Roads- 5 years ago I had a remarkable experience in Mustang, Nepal. Nick and I knew that we wanted to travel in a remote area (specifically in Western Nepal), however heard that Mustang changed due to a newly built road. We wanted to experience a culture not yet impacted by connectivity and decided to trek in Dolpo, Nepal. We were thrilled that Nick’s childhood best friend Larry and his partner Kaitlin would be joining us from Hawaii.
During our 20+ days on trek, we noticed that there seemed to be no thought that went into the development of roads, specifically around how it would impact the local culture. People seem to come into remote areas and build roads before there is even access to vehicles (we saw this in the canyon to Nawwapani). Our guide told us that locals expect there to be a road connecting Dolpo in 3-4 years. People want development and access, however it doesn’t seem like there is enough thought in the planning, only considering immediate economic impacts. On our travels, we found that roads in Darjeeling were well planned. Locals had access to the road, however it was about a half-hour walk and it not only preserved the environment, but also the culture.
Money- When trekking, most tourists give all of their money to a large company in Kathmandu to plan and arrange their entire trip. We found that although this approach is more encompassing, it is more expensive and only supports some local staff. We found that it was hard to arrange a trek in remote areas without strong contacts. In Mongolia, Nick and I got lucky with a local recommendation from Lonely Planet, however in Nepal, we compromised with using a company to find our guide and help with permits and flights. We decided to pay for food and shelter as we went. We were surprised to learn that during our guide’s 16 years of guiding, this was the first time he had lead a trip like this in Dolpo.
We were happy with our decision as we felt we were paying more to the local community in comparison to a big trekking group. In many small villages, we were able to stay with a family in a teahouse, while another group (the only trekking group we saw in 21 days) camped outside and ate food brought from Kathmandu. We feel our approach allowed for a more authentic experience, however was more difficult as we carried our own gear, ate 28 dhal bhat meals (lentils and rice), and got cold and wet. Later, we did discover that our guide and 2 porters were not getting paid what we were told, however tried to compensate this by providing them with a nice tip at the end.
Yartsa Gunbu- This fungus grows on insects found above 13,000 ft. in mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet, it is literally translated to “winter worm, summer grass.” It is valued in China as an herbal remedy and 1 kg is valued at $20,000. Yartsa Gunbu is predominately found in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The Chinese created this economy and most families in Dolpo earn their yearly income in 3-4 weeks of collecting, then focus on sustenance farming the rest of the year. Every year, less and less Yartsa Gunbu is found. It’s a double edge sword because it provides an economic opportunity, however there is no regulation on how collectors treat the environment. Trash, feces and make shift tents litter mountain passes. Camps run on a Yartsa Gunbu economy and locals trade one piece ($5) for a beer. Police are sent to the mountains and monitor remote areas for security. Collectors seem to treat each other well, they look together and families send their children up to collect in order to make money.
Day 1- We flew from Nepalgunj to Juphal and the highlight of the mountainous flight was the scary landing. We hiked 3 hours through green barley fields and a deep dry valley to Dunai. The view was remarkable and the snow capped mountains were a constant reminder we were trekking in the Himalayas. In Dunai, curious kids greeted us and directed us to a teahouse. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flew from the top of each home and elders walked around the town spinning prayer wheels and counting mala beads.
Day 2- We hiked 5 hours to Chhepka. We began in the desert, followed a raging blue/ green river, and then hiked in woods. Mossy trees, birds, suspension bridges, and rain. We passed abandoned villages as all of the locals moved to higher elevation to search for Yartsa Gunbu. The woman at the local teahouse made the best Tibetan butter tea. We noticed one of our porters being treated poorly as he was Buddhist and the other porter and guide were Hindu. He carried a heavier load and was responsible for far more tasks in comparison. We read about this phenomenon in The Snow Leopard, which was written in he 70’s and were surprised to see it continuing to happen today.
Day 3- We hiked for 5 hours up and down to Chunnuwaur. We continued to follow the river and eventually exited tree line. We passed many lines of horses and mules, the head animal wore a beautiful bell and headdress made of yak hair.
Day 4- 3 ½ hour hike to Phoksundo Lake. We hiked up to a viewpoint and saw a spectacular waterfall. We were greeted by smiling snot-covered kids in Ringmo, holding their hands together screaming “Namaste.” We played Frisbee near the glistening lake and visited an 800-year-old Bon monastery. Bon is religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism, however buddhist doctrines and rituals have been incorporated making it the sixth branch of Tibetan Buddhism. We walked past stupas, and noticed the auspicious swastika symbol is reversed in Bon (yungdrung).
Day 5- Phoksundo Lake is 3 miles long, ½ mile wide and ½ mile deep. There is no life in or on the fresh water lake; there are no algae, fish, or boats. Today, we took a “rest day” and hiked 4 ½ hours along a ridge above the lake. We had a great view of Upper Dolpo. We listened to wild jackals in the evening and watched mules eat salt. When the man of the teahouse returned from visiting his second wife, he made us a delicious roasted marijuana seed (non psychotropic), tomato and chili paste to eat with our dhal bhat. We learned that the communist party may have won the election and wondered how this would affect Nepal’s political future.
Day 6- 2 ½ hours to Yak Kharka then 3 hours to Bagala basecamp. We had beautiful views overlooking the gorge and looking back at lake. We dropped into a green meadow with glaciers surrounding us. We ate lunch in Yak Kharka, a village that consisted of 1 stone home, covered in drying dung. We ate with a group of 15-year-old girls going to the mountains to collect. They said they would spend 15 days collecting and expected to find 1 Yartsa Gunbu per day. Dark clouds chased us up the valley as we hiked to Bagala base camp. I noticed the running river, brown dirt surrounding the river and green lush grass. Tan desert rocks lined the canyon. Melting ice turned into waterfalls, horses grazed and yaks moved to lower elevation. We set up camp at 4,500m (14,763 ft.) just in time for snow. The pass and glaciers sat in the clouds; we were in a snow globe.
Day 7- We were the first trekkers of the season to hike up and over Bagala Pass 5,169 m (16,958 ft). We crossed an icy river in the morning and saw blue sheep above. I heard rocks move above us as the ice began to melt. We saw big marmots, purple flowers and huge glaciers. We hiked for 6 ½ hours, and along the ridge of a valley at the end. We didn’t need any altitude medications, however felt slow. Our heart rate and breathing increased and we felt nauseous. We slept at the base of Numala Pass.
Day 8- Again, we were the first trekkers of the season to cross over Numala Pass 5,300 m (17,600 ft). Although higher, this pass felt easier than Bagala. We came down into a high and dry environment that reminded me of Mustang, which made sense as I could see upper Mustang behind some mountains. We could see dark storm clouds but were so high we could also see clear baby blue skies above. We walked down mossy meadow humps, saw herds of big furry yaks and followed the river to Dho Tarap. We saw ancient homes, piles of drying dung, green houses and motorbikes (which are walked 2 days from Tibet during an open 1 month trade agreement). We saw tsampa (ground barley) being ground by the power of the river. We visited a school and hiked for a total of 7 hours.
Day 9- Rest day. We visited a 700-year-old Bon Monastery, Ribo Bhompa Gonpa. We watched the locals plow fields with yaks. I spent time playing with a young girl who lived at the teahouse and was fascinated how she imitated her mother. Growing up, I remember pretending to talk on a cell phone or use a credit card but this young girl was pretending to herd goats, grind chilies and carried her doll on her back wrapped in a scarf. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and drank local barely wine.
Day 10- It seems like the landscape changed every 2 days. Today was dry with waterfalls, it reminded me of the Southwest, USA. Nick, Larry and Kaitlin ate blue sheep at lunch, the first time eating meat since we left Kathmandu. Every tea house/ tea house tent seemed to carry Chinese products. Rice bags, soda cans, and ramen wrappers were written in Chinese. Goat and sheep covered the hiking trail and we trekked for 7 hours. I watched a goat/ sheepherder roll wool on a hand spindle while he walked.
Day 11- Kaitlin was sick. We were back in the forest following the river and the grassy mountains resembled Switzerland. The hills were alive with the sound of music. Dhal bhat was getting more expensive at 500 R ($5) per plate while in Kathmandu it was 100 R ($1). We saw enormous 200 ft. trees, it reminded us of Colorado. We camped at a lower elevation and the climate was hot. We slept in a meadow with purple lavender like flowers and horse skeletons. Part of the trail shimmered in the sun and the silver rock looked like glitter. We hiked for 7 hours total.
Day 12- Today, we hiked from 6:45 am to 4 pm and gained 1,500 m (4,921 ft.) in elevation. It was a hard day and my legs felt like Jell-O-O. Wild marijuana grew everywhere, Gompa Village sat in the mountains where walnut trees grew. We met a man traveling from Upper Dolpo who had lost his 11 yaks and was on a journey to find them. We stopped by some hot springs (tatopani) and had to bush wack for an hour back to the main trail. Nick had back pain. We walked with the Nepali military sent to monitor the Yartsa Gunbu collecting which began the following day. We were happy when we made it to the top, however the last hour walk in the pouring rain was cold and frustrating. We camped at Jangla Base Camp 4,300 m (14,100 ft).
Day 13- We were surprised with Nepali sweets from Bchandra’s family (one of our porters) who was camping close by to collect. We hiked over Jangla Pass in a cloudy meadow and dreamt of food, as we were getting sick of dhal bhat. Larry made a great discovery of covering your poo with dried yak poo when no rocks could be found. Genius. We had an easy day (4 hours) and napped in the afternoon although breathing was difficult due to the elevation. We played cards in the evening.
