Dolpa is the section of the Great Himalaya Trail that Buckey and I have most looked forward to. For months, I’ve heard locals referring to the region as “the real Nepal”, which greatly piqued my interest. Buckey has been stoked to go there ever since he read The Snow Leopard (Penguin Classics) this past winter, a book that takes place in Dolpa. We were excited to finally get to visit the region.
Like any successful hike, it began with planning. From our home base in Pokhara, we began organizing the food we would bring. We decided we needed about two weeks worth of breakfasts and dinners. We knew there would be small shops along the way where we could buy basic supplies. However, I much prefer the backpacking food we brought from the States to Ramen noodle packets. Additionally, I went to the local supermarket and gathered all the supplies for gorp (nuts, dried fruit, M&Ms).
We got our permits organized via a trekking agency. We had wanted to explore Upper Dolpa, but permits for that region are $500 per person for one week and $50 a day after that. So we opted for the Lower Dolpa permits at $10 a week, which added limitations to the route we could take but was much more affordable.
With so much food, our packs weighed nearly 50 pounds each. We switched out the smaller packs we’d been using this whole time for the large packs we’d been storing our extra gear and food in. Somewhat reluctantly, we were ready to head to the trail. Tired of local buses, we bought tickets for a Jeep transport back to Jomsom.
Getting back on trail with heavy packs
There were six passengers in total. On the bus to Pokhara from Jomsom, the driver did not stop at any of the tourist checkpoints. On the Jeep ride, the driver stopped at all of them. At the first checkpoint upon entering Annapurna Conservation Area, I realized the permits were in my pack strapped to the roof of the Jeep. The driver rudely glared at me while he got it down. Buckey apologized to him, while I defiantly glared back.
Then I discovered that I forgot the Annapurna Conservation Area permits back in Pokhara. I had wrongly assumed we wouldn’t need them anymore since we we going into Dolpa and done hiking the Annapurnas. They made us pay double for new permits since you’re supposed to get them in Pokhara or Kathmandu (that’s $40 each). As we pulled away from the checkpoint, the driver threw his water bottle out the window in a freaking conservation area. Then Buckey was mad that we just forked over $80 to help conserve this region and the driver was littering. We were in solidarity both bitter with the driver.
After a night in Jomsom, we began our hike to Dolpa. The first climb out of town was steep, made especially difficult because of the weight of our packs, but the top brought views of a seemingly endless range of desert mountains. We walked down into a ghost town that was centered around an oasis.
The day was slow going. We picked a campsite inside of the ruins of a fallen house. A herd of sheep grazed on the hill behind us. Suddenly the sheep herder was yelling and running toward his animals. That’s when we saw the Tibetan fox circling the herd, hesitant to attack. The herder chased the predator off with no casualties.
The next day followed in a similar manner. Our packs were still unbearably heavy, causing pain in our hips and feet. At the end of the day we were ready to stop, but out of water. We trudged on, down a sandy slope to the river below. The river was swamped with mineral deposits, making the water brown and gritty. But what choice did we have? We filled up our bottles then hiked on to a rocky, slanted campsite.
Our bad luck was not over. Buckey’s sleeping pad popped a small hole that night. For the remainder of the trip, he would have to wake up several times a night to blow more air into it.
Crossing in to Dolpa via a 18,500 foot pass
There was one 18,500 foot pass separating us from officially being in the Dolpa region. Our packs still being ridiculously heavy, I was dreading the hike over our highest pass yet. We had to gain 4,000 feet in one morning. We walked slowly, taking breaks often. After a 5:00 am wake up and hours of climbing, we could finally see the top. We just had to make it up one last mountain.
I had never contemplated quitting as much as I did during the final hour and a half to the top of the pass. The trail switch backed upwards, and I was acutely aware that slipping could cause me to tumble down the loose rocky slope. Finally, we were at the top and it was time to start the descent.
Several hours later, we found ourselves at our first water source of the descent and decided to call it a day. We were now in Dolpa, the most difficult and beautiful section of our hike. We saw one yak herder that evening, but other than him we had the place to ourselves for miles.
