A trek to remote Dolpo district: The perilous path to paradise in Nepal

While serving as envoy to Nepal I had often heard about the fabled region of Dolpo in mid-western Nepal, home to villages still practising Bonpo, the ancient, pre-Buddhist faith of Tibet, and boasting of a pristine landscape that included the celebrated Lake Phoksundo. But few are ready to brave the difficult, and sometimes treacherous, trails which wind through valleys framed by snow-capped mountains. I decided to attempt the trek in April this year. Two other former ambassadors to Nepal, Deb Mukherji and Ranjit Rae, accepted my invitation to join me and we headed out as a minor expedition with a support team of 12 plus several ponies.

Our original itinerary was ambitious. We were to fly to the Terai town of Nepalganj from Kathmandu and then take a short flight over the Chura mountains (part of the Shivaliks) to the village of Juphal. From here our trek would have taken us to the villages of Danai, Tarakot, Lani Odar, Nawarpani and Do Tarap. We would then cross two high passes, successively, called Numa La (4,510m) and Baga La (5,170m) before emerging at the high-altitude pastures of Yak Kharka. The village of Rigmo, on the banks of Lake Phoksundo (3,600m) would then be a relatively easy day’s walk. This route would have enabled uninterrupted views of the magnificent Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges from the high passes. Our plan was to stay in Rigmo for a couple of days and then head back over another, relatively easier route, traversing the villages of Jharna, Chepka and Samta before reaching Juphal, our starting point. 

A recce team had been over the high passes only a week earlier and reported that there was no snow. But in the mountains a week is a long time. By the time we reached Lani Odar on April 14 after two days’ walk, the weather had turned and the passes were said to be deep in snow. We decided not to risk traversing the high passes and so headed back to the village of Danai with a plan to trek to Phoksundo over the more conventional and reportedly less difficult route.

The author’s Tibetan host family at Rigmo
Our altered itinerary took us from Danai to Suligadh, which is the entrance to the Phoksundo National Park. Our first stop was Chepka, a substantial village about six hours’ walk from Suligadh, mostly uphill. The trail was patchy, with stretches full of loose stones and grit which were easy to slip on. Gentle gradients suddenly gave way to steep and narrow inclines with overhanging ledges that one needed to avoid bumping into. I did not and received a nasty knock on my head which left me with a stiff and painful neck for several days. A tributary of the Bheri river, called the Thulo Bheri, runs adjacent to our track which criss-crosses it at several points. There were some welcome patches of forest along the route, with pine, cypress, oak and walnut trees but the landscape was mostly bare. Chepka village has a few teahouses but we chose to stay in tents on a campsite by the river. 

Bonpo Chorten en route to Rigmo monastery
The next day’s trek to Jharna was the best. The track along the river now entered a more densely forested zone of oak, cedar and pine. Spring had brought new leaves of every shade of green, which glistened in the sunlight. The air was cool and refreshing and the river in these higher reaches assumed a high-decibel roar, thundering over massive rocks and boulders and sculpting them into rounded shapes. 

We reached Jharna quite late in the afternoon. This is a small village but boasts of a residential school, a Nepal Army post nearby and a local government office. We chose to stay in a couple of bare rooms at a local teahouse in view of worsening weather conditions and falling temperatures. We had intermittent rain in the evening but later at night the rain stopped, and we were treated to a night sky shimmering with a dense array of bright silver stars. This is a view that we have all but forgotten in our polluted cities.

The mountains reflected in Phoksundo lake
The trail to Phoksundo the next day was one of the toughest we encountered during our trek. It was steep uphill and the track narrow and slippery. An hour and a half later we arrived tired but relieved at a pretty little gazebo, from which we could see the high mountain peaks covered with fresh white snow. Below us was an impressive waterfall, the Jharna, which gives its name to the village we had left behind. The Jharna river originates from Lake Phoksundo. In the distance we could see the wide pastures of Yak Kharka, dominated by the Baga La peak. This would have been our original route but the thick snows that covered the Baga La made our decision to avoid it a prudent one in retrospect.

From the gazebo a wide and gentle track led to the village of Rigmo, the entrance to which is marked by Bonpo chortens, which have signature orange circles painted on their sides. 
Rigmo village has barely 30 households and is located just a few hundred yards away from the lake. We decided to stay in the Himalaya Hotel, run by a Tibetan family. As we settled in, the weather changed suddenly and dark clouds gathered. It started snowing in earnest and it became bitterly cold. 

The Thulo Beri river on the track to Jharna
We woke up early next morning and walked up to the lakeside. The scene that greeted us was ethereal. The lake was framed by a ring of mountains covered with snow, which was reflected in the placid waters of the lake. The fir trees and bushes on the banks of the lake were also laden with white, virgin snow and the monochrome scene was set off by a string of colourful prayer flags strung across the path leading up to the lake. We crossed a wooden bridge that spans the spot where the Jharna river emerges from the lake and wends its way down to the waterfall we had seen on our way to Rigmo.

Shyam Saran, Deb Mukherji and Ranjit Rae at the Bonpo monastery
Later in the morning we visited the ancient Bonpo monastery that is a couple of kilometres away. The scene was so different. Most of the snow had melted, the clouds had receded and the water of the lake changed colour from a deep indigo to turquoise to pale blue edged with translucent green near the banks. The snow peaks were reflected in the lake as was the Bonpo monastery. The ephemeral beauty of the early morning had given way to a landscape of a different kind but no less magnificent. 

The main temple of the monastery was closed with the head lama absent. But it was still very worthwhile to walk among the ancient structures and rows of chortens.

We returned to Juphal by the same route, but camped at Rechi and Samta villages before arriving at Suligadh.

Our trek was spread over two weeks and was difficult and demanding. But the chance to experience one of the very rare, pristine and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes made it more than worthwhile.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and an avid trekker