Nepal

Discovering Dolpo

Print edition : August 17, 2018

Dolpo is synonymous with horses and mule caravans.

Steep rocky steps leaning over precipitous gorges are a part of the Dolpo experience.

The fresh white snow on the Baga La range merges with the emerald green of the forests, the indescribable blue of Lake Phoksondo and the brown cliffs of Dolpo.

A caravan on the shore of Lake Phoksondo.

The Phoksondo khola carves its way through ancient rocks.

A monastery on the shore of Lake Phoksondo.

This now-deserted village is the winter abode of the pastoralists who have moved up to higher summer pastures with their flocks.

Tarakot village. All villages perched on hillsides in lower Dolpo were fortified against invaders.

The main street of Dunai, the administrative headquarters of Dolpo.

Sisters at Dolpo.

Ringmo village after unseasonal April snow.

Image inside Bon monastery at Ringmo Photo: Deborah Ribas

A row of chortens at the Ringmo monastery overlooking Lake Phoksondo.

An ancient chorten near the entrance to the monastery.

The gate of the monastery.

Image at Chhedhul gompa, at the confluence of the Tarap and the Barbung rivers.

An archway of silver birch framing the snow-covered Baga La peaks near Ringmo.

A yak and its calf. A herd of yak on the move is best avoided on the trail.

The unforgivingly rugged terrain of Dolpo in mid-western Nepal is where the Himalaya still holds its own, beyond human intervention. Text & photographs By DEB MUKHARJI

DURING my brief tenure in Nepal in 2000-2001, I could only look at Dolpo on the map, as there was no possibility of getting away for the two or three weeks that a trip to Dolpo requires. Thus, while I became acquainted with the regular himals (mountain regions with snow) of Nepal, Dolpo and Upper Mustang remained unseen. Thanks to the Mustang treks organised by the indefatigable Stan Armington of Lonely Planet fame, I was able to visit Upper Mustang a few years later, before roads for vehicles were built. April 2018 gave me the opportunity to fill the gap in my knowledge of the Nepal Himalaya with a visit to Dolpo in the company of two former colleagues.

A look at the map of Dolpo is itself a dizzying experience. Shades of brown and ochre, serrated blue for twisting glaciers, gullies and rivers snaking at the bottom of cliffs and gorges. The physical contours of the map give ample advance warning of what to expect.

Dolpo had been virtually unknown both to the outside world and even within Nepal, until the end of the 20th century when it attained instant fame with Eric Valli’s film Caravan. It was only then that the government of Nepal eased the ban on the entry of foreigners into the area. Dolpo had age-old commercial relations with Tibet, but had never been on a commercial or pilgrim highway as was the case with neighbouring Mustang. It was an insular community and the harshness of the terrain did not encourage travel without or by outsiders. Even today, the only swift entry, and that too, near the southern tip at Juphal, is by small STOL aircraft which may fly in from Nepalgunj in the terai, the weather permitting, across the Chure mountains to the south. Though roads are being built, today all activity across this large district depends either on human effort or on ponies.

The agro-pastoral communities of Dolpo have, over millennia, depended on cultivating the arid land and rearing sheep, goat and yak for sustenance. The terrain is conducive to the breeding of horses, which are famous in the region for their strength and stamina. Religion remains an integral part of the lives of the people. Besides Buddhism, the pre-Buddhist Bons (recently accepted within the Buddhist fold) have a substantial presence. Historically, the rulers of western Tibet used to exercise authority over the region. About 600 years ago, the suzerainty over Dolpo passed on to the kingdom of Lo in neighbouring Mustang (see “In the land of the Loba” by Sudha Mahalingam, Frontline, July 6, 2018). When Lo submitted to Nepal in the 18th century, Dolpo became an integral part of Nepal.

Our plan was to follow the traditional Lower Dolpo trekking route. From the landing strip at Juphal it went south-east to the district headquarters at Dunai and further east along River Thuli Bheri to Tarakot. Turning north from Tarakot, the route eventually turns west, reaching Shey Phoksondo after crossing the two high passes of Numa La and Baga La. We had been assured that the passes, both at altitudes of over 5,000 metres, would indeed be passable, though they had not actually been crossed in the current season. But nature in the Himalaya is averse to prediction. Three days before approaching Numa La, we were told that heavy snowfall had made the crossing hazardous. As more snow was forecast, we turned back to approach Lake Phoksondo from the south along Rivers Suli Gad and Phoksondo.

Walking in Dolpo is an experience unlike any other. The trail is often unforgivingly rugged, like the spires of rock that surround you. And the challenge of the terrain is borne out by the fact that a mere 1,200 visitors come annually to Lake Phoksondo despite its great beauty and fame. Of the lake, it has to be seen to be believed. Offering relief on the way and lasting memories are groves of blue pine, spruce, cedar and silver fir, besides rhododendrons and bamboos lower down. I was amazed to be introduced to ancient juniper trees reaching for the sky among the rocks above Tarap Chu. An archway of silver birch framing the glistening Baga La peaks on a sunny morning is not an image to be forgotten. For nearly two weeks, the rivers, coursing merrily along rounded rocks, sang soothing lullabies to our tired limbs. But perhaps the most abiding memory was the sheer raw power of the craggy cliffs that enveloped us and which, perhaps, best symbolise one of the last redoubts where the Himalaya still holds its own beyond human intervention.

Deb Mukharji is former Indian Ambassador to Nepal and the author of The Magic of Nepal, Mount Kailash and Manasarovar: Visions of the Infinite and Kailash and Manasarovar: A Quest Beyond the Himalaya.

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