From the perspective of a temporary, wandering trekker, Dolpo is stunning. Even the arrival of a Twin Otter plane bouncing down at Juphal signals that you have reached somewhere special. And that specialness just reveals itself to you day by day.
The landscape, enormous like the rest of the Himalaya and impossible to capture in a mere photograph, is astounding. Walking from just over 2,000 metres from Juphal up to 3,600 m besides Phoksundo lake, takes you through an astounding kaleidoscope of colour, from the washed out greys of the Thuli Bheri River, through the dark green pine and juniper forests, on through a spiny scrub of brilliant red and orange and into birch woods, glowing iridescent golds. Even at this time of year, when the colors really glow, they still can’t prepare you for Phoksundo lake. The color of molten lapis lazuli one day and then turquoise the next. Surrounded by steep jagged ridges, punctuated by juniper trees and lit by golden birches on the north facing slopes, the colors, and the shapes form one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.
Beyond Phoksundo, the climb brings us into the upper Dolpo, where willow woods give way to the grays and browns of high altitude slopes, festooned with hanging glaciers high up on the valley sides, and white peaks. The villages at this altitude settle beside rivers in gentle depressions on the wide valley floors. Some are lightened with the presence of willow trees, protected from the grazing goats, sheep, and yaks. Without the trees, others look bereft and hunched.
And above them all rise the steep scree valley sides, twisting up beyond the source of the rivers into the cirques, ridges, and cols. At this height the air is thin and it’s difficult to walk and talk at the same time. Sometimes it’s difficult just to keep placing one foot in front of the other. The agonizingly slow pace is rewarded, however, by the views at the cols. Looking down both sides to valleys opening up in front you, you stand beside the stupa and prayer flags beating a rhythm at the cool and snapping in the wind.
At the cools the wind is a constant companion, but elsewhere it’s a time keeper’s witness. The Dolpo wind starts to blow at 1000 in the morning. A cold wind, it strips heat away from you unless you keep moving. Then at about 1700, it abates and you miss it slightly. You are left with merely an hour before the sun sinks below the high ridges. The cold descends quickly like a blanket, until morning.
A land of contrasts, color to monochrome. The movement to stillness and thin, pure air to the dust of the valleys. Dolpo makes a mark on the mind and the memory.
-By Deborah Lang and Dominic Habron, Scotland