Reminiscing Dolpa

Features Issue 95 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Sujit Shrestha

We had already been walk-ing for 12 days when we arrived at the village of Dho Tarap. Having started our journey from Beni (in Myagdi District), we had walked across green, picturesque, flower-filled meadows of the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. The idea was to make it to Dolpa, traverse Dho, descend down to Shey Phosumdo, emerge at Dunai, fly out of Jufal, and rest a day in Nepalgunj before catapulting our way back into Kathmandu. Our journey, however, had it own plans for us. Dolpa is a place where even the most rigid schemes bend willingly. The remoteness of the trails in Dolpa is manifest in this freedom from one’s own devices. Here Man ceases to play protagonist and Nature slips into the foreground.

Before entering Dolpa from Rukum one has to cross the Jangla Pass at 4,538 meters (14,888 ft). This pass marks the edge of the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve and also serves as a physical boundary between the districts of Rukum and Dolpa. The pass itself is not a difficult one. Set amidst endless green mountain pastures (patan), the trail is evenly inclined. There are no hotels here. There aren’t even any permanent settlements. Occasionally we came across seasonal shepherd huts invariably ainguarded by monstrous Tibetan mastiffs. The shepherds use these huts until September before it is time for their herds to head back to lower pastures. The shepherds were friendly and happily shared their meals with us. At other times we came across odd shacks at random desolate mountain corners. These serve as seasonal shops selling the most basic items for local travelers and the few visitors, like ourselves, that venture up into Dolpa.

When we finally climbed up Jangla Pass on our 10th day of walking, we were filled with strange emotions. There was the pleasure of experiencing a spectacular landscape, of walking hard and testing the body’s endurance. There was the excitement of being in the wilderness far away from distracting towns. Apart from these usual thrills, which most trekkers experience, we were also aware of a quiet fear that lurked latently within. We were seven days walk from the nearest airport and at least ten days from the nearest road in any direction. Exhilarating as it is, remoteness can also be precariously worrisome at times. Nonetheless, each of us also felt a proud exultation upon climbing Jangla and finally entering Dolpa.

The valley of dreams
It required two more days of walking in Dolpa before we closed in on the village of Dho Tarap. At 4,200 meters (13,780 ft), Dho Tarap is possibly the highest permanent human settlement on earth. The rugged wooden hills of lower Dolpa slowly open up to a desert-like landscape near Dho. The narrow trails that caress gushing rivers give way to an open, arid mountain valley. The difference between these two adjunct landscapes is stark. The lower hills are steep, dark green, and damp while the mountain valley is a sandy hue of light grey and brown, and lined with tall rugged mountainous landscape of the Tibetan variety. Much before one enters Dho, the outline of the village can be picked out from the dusty background of the nearby mountains. The trail follows the icy waters of the Tarap Chu river and leads one straight into the medieval village of Dho. The village itself is located at the lower end of a large fertile valley called Tarap. (Dho means the lower end; thus Dho Tarap.) Radiant fields of barley surround the village. The light green of the stems with the golden tenderness of the shoots gives these barley-fields a fairy-tale otherworldliness. The stone chortens and simple elegance of the houses render the village with an archaic exuberance.

Upon entering the village we were confronted by an eerie silence. Where were all the people?

The houses in Dho are built close to one another. The stones are whitewashed and the windows are painted using an assortment of colors. There are numerous ancient chortens around the village. The old Ribo Bhumpa Gompa, rebuilt in 1955, lies above the village. The 100-year-old Mekyem Gompa lies above Ribo Bhumpa Gompa. Dho houses elements from both the ancient Bön-po religion as well as Nyingma Buddhism. The people of Dho are of Tibetan origin and speak a dialect they claim is incomprehensible to anyone outside of the Tarap region. Dho does not have any prominent tourist infrastructure. There are a couple of teahouses that also serve as eateries. All tourism into Dolpa involves organized treks and thus the local infrastructure hasn’t had the opportunity for development. The women in Dho wear graceful bakkhu and the men wear red braids in their hair in the style of the Khampas of eastern Tibet. When we entered the village it was not the elegance of the women’s dress nor the brightness of the men’s braids that greeted us, but an uncanny silence of a dreamy mountain village.

