“Hello! Just got back to Kathmandu. I have some bad news. Your sleeping bag got infested by bed bugs and then attacked by a mouse. It’s un-salvageable.…” -- Message to my friend Eve upon our return from Dolpa.
I would not say that our 16-day Dolpa trek went smoothly. But sometimes, the best adventures are borne from mishaps.
The easiest way to reach lower Dolpa is to fly from Kathmandu to Nepalganj, and then take a smaller plane from Nepalganj to the tiny Juphal airport. However, a week before our trek, the Juphal airport closed indefinitely for construction. They were paving the runway, which tells you something about the size of the Juphal airport.
Undeterred, we got on a 24-hour bus from Kathmandu to Rukkum, then switched to a jeep. Eight hours later, we reached a large river that could only be crossed on foot, and switched to another jeep. Jeep 2 looked like it would fall apart at the seams, but it successfully took us to Thallu Bagar, a riverside town, where we secured a spot in another jeep for the next day.
In the dirty roadside hotel, we felt lucky to get a room with a bed. But a few days later we would be dismayed to find ourselves covered in bedbug bites, which fully infested our clothes, tent, and luggage until we reached a dry cleaner in Kathmandu two weeks later.
We finally reached the end of the jeep road. Then we walked on an in-progress “road” that was more of a ledge hacked into a cliff. To widen the trail, workers climb to the top of the cliff and drill holes with jackhammers, which the army fills with dynamite to blast away the solid rock. The army wasn’t blasting when we went by, but the drillers were drilling. They knocked loose rocks that tumbled past the trail and into the rushing river 50 feet below, scaring us into a run whenever we heard jackhammers rumbling to life above us.
We spent the night in Samdua, where the only place to pitch our tent was a flat stone roof. The achar in Samdua was the most delicious I have ever had, and only after eating four servings did I discover it was made from cannabis seed. Later that night, in the tent on the roof, it became clear that it was strong and fresh cannabis seed. Let’s leave it at that.
The next day, after three hours of walking and a 2-hour jeep ride (jeep number 4, now), we reached the entrance to Shey Phoksundo National Park. The climate and terrain felt like Utah, except the landscape was simply…greater. The river was bluer, the gorge was deeper, and the soil was redder than anywhere I have seen in North America. We lollygagged on the trail, stopping to soak our feet in the river and take pictures of flowers.
As the clouds rolled in we pitched our tent in the campground at Chepka. I woke up at 4:30 am with water on my face—our tent was leaking in the rain. From then on, we had to arrange the tent fly just so to keep water out, but often still felt damp after a rainstorm.
After Chepka, we spent a night in Recchi and then hiked toward Shey Phoksundo lake itself. We pitched our tent on the shores of the lake that night, and woke up to sparkling blue waters. Known for being the deepest lake in Nepal, Shey Phoksundo was allegedly formed when an enchantress became angry with the villagers and cast down the mountains around them, blocking the Phoksundo river and creating the great blue lake.
After resting for a day at the lake, visiting the local monastery, making friends with some yaks, and unsuccessfully attempting to de-bedbug our sleeping bags, we headed towards Lasa Meadow. About an hour after the village of Pugmo, we left the trees and passed into high alpine meadows, which were filled with countless species of colorful wildflowers. For several hours, we walked along a ledge high above a river gorge that was just steep enough to be scary but shallow enough to harbor thousands of flowers.
A green, dramatic saddle high above the confluence of two rivers, Lasa Meadow offered a welcome resting place. We set up the tent and weighed it down with rocks, then I crossed the meadow to look over the cliff at the river while Sudeep scouted the next day’s trail. A minute later I looked up to see the wind lift the tent 10 feet in the air, and then roll it end over end like a rouge Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon—straight towards me and the 100-foot drop off to the river. I sprinted towards the tent and jumped for it, praying I wouldn’t miss. Luckily, I flopped on top of it, and lugged it against the wind back to the campsite.
The next day we hiked over Kaagmara pass—“the place where crows die”. At 5,115 meters (16,780 feet), it is about 2,280 feet higher than any point in the contiguous United States, and the highest I have ever been. Eventually we climbed so high that the pass and the surrounding peaks were shrouded in mist. The GPS watch said 5,100, but where were the prayer flags? We were so close, had to be close…then finally a mound of stones appeared out of the mist, covered in ragged flags and the skull of a long-dead Himalayan sheep. A few pictures later, we started the long climb down.
The next several days it rained, and we were tired of our leaky tent, but hotels were hard to find. It was the tail end of Yarsagumba season in Dolpa, and lodges were filled with Yarsagumba hunters or bags of Yarsagumba themselves, guarded by police officers. Yarsagumba are caterpillars (specifically, ghost moth larvae) that become infected by the fungus Ophiocordyceps sinesis, which grows through the caterpillar’s heads and kills them. The dead, dried caterpillar-fungus, which looks like a caterpillar-unicorn, can only be found from 3,500 to 5,000 meters in eastern Tibet and northern regions of Nepal, especially Dolpa, and are collected May through June. Why are these such a big deal? The fungus-caterpillars are a popular form of traditional medicine in Nepal, Tibet, and China, believed to cure diseases, add years to one’s life, and act as natural Viagra. One caterpillar can sell for up to $15 on the Chinese market. I don’t know about the health benefits, but I must say, Yarsagumba -infused rice wine mixed with local honey was better than any fancy cocktail I’ve ever had.
Since hotels were filled with Yarsagumbas, we crashed in someone’s spare room one night. The bottom of my sleeping bag was attacked by a mouse, but I was so exhausted I didn’t even feel it. Rest In Peace, Eve’s sleeping bag.
Somewhere along the trail, perhaps from the Yarsagumba -wine or maybe a spoiled egg, I got food poisoning that required many emergency bathroom breaks. And then, in between bathroom breaks, I cut my hand on a chainlink fence and bled enough that we headed straight to the clinic in Jumla for a tetanus shot in a local (read: dark and sketchy) pharmacy. Then we hired a jeep and took a bumpy 20-hour ride from Jumla to Nepalganj, and flew to Kathmandu. From there, we went straight to the dry cleaner, where we cleaned everything including the tent.
Dolpa is sometimes called the “Wild West” of Nepal. From jackhammers to jeeps to Yarsagumbas, it certainly remains wild and untamed. And check out those mountain pictures--every step of the way, the mountains reminded us that they are indifferent. Which makes them alluring, addicting, and always an adventure.
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!