Upper Dolpo Trek, Nepal

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14585A, International

Highlights

  • Trek for 30 days in a remote, highly restricted, culturally Tibetan region in Northwest Nepal
  • Watch for signs of wildlife, including snow leopards, and learn about their conservation
  • Visit pre-Buddhist Bon and Buddhist monasteries in villages and remote cliff sites

Includes

  • Restricted area permit fees and all trek expenses (staff and porter salaries, group equipment, tents, all meals, and all gratuities)
  • Three in-country flights, airport transfers, charter bus, donations to monasteries and conservation projects, entrance fees, sightseeing guides in town
  • Six nights in hotels and all meals in Kathmandu and Pokhara

Details

DatesApr 21–May 28, 2014
Price$6,395
Deposit$200
Capacity12
StaffCheryl Parkins

Trip Overview

The Trip

On the Tibetan Plateau in the great Himalayan rain shadow, lies Dolpo -- a legendary Ba-Yul or "Hidden Land," geographically cut off from the rest of the world by a barrier of high mountains, deep gorges, and thick forests. Our 30-day trek will allow us to truly explore this remarkable place, where we’ll find a thriving and undiminished traditional Tibetan culture -- their villages possibly the highest on earth. En route we’ll pass some of the most majestic mountains in the world, including Dhaulagiri and the remote Kanjirobas.

Publishing accounts of their journeys through Dolpo in the 1950s, Tibetologists Giuseppe Tucci and David Snellgrove brought the region to the attention of the West for the first time, followed in the early 1970s by Peter Matthiessen and zoologist George Schaller --who sought blue sheep and the elusive snow leopard.  Still, outside visitors, especially to Upper Dolpo, have remained few in number. Most have been deterred by the remoteness, the complicated logistics, the topography, or by government restrictions. In an attempt to preserve the unique culture and ecosystems found here, the number of visitors allowed in remains strictly limited.

Our journey through Dolpo will take us across the grain of the land like a slow roller coaster for about 200 miles. April and May are ideal months since the snow should be melted off the high passes, the monsoon not yet begun, the skies should be clear and daylight hours long, birds active and hopefully spring flowers emerging -- prickly blue poppies, the unusual androsace, and sleek anemones to name a few. We will have many high passes to cross on this route, the highest at an elevation of approximately 18,250 feet. If you are looking for a trek through verdant and comforting alpine scenery, this is not it! We will be hiking through a mostly treeless and wind-swept desert landscape of implausible gorges, high passes, and enormous vistas, desolate in its immensity. This is no tourist tea-house trek; it is remote, rugged, unspoiled, inspiring, and unforgettable -- arguably the best trek in the Himalaya.

Itinerary

Days 1-2: Kathmandu (4,400 feet). Arrive and transfer to our hotel, then spend the afternoon around Bodnath, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, visiting the gompas (monasteries) in the area. Very early next morning climb up to the Swyambunath temples, then after breakfast continue on to holy Hindu Pashupatinath, and the Sleeping Vishnu at Budhanilkantha. In the afternoon, we'll finalize preparations for the trek.

Day 3: Kathmandu - Pokhara (3,000 feet). We will board our chartered bus early for a seven-hour drive to Pokhara, situated on Phewa Lake. We'll arrive by early afternoon, with plenty of time to explore.

Day 4: Pokhara - Marpha (8,500 feet). In the early morning, weather permitting, we will take a twin-otter flight up the Kali Gandaki gorge between Annapurna (26,538 feet) and Dhaulagiri (26,788 feet) to the Jomsom airstrip. We'll then hike about one hour downhill to the charming town of Marpha. There we'll meet our trekking staff, who will have brought all our gear up by road.

Days 5-6: Marpha - Dangorjung (10,340 feet). Early this morning we will trek up the windy Kali Gandki Valley to Eklobatti, there we leave the river behind and begin ascending to the northwest. We'll make camp at the village Dangorjung, with its small red-walled Buddhist temple and rows of ancient cottonwoods. We will stay here for two nights of acclimatization.

