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Dolpo: The way trekking in Nepal used to be

Stupa in Nankhang Valley
Stupa in Nankhang Valley

In 2023, we’ll be offering a dedicated trek through the remote Himalayan region of Upper Dolpo. We wanted to find out more about why someone would want to trek to Dolpo, so we talked to one of our most experienced Himalayan trekking guides, Garry Weare, who’ll be leading the trek. Garry led his first Himalayan trek in 1973, and he’s been returning yearly ever since. Garry wrote all editions of the Lonely Planet guide Trekking in the Indian Himalaya as well as his acclaimed Long Walk in the Himalaya, so he clearly knows his stuff. He’s been associated with World Expeditions as a former director, guide, and Himalayan consultant since 1977. He also helped to establish the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

Why is a trek to Upper Dolpo so special?

It’s a Trans Himalaya region, that is to say it is north of the main Himalaya divide. It is a wild and rugged region that sustains remote villages and settlements in the depths of the valley  located beneath soaring mountain ranges that stretch to the borderlands of Tibet. 

The area was made known by Peter Matthiessen in his classic book The Snow Leopard about his 1973 journey to Dolpo with biologist George Schaller as well as with Eric Valli’s evocative film Himalaya.

For me, Dolpo’s particular appeal is that it is culturally and geographically similar to Ladakh (in northern India) where I have trekked regularly since 1976, and in particular its historic ties with Tibet.

How do you get get to Dolpo?

It takes two flights to get into Dolpo. You fly from Kathmandu to Nepalganj (on the Indian/Nepal border) and the following day to the airstrip at Juphal. An hour later you’re are on the trail.

How many people visit Dolpo each year?

It’s remote and only visited by a handful of trekkers each year which so many trekkers returning to the Himalaya appreciate. As I noted, it takes two flights just to get there from Kathmandu and there are currently no direct road links into Dolpo.

You’ve been trekking in the Himalaya since the early 1970s, you must’ve seen quite a few changes over the years?

Obviously road developments, but that has not deterred coming up with more inventive itineraries over remoter passes and previously untrekked valleys. Rest assured there is still huge potential for getting off the beaten track on exploratory treks.

It is also good to note that over the years there has been a noticeable increase in environmental awareness—that the Himalaya is not just some vast adventure playground. Then there is the vexing question of age. In the 1970s anyone over 50 signing up for a trek was considered a novelty. Nowadays it is very common to have at least a couple of trekkers in their 70s and that includes the more challenging treks.

The change I feel least comfortable with is the trend to try to fit itineraries into the least possible time. Well into the 1980s I would include at least a handful of rest days. While I appreciate that people have less free time at their disposal nowadays I feel a little concerned that there are not enough contingency days to allow time to rest, savour, explore and allow for inclement weather that may disrupt a trek.

What first took you to Dolpo?

A few years ago, my long-time friend and associate Dr. Rodney Jackson invited my wife and me to join him as he planned to visit Dolpo. In the early 1980s, Rodney did some ground-breaking research on snow leopards, radio-tracking them for four years. The effort was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1986.

Rodney heads the Snow Leopard Conservancy in America and is recognised as the world’s leading authority on snow leopards. Rodney invited us to join him as he planned to return to Dolpo—just one last time. Then COVID hit so everything was put on hold. We finally met up and went to Dolpo in May 2022.

Dolpo is something special. I wish I’d been there ten years ago.

Crystal Mountain Upper Dolpo Nepal |  <i>Garry Weare</i>

Tell us about Crystal Mountain

The mountain has a deep spiritual significance to the people—rather like Kailash in Tibet. Pilgrims encircle Crystal Mountain but not in the numbers that you’d see for Kailas. The trails are well defined although kora (the pilgrims’ circuit around Crystal Mountain) is more challenging.

What is the main religion in Dolpo?

The more I have studied Tibetan Buddhism the more I am perplexed. Dolpo is steeped in Bon and Tibetan Buddhist traditions with Bon founded in a region of western Tibet, close to Dolpo. For further insights I suggest you join a trek to Dolpo where the mixture of exquisite Bon and Buddhist monasteries will capture your interest.

Phoksundo Lake in Upper Dolpo |  <i>Bill Quinlan</i>

How long has World Expeditions been operating treks to Dolpo?

We ran our first treks to Dolpo back in the early 1990s, just after it first opened. In 2023, it will be the first time in many, many years World Expeditions has offered a dedicated trip to Dolpo so it’s very exciting for me to be heading back. The company has been offering treks to Dolpo through their Great Himalaya Trail series of treks since 2010.

How hard is the trekking in Dolpo?

The trek is moderate to challenging, and it includes crossing two 5,000-metre passes, including the Ngadra La at 5,375 metres. You’ve got to be pretty keen to want to go to Dolpo. Trekkers who’ve been to Ladakh will be interested—similar sort of culture and location. It’s a trek for people who’ve trekked elsewhere in the Himalaya. It’s not a trek for first timers.

Preparation advice?

I would recommend people get themselves as fit as they can before departure. It’s not a challenging trip. It’s more moderate to challenging. But still, being fit will ensure they get as much as possible out of the trekking experience.

They also need to make sure they’re positive. It’s a bit of a trite comment, but it’s really important. I was really lucky with my clients on this last trip (Mustang to Nar Phu via the Teri La). Whatever was thrown at them, they were asking for more.

Is there much interaction with the locals?

Apart from the World Expeditions local Nepalese leader we engage a local guide from Dolpo who can arrange literally, any number of doors for interaction when we’re there. We won’t be staying in lodges—we will be camping, so there’ll be plenty of time to visit the villages and settlements. The children of course, always come and check us out as soon as they see us.

Between villages on the Great Himalaya Trail |  <i>Howard Dengate</i>
 

What should trekkers expect from a trek to Dolpo?

A combination of an exhilarating adventure; an appreciation of the deep-hearted Buddhist and Bon cultures; and sheer inspiration that come of trekking across rugged mountain ranges that extend to the borderlands of Tibet—and will they see a snow leopard? Not a chance! 

Famous Last Words?

I’m 75 now. And I’ve got a limited number of years I can continue to trek, especially at altitude. So, I’m really picking and choosing my trips. And Dolpo is an area I’d love to return to. Dolpo is something special. I wish I’d been there ten years ago.


View treks to Dolpo
Dolpo, Upper Dolpo, Himalaya trek, Dolpo trek

Comments (4)

Mike Wiles

Hi, ( just a question, thanks)

I was looking at a trip to Dolpo before Covid. I’m an experienced Himalayan trekker. Is Gary leading a trip next year? If so, could you please send me the details.

Thanks

Mike Wiles

last month
World Expeditions

Hi Mike - he sure is, you'll find the details here: https://worldexpeditions.com/Nepal/Trekking-Walking/Dolpo-Crystal-Mountain-with-Garry-Weare

last month
Nina sSwicki

What is the cost?
No mention
Thanks
Nina

last month
World Expeditions

Hi Nina - for your local pricing please visit this page: https://worldexpeditions.com/Nepal-Regions/Dolpo

last month
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