Tracking snow leopards
The following morning was thankfully flat, easy walking. Buckey spotted an animal track in the mud. We examined it, and determined that it was from a big cat. The only big cats at this elevation were snow leopards. As we continued, we saw more and more snow leopard prints. We found scat often as well. We even found some that was full of tiny bones. From the amount of scat and the variety in how old it was, we decided that the snow leopard likely frequently uses the trail.
My favorite set of cat prints were on a rock in a stream crossing. There were about eight muddy prints on one rock. I imagined the snow leopard stopping there to drink from the stream. We happily followed the tracks for five miles before they disappeared.
That evening brought us to the tiny village of Charka Bhot. We were pleased to find a guest house there, ran by a Tibetan woman. Upon arrival she made us a pot of Tibetan butter tea which does in fact have butter in it. I’ve found that I especially dislike dairy products that come from yak. The flavor is just too pungent for me. Not to cause offence, I choked down my tea only to have my cup refilled against my will.
The next day’s hike was supposed to be fairly straight forward, the trail sticking close to the river all day and making a right turn to Chap Chu Lake where we would camp. The map was deceiving, and it was not a straight forward day. The trail was high above the river, going up and down over all the small mountains. We came to a stretch of a slippery sand slope directly above a vertical cliff drop off. I hurried across not looking down. I especially hate the if-you-fall-you die sections of trail.
We soon saw a group of people far below us walking along a river side trail. We were not sure how we missed the easy trail, so we planned to link up with it at first opportunity. Our trail finally brought us back down, and we were able to get to the river. We had a few river crossings along our route. Buckey chivalrously dropped his pack on the other side then got back in the water to come meet me in the middle. Getting directions from two 10-year-olds with a herd of a few hundred goats, we finally arrived at Chap Chu Lake. There were a few canvas tents for the local herder families who lived there, and of course a few dozen goats.
The following day brought yet another pass and yet another five hour, 4,000 feet uphill walk. The thick fog made it difficult to navigate. When we finally did make it to the top, we hiked down for a bit before accidentally taking the wrong path down the valley. After a few miles, we found a tent settlement. They directed us towards a path that went over a mountain in order to get to our destination of Dho Tarap.
After a long, difficult section of trail we were tired. Buckey was feeling particularly exhausted and ready to go home. We decided to do a short day, walking up the river for a few hours before selecting a campsite. The next day we would be getting up early for another pass. We spent the rest of the day relaxing, listening to Game of Thrones on audiobook, and washing our dirty socks in the stream.
In ten days we hiked over five passes that were 17,500 feet and higher. It involved lots of hours of slow climbing and many early mornings, but it was also a remote stretch of trail that not many people get to experience.
Turquoise water of Phoksundo Lake
Finally we hiked into Ringmo, the village by Phoksundo Lake. Phoksundo is a turquoise blue lake with a depth of nearly 500 feet. We took a rest day and walked to the rocky beach along a trail with vertical drops into the water below. We had wanted to visit the monastery, as Tibetan Buddhism is the prominent religion in the region, but is was locked when we stopped by.
Phoksundo marked the end of our high altitude trekking. As I mentioned before, permits for the upper region were $500 so that made our decision to get on the low route an easy one.
The five day hike from Phoksundo to Jumla was a monotonous slog. Thankfully the weather was rainy and cloudy, otherwise the heat and humidity would have been unbearable. There were still passes to hike over. At around 13,000 feet they were much lower than what we were used to, although we were still gaining 3,000 to 5,000 feet in a day to get over them.
Joining a mule caravan
Coming to the top of one house, we came upon a tent settlement. There just happened to be a mule caravan about to leave for Kaigon, our destination of the day. They offered to strap our packs to an empty mule. I would have preferred to keep going by ourselves, but Buckey was enthusiastically on board so we agreed to join the caravan.
I’ve passed by many mule trains, but never before had I hiked with one. When the trail was surrounded by thick forest or steep hills, the mules walked quickly and efficiently. When the path opened up to pastures and grass, the mules would get distracted and take off in all different directions to graze then need to be herded back together again.
The caravan was being led by a few young men and a kid. None of them spoke English, but they seemed to like having us around. They particularly liked selfies and asked us to take a few group photos on our phones. As we approached town, the group kept stopping for unnecessarily long breaks. The sun was dropping in the sky, and Buckey and I really just wanted to get to town.
Finally, we got to the outskirts of town and the guys started unloading the mules at a tea house. We tried to communicate that we wanted our packs. I didn’t want to spook the animal by trying to get it myself. The most outgoing of the men demanded 1,000 rupees (about $10) before he would get our packs. Buckey had intended to give them some money anyway out of courtesy, but we didn’t appreciate them holding our packs hostage until we paid.
We handed over the money, got our packs, and started down the hill into Kaigon, pissed off at the interaction. Two of the guys, including the one that demanded money, started down into town with us. We brushed them off by ignoring them and giving them cold looks, and eventually they got the hint. It was a bizarre experience. Like they wanted to scam money out of Buckey and I, but also wanted to be friends.
Finishing our hike and being stranded in Jumla
Two more long days brought us to Jumla. We took a rest day and stayed at Snowland Hotel, possibly the grimiest hotel of the whole trip. Even though we were both burnt out on the hike, we planned to continue to Rara Lake and into the Far West. We hiked out of town on a rainy day, and the leeches were out in full force. We made a wrong turn, then another.
Finally we sat down on the side of the trail, unsure of the correct direction to go. Neither of us were having fun anymore, and we hadn’t had much fun since leaving Phoksundo. The west was more of the same thing in the way of scenery. Buckey and I raised the question, “Do we even want to keep hiking?” After a long conversation about the pros and cons of finishing our intended route, we decided that no we did not really want to keep going.
We have been hiking since mid-March. We felt we did what we set out to do. We walked across Nepal’s Himalaya mountain range.
In high spirits, we started back to Jumla. Our intention was to catch a domestic flight to Nepalgunj the following day. We found Kirajowa Hotel, which was close to the airport. The hotel was way better than the previous one. They had hot showers, wifi, and good food. It was ran by a family.
Turns out, getting a flight out of Jumla was not as easy as we thought. We bought plane tickets for the following day, and our flight got cancelled due to rain. Then it got cancelled again the next day.
Megan and Buckey: 2, Monsoon season: 2
After being stranded in Jumla for a few days, our luck finally changed thanks to the awesome family that ran the hotel. After our second cancelled flight, the hotel owner arranged a Jeep for us to get to Nepalgunj. He took it upon himself to get our money back from the flights to pay for what would be a two day Jeep ride.
Things went wrong again the morning of departure because the rain had caused the river to flow over the road. After much hesitation, our driver drove through it. Too fast though. Everything under the hood was flooded with water and the Jeep wouldn’t start. We sat by the road while a group of men got to work fixing it, all the while the hotel owner hung out to make sure we would make it out of town.
Then he got a call on his cell phone. A plane was coming after all. He told us to hurry to the airport while he rushed ahead on his motor bike.
As we were running up the hill into town, two more motor bikes stopped. We didn’t know the drivers, but the grandfather from the hotel jumped off the back of one telling us, “Motor bikes are faster. To the airport!” and waved us off.
I didn’t appreciate just how rocky and uneven the Jumla roads were until I was bouncing along on the back of a motorcycle.
Finally, we pulled up to the airport, our hotel owner waiting for us. We got rushed through security without having our passports checked and no boarding tickets in hand.
Outside, we realized that the name of the airline on the plane was different from the one we purchased tickets with. No worries. Our names were on the passenger list. Our hotel owner had switched them over for us.
We made our flight to Nepalgunj, and as luck would have it there were seats available on a same day flight to Kathmandu. We booked tickets without hesitation. By six pm that evening we were sitting in our favorite Kathmandu restaurant, New Orleans, eating burgers and kabobs.
Out of the mountains finally, Buckey and I booked our international flights and gave ourselves a spare week to relax in Pokhara and Kathmandu. Buckey will be flying into Las Vegas and going back to our old wilderness therapy job. I’m heading to Thailand with pretty much no plans or schedule.
3 Things from Buckey:
- Doplo: The Doplo section of trail is the region I had been anticipating most throughout the planning and execution of this trek. When we hiked over the first mountain side leaving Jomson things felt of bit familiar, not because it looked like the rest of Nepal, but because it looked like Southwest Utah! The remote and vast nature of Doplo was a novel setting that blew my mind each day. As I looked closer I noticed the plants added to what reminded me of Utah. There were sagebrush, yucca, agave, juniper, and an assortment of coniferous tree. We had heard it was in the “rain shadow” but didn’t fully understand what that meant until we saw how arid the region was. While trekking in the Himalaya one can expect to see almost exclusively granite crags and cliffs that tower over the deep valleys. In Dolpo the rock was almost exclusively limestone, which is my preferred type of rock to climb on. There was seemingly endless untouched limestone throughout the entire region and gave me wandering eyes all day, everyday. It also makes Dolpo a region that I believe could offer world class rock climbing and will be considered as a destination for future trips to Nepal for me.
- Animals: Seeing wildlife has been one of my favorite things about being in Nepal and a go to for “things from Buckey”. The last section did not disappoint. I had a close encounter with a small heard of blue sheep on the steep accent up to a pass. Seeing blue sheep in the high mountains gave me a glimpse of how difficult and high risk their lives are. Complete confidence and balance allow these guys to thrive in a habitat that seems inhospitable. After leaving Phoksundo we were able to see three different Tibetan fox, which are about the size of a coyote but with thinker fur. The fox we got the best look at was standing in a wild canabis field and seemed to just be enjoying his morning looking for rodents in the field. He noticed us and looked at us for 5-10 seconds then scurried away, only to pop out of the bushed 50 feet ahead on trail giving us a great view of his black and brown bridal type coat. He ran down trail a bit in good view until he disappeared over the hill side. We saw dozens of Himalayan vultures throughout the last leg of our trek. These raptors are some of the largest birds in the world and seem to spend most of their time soaring high above the already towering peaks. This is a bird that I knew about prior to coming to Nepal and was hoping to see. The crown jewel of Nepal wildlife is the “yeti” which may or may not be a real thing depending on who you talk to. We did not see a yeti. The real crown jewel of Nepal wildlife is the snow leopard, and sadly we didn’t see one of those either. As Megan mentioned above we did have an amazing day following snow leopard tracks and skat. For a snow leopard, I’ll take it! I even spotted what could have been the cats trackway up a scree field to a possible den site. The animals in Nepal was one of the major reasons why I committed to this trip and looking back at the last four months I can say it did not disappoint.
- The trip as a whole: Well, Nepal is crazy. The infrastructure unquestionably needs work. The roads are dangerous and unpredictable, and the trash is abundant throughout even the most remote sections. With those two negative factors its important to say that high points out weighed the low points. The mountains are unquestionably beautiful. The jungles are unquestionably lush and humid. The locals are unquestionably welcoming, kind, hardworking, skilled craftsmen, and rugged. Seeing a culture of such hard working people has made an impact on me, and moving forward with I know it is possible to stay positive and enthusiastic through hard times. The Nepalese have to work much harder to supply their families with basics such as food, water, and shelter, and the focus is not on material things. The focus is on family and friends. Being in Nepal for 4+ months has had its challenges. There were many days I just felt done with trekking, but had to wake up early, pack away the tent, pack my pack and put one foot in front of the other for the next 12 hours. It was brutal at times. Some days all I wanted to do was be on a couch in the States watching a movie and eating good food. Thru-hiking is something I never planned on doing, but now its done, and who knows whether or not I’ll try something like it again. I sure don’t. What I do know is that Nepal is a special place, and I’m glad I had the oppertinuty to dive into the deep end and experience the country the way I did.
Miles Hiked: 800
I’ve been getting emails and messages from readers who are interested in trekking in Nepal and want to know more about the logistical side of things. In the next few months I plan on writing more informational blog posts on how to hike the Great Himalaya Trail. Stay tuned!
*There are affiliate links in this post. I earn a commission at no cost to you.