Nepal is a country of many hidden treasures. From the desert-like corrosion of cliffs and hills in Mustang to the snowy paradise that is Mount Everest, Nepal’s geomorphologic diversity is astounding, especially considering its relatively small area. Furthermore, the cultural and traditional riches of the country are also one of its many amazing features. Trekking in Nepal is a matter of enjoying and being immersed in deeply rooted practices of ancient customs and rituals along with reveling in the beautiful landscapes that consist of many natural and Himalayan elements. And apart from the popular trekking destinations of Everest and the Annapurna, Nepal has many off-the-beaten-paths trekking trails as well that offer unique and vastly fascinating trekking experiences. Among the far-flung trekking trails, trekking in Dolpo is one that is brimming with many treasures and highlights.
Trekking in Dolpo is considered one of the most isolated trekking experiences in the country. With the coming of the great Dashain festival as well, the influx of pilgrims and devotes to the temple of Tripura Devi in Dolpo rises significantly. It is a trekking experience that is filled with monumental moments and many traditional and undisturbed natural environments. A high altitude culturally Tibetan region, Dolpo lies in the upper catchments of the Dolpa district of western Nepal. Towards the north of Dolpo lies China. A majority of the experience trekking in Dolpo consists of exploring and enjoying the Shey Phoksundo National Park, since the region is under its protection. The sparse, agro-pastoral population of Dolpo is connected to the rest of the country via the Jufal airport. Dolpo is also famous for its mountainous terrain which makes it quite difficult for the development of transportation in the district. Despite situated within the district of Dolpa- the largest district of Nepal covering about 5.36% of the total landmass of the country- it is still pretty much isolated and shrouded in seclusion because of its topography. Albeit it being the largest region, it is still the least densely populated region of the country. This has resulted in the culture and tradition of the ethnic people of Dolpo to be preserved in its still refined form. Generally adherent of the Bon culture, trekking in Dolpo is a great opportunity to observe and experience a religion whose origins predate Buddhism. In many other parts of the country, like Mustang for example- the modern form of Bon is also officially accepted as a fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Moreover, Dolpo was also the location for the 1999 Oscar-nominated film Himalaya by Eric Valli- the first Nepalese film to be nominated in the “Best Foreign Film” category at the 72nd Academy Awards. More recently, the German documentary Dolpo Tulku is also filmed here. Still a relatively hidden trekking destination, Dolpo is quickly gaining more popularity in steady years. In spite of its near inaccessibility and tourism restrictions for more remote parts of the valley, the appeals of trekking in Dolpo far outweigh its obstacles.
Geography of Dolpo
Geologically a part of the sedimentary Tibetan-Tethys Zone, Dolpo is surrounded by the Himalayan mountain chain that includes prominent peaks like the Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna. Much like Mustang, the Himalayas cause a cloud barrier and result in the semi-arid climate of the valley. There is very little rainfall in Dolpo, resulting in a landscape that resembles the Tibetan plateau. Historically, Dolpo valley is divided into four separate valleys- the Tsharka (also referred to as “the good growing place”), the Tarap (“the auspicious excellence”), the Panzang (“The abode of the monks”) and the Nangkhong (“the innermost place”). Four of the seven VDCs of the Dolpa district are located within Dolpo’s divided valleys. Dolpo is also drained by the Bheri River- a major tributary of the Karnali River that drains western Dhaulagiri. Among the four divided valleys of Dolpo, the Nangkhong, also called Saldang in the local Dolpo dialect, is the most populous. As a matter of fact, Dolpo is called “Dholwa” in the local Tibetan dialect by the people.
