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Thinley's Dolpo & Shey Gompa Trek
32 Days - see Our treks for our other treks
We had tea with Thinley, Dolpo village chief in the movie 'Himalaya' and an authentic Dolpo inhabitant, to get the best itinerary around for Project Himalaya's first exploratory trek into mysterious Inner (upper) Dolpo.
The mystique of remote Inner Dolpo, closed to foreigners for decades and still culturally Tibetan, has been enhanced by Matthiessen's 'The Snow Leopard', David Snellgrove's 'Himalayan Pilgrimage' and George Schaller's 'Stones of Silence' among many other travel accounts. Legend has it that the ubiquitous Guru Rimpoche, who spread Tibetan Buddhism throughout the Himalayas, discovered this hidden land, a 'beyul' or refuge, over 1700 years ago, and it has been inhabited by Tibetan nomads, called drokpas, for over a thousand years. Essentially part of Western Tibet, Dolpo was governed by the Kingdom of Lo (now Mustang, formerly part of Tibet) until the Gorkha Kingdom took it over during its consolidation of Nepal a century and a half ago. Since then, it has remained isolated, partly due to its remote location, and partly because of the Khampa guerillas using Mustang and Dolpo as a base during their fight against the Chinese occupation of Tibet after 1959. It has only been open for trekking and tourism since 1989, and then only parts of southern Dolpo, and there is still a special restricted area permit needed to trek above Phoksumdo Lake in Shey Phoksumdo National Park.
One of the highest inhabited realms on the planet, Dolpo is also still a stronghold of the pre-Buddhist, shamanistic Bon-po religion. It is a tough, mountainous region of fortified villages, 'dzongs' and many high passes, susceptible to heavy snows which isolate it from neighboring regions for much of the year, but the rewards for trekking through it are immense.
To start off our exploratory trek we have a dramatic flight to Jumla, from where we head over the Kangmara La to Phoksumdo Lake and the fabled Shey Gompa, or Ancient gompas and villages await us as we trek towards Saldang, Yanger Gompa and the Tibetan region of Dho Tarap, where the inhabitants still trade with Tibet along the old salt routes. Finally, we trek south towards Dunai along the more interesting northern route, with a few more passes, and arrive at airport at Juphal for our flight back to Kathmandu.
Explore this hidden land of majestic beauty with us!
*** Previous trekking experience required for this trek ***
Lhakpa and Thinley discuss routes - Kim Bannister
*Note that although we try to follow the itinerary below, at times local trail or weather conditions may make slight changes necessary. The trekking itinerary may also vary slightly depending on our trekkers' acclimatization rates. Also note that domestic flights are often delayed, they are fine weather flights only.
Providing you have sent us your arrival details, 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 escorted to the guest house. Kim will book the extra nights for you, so your room will be ready.
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 guest house 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. Over dinner we check your insurance details (please have a copy of your travel medical insurance policy with you), go over gear and get to know each other over a beer at New Orleans cafe ...
Day 2 - Kathmandu
Explore the Kathmandu valley a bit with Kim. 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 dinner of wood-oven pizza at the Roadhouse Cafe.
Day 3 - Fly Nepalgunj
An afternoon flight takes us to Nepalgunj, the largest city in western Nepal and a jumping-off point for many flights and buses into western Nepal, set in the steamy Terai near the border of India. We stay the night at an air-conditioned hotel, and head out back in time to explore this town seemingly right out of the 1940's.
Day 4 - Fly Jumla
Another flight, this time a morning mountain flight taking us to Dolpo where we start out trek. We spend the night at a hotel in Jumla; Kim and the crew will spend the afternoon supplying for the trek, and you are free to explore the town ...
