In Dolpo we would make a detour north to Phoksundo Lake, before again heading west. Dolpo was only opened to foreigners in 1989, and still sees relatively few tourists today. The region is home to Tibetan Buddhists and practitioners of Bon religion, which is similar to, but predates Tibetan Buddhism.
My knees were the size of melons when we got going in the morning. The constant downhill pounding wasn’t doing them any favors. We spent the day walking along a river, passing small villages made of stone with mud roofs, each adorned with Tibetan prayer flags.
We stayed the night in Chekpa, where we met three Austrian Architects and their team of porters, guides and donkeys. They were on their way to Upper Dolpo for a month where they would study the local architecture. We took the opportunity to ask their friendly guide about Kangmara La pass (5115m) which was the higher of two routes that we could take west from Phoksundo Lake towards Jumla in the coming days. We were told the pass was high, remote, likely quite snowy due to the exceptional amount of snowfall this year, and involved few days of self-sufficient camping. But it would be pretty straight forward to navigate. He told us there would be a lot of Nepali up there collecting yarsagumba which gave us a little more confidence knowing there would be other people around. We decided we’d give it a whirl.
Day 84 was another day spent walking by the turquoise river.
We were excited to find someone had written ‘GHT’ in yellow paint along the trail. This was surprising given the trail we were on to Phoksundo Lake was really an optional detour to the GHT.
After having lunch in a strange congregation of old army tents in Rechi, we got stuck behind a huge yak train. Two men were struggling to contain about 50 unruly yaks who seemed intent on making their life as difficult as possible, regularly launching escape attempts into the river or up the hill. A small baby brought up the rear of the train. The poor little guy was really struggling to walk and didn’t seem aware his back legs existed. When we later got chatting to one of the shepherds he told us that he’d been born that day and the thing hanging from his belly was an umbilical cord! Being forced to walk 10km your first day in the world is a rough introduction to life!
A steep and relentless 800m climb brought us to Ringmo, a pretty village of stone houses.
Views on the climb to Ringmo:
Beyond Ringmo we came to beautiful Phoksundo Lake where we pitched our tent on the shoreline and asked the owner of a small hotel to make us dal bhat for dinner.
On day 85 we decided to take a day at the lake to rest and explore. We loaded up on supplies for Kangmara La pass at a local shop, patched up my crumbling shoes with super glue, and visited the monastery which was perched on a hill by the lake. Unfortunately the local shops in Nepal include a very limited selection: biscuits (sugary unsubstantial biscuits), vodka, rum, beer, soft drink, chips, minute noodles, coffee, tea. Depressingly we again had to load up with excessive amounts of minute noodles and biscuits.
At the monastery:
On day 86 we descended to a small hotel by the river where we had dal bhat and ‘diamond cola’, made by yet another company trying to rip off the coke brand. It tasted like mouth wash. So far we’d come across ‘choice cola’, ‘diamond cola’, and ‘cute cola’, all written in curly white letters on a red background so that most of the time we fools didn’t even get a whiff of mischief until we’d sipped the bloody thing. Along with fake coke we’d so far found a load of other imaginative copyright infringements:Descending from Ringmo en route to Pungmo:
In Pungmo we had a bone-chilling scrub in the icy cold river before a dinner of dal bhat with wildly exciting wild asparagus, a real treat. Outside our room was a smelly sack full of what appeared to be an entire dried yak, in bits. A cat was making commendable attempts to get a taste of it so that whenever we left our room we’d find a dried bit of ribs, spine, or legs waiting for us in the corridor.
Over dinner the owner of the hotel asked where we were going. When we told him we were going over Kangmara La can you guess what he said? It was almost comical to hear this yet again before a pass; he told us that the pass was closed, that nobody, no Nepali nor tourist nor yarsagumba collector had been over the pass yet as there was too much snow. We’d been told the same thing before hiking to Phalut, before hiking the Lauribina pass to Lake Gosiakund, and before hiking the Kurpudada pass to Somdang and the Pansang pass to Tipling. Bloody snow! We felt anxious about going out there on our own but decided we had to check it out for ourselves. We could turn around if things got sketchy.
Day 87: Pungmo to base camp (4500m)
Leaving our hotel in Pungmo:
As we headed up the valley grey clouds began rolling in above us. We continued up, hoping they’d leave us alone.
After four hours we reached Lasa, a campsite, where we were overjoyed to come across about 15 Nepali who explained with a bit of charades that they’d come over Kangmara La that morning! They were on their way to Phoksundo for yarsagumba. Either our hotel owner was wrong and people had already been over the pass, or we were unbelievably lucky to be going up the same day they’d come over. Either way we felt huge relief, and our confidence levels were bolstered.
From Lasa the trail was very snowy and slippery with a steep drop off to the right. It started snowing soon after we left and got heavier and heavier.
After a further hour and a half we reached base camp (4500m), where we met some more Nepali coming down the snowy trail, each with a basket of camping gear strapped to their head, and each wearing plimsolls along with jeans or cotton pants. The people of this country are hard as nails.
We pitched our tent in heavy snow and wind as our fingers threatened to drop off with cold. Ronnie used his landscaping skills to construct a small stone ‘Trump Wall’ around the base of the tent to stop the flurries of snow from blowing under the fly. The afternoon was spent huddling in the tent listening to podcasts as the snowstorm made the tent shake and billow around us. We went to bed praying for better weather tomorrow when we’d cross the pass.
Day 88: Base camp to Kaigaon
This was one of our biggest days; we crossed a 5150m pass including a 700m ascent and a 2700m descent, and in total walked 27km in 11.5 hours.
We woke at sunrise to a freezing cold tent but were grateful to see the storm had cleared and it was a bluebird day.
Absolutely everything was frozen. Getting our boots on was at first impossible, as they’d frozen solid into the position we’d left them in the night before. When they had finally defrosted enough to get them on it felt like we were sticking our feet in a deep freeze.
Morning light on our way towards Kangmara La:
The snow was deep but the icy cold temperatures made sure it held our weight so that we didn’t sink too much with each step. It took us three hours to reach the pass. The final hour involved clambering up a steep slippery slope which felt a little like climbing a water slide.
Yarsagumba collectors coming the other way:
At the top:
What goes up must come down:
We stopped by the river to cook a lunch of oats mixed with a sachet of coffee 3 in 1 mix, a watery bitter gruel that made us reconsider our aversion to minute noodles.
After a couple more hours we reached Toijum, a campsite high above the river that was full of rubbish. We’d planned to stay in Toijum but with no water source we had no choice but to continue. After a half an hour descent to the river crossing we found another flat area where we could potentially camp, but the river was so raging wild and inaccessible we couldn’t actually collect any water. Our energy levels were at rock bottom. We sat on a rock and stuffed a packet of noodles and a Snickers bar into us. With food in our belly we mustered the energy to push onto Hurikot two hours away, where there was another campsite and hotel.
In Hurikot we were directed to the local hotel which had only one bed in its only room. Determined for a good nights sleep we resolved to push on another half hour to Kaigaon, where we found a local hotel with two beds, a tasty dal bhat, and thankfully not a noodle in sight.
On day 89 we again found ourselves eating lunch in an old army tent in Chaurikot. We pulled out the map to try to work out how many days we had to go to Jumla, a bigger town that was rumored to have a nice hotel which we’d been daydreaming about for weeks. While looking at the maps we suddenly realised that we only had about 15 days of walking to go before we reached the Indian border! I’d somehow been doing the maths very wrong for weeks (I blame the altitude, it kills your brain cells) and had convinced us both that we had about 30 days to go! It was a shocking but exciting revelation which consumed our minds for the rest of the day.
That afternoon we climbed 1.5km to Maure Lagne pass (3900m) which was a bit of a grind after yesterday’s marathon day, but it was the steep descent on the other side that wreaked havoc with my knees, which felt like rusty hinges. We decided not to continue the further two hours to the village of Chotre, instead pitching our tent in the woods below the pass and reluctantly resuming our tiresome noodle diet.
On day 90 we walked through a very green valley passing hundreds of yarsagumba collectors and their donkeys on their way to the mountains.
After 28km we reached Garyjankot where we found a friendly Nepali man named Chitre who showed us to a room at his friend’s house. Chitre was living and working in Doha, and was on holiday in Nepal visiting his daughter, wife, and newborn son. We met lot young Nepali with similar stories along the way who had been or were going to far away places like Romania, Egypt, Dubai, South Korea, and Cyprus to work for a few years before returning home to their villages. Chitre took us on a tour of the village before sitting down to a fiery hot dal bhat with us.
On day 91 we were served a blazing hot potato curry for breakfast that we sweated our way through whilst doing our best to hold back tears. We walked only an hour before reaching Jumla. On our way into town we were joined by a young Nepali boy. He began walking with us in the same peculiar way many Nepali did: first by running a little way ahead of us up the trail before stopping abruptly, turning, loitering awkwardly for a moment until we got close, and then launching into a thorough and intense sideways stare whilst walking alongside us. At times we had our staring companions for kilometres at a time, stopping when we stopped, walking when we walked, almost always in complete silence.
In Jumla we had a spring in our step as we entered the gates of Hotel Kanjirowa, a hotel with a tiled ensuite, clean white sheets, fluffy doonas, and a hot-ish shower. Our dinner of spaghetti bolognese, burgers, fries, and fried chicken had us giggling with childish excitement.
The outskirts of Jumla:
On day 92 we had a rest day Jumla charging everything, scrubbing ourselves and our clothes, and having a good feed in preparation for the final push through the far west to the finish line.
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