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Shey Phoksundo Lake Trek

Nepal’s Himalayas attract thousands of visitors each year since first opening up to outsiders in the fiftes. Khumbu (Everest), Langtang, Annapurna Sanctuary, Mustang and the Lo (Upper Mustang also referred to as Lo Manthang) are popular destinations. While the areas have long developed as popular trekking routes, Nepal’s Western Himalaya is gradually emerging as an enchanting destination for adventure and ethno-cultural tourism. Dolpa (Dolpo in Tibetan) is one such destination offering a diverse nature and a rich culture and lifestyle of over 5000 years.
The district of Dolpa is situated in the mid western region of Nepal. At an elevation range of 2700-7000 meters, the Nepal’s Western Himalayas traverses Dolpa distinctly resulting in Upper/Inner Dolpo, a vast arid stretch resembling the topography of Tibetan plateau and Lower Dolpo, a semi arid topography with deep gullies and narrow valleys. Mountains and rock formations cover over half of Dolpo’s topography leaving a sparse forest cover mainly of Pine, Oak, Birches, Cypress, Walnut, Bamboo, and Maple. Snow fed rivulets run down the high mountains but only larger torrents are perennial. Bheri, Suli, Pungmo are notable rivers that run through Dolpo’s narrow gullies.

In sharp contrast to its size Dolpo’s economy is frail and dependent. Its absolute disconnection from the outside world has cost Dolpolis adversely. Till this day Dolpo is far off from road connection. The high mountainous terrain makes any form of navigation difficult and to certain extent impossible. The lack of sufficient arable land affects annual food production thereby resulting in an incessant dependency on state subsidized food distribution scheme. Modern industries, trade and services are yet to implant a meaningful foothold in Dolpo. As grim a picture this may portray, Dolpo is actually quite rich. Besides omnipresent water resource, it is bestowed with bountiful precious herbs and mineral deposits. In only last decade, Yarshagumba -a semi worm, semi fungi abundantly found in the alpine altitude– emerged as a single dominant lucrative item of trade. Similarly, Silagit, a mineral with multi therapeutic value extensively used in Tibetan medicine, is also widely harvested in the overhanging cliffs of Dolpo.

Dolpo’s attraction is its rich religious and cultural heritage, thousands years history inherited from the ancestors. In Upper Dolpo’s vast arid land bordering China live some of Dolpo’s indigenous people with close cultural, linguistic, and racial resemblance to the people of Western Tibet. These people have lived in Dolpo for almost 4000 years preserving the early Tibetan Buddhist teachings and rituals till this day.

Buddhism is the main religion in Dolpo. The monasteries in Shey and Tsakang are two important sites of pilgrim in this part of the Himalayas. The Crystal Mountain in the same region is considered holy by the people of Dolpo who believe in acquiring divine merit if circumambulated once in a lifetime. The teachings and practices of Buddhism in Dolpo grew even further after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1949. The fleeing Tibetans including venerable Lamas crossed through Dolpo taking refuge at its many monasteries and towns scattered over the vast arid landscape. Some contemporary Rinpoches of different sects of Tibetan Buddhism were actually born in Dolpo to fleeing Tibetans. Buddhism continues to be a way of life in upper Dolpo; and till today young boys sent to places as far as Mysore in South India to study Buddhism under the tutelage of venerable Lamas.

Interestingly, Upper Dolpo was once a part of the Kingdom of B’od in Western Tibet. B’on, the religion of the land with close semblance to Buddhism, is still practiced in certain pockets of Dolpo. B’on and Buddhism differ on fundamental ritual practice and inscription. In Ringmo, a B’on village nestled in southern end of Shey Phoksundo Lake, the Chorten – typically a Stupa erected at the village entrance- is always kept at left while making an entry into the village in sharp contrast to reverse practice in Buddhism. Similarly, the inscription of Swastika symbol is reversed in B’on tradition. The arcane differences apart what is interesting is the co-existence of the two for thousands years to this day. 

Trekking in Dolpo is an enriching experience. The newer routes either originating or terminating in Dunai, the district headquarter, has helped raise the number of trekkers flocking in to experience Dolpo’s rich nature and ancient religious traditions. Like the Lo region in Mustang, foreigners are required to possess a separate entry permit to trek in Upper Dolpo. Recently, the permit fee is reduced to USD 500 per person for 10 days. Similarly, NRs. 1000 is charged for foreigners for an entry into the Shey Phoksundo National Park to visit Shey Phoksundo Lake and its surrounding.

Dolpo’s scattered habitation and strenuous terrain strictly demands camping treks. Teahouses, conveniently found in other trekking destinations, are either non-existent or are in a primitive stage of development in Dolpo. Trekking groups carry all food and necessary supplies to last for the entire trip. Caravan of ponies, yaks and porters is a common sight along the narrow trails of Dolpo in early fall and late spring each year when most trekking related activities take place.  

Today, Upper Dolpo route originating or terminating in Jomsom, Dolpo Circuit, Dolpo-Mugu-Jumla trail, and Shey Phoksundo are the most popular trekking routes. Needless to mention that many of these trails remains unused during snowy winter and torrential monsoon resulting in often dilapidated state of the trail and logwood crossovers. The trekking duration ranges anywhere from 9-31 days. A lengthier and customized route beginning in Jomsom through Upper Dolpo, Mugu and Jumla can also be tailored for adventure seekers and Buddhism enthusiasts preferring to undertake an extra stretch to experience Dolpo.

Day by day itinerary

Day 1: Kathmandu-Nepalgunj.
The regular 55 minutes flight on a Jetstream/Beech aircraft arriving in Nepalgunj. The overnight accommodation and meals are arranged at a local hotel. Nepalgunj is a border town in the Western Terai with extremes in climate.

Day 2: Nepalgunj-Jufal-Dunai
40 minutes scheduled or chartered flight to Jufal, an only STOL in Dolpo, departs early morning to avoid the harsh afternoon winds that blow through the high passes of Mahabharata range. Trekking begins from Jufal bound to Dunai. The 9.6 kms stretch passes through a Dalit village. The first two hours is steep downhill to arrive at the foothill on the bank of Bheri river. Then continue along the right bank of Bheri to reach Dunai. (4 hours)  

Day 3: Dunai-Chepka.
Start early after breakfast; cross Bheri on a suspension bridge in Dunai and continue walking towards Suligad, confluence of Bheri and Suli river. Check into the Shey Phoksundo National Park office for registration. The upriver trail is mostly through shrubs and on precipice mostly exposed to the morning sun. At Kageni cross a wood bridge and continue uphill on the left above 150 feet of Suli. The narrow trail leads to a wide riverside winter sheds of B’onpos from Ringmo called Jalash. The gradual uphill on the precipice and through a shade of Maple, Oak and Pine and then a quick mild descend to a wood crossing. From here to Chepka is a strenuous 1.5 hour bit of an uphill for the day crossing a smaller rivulet at Shyangta. (7 hours)

Day 4: Chepka-Sunduwa (Boarding)
Today is a real test for endurance. There are 3 major uphills and downhills at places where the gullies run deep and narrow. The trail narrows and are often found squandered by larger beasts of burdens at certain places. The first 2 hours from Chepka is a comfortable hike through the giant pines, oaks, maple, walnut, and Birch. The trail is wider and mostly along the river bank. In the mornings the damp dark soil often captures footprints of larger mammals, primates, and horned herbivores. At Reiji there is a lone abandoned bungalow and a camping site. Continue upriver crossing a smaller rivulet. The trail widens miraculously to reach Boarding. Camps are set in a green pasture overlooking the high peaks. (8 hours)

Day 5: Sunduwa-Ringmo
Today is the shortest yet most exhilarating of the entire trek. The altitude crosses 3000 meters and the trail on the precipice is narrow and steep with confusing runoffs of loose soil and inhospitable rocks. The vegetation changes dramatically with presence of sparse Juniper shrubs and a few Cypresses. The steep climb definitely burns calories but reaching waterfall viewpoint is rewarding. The 270? view of beautiful terraced farms of Reike, Sunduwa and the nearby mountains is quite breathtaking. About 30 meters above this point on the trail ends the climb and also graces the first sneak peek of turquoise Shey Phoksundo Lake. From here to the camping site at lakeside is only 25 minutes of easy downhill through pine groves, chortens, and the village of Ringmo.

Day 6: Guided tour of Ringmo and orientation on B’on at the monastery.
The village of Ringmo (3640m) lies on the bank of Shey Phoksundo Lake. About 20 Tibetan style houses cluster in a close knit fashion to form the village surrounded by scattered cairns and Chortens. The people of Ringmo are B’onpos, the followers of B’on tradition. They are subsistence farmers and also raise Yaks, Dzos, and some horses. B’onpos are strict adherents of nonviolence and hence refrain from any form of animal sacrifices. During the harvesting season, women and children work in the fields while the men folks cross the high mountain passes to reach China border for trade. It is quite a relief to see not a single person clad in jeans and modern appliances and means of communication are close to non-existence. The lifestyle is traditional and simple.

There is an old B’on monastery in Ringmo. The chortens at the entrance of the monastery is fascinating for it has large horns of either Blue Sheep or Himalayan Thar. There is also a small museum at the monastery. The Lama will kindly guide you through the monastery and briefly speak about B’on.  

Day 7:  Guided hike to Lake viewpoint/Caravan Yak Drop OR guided tour of waterfall and Amchi healing center.

  1. A.    The shape of Shey Phoksundo Lake resembles a lowercase Latin alphabet “r”. Since the camping site is on the southern bank and the high mountains encircle the lake the best spot to view the entire lake is from the viewpoint about 200 meters above the village. The hike to the viewpoint passes through the Yak Drop point as featured in Eric Valley’s “CARAVAN”, on through a pine grove and a steeper ascent. It certainly feels like paradise to be here! (5 hours)
  2. B.    Shey Phoksundo Lake is drained out by a river that creates a forceful waterfall half way through Sunduwa and Ringmo. This waterfall is perhaps one of the majestic in Nepal. The crystal clear water of Phoksundo forms a dramatic giant cotton ball effect while making a thunderous landing about 100 feet below. The vegetation around the waterfall is rich with thick pine forest. Musk deers, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Thar, and the rare Snow Leopards are also sighted around the waterfall.

“Amchis” are the traditional healers of Dolpo. Their practice is still largely prevalent in upper Dolpo. The Amchis use variety of natural herbs and minerals to cure illnesses. Recognizing the utility of Amchis and in an effort to promote the understanding of traditional indigenous medicine an Amchi hospital is setup in Sunduwa. A tour of this facility and a chit chat with the practitioners is a unique experience! (6 hours)

Day 8: Ringmo/Sunduwa-Chepka
The downhill from Ringmo to Sunduwa is quite steep. A lone lammergier can be sighted on top of the ridge. Otherwise, the hike is pleasant. (5 hours)

Day 9: Chepka-Jufal
Start early after breakfast. There are no major uphills or torturous downhill except for the last 2.5 hours stretch to Jufal. The distance covered today is quite a conquest.

Day 10: Jufal-Nepalgunj-Kathmandu
Flights to Nepalgunj depart early morning and transfers to Kathmandu are arranged accordingly.