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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thinle's Upper Dolpo to Jomsom Trek

Dolpo Delight 
A trek through the highest inhabited region in the world ... 

(Translated from Dutch from the online magazine 'Big Black Book') 
 - Jan-Erik Rottinghuis  

Sacred Upper Dolpo to Mustang Trek

- all photos by Kim Bannister

The English mountaineer George Mallory in 1924 answered the question why he wanted to climb Everest with: "Because it's there". Jan-Erik Rottinghuis went for the second time back to the Himalayas "because it's there". Nepal's highest mountains will not let you go!  

We are now hours in that small hopper and looking outside it seems as if the airplane is not taking off. And that is almost true. We are moving from Nepalgunj to Juphal in Nepal, a flight from sea level to 2400 m altitude in a steep climb. In Juphal we really begin our trek to Dolpo, the high plateau in Nepal bordering Tibet, inhabited by the Dolpa a population of nearly 10,000 souls of Tibetan origin.  

I am traveling with 3 New Zealanders: two doctors, just married and a lady of Dutch descent who still "speaks a bit Netherlands" ..., amazing to meet in Nepal! Our group also consists of an Australian (Head of Air Traffic Control), a Slovenian UN employee, a Russian who lives in Germany, a Belgian doctor, a Canadian lawyer from Toronto, an Austrian hotel owner on sabbatical and two Americans. Plus, our American guide, Kim, who after a trek in Nepal 12 years ago stayed in Nepal because the Himalayas do not let go. She now has her own flourishing "high end" Kamzang Journeys expedition organization, in collaboration with her partner Lhakpa Sherpa. I'm the only Dutchman and I know I am in good hands. All other participants have at least 4-5 Nepal tours behind. I am only a beginner with an experience in 2005 to Everest Base Camp and High Pass route on my account ...  

I met Kim for the first time in KGH, Kathmandu Guest House, THE hotel in the center of Thamel Kathmandu. A haven of tranquility in the busy center of the 2,000-year-old capital of Nepal, with its million inhabitants. It seems with equal number of rickshaws, cars and cyclists ... And then all those expedition-goers who come here from around the world before they have start on their various treks in Nepal! And we sit in the middle of Dashain, the biggest festival in Nepal, which makes things even more chaotic and festive. You're instantly in another world, after 14 hours of flying.  

We all have the same urge to go into the mountains, surrounded by the giants of 7,000 to 8,000 + meters with the somewhat "smaller" 5-6000 meter mountains .... because up there you live in full nature, take distance from all worldly affairs, you will not be disturbed by the phone (you just leave your phone in the hotel, because there are no connections), you can test yourself and your stamina and you have time for yourself!  

I look outside and the airplane flies around a huge cliff that we just missed .... and there lies before us the "airport" of Juphal: a strip of grass with loose stones at the end ... nothing ... other than the Thuli Beri valley. But we make a safe landing and the plane stops in time. We are quite relieved because a month ago, a plane of another company not been so lucky ... Phew!  

We are met by our Sherpas, cooks and yak drivers with their yaks and donkeys. All the food for a month, the individual tents, the great "canteen tent" plus our duffel bags are being charged and a real caravan of 25 men and as many animals pulls in the direction of Tibet. It's a bit of adjusting but because after the 1,400 meters in Kathmandu, now you walk on narrow paths along steep hills, at almost 3,000 meters in altitude. But the views are breath taking and you quickly get into the rhythm.  

It is a dream come true. My inspiration, which also played a role in 2005, the National Book Award winning book by Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard. Peter made a trip in the same area of Dolpo with the world famous biologist George Schaller (made famous by his first studies of gorillas, later continued by Diane Fossey) and also of the Nepalese snow leopard. They did this, however, 1973 and on a much more primitive way than we do now. But nature is still the same (thankfully) and the challenge to the various passes of 5,000meters to come as well! Because you do still walk with your own backpack for daily necessities and your camera! 

Our goal (if there is a goal for a journey of nearly 4 weeks), the village of Saldang. The village where Thinle lives, the main player of the 2000 Oscar-nominated film "Himalaya, l'Enfance d'un chef" Thinle is still an ordinary Dolpo-resident and the village head of Saldang. Eric Valli, the world-renowned photographer and filmmaker (known from Hermes and Vuitton ad campaigns), who for years lived in Nepal, explained in his film the salt expeditions of the residents of Dolpo. They transported with their yaks the salt of the highest inhabited region in the world, to the lower plains, for the annual exchange against grain of salt.  

And of course now that everything we want to see and experience ourselves. A movie is just a movie!  

Our trip in 5 days increased from 2,600 to 3,600 meters to acclimatize quietly and we arrive at the almost indescribable beauty of the village Ringmo and lake Phoksundo. A huge mountain lake 150 meters deep, surrounded by snow topped mountains and a blue color that is difficult to define. Like every evening upon arrival at our camp, our brand new Marmot tents all done, and we all enjoy in an unspoken silence the view, with the rumble in the distance of the 200-meter waterfall that rushes down from the lake. The next day is a rest day and fortunately we have the time to visit the local Gompa (temple) with its Stupas (the Buddhist structures) and the only monk who lives here in silence. If you want to meditate, so this is the place. What a beauty!  

We leave the next morning for perhaps one of the most beautiful routes in Nepal: the journey along the wall of Phoksundo lake to Chabluk Phu. Blue sky, the temperature of minus 5 degrees and bright blue lake, everywhere you look. We climb to 4,200 meters and the view is breathtaking. We make a flanking movement around the lake and arrive after 5hours rising and falling again to our camp on the north side of the lake. What a day, and it gets better as we look for driftwood washed up ashore and make a huge campfire. Warmth for cold feet and a fast beating heart!  

The next day on the road to "Snow fields" camp. After a cold river crossing barefoot, with freezing cold water to the knees, we make a winding climb to one of the entourage surrounded by autumn colors Kanjirowa Himal (6,800 meters). This is our first trip on real height. Nearly 1,000 meters up in one piece to a whopping 4,800 meters ... Fortunately, we climb in the valley of a river, which we have to jump several times over so we can refill our bottles regularly. The experienced colleagues walk up the mountain whistling, hands in their pockets (almost!). I am proud not to be the last to arrive at over night camp! Quickly taking off the boots and into the sleeping bag, because it's freezing 10 degrees and a catnap is now needed. After a delicious dinner I ask myself again how our Sherpa's get it done: a full pizza with salad and a delicious tea ....  

The next day we continue to rise to the final destination for Peter Matthiessen, but for us halfway: Shey Gompa. After the passage of the Kang La Pass of 5,400 meters, we descend to the Shey Gompa valley and we encounter whole herds of Bharal Himalayas (a large type of mountain goat), the meal of the snow leopard. What a sight these wild animals in their natural habitat. George Schaller can be proud of us. We see traces of the leopard, but unfortunately not the leopard itself.  
On day 17 of our journey we arrive in Saldang and we are welcomed by a Breughel's spectacle: everywhere in the fields the harvest the barley is still with old-fashioned flails by the women worked. The wind dashes the dust sky-high and people are working in that 12hours a day, during the critical harvest period. If only I could paint ....! Now the Nikon to great use, because the light in the late afternoon is great, but very clear at this altitude of 4,500 meters.  

We get offered tea at Thinle with the famous Tibetan hospitality: ie. yak-butter tea; we reach to room via a narrow staircase, high-lying sit-kitchen-bedroom! After a long day of walking at 4,500 meters altitude, everything is delicious. (And it's the first time I have tea with a "Hollywood star"). Children climbing in and out the open hatch at the end of the narrow stairs: all the foreigners remains an event, even though "Eric" (Valli), as everyone here calls him, is a good friend (the whole village had a role had in the movie "Himalaya").  

My mission is now accomplished and we can "return" to Kathmandu, but that is still 5 days of walking, climbing and descending. For one of the last camp sites in Mendo, against the Tibetan border, I walk slowly alone in my own thoughts to enjoy the huge Mani-stone walls built in this desert environment, they are walls of sacrificial stone, with all their personal and sacred texts, but most of them with the famous "Om mani padme um". Suddenly I hear hooves on the stone path and a Lamaon his pony, rides towards me in a fast gallop. He is as surprised as me and he greats with a big smile to that stranger lost in this wild country, with its roaring streams. One of the many encounters with all those friendly people who apparently lead such a happy and simple life.  

Back in Kathmandu, I treat myself to the best hotel, Dwarika's, a hotel built with and around the ancient crafts of Nepal. Beautiful woodwork and brick facades. I get a nice suite of 150 m2 and I can not find the bathroom so big is the room. Two hours in a huge bathtub with warm water is a very pleasant change from washing in rivers of zero degrees. Now the first steps back into the chaos of Kathmandu and civilization? The first meal at the table with linen, to work back the lost 7 kilos.  
And because we can not resist, in the afternoon on my way to one of Nepal's most beautiful and moving temples: Boudhanath for the sunset. Every Nepali should visit Boudhanath. You see young and old in their clockwise tour make around this, dating from the 5th century stupa with colorful prayer flags. And all the prayer bells turn by the hands of all the pilgrims who pass by. What an experience!  

And of course before I board the next evening my plane, a very early morning visit for sunrise at the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath, the holiest of holies of Shiva. When I arrive, the Sadhus are already sitting in "their place" and cremations have already started, the smoke rises into the clear blue sky. From a respectful distance, I watch and photograph the whole scene of life, death and rebirth ....  
After my trek of 200 KM., 10,000 meters up and 8,000 meters down, with the 5 passes of 5,000 + meters, I am recharged with energy from all those encounters, smells and sights .... and I take my taxi to KTM airport for a flight back to the western civilization ...  

Tah-shi de-leh Nepal. Till soon I hope.

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