Day 7: Dangorjung - yak kharka (13,470 feet). Continuing up steeply, we will cross our first pass of note (14,200 feet) -- from there we can enjoy views of the Annapurna area, the Kali Gandaki gorge, Kagbeni, and to the northeast, the entire kingdom of Mustang. Drop from the pass to a meadow camp by mid-afternoon. We may take a second night here for acclimatization.

Day 8: Yak kharka - Sangdak (12,400 feet). Turning west, the trail floats over a small pass (about 14,600 feet), then drops to our first Tibetan-style village, Sangdak, "the gateway to Dolpo," which clings picturesquely to a cliff above the yawning Chalung gorge.  We stop here mid-day and make camp.

Days 9-10: Sangdak - base camp (13,930 feet). Leaving Sangdak, the trail climbs steeply to a small pass before descending into the Chalung gorge to cross the river on a bridge. The canyon is reminiscent of those in the American southwest. Climbing out of the gorge after lunch, we will make our way to our "base camp" for the upcoming major passes, situated in a scrubby but welcoming little juniper forest. We will stay here two (or three) nights as necessary.

Day 11: Base camp - Thasan Chu (16,400 feet). Having two passes to cross today, we'll be on the trail by 6 a.m. We make our way to the top of the first, the Khog La (16,700 feet). Beyond this pass the trail contours into a long basin, and we'll stop for an early lunch before continuing over the Touje La (18,250 feet -- our highest altitude of the trek). We should reach its wind-swept top after a few more hours, gaining magnificent views of Dhaulagiri and Tukuche Peak to the south. Here we bisect the Dhaulagiri range and also cross the continental divide, leaving behind the Indian subcontinent and stepping onto the Tibetan plateau. We have entered Dolpo. The long descent is gentle, and we'll continue down to camp alongside the Thasan River (chu).

Day 12: Thasan Chu - Tsharka (14,135 feet). This is an open and wild landscape -- a new world of "remote peaks crowned by remoter snows" (George Schaller). The intensity of the geology is profound; you can easily see the uplift of the Asian plate being pushed from below by India. By late-afternoon we'll drop from the plateau down to the main river, crossing it on a new bridge. The trail gently follows the river and soon Tsharka village will come into view.

Day 13:  Layover in Tsharka (14,135 feet). The Dolpopa (inhabitants of Dolpo) refer to Tsharka as "the edge of the world," and you may recognize it from scenes in Eric Valli’s film "Himalaya”. We will pay visits to the two gompas, Buddhist and Bon, representing the two religions of Dolpo.

Day 14: Tsharka - Panzang Valley (15,420 feet). At the top of the pass beyond Tsharka (16,600’) the landscape in all directions is tremendous -- behind is the imposing Dhaulagiri massif, and to the north are endless exotic peaks. We'll descend into the Panzang Valley and camp alongside the river.

Day 15: Panzang Valley - Taraka Sumdo (13,990 feet). Following the river north, we will continue downstream in the ever-widening valley. The Panzang is one of the four main valleys that comprise Upper Dolpo -- the others being Tarap, Nangkhong, and Tsharka.

Day 16: Taraka Sumdo - Polde (13,970 feet). Rising to the east of us is the sacred mountain of Kula, which is also known for its medicinal plants. It has a pilgrim trail circling it (the Kula Ri). We have the option of ascending to join it, following part of this traditional nekhor, then descending to Balung temple and the village Polde. 

Day 17: Polde - Tinkyu (13,500 feet). Hiking downstream to the village of Tinkyu will take less than two hours; the valley is a wide glacier-cut trough, carpeted with short grass. As usual, there won't be a tree in sight. Tinkyu sits at the meeting point of this valley and the Panzang (now about a half-mile across). It is a major village, with an old fort, many prayer walls, and two gompas.

Day 18: Tinkyu – Chanpola Goth (13,860 feet). Past Tinkyu, the gorge narrows considerably, and 10 miles downstream we will arrive at the prosperous village of Shimen -- its terraced buckwheat fields and little groves of willow a welcome sight. Leaving behind the main gorge, which is becoming a wild and precipitous place, we head toward our next pass (which we will cross the following day) and camp alongside a small stream.

Day 19: Chanpola Goth - Mu (13,780 feet). Continuing up the side valley, we then turn to cross a steep ridge to the north. From the pass, the Mu La (16,600 feet), the views across to Tibet are exhilarating. This is an extremely interesting, wildlife-rich area; we'll watch for herds of blue sheep, and signs of musk deer, Himalayan fox, and snow leopard. We'll then descend to the settlement of Mu.

Day 20: Mu - Dora Sumdo (12,140 feet). The side drainage we follow eventually returns to the main river canyon. On the 2010 trek it was here where the group had an unbelievably lucky sighting of a snow leopard -- drinking at the stream, stretching, rolling in the dust, and eventually disappearing over the far ridge! Onward we'll go to Nyisal, and then Yangtsher, one of Dolpo's oldest and most important monastery complexes. It appears on a platform about 400 feet above the river, surrounded by prayer walls, unmistakable with its nine great chortens. We continue downstream to camp at the confluence of two rivers. 

Day 21: Dora Sumdo - Above Karang (14,700 feet). The next day, we'll continue on to explore the impressive village Karang, nestled in a gentle upland valley. Camp will be made in a high meadow some 500 feet above the village, making the pass crossing the next day a little easier.

Day 22: Above Karang - Bijer (12,641 feet). Leaving camp we will hike steadily up through a wilderness of rocks and scree to cross the Yeng La (17,717 feet). To the south rises Mukpo Rong, or "Purple Mountain," dominating the entire area, and is the home of a local mountain deity. The descent is not steep, but it is long; Bijer finally appears late in the afternoon, some 5,000 feet lower than the pass. It is a large village with a very impressive health post, one of the most advanced in Dolpo.

Day 23: Bhijer - Tora (14,827 feet). A few hours' walk brings us to Samling, the oldest Bon monastery in Dolpo, built in an isolated position high above the precipitous gorge. After visiting, our rocky path ascends from the gompa, crossing the western flanks of Mukpo Rong, and continues on a few hours to Tora, an open meadow camp used by herders in the area.

Day 24: Tora - Shey (14,300 feet). Today we will cross two small passes, all along admiring contorted cliffs of sacred Crystal Mountain, which rise to the east. Descend to Shey village and make camp.

Day 25: Layover at Shey. Today we'll hike a few hours to visit the remote hermitage Tsakang, made famous by Matthiessen in his book 'The Snow Leopard.' It is beautifully built Anasazi-like into the cliff face -- here the air, light, and sound have a rarified clarity that is like no other place on earth.

Day 26: Shey - Stream camp beyond pass (13,750 feet). Leaving Shey we will ascend steeply to the Kang La (17,670 feet) to cross back over the continental divide. Snow is likely on our descent. Straight ahead lies the monumental, snow-covered northern face of the Kanjirobas -- imposing and still. The descent is long, at the end of this demanding day we will make camp in a meadow, alongside a stream.

Day 27: Stream camp - north shore Phoksumdo Lake (11,900 feet). As we lose elevation, trees eventually make their appearance -- beautiful Himalayan birch with their spring green leaves. The valley broadens and suddenly appears the amazing site of deep and beautiful Phoksumdo lake. We camp on the north shore, under the birches.

Day 28: North shore of Phoksumdo Lake - Ringmo (11,900 feet). The trail around the large lake no longer bears resemblance to the treacherous one described by Matthiessen and Schaller (or as seen in the film "Himalaya"!); it simply climbs up about 1,000 feet above the water and undulates along, but it is not dangerous. From this vantage point, the view of the lake is unsurpassed. The blue is like no other, and the depth almost unfathomable. We will make camp on the southern shore, a 10-minute walk from the thriving village of Ringmo. Coming from the barren north, the green of the pines and junipers and the blue of the lake seem almost surrealistic.

Days 29-30: Ringmo - Dunai (6,870 feet). We'll leave the lake along its outflow stream, the Suli Gad. There will be a roar in the distance, then it appears -- a massive 900-foot waterfall, the biggest in Nepal. A steep zigzag path descends alongside the falls. Continuing downstream, we'll stop to visit the thriving Tapriza boarding school, established specifically for Bon children. For about two days, we will follow the turquoise Suli Gad, passing through thick forests (some of giant red cedar). Finally, the Thulo Bheri River will come into view, and we enter Dunai -- the biggest town since we left Jomsom a month ago. It’s an interesting and lively place, but also a little shocking -- radios and electric lights!  We will visit schools and conservation offices there.

Day 31: Dunai - Jufal (8,200 feet). A morning’s walk will bring us to Jufal, the location of the steeply inclined STOL airfield. We make camp here, as our flight will be in the early morning. This last evening we will have a party to express our gratitude to our porters and staff who have been so helpful to us for the last 30 days.

Days 32-34: We have built in extra "buffer" days that will be used during the trek, as needed.

Day 35: Jufal - Kathmandu. We will depart in our charter twin otter plane, landing in Pokhara. From Pokhara, we'll fly to Kathmandu on a regularly scheduled flight, arriving by mid-day.

Days 36-37: Kathmandu. As there are possible flight delays returning from Jufal, these two days will serve as a buffer, but we'll most likely be able to spend them sightseeing around the Kathmandu Valley -- visiting the many world-heritage sites there such as Bhaktapur and Patan. On our last evening in Kathmandu, we will have our farewell dinner party.

Day 38: Departure.

Photos

Details

Getting There

You will make your own flight arrangements to and from Nepal; the trip leader will provide contact information for a recommended travel agent.

Accommodations and Food

Hotels on this trip are basic, not luxurious -- but they are clean and comfortable, and you will have private baths with hot (most of the time) water, heated by solar power. On our trek we will camp in roomy two- or three-person dome-style tents, which will be set up at each camp by the staff. You will be expected to share your tent and your hotel room with one other person.

All meals are provided. In town, breakfast will be at the hotel, while lunch and dinner will be in restaurants. On the trek, our kitchen staff is truly amazing, and they are well trained in American preferences and standards of hygiene. Vegetarians are warmly accommodated. If you have any dietary requirements, be sure to discuss these with the leader well in advance.

Boiled water and tea will always be available for drinking.  In addition you will be provided with a plentiful supply of Micro-pur tablets for water purification, to be used in conjunction with our 0.2 micron water filter. Hot water is a precious commodity in Nepal; a small quantity for washing will be supplied, but do not expect copious amounts. Kerosene for heating water is heavy, and we need to do what we can to lessen our burden on the scarce resources as well.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is non-technical and suitable for anyone in excellent physical condition who loves to hike and would enjoy camping out in a very remote setting for an extended period (30 days). Because of the length, remoteness, and high elevations involved, this must be considered a strenuous, serious, and challenging trip.  Most of the hiking will be above 13,000 feet. We will cross 12 passes -- six of which lie between 16,500 feet and 17,800 feet, and one pass (the highest point on the trek) at 18,250 feet. Our highest camp will be at about 16,400 feet. You should feel comfortable hiking about 10-12 miles per day at these elevations on very steep rocky trails while carrying a day pack of approximately 15-20 pounds. The maximum altitude gain in one day is about 4,350 feet, and maximum loss in one day about 5,000 feet.

A well-planned physical conditioning program, that you are committed to, is required for participation on this trek. The best way to get in shape for this trip (in addition to leading an active life year-round) is to go on frequent hikes -- up and down hills, carrying some weight, and wearing the boots you'll take on the trip. In addition to this, a dedicated, endurance-building cardiovascular conditioning program will prepare you adequately.

Just as important as your being in good shape is your spirit of adventure. You should take pleasure in experiencing a very different culture in an extremely remote setting and be comfortable traveling with a group. You must be flexible and adapt easily to unpredictable weather and primitive conditions. In addition, medical forms need to be completed by all trip members, in conjunction with an up-to-date physical exam. Leader approval is required.

Equipment and Clothing

You must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the date of entry into Nepal. The trip leader will supply a specific and detailed equipment list that is unique to this outing. Any questions about the suitability of equipment should be addressed to the trip leader.

