Upper Dolpo Traverse – Juphal to Jomsom September/October 2017
The trek was finally confirmed after months of correspondence back and forth in August. We had our first ever Polish group consisting of 5 members.
Trekking Staff movement – pre-trek.
This trek is in a High and Wild part of Nepal, and it takes a whole lot of planning. I had been planning for weeks on end. Our staff who spend most summer monsoon periods trekking in Ladakh got back five days, and Dil got into Kathmandu one night before they left for Dunai, the district administrative center for the district of Dolpo. These poor lads had to take four days drive, changing four vehicles as there are no bridges over the swollen rivers, porter the gear, food to the other side, load it onto another transport and continue on their bumpy ride. Four days of the hot, sticky, rough and sometimes bruising ride later, they had to load the equipment and food on mules and continue their journey on foot for two days. They finally got the Dunai on the 6th day. They still had to sort out the rental tents, kitchen equipment and do shopping of fresh vegetables before we arrived.
Upper Dolpo Group movement
One group member pulled out due to compassionate reasons on the day she was to fly towards Nepal. One member of the group arrived via Delhi in the morning while the rest arrived in the after via Doha. Upon arrival at the hotel, the standard check-in, I arranged for the money changer to come to the reception area with local currency for the trekkers as part of our service. We parted ways after agreeing to meet the following evening for dinner and updates. They were left on their own as they all had been to Kathmandu at least twice before and they knew their way around town.
We met for dinner at an agreed time, the trekkers were briefed on the program for the next day, and we were flying to Nepalgunj in the afternoon. The flight to Nepalgunj was delayed by 30 minutes, but brand new old ATR72-500 of Yeti Airlines made up for the lost time. The aircraft was filled up with two big groups of medical/missionary volunteers to the Humla district. It was quite hectic trying to retrieve our luggage while being eaten alive by mosquitoes. The heat and the humidity didn't help much. It was a relief to get to the air-conditioning of our hotel – Traveler's Village just a few kilometers from the airport. We retired early, as we had to get to the airport by 5.30am for our flight to Juphal. We collected our packed breakfasts, loaded the vehicle with our luggage and headed for the airport. The airport was buzzing with activity. Upon checking in, I was informed that we had 74 kilograms of excess weight and had to pay RS150 per kg. Upon doing so I joined the group after the security check, and the weather had turned for the worse, it had started raining. We were told the flight was canceled due to bad weather at Juphal. The crew of the airline we had booked our flight had a day off the next day, and they wouldn't fly. I called up contacts to either convince them to fly the next day or get seats on another airline but to no avail. We were fortunate to have understanding clients who said no need to get stressed out if the flights were not happening. We spent the next day touring around Nepalgunj, mind you most locals we spoke to said not much to see here. We returned to the hotel in the afternoon after sending the morning in an electric vehicle.
The next morning we got into our aircraft, and in a short time, we landed at Juphal airport. We decided to walk part of the way until our vehicle met us on the trail; we ended up walking all the way to Dunai. We expected the weather to be much colder above 2000 meters, but it was still scorching. We were glad to be united with our team who had been waiting for us, had a quick discussion to get moving that very day after a quick lunch. Our group consisted of me as the trek leader two trekking chefs, one trek butler, one local assistant, two pony men, and ten mules. We started along the Thulo Bheri River and turned northward an hour later along the Suligad River. We registered with the Shy Phoksundo National park, the largest in Nepal at their entrance. We got to Kageni just before dark as we had a late start to the day. Our crew and mules reached the campsite 30 minutes after we did and they were quick to set up the tents for the trekkers along with making dinner within 90 minutes of our arrival.
The next morning we walked in a northwesterly direction going upstream of the Suligad river which comes from the Phoksundo Lake. The hike was in the beautiful forested area passing through Shyanta, Chepka until arriving at our final stop at Rechi. Our mules and support crew were delayed as one of our mules brushed against a rocky outcrop on the trail and fell into the Suligad River. Our pony men quickly jumped into the waist-deep river and pulled the mule out. The mule escaped with no injuries, it’s load, that were two tin boxes were utterly smashed. Once again they arrive just before dark but like the previous night our team was swift in preparing our dinner, and everyone went to bed content.
