Friday, October 21, 2016

In Peter Matthiessen's Footsteps

Greetings All,
After spending 3 nights in Shey it was time to leave and continue our trek in the Dolpa District of Nepal.  A frenetic Montain Weasel visited our camp dashing from one empty marmot burrow to another and bouncing off our toilet tent.  The Mountain Weasel is listed as near-threatened by the ICUN because it is in significant decline due to habitat and resource loss.

Mountain Weasel

We trekked pass Shey Gompa one last time and headed up a side valley toward our next objective, the Saldang La.  Along the way were tiny settlements where people were grazing yaks, sheep and goats.  The trail climbed gradually toward the pass and we stopped for lunch at its base.  We resumed our climb and Chet paused to listen to a noise overhead.  Large flocks of birds were flying high above us.  At first we thought they were geese as they were flying in a V formation but they sounded more like cranes.  Several flocks coalesced into one massive flock heading south toward India. 

Migrating Cranes

We soon reached the Saldang La, our third pass at 16,500 feet!  To the north lay the dry mountains of Mustang and the Tibetan Plateau beyond.  

Us on the Saldang La

A descent through barren valleys brought us to the tiny village of Namduna Gaon.  Several yak trains were heading up the Saldang La.  There is a brisk trade between Saldang and Ringmo.  In ancient times salt from Tibet was the main trade commodity but today lumber from the forests around Ringmo seems to be in high demand.

Yak train near Namduna Gaon

We camped above the village and the Namdung Monastery which we would visit in the morning.  When we showed up early the following day, the Gompa was locked and there was no one around to open it up.  Chet kept yelling for someone and finally a woman arrived from the fields to let us in.  As with most gompas we've visited so far this one was vacant as the head lama was in Kathmandu.  It seems the gompas are only functional during ceremonies. 

Inside Namdung Monastery

After our visit we continued down toward the village of Saldang.  In about 2 hours we could see the village below.  To my horror a massive trek group of 30 plus their staff and 50 or so mules were camped there.  Thankfully, we camped above and could not see them from our tent.  It turns out they were a group of 28 doctors from the US traveling to remote villages in the area to provide basic medical care, very admirable but difficult work under such primitive conditions.

Doctors' Camp at Saldang

In the afternoon we visited the home of an Alchi or Tibetian medicine man who was also a monk.  He invited us into his home to see his private Gompa. We climbed up a crude ladder to the shrine.  He had many things including ancient texts written by his great grandfather on yak leather.  

Ancient Text on Yak Leather

We went into his little shop where he showed us a picture book called "Caravans of the Himalaya" written in 1995 by Eric Valli in which he was featured.  Some of the photos showed primitive medical procedures which I can't imagine enduring.  The Alchi had some medical instruments hanging from his belt.  When I asked him what they were he pulled out what looked like a crude scalpel.  I cringed.

"Caravans of the Himalaya"

The following day we awoke to more rain so we decided not to visit Karang, a smaller village to the north.  The group of doctors was packing up camp.  The bad weather had forced them to change their plans as well.  They would cross the Saldang La and head to Shey instead of visiting a village further north.  The rain stopped in the afternoon and we visited the Samyeecholing Monastery.  As usual, we had to find someone with a key to let us in.  A young monk showed up, unlocked the door and we entered the main chamber.  The monk opened a few windows and lit a few butter lamps so we could see the interior better.  Freshly painted (about 2 years ago) murals adorned the walls and again all the typical Buddhist artifacts were present.  I gave the monk a kata or scarf given to us by our friend Galden Sherpa when we were back in Kathmandu and he draped it over the middle statue.

Inside Samyeecholing Monastery

This Gompa was unique in that it had both Hindu and Buddhist deities represented.  The original monastery was built here 600 years ago but the present day one is only about 20 years old.  The young monk took us upstairs to a tiny chamber with old statues about 300 years old.