Your personal gear should be packed in a duffel bag, and will be carried by porters or horses. Duffel weight is limited to 29 pounds; extra belongings can be carried in your daypack. Group equipment, tents, all kitchen gear, and food are provided and carried separately -- these not part of your weight allotment. Because of the altitudes encountered on the trek, a Gamow Bag (a portable hyperbaric chamber to aid in the treatment of altitude sickness) will be carried. The leader will have a satellite phone, for emergencies only.

References

Books:

  • Mayhew, Bradley and Joe Bindloss, Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. Lonely Planet.
  • Snellgrove, David, Himalayan Pilgrimage. Shambhala, Boston.
  • Matthiessen, Peter, The Snow Leopard. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Schaller, George, Stones of Silence. University of Chicago Press.
  • Valli, Eric, and Diane Summers, Dolpo, Hidden Land of the Himalayas. Aperture, NJ.
  • Jest, Corneille, Tales of the Turquoise. Snow Lion, Ithaca, NY.
  • Bauer, Kenneth M., High Frontiers. Columbia University Press, NY.
  • Baumer, Christoph, Bon: Tibet’s Ancient Religion. ADEVA, Graz.
  • Snellgrove, David, Four Lamas of Dolpo. Himalayan Bookseller, Kathmandu.
  • Kind, Marietta, Mendrub: A Bonpo Ritual for the Benefit of All Living Beings. WWF Nepal.
  • Hillard, Darla, Vanishing Tracks. Mandala Book Point, Kathmandu.

Film:

  • Valli, Eric, “Himalaya” (aka “Caravan”), distributed by Kino International

Conservation

Ninety-six percent of Nepal's fuel energy comes from wood. Since Nepal first opened her doors to tourism, massive deforestation has occurred, resulting in the loss of half of the national forest reserves. The rapidly expanding population also demands more and more space to grow food, and these two factors have resulted in a serious problem. It is said that Nepal's biggest export is the soil carried down its rivers to India each year.

Sierra Club outings to Nepal are doing their best not to contribute to this problem. In Kathmandu, our hotel uses solar energy to heat water, and on the trek we use small kerosene stoves for cooking. Do not expect an evening campfire. We try to lessen our impact in other ways as well; our practice of not bringing unnecessary gear and not burning kerosene to heat luxurious amounts of washing water cuts down drastically on the number of porters needed, while still keeping individual porter loads to a reasonable weight limit.

We will learn about organizations that assist the Dolpopa in their process of defining and controlling their own development, while preserving their environment and maintaining their heritage and traditions. A visit to the locally initiated and operated Tapriza school, founded 17 years ago for Bon children with those same goals in mind, will be a highlight of the trip. Learning of the work of wildlife and snow leopard conservation groups will be another.

Pockets of ancient cultures and unique natural environments have survived intact in this remote corner of Nepal. The Nepalese have a positive spirit and attitude, and are examining the successes and failures of the modern world. It will become painfully clear how luxurious our own lifestyle really is compared to that of the overwhelming majority of the world's people, bringing into question our inequitable consumption of the world's precious resources.

Staff

Leader:

Cheryl Parkins has been leading treks regularly in the Nepal, Bhutan, and India Himalaya since 1988 and has unavoidably developed a deep love of and connection to the region and its cultures -- but most particularly to Dolpo. Since its inception in 1997, she has served on the Board of the non-profit organization Friends of Dolpa, which partners directly with indigenous people to improve education and promote cultural and ecological preservation in the region. She hasn't quite stopped looking for those yeti footprints -- but mostly concentrates on snow leopard these days.

Our Nepali guides, besides showing us the route, pitch the tents, cook the food, and are responsible for supervising the camps and porters. The staff is comprised of many different ethnic groups, but primarily Rai, Tamang, Gurung, and Sherpa. A more cheerful, hardworking crew, and finer traveling companions, is impossible to imagine.

Assistant Leader:

Kath Giel has been backpacking since she was 16 and has worn out many pairs of hiking boots. She has traveled the world exploring wild areas, including three treks in Nepal with her pack on her back, but keeps coming back to her beloved Sierra Nevada. Kath's first career was as an Outward Bound instructor. She enjoys introducing people to the grandeur of the wilderness and back country and enjoying the outdoors with other people. Kath is trained in botany and loves to share her joy of wildflowers and natural history.

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