Day 3 & Day 4
This was an exciting day for us as we were going to Phoksundo Lake. The walk at the beginning was undulating passing through Samduwa, and a short distance away we arrived at Trapiza School. The Swiss and Americans funded it. For the first time, I observed that the female students dressed in the traditional dress rather than in dark blue skirts and light blue shirts like in the rest of Nepal. We continue with a gentle climb until we reached Palam where the ascent got steep until we reached a resting place. Upon arriving at this resting place, we were pleasantly welcomed by the sight of the raging Suligad waterfall that drops 167 meters. We also got the first glimpse of the massive Kanjiroba 6612 meter peak. Kanjirolwa means the big mountain with a ponytail in Tibetan. We could also see part of the Turquoise Phoksundo Lake. We reached the main village of Ringmo and Phoksundo Lake an hour later. We couldn’t take our eyes off the beauty of the lake. The next day was a rest day to acclimatize to high altitude at 3611 meters. We made an easy walk to the ancient Bon monastery called Thasung Tsoling Gompa. The whole of Ringmo village are parishioners of the ancient Bon religion that predates Tibetan Buddhism.
We started our morning after a good breakfast by walking on the Western trail of the Lake, which started going uphill. Every step and corner showcased the absolute beauty of the lake. We reached the highest point of the path at above 4000 meters from where the trail started contouring on a downhill trend bringing us to pine and Rhododendron forest until we reached the lakeside to the North or Ringmo village. There were a couple of Herder’s tents that also doubled as restaurants, shop and even lodging for travelers. We decided to stop here for a break, as our camp was just a short hour away. It was another beautiful sunny day, our trekkers chose to enjoy the day with some beers, and we decided to have our lunch here. Two hours later, our staff Sundar came running to stop us from continuing any further. He informed us that as the mules had started the villagers had stopped them as the trail widening work had started and they mules could only begin after 3.30 pm. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the lake and clearing the grounds in preparation for our campsite for the night. We could hear the bells of our approaching mules just before dark once again. Once the camp was established, dinner was served, and everyone had a restful night.
We trekked upstream of the Phoksundo river towards our first pass's lower base camp in the pine forest with some clearing where tent shops are set up during the summer time. We turn to our right to the Tuk Kyasa River. It involved some rough trail and crossed the river by stepping and leaping on rocks. The valley widened after 30 minutes, and we reached the intermediate campsite about 2 hours 3 minutes later. It was just enough for our four sleeping tents, kitchen, dining, and toilet tent. It was a lovely spot with a stream close by for our kitchen staff for cooking etc.
This was a big day that involved crossing the first of 6 passes above 5000 meters. Kang La is also known as Nagdalo La at 5350 meters. We went up for an hour before we reached the high camp; we saw the French trekkers who camped there the previous night had just started. We climbed on a mixture steady ascent to some short steep climbs for 90 minutes before the rise becomes steep. We continued on this steep and hard climb for slightly more than two hours before we reached the top of Kang La. It was very windy and cold at the top. We took a few quick photos; we could see the Manaslu range to the south-east of the pass and the stark but beautiful hills that define Dolpo to the north. The first 20 minutes was a steep drop before the trail started contouring in a downward trend for 90 minutes where we stopped for the night in a beautiful open space with a stream next to it. It was the biggest day of the Hindu Festival – Dashain. We prepared some “Tika” for the eldest member of the group and me to bless the team members. The “tika” consisted of rice mixed with cream to make it sticky. The “tika" is placed on the forehead by the elders and blessings are given to the younger ones. It was the highest Dashain celebration for all of us at 4860 meters in altitude. Dancing would only last a couple of minutes before we had to stop to catch our breath. It was a celebration; we won't forget for a long time to come.
It was an easy hike down to Shey Gompa from our campsite. The area around the gompa had some herders' tents on their way down from the high summer pastures and their yaks. A short hike from the river brought us to a beautifully maintained campsite. An elderly couple that was the caretakers of the monastery and campsite did a superb job of managing it. They were regularly cleaning the campsite. On the opposite side of Shey Monastery is Crystal Mountain that broods above everything else. It is the holiest mountain in Dolpo and is considered the next holy mountain after Mount Kailash in Tibet.
We decided to utilize our rest day at Shey Gompa to cut short one of the longer days that was coming. We continued on the Namgung. We had to go over another pass Sela at 5094 meters. It was relatively easy to go over, and the scenery was stunning which made our hike pleasant. We could see four well-placed Monasteries and retreats that were almost impossible to notice unless you look hard for it. Namgung consisted of 5 houses and the monasteries. There were herders on their way back to their village from the summer pastures.
The morning started with a short climb until we reached the plateau and the trail was undulating, and we contoured the hills until the descend to Saldang, the most significant village on our trek. We could see several neighboring villages and many paths in the distance. We stopped high above the village. This was the best campsite to date with stunning views all around. We went for a walk in the village, that was busy harvesting their barley, de-husking and packing them away. Gosha, the only lady trekker, had brought some balloons from Poland to give away to children. She instantly became “pied the piper of Dolpo” with children following her. They followed back to our campsite which was above the village. We asked to buy “Chyangra" a mountain goat reared by the Highlanders of the Himalaya but were informed that the flocks were still in the transit camps on their way back from the high pastures.
Interestingly, throughout the Himalayan villages, they keep the animals off the village until harvest. Should anyone’s animal enter a field and eat the crops, the owner is fined before the animal is released. This applies to both residents and visitors alike.
It was our rest day, so our boys set up the shower tent so we could shower and do some laundry. Kaji, our ponyman, and Sundar had set off at 4 a.m to a shepherd’s camp to buy a “Chyangra” so we could feed the trekkers and ourselves. They arrived with the goat by the time we finished our breakfast. The trekkers and I went for a walk around the village while the boys “prepared” the goat for the trek. We visited the 500-year-old Samye Choling Monastery in the lower part of Saldang Village. We went to the residence of the Shey Phoksundo village Municipality head. We discussed how beautiful Dolpo is and how it's pristine environment should be maintained and not be allowed to be spoiled by the rubbish that comes in with the influx of trekkers with companies that do not practice Responsible Tourism. An article on this subject - Leave no trace. He received my thoughts and ideas with enthusiasm. We headed back to our campsite in time for high tea. Shortly the children from the village came with small bags of potatoes to show their gratitude for the balloons they received. Our staff gave them biscuits and some money for the potatoes to make sure it was a fair exchange. It was a touching moment.
The trek to Khomas started with a descent to the river and a steady climb to Khoma pass at 4460 meters. We could see Khomas village from the pass. We decided to enjoy the warm sun and the lack of wind while we waited for the mules and our staff to catch up. We started hiking down after a relaxing 45-minute rest, stopped by a grassy pasture for lunch and continued down after that to the village. Khoma village is situated in a more open valley, and it is a relatively large settlement.
We started the day with an hour of the traverse and a drop to the river before the trail went uphill to the top of Shimen la at 4260 meters. The path continued for 45 minutes before we came to the end of the pass and could see Shimen village. We could see an old airstrip when fights used to take place from Nepalgunj directly to Shimen in the 60s and 70s. The distance was quite deceiving as it is the case in altitude; the thin air makes things appear closer than they actually are. This was the lowest village since we left Phoksundo camp and we could feel the heat. We were now in the Panzang (Ban Tshang by locals) river valley.
The valley was broader with more rolling hills compared to the sharp ridges and deep valleys before this. It was once again a glorious day with not a single cloud in the sky. We passed through several Chortens, interesting rock carvings on the rocks by the river. We crossed path with many villagers with ration to stock up for the long cold winter.
Interestingly the Nepal government sends ration through Tibet to the border. The villagers go to the border and buy the subsidized ration, pack them on their animals and bring them home. This keeps the cost of transportation lower than transporting within Nepal. We camped next to a river below the village of Tinje, another beautiful spot.
We left Tinje, greeted by numerous Marmots whistling to let the others know of our presence. We walked for about two hours and took a left on a fork and continued for three more hours before we stopped for the night. This windy and slightly small campsite proved to be one of the colder places we spent our nights in with the wind blowing almost throughout the night.
Wildlife in Dolpo
We were greeted by the sight of a flock of Blue Sheep going uphill after having their afternoon drink at the river near our camp.
This wasn’t the first time we had seen Blue Sheep, marmots, Eurasian and Himalayan Griffons, Steppe eagles, Pikas, and other raptors.
The trail was a gentle and gradual climb, to begin with. We passed through several yaks being herded back to the villages or just grazing lazily. We passed through a couple of potential campsites for the future that was in a more open valley and space. We had to cross a river by taking off our boots. We probably could have skipped on the rocks, but I believe in prevention rather than cure. We went into two different valleys before we started our ascend toward the high camp of Mo La our third pass of the trek. We have been heading East for the past few days by now. Our campsite was at 4880 meters.
The hike to Mo La 5030 was relatively comfortable, and the final climb wasn't that difficult either, it took us about an hour to reach the top of the pass. There were three locals on pony backs coming from the opposite side. We exchanged a few friendly words and learned they were from the village called Danda Gaon (Hilltop village in Nepali). On our descent, we were greeted by the view of Mount Dhaulagiri’s north face. We had seen several 6000 + meter peaks along with the Manaslu range, but this was the highest mountain on this trek at 8167 meters. The hike down to Charka was deceptively longer than expected, although still very scenic. Charka derives from Tibetan (Chaa Ka – good salt), there is a source of salt on the outskirts of the village and a stream flows through it. All animals go there to get their salt fix. The villagers were busy with their harvest, de-husking of the barleys and their animals being brought back from the summer pastures. We restocked on kerosene, some fresh vegetables, etc. for the next three days were going to be camping in the middle of nowhere away from the villages.
We crossed the Charka Tulsi River and walked on a very new and broad trail for about an hour before going to the bridge to cross the river followed by a short but strenuous climb on a dusty path. Once we were on the top, the terrain appeared suitable for a golf course. The trail continued on a gentle slope for another 90 minutes. We stopped to let our crew catch up and had an early lunch. Soon after this, the trail went through landslip areas where the path was narrow and rocky, but we reached our campsite an hour after our lunch spot. This was once again a wide-open valley with a vast flat ground for camping with two relatively large streams for cooking and cleaning. We used the day we had saved from our rest day at Shey Gompa to break this rather long day into two relaxed and comfortable days to conserve our energy for the last three passes that take place on the same.
We had a late wakeup as in the past few ten days as the water would be frozen and there was no point in rushing. We waited until the sun reached our campsite before we started getting ready for breakfast and the trek. It helped our kitchen crew work as well as they couldn’t do much with frozen water and streams. It was an easy hike of about 4 hours to our camp at Nulungsumda Kharka at 4987 meters. It started getting cloudy from this onwards. Westerly winds blew clouds to the East. The pony men and local guide began voicing their concern about the weather changing and rightly so. Every few years cyclones from the Bay of Bengal bring unseasonal snow to the high passes and some people including trekkers and locals die. I reassured them that the bad weather usually comes from the East and these clouds were traveling West.
This was a “huge” day involving crossing over three passes, namely Niwas La 5125 meters, Jungben La 5550 meters and a nameless pass at 5400 meters. It started with a flattish terrain with a small climb to Niwas La. We were greeted with views of The Sadache Himal range. It continued in a flattish manner until the last 60 minutes to the top of Jungben la 5550 meters. We got there with relative ease. Now the downhill was quite another thing altogether; it was winding and steep for some time before it eased with a small climb to the last pass. The descent from here was steep with loose shales, screes, rocks and relentless steep for what seemed like forever. We were glad to reach our camp at Ghalden Ghuldun River after a 7-hour trek. We were entertained in the evening by yaks that came down the pass in large numbers brought by their herders. Some Yaks brought down our toilet tent.
We begin with a small climb and a steep descent to Kyalungpa Khola (River). We walked past Juniper trees along a dusty path, and the active Mustang wind made it worse. Along the trail Gosha, the Polish lady from my group pointed out to a paw mark, and I assumed and told her that it must be that of Tibetan Mastiff and we continued. It was quite a steep drop down on some exposed and slippery trail until we got to the bridge. We had a short climb of about 30 minutes before the trail leveled out until we got to a small pass; we had to go down to a river where we stopped for lunch. We had a short climb for about an hour before we reached Santa (Shang Tak) where we camped for the night.
I had heard that the snow leopards have increased in numbers and someone told me that they had been taken off the danger list. I spoke with the owner of the house we were camping at about the growth in Snow leopard population. He told me that there were at least 15 around their village area. The snow leopards have become such a menace to the villagers that they have stopped rearing Yaks, goats, and Sheep, as it is easy meals for them; not the actual yaks but their calves. I mentioned about the paw mark we saw on the trail, and he said it is a snow leopard; there are no dogs in the neighboring village and the only dog in that village never left it – how exciting. If only I had taken a photo of the paw mark.
We began the day with a steep uphill climb to 4110 meters, and we walked on a newly constructed road. The road contoured to the Top of Bhimen La 4600 meters. The views from the top were breathtaking; Upper Mustang to the North, Peaks of Nar Phu valley to the North East, Thorung peak and pass to the east, Muktinath, Jharkot, Kagbeni beneath the Thorung pass, Nilgiri peaks to the South East and the Kali Gandaki riverbed. It was a very windy and dusty trek to Phalyak village. We were glad to reach it, and the groups were surprised when they were told that their tents on the roof of a house.
We decided to hike to the road and get to Jomsom hospital as soon as possible as one member of the group had been bothered by pain in his rear end and it was getting worse, he wanted it treated quickly. A dog had attacked our team member the previous afternoon. Although he was alright, there was a small open wound, and we wanted to make sure he was treated soon as well. When we reached Jomsom District Hospital, we learned that another trekker had been brought the previous day with a severe dog bite. My analysis is that the Tibetan Mastiff spend the summer in high pastures protecting their owners' animals against snow leopards, Tibetan wolves or jackals and foxes all summer long. When they are brought back to the village their protective instinct must still be "on" and are still ferocious for a few weeks before they get into the "village" mode. Warning - do not pet animals no matter how cute and calm they appear.
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