Nepal 99: Lower Dolpo and the Crossing of the Mu La, J.S. Milne

The road west of Pokhara ends at Beni, on the banks of the Kali Gandaki. The town of Jomson lies north of Beni on the Kali Gandaki, and the villages of Dhorpatan and Sahartara complete a rough rectangle:

Sahartara Barbung Khola, Mu La
  |Kali Gandaki
Dhorpatan ------------------------ Beni

There is a large popular trail from Beni to Jomson, and the occasional trekking group goes from Beni to Dhorpatan and Sahartara. The map shows a trail leading east from Sahartara up the Barbung Khola [river] to the village of Tareng, and then over a 5800 metre (19,000 ft) pass, the Mu La, to Jomson. My plan was to follow this trail, and so complete the circuit:

Beni > Dhorpatan > Sahartara > Jomson > Beni.

But Nepalese maps are notoriously unreliable, and no one in Kathmandu knew whether the route was possible. We wouldn't find out until we got there.

Sahartara is in the region of northwestern Nepal known as Dolpo. Because the geography makes Dolpo more easily accessible from Tibet than from the rest of Nepal, it has had closer cultural ties with Tibet than with the rest of Nepal. For many years, Dolpo was a centre of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and so was completely closed to foreigners (except employees of the CIA). Much of it is still a restricted area. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the coca-cola invasion of the rest of Nepal, it is the last place on earth where authentic Tibetan culture survives.

There is an account of an early journey through Dolpo in David L. Snellgrove, Himalayan Pilgrimage, 1981, and spectacular photos in Eric Valli, Dolpo: Hidden Land of the Himalayas. See also the books by George B. Schaller (Stones of Silence) and Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard).


I arrived in Kathmandu on October 5, and spent it and the next day arranging the trip. We should have left Kathmandu for Beni on October 7, but a one-day strike had been called by the Communist Party (Maoist) [not to be confused with the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which is currently the main opposition party in the Nepalese parliament]. For about four years, there has been a Maoist guerrilla movement in Nepal whose aim is to replace the current multi-party democracy with a "one-party democracy". According to reports, about 1000 people have been killed, 80% of them Maoists. The strike was called to protest the brutal tactics of the police. Brutal or not, the police seem to be winning, and the movement is in decline. The strike, however, was very effective, probably because of the Maoists' threat to firebomb violators.

We left Kathmandu early on October 8 in a Tatamobile (small covered pickup truck). Heavy rains on the 6th had caused some mud slides across the road, which delayed us, and we didn't reach Beni until dark.

With me were Gunjaman Tamang (sirdar), Tarjan Tamang ("kitchen boy"), and three Tamang porters. Also Thulo Tamang from the trekking agency in Kathmandu came with us. All the Tamangs were from the same village, and were friends. Since I had known Gunjaman and Thulo for many years --- Gunjaman had been with me on six previous treks and Thulo had organized many of them --- we were a happy and cohesive group, mostly.

The crew: Gunjaman is second from left, Tarjan is in the middle, and thefastestporter is at right.

Beni to Dhorpatan (9/10 -- 12/10)

During the first three days we climbed from Beni (800m, 2700ft) to the Jalja La [Pass] (3414m, 11200ft). We then descended gently to Dhorpatan (2842m, 9320ft). On the first day the porters were very slow, but they assured me that this was only because they had been loafing in Kathmandu, and that they would get faster as they got fitter. They did.

This should have been the least interesting part of the trek, especially as I had walked the first two days twice before, but every time I go to Nepal I am amazed again at how spectacular the views are on even the least interesting sections of the treks.

The view, only a couple of hours after we had left Beni.