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:

1 comment:

Kenneth V. Gomez, Esq. said...

Mark and Peggy, Great post. Thank you for the prays and blessings. Looking forward to reading the highlights from the second half of your journey! [Last night you missed the third and final(!) presidential debate :)] Love you guys. Safe travels. Ken