A Dolpopa welcome

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The reputation of Nepalis is of a very friendly people and the Dolpopa, the people of the Dolpa, are no exception. Inhabiting one of the most remote areas of Nepal, which is saying something, they are self sufficient yet welcoming to newcomers and delighted by a jolly Namaste or Tashi delek, the Tibetan equivalent. And that betrays their roots. There is a strong Tibetan influence. Walking through these villages and camping at their centres built, for me, a strong admiration for this tough way of life in an uncompromising landscape.

Religion is a central line through life and the landscape. It’s clear when you’re approaching a village, even if you can’t see the houses, rows of mani stones guide you in. Having carefully skirted them in a clockwise direction, I have since learnt that’s only right for some Buddhists. Bon Buddhists go round in an anticlockwise direction. An interesting divergence. The gompas, monasteries, either in the centre or perched on hillsides above the villages form a living community lynchpin. Sometimes attended by a single llama, monk, he is often also an amchi, a traditional doctor, and provides the only heath care available to many of these communities. Amchi medicine and its basis in plants is partly what drew me to the area – more on that in later blogs.

Livelihoods in these high villages, way up above the forests, depend largely on agriculture to supply year round stores of barley, maize, potatoes. Vegetables are increasingly grown in small greenhouses attached to the houses to supplement the diet and lower down, pools of bright red on the roofs indicate winter stores of drying chilis and tomatoes. And then there are the animals. Yaks, sheep and goats high up with ponies and mules are taking a toll on the vegetation. These high levels of grazing bring massively high potential everywhere for catastrophic erosion, plenty of which we skirted, or peered across.

It’s easy to see how a landscape carved from rock by ice has also carved these communities. It is equally easy to see how the modern world is bringing a whole set of new pressures to bear. Plastic rubbish is more than just an eyesore. Yet there are new opportunities too. The trick for the Dolpopa will be taking what is good from the modern world and finding a way to reject what is bad.

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Dolpa – a land of contrasts. The landscape.

From the perspective of a temporary, wandering trekker, Dolpa is stunning. Even the arrival in a Twin Otter plane bouncing down at Juphal signals that you have reached somewhere special. And that specialness just reveals itself to you day by day.

The landscape, enormous like the rest of the Himalaya and impossible to capture in a mere photograph, is astounding. Walking from just over 2,000 metres from Juphal up to 3,600 m besides Phoksundo lake, takes you through an astounding kaleidoscope of colour, from the washed out greys of the Thuli Bheri River, through the dark green pine and juniper forests, on through a spiny scrub of brilliant red and orange and into birch woods, glowing iridescent golds. Even at this time of year, when the colours really glow, they still can’t prepare you for Phoksundo lake. The colour of molten lapis lazuli one day and then turquoise the next. Surrounded by steep jagged ridges, punctuated by juniper trees and lit by golden birches on the north facing slopes, the colours and the shapes form one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.

Beyond Phoksundo, the climb brings us into the upper Dolpa, where willow woods give way to the greys and browns of high altitude slopes, festooned with hanging glaciers high up on the valley sides, and white peaks. The villages at this altitude settle beside rivers in gentle depressions on the wide valley floors. Some are lightened with the presence of willow trees, protected from the grazing goats, sheep and yaks. Without the trees, others look bereft and hunched.

And above them all rise the steep scree valley sides, twisting up beyond the source of the rivers into the cirques, ridges and cols. At this height the air is thin and it’s difficult to walk and talk at the same time. Sometimes it’s difficult just to keep placing one foot in front of the other. The agonisingly slow pace is rewarded, however, by the views at the cols. Looking down both sides to valleys opening up in front you, you stand beside the stupa and prayer flags beating a rhythm at the col and snapping in the wind.

At the cols the wind is a constant companion, but elsewhere it’s a time keeper’s witness. The Dolpa wind starts to blow at 1000 in the morning. A cold wind, it strips heat away from you unless you keep moving. Then at about 1700, it abates and you miss it slightly. You are left with merely an hour before the sun sinks below the high ridges. The cold descends quickly like a blanket, until morning.

A land of contrasts, colour to monochrome. Movement to stillness and thin, pure air to the dust of the valleys. Dolpa makes a mark on the mind and the memory.P1040365

Next blog: the people of the Dolpa, the Dolpopa….