The Old Gompa Room

We returned to camp for tea around 4:00.  I looked out of the mess tent to see a herd of dzos (yak/cow hybrids) coming down the pass carrying long timbers.  We went out to photograph them and ended up taking this video as they headed straight toward our toilet tent!  Would it survive?

Whew, that was a close one!  The next morning we left Saldang and headed down the valley past the villages of Namdo and Rapa.  This time of year everyone is busy harvesting barley.  The plants are either pulled out of the ground or cut with a sickle and are stacked neatly once the heads with the grain is removed.  The livestock gets to eat the stalks during the long cold winter.

Stacks of Barley

We left the main trail and headed for our next campsite near the hamlet of Rakka.  When we arrived we found that the campsite had been obliterated during the last monsoon and that a small lake was now in its place.  We headed further upriver to a suitable campsite.  While we were setting up our tents, I noticed a herd of 35 or so Blue Sheep across the river coming down for a drink.  A male with massive horns paused mid-drink for Marc to take his photo.

Blue Sheep Ram Drinking at the River

It was a cold walk up the river valley the next day until the sun finally reached us.  The remaining bushes gave the desolate valley some autumn color.  What looked like tamarisk had turned a deep purple and other bushes a brilliant red.  

Fall Colors

We had lunch at the confluence of the Dachen and Nagon Kholas before heading up the broad gravel bed of the Nagon Khola toward the Langmuse La, our fourth pass crossing.  It started to sleet around 2:00 and I wondered if it would make tomorrow's pass crossing difficult.  We have microspikes but the rest of the crew and the mules did not.  The skies had cleared up the following morning and we climbed steeply, encountering snow sometimes as deep as a foot but mostly only 2-3 inches.  The slopes we had to traverse above looked steep and with the newly fallen snow, slick.  I kept telling myself if Putchay and the mules could do it so could I.  We put on our microspikes which gave me more confidence.  It wasn't so bad.

Approaching Langmuse La

We reached the top around 9:45 where we could see Dhaulighari looming to the east.

Us on Langmuse La

We took a few photos and headed down the south side which fortunately was snow-free.  Another large flock of cranes flew high above us.  We reached the valley floor where the remnants of many camps were strewn about.  Locals come here in the spring to graze their sheep and goats and have left behind old shoes, aluminum cans and worst of all broken glass.  It was sad to see in this remote and beautiful valley.

High Meadow Camp

We set up camp on the far side and as we were preparing for tea Marc spotted a Wooly Hare but I missed it.  It would have been a new mammal for me.  After tea we climbed the ridges above camp in search of the hare.  It was a long shot but we had to try.  Lo and behold we startled it and it sprang along a ravine coming to a stop long enough for Marc to get a photo.

Woolly Hare

It was near this remote valley that George Schaller, a biologist accompanying Matthiessen on his travels in 1973, spotted two Snow Leopards.  We'd have to be content with the Wooly Hare.  The next morning we headed out toward the Bagala, our 5th and final pass crossing.  As we got closer we could see that there was a lot of snow on the pass.

First Look at the Bagala

Could we make it over?  Chet said they'd have to do a reconnaissance trip after lunch to assess the situation.  I wasn't so sure.  I was already thinking about a "Plan B."  When we arrived at the junction of 2 routes, one toward the Bagala and one toward the Numala, I hesitated.  Chet asked us which pass we wanted to take.  The Bagala meant a much shorter route back to Juphal but we were uncertain if we could cross it.  The Numala was a sure thing but meant 5 long days of trekking to get back to Juphal.  After careful consideration, we chose the Numula and set up camp at the junction.

A trekking group from Singapore was coming down the Numala and reported that it was snow-free.  They also reported that an American trek group had camped at the base of the Bagala but decided to turn back.  We felt that we had made the right decision to climb the Numala the next day.

The next morning we awoke to clear skies and made the straightforward 3000-foot climb to the top of the Numala Pass.  We were rewarded with stunning views of Dhaulighari and Annapurna to the east.

