Through the Land of Dolpo
I visited Dolpo with a trekking company to hike, along with ten others and a thirty-strong support crew, from Juphal to Jomsom in the Kali Gandaki valley in the east.
Just getting to Dolpo is difficult, involving flights first to Nepalgunj, then in a tiny plane down a dramatic gorge to the tiny mountain village of Juphal where there is a STOL (Short Take Off and Landing, a euphemism for a sloping field on a mountainside) airstrip.
For the first few days our route wandered through the rich, forested Bheri River valley to the Tarap Gorge, a narrow steep and impressive rocky ravine that was our gateway to the high valleys of Dolpo.
Although it's only 25 kilometers in length, the Tarap Gorge rises from 3,000 to over 4,000 meters. (Distances and altitudes are very approximate as the best maps, which aren't very good anyway, are at a scale of 1:250,000, while the heights were taken from an altimeter which, with no spot heights available, couldn't be reset during the trek.) Gaining so much height quickly isn't a good idea if you want to avoid altitude sickness, so we spent three days slowly ascending the gorge. As we did so the trees gradually dwindled in numbers and height until only thorny brown bushes and sparse yellow grasses remained.
The narrowness of the gorge makes for exciting walking, with sections of trail carved straight up steep cliffs or else traversing skimpy sloping ledges. In some places, these airy rocky walkways vanish altogether, leaving gaps the local pathmakers have bridged with thin poles, some of which look frighteningly old and rotten, and then overlaid with flat slabs of rock.
The path climbed repeatedly over steep-sided spurs that ended in cliffs at the rivers edge, each time descending back to the valley bottom. Eventually, tired of such ascents and not liking the exposed look of the next one, we decided to ford the river. This proved harder than it looked, the ice cold water being deep and strong, and most people, including many of the porters, needed help to cross safely. Trek leader Kit Wilkinson spent a long time out in the middle of the river helping people across, mainly because, at 6' 3", he towered over nearly everybody else and was the only person who could stand up at all easily in the full force of the water.
Eventually the gorge began to level off and the steep sides drew back as we entered the broad flat upper Tarap valley. A series of small villages line the river here and we camped by the first one, Dho Tarap, a wild place with the air of a medieval town. Visiting Dho is like visiting the past. Out in the tiny terraced fields villagers were threshing the barley with wooden flails while others ploughed the dusty soil with crude, wooden, metal-tipped ploughs dragged by yaks. Children with large wicker baskets on their backs prowled the nearby slopes collecting yak dung, which was then spread out to dry before being used as fuel for fires. It's the only fuel there is in this treeless land.
At dusk, herds of goats, sheep and yaks came back from distant grazing grounds. The people, especially the children, were friendly and curious, watching everything we did. Trekking groups visit Dho regularly so foreigners are not totally unknown. Even so we were clearly of great interest to many of the locals.
In order to aid acclimatization, we spent a day wandering round the fascinating villages and gompas of the upper Tarap. Ahead lay the two-day, 1300-meter ascent to the first high pass: 5300-meter Charkula Bhanjyang, a broad flat saddle decorated with a large cairn and a network of white prayer flags. The view was unbelievably vast, the nearby brown semi-desert hills ringed by distant higher snow-topped mountains, most of them somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 meters high.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication