Juphal to Jomson Trek Upper Dolpo Traverse
Upper Dolpo Traverse – Juphal to Jomsom September/October 2017
The trek was finally confirmed after months of correspondence back and forth in August. We had our first ever Polish group consisting of 5 members.
Trekking Staff movement – Pre trek.
This trek is in the High and Wild part of Nepal and takes a lot of planning. I had been planning for weeks on end. Our staff, who spend most of summer monsoon trekking in Ladakh, got back five days, and Dil got into Kathmandu one night before leaving for Dunai, Dolpo district’s administrative centre. These poor lads had to take four days’ drive, changing four vehicles as there are no bridges over the swollen rivers, porter the gear and food to the other side, load it onto another transport, and continue their bumpy ride. After four days of the hot, sticky, rough, and sometimes bruising ride, they had to load the equipment and food on mules and continue their journey on foot for two days. They finally got the Dunai on the 6th day. They still had to sort out the rental tents and kitchen equipment and go shopping for fresh vegetables before we arrived.
Upper Dolpo Group movement
One group member pulled out due to compassionate reasons on the day she was to fly towards Nepal. One group member arrived via Delhi in the morning, while the rest arrived via Doha. Upon arrival at the hotel, the standard check-in, I arranged for the money changer to come to the reception area with local currency for the trekkers as part of our service. We parted ways after agreeing to meet the following evening for dinner and updates. They were left on their own as they all had been to Kathmandu at least twice before, and they knew their way around town.
We met for dinner at an agreed time, the trekkers got briefed on the program for the next day, and we flew to Nepalgunj in the afternoon. The flight to Nepalgunj got delayed by 30 minutes, but a brand new old ATR72-500 of Yeti Airlines made up for the lost time. The aircraft was filled with two big groups of medical/missionary volunteers to the Humla district. It was hectic trying to retrieve our luggage while being eaten alive by mosquitoes. The heat and the humidity didn’t help much. It was a relief to get to our hotel’s air-conditioning – Traveler’s Village, just a few kilometres from the airport. We retired early, as we had to get to the airport by 5.30 a.m. for our flight to Juphal. We collected our packed breakfasts, loaded the vehicle with our luggage, and headed for the airport. The airport was buzzing with activity. Upon checking in, I was informed that we had 74 kilograms of excess weight and had to pay RS150 per kg. Upon doing so, I joined the group after the security check, and the weather had worsened; it had started raining. We were informed that the flight was cancelled due to bad weather at Juphal. The airline crew we had booked our plane had a day off the next day, and they wouldn’t fly. I called up contacts to convince them to pass the next day or get seats on another airline but to no avail. We were fortunate to have understanding clients who said there was no need to get stressed out if the flights were not happening. We spent the next day touring around Nepalgunj; mind you, most locals we spoke to said not much to see here. We returned to the hotel in the afternoon after sending the morning in an electric vehicle.
The following day we got into our aircraft, and in a short time, we landed at Juphal airport. We decided to walk part of the way until our vehicle met us on the trail; we walked to Dunai. We expected the weather to be much colder above 2000 meters, but it was still scorching. We were glad to be united with our team, who had been waiting for us and had a quick discussion to get moving that day after a quick lunch. Our group consisted of me as the trek leader, two trekking chefs, one trek butler, one local assistant, two pony men, and ten mules. We started along the Thulo Bheri River and turned northward an hour later along the Suligad River. We registered with the Shy Phoksundo National park at their entrance, the largest in Nepal. We got to Kageni just before dark as we had a late start to the day. Our crew and mules reached the campsite 30 minutes after we did, and they quickly set up the tents for the trekkers and made dinner within 90 minutes of our arrival.
The following day we walked in a northwesterly direction going upstream of the Suligad river, which comes from Phoksundo Lake. The hike was in the beautiful forested area passing through Shyanta and Chepka until our final stop at Rechi. Our mules and support crew got delayed as one of our mules brushed against a rocky outcrop on the trail and fell into the Suligad River. Our pony men quickly jumped into the waist-deep river and pulled the mule out. The mule escaped with no injuries; its load, two tin boxes, was utterly smashed. Once again, they arrived just before dark, but like the previous night, our team was swift in preparing our dinner, and everyone went to bed content.
