Category Archives: 2009 Dolpo

Day 10 – Oct 19 – Shey La to Namgung

Before leaving Shey Gompa, we had a chance to go inside the town monastery. It is fairly typical of a small Tibetan gompa, with statues of different Buddha manifestations in sconces at the front, paintings on the wall, and benches and mats where monks can sit chanting and beating drums and chimes. A wide seat for the high lama was occupied in absentia by his photograph, along with a photo of his previous incarnation. The current lama is 17 years old and still completing his religious training.

The trail out of town was a gradual but continuous climb towards another pass, Shey La. We were able to stop for a hot lunch cooked by our staff, after which the climb became more challenging. Marcia did fine as soon as she sorted out the competition for blood between her lunch and her legs. But I fell behind as I seemed still not fully acclimatized to the elevation at the top of the wide pass, 5150 meters.

But oh the view when we got there! Below us to the north was all of northern Dolpo, where we will be spending the next five days. Valley after valley had changing colors somewhat like Arizona. In the distance were the rugged mountains on the Tibetan border. I was particularly captivated by a mountain that looked like a split Matterhorn, only steeper. I remembered seeing the same striking mountain from the north in 1996 when Marcia and I traveled across Tibet. So the other side of that range must be the high rolling desert of the Yarlung Tsampo valley.

We descended slope after slope to Namgung, where we’re spending the night. Namgung is another monastery town, with the old monastery built into the side of a cliff. In this case the old monastery was abandoned 17 years ago when the brightly painted new one was built on the valley floor. Sheaves of barley lay on the ground nearby waiting to be threshed into the local dried mash tsampa.

Day 11 – Oct 20 – Down the hill to Saldang

Day 11 was a short day with only a half day of hiking downhill to the town of Saldang, where we will have another rest day.

We began with a visit to the new monastery in Namgung. It was more leanly furnished than the better-funded Shey Gompa, but still nice. The images around the walls were tsonkas (tapestries) rather than being painted directly on the walls.

Kinna helped us have a good conversation with the monk who opened the place for us. His father had been the lama at that monastery for many years. When he died, they found a new reincarnation, who is now 18 and studying in India. The man is therefore taking care of the monastery and local rituals until the reincarnation of his father can return. His son is a lama currently living in Taiwan, and he is taking care of his three-year-old grandson, who was there shyly playing with us.

Following the monk’s directions, we took a shortcut straight up a side canyon. The steep, exposed climb was almost too much for Marcia, but evidently not for the monk’s three-year-old grandson, whose footprints we could see. A woman came by carrying a basket, also unfazed by the steep trail.

The half-day hike took longer than it should have because I kept stopping to take pictures of the canyon that continued to open beneath us. Locals went about their work more or less as they have done for hundreds of years. We could hear a woman singing a complex song while she worked way below us. A goatherd chatted with us at a stopping place and got some eye medicine from our guide. The goatherd told us proudly that he had been in Eric Valli’s movie Himalaya (a.k.a. Caravan). Although Valli received some criticism for romanticizing the story and not pumping more of his profits back into aid for the region, the locals seem uniformly proud of the part they and their country played in the making of the movie.

When we arrived at our destination Saldang, we were happy that our guide arranged for us to sleep in the house of the village amchi (traditional Tibetan doctor) Labrang Tundup. To be honest, we were both starting to get a bit tired of living in a tent, and with two more weeks of it to go, we were happy to have a couple nights indoors.

This is the nicest house in town, given to Tundup’s father a generation ago because the town needed an amchi. It is two stories high, three if you include the roof. Each of the stories is connected by a ladder made out of half of a tree trunk with steps carved out. It seems odd to use a whole tree in a place where it probably needed to be hauled over the mountain, but this ladder also looks like it will last a century. The house includes a small gompa, which Tundup uses for his incantations. We chose to sleep on a couple of hard beds that were offered to us, probably displacing the ten-year-old granddaughter Pema. Buddhist figures and Bollywood movie star posters hung above our heads.

It is interesting to stay with a village elder like Tundup. He shared his well-worn autographed copy of Eric Valli’s 1994 book Caravans of the Himalaya, made a few years before the movie. Valli spent a few months as a National Geographic photographer living in this same house with Tundup, and he chronicled the daily life of the doctor. Tibetan medicine includes exorcisms and other rites to free troubled bodies of the evil spirits making them ill – sometimes an amchi can trick the spirits into invading an effigy or piece of clothing instead of the person, and then he cures the ill by disposing of the effigy. Tundup also showed us the instrument he uses for precisely touching hot rods to fire points on the body to treat high-altitude heart problems and other ailments.

Another advantage of staying in a home is that we were able to clean up. Since we could use the house’s pit toilet, our staff set up our toilet tent as a private washing place. It felt great to get ten days of grease out of our hair.

I walked around the village, which is built in terraces. Saldang is the largest settlement we have seen since Dunai, with at least a couple hundred people living in twenty or thirty houses. People seemed heavily involved in threshing barley and other fall harvest activities. The population will drop in the next few weeks as people take their yak caravans to lower elevations, but Saldang is clearly a year-round settlement.

One unfortunate note is that here, as elsewhere, the Italian group had preceded us handing out red balloons to children. Although this initially creates joy, the balloons quickly break and end up cluttering the ditches. And the children immediately expect that every foreigner has pockets filled with red balloons, and they come begging for more. If you ever come to Nepal or another backward country, please do not train children to beg in this way.

Day 12 – Oct 21 – Exploring Saldang

Day 12 was a rest day in Saldang. Marcia and I take different approaches to rest days. For Marcia, a rest day is to rest and rebuild strength for the next phase of the long march. For me, it’s a day to explore, even if it means walking as far as on a normal day.

Understanding this, Kinna originally proposed to take only me to Yangster Gompa, one of the oldest monasteries in Dolpo. It would have been a demanding day of at least 4 hours each way, with considerable uphill, but also an interesting route past the confluence of the two major rivers of this area. But on arriving in Saldang, Kinna learned that the monastery had recently been locked due to theft of some religious object, and he advised we instead explore a village much closer to town. I reluctantly agreed.

The new destination was the home of Tilen Lhundrup, another village elder who had become locally famous as the star of Eric Valli’s movie Himalaya (a.k.a. Caravan). Although Valli imported Tibetan actors for most of the lead roles, he was friends with Tilen from previous trips and cast him in his real-life role as the older caravan leader. Originally from Saldang’s upper village, Tilen used his film earnings to build a new house in the next town over.

It was a gradual climb with expanding views of the deep Nankhong Valley where Saldang is located. I could almost see down to the river confluence where I would have walked on the other route. Because it was going to be a shorter walk, Marcia came along. But the walk proved longer than Kinna expected, and Marcia began making noises of wanting to turn back.

Just then, a local woman came riding a small horse. She was very friendly and explained to Kinna that Tilen and everyone else from the village had gone into Saldang to have a meeting about how to improve the village. She invited us to turn around and follow her and she would find Tilen. She even offered to let Marcia ride her horse, though Marcia declined.

Back in Saldang’s upper village, the woman tied her horse and ran yelling to Tilen that some foreigners had come to visit. Marcia and I didn’t really care about meeting a movie star, but we couldn’t stop her.

Unable to pull Tilen away from his business, the woman ran back and asked if we would come into her house for some yak butter tea. Marcia squirmed at that, having not enjoyed previous encounters with that rancid brew, so the woman cheerfully offered to make black tea instead.

Her house, it turned out, was Tilen’s old house. Kinna later concluded that the woman might have been Tilen’s servant and he might have asked her to entertain us. The ground floor entry was so dark that we could hardly see a thing: we didn’t even notice the hanging goat head until we were leaving. We felt our way through another door into a room with some light coming down from the second floor and with a traditional dugout ladder going up. We followed the woman up the ladder and into her medieval kitchen. The only modern intrusions were a small fluorescent light and a cassette player, both powered by solar collectors on the roof.

She quickly fired up her small wood stove with some kindling and then put on some dried yak dung, which is the main fuel in this treeless country. Yak dung burns smokily, but fortunately her stove had a good chimney. Any remaining smoke escaped through a small hole in the roof.

We were joined by a two-year-old boy whose relation to the woman was unclear. He was not her son, but he certainly acted quite at home. Dolpo people live in extended families to compensate for the long absences and shared work necessary in this harsh environment. We were more amazed to realize that before we came, this two-year-old had been playing unsupervised in the field for several hours. Survival of the fittest breeds strong people.

After several cups of delicious milk tea, we took our leave and returned to our house for a late lunch. Marcia relaxed and read books for the rest of the afternoon while I walked down to the town monastery to take pictures in the good daylight.

While I was at the monastery, I saw a huge light-colored vulture circling overhead. As I watched, I realized that there were as many as seven. It turns out that a horse had died up the hill, and the call had clearly gone out.

Vultures are an important part of Tibetan life and death, as they are ritually invited to dispose of the dead body in sky burial, which recycles the body in a way that encourages reincarnation. The local belief is that when an animal dies, the vultures see the place in their dreams and they fly right there.

Fortunately it was not our time.

Day 13 – Oct 22 – Up the Namkhong Valley

Before leaving Saldang, Kinna arranged for Tundup to open the monastery. As the local amchi, Tundup has the rights of a lama, and he may actually be the one taking care of the gompa in the winter.

The gompa was new and some of the artwork remained to be finished. The painting seemed very high quality, as Saldang probably has access to the best artists of the area.

Attached to the gompa was the district medical center, which Tundup also runs. The medicines were almost all Tibetan except for a few boxes of probably outdated drugs. Tundup also has his own personal stockroom of herbal drugs at his house.

Tundup demonstrated his diagnostic art on about four members of the Italian group, who were also visiting at the same time. He held both wrists of the person for about 20 seconds, feeling the pulse and the energy of the person’s body. Based on only that, he said something like “when you get angry, you get a pain between the shoulders.” In three of the four cases, the person felt his or her diagnosis was accurate or even insightful.

On the way out of town, we stopped at the government-run communication post. Powered by a large solar panel, this satellite transmission facility allowed phone calls at pretty reasonable rates, probably subsidized by the government. Kinna and I talked with Ngima for a few minutes and verified that the passes to Jomsom are open. I briefly considered calling someone in the US, but what was the point of hearing news when it will be another two weeks before we can do anything about it?

The day’s hike was long and mostly uneventful. We needed to cover some ground because Do Tarap is about 40 kilometers away and we are scheduled to do that in three days. Most of the hike was easy valley-floor walking, though there were two places where we again needed to climb far above the valley to avoid an obstacle. We passed several monasteries built high up against canyon walls. Several people had set up water-driven grain mills along the river. Just before our camp, we saw a group of at least 20 blue sheep grazing high above us.

Our campsite is right below a local family’s house. We were a little cautious because the children were watching us intently as we set up camp, but it seems to have been inquisitiveness and not an intention to steal. There are still relatively few groups that pass through this restricted area, so we have to accept being stared at.

Day 14 – Oct 23 – Yogurt Camp

This was the second of three days planned for walking from Saldang to Dho Tarap. It was a gentle climb mostly following a river valley up to the base camp for crossing the pass the following day. The scenery was mostly rolling hills, though of course hills are bigger here than elsewhere.

It’s useful background for me to describe the daily ritual of our team. The day begins around 6:30 or 7 when one of the kitchen crew brings us tea in our tent. We’re usually awake by then but if not, it’s a sign for us to start getting our stuff packed. Washing water follows in basins about 20 or 30 minutes later, after which we have breakfast in the cooking tent. On our small trip, they has a cooking tent that is divided into two parts, one for cooking and one for us to eat. That makes it very simple to pass food and dirty dishes back and forth.

Meals are more fancy than anything I would make on a camping trip. Breakfast typically starts with some kind of cereal or oatmeal. Today we had muesli with locally purchased yak milk yogurt – more on this later. After that, we have the main course, which was an omelet plus Indian chappatis (bread). Dinner starts with soup and has an additional course of fruit after the main course. Then after everything, they bring hot milk and water, from which we can make tea or hot chocolate.

Once breakfast is over, we leave our large packs to be put on the mules, and we start walking with only our daypack. While we walk, the staff break camp and then rush ahead to the lunch spot. Local people walk much faster than we do, even carrying heavy loads, so by the time we arrive at lunch, they have already set up the stoves and have hot juice for us. After lunch, we again start walking slowly while they pack, run ahead and have camp set up before we arrive.

Today my digestive system didn’t cooperate. Within an hour after breakfast, I suddenly had diarrhea and I began having stomach pains bad enough to make me think of dysentery. It was all I could do to haul myself up to the lunch place, where I ate only a bit of garlic soup. I arranged to get into my pack (normally not possible until evening) and took the heavy artillery medicines: Cipro antibiotic and Flagyl anti-protozoic. Kinna proposed changing the schedule and camping there, but after a little rest I decided I felt well enough to complete the relatively easy afternoon. I somehow made it to our camping spot, though my stomach still felt uncomfortable.

I’ll spare you the details of what happened next after I lay down to rest. Suffice it to say that I lost my lunch and breakfast too, but then began feeling much better. That led me quickly to a new diagnosis, that the only thing that could have made me so sick so suddenly was food poisoning. Normally our cook Sonam is very careful, but I remembered today’s breakfast included the wildcard of the locally produced yogurt. Normally yogurt is safe since nothing can grow in the acidic curds, but things can still go wrong in places with poor sanitation. And I had eaten much more of the yogurt than Marcia, who had not been feeling bad until then.

Sure enough, however, Marcia began making noises of not wanting dinner and before long she too emptied her stomach. Our staff were quite concerned that neither of us wanted dinner, but I was actually relieved that our trouble should clear itself up rapidly now that we had eliminated the cause.

Day 15 – Oct 24 – Jang La to Dho Tarap

We both woke up feeling well, so we packed up and headed for the pass. This was a relatively easy one, with a stream bed leading most of the way up to a wide saddle between two mountains. I felt no altitude problems with the 5200 meter (17,000 foot) pass, though Marcia did still feel some dizziness. Even so, it was a long slog upwards.

From the pass, we had a clear view of Dhauligiri I (8167m), a huge mountain still almost 100 kilometers away. To the north, it was mostly the rolling hills of Dolpo, with a few of the peaks on the Tibetan border in the distance.

After a sack lunch, we began walking down the long valley to Dho Tarap. The scenery was similar to some of the long descents down the eastern side of the Sierras, with sedimentary and metamorphic outcroppings on either side. Even though it was all downhill, it was a long, long way, maybe 15 kilometers from the pass.

Dho Tarap is actually a series of towns spread out along the Tarap valley. The main town is at the east end, about 3 kilometers from where we entered the valley.

Kinna had promised us he would find us a guest house where we could sleep indoors, but those plans changed halfway down the valley when we discovered that the mule men had unloaded the bags and begun setting up camp in a mule-friendly spot next to the Crystal Mountain School, another boarding school run by a foreign NGO for the local children. Although we could have insisted that they pack everything back up, Marcia and I were just as happy to avoid another 30 minutes of walking.

Marcia really hit the wall of exhaustion that evening. She hadn’t slept well the previous night, and another night in the tent wasn’t appealing when she’d been hoping for a bed indoors. Fortunately, she was able to get right to sleep after a minimal dinner and had her best night’s sleep yet.

Day 16 – Oct 25 – Rest day in Dho Tarap

Day 16 was a rest day in Dho Tarap. Dho is an interesting junction between upper and lower Dolpo. Although it is an unrestricted area on the main lower Dolpo circuit, it is high and dry, much more like the Upper Dolpo regions we have visited. Historically, the Tarap valley is considered one of the four valleys of Upper Dolpo.

We moved that morning to the new guest house in the center of town. It did not have a private bedroom, but rather just four beds along the walls in one corner of the store and cooking area. Even so, Marcia and I agreed that it looked cozy and better than another night in the tent. The store was well stocked with goods mostly from China, still closer by yak caravan than the population centers of Nepal. Kinna looked at options for replacing his boots, and our mule men checked out the stock of stirrups and bells. To be a good mule bell, it needed to ring clearly when a finger is run lightly around its rim.

After lunch, we took baths in the very cold and drafty washroom, then relaxed. In the mid-afternoon I went out by myself to visit the local Bön monastery on the hill above town, which was unfortunately closed. But while I was up on the hill, I saw several more large birds soaring in the stiff wind: a golden eagle and a light-colored vulture.

The biggest crisis of the trip arose when we learned that several groups trying to get to Jomsom had turned backed due to heavy snow on the last double pass we would need to cross. Kinna seems determined to find a way through since he wants the experience and is even less fond than we are of flying back through Juphal and Nepalgunj. He spoke with a local horseman who has a yak man in Charka, the only town between here and Jomsom. If the yak man feels his yaks can get through, we will go over the passes to Chharka and change from mules to yaks there. But if even the yaks cannot get through, we may have no choice but to cancel the rest of the trip. By the evening, Kinna was softening us up for that possibility, but we agreed to wait until the morning to talk with the yak man and decide.

Day 17 – Oct 26 – Moving on with yaks

I slept badly last night, partly because of the dusty indoor space and partly because I was pondering what to do if we couldn’t complete the trip. I accepted that if we had to cancel, we would find other things to do, but it would be really sad to miss the final part of a great trip. Not to mention wasting about $1000 in non-refundable permit fees.

Marcia had already more than accepted it – she had had enough of life in a tent and would have been perfectly happy to find the straightest route back to Kathmandu, even if it went by way of Nepalgunj.

Whether good or bad, Kinna arrived first thing in the morning to say that he had worked everything out with the yak men and there will be no problem completing our trip as planned. The five mules and their two handlers would return to Dunai, we would have three yaks to take our stuff to the next town, where we would switch to another team of yaks that would have no problem getting through whatever snow there might be on the pass. People and yaks have been getting through. The only problem was the mules.

So we gave the obligatory tips said good-bye to our mule men Hari and Danjeet and their five mules. Kinna explained later that the mules actually belonged to Hari and there were originally six before one was killed on a trek by a snow leopard. That explained why they were so careful to keep the mules right near our tents. Kinna also reported that they had commented when leaving that Marcia and I were the kindest Westerners they had ever met, a nice compliment and maybe a sign that we’ve had some positive effects in an area that has mostly seen the west through military and Hollywood eyes.

After all that, we set out on Day 17 as originally planned. There are two routes from here to Chharka Bhot. One passes over a single very high and difficult pass. We will take the other, which crosses two slightly lower passes. Locals do the thirty kilometers and two passes in one day. We will spend three.

Walking east from Dho Tarap, we followed a gentle desert valley at first, then started climbing towards our next pass. After lunch, Kinna told us the afternoon’s walk to the pass’s base camp would be an easy 45 minutes. We didn’t believe him, fortunately, because it turned out to be two and a half hours straight uphill. We were actually happy about that, though, because it means less climbing tomorrow to the pass, which we can now see still way above us.

While we were climbing, a family passed us going the other way on foot and on horseback. Two women were wearing beautiful local costumes. We later learned that the family was traveling to a wedding to be held in Dho Tarap, and one of those beautifully dressed women was the bride. They and the rest of the party were traveling 30 kilometers over two passes on foot.

Today’s and tomorrow’s camps will be among the highest and coldest of the trip. At 4800 meters (16,000 feet) we are as high as the tallest mountain in the Alps. We are both well acclimatized, so there is no problem, though Marcia is feeling some effects from her asthma. Overall we seem to be fine and ready to cross the pass in the morning.

Day 18 – Oct 27 – Charku La

Today we crossed the high pass we could see from our camp. Maps show various names for it such as Jhyarkhoi Pass, but our local yak man says it’s properly just Charku La (charku means bird and la means pass in Tibetan). The maps also have wildly different elevations for the pass, most of them way too low. My GPS put the top at 5500 meters, which would be equal to Kang La, the first difficult pass we crossed ten days ago.

Marcia and I both kept putting one foot in front of the other to get to the top, and we both felt much better at this altitude. Even so, one can never completely acclimatize, and the last climb was not easy. It was particularly so for Marcia, who took her mind off her feet a few steps from the top and fell on the ice, bruising her leg and ribs. Coughing later in the day, she aggravated the rib injury with a pulled muscle.

It is interesting to have the Tibetan yak man Paruwa in our party. He is relatively tall and soft-spoken especially around his yaks. He also began the day with about 30 minutes of chanting just like what one would hear in a monastery. It shows how deeply Tibetan Buddhism still penetrates this culture that a simple yak man does such elaborate chants for the safety of his animals.

Paruwa is also helping Kinna find the way through this remote region, where neither our guide nor our cook has been before. This explains some of the aggressive time estimates, which probably are accurate for a Tibetan yak man. This happened again today at lunch, when Paruwa advised Kinna we could find water just after the pass. That turned out to be an hour and a half of hard downhill for us Westerners. But he was right that there was finally water, and then he led us to a great camping place next to a spring known only to yak men. Of course, we do have to watch where we step when we go out of the tent.

Whatever his limitations on timing and personal cleanliness (many Tibetans consider dirt and yak butter to be good sunscreen), Paruwa is very sound on yaks. It is amazing to see what goes into putting a load on a yak. The first step is to tie the yak’s front legs together, which is essential to avoid kicks from these huge beasts, which are only partly domesticated. The yaks seem to understand the necessity of this when Paruwa approaches them talking with clicking noises from behind. Then, Paruwa puts four layers of Tibetan and sheepskin rugs on their backs, as well as a small wooden rack shaped to the yak’s back. Finally they tie on the load of up to 120 kilograms (260 pounds), which the yaks will carry all day even as they graze.

Day 19 – Oct 28 – Mo La to Chharka

It was our coldest night yet, with our camping place flat but still at 4800 meters. From our camp, we could look out at the higher reaches of the Panzang Valley, the longest valley in Dolpo and the only one we will not visit. An unnamed peak above us looks like the Matterhorn.

We hiked over Mo La, the 5050-meter high point that separates the Panzang Valley from the Chharka Valley, where we will be spending our final days in Dolpo. From the pass, we could see to the far end of the valley, where we will cross the mountains that separate us from our destination, the Kali Gandaki Valley and Jomsom. A little below the pass, we could get great views of Dhauligiri II (7751) and several other summits to the south, since a large river valley leads south from Chharka past the base of these mountains back to Dunai.

The Chharka Valley is different from others we have visited. It has more vegetation, and snow-covered peaks look over it from the south. One could fit several Yosemite Valleys into it.

The long descent into Chharka passed over the hills to the north until the river came up to meet us. Marcia was feeling a lot of pain from her bruised leg and was exhausted when we got to town. She was happy to learn that because of yak logistics we were going to have to spend a rest day here tomorrow, even though it means another day on the trip.

We were also happy to have another two nights indoors away from life in a tent. This time we have a kind of private bedroom upstairs above a general store that is trying to cater to the trekkers who come through. Going upstairs requires a traditional dugout ladder, which might be challenging if we need to go to the toilet in the night. The room itself is just an empty storeroom, with patterned fabric hanging from the walls. There is a solar light but no obvious way to plug it in, since its wire is serving as a smoking rack for yak meat. But it’s relatively comfortable and private, and we call it Home Sweet Home.

Around 5:30, we were invited to join a wedding party in its third day. It was a different wedding than the one in Dho Tarap, with the timing synchronized by propitious dates. There were about 50 townspeople there, most of them participating in traditional circle dancing. The local brew chang had been flowing freely, so the dancing and singing were very relaxed.

Someone told Kinna they would get the local school coordinator, who could explain the songs to us. When he arrived, we learned that he was the bridegroom. After a few obligatory sips of chang, he invited us for tea to his new wife’s family’s house, where he would now be living.

To get into the house, we had to step over about 30 goats half asleep in the courtyard. These appeared to have some connection with the wedding, perhaps a dowry or present. The house itself was like others we visited, with the main room on the second floor up a carved-out ladder. Dolpo houses often have storerooms and other minor rooms on the outside so that the main room is well protected from the cold. Most of the action goes on in that central room, with a stove in the middle and benches serving as beds around the edge.

We sat and talked and drank butter tea for about a half hour until Kinna said that our dinner was waiting and we needed to go. Marcia and I gave a kata (ceremonial scarf) and a small monetary gift to the bride and groom, as well as the wife’s parents.