Days 5-12 - Trek over Kagmara La to Ringmo (Phoksumdo Lake)
After rounding up our team of local Dolpo horses and handlers from Jumla, we set off towards the 5115 meter Kagmara La and fabled Phoksumdo Lake, a challenging journey of eight days. We follow the ancient trade routes of the Dolpo-pa, camping in local seasonal settlements en route, and eventually reach the medieval village and Bon gompa at Hurikot, near where we enter the Shey Phoksumdo National Park. From here, the going gets a bit tougher, with many steep climbs and descents, the largest the Kagmara La where we get spectacular views of the Kagmara Himal, Daulagiri, the Annapurnas, La Shamma and other snow-peaks, a fitting reward for our climb. This barrier marks the entrance into a purely Tibetan region, and the real boundary of Dolpo. Eight days later, we have finally reach the village of Ringmo on the turquoise Phoksumdo Lake. This is wild country, a region of alpine meadows, flowered pastures, rivers, natural springs, soaring mountain views; Steve Razzetti, who wrote 'Trekking and Climbing in Nepal', says about this region of Lower Dolpo, '.. your heart will sing. This is trekking country to live for'. Enough said! We camp for the night in Ringmo, at the south end of the lake.
Young woman from Dho Tarap with her baby, and traditional conch shell bracelet.
Day 13 - Ringmo
A rest and exploration day, finally, in this picturesque village of flat-roofed stone houses, mud-brick, mani walls and chortens. Even a bit of expensive shopping at a few local shops! There is an ancient, white-washed Bon gompa in Ringmo to visit, and of course Phoksumdo Lake, the lake seen in 'Himalaya' as Thinley'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 Yanger Gompa. Above Ringmo, a restricted area permit is required, which we will be one of the few groups to have, if there are any others around.
Days 14-16 - Trek to Shey Gompa
Now begins our trek to the fabled Shey Gompa and the nearby 'Crystal Mountain', the most sacred peak in Dolpo which Dolpo pilgrims circumambulate each summer before the yearly grain harvest. We are now entering the real Dolpo, and to enter into this mystical land we have to cross the Kang La (pass) and trek three, hard days. We take the only trail possible, first trekking along the precipitous and narrow trail to the western side of the lake, otherwise known as the 'Devil's Trail'. Cresting a 4000 meter ridge, we are treated to views of Sonam Kang. We camp the first night at Chabluk Phu, a local grazing area, before attempting the Kang La (5375m). It's a difficult pass, so we'll be up early the next morning; we are entering George Schaller's blue sheep country, so keep the binoculars ready as you pack your backpack the night before. We have views of the peaks Shey Shikkar and Kang Chunne, both just over 6000 meters, before descending steeply down to the valley floor and along the river. A red chorten marks the entrance to Shey, where we camp for the next two nights.
Women (and one curious boy) from Dho Tarap, half in traditional clothes, half in Western clothes.
Day 17 - Shey Gompa
A free day, and there is plenty to explore in this spiritual heart of Dolpo. Shey Gompa is said to be about 800 years old, with newer murals inside and an ancient scroll describing the mythology behind the Crystal Mountain, locally called Riu Dhukta, and the gompa. Peter Mattheissen wrote quite a lot about his stay in Shey in 'The Snow Leopard', and it was shown in 'Himalaya' as Thinley's son's gompa, where Thinley entered during a puja and was shown to a back room where his son, the artist, was working on a huge mural including a tree, which he had never seen in the harsh, treeless environments of Dolpo.
Days 18-20 - Trek to Yanger Gompa
Our quest for 'the' best trek in Dolpo takes us to remote Yanger Gompa, on the old trade route to Tibet. These few days cover some of the most culturally interesting regions of the trek, and of course the scenery is equally spectacular. After crossing the Ge La (Se La) Pass west of Shey, where we are treated to magnificent views of Mustang to the East, Tibet to the North and Kanjiroba, Kagmara and Riu Dhukta, or the Crystal Mountain, to the West. We spend our first night at Namgung, again at a local nomadic herding settlement. We follow the Namga Khola past more summer herding spots, to the large village of Saldang. Thinley and his son are from Saldang, so we'll get a chance to visit some local houses, drink some salt butter tea or chang (Tibetan barley beer) and sample the local fare. The next day heading north along the Nagon Khola, we finally reach Yanger Gompa, where we set up camp for the night. One of our re-supplies should be here when we arrive, if not in Saldang.