Day 3 & Day 4
This was an exciting day for us as we went to Phoksundo Lake. The walk at the beginning was undulating, passing through Samduwa, and a short distance away, we arrived at Trapiza School. The Swiss and Americans funded it. For the first time, I observed that the female students dressed in traditional rather than dark blue skirts and light blue shirts like in Nepal. We continued a gentle climb until we reached Palam, where the ascent got steep until we went to a resting place. Upon arriving at this resting place, we were pleasantly welcomed by the sight of the raging Suligad waterfall that drops 167 meters. We also got the first glimpse of the massive Kanjiroba 6612-meter peak. Kanjirolwa means the big mountain with a ponytail in Tibetan. We could also see part of the Turquoise Phoksundo Lake. We reached the main village of Ringmo and Phoksundo Lake an hour later. We couldn’t take our eyes off the beauty of the Lake. The next day was a rest day to acclimatize to the high altitude of 3611 meters. After that, we took an easy walk to the ancient Bon monastery, Thasung Tsoling Gompa. The whole of Ringmo village are parishioners of the ancient Bon religion that predates Tibetan Buddhism.
After a good breakfast, we started our morning walking on the Lake’s Western trail, which started going uphill. Every step and corner showcased the absolute beauty of the Lake. Finally, we reached the highest point of the path at above 4000 met, from where the trail started contouring on a downhill trend bringing us to pine and Rhododendron forest until we reached the lakeside to the North of Ringmo village. A couple of Herder’s tents also doubled as restaurants, shops, and even lodging for travellers. We decided to stop here for a break, as our camp was just a short hour away. On another beautiful sunny day, our trekkers enjoyed the day with some beers, and we decided to have lunch here. Two hours later, our staff Sundar came running to stop us from continuing further. He informed us that as the mules had started, the villagers had stopped them as the trail widening work had started. Therefore, the mules could only begin after 3.30 p.m. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the Lake and clearing the grounds in preparation for our campsite for the night. We could hear the bells of our approaching mules just before dark once again. Once the camp was established, dinner was served, and everyone had a restful night.
We trekked upstream of the Phoksundo river towards our first pass’s lower base camp in the pine forest with some clearings where tent shops are set up during the summertime. Then, we turn to our right to the Tuk Kyasa River. It involved rough trails and crossed the river by stepping and leaping on rocks. The valley widened after 30 minutes, and we reached the intermediate campsite about 2 hours 3 minutes later. It was just enough for our four sleeping tents, kitchen, dining, and toilet tent. It was a lovely spot with a stream close by for our kitchen staff to cook.
This big day involved crossing the first of 6 passes above 5000 meters. Kang La is also known as Nagdalo La at 5350 meters. We went up for an hour before we reached the high camp; we saw the French trekkers who camped there the previous night had just started. We climbed on a steady ascent mixture to some short steep climbs for 90 minutes before the rise became steep. We continued this steep and challenging climb for more than two hours before reaching Kang La’s top. It was very windy and cold at the top. We took a few quick photos; we could see the Manaslu range to the southeast of the pass and the stark but beautiful hills that define Dolpo to the north. The first 20 minutes were a steep drop before the trail started contouring in a downward trend for 90 minutes, where we stopped for the night in a beautiful open space with a stream next to it. It was the biggest day of the Hindu Festival – Dashain. We prepared some “Tika” for the eldest member of the group and me to bless the team members. The “tika” consisted of rice mixed with cream to make it sticky. The “tika” is placed on the elders’ forehead, and blessings are given to the younger ones. It was the highest Dashain celebration for all of us at 4860 meters altitude. Dancing would only last a couple of minutes before we had to stop to catch our breath. It was a celebration; we won’t forget it for a long time.
It was an easy hike down to Shey Gompa from our campsite. The gompa area had some herders’ tents on their way down from the high summer pastures and yaks. A short hike from the river brought us to a beautifully maintained campsite. An elderly couple who was the monastery and campsite caretakers did a superb job of managing it. They were regularly cleaning the camp. On the opposite side of Shey Monastery is Crystal Mountain, which broods above everything else. It is the holiest mountain in Dolpo and is considered the next holy mountain after Mount Kailash in Tibet.
We decided to utilize our rest day at Shey Gompa to cut short one of the longer days that was coming. We continued to the Namgung. We had to go over another pass Sela at 5094 meters. It was relatively easy to go over, and the scenery was stunning, which made our hike pleasant. We could see four well-placed Monasteries and retreats that were almost impossible to notice unless you looked hard for them. Namgung consisted of 5 houses and monasteries. Herders were returning to their village from the summer pastures.
The morning started with a short climb until we reached the plateau; the trail was undulating, and we contoured the hills until we descended to Saldang, the most significant village on our trek. We could see several neighbouring towns and many paths in the distance. We stopped high above the village. This was the best campsite to date with stunning views all around. We went for a walk in the village that was busy harvesting their barley, de-husking and packing them away. Gosha, the only lady trekker, had brought some balloons from Poland to give to the children. She instantly became “pied the piper of Dolpo”, with children following her. They followed back to our campsite, which was above the village. We asked to buy “Chyangra,” a mountain goat reared by the Highlanders of the Himalayas but were informed that the flocks were still in the transit camps on their way back from the high pastures.
