Lost in the West, part I: Dhaulagiri and Dhorpatan

For the start of round 3 we chose a rarely used track south of the mountain Dhaulagiri, straight through the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. We would head west from Beni until the town of Dhorpatan and then go straight north over a couple of passes to Dunai in the Dolpo area. The hunting reserve and its villages lie in the Rukum district, one of Nepal’s least developed districts. We had been told by several people that this route was one of their favourites in all of Nepal. I didn’t research more on it but decided to be up for the surprise.

Our original plan was to return to Jomsom and head into Upper Dolpa from there. A closer look on the map revealed that no less than 5 5000+m passes lay on that route, with no way out between them. If it would snow we would be stuck and need to be evacuated. The stretch was at least 10 days long. The plan didn’t feel right: it was not the right time of the year to head into Dolpa. We would have to come back for that another time, in another season.

It was a hassle getting the permits right for all the areas we would be crossing. Most districts in western Nepal have their own permit requirements and are restricted besides. We wasted a lot of time on an agent in Pokhara who did not really know what he was talking about. Finally our veteran friends gave us the contact details of an agency in Kathmandu who knew a lot about the permits for Dolpa, Mugu and Humla. Marylene had to fly back and forth to Kathmandu to get it settled. Instead of four we spent eight days in Pokhara, and it was hard to get out again after all that comfort.

I would have guessed that Nepal’s most chaotic bus station is in Kathmandu but I was very wrong about that. A stampede almost occurred when the bus from Pokhara to Beni arrived. Four hours later we were pretty satisfied with bus travel in Nepal for a few weeks after we got off with a pounding headache and bruised knees. Rather than taking another bus to Dorbang we walked this stretch. A couple of hours of walking brought us to the hot springs which unfortunately we could not use: women were supposed to bathe in t-shirt and shorts, but we had no spare clothes to change into once we’d gotten our only shirt and pants wet.

This area reminded me a lot of Makalu: people were used to seeing foreigners, though not so many as to start associating them with walking wallets. The people here were really nice: they’d come up for a chat or just greet us very excitedly as we passed. Everything was much cheaper, too: prices fell by as much as fivefold of what they had been on the big mountain circuits. Maybe Makalu would lose its position as my favourite hiking area in the country, a position it had held firmly since the beginning of October.

The track we were on is known as the ‘guerilla trek’: during the civil war between the government and the maoists the latter used these lonely mountains as a refuge. The conflict was strongest here, which is one out of a number of reasons why the west of Nepal is lagging behind on development. There are still few tourists in this particular area, though many amazing treks, mostly camping for now. With all the potential that is here: no doubt things will change in the future.

The last day of the year was a warm and sunny one. We followed the gravel road out to Dorbang, where a little shop sold the most amazing samosa (filled pastries). Two teenage girls were very keen on practicing their English with us after we finished lunch, they showed us their drawings and we had a little singalong they very much insisted on. We spent quite some time at that little shop, it didn’t matter. The people there were good company. They wished us a happy new year before we went on for a few more hours of walking in the afternoon.

All day long, the views over Dhaulagiri were stunning. Dhaulagiri one stood mighty and alone, while the rest of the range spiked along the horizon. Dhaulagiri would be the last 8000er we passed along the way. On New Year’s Eve we arrived in Dharapani and came upon a little guest house there. It was a basic, but cozy little place. The fall in prices was accompanied by the disappearance of mattresses, pillows and menus. It did not matter. They served amazing dal bhat in that place, accompanied by a pumpkin stew. The view from there was priceless: when the sun set a final time in 2017 the sky and the Dhaulagiris alike turned into vivid oranges and pinks, contrasting starkly with the green grass and yellow flowers in the field behind the house.

We were chatting away and enjoying a beer when we noticed that the owner was walking around in his pyjamas. When we asked him if he wanted us to go to bed so he could close the place up he answered with a very honest ‘yes’ and just like that our new year’s party was over at 8 PM. The day had been fantastic, the night was a lesser one: dogs barked without pause beneath our window all night long, and if we caught any sleep it was only for a couple of hours.

When the sun rose in 2018, we were happy enough with the light show over the mountains once again to forget about the dogs. The first day of the new year was still a sunny and beautiful one. We made a long day to Moreni and had a lucky encounter with 4 Nepali from a travel agency exploring this trail to start selling it to German tourists next season. They told us the one guesthouse in the village was closed, but there was a homestay about 20 minutes further up. Thanks to their description we found it, feeling grateful for a roof and hot food. Even at 2500m, it was surprisingly cold.

So far we had been flying over the trail, but the following day made it painfully clear that in 2018 the GHT would offer as much resistance as it had during the previous year. We climbed 900m that morning to our first pass, Jalja La at 3416m. It was a stunning place, but so cold, so even with our warm jackets on we could not linger long. We enjoyed a small snack break and watched clouds swirl around the Dhaulagiris. Suddenly we noticed that those innocent white swirls had grown a lot bigger, blacker and moved closer. Rain was falling in the distance. We left with a sense of urgency: getting a shower of cold rain was not a good prospect when temperatures dropped below -10 as soon as the sun disappeared.

