As I predicted, when we finally got to Dolpo, the postings would stop for almost a month. For a week in Nepalgunj, we had nothing better to do than write notes in a relatively modern internet café. But in Dolpo, we were suddenly back 50 years and by tomorrow we will be in the 14th century. Some people in this town have email by satellite but it is very slow and expensive. So from now on, I am writing notes on Marcia’s cell phone and posting everything in order once we return to something resembling civilization around November 6.
After 7 days of delays, our departure from Nepalgunj was almost an anticlimax. We got up at 4:15, ate breakfast and left for the airport at 5. We were delayed a few minutes at the entrance gate because the Yeti Air staff hadn’t arrived, but once they did, everything was in order. The district manager Mr. Bimh was waiting to shake my hand as I came in, and he assured me that our party was all on the first flight. Apparently I had scared him so much that he had told Kathmandu that he was being held hostage until they brought us a plane! Several other group leaders thanked me for being enough of a jerk to make something happen.
The only catch was that it was quite foggy. So after the security check (men and women separate), we had to wait nervously for almost two hours. The plane was loaded with our bags and I was ready to lead a group out on the tarmac if they started to unload them. But we knew that the flight had to leave by 10am or it would be too late for yet another day. While we waited for the fog to lift, the Yeti Air ground staff drank tea under the tail of the plane.
Finally, a little after 8, the fog cleared and the staff opened the doors. Mr. Bimh was out there himself and shook my hand again and gave me his email address. He seemed happy to hear that we are going back a different way, and he won’t have to fear my return. All 19 passengers strapped on seat belts and the Twin Otter took off at 8:20 for a beautiful trip across plains, foothills and mountains.
If the takeoff was routine, the landing was as thrilling as any I’ve ever had. Nepal has several mountain runways that are built on a slope because they would otherwise be too short. The plane looks like it’s flying right into the mountain until the last second when it pulls up and makes a quick stop uphill. We could see rocks about 10 meters off our right wingtip. But stop the plane did and we all got out and watched the plane take off downhill.
And then, we were suddenly on the trail we had been dreaming about for a week. This first day’s walk was an easy 3 hours downhill past soldiers and villagers to Dunai, the largest town in Dolpo district. The scenery was spectacular, with snowcapped peaks across the valley. It was hard to imagine that these aren’t even the highest range in the area. In fact, we’ll be crossing passes almost as high as those peaks. But if this scenery is any guide, we are in for a fantastic month.
Dolpo is very poor and isolated and we are a curiosity. Children seem happy just to hear us say Namaste, and not one has begged for anything even though they are the poorest of the poor.
Dunai is the regional capital with about 100 Tibetan-style houses. Some of the newer houses had steel roofs rather than the traditional mud. There is one stone-paved path through town. Mule pens line the edge of town – some of these will be our traveling companions. An occasional goat or rooster walks through town foraging for whatever bits they can find.
In Dunai, our guide and cook went about town to adjust our trekking permits for the week’s delay, to buy food, and to assemble a staff. By dinnertime, they had fixed a huge spaghetti dinner but were apologizing that they hadn’t had time to fix anything fancier.
Marcia and I walked up the hill to a Tibetan-style stupa. One child was sitting there and helped us over the wall. He then rang a bell and about 15 more kids came running, along with a young man who spoke quite good English. This was a Bön temple and school, he explained, opened only last year to try to teach the old ways to the next generation. Already the Bön language is almost lost, with only a few people knowing the old words but not their true meaning.
Bön is the original religion of Tibet. When Buddhism came over the mountains from India, it eliminated animal sacrifices and other things, but it mostly absorbed the existing Bön practices into techniques like Tantrism that are now characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism. But the descendents of Bön remain in isolated places like Dolpo, practicing their own religion. The Dalai Lama recently accepted Bön as the fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism even though it differs in certain ways.
On the way back to town, we passed a more standard Tibetan Buddhist temple, which also included a school. These are among the few schools anywhere in Dolpo.
We slept the night in the last guesthouse we are likely to see for a while, listening to the sounds of the river.