Interestingly, throughout the Himalayan villages, they keep the animals off the village until harvest. The owner is fined before the animal is released if anyone’s animal enters a field and eats the crops. This applies to both residents and visitors alike.
It was our rest day, so our boys set up the shower tent so we could shower and do some laundry. Kaji, our ponyman, and Sundar had set off at 4 a.m. to a shepherd’s camp to buy a “Chyangra” so we could feed the trekkers and ourselves. They arrived with the goat by the time we finished our breakfast. The trekkers and I went for a walk around the village while the boys “prepared” the goat for the trek. First, we visited the 500-year-old Samye Choling Monastery in the lower part of Saldang Village. Next, we went to the residence of the Shey Phoksundo village Municipality head. We discussed how beautiful Dolpo is and how its pristine environment should be maintained and not be spoiled by the rubbish that comes in with the influx of trekkers from companies that do not practice Responsible Tourism. An article on this subject – leave no trace. He received my thoughts and ideas with enthusiasm. We headed back to our campsite in time for high tea. Shortly the children from the village came with small bags of potatoes to show their gratitude for the balloons they received. Our staff gave them biscuits and some money for the potatoes to ensure a fair exchange. It was a touching moment.
The trek to Khomas started with a descent to the river and a steady climb to Khoma, pass at 4460 meters. We could see Khomas village from the past. We decided to enjoy the warm sun and the lack of wind while waiting for the mules and our staff to catch up. We started hiking down after a relaxing 45-minute rest, stopped by a grassy pasture for lunch, and continued down after that to the village. Khoma village is situated in a more open valley, a relatively large settlement.
We started the day with an hour of the traverse and a drop to the river before the trail went uphill to Shimen la’s top at 4260 meters. The path continued for 45 minutes before we came to the end of the pass and could see Shimen village. We could see an old airstrip when fights used to take place from Nepalgunj directly to Shimen in the 60s and 70s. The distance was quite deceiving as it is the altitude; the thin air makes things appear closer than they are. This was the lowest village since we left Phoksundo camp, and we could feel the heat. We were now in the Panzang (Ban Tshang by locals) river valley.
The valley was broader, with more rolling hills compared to the sharp ridges and deep valleys before this. It was once again a glorious day with no clouds in the sky. We passed through several Chortens, interesting rock carvings on the rocks by the river. We crossed paths with many villagers with rations to stock up for the long cold winter.
Interestingly the Nepal government sends rations through Tibet to the border. So the villagers go to the border, buy the subsidized ration, pack them on their animals, and bring them home. This keeps the cost of transportation lower than transporting within Nepal. We camped next to a river below the village of Tinje, another beautiful spot.
We left Tinje, greeted by numerous Marmots whistling to let the others know of our presence. We walked for about two hours, took a left on a fork, and continued for three more hours before we stopped for the night. This windy and slightly small campsite proved to be one of the colder places we spent our nights in, with the wind blowing almost throughout the night.
Wildlife in Dolpo
We were greeted by the sight of a Blue Sheep flock going uphill after having their afternoon drink at the river near our camp.
This wasn’t the first time we had seen Blue Sheep, marmots, Eurasian and Himalayan Griffons, Steppe eagles, Pikas, and other raptors.
The trail was a gentle and gradual climb to begin with. We passed through several yaks being herded back to the villages or just grazing lazily. Next, we passed through a couple of potential campsites for the future in a more open valley and space. Finally, we had to cross a river by taking off our boots. We probably could have skipped on the rocks, but I believe in prevention rather than cure. We went into two different valleys before we started our ascent toward the high camp of Mo La, our third pass of the trek. We have been heading East for the past few days now. Our campsite was at 4880 meters.
The hike to Mo La 5030 was relatively comfortable, and the final climb wasn’t that difficult either; it took us about an hour to reach the top of the pass. There were three locals on pony backs coming from the opposite side. We exchanged a few friendly words and learned they were from Danda Gaon’s village (Hilltop village in Nepali). On our descent, we were greeted by the view of Mount Dhaulagiri’s north face. We had seen several 6000 + meter peaks along with the Manaslu range, but this was the highest mountain on this trek at 8167 meters. The hike down to Charka was deceptively longer than expected, although still very scenic. Charka derives from Tibetan (Chaa Ka – good salt). There is a source of salt on the outskirts of the village, and a stream flows through it. All animals go there to get their salt fixed. The villagers were busy with their harvest, de-husking of the barleys, and their animals being brought back from the summer pastures. We restocked on kerosene, some fresh vegetables, etcetera for the next three days to be camping in the middle of nowhere away from the villages.
