Dolpa is one of the most remote regions of the Himalaya. Only open to foreigners from 1989, it is far away from the standard tourist routes in Nepal. Throughout the expedition, I was stunned by the beauty of the mountains, the kindness of the local people and the amount of wildlife thriving in this often arid and dusty landscape.
This is the first of a series of posts about my almost month-long expedition to the Himalaya in Nepal. There will be tips and advice for anyone that is planning to visit the Dolpa region or any other part of the Himalaya.
All of the photos are taken by me using either a GoPro 4 or a small Nikon 1 compact camera.
This expedition was organised by the Army Mountaineering Association to celebrate its 60th anniversary. A total of 24 of us were selected and split into two teams: a climbing team and a trekking team. As I have little climbing experience, I was selected for the trekking team.
Route and Stats
Below is a detailed GPS track of the route that I took along with the GPS coordinates for each campsite. Here are some quick stats of the final route:
Distance: 114.1 miles
Minimum elevation: 6,581 feet (2,005 metres)
Maximum elevation: 17,070 feet (5,202 metres)
Total climb: 37,132 feet (11,317 metres)
Total descent: 35,868 feet (10,932 metres)
After spending 2 days in the UK as a group – organising kit and receiving cultural and medical briefs, we were finally on the way to Nepal. After a short stop in New Dehli, we finally landed in Kathmandu and could get some well-needed rest. Some of the group planned to do some last minute kit shopping before heading off to the mountains.
I didn’t feel the need to buy any kit. The Army had issued us with all of the latest gear and it was pretty amazing. Mountain Equipment sleeping bags, jackets and trousers, fancy Thermarest roll mats, a Rab down jacket and more. It’s by far the best kit I have ever been issued by the Army. It is a long way from my early days of leather gloves that ruined once wet, for warmth a ‘Norwegian’ jumper and the good old leather combat highs that took about a year to break in.
Swayambhu Stupa or ‘Monkey Temple’
For some cultural emersion, I decided to visit the Swayambhu Stupa or ‘Monkey Temple’. According to Wikipedia, “It is probably the most sacred site among Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism, it is second only to Boudha.” I thought the site was really interesting. As soon as I entered, there were women burning incense and praying to statues of Buddha. They were also having a communal feast. This was one of the first of many instances of increased sense of community in Nepal when compared to the UK. This turned out to be a common theme throughout the adventure.
On the way up to the top of the Stupa (wiki again, “is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics”), there was a large group of people gathered in a circle. I could hear clapping and cheering from a distance so I went to investigate. It was like an impromptu scene from a musical. The girls were all on one side and the men were on the other. At random, a local police officer would grab one of the men and throw him into the middle. The peer pressure of the clapping eventually got him to dance and sometimes one of the girls would join in and show him how it is done. Personally, I think this is a great use of police resources. Genuinely! Everybody seemed to be having lots of fun which in turn means there should be less crime. I’m sure that logic makes sense…. this could catch on in the UK.
The Stupa is surrounded by holy monkeys. Again straight from Wikipedia, “They are holy because Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning, was raising the hill which the Swayambhu Stupa stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys.” I don’t really understand most of this either and it sounds a bit crazy to me. Either way, there are loads of monkeys here causing trouble.
They are extremely used to being surrounded by tourists and use this to their advantage to get food. I was holding onto a bottle of Fanta that I had just bought from a small shop. It was a really hot day so I was very much looking forward to the refreshing relief that the drink would offer. One of the monkeys must have recognised the delicious orange goodness in the bottle and had decided that it too wanted the Fanta all for itself. Without even a please or thank you, the monkey leapt, grabbed the bottle (which is in my hand) and tried to snatch it away. Unluckily for this little mite, I had a vice grip on the bottle of fizzy carbonated sugar and thwarted the thieving monkey’s attempt. I received a kick in the stomach from the monkey before it scarpered off. A suspicious American couple were mysteriously filming the whole incident. My conclusion. The Americans must have tipped the monkey off and set the whole ambush up.
Lesson: beware of the holy monkeys and be even more aware of suspicious looking Americans!
This was one of the best journeys I’ve had in an aircraft since my days as a young air cadet when I got to fly in a Tucano over East Yorkshire.
All 12 of us climbed onto a tiny aircraft with only 15 seats (two for the pilots and one for the stewardess). Once the propellers started, you had to shout at full blast to be heard by anyone. This made the safety brief rather interesting.
We left the town of Nepalgunj on the Indian border (150 metres above sea level) and set off to our destination of Juphal (2,175 metres above sea level). It was only a short flight but almost immediately I could smell the tangy, pungent smell of somebody’s vomit. It was dribbling its way from the rear of the plane, under the seats and all the way to the front. Needless to say, it wasn’t a gentle flight. The aircraft winded its way through mountain passes before making a hard bank to the left at what felt ridiculously close to the towering mountainside. The expert pilot, wearing standard issue aviators and enough duty-free aftershave to drown out the smell of the puke, levelled the aircraft and started to make his landing.
We had not joined the list of crashed aircraft that we saw littered at the bottom of the steep drop before the dust covered runway. This was a great way to start a trekking adventure. Stepping off the plane, we were surrounded by snow-topped mountains, lush green valleys and the most remote villages I have ever seen.
Juphal is a fairly large village by Dolpa standards. I imagine this is due to its proximity to the airstrip. It sits high on the side of a mountain and has stunning views.
Upon landing, we were taken through the village to a community centre. Walking through our first Nepalese village was an experience that brought all of my senses to life. Around each corner of the tight, dusty streets were free roaming goats, chickens and donkeys. The small, stone built buildings were filled with smoke from the fires that cooked food. Piles of dried Ox dung were being thrown onto the fires as fuel. It was like going back in time. Children wearing their smartest clothes raced past us with happy faces on their way to school.
Escaping the pollution of Kathmandu and the hectic life that a city breeds, was a welcome relief.
Once we had eaten some Dal Bhat (steamed rice with lentil soup), we were ready to start the trek. Over a 100 miles and lots of climbing awaited. I was excited and couldn’t wait to get going.