Meeting the headmaster

While at a teahouse on our first evening in Dho we met Kedar Binod Pandey, headmaster of the local Crystal Mountain School. We discussed with him our plans for crossing Baga La and Numa La (passes, 5,190 meters and 5,318 meters or 17,028 and 17,448 feet, respectively). Neither of us had ever been over 5,000 meters. Besides, we had heard from several people that the passes were dangerous and the trail were sometimes confusing for new people. We were also not sure if there were any shepherd huts along the way. As the night grew darker our imminent journey over these risky passes seemed increasingly daunting. During our chance encounter with headmaster Pandey, he mentioned someone from the village who was heading over the passes towards Shey Phoksumdo. It would simplify matters greatly for us if he would allow us to walk with him. So we decided to visit the headmaster’s school the next day to inquire about this person who might be our traveling companion over the mountains.

When we walked into the school it was early morning. The school was having its morning assembly and we were briskly ushered in to witness the neat rows and columns of school children all dressed in traditional attire, getting ready for the day. The children were in classes between kindergarten and fifth grade. A banner in front read ‘Crystal Mountain School – A school on the roof of the world.’

Introducing Crystal Mountain School
The presence of three strangers hardly went unnoticed among the restless children’s eyes. As the teachers tried extra hard to regain the children’s attention we marveled at the setting’s physical setting. The idea for the school came from a Frenchwoman, Marie Claire Gentric, who had visited the area in the early 1990s. At that time Mr Pandey was working as a teacher in Jufal. When Marie Claire approached him with the idea of starting a community-based school in Dho, his initial reaction was uncertainty. What would it take to initiate such a project in a place like Dho? Pandey agreed to undertake the project provided he could try-it-out for the first year. His challenges were numerous. He had never lived in such a remote place. When he arrived in Dho in 1994 only three locals spoke broken-Nepali, and the government-run school infrastructure was completely dysfunctional. At that time, there were no other schools in the entire upper Dolpa region.

Crystal Mountain School was started with only one room. For the first year, Kedar Pandey was its only operating staff. The school quickly gained local support, however, and as the school’s services were free, parents were eager to send their children. The school also provided all necessary materials. As the name of the school got around people from nearby communities also sent their children over to Crystal Mountain School. The school was growing rapidly. Sixteen years hence, the school provides education to 150 students from four surrounding communities. The school employs 10 teachers and provides basic housing facilities for children from faraway villages. This is also one of the few schools to teach Tibetan language and culture as a part of the curriculum. The children are also given classes on traditional arts and Tibetan medicine. Mr Pandey has certainly guided the school a long ways from its initiation 16 years ago.

The Story of Phurba Lama
After the assembly the children were led to their respective classrooms. The contained clamor of school children transmuted into a choral recitation of lessons in cubical classrooms. Finally we had the opportunity to speak further with the headmaster. Indeed, he told us, someone from the village was heading towards Shey Phoksumdo, but it would not be until the next day. We were cordially invited to spend the day in Dho. Relieved that our travel woes were resolved, we happily succumbed to the invitation.

Pandey proved to be an excellent host and through the day he took us on a brief but informative tour of the valley. It was also during this time that we learned of the school’s history and its achievements. Although the school only serves up to the fifth grade, outstanding students receive scholarships to continue their education in Kathmandu. Till date there have been 22 students who have successfully completed the national School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations. Promising students are also given scholarships to continue high school in Kathmandu. Students from Crystal Mountain School have done exceptionally well. Among them Phurba Lama who attended the prestigious Little Angels high school, topped his class and is now preparing to study medicine. This is a remarkable achievement for someone from Dho – a remote village 11 days’ walk from the nearest road, and four days’ walk from the nearest airport. Phurba’s success could only have been achieved by the dedication of the teachers at Crystal Mountain School.

Headmaster Pandey’s ambition for the school is still far from fruition. His plans envisage a fully functional dormitory for the children, a working greenhouse to provide for the school’s rations, and further scholarships for more children to continue their education beyond the capacities of this mountain school. The school is a part of a social movement – Action Dolpa, headed by Marie Claire Gentric. Since this organization is based in France, Kedar Pandey initiated a Kathmandu-based organization, Vision Dolpa, with Phurba Lama as chairman. Crystal Mountain School is a startling reminder that big steps towards education in Nepal can be taken through small but consistent efforts.

Walking with Sonam-dai
Sonam Rokka, a game management officer at Shey-Phoksumdo National Park, was the person to accompany us through the high passes to Phoksumdo Lake. He was on an official visit to Dho and at the request of Kedar Pandey he agreed to leave with us the following day, effectively bringing forward his own scheduled date of departure. Sonam-dai (respectable elder brother) was a man of few words but was always quick to smile. He knew the terrain well. We quickly traversed the upper villages of the Tarap valley and were soon at the foot of Numa La.

Dho is the only permanent settlement in Tarap. The upper villages are comprised of tents and temporary structures that serve as small hotels and crude shops. These settlements are inhabited the families of shepherds who have taken their yaks to higher pastures in the mountains. These settlements also provide services to the collectors of yarchagomba during the harvest season. The tents with horses tethered outside are magnificently poised in the green valley and remind us of the semi-nomadic disposition of the people around us.

The numa of Numa La means a woman’s breasts, and la is mountain pass in Tibetan. Numa La, at 5,318 meters was the most formidable mountain pass I have ever crossed. Sonam-dai, despite his laconic nature, was full of proverbial remarks. “Never look up towards a tall mountain pass,” he said. The view from Numa La was breathtaking. Tall mountains surrounded us in all directions. In the far south, we could see the panoramic Huinchuli and Churen Himal peaks. Towards the east and west were tall nameless mountains draped in snow-white layers and at our north were the vast mountains of Tibet. The low oxygen level at that altitude was very challenging as each one of us gasped for air with every few steps that we took. After Numa La, Baga La at 5,190 meters seemed not so intimidating. After crossing these passes we began our descent towards into Shey-Phoksumdo National Park area.

Cascading our way towards Phoksumdo
Our descent was rapid and we soon left the treeless mountains behind. Our trail snaked around wooded hills below the pasturelands of Dajok Tang. From here on we were in pine and spruce country. Marmots scurried about as we walked along riverside trails. There were a few temporary settlements set up against the grandiosity of the mountains. As we were getting closer to Sonam Dai’s village, Ringmo, he began shedding his taciturn skin and became increasingly animated. Ringmo is a small Tibetan village located right next to the Phosumdo Lake. Before getting into the village one has to traverse patches of birch forests that are within the national park. One also comes across the spectacular Suligad falls, one of Nepal’s highest cascade (167 meters or 548 ft). Phoksumdo Lake feeds the gushing waters of this opulent waterfall. The flat-stoned houses of Ringmo are visible much before one crosses the bridge over the clear waters of the Phoksumdo khola (river). From a distance Sonam Dai pointed out his house. It is where we stayed during our stay in Ringmo.

The story of Shey Phoksumdo
A long time ago there was a village in the place of the Phoksumdo Lake. One day a vindictive female demon who was fleeing from the saint Padmasambhava happened to pass by the village. Hoping that they would not give her away to Padmasambhava, the demon gave the village people a brilliant turquoise. When Padmasambhava came into the village he sensed that the people were guarding the demon and turned the turquoise into a chunk of dung. Having lost the brilliant stone, the village folk had no reason to protect the demon any further and revealed her whereabouts to the saint. Feeling betrayed by the villagers, the demon was angry and in retribution caused a massive flood that drowned the entire village. Legend has it that the remains of the village can still be seen today below the lake’s surface. The lake also got its brilliant aquamarine, turquoise color as a reminder of this mythical incident.