We crossed the Charka Tulsi River and walked on a very new and broad trail for about an hour before going to the bridge to cross the river, followed by a short but strenuous climb on a dusty path. Once we were on the top, the terrain appeared suitable for a golf course. The trail continued on a gentle slope for another 90 minutes. We stopped to let our crew catch up and had an early lunch. Soon after this, the trail went through landslip areas where the path was narrow and rocky, but we reached our campsite an hour after our lunch spot. This was once again a wide-open valley with a vast flat ground for camping with two relatively large cooking and cleaning streams. We used the day we had saved from our rest day at Shey Gompa to break this rather long day into two relaxed and comfortable days to conserve our energy for the last three passes that take place on the same.
We had a late wakeup in the past ten days as the water would be frozen, and there was no point in rushing. We waited until the sun reached our campsite before getting ready for breakfast and the trek. It helped our kitchen crew work and couldn’t do much with frozen water and streams. It was an easy hike of about 4 hours to our camp at Nulungsumda Kharka at 4987 meters. It started getting cloudy from this onwards. Westerly winds blew clouds to the EastEast. The pony men and local guide began voicing their concern about the weather changing, and rightly so. Every few years, cyclones from the Bay of Bengal, bring unseasonal snow to the high passes, and some people, including trekkers and locals, die. I reassured them that the bad weather usually comes from the EastEast, and these clouds travelled West.
This was a “huge” day involving crossing over three passes, namely Niwas La 5125 meters, Jungben La 5550 meters, and a nameless pass at 5400 meters. It started with a flattish terrain with a slight climb to Niwas La. We were greeted with views of The Sadache Himal range. It continued flattish until the last 60 minutes to the top of Jungben la 5550 meters. We got there with relative ease. The downhill was quite another thing; it was winding and steep for some time before it eased with a small climb to the last pass. The descent from here was steep with loose shales, screes, rocks, and relentless steep for what seemed like forever. We were glad to reach our camp at Ghalden Ghuldun River after a 7-hour trek. We were entertained in the evening by yaks that came down the pass in large numbers brought by their herders. Some Yaks brought down our toilet tent.
We begin with a small climb and a steep descent to Kyalungpa Khola (River). We walked past Juniper trees along a dusty path, and the active Mustang wind worsened. Along the trail Gosha, the Polish lady from my group, pointed out a paw mark, and I assumed and told her that it must be that of a Tibetan Mastiff, and we continued. It was quite a steep drop down on some exposed and slippery trail until we got to the bridge. We had a short climb of about 30 minutes before the trail levelled out until we got to a small pass; we had to go down to a river where we stopped for lunch. We had a short climb for about an hour before we reached Santa (Shang Tak), where we camped for the night.
I had heard that the snow leopards have increased in numbers, and someone told me that they had been taken off the danger list. So I spoke with the house owner we were camping at about the growth in the Snow leopard population. He told me that there were at least 15 around their village area. The snow leopards have become such a menace to the villagers that they have stopped rearing Yaks, goats, and Sheep, as it is easy meals for them, not the actual yaks but their calves. I mentioned the paw mark we saw on the trail, and he said it was a snow leopard; there are no dogs in the neighbouring village, and the only dog in that village never left it – how exciting. If only I had taken a photo of the paw mark.
We began the day with a steep uphill climb to 4110 meters and walked on a newly constructed road. The road contoured to the Top of Bhimen La 4600 meters. The top’s views were breathtaking; Upper Mustang to the North, Peaks of Nar Phu valley to the North East, Thorung peak and pass to the EastEast, Muktinath, Jharkot, Kagbeni beneath the Thorung pass, Nilgiri peaks to the South East and the Kali Gandaki riverbed. It was a very windy and dusty trek to Phalyak village. However, we were glad to reach it, and the groups were surprised when they were told that their tents were on the roof of a house.
We decided to hike to the road and get to Jomsom hospital as soon as possible as one member of the group had been bothered by pain in his rear end, and it was getting worse; he wanted it treated quickly. In addition, a dog had attacked our team members the previous afternoon. Although he was alright, there was a small open wound, and we wanted to make sure he was treated soon as well. When we reached Jomsom District Hospital, we learned that another trekker had been brought the previous day with a severe dog bite. My analysis is that the Tibetan Mastiff spends the summer in high pastures protecting their owners’ animals against snow leopards, Tibetan wolves or jackals, and foxes all summer. When they are brought back to the village, their protective instinct must still be “on”, and they are still ferocious for a few weeks before they get into the “village” mode. Warning – do not pet animals no matter how cute and calm they appear.