Dramatic high altitude landscapes portrayed in the 1999 Oscar-nominated best foreign film “Himalaya” have added to the intrigue of this remote, inaccessible region. Dolpo is a culturally Tibetan region located in the West of Nepal bordered in the north by the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Surrounded by Himalayan mountain chains such as Dhaulagiri (8172m), the sixth highest mountain in the Southwest, results in cloud barriers which in turn causes a semi-arid climate of less than 500 millimetres annually. Divided into four valleys: Tsharka (good growing place); Tarap (auspicious excellent); Panzang (abode of monks) and Nangkhong (innermost place), Dolpo also features the mighty Karnali River. Living in the ‘rainshadow’ has a strong impact on the harsh climates experienced.
To the west of Dolpo is Phoksundo Valley and to the Northwest lies Mugu Karnali Valley. Encompassing the Shey Phoksundo National Park (Nepal’s largest National Park), this sparsely populated Dolpo region with its predominant supporters of the indigenous Bon religion; incorporated as a fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism is one of the purest examples of traditional Tibetan culture left in our modern times. The area is dominated by agro-pastoral lifestyle which is possible with irrigation as high as 4000 metres in villages such as Chharka where crops such as barley, buckwheat, millet, mustard, potatoes, radishes and spinach are grown. To combate the extreme ranges of temperature, it is common for locals to migrate between high altitude pastures above 4000 metres in Summer and lower lying area in Winter to ride out the bitter cold. Indeed, Dolpo is home to some of the highest villages on Earth with ninety percent existing at least 3500 metres or higher. Literacy levels and life expectancy are low amongst the sparsely populace of an estimated 5000.
Besides the allure of its relative inaccessibility and untouched traditional Tibetan culture and lifestyle, Dolpo region also exudes romantic notions of a much told story of intrepid adventure involving the Dolpa making the treacherous journey with yaks to trade grains with much prized salt from Tibet. Films such as “Himalaya” directed by Frenchman, Eric Valli, and more recently the German documentary “Dolpo Tulku” help to bring awareness to the plight of the resilient Dolpa and their age-old system of “netsang” (nesting place) relations for supply and distribution. With the world opening up so quickly, it is rare to find a place as untainted by technological advances than this special region in Western Nepal. Carefully placed restrictions have been crucial in maintaining the cultural integrity of this amazing region and avoiding the tourist hustle and bustle on the more frequented trails of Annapurna and Everest regions. What’s more… this area actually takes up 15% of Nepal making it a sizeable area to lose yourself and explore the amazing terrain while observing the inhabitants focused on daily survival blending agriculture and animal husbandry in the inhospitable landscape which they call home.
Divided into a Lower (outer) and Upper (inner) region and hidden behind high passes from the South and Dhaulagiri to the Southeast and Kali Gandhi gorge, Dolpo is the Southern extension of Tibet in culture and in its geography which encompasses a vast arid region of brown ridges. Despite its lack of rain, the region boasts an abundance of fauna including Himalayan sheep, musk deer, jackals and of course the much prized and ever illusive … snow leopards. Bird life is equally diverse with sightings of Himalayan griffons, snow pigeons and several species of pheasants including the danphe making an appearance in the high altitude terrain of Dolpo. This rugged landscape is not completely devoid of life. In fact, the spiritual heart can be found in inner Dolpo at the Shey Gompa, which is located below Riwo Drugda, Crystal Mountain and originally constructed in the 11th century. Dolpo is really a unique example of a well preserved Tibetan culture with a visit to the gompa and ‘kora’ (pilgrim’s circuit) around Crystal Mountain being likened to the popular pilgrimage of Hindus and Buddhists to the famous Mount Kailas in Tibet.
Dolpo has a rich history of competing interests such as the Tibetan Yarlung during the 6th to 8th century, Kingdom of Guge in the 10th century and later to be controlled by its eastern neighbour, Kingdom of Lo in the 14th Century. Independence was short lived in the 15th and 16th century before it was again conquered, this time by the Gorkhas when they established the Kingdom of Nepal. In recent times, conflict with China over Tibet led to the borders being closed in 1959 and to Nepal having to pay reparations. It is impossible not to soak up the history and mystique of Dolpo’s rare, unspoilt beauty and to ponder the many trips with yak caravans to guarantee supplies of Tibetan rock salt. As you marvel at the hazardous paths taken, you will also get a sense of value placed on an everyday item, salt, that we take for granted.
Moving further west is the remote Rara National Park which features the biggest and deepest freshwater lake in the Nepal Himalayas. Rare Lake is an oasis of bird and fish life and at an altitude of 2990 metres it is trimmed with forests of pine, spruce and juniper and surrounded by breathtaking views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The Phoksundo Rara Lake Trek will overwhelm you with the vibrant contrasts between two spectacular lakes and the stark vegetation and rich culture on offer along the way.
A decision to get off the beaten track to explore this unusual region will leave you feeling inspired with your soul left… rejuvenated by the simple pleasures of life. Let Down to Earth Adventures arrange your Dolpo trip. The following will give you a taste of what is possible…
Price: USD 4300This trek packs a lot into its 16 days… there is the challenge of conquering 5000m+ passes of Numa-La (5310m) and Baga-La (5170m) combined with the thrill of venturing into the unique world of the Lower Dolpo region.
Price: USD 4600This trek offers one of the most diverse and off the beaten track experiences. Covering the distance between the majestic Phoksundo and Rara lakes along the ancient Tibetan salt caravan route will provide intrigue and challenge.