Us on the Numala

A long descent brought us to the Tarap Valley and the village of Tokyu.  I was shocked to see motorbikes in the village.  How did they get here?  There is no road to this remote village.  I found it ironic that the yaks were hanging out by the motorcycles.  Could this mean the end of the yak trains?

Motorcycle and Yaks in Tokyu

We stopped to visit the local Chaiba Gompa before continuing on.  Once again we had to find someone to unlock the door.  It was an old Gompa, maybe 300 years.  There were some large Buddhist statues inside and a pile of mani scrolls.

Inside Chaiba Gompa

We continued to the village of Dho Tarap where we spent the night.  The next day the Tarap Valley narrowed into a deep canyon.  It took us two days to negotiate the long canyon, sometimes climbing high above to avoid sheer walls while other times approaching to within 5 feet of the raging torrent of the Tarap Khola.

Deep Canyon of Tarap Khola

The canyon ended at a confluence just below the village of Khani Gaon.  Chet took us to see our final Gompa.  We crossed the raging river on a wooden plank bridge and climbed up to Chhedhui Gompa past old chortens.  

Chortens Below Khani Gaon

When we arrived it appeared deserted but we could see an old man spinning a prayer wheel.  Chet called to him but he didn't seem to have the key.  An old woman showed up with a couple of girls and opened the door which wasn't locked.  It was an old Gompa maybe 600-700 years old.  At first the woman said no photos but she gave in.  There were statues, masks, horns and butter lamps.  

Inside Chhedui Gompa Below Khani Gaon

We were then taken into the back chamber which had even bigger and older statues.  

Old Statue Inside Chhedhui Gompa 

The following day was our last long hike and brought us to the town of Dunai.  We camped at a new lodge just outside of town.  Dibi, the owner, has a daughter in Canada and a son in the US and was happy to talk to us.  Our 22nd and final day of the trek was a short one.  It didn't take long to reach Sulighat which closed the loop on our long circuit hike.  Now it was just a mere 1400-foot climb from the Thuli Bheri Khola to Juphal, the end of our trek!  We celebrated the completion of our journey in the footsteps of Peter Matthiessen with a raffle of items we brought from home and a tip ceremony for our amazing trek crew.

Raffle in Juphal

During my speech I broke broke down into tears.  I wanted to convey to them just how special Nepal was and how much we appreciated all their hard work.  This trip would not have been possible without their guidance and support.

Chet, Pemba, Chahndan, Shree Dahn, Jamar and Birendra

We later learned that George Schaller at the age of 84 and Alex, Peter Matthiessen's son, had just completed a 30-day trek in the area!  Like us they were seeking to experience the spirituality and adventure that Peter and George had 43 years ago!  I think both parties were successful!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

More detail:

Covered over 190 miles and climbed over 40,000 ft

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Around the Crystal Mountain

Greetings All, 
We are back in Nepal, one of our favorite places on the planet.  We flew into Kathmandu on September 24 and spent 2 nights here before flying west to the Dolpa region where we would attempt to follow in Peter Matthiessen's footsteps.  Every since reading Peter's book, "The Snow Leopard", decades ago I have been intrigued with the area and have wanted to see it for myself.  In Peter's day he had to drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara where he began his epic trek to Dolpa.  Nowadays most trekkers fly to Nepalgunj and on to the tiny airstrip at Juphal to start the hike.

Landing at Juphal!

Our journey began with a 1400-foot climb down to the Thuli Beri Khola or River through the village of Motipur perched on the hillside.  Here people grow a variety of crops, rice, corn, tomatoes and buckwheat on terraced fields and tend to their herds of livestock.

Descending into Motipur

We took it easy on our first day stopping at the tiny hamlet of Rupgad where we would camp for the night.  Supplies are limited in this remote area so we had to bring everything with us including tents, food, kerosene, cooking and eating implements and personal clothing.  Our trek crew was comprised of Chet our leader, Pemba our cook and his two assistants Chahndan and Biendra, Shree Dhan, our ever helpful Sherpa, and Damar, our mule man, who with Putchay his horse and 4 mules would carry most of our gear.