Day 14- We woke up to rain, then snow, and waited for an hour in hopes of better weather. Eventually, our guide said, “We must go over the pass or we may have problems.” We trekked over the snowy pass not able to see far in front of us. We came down to a tent camp, where collectors were staying. We left the canyon and were back in a lush forested environment. The landscape reminded Nick and I of Northern Vietnam. Waterfalls, Rhododendron, moss, fallen leaves. Women wore clothing that looked similar to hill tribe clothing in Southeast Asia. It began to rain as we approached Dhule. We hiked for 6 1/2 hours. We spent the evening in Dhule, which was busy with collectors and helped locals clean Yartsa Gunbu with toothbrushes. We hung out with some local kids and ended the evening with dhal bhat, mutton and tongba (warm millet beer).
Day 15- We spent the evening under a leaky roof during a thunderstorm. We had roti (similar naan) for breakfast and were not use to the aspect of chewing, as dhal bhat does not require such strong jaw muscles. We hiked along terraced fields (corn, potatoes, squash, green onion and millet) and honeybee logs. We learned that 1 family of bees live in a log per season and our guide gets 200 kg of honey per year from 20 logs. We hiked through forest. Birds chirped, water rushed and we spent a few hours at hot springs. We hiked for 4 hours through lush forest to Kayam, a village of 2 homes. When the clouds lifted we were surprised with a breathtaking view.
Day 16- Our guide and porters collected wild bamboo shoots for dinner and stole lettuce from gardens. We observed bridges, rain and moss. We stopped in Thakur, where the clay home with a thatched roof provided us with fresh buffalo milk. The home was dark and smoky and we ate dhal bhat for lunch. Goat and buffalo meat hung above the wood stove to dry. We hiked for 3 hours today and camped on an unprotected saddle.
Day 17- We got little sleep due to high winds and rain, and our tent repeatedly collapsed. The next morning we trekked over a small pass. There was a lot of rain and we continued to drink copious amounts of buffalo milk. At lunch I was embarrassed after my new dog friend came running up to me in the woods and ate my waste before I had time to even think.
After 5 hours of trekking, we entered the hunting reserve and the national park pass was 3x what we expected. We spent the afternoon in Dhorpotan where Larry and Kaitlin played Frisbee with kids and Nick washed laundry in the river. I pumped water and had a lovely conversation in attempted Nepali with a local about her kids, siblings and age. The town consisted of scattered huts in a valley and there was no town center. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and ate an abundant amount of Indian snacks we bought from a nearby store. That evening Nick and I began to feel ill.
Day 18- Thankfully today was a rest day in Dhorpotan. Due to overconsumption, food poisoning or a change and diet, Nick and I spent the previous night and early morning projectile vomiting into our camping pot, bags and in the backyard. Hundreds of dogs barked the entire night. The next morning the dog and chickens made sure to clean up our mess. It took 4 days for our (which now included Larry’s) system to get rid of the Indian snacks.
Day 19- Today, the weather was warm and sunny. We crossed suspension bridges, water buffalo roamed the woods and Larry found a leech on him. We were trekking at a lower elevation and walked through a dead forest that was killed by a fire 20 years earlier. The clouds looked so close, I watched them expand and they moved quickly. For the first time on our trip Nick and I mentioned missing home. Maybe because it had been so long since we had talked with our families; we were worried that everything was okay.
We passed snarling Tibetan Mastiffs showing their teeth. By day these dogs were chained but at night they roamed guarding homes. We sat on animal skins and ate dhal bhat for lunch. Nick, Larry and I were still sick from the Indian snacks and beginning to have sharp pain under our rib cage. Good thing we only had a few more days of trek! We camped and the clouds looked bright in the dark sky. We listened to cow bells and jackals in the evening. 4 ½ hours of hiking.
Day 20- We woke up to a clear view of Dhaulagiri. This mountain consists of 5 peaks and is 5 miles tall or 7,900 m (26,810 ft). The clouds moved quickly over Jaljala Pass and our view of Dhaulagiri was quickly obstructed. We trekked 4 hours downhill to a teahouse where we ate candy and explored the town.
Day 21- We took an adventurous 7 hour bus to Beni where we drove past snow covered peaks on a “road” that was carved into the mountain side. We ate some local plums, which were the first fruit we’d had in almost a month. At a bus stop we ate samosas and jalebis then boarded another bus headed for Pokhara. We reflected on our remarkable trek and looked forward to bathing.
Dhal Bhat- 28 meals
Days camping- 11
Days in tea houses- 10
Other foreigners’ spotted- 6 (an anthropologist, linguist, trekkers and a runner)