We had a long way to go to Chenntung, where we were hoping to find a place to sleep. There were many perfect camping spots along the way and our packs were heavy with food, but we dare not touch it: the map warned that food was scarce and hard to find in this area, so we kept our provisions close at hand for after we passed Dhorpatan and ventured into wilder areas.

It was beautiful and serene in those woods: we did not meet anyone for hours. When we came upon the first village it was largely deserted, only a handful of people remained. The same happened in Chenntung. An older couple offered us tea while a man bypassing informed us that the only open hotel in the area was close to the checkpost in Dhorpatan. We had no choice but to continue and arrived there just before dark, after a record 27km day.

It was hard to find the place, we almost started to doubt that it really existed. Dhorpatan, the biggest town in the area, was near as empty and deserted as the villages had been. That didn’t predict any good for the way to come. In the end an old lady took us by the hand towards a small building off the main track. She pointed at it and said “Little hotel, little money.” Then she pointed to another building a km away: “Big hotel, big money.”

It did not matter to us, as long as we could take our shoes off. Little was closer, so little we aimed for. It was so cold there, at 2800m. The only time I’ve ever been colder was when PJ and I lived in a cabin in the woods of Lapland without proper heating or insulation while it was -45 outside. That didn’t predict any good either.

Slowly but steady, we started understanding why hiking in January is something so few people do. Yes, we had been warned, in a way we knew, but we didn’t think it would be this empty, this cold, this bad. We started understanding why people abandoned the higher settlements for lower ones. I couldn’t blame them. Man, was it cold here. Four days out and we were shattered. It doomed on us that it wasn’t sure that we would make it to Dunai at all. Days would be long and we were going much higher than this: 2 passes over 4000m and 4 nights of camping, half of them at 4000m as well.

We started looking at the maps to figure out how long we needed to ensure the biting cold. Surely it would get better after Dunai? We all thought the trail would go down from there, that Jumla, Rara and Gamgadhi were warm places at lower altitudes. We were wrong. Oh boy were we wrong! As far on the maps as we looked we saw passes at 3800m, campsites at 3000. Jumla lies at 2360m, Rara at 3000. We didn’t know if we could get through it all.

There were so many places to get stuck in, places to feel cold. For the first time a feeling of true despair set in the group. It all seemed futile now: we would never make it, and we could just as well return to Pokhara.

Like beaten dogs we talked over a million scenarios with as many ‘if’s’ for a long time. It took me a little while to get through the despair and recall all I had concluded on Annapurna. One way or another, there must be a way. We should not go down without a fight. The decision was that we would continue over the first pass of 4100m the next day and sleep at Thankur at 3300m. If that proved too much than we had tried at least, rather than taking the easy way out. When that was made clear we all vowed that if reaching the end proved impossible now we would return in September to finish what we started, together.

The people who owned that little hotel were so sweet, though: they saw us sitting there in our despair and started chatting us up a bit. They had opened the place up especially for us: that lady who found us on the road called them in, so they showed up to make our bed, cook us a great curry for dinner and another for breakfast. They made jokes about the cold, so after a while we could laugh about it too, and laugh at ourselves for being the only 3 people mad enough to be out here trekking right now.

Cooking curry in the morning takes time, so it was late when we finally said our goodbyes, promised to stay there again if we’ll ever be back, and got going. I still felt slightly desperate, PJ did too. Marylene had turned 180 degrees from breaking down the previous day to all optimism and determination. Our moods contrasted too much: on the way up to the pass we got into an argument. It was a long way up to Phalgune Pass, we did not reach the top until 3 PM. I was certain we would not reach Thankur.

I almost proposed turning back when at the top of the pass a panorama opened that asked to continue. Here, we were in that other Nepal again, the one we encountered in Muktinath also. Before us lay a mountain desert: red, barren and wild. No one was here to witness this vastness, only us with front row seats over the full Dhaulagiri range, contrasted by these red mountains from another planet.

As soon as we were on top, Marylene and I talked things through. It was all just about misunderstanding each other. We have been just the three of us for a long time now, with surprisingly little conflict, and all that has arisen has been quickly talked through and forgotten. There lies the fundament for true friendship, if you ask me: to keep talking no matter what. To go through so much together, to argue and to be annoyed and to be tense at each other, but to remain honest through it all, to keep respect for each other, to be strong enough to face each other and then let it go. I have been lucky enough to make it here with two of the world’s best and truest friends whom I can share amazing moments like this with.

We did make it to Thankur that day and set up our tents on a nice grassy clearing besides the abandoned village. It became the coldest night we’ve experienced on the trail: for the first time we shivered inside our sleeping bags. The tents were frozen stiff in the morning, and condensation inside had turned to ice so suddenly that it was snowing inside while we were packing. Then bad news came over the satellite phone: “WARNING. Extreme cold front predicted for Dunai area.” Jamie Mcguiness had borrowed us his company satellite for free, an extremely generous act from someone we’d only met twice in Kathmandu.

I was grateful for it: the phone gave us a chance to receive weather updates from our friends at home in order not to walk into our doom in this exposed place. That night at Thankur, PJ and I were sure that it was colder than -20C. Given that temperatures would drop while we would gain altitude, we could be facing -30C at 4000m. Even while wearing our heavy-duty winter clothes in Europe’s Arctic, we can only be outside for a few hours in those temperatures.

We were not merely looking at a couple of uncomfortable nights: we were not equipped for it. Spending two full days and two full nights at altitude with temperatures that low would put us at a very real risk for both frostbite and hypothermia. Even with blue skies predicted we were in over our heads, so we had no choice but to turn our path west instead of north to lower altitudes.

The trail west was an unknown area: neither part of the high nor the low route, it was a region where few if no westerners go. We had no idea how long it would take us, if we would find food and accommodation, or how we would get back to our intended route. It turned out a great experience exploring: we met so many amazing and hospitable people, came across beautiful villages and ate amazing food. After a week we were tired: there were so many impressions, while we were being stared at and surrounded by locals non-stop.

During our first two days of our way out west the going was tough: we made hundreds of meters of undulation several times a day. Against that stood jagged peaks to the north, the Dhaulagiris to the east, and an unknown snowy peak to the west. These mountains: they were so empty, so wild. Villages were tiny up high, and far in between. Everything above the altitude of 2500m had been deserted.

For two nights we found homestays that offered simple shelter and food. We were very grateful for that once again, slipping to keep going on noodles while sleeping in the frosty tent. Both in Pelma and in Maikot the people were pretty amused with us being there. People barely spoke English, but by now we could get by with our keywords of Nepali and our little phrase book. We especially liked Maikot and its homestay, where we had some of the best dal bhat we’ve found in Nepal. It was such a beautiful village, too.

The final two days were an easier walk. With the worst of the undulation behind us now progress was much faster than we had anticipated. The track wound itself from hillside to hillside but kept altitude. Most of the time it was an easy-going and wide track, but at times it was so narrow and clinging to the side of the mountain that I could only look straight ahead or get dizzy with vertigo.

The area was bone dry. The grass was yellow and the fields barren. We learned that the winter rains came fewer and fewer each year, making it impossible to grow winter crops any longer. Besides of the cold, that was another reason why many people left. We did not find any more open homestays and tented the two final nights. It can be a challenge to find flat ground in these steep foothills, so twice we camped in abandoned fields on the edge of winter villages. People only live there for one or two months, while the cold persists higher up.

When camping on the edge of a village there is always a point where the villagers will come and check us out. It was no problem on the first evening: about ten of them came over, we had a merry chat, after that we were approved and they left us to ourselves. The second night the people did not speak but stared very intently for a long time. It was awkward. In the night I thought I heard someone creeping around the tent. I don’t know whether someone was there but I couldn’t shake the creepy feeling anymore and did not sleep well.

The cold front did come in, even below 2000m we could feel it. We were all happy that we did not wake up at 4000m instead. On the final morning I was really tired and feverish. Marylene had a bad stomach, PJ a sore knee. Almost we had made it through somewhere without getting sick.

I was so tired of biscuits and noodles as well. We were trying to reach a town called Rukumkot, from where we could take a jeep to Musikot that hopefully offered some sort of connection back to the trail. The road started an hour into the walk that morning, blasted through rock more purple than anything I’ve seen. Another chance encounter brought us upon an empty jeep, the driver was enjoying breakfast at a nearby road stall. He agreed to take us and even waited for us to have breakfast too: flatbread with a tasty vegetable curry. Life quality increased by 500% just like that.

Two hours of dusty road and blasting Nepali music later we reached Musikot. Now all we needed to do was figure out how to get out of there again.

“But when I’m cold, cold
Oh when I’m cold, cold.
I know that you’re with me, and the way you will show
And you’re with me wherever I go
And you give me this feeling, this everglow”

Total ascent: 52290m
Total descent: 50590m
Total distance: 979km

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2 thoughts on “Lost in the West, part I: Dhaulagiri and Dhorpatan

  1. Halleluia, they are still alive, but how!
    Jezus Maria Jozef, wat een vechters alle 3!!
    Met ingehouden adem lezen we het nieuwe verhaal. Een verhaal vol contrasten, wanhoop en hoop, verdriet en geluk, schoonheid, ruwheid en zachtheid, moedloosheid en durf.en nog zoveel meer…..Een vrouw met ballen gebruikte AS adventure als titel, vrouw met meer dan ballen zou ik zeggen!!
    On.voor.stel.baar. moedig en doorzettend, ik vind er de woorden niet voor.
    Het wordt a never ending story…..we lezen en we vragen ons al af what next, zonder te beseffen wat jullie allemaal doorstaan.. