NOTE: Our trekking itinerary and campsites may vary slightly depending on local trail conditions, the group's acclimatization rate and the Western, Sherpa or Tibetan guide's discretion.
You will be met at the airport by a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House (look for their sign - they will be looking for you) and brought to the Kathmandu Guest House in their van. Kim will book the extra nights for you, and your room will be ready for you when you arrive.
Day 1 - Arrive Kathmandu 1340m
You'll be met at the airport by a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House, so look out for a Kathmandu Guest House sign when you leave the airport. They will bring you back to the Kathmandu Guest House, where your rooms are booked.
Kim will meet you at the Kathmandu Guest House (Room 603) and introduce you to Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu. Thamel is a myriad of banners, signs, music shops, bakeries, internet cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, shops of all imaginable varieties and eccentrically clad backpackers. You'll need to give Kim you insurance details, your passport and visa copies, three visa-sized photos and your return flight tickets, so have these ready to hand over. Over the next two days we can go over everyone's gear if they would like. In the evening, we'll get to know each other over dinner and a beer at New Orleans ...
Day 2 - Kathmandu
A free day to explore the Kathmandu valley. Options: Climb the many steps to Swayambhunath (the monkey temple), with its commanding views of Kathmandu (at 1420 m), its whitewashed stupas and its unique synthesis of Buddhism and Hinduism. The striking Buddha eyes of Boudhanath Stupa watch over a lively and colorful Tibetan community and attract pilgrims from all over the Himalayan Buddhist realm. In the midst of traditional gompas, and hung with long strings of multi-colored prayer flags, Boudhanath attracts Sherpas, Tibetans and tourists alike for daily circumambulations (koras) of the stupa. Durbar Square, one of the old capitals of the Kathmandu valley, is a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist temples, stupas and statues, and is often the site of festivals, marriages and other ceremonies. Hindu Pashupatinath and its sacred temple complex on the banks of the holy Bagmati river. Here, monkeys run up and down the steps of the burning ghats, and trident-bearing saddhus draped in burnt-orange and saffron sit serenely meditating - when they’re not posing for photos-for-rupees.
We'll have time for a bit of gear shopping in Thamel for anyone who needs to do this, and in the evening will head out for a dinner of wood-oven pizza at Roadhouse.
Day 3 - Fly to Nepalgunj 130m
We'll have the early part of the day in Kathmandu, so take advantage of the morning to check your gear, do some sightseeing and have a leisurely lunch. We will leave sometime around 2 PM for the airport. We are scheduled on the afternoon flight to Nepalgunj, arriving just after sunset. Our scenic flight over the terraced hillsides and thatched villages of Nepal's green middle hills takes us to Mahendra Airport in Nepalgunj, the largest city in the western Terai. Nepalgunj, set in the steamy plains of southern Nepal, less than ten kilometers from the border of India, is a jumping-off point for many flights and buses into western Nepal. The drive to our hotel passes through this bustling town, a mix of modern and old Nepal. We stay the night at air-conditioned Batika Resort, which as a pool (so bring a suit if you want a swim). Decent meals are available at the hotel's restaurant (but not included in the room price) so we'll get together in the evening for an early dinner.
NOTE: Only breakfast is included at Batika Resort. IF we are delayed in Nepalgunj due to cancelled flights people are responsible for their own extra nights and meals in Nepalgunj. We can try to arrange single rooms if requested but they're not assured as there are limited rooms at Batika. Single supplement for Nepalgunj is $60 per person.
Day 4 - Fly to Juphal 2490m
We'll be up early for our forty-five minute flight to Juphal (although the exact departure time is determined by the Mahendra airport that morning). We are treated to fantastic views of the great wrinkle of green ridges peppered with small, terraced villages and surrounded by snow-capped peaks from our small Yeti plane as we head north towards Juphal, the main airport of the Dolpo (Dolpa) region. And it's quite an exciting landing on their small landing strip, built right at the top of the village on a small ridge. Juphal and the surrounding villages, built high above the Thuli Bheri River, are a mix of Hindu and Buddhist inhabitants with many ancient animist and shamanistic elements thrown in, an interesting vignette of the middle hills culture of Nepal. Women wear traditional Nepali dress, sarong-like skirts, and adorn themselves with gold nose-rings and earrings and thick, colorful strands of glass beads.
We'll have some time to explore this interesting village of wooden and mud white-washed houses while waiting to meet Nima and his dzopkios, coming from Dunai to load our gear. There are a few small Nepali shops where basics like coconut biscuits and rum are available. If we stay in Juphal, we'll be at the opposite end of town at the largest campsite, behind a well-stocked shop.
*** We probably trek to Sulighat today but we've kept an extra day on the itinerary in case of flight cancellations out of Nepalgunj, not at all uncommon!
Day 5 - Trek to Sulighat 2075m
Descending steeply through the terraced village of Sangibada, the locals weathered by the harsh mountain sun, and contouring through the village fields, we pass wooden bridge posts carved with shamanistic faces connecting fields of red sorghum as we drop to the main trail far below. Other ancient customs such as hanging a dead raven on a high post make today's hike an interesting one. Once down the steep hill, the last section on a dirt trail, we continue to hike along a wide trail following the western bank of the clear, turquoise Thuli Bheri River. In back of us is Tripurakot Village, an important Hindu pilgrimage sight with a wonderful Kali temple perched high on a hillside. We pass more of the folk-artsy animistic figures carved figures along the trail, a throw-back to pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist days, still in use, and continue past a few small, river-side settlements, at one of which we will stop for a simple lunch. It will take us about three hours of scenic, easy walking to reach the new suspension bridge at the confluence of the Thuli Bheri and the Suligad, which leads to the Army post. A short walk up-river along the left bank brings us to another new suspension bridge leading to the small hamlet of Sulighat, the entrance of Shey Phoksumdo National Park and its buffer zone, Nepal's largest park (3555 square km), established in 1984.
We set up camp just before the bridge by the river, a short day to enable us to stay at the best (and well-spaced) campsites further up the Suligad towards Phoksumdo Lake.
At camp we will introduce you to the 'Kamzang-style' trekking set-up - our signature Tibetan-style dining tent, your personal Big Agnes tents, our great staff and other odds and ends. Relax with a cup of chai and enjoy the afternoon ...
Day 6 - Trek to Chhepka 2675m
A real trekking day, a wonderful one as we hike along the Suligad River through forests of pine, fir and birch through dramatic, steep canyons. The trail is hilly, sometimes high above the river and often right along the bank. We reach the three-house village of Kageni after a few hours of cliff-side walking, crossing the Suligad on a small, wooden bridge to reach the campsite at Raktang. Continuing along the western bank of the river, we pass several goths (grazing pastures) and the basic stone houses of Jyalhasa, a seasonal settlement of the Ringmo inhabitants. We climb slightly, hike through open woods, and later cross the river again at Shyanta, where the owners of small campsite and shop keep bee-hives. Notice the carved bridge posts along the way again. This region belongs to the pre-Cambrian Himal zone in geological terms, and is made up of garnet, schist, mica and quartzites which form talus slopes and make the valley sparkle in the sunlight. It should take us another three quarters of an hour to reach the grassy campsite at the small hamlet of Chhepka, a small Tibetan settlement tucked away amongst the steep hill-sides. In the Autumn the Tibetan women, dressed in their striped Tibetan skirts but having adapted a mix of Tibetan and Nepali clothes, will be beating their crop of dried barley with wooden threshing sticks. You can head down to the river or there is a tap to wash up in, and cold beers are available at the local Tibetan shop.
Day 7 - Trek to Amchi Hospital 3110m
We have another fantastic day of wooded gorge trekking to look forward to today. Leaving Chhepka, we cross the Suligad four times, mostly time staying close to the river as we hike through flowering, thick woods of bamboo and other indigenous trees including firs, birches and larches (deciduous conifers) turning their Autumn hues, and a dramatic, deep-sided gorge, often hiking right by the riverside on flat, stone steps.
Bird watchers will love this section of the valley; wag-tails flit from rock to rock along the riverbank, and the trees are alive with many other varieties of small birds. About four hours after leaving Chhepka we reach the campsite and tented tea-houses of Rechi, run by Tibetans from Ringmo, where we will stop for lunch by the river. The region starts to have a real Tibetan feel from now on, the locals dressed in traditional Tibetan garb, and the women adorned in their Tibetan turquoise, coral and amber necklaces. From Rechi, we have another two and a half hours of hilly trekking to reach camp. The trail climbs steeply to an amazing viewpoint up and down the Suligad from the trail, hewn out between rock and tree-trunk. After passing several small bridges leading westwards we reach our wonderful, grassy river-side campsite just past the Amchi Gompa and Tapriza Cultural school at Sumduwa and across the river from the Amchi Hospital. This is the confluence of the Pungmo Chu and the Suligad, now known as the Phoksumdo Khola. From the west bank of the river, a trail leads northwest towards the Kagmara La (pass) and on to Jumla. Our trail to Phoksumdo Lake the next day follows the west bank of the river, and the trail on the east of the Phoksumdo River branches off to the east and leads to Dho Tarap. Thus the name Sum (three) Duwa (trails) ...
Day 8 - Trek to Ringmo 3725m
We have a shorter, classic Himalayan day of trekking as we ascend towards Phoksumdo Lake and Ringmo, the gateway to Upper Dolpo. After several cups of freshly brewed coffee to warm us up, we backtrack a few minutes to the bridge just below the school and cross to the west of the Phoksumdo Khola, continuing past the small Amchi Hospital (an amchi is a traditional Tibetan doctor) and then up quite steeply through a forest of larches and birches and through Polam, the winter settlement of the Ringmo-pa. We ascend steeply for another hour or so, switch-backing on a spectacular, dusty, alpine trail to a ridge at about 3800 meters strewn with multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags and overlooking the magnificent falls, 200 meters high, that drain into the Suligad. A bit further and we finally view the turquoise Phoksumdo Lake itself, a magnificent sight. We continue along this high, sandy trail, descending slowly through a lovely forest to Phoksumdo Khola (river). Soon we reach the sizeable village of Ringmo on the banks of Phoksumdo Lake. Legend tells of a demoness that caused this lake to be formed during Guru Rimpoche's conversion of Dolpo to Buddhism, a perpetual symbol of the struggle between the Bon and Buddhist religions.
This is wild country, a region of alpine meadows, flowered pastures, rivers, natural springs, soaring mountain views. Steve Razzetti, the author of 'Trekking and Climbing in Nepal', writes about this region of Lower Dolpo: 'your heart will sing. This is trekking country to live for'. Enough said! We camp for the night below the cluster house in Ringmo, right at the south end of the lake, and will have the afternoon to relax and wash up (perhaps in the lake next to the yaks, but stay near the river draining the lake as it's a sacred lake) ...
Wander up into town after lunch. Several of the local tea-houses, fast encroaching on this little village, sell colorful, wool Dolpo blankets and a variety of other things, lots of which come from Kathmandu these days. Local Dolpo-pa women will often be weaving outside their houses. Nima's family has a lovely, traditional tea-house at the top of town, not far from our campsite, where you can shop, get a cup of salt-butter tea or a cold beer. Ask to see the yersa gumba that Nima trades in.
Day 9 - Ringmo
A rest and exploration day in this picturesque Tibetan village of flat-roofed stone houses, mani walls and impressive chortens surrounded by juniper and larch forests. There is a small gompa in town and an impressive, repainted kane chorten (entrance chorten), one three hundred the other five hundred years old. The ancient, white-washed Thasoon Chholing Bon-po Gompa is a twenty minute walk from our campsite along the forested eastern shores of the lake, worth taking a short hike to visit. As we're camped right on the shore of the spectacular Phoksumdo Lake take some time to soak in the fabulous surroundings - remember the harrowing scene in 'Himalaya' when Thinle's yak caravan attempted the 'Devil's Trail'? Yak caravans will be heading in and out of Ringmo on their way north towards the border of Tibet, and our most northerly destinations, Saldang and Thinje. Take a quick look at the famous bridge just a five minute walk to the west of our campsite, just at the southern end of the lake, and gaze back at the impressive peaks to the southeast of us. The largest one is Kanjiroba, and the snow-peak to the east of that is Sonam Kang.
Ringmo is part of the Paleozoic geological zone, formed of shallow marine environments. Much of this zone is limestone and quartzites with bands of siltstone and limestone. To the east of Ringmo is the Mesozoic or Tibetan Sedimentary zone (dinosaurs), formed by sandstones, slates, shale and shallow continental platform sediments. In this section many ammonites can be found.
Above Ringmo, a restricted area permit is required for Inner (Upper) Dolpo, so Kim & Lhakpa will head into the village to show the permits and do some restocking sometime during the day.
Day 10 - Trek to Chabluk Phu 3625m
Some Himalayan trekking in front of us today, one of Kim's top ten in the Himalaya! We leave our idyllic campsite after breakfast, heading north along a dramatic, precipitous (and slightly exposed) trail high on the western side of the lake. We cross the 'high' bridge that collapsed during the movie 'Himalaya' after a few minutes, and then ascend on a narrow, cliff-side trail. The views are un-beatable, with Kanjiroba and Sonam Kang rising to the south, if you can take your eyes off the slightly precarious trail! Half an hour later, we descend back down to the lake, cross a small stream and some scrubby wooded areas, and then climb steeply, much higher this time. We eventually reach a crest at just over 4000 meters, worth a long rest and many photos. We continue along this spectacular trail, staying high, as the lake opens up in different aspects in front of us, often with Himalayan Griffins and Lammergeyers soaring high above us. Near the northern end of the lake we make a long, gradual descent through a lovely forest of craggy Himalayan birches to reach our scenic lake-side campsite at Chabluk Phu, a local grazing area, just where the trail hits level ground. We'll have lunch by the lake if we haven't yet and collect some drift wood for a roaring bon-fire in the evening.
Last year our yaks wandered into the lake to cool down, a few still loaded (with Kim's bags), a perfect ending to a hot day ...
Day 11 - Trek to Ngongda La Base Camp (Snowfields Camp) 4625m
Yet another incredible day of hiking, starting with a level walk to the northwest through scrub and briar changing to bright Autumn colors. We are entering the real Dolpo, and to enter into this mystical land we have to cross the Ngongda La or Kang La (pass - Kanga La in Matheissen's book). Be ready for a serious river crossing early on in the morning, about an hour from camp. Bring crocs! The valley is magical as we head north and pass a small campsite marked by a beautiful mani stone. Soon after the valley fills with an open forest of birches and rose-buds, and then narrows. We turn right up the first small intersecting valley (it's easy to miss the trail, so stay with the group) which follows a rocky river to our campsite. After lunch near the confluence we climb through stones and boulders on a small trail, crossing the stream several times by rock-hopping, wading or on small, wooden bridges. Finally, a few tough hours later, we reach our 'high' camp, which Mattheissen named Snowfields Camp. We've made a large ascent in altitude today, so take some Diamox, drink lots of water and have a rest as we set up our cold but scenic campsite for the night ...
We were snowed in at this campsite in 2009 (with our tents almost collapsing) thus living up to its name Snowfields Camp! But wow, the next day was spectacular!
Day 12 - Trek to Shey Gompa 4375m
Now begins our trek to the fabled Shey Gompa and neighboring 'Crystal Mountain' (which takes its name from the veins of quartz that traverse its base), the most sacred peak in Dolpo which Dolpo pilgrims circumambulate each July or August, during the full moon, before the yearly grain harvest. The sacred mountain is knows as the Kailash of Dolpo; the mythology behind it describes a Tibetan Buddhist lama who battles the fierce local mountain spirit on a snow-lion, perhaps the same lama who founded Shey Gompa.
We'll have an early start for the challenging pass crossing, heading up the rocky valley and then climbing steeply for about an hour to reach a small resting spot. Heading to the left, our climb is even steeper as our trail switch-backs up scree or snow to the base of the pass, where we will soon turn left and hike up a steep trail traversing loose slate to the crest of the Ngongda La (Kang La) at an impressive 5345 meters. And what a panorama we are treated to for our efforts. We'll admire the views of the snow-peaks Shey Shikkar and Kang Chunne, both just over 6000 meters, before descending steeply down (or glissading down through the snow) to the wide valley floor. Be ready for snow on the northern side of the pass! We are entering George Schaller's blue sheep and snow leopard country, so keep the binoculars ready. After stopping for lunch by the stream that we follow down the valley, we pass a long, ancient mani wall and finally spot Shey Gompa and the neighboring village of Shey, a tiny hamlet of eight or so inhabitants. A red chorten marks the entrance to Shey, where we stay for the next two nights just below the gompa at a wonderful, grassy campsite next to the threshing circles and long mani wall ...
Day 13 - Shey
Now that we're here, let's do some exploring! For those needing a rest day, the 11th-13th century, ochre Shey Gompa is a wonderful monastery, with colorful Tibetan murals and old statues inside which the gate-keeper, a monk from Sikkim, will open up for us. The four hundred year old Kagyupa gompa was fabled to have been constructed by a Tibetan Buddhist lama, arriving on the back of a mythical snow-lion. The murals are not old, but there is a valuable scroll that describes the mythology behind sacred Crystal Mountain and Shey Gompa, including where to find the milky lake in the interior of the Crystal Mountain kora which allows the pilgrim to see Mount Kailash in the far distance. To the left of Shey Gompa is another gompa, built into the cliff-side. You might remember the prayer-room inside from the movie 'Himalaya'. Make a 'kora' of the gompa complex and relax for the rest of the day with a book, soaking in the spectacular views from our campsite ...
'I flew through the sky on a snow lion
And there, among the clouds, I performed miracles.
But not even the greatest of celestial feats
Can equal once rounding on foot this Crystal Mountain'.
- Drotob Senge Yeshe (the lama)
We'll make a pilgrimage to a sacred Tsakhang Gompa to the west of Shey, perched amongst the craggy, red cliffs, is the smaller but perhaps more important Tsakhang Gompa (which means red gompa, after the cliffs) of the Kagyupa sect, knows for its teachers Tilopa, Marpa and Milarepa. The incarnation of the first Tsakhang lama, the 17th 'trulku' of this line, is a young lama from Phijor now studying in Kathmandu. The gompa is filled with colorful Buddhist paintings and rare thankas.
Day 14 - Trek to Namgung 4430m
The next few days cover some of the most culturally interesting regions of the trek, and the scenery is equally spectacular. We leave Shey and head east along the Sephu Khola towards the Saldang La (or Shey La), a gradual three hour hike up the valley past doksas (seasonal settlements) and many ancient mani walls. We may pass Saldang inhabitants en route to or from Shey as the people of Saldang own this region. Turning to the right and starting to climb less gradually following a small stream we soon reach the last steep climb which brings us to the prayer-flag festooned summit at 5075 meters. From the windy pass, we are treated to magnificent panoramic views of the peaks surrounding Dolpo, with Mustang to the east, Tibet to the north , and Kanjiroba, Kagmara and Riu Dhukta, or the Crystal Mountain, to the West. The landscape resembles more and more the arid plateaus and canyons of neighboring Mustang as we descend through this other-worldly landscape. We descent quite steeply to a small stream, where we continue to contour around the hillsides heading towards Namgung. We'll stop for lunch at a seasonal herding settlement, and then follow our yaks, kicking up dust, towards camp. Once around the hillsides, the ancient red and white Namgung Gompa, perched on the hill-side behind Namgung village, appears impressively below us, the older gompa built into the cliff while the newer gompa sits with the two houses of Namgung. Other ruins of ancient gompas and dwellings are built into the cliff-side near Namgung, adding to the mystique of this area. Take a walk down to the crumbling gompa, but be careful as the trail is crumbling and often precipitous. Our campsite is a ten minute walk above the small, two or three house village (we arrive first at camp). From there it's another ten minutes to the old gompa.
Day 15 - Trek to Saldang 3980m
A short but spectacular day along the high trail leading to Saldang, with large birds of prey and sometimes migrating Demoiselle Cranes soaring above us and passing several doksas and villagers en route. After a few hours of easy contouring and a few climbs, we crest a ridge topped with prayer flags and look down on Saldang below us and the crinkle of dun-colored mountains to the north, bordering on Tibet. You can see the route to the Panzang valley from the ridge, and can pick out much of our route after leaving Saldang. After more contouring and several steep, sandy descents, we reach 'Caravan Thinle's' typically Tibetan-style house at the northern end of the village, where we will (possibly) stop for some salt-butter tea and a cup of Tibetan barley beer, or 'chang'. Our first year in Saldang the low-caste butchers were in Thinle's yard skinning three sheep, which would be cured and dried for future use.
Our spectacularly set campsite is at the far southeast of this large village, so it will take us at least half an hour to wander through this fascinating and scenic Tibetan village, past mani walls and through kanes, down village lanes and around tilled barley fields, to reach it. We camp just above ochre Saldang Gompa, gold-gilded and sparkling in the mid-day sun.
Day 16 - Saldang
A free day in wonderful Saldang, the largest village in the Nangkhang region of Dolpo with many exploration options. One is to make a loop through some of the villages north of Saldang, where the Autumn harvest will be in full force. Follow the Nagon Khola north to Karang and Marang villages for a look into village life; Thinle will introduce us to his friends and relatives, and we might have the chance to visit a local house for some dried cheese (churpi) and salt-butter tea. Another option is to explore Saldang, as the maze of alleys that winds through the village is endlessly fascinating. Below us adjoining Saldang Gompa is the Amchi Hospital run by a local amchi and his son. The amchi is one of the stars of the movie 'Himalaya' and showed Kim the instrument that was used in the movie to burn Thinle's chest when after the snow-storm. There is a great book on the making of Himalaya in the newer annex of the gompa above our campsite, worth a walk up. The amchi speaks a bit of English, his son more, and are fascinating to talk with. Thinle's house is next door to our campsite, and we'll have a chance to go inside and visit his wife and son, and to have some suija (salt-butter tea), beer and snacks (the later two probably from China).
We found out an interesting fact about Dolpo and the caste system last year from the visiting Lama, a relative of Thinle's. Dolpo still retains an ancient caste-system, discarded throughout much of the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist world, which doesn't permit Dolpo-pa of the higher castes to eat with or enter the house of lower-caste Dolpo -pa.
Another option for the day is to hire horses ($10-$15 per person) for a day-trip to Yanger Gompa, one of the oldest and most important in Dolpo, three or four hours to the north of Saldang along the eastern bank of the river. It's a beautiful ride along the deep canyon bottom, crossing the Nagon River numerous time, but the saddles are NOT comfortable! Kim will opt out of this excursion and Lhakpa will probably go instead ...
Day 17 - Trek to Khomagaon 4100m
Last year's exploratory section of the trek began here, and we've kept the route this year as it was truly amazing: remote, stunningly beautiful, purely Tibetan and some of the best trekking in all of the Himalaya. Heading down past Saldang Gompa along the route to Dho we continue along the Nagon Khola though Sugugaon, a bustling, white-washed village and past long mani walls, painted chortens and old gompas perched high up along the mountainsides. At Chagaon, we cross the Nagon Khola on a small bridge and head straight up the dusty ridge on a steep, rocky switch-backing trail for an hour. Dropping down to a dry, black riverbed, we climb again to a grassy plateau where we'll stop for a much -needed lunch break. A further fifteen minutes brings us to the Khoma La (4565 meters), from where we contour gradually down to eventually reach the beautiful village of Khomagaon (Khoma) where we camp in the middle of town on a large, flat and somewhat grassy plateau. Just before we reach camp we pass directly through Khoma Gompa and school, where we will certainly be spotted and greeted by the villagers. For some reason the Khoma village kids are quite aggressive, so be careful with your stuff and perhaps we'll avoid giving out anything this year! Dolpo blankets and skirts will certainly be on offer in the afternoon outside our tent, which was transformed into a Central Asian bazaar last year.
Day 18 - Trek to Mendo 4000m
After fortifying ourselves with a few cups of freshly-brewed coffee, we leave Khomagaon ('gaon' means village in Nepali), drop down to the river, and after an hour or so cross the Gurchhu Khola on a wooden bridge. Right afterward, we ascend and contour for another hour to a small pass, the Shimen La (4270 meters) - last year villagers were improving the trail so it should be wide this year. From the crest of the pass you can look down valley into expansive and green Shimen village. From here it's a short but steep and sandy hike down to the intersection of the northern trail from Saldang, which follows the Panjyan (Panzang) Khola. We are now in the Panzang district of Dolpo, which Kenneth Bauer writes much about in his book, High Frontiers. He's got a great website and organization called DROKPA (www.drokpa.org) which you should take a look at before or after coming to Dolpo. Shimen is just past this intersection, across a small, wooden bridge. Snellgrove, who visited Dolpo in the 1960s, wrote 'Shimen is the most pleasant of Dolpo's villages just because of its many trees' and you'll notice the difference between Shimen and Khoma! Shimen Gompa is in the middle of town, and we may stop to visit a family that we helped last year before continuing on to our campsite an hour (plus) down the valley.
Once through bustling Shimen, where villagers will be threshing their barley, we continue past long, crumbling mani walls with ancient chortens and drop down to the river. We follow this trail for about an hour before turning right up a narrow canyon and climbing steeply to our campsite. This spot, locally called Mendo, is a seasonal doksa with a mani wall and stone enclosures, a beautiful but cold spot as it looses the sun early and doesn't get it until late morning.
Day 19 - Trek to Tinkyu (Thinje) 4110m
Heading south along the Panjyan (Panzang) Khola, staying on the eastern bank, we pass two trails leading north to the border of Tibet on our left, more mani walls and further along Pu Gompa on the other side of the river. Namgyal chorten high up in the hills across the river is another hour away. We stay along the river bank and enjoy the easy trekking to a seasonal village and then to the small hamlet of Phalwa, where another trail branches off to the north heading to the Tibetan border, signifying how important trade with Tibet is still to the Dolpo-pa. Crossing the intersecting stream, we climb slightly to an impressive group of large chortens and manis adorned with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, and then continue another hour to Thinje (Tinkyu). Tinkyu is a large, prominent village from where many of the villagers acting in the movie 'Himalaya' come, a large, fascinating village which lends itself to some exploration. Tenzin Norbu, the famous 'Ngagpa' painter of Dolpo, also comes from Tinkyu, in the Panzang region. In the old times, his ancestors, also monk painters, traveled to Lo Manthang in Mustang to pay their tribute in murals, thankas and mani walls.
Our campsite is one of the most idyllic yet, across a covered wooden bridge and right on the grassy banks of the Panzang Khola, which from Tinkyu veers off to the south to Tokyu (near Dho). Take advantage of this wonderful, warm and sunny spot to do some laundry, go for a wash and just relax and enjoy Dolpo ...
Day 20 - Tinkyu (Thinje)
Sleep in, we have a free day to do some exploring of this remote section of Dolpo, very close to the border of Tibet. Thinle and Nima know many people in this village, so we'll have a chance to visit some of the local houses. Kenneth Bauer writes very engaging accounts of staying with Tenzin Norbu's father, Karma Tenzin, and mother, Yangtsum Lama at their house, Tralung Gompa, a short walk up the valley. His account provides a wonderful look into the harsh every-day life of the Dolpo-pa. We have the book in our library if you don't want to pick-up your own copy.
There is an interesting and ancient look-out tower back across the covered bridge toward the school, and ten minutes past that landmark is the wonderful Siddhartha Kulu Mountain School where the students were practicing their dances for parents' day in 2009. (www.couleurs-himalaya.org). Head straight up the hill in back of the school to reach Tralung Gompa, well worth the scramble! We had salt-butter tea with the resident lama in 2009 ...
Day 21 - Trek to Rapka 4535m
Now we're truly off the map as Thinle leads us along the local trading trail heading to Rapka doksa. En route we will likely pass villagers from Chharka heading to or from Tibet, or picking up supplies that they stashed, with their yak caravans, a timeless site. The trail is quite easy-going at first, following the Panzang River before it veers south and staying on the left-hand side. We reach the intersection where the Panzang Khola becomes the Sulun Khola after about three scenic hours, and continue along the smaller, intersecting river from here. The trail now climbs and descends often, and we lose the views as we pass through narrowing, windy canyons, but after another few hours the valley widens and after crossing a small stream feeding from a large glacial valley we climb and descend to the wide plateau of Rapka. There are two campsites at Rapka, the closer one which we camped at last year and seemed less covered in yak-dung and the slightly further one, half an hour past ours, which looked to be a bit more dung-saturated. Both have expansive views and make good stopping points for the night ...
Day 22 - Trek to Chharka 4110m
We have a LONG day in front of us with a pass in the middle of it so we're up early to get a head-start on the day. Continuing down our wide valley for an hour, we have to wade the wide, icy but shallow river to get to the access valley for the Chharka La (Mola Bhanjyang). The Lakkyan Khola turns to the flood-plain like Myantoku Khola, a small river which we have to ford several times (again, bring your Crocs). We have to climb a bit on the right side of the river, drop back down and then at the chortens start climbing again. There is a false summit, or the pass has two summits, so don't let the first one fool you. We have another hour or so to go before reaching the Chharka La (5030m) where we met a huge yak caravan descending in 2009, kicking up dust as the yaks ran down the pass, a fantastic sight back-lit by the sun. At the pass, an easy climb, look to the right for a breath-taking view of Dhaulagiri, which we'll have views of for a few days.
We have another two or three hour of contouring, sometimes steeply up or down, to reach Chharka and will probably pass villager en route collecting the evening's firewood. It's a wonderful time of day to be hiking, so forget the length of the day and look around at the classic Dolpo landscape glowing in the high mountain sunrays. Once we reach the line of impressive chortens along the trail we are close to camp. From here Chharka Gompa is just below us to the right and Chharka village is below straight ahead. You might recognize the village from 'Himalaya' - much of the movie was filmed here. We pass the village school on the left as we descend, pass through the large kane that marks the beginning of the main village, and then wind our way through this ancient village to reach our campsite in the tilled barley fields just above the Chharka Khola. Just below our campsite is the bridge that leads to the newer part of the village and a few shops, and behind us is the old village, with small, walled alleys that fill with Pashmina sheep and goats in the evening.
Our camp is a bit dusty but a nice one with the sound of the rushing river to lull us to sleep, and we'll be visited by villagers and their herd of sheep and goats ...
Day 23 - Chharka
It was a long day yesterday so we've scheduled an extra recovery day today, a chance to visit this interesting hamlet of closely-built, white-washed dwellings, medieval in feel, with its Bon-po monastery, Sarchhen Gompa. Have a wander though town and visit some of the old Tibetan-style houses, visit the shop to re-supply or have a wash down by the (chilly) river. We'll have lots of visitors if you just want to relax at camp with a book!
Last year we set up an impromptu 'medical center' inside our dining tent and had a line of Chhepka-pa waiting patiently outside... We also arrived just in time for a big Tibetan festival, with all the typical Dolpo components: chanting, dancing, music, eating and drinking in the 'chang hall', socializing and everyone dressed to the T; truly an amazing experience! As we couldn't cross the passes to Jomsom, we spent an additional night in Chharka so got the chance to go inside some of the typically-Tibetan style houses and drink a few cups of salt-butter tea while Lhakpa and Kim stocked up on silver-dollar sized potatoes (about all they had to sell in town).
Day 24 - Trek to Norbulung 4750m
On towards the series of passes that will eventually lead us to Jomsom and Lower Mustang! We've got a lovely day of walking ahead of us, crossing the small bridge over the Chharka Khola to the other section of Chharka and then continuing for about fifteen minutes and crossing the Chharka Khola again on a new, metal bridge. We follow the right side of the river for another hour or so, mostly level, and then start to climb gradually only to descend back to the river at Naliyang Sumdo, the intersection of the Chharka Khola and the Thansan Khola. We cross the river on another new bridge and then climb very steeply to the top of the ridge, from where we follow this high trail which ascends gradually up the high plateau to a more defined trail.
*** This is where we had to turn back in 2009, so the rest is EXPLORATORY!
The map shows the trail crossing the river before reaching Norbulung, which should be about two hours of gradual climbing on the same side of the river from our last stop. We sleep at 4750 so for sure it will be cold tonight!
Day 25 - Trek to Molum Sumdo 4860m
We have a shorter day today as we have the double pass in front of us the next day. We follow the Thansan Khola, which widens considerably after the valley on the right emerging from the cluster of 5000 meter peaks, and then narrows after another hour or so. Molum Sumdo is only an extra hundred meters above Norbulung, so we'll have a good chance to acclimatize before attempting the pass.
Day 26 - Trek to Sangda Phedi 5100m
Double pass day! Passing through the high yak pastures of Molum Sumdo, we follow the riverbed for about an hour and then climb to a ridge just before the Thansan Khola intersects the Malun Khola and branches off to our left. We drop down to the Thansan Khola and cross it on a bridge and then start our pass to the Niwar Pass (5130 meters). We're trekking through a remote region of stark, Himalayan beauty, with varying hues of ochre, sable and tan, classic mountain scenery. The second pass, the Sangda (Bhanjyang) La is perhaps half and hour away, and a 150 meter climb. Don't underestimate this double pass; it can be extremely windy and cold, and the Jomsom side is often covered in ice making it essentially impassible. This is what we couldn't cross in 2009. It's a long, tough pass crossing but affording fantastic views from the top. The Sangda La marks the border of Dolpo and the Annapurnas, so we've now entered the Annapurna region. We descend along a steep, gravel trail, quite difficult, and follow the Bheri Khola to the intersection with the Kyalunpa Khola, Sangda Phedi (Sangda Gunsa), the winter grazing settlement of the Sangda villagers. Finally we set up camp for the night and have a rest ...
*** There is another route to Jomsom that the locals take sometime. We will find out more about this once in Chharka.
Day 27 - Trek to Sangda 3710mm
Soon after leaving camp, at the chorten to our left, we'll have to cross the Bheri Khola on a small bridge and then hike along the right-hand bank for a bit. We leave the river and descend slowly to Jhyanse where we have to ford the chilly river (bring Crocs). Heading towards Sangtha to the east, we ford one more small stream, the Dhundok Khola, feeding from the Sadachhe Himal to our right. Dhampus Peak (6012m) is the southwestern most peak in this massif, and moving east from there is the Sechi Lek (5981m), Tashikang (6386m) and Tasartse (6343m). Soon we reach the village of Sangda, a remote outpost of Gurung Tibetans originally from Mustang. This is blue sheep territory, so have your binoculars out!
Day 28 - Trek to Phalyak 3175m
From Sangda, we start climbing and spend most of the morning making a high traverse, crossing many ridges until we finally reach the 'pass' at about 4500 meters. From the crest, we have a magnificent vista, looking out to snow-capped peaks and down to Mustang's patch-work of trails and villages far below. Kagbeni, Jharkot, Muktinath, Thorung Peak, the Thorung La, Niligiri, Dhaulagiri and the Kali Gandaki are all visible, an awe-inspiring site!
From here, we descend quite steeply into the Kali Gandaki valley, past a monastery cave (somewhere), and branching off to the southern trail after cresting the Jeula Danda (ridge). The northern trail goes steeply and directly down to Kagbeni Wed descend steeply from the small Tiri Pass (3710m) eventually reaching the fortress-like entrances to the small villages of Phalyak and nearby Dhagarjun, where we set up camp for the night. Phalyak is an interesting Mustangi village which holds an annual archery festival as most of the Mustangi and Managi villages do. We stumbled upon one a few years back and followed the pre (or post) festival procession around town, the locals imbibing plenty of chang ...
Day 29 - Trek to Jomsom 2724m
Stick your heads out of your tents to see the sunrise on Niligiri and Dhaulagiri before breakfast in our dining tent. Himalayan sunrises and sunsets are one of the many things that remind us of why we've come all this way, and endured these hard, cold days!
We climb to a ridge 400 meters above Phalyak, and then head directly south down a steep, sandy trail towards Jomsom, the district headquarters of Mustang, back to 'civilization' (road, many trekkers, shopping) on the Annapurna Circuit. We reach the long, cobbled path that connects upper and lower Jomsom, along which beautiful textiles, woven on hand looms in the traditional style, and are displayed by Mustangi women. At the Trekker's Lodge in the lower section of Jomsom, near the airport, cold beers and hot showers await. We'll celebrate our wonderful journey through remote Dolpo in the evening with our five-star crew, hand out tips and bonuses and down a few cold beers ...
Day 30 - Fly Pokhara & Kathmandu
The end of an amazing trek, and an equally impressive exit as we fly by Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna range to reach Pokhara, where we transfer to a flight to Kathmandu. Back in Kathmandu, our rooms are waiting for us at the Kathmandu Guest House, hot showers being the first order of the afternoon! We'll head out to dinner at the Roadhouse later, and celebrate our incredible journey through Dolpo.
NOTE: In the case of flight cancellation out of Jomsom, we'll pay for the rooms and everyone will be responsible for their own meals as if in Kathmandu.
Day 31 - Depart
Sadly, we send you off to the airport for your flights home ...
NOTE: We strongly suggest scheduling an extra day in Kathmandu at the end of the trek that allow for possible flight delays in getting to Juphal and/or out of Jomsom.
Extra Days in Kathmandu
If you wish to stay longer, we can offer plenty of suggestions: mountain biking or rafting in the Kathmandu valley, an Everest sightseeing flight, trips to Bhaktapur or Patan (Kathmandu Valley's other historic capital cities), a night at the Fort Hotel in Nagarkot for a bit of luxury and expansive sunrise/sunset mountain panoramas, visits to interesting temple villages such as Changu Narayan, a few days at Barahi Hotel in Pokhara or a relaxing excursion to Chitwan National Park (staying at Maruni Sanctuary Lodge) or Bardia National Park. Kim can help to arrange any of these excursions for you.
Tashi Delek & Namaste! See you on your next trip to the Himalaya!