Day 21 - Trek to Saldang
We back-track back to Saldang, where we set up camp in the same spot and visit our old friends!
Days 22-23 - Trek to Dho Tarap
Another couple of great, exploratory trekking days, heading south along the Nagon Khola past many small settlements, and Dechen Lapran Gompa, and then along the Dachun Khola. We spend one night en route at the herding settlement of Jangla; these will be long days, so if we need to, we'll break them up and arrive at Dho Tarap a day later, camping at Tokyu or Chamba Gompa for a night. After Tokyu, there is a string of gompas; Ripuche Gompa, Chamba Gompa, Kakar and the gompa at Dho Tarap called Ribo Bhumpa, rebuilt in 1955. Interestingly, there is a Bon chorten next to the Buddhist gompa, which is said to contain the relics of a demon killed by Guru Rimpoche. Above this gompa is another older Buddhist gompa, Mekyem Gompa. Dho actually is the name of the village at the south of the region of Tarap, but it is usually referred to now as Dho Tarap.
Monks from Dolpo; to the left, a 'village' monk from Tokyu, and to the right a 'city' monk from Dho Tharap
Day 24 - Dho Tarap
We've scheduled a free day in this interesting, very 'Tibetan' region of Dho Tarap, a maze of mud-brick Tibetan houses which was also featured in 'Himalaya', the village where Karma and his band of young Dolpo-pa, and Thinley and his older group of Dolpo-pa, set off with their salt to trade for barley over the high passes. The movie gives a wonderful picture of daily life in the village; the house, the particular dress and jewelry of the Dho inhabitants, the yaks and animals, weaving, dying cloth, making bread and chang, working in the fields, archery, astrology, Buddhist customs, relationships and the vigor of life in a high, remote and arid Himalayan village. (The pass in the movie is directly to the east of Dho; we're not headed that way).
Days 25-30 - Trek to Juphal
We're heading east along the Thakchui Khola through some wild country, past Crystal Mountain School (a private school funded by a NGO in Dunai), Modo Gompa, Thaksi and Khanger to Numa La Base Camp, where we spend our first night. This is wild, remote country, and the trekking is quite strenuous. We will rise early to start over the Numa La (5320m), where Daulagiri amongst other giants is visible. We descend along a rocky trail towards Danigar, through blue sheep and snow leopard country, with the Baga La looming in front of us. The next morning we head back up to the chorten-topped Baga La (5200m), and then down into a valley and lovely meadows with a glacial moraine, following a beautiful route topped by snow-peaks. We stop for the night at Rilke, to the south of Phoksumdo Lake. The next two days, we continue south along the Phoksumdo Khola, passing the trail junction to the Jumla trail to the east, and then the nine-house village of Renje, stopping at Chhepka, peopled by three brothers, for the night. The next day we trek along the steep and narrow valley of Suli Khola, passing several small settlements, goths and horse pastures before reaching the large town of Dunai, and finally the airport at Juphal the next day.
Day 31 - Fly to Nepalgunj & Kathmandu
Sadly, our trek through the spectacular and mystical Dolpo is finished, and we board our flight for Nepalgunj, and then on Kathmandu. Back at the Kathmandu Guest House, a warm shower will never have seemed so wonderful, or necessary! Later, we'll head out to dinner to celebrate our adventures in Dolpo. Not many other trekkers in Kathmandu will be talking about
Day 32 - Depart
We send you off to the airport for your flight home.
Unless you have flexible flights we strongly suggest you add at least one, and perhaps two days in Kathmandu at the end of the trek that allow for possible flight delays in getting out of Juphal.
If you wish to stay longer, we can offer plenty of suggestions: mountain biking in the Kathmandu valley, an Everest sightseeing flight, a trip out to Bhaktapur or Patan, Kathmandu's other two capitals, a night at the Fort Hotel in Nagarkot for a bit of luxury and some expansive sunset and sunrise mountain panoramas or many other excursions. Kim can help to arrange any of these excursions for you.
Tashi Delek, and see you during your next trip to the Himalayas!