Suligad River. I passed wild Cannabis (wicked wild weed), cactus and small junipers, walnut and cupressus trees.
After a couple of hours, I stopped at Chhepka for a simple mountain lunch where I had a chance to chit chat with the villagers. While continuing my rigorous trek onto Reichi, the blue-green colors of the sparkling river were so enchanting, I was tempted to jump in. However, I sat down on a riverbank stone and meditated for half an hour. It was a truly refreshing moment. The water was delicious, thanks to the minerals from its source at Phoksundo lake.
Sections of the trail occasionally climbed steeply high over bluffs. The trail then plunges down to touch the river before going through rocky gorges and winding ravines. The trail is frequently strenuous. It was an exhausting 10 hours long trek but it was made very interesting by the abundance of the wilderness. I encountered a local devotee carving religious inscriptions (Bon Po) on a mountain-side rock. There were no tourists to be seen anywhere. By the time I reached Reichi it was already dark. My evening dinner with the lodge host family of Gurungs was another amazing experience. They maintain the lodge and raise animals. I really enjoyed learning about their life style and family history.
Day 04: Reichi to Ringmo Village, Phoksundo Lake
The morning started with a perfectly silent dawn. After breakfast, I started my pleasant morning hike before the awakening sun hit the great Himalayan peaks. After an hour I reached Tapriza, a small village which has a residential school and the Amchi (Tibetan medicine system) Hospital. This school houses students from the surrounding villages and provides them with a modern education. Besides teaching the national curriculum of Nepal, they also include their own native language. After crossing a suspension bridge, we reached the Jharna Hotel for lunch.
I continued the gradually ascending zigzag trail higher into the sky. The well-maintained trail was basically made by locals cutting through the sharp boulders. They sliced this new route to make it easier, but it still tested my lungs and legs with its strenuous ascent. I took a short break at a gazebo perched on a narrow ridge providing me with an exquisite vista. After another hour of intense struggling, the Ringmo valley unfolded its magical beauty. I discovered a magnificent rainbow waterfall draining from the higher placid waters of the turquoise lake, which is the source of the Suligad river. This majestic Phoksundo waterfall is a scenic shimmering cascade. This is the second tallest waterfall in Nepal. I could see the distant shining spires of the Norbung Khang Himal mountains. The trail then weaves its way towards Ringmo Village right before the lake. The sight of this ancient village, uplifted our spirits as we gazed upon our final destination for this trek.
Ancient Ringmo Village
Ringmo is a fabled place beyond the boundaries of the wider world. It is embedded in the heart of the most impressive mountain landscape of western Nepal. With its layered stone and mud houses, it is set like a picturesque painting close to the glittering Shey Phoksundo lake. Outside their homes, people still follow traditional weaving, using long backboard narrow looms and centuries old techniques. The village is full of mud-plastered chortens (shrines), and fluttering vivid prayer flags. It is surrounded by spectacular natural beauty and teeming wildlife. This is the home of the rare snow leopard which is known as the guardian of the mountains.
My host in Rigmo, Mr. Tshering Palden Baijee, is a natural story teller, a gifted raconteur. Although he talked with us in Nepali, the family and the villagers communicate using their local version of the Tibetan language. He kept murmuring unusual mantras. I was sure that these were not typical Buddhist mantras. When I asked him if these were Buddhist mantras, he said no they are Bon Mantras! Bon is the indigenous early shamanistic religion of Tibet, pre-dating Buddhism.
As we continued our conversations, on numerous occasions, I was able to listen to the many stories from his vast repertoire.
He taught me that when you are at a Bon shrine you go around anti-clockwise, but you do it clockwise for a Buddhist chorten. His eloquent stories were all about the customs of this region’s resilient people. Their traditions and wisdom flows in an unbroken stream from medieval times.The people of Dolpo are deeply spiritual and believe in the power of nature. They worship nature with utmost reverence. For them, the sky and the mountains are divine spirits; the rivers and lakes are sacred waters; and the plants and trees are treated as sentient beings. Here we find, the last remaining vestiges of traditional Tibetan culture which is not even found in modern day Tibet.
Day 05: Shey Phoksundo Lake explorations – Trek back to Jharna Hotel
My morning was spent wandering around the picturesque lake. Later in the morning I walked along the narrow cliff side path where a famous movie scene shows a yak in a caravan falling into the lake. I continued to climb along the hillside bringing me high above the dazzling lake. The celestial reflection of the brilliant blue sky in the lake could have been captured as a painting on canvas. I just sat in awed silence.
Leaving Ringmo later in the day, I worked my way out of the forested valley along the steeply descending trail, retracing my path from the way up until I reached the Jharna Hotel. Towering peaks and steep hills were still looming in the horizon.
Day 06: Jharna to Shyankta –Kagani – Suligad - Juphal
My morning was broken by the chatter of exotic birds and the sound of the rushing river down below the lodge. After check out, I descended slowly down through a scenic canyon. I felt my body and muscles becoming more relaxed as I try to enjoy my captivating environment. I am thankful for achieving my Dolpo goal.
Fifteen minutes of meditation every day while on the trek recharged my physical strength and removed the random thoughts that always clutter my mind.
My overnight stay at a lodge in Syangta was another interesting experience. I spent a lot of time interacting with the lodge host family including the man who is head of the family, his two wives, daughter and son. Multiple wives is an ancient custom although it is officially illegal today. They shared their personal stories while we sat on the floor besides the hearth eating and drinking local beer.
You can explore the wilderness and enjoy the serenity of nature, but you can still find basic shelter at an inviting lodge. The next day, my trek down to Sulighad and then back to the small town of Juphal was fairly easy. We stayed at a slightly better lodge in Juphal to catch the early morning flight back to Kathmandu via Nepalgunj. I had a sense of achievement as I contemplated my trek in Dolpo. These feelings should be savored and stored amid the memories of the wilderness. Words and phrases cannot adequately describe the awesome and timeless majesty of the western Himalayas. This magical journey to Dolpo was a once in a lifetime experience.
Dolpa will enhance your trekking experiences and knowledge of the wilderness. For those who are looking for a strenuous, remote and off the beaten path trails, Dolpo is a delightful option. It is truly an untouched fascinating natural resource of Nepal. An unexplored destination, the unruffled charm of a culture and the tranquility of being in nature is what a Dolpo experience is all about.