Our First Camp in Rupgad

Early the next morning we headed up a valley, stopped at an army checkpoint and entered Shey Phoksundo National Park, established in 1984.  It is the largest and only Trans-Himalayan Park in Nepal.  We trekked through a narrow canyon lined with massive juniper, pine and spruce trees keeping a watchful eye out for musk deer and monkeys which Chet told us inhabit these forest but we saw none.

Forests Along the Phoksundo Khola

On our 4th day of trekking we climbed a series of cliffs and encountered our first herd of Blue Sheep on the ridges above.  These agile sheep keep to the steep cliff faces to avoid their main predator, the snow leopard!

Blue Sheep on the Ridge Top

We reached the outlet of Phoksundo Lake where Nepal's highest waterfall plunged over 500 feet to the valley floor.

Nepal's Highest Waterfall

We passed through the Village of Ringmo or Phoksundo before arriving at the stunning turquoise waters of Phoksundo Lake. If you ask a geologist, a landslide that occurred 30,000 - 40,000 years ago formed a natural dam that created the lake.  According to Peter Matthiessen's research, the lake was created by a mountain demoness who was angered by villagers who divulged her whereabouts to a Buddhist saint pursuing her and flooded their village under turquoise waters.

Phoksundo Lake

The next day we visited Thashung Gompa, a 900-year-old monastery built on the shore of Phoksundo Lake.  At first we thought it was vacant but a lone monk was in residence and invited us inside.

Monk Inside Thashung Gompa

We climbed high above the Gompa and were rewarded with a glorious view of Phoksundo Lake and Ringmo Village.

Ringmo Village and Phoksundo Lake

The next morning we awoke to rain which delayed our departure.  We were experiencing more clouds and precipitation than expected as the monsoon should be well over.  The rain abated and we were able to continue our journey along the lake, past a gauntlet of yaks and eventually to the northwest end of the lake where we stopped for lunch.

Passing the Yak Gauntlet

We continued up the Phoksundo Khola and made camp under the towering face of 21,819-foot Kanjirowa Himal which was partially obscured by clouds.  Matthiessen and Schaller camped near here during their travels in the early 1970's.  

Kanjirowa Himal from Near Silver Birch Camp

The next day we resumed our journey toward the daunting Kang La.  At 17,600 feet it would be the highest point on our trek and the last obstacle before reaching the fabled Shey Gompa and the Crystal Mountain.  With all this recent rain would there be snow higher up?  Would the pass be too treacherous for us and our mules to cross?  We would soon find out.  We started climbing in earnest through a rocky canyon where we had to cross an icy stream numerous times.  We brought our river sandals and socks in anticipation of fording the frigid stream but fortunately were able to hop across on rocks.

Chet Helping Marc Across the Tuk Kyaksa Khola

We finally arrived at high camp at around 15,300 feet on the 8th night of our trek.  Matthiessen dubbed this place as "Icefields Camp."  We set up our tents near a cascading waterfall which lulled me to sleep that night in preparation for our pass crossing the following morning.

Yak Train & Waterfall at Icefields Camp

It was up and up the next day until our route diverged.  We had two options: the steep route straight up or a more gradual approach along switchbacks.  We chose the more gradual approach but the rest of our crew and our mules headed straight up.  Thankfully there was no snow and after about 2 hours we reached the top.  Nothing could stop us from reaching the Crystal Mountain now!

Us on the Kang La

We headed down the other side toward Shey where we would spend the next 3 nights.  We settled into our campsite where 2 Himalayan Marmots played hide and seek with us outside their burrow.

