Shey Gompa is the destination of most trips to Upper Dolpo. It has three monasteries and abundant Himalayan wildlife. Many of the original visitors spent a month here studying blue sheep and hoping to spot a snow leopard. We are spending a rest day to relax and look around.
Shey Gompa is situated at the meeting point of three valleys. We are camped by a small stream that is also used by yaks to cool down. They seem to like the ice-cold waters.
Gompa means monastery in both Tibetan and Nepali. There is a fairly large one right in town, which we walked around in the morning. Between the monastery and its outside mani (prayer) wall was a huge field of stones almost like a crowded cemetery. These were old mani stones whose carvings had been worn down by continual use but were kept for the continuing power of their prayers. Usually a mani stone is carved (often repeatedly) with the Tibetan mantra om mane padme om. Properly, you should walk with a mani wall to your right, though Bön practitioners do the reverse. Locals take these things seriously – a Tibetan woman chewed Marcia out for sitting on a mani stone.
A chörten is a traditional Tibetan building in memory of a lama or other important person. Dolpo has a unique style of chörten that I have not seen anywhere else. In the Dolpo style, they will often use a row of posts around the second story to hold up another roof. Dolpo chörtens also have decorated circles on each level.
The monastery itself was closed as the high lama had gone to another monastery for training. His previous incarnation was crippled and spent winters meditating at the monastery in the mountains. Our guide says the lama is also the brother of the king of the neighboring region of Mustang, now the only king left in Nepal.
We visited the other two monasteries after lunch. Both were up a trail coming down from high above the valley to the northwest. The trail is actually the end of the kora (circuit) around the Crystal Mountain, which gave Shey its name and its significance. The Crystal Mountain is topped by a rock that looks like Mt. Kailas, the holiest mountain in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Every summer, believers from throughout the region come here to walk around this oddly shaped mountain, a strenuous hike that takes them almost back to the pass we crossed yesterday. A kora is always done clockwise with the mountain to one’s right.
Marcia turned back after the main viewpoint, but I went on with Kinna to visit both monasteries, which were again viewable only from the outside. The first was a relatively large one built directly into the face of the cliff. It enclosed a cave where salty holy water was dripping. The second was a very small hermitage, apparently not associated with the head lama since he doesn’t have a key.
But the real treat was to encounter two small groups of blue sheep at close range, close enough to photograph. There was no direct sunlight, so it was hard to see the blue on their backs. At least one had a good set of horns.
I need to close with another rant against the large organized tours that are the most common way people come on treks. We paralleled a mostly British group all the way from our first campsite. Their trip was scheduled so tight that when they lost a few days to Yeti Air in Nepalgunj (which almost always happens) they had no choice but to rush through their itinerary. They cut out rest and altitude acclimatization days, only to have to retreat when a member got sick trying to cross the pass. And when they reached their destination, they spent one night exhausted and left early the next morning with no chance to look around. On top of that, they are required to engage in small talk with their traveling companions, mostly macho stuff about who almost lost toes to frostbite on previous expeditions. For this failed trip, they may have spent $10,000 each. Not my idea of fun.
Marcia and I feel quite fortunate to be able to do this at our own pace with a great guide and no plane ticket or job to force us back too quickly.