From the top of the ridge there is a view of Suligad falls and a glimpse of Phoksumdo Lake. The startling color of the lake becomes prominent even through the birch boughs along the trail. The color of the lake stands in stark contrast with the rest of the surroundings. Perhaps the deep aquamarine hue comes from the lake’s enormous depth. At over 650 meters (2,133 ft), Phoksumdo is the deepest lake in Nepal. Flanked by the snow peaks of Kanjeralwa and Sonam Kang, the lake hardly has a beach area. Instead, vertical walls of the surrounding mountains immediately fence the deep waters as if guarding some long lost secret. The juxtaposition of the lake with its environment is fantastic. How can a lake like this exist in such a place? The unfathomable serenity of the alluring waters tempts one to believe in legends.

Bön religion of the Phoksumdo region

A short walk through Ringmo brings us to the front end of the lake. Apart from a notice board bearing basic information about the lake there was no other infrastructure to do with the national park. On the southern bank of the lake is the Pal Sentan Thasung Chholing Gompa, a monastery that is said to be over 60 generations old. This gompa, and other smaller structures around the village, attest to the Bön culture that is vibrant in the area. Bön preceded Tibetan Buddhism. Although at first glance it may seem similar to Buddhism there are some distinct differences. The Bön-po (followers of Bön) walk around their monuments in an anti-clockwise direction whereas Buddhists go around them clockwise. Their clothes also differ, mainly by use of blue color and a typical white hat with blue stripes. A special ritual bell called shang is used by the Bön-po, where Buddhists use a bell with the name drilbu. In its earlier phase, Bön religion had similarities with animistic, shamanistic religious forms. Today, however, the fourteenth Dalai Lama has recognized Bön religion as the fifth principal spiritual school of Tibet along with Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelung schools of Buddhism. The regions around the Phoksumdo Lake are among the last concentrated quarters of Bön culture in Nepal.

Phoksumdo, up close
The Thasung Monastery is brilliantly situated overlooking the splendor of the lake’s waters. At 3,610 meters (11,844 ft) above sea level, Phoksumdo is also the highest lake in Nepal. In September 2007, the lake was recognized as a ‘Ramsar Site’, meaning a wetlands of international importance (following the Ramsar Convention of 1975). The magnificent scenery around the lake has gained the entire national park the reputation of being one of the most scenic mountain parks in the world. The beauty of the lake lies as much in the scenery as it does in its remoteness.

It had taken us 17 days to reach Phoksumdo. Our sense of accomplishment towards the splendid end of our journey was perhaps just as rewarding as the lake’s radiance. Going down to the lake one has the option of walking a little ways up the path that leads up to Shey Gompa in upper Dolpa. This trail snakes along a ridge that overlooks the lake. There are also a couple of spots on the north side of the lake at about 15 minutes’ walk from the front entrance where one can sit on rocks by the lake side and dip one’s feet in the icy coolness of the water. Up close the lake’s lustrous colors becomes noticeable, light turquoise near the shore and a darker, more saturated aquamarine the further one looks outward. Devoid of any aquatic life, the lake is astonishingly clear. Perhaps the opalescent colors of the lake are hiding some long lost secret.

Returning from Phoksumdo
When we left the lake area we felt a certain sorrow as one might when parting from one’s friends. The color of the lake surprises the eyes every time one looks at it. From Phoksumdo our journey took us down to Dunai and then up to Jufal where we hopelessly waited for a flight into Nepalgunj. Our team of three split up there. My two companions decided to wait for the flight, but I opted to walk down out of Dolpa across the mid hills. It took me another five days to emerge at Nepalgunj, only to be swallowed by the urban chaos of the Terai town.

The author is an anthropologist and freelance writer. He can be contacted at While background this article he used the following sources: Shey Phoksumdo National Park and its Buffer Zone (Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation brochure, 2008), Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, Lonely Planet (2001), Buddhist Himalaya by David Snellgrove (1957), and The Bön Religion of Tibet by Per Kværne (2001).