Trekking in Dolpo is often filled with wide open summer pastures, brown rudimentary hills and lots of yak caravans. Agriculture is taken up by the people who reside at about 3,800 to 4,180 meters of elevation. The villages of the Panzang valley and the Tsharka valley have the most prominent agricultural presence among the four valleys of Dolpo. Because of how sparse the rain is in the valley, the agriculture often requires irrigation. Crops like barley, buckwheat, millet, mustard, wheat, potatoes, radishes and spinaches are most abundantly grown by the village farmers. One of the most beautiful sights to see while trekking in Dolpo is the rolling of the vast golden barley farms in the wind. The people of Dolpo migrate between villages and high lying pastures- this lifestyle of the people is famously referred to as “samadrok” which means “farming nomads”. Yak caravans trudging along the trekking trail carrying goods is the most common and fascinating sight that treat trekkers of Dolpo.
Dolpo is also quite famous for the growth and cultivation of many herbs and the mysterious Yarsha Gompa (Cordyceps sinensis). Yarsha Gompas are quite peculiar because they act like both plants and animals. Trees and woodlands of pine, juniper, silver birches, wall nuts, apples and plums are found in the valley.
More specifically, Dolpo is preferably divided further into two- the Upper and Lower Dolpo. Among the 23 VDCs of the Dolpo valley, five of them lie in Upper Dolpo. They are Mukkot, Chharka, Tinje, Bhijer and Saldang. Upper Dolpo ranges in elevations from 1,525 meter to 7,751 meters. Due to the vast difference in the elevation, the weather condition of Upper Dolpo also varies a lot in different places. According to the climatic zones, Upper Dolpo can be categorized into 5 main zones- the subtropical zone, the temperate zone, the trans-Himalayan zone (covering more than 70% of the land), the alpine zone (that covers 8% of the land) and the Nial zone (that covers 4% f the total land of Upper Dolpo).
Opened to foreign tourists only fairly recently in 1996, Upper Dolpo is still considered as one of the least explored places in Nepal. With stunning mountain scenery, ethnic Tibetan villages that are untouched my modernization and that still has the persistence of the old way of life, trekking in Dolpo is a challenging yet the most exotic of trekking experiences. The beautiful Phoksundo Lake also lies at Upper Dolpo, along with the holy Shey Gompa. It is a mystical hidden land that holds many spectacular treasures. The land is drained by river basins of the Bheri, Suligad and the Rupagad. Towards the north of the valley are the snowy Himalayas. Trekking in Dolpo requires a special permit. While trekking in Upper Dolpo- a major mountain pass is also crossed, the Numa La Pass that lies at an elevation of 5,190 meters. From the mountain pass, the spectacular Phoksundo Lake at the Ringmo village is seen in the most beautiful of fashion.
Lower Dolpo was opened to foreigners even before Upper Dolpo was. Trekking in lower Dolpo began all the way in 1982. Because of the region’s sensitive and remote geography, permits are required for trekking in lower Dolpo as well. Situated in the transhimalayan climatic zone of Dolpa, Lower Dolpo resembles the Tibetan highlands. It is quite isolated and the feeling of seclusion while trekking here is quite strong. Colorful barren slopes of the mountains make Lower Dolpo an alluring hidden paradise. Very few trekkers come here, which is why it is so untouched and refined. The trail to Lower Dolpo graces three high mountain passes- the Kangmara La, the Baga La and the Numa La.
The trail to Lower Dolpo passes through the Shey Phoksundo National Park. Therefore, Lower Dolpo also consists of encounters with varieties of unique flora and fauna of the hidden valley. The people residing in this area are simple and lead a very primitive lifestyle. Descendants of Tibetan people, the residents of Lower Dolpo still practice the pre Buddhist Bon religion. Lower Dolpo also includes the village of Dho Tarap- the highest located human settlement on the planet. Trekking in Dolpo is filled with fascinating and unique isolated features like this.
Dolpo Valley’s Culture
The Bon Lamas of Dolpo
Dolpo has Hindu influences in the southern Lower Dolpo, but the Upper Dolpo’s residents mainly practice Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. This is contributed to the fact that Upper Dolpo has had very close proximity with Tibet for centuries. It is said that the purest form of Buddhism is practiced in Dolpo and that the Hidden valley is a treasure trove of sacred Buddhist places and ancient traditions. Ancient manuscripts in Dolpo have even foretold the prophecy of Lord Buddha. The legend of the valley also speaks of Guru Rinpoche blessing the entire Dolpo region during his visit to subdue three demonesses who fled to Dolpo from Tibet during the 8th century. Pilgrims visit the region to see the footprint of Guru Rinpoche at Dolpo. The valley also contains many rock formations and caves where many Lamas meditated over several centuries. There are also several monasteries in Dolpo that are the oldest of their sect dating back over 700 years.
Buddhism being the main religion practiced in Dolpo, the valley has a following of major sects like the Sakya, Kakyu and Nyingma. Among these, Nyingma- the red hat sect which revolves around the myth of Guru Rinpoche, is the most dominant one. However, the efforts of the Dalai Lama to discover a common ground for all of the four sects have created a major place for the Gelugpa sect- the yellow hat sect, in Dolpo since the early 1960s.
In general, Tibetan Buddhism in Dolpo has two levels- the religious practices by the monk in the monasteries and the daily practices of rituals by a commoner. Trekking in Dolpo is an opportunity to witness both unique practices of the valley. Rituals of a commoner involve activities to appease any spirit, evil or good, that are believed to dwell under the Earth, under mountains or in homes. The rituals of the commoner relate to household activities like baking the Tsampa bread for major incidents like a house construction or the beginning of cultivation in the harvesting season. Dolpo’s Tibetan Buddhist culture, also called “Lamanism”, is influenced by the role of monks and monasteries that gather religious dogmas from neighboring Tibetan regions and from India.
As mentioned, Dolpo is also one of the last few places where the Bon religion is still in practice in its most primitive form. Some of the Bonpo monasteries of the region are the oldest existing ones. The origin of the Bon religion relates to the myth of the sacred figure Tonpa Sherub who lived in western Tibet. Bon emphasizes its religious grounds more on spirits and deities rather than philosophies. That is why sometimes, Bon is also referred as Shamanism. The practices of Bon are the key factors that differentiate the religion from Tibetan Buddhism. Some differences of Bon from Tibetan Buddhism include circumbulating shrines anti-clockwise unlike Buddhism where shrines and chortens are circumbulated in a clockwise direction. Likewise, revolving prayer wheels to the left and inscribing swastika’s to the left are Bon’s practices; Buddhists perform these rituals to the right. Bon also distinguishes itself from Buddhism on its interpretation of folk dance forms, costumes, ceremonies and patterns of religious paintings and statues. While trekking in Dolpo, the harmonious blend of both the Bon and the Buddhist culture can be seen. Both the cultures and people who practice different sects and religions live happily together in the valley and help each other.
Trekking in Dolpo- a Brief History
Originally, the Dolpo region was located in the kingdom of Zhangzhung. The first Tibetan dynasty (the Yarlung) conquered much of the territory that encompassed the Tibetan-speaking world, including Zhangzhung, between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Populations then migrated from Zhangzhung to the eastern and the southern regions, including Dolpo. The name of this valley first appears in a written source during this time.
The dominion of western Tibetan dynasties over Dolpo was eclipsed during the fourteenth century by the principality of the Kingdom of Lo (Mustang). Therefore, Dolpo villagers paid tributes to the Kingdom of Lo in the form of grains, labor and religious service. One manner in which Dolpo’s villagers paid their annual taxes was by painting Thanka and carving Mani Walls. Painters from Dolpo travelled to Lo Manthang to pain the renowned Thubchen and Jampa Monasteries.
Dolpo, for centuries, was a relatively independent region in an era when constant cultural and economic interactions with greater rivaling political powers surrounding it. Instead, Dolpo was always too rugged, too sparsely populated and distant from the major passes over the Himalayas to become a major political entity. It was a pawn in a power struggle of competing kingdoms like Lo and Jumla which sought control of trade routes across the Himalayas. While trekking in Dolpo, one can still come across pastoralism and in the trans-Himalayan region. Later, Nepal eventually incorporated Dolpo in the 1700s during the unification campaign led by His Majesty King Prithivi Narayan Shah, the legendary ruling monarch of Gorkha.
As time went on, trekking in Dolpo began to rise because of the establishment of the Shey Phoksundo National Park and with acclaimed movies like Himalaya. It is generally preferred by trekkers and travelers who want to experience ancient culture and natural landscapes in its most refined form without crowds. Dolpo truly is a hidden valley and one of the last places of ancient traditions. It’s rich cultural presence and amazing arid landscape makes it a trekking experience that is most different and completely unique when compared to other trekking destinations of Nepal.
Highlights of Trekking in Dolpo
The isolated destination of Dolpo presents a nature as raw and undisturbed as it was centuries ago. Even the culture is very close to being almost nomadic. Dolpo is truly a distant hidden heaven for trekking. Trekking in Dolpo provides one of the most fascinating opportunities to explore the hidden beauty of Nepal. Visiting Dolpo is a matter of exploring ancient villages where people still follow the same unsullied culture as they did centuries past and walking among the old juniper woods where many endangered species of animals reside. Throughout the trekking journey, the views and sights of the cerulean mountain peaks never leave the company of the trekkers. Here are some highlights of Trekking in Dolpo-
The Phoksundo Lake
The Phoksundo Lake is an alpine freshwater lake located within the Shey-Phoksundo National Park. It is located at an elevation of 3,611 meters in Dolpa. In the September of 2017, Phoksundo Lake was designated as a Ramsar Site. It is situated in the upper reaches of the Suligad River. Surrounded by glaciers and famed for its turquoise blue color, the lake is a revered natural site. On the southern end of the lake, the village of Ringmo sits serenely along its bank. Ringmo sits on a 30,000 to 40,000 year-old landslide Dam that formed the Phoksundo Lake. Past the Dam, the waters of the lake plunge over a 167 meter tall waterfall- the Phoksundo waterfall. The lake has a revered religious significance among the Buddhist people of the district. There are more than 20 stupas along the southern belt of the lake. One Gompa is also situated along the lake’s eastern shore, where annual prayers and worship is carried out. The tranquil almost tropical-like waters of the lake are great for recreation. Surrounded by tall hills and greenery, the lake is truly like an oasis in the desert-like terrain of Dolpo. The wonderfully lined stupas along the bank of the lake provide one of the most exotic and amazing natural sites while trekking in Dolpo.
The Phoksundo Waterfall
The absolutely beautiful waterfall of Phoksundo descends down a stairway-like hamlet into the river below. When seen from a considerable distance while trekking in Dolpo, the waterfall looks like a milky white ribbon that juts along the onyx-like landscape. It is a great place to be close to nature and be immersed in the beauty of an untouched topography. The dulcet sound of the waterfall is also quite riveting. It is also the longest waterfall in the country.
High Mountain Passes (Numa La and the Baga La)
While trekking in Dolpo, or more specifically, while circumbulating the Dolpo circuit, High Mountain Passes of the Numa La and the Baga La are crossed. The climb up to the mountain passes are generally strenuous and long, but the views of the gaping valley and of the mountains are worth every ordeal. From the Numa La Mountain pass, the view of the Dhaulagiri Mountain can be seen quite clearly on cloudless days towards the right side. Besides, you can also see the Annapurna massif and the Manaslu range along with sights of Shey Shikhara and the Kanjirowa Himal among many others. In the winters, snow covers the mountain pass, but during the spring and the autumn months, yak caravans and blooming mountain foliages decorate the terrain in a lovely manner. Crossing the mountain passes leads you to wide pasturelands located atop hills surrounded by towering mountains on either side. The Baga La Mountain Pass on the other hand, offers views of the beautiful Baga La Range.
The Shey Phoksundo National Park
The Shey Phoksundo National Park is the largest and the only Trans-Himalayan National Park of the country. Established in 1984, the national park covers an area of 3,555 kilometer square. Ranging in elevation from 2,130 meters to 6,885 meters, the national park has the prominent feature of the Phoksundo Lake and dense variegated alpine forests. The park’s headquarters lies in Palam in the district. It provides one of the most diverse landscapes while trekking in Dolpo. The national park also ranks among the most scenic mountain parks in the world. Much of the park lies north of the Himalayan crest, with elevations ranging from 2,130 meters in the south-east near Ankhe to the 6,883 meter summit of the beautiful Kanjirowa Himal at the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau. Drained by the Langu River in the high Dolpo plateaus, the park also forms a southern catchment with the ebullient Suligad and the Jugdual Rivers. With an extremely diverse and contrasting floral and faunal feature, the Shey Phoksundo National Park contains barren areas of the upper Himalayan towards its north, while the transhimalayan slopes contain vegetations like rhododendron trees, caragana shrubs, Salix woods, juniper hamlets and forests of Himalayan birch. Less than 5% of the park is forested, with much of it lying in the southern portion. Animals of the park include endangered species like the Snow Leopards, Grey Wolves, the Musk Deer and the Blue Sheep.
Ghorals, Tibetan Sheep, Himalayan Thars, Leopards, Jackals, Himalayan Black bears and Yellow-Throated Martens are also found in the park while trekking in Dolpo. Home to many reptiles and various species of insects, including the highest-flying butterfly species in the world, the park is also a habitat to over 200 species of birds like Tibetan Partridges, Wood Snipes, White-throated Crowtits and Rosefinches. The park is also home to over 9,000 people.
The Dho-Tarap Valley- the highest human settlement in the world
Dho Tarap is the highest human settlement on Earth. Many Mani stone walls and small chortens are crossed while approaching the village, and once you do reach it, the village greets you with one of the most daintiest sights throughout the trekking journey in Dolpo. Buddhism is interwoven very intricately in the people’s lives in the village, a fact made clear by the fact that there are many chortens, small Gumbas, prayer flags and Mani stone walls carved with prayers scattered and dotted throughout the village. Behind the village, the Buddhist Monastery of Dho is also located on a hill. The people of Dho are direct descendants of Tibetans, which is easily noticed by the people’s attire and faces. Dark dresses with colorful aprons are worn by the women of the village, along with bracelets of big shells paired with silver and turquoise headgear. Most men in the village have long hair; some even wear red ribbons in the style of Tibetan Khampa. Men wear typical dress of long coats with one sleeve hanging down. A traditional agricultural village, Dho Tarap is surrounded by fields of plantation. The people of the village use yaks to plough the land. Farms of barley, buckwheat and potatoes roll across the landscape like a green live carpet. Other green vegetables are also grown here as well. Yaks are quite important for the people here, as the animal is the source of cheese, meat and wool. Trade is also a form of occupation the people of Dho Tarap have adopted.
The houses in Dho Tarap are made with stones found in the River Valley. While trekking in Dolpo at the village, Tibetan style of building houses is quite common to see. Houses with small wooden windows and flat roofs stocked with firewood cover the picture in a nostalgic fashion. Close to the village lays two monasteries- the Ribo Bhumpa Gompa and the Shipchaur Gompa. Ribo Bhumpa is situated right behind the village while the Shipchaur Gompa is located in the village of Shipchowk 30 minutes away from Dho Tarap.
The Shey Gompa
Located right beneath the ethereal and strange Crystal Mountain, the Shey Gompa is marked by red and white chorten and snaking lines of Mani Stones. Situated on a grassy plain under the shadow of the Crystal Peak created by the confluence of two rivers, the Shey Gompa is revered by both the Bon and the Buddhist people of Dolpo. Established in the 11th century, the Gompa is one of the most famous monasteries of Dolpo. The Gompa reflects the sentiments of the Buddhist art and architecture quite coherently in its leveled structure decorated with red and white markings. It has a Torana at the top and is laden with prayer flags. In the vastness of the terrain and the view of the Crystal peak right above the monastery, the Shey Gompa gives off a very peaceful ambiance. Visiting the Gompa is like going back to a time when everything was anew and the world had not yet touched its rapid paces of modernization. The Gompa is located near the village of Ringmo and prayer wheels are constructed into the Gompa’s walls. It is quite a heavenly sight.