Himalayan Marmots

It rained off and on and I hoped the weather would clear for our Kora tomorrow but I didn't have high hopes.  Chet told us more about the Kora.  He said it took his last group 9 hours to complete but that they were strong trekkers and that it would take us 11-12 hours!  I returned to our tent crestfallen. This was to be a high point of our trek and the chances of doing the Kora seemed slim.  According to our itinerary the Kora was to take 8-9 hours which I was prepared for but 11-12 hours did not seem possible given the weather and amount of daylight.  I'm sure many of you are wondering what is a Kora and why is it so important to do one?  Roughly 800 years ago a lama named Drotob Senge Yeshe came to Dolpa where he found a wild mountain people worshipping a fierce mountain God. He introduced Buddhism to this remote valley and opened up the pilgrimage route around Crystal Mountain. 

"I flew through the sky on a snow lion
And there among the clouds, I performed miracles.  
But not even the greatest of celestial feats
Can equal once rounding by foot this Crystal Mountain."
-Drotob Senge Yeshe (the lama)

Now I wanted to complete the Kora to send strength and hope to my family and friends battling serious illnesses or recovering from recent surgeries from this most spiritual place!  Chet informed us at dinner that a Korean woman had just done the Kora in 11 hours.  We had renewed hope.  If she could do it so could we!

Early the next morning we started out on the Kora along with Chet and Shree Dhan retracing part of the trail we had done yesterday.  We passed a yak herder's tent and veered off the main trail at a chorten with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.  We headed up a canyon with steep rock walls carved with ancient manis or prayers some 10 feet tall.

Manis Carved into the Canyon Walls

The route was marked with carins or labtses made of chunks of crystals placed here by pilgrims who had trodden this path for centuries.  

Crystal Cairns Along the Kora

As we neared the top of Mendokiing Lek, the high point of the Kora at just over 17,000 feet, I noticed piles of discarded clothes.  "How disrespectful" I thought.  Chet explained that the pilgrims purposely leave them here so they will have something to wear when the get reincarnated.  It got very steep near the top but Shree Dhan was there to lend me a helping hand.

Us on the Mendokiing Lek

The going got easier around the back side of the mountain but we still had a long way to go.  The grueling descent began and after lunch we could see a group of locals catching up to us.  We stayed ahead of them as we passed by the Gamoche Gompa.  We wanted to go inside but it was locked so we pressed on.  We passed a second Gompa, Tsakhang, perched high on a ridge but at this point we didn't have the energy to climb up to it.

Tsakhang Gompa

Finally the locals caught up to us.  They were a wild looking bunch, possibly the ancestors of the people that Lama Drotob Senge Yeshe found when he first visited here.  It turns out that they are from the village of Saldang further north and it was their camp we had passed early in the morning.

Locals Doing the Kora

We could see Shey Gompa, the end of the Kora, far below.  Finally after hiking 15 miles over the course of 10 and a half hours and climbing and descending a knee-crushing 5000 feet we reached the Gompa.  The resident lama was impressed that we had just completed the Kora in a day and allowed us to take a photo inside which is not usually permitted.

Inside Shey Gompa

The next day we climbed back up to Tsaksang Gompa with the head Lama's mother as he was away in Kathmandu.  She opened the door and we climbed steep stairs to the shrine.  The inside was dark but the old woman opened a window and lit a butter lamp.  The interior was magical.  A Tibetan carpet and robe lay just as if the head lama had just gotten up and left.

Inside Tsakhang Gompa

There was a little wooden table with ancient scrolls, a jar of rice and a dorje.  A drum hung above. There were old thankas, photos of the Dalai Lama and other monks.  Finally we had to leave this special place but the old woman allowed us to climb to the roof top.  What a view!  What a remote and spiritual place to meditate!

On the Roof of Tsakhang Gompa

We're only half way through our trek but what a start!  We've covered 84 miles so far and have climbed 23,000 feet.  Stay tuned to see what the other half brings including a visit to the village of Saldang close to the Tibetan border and more high pass crossings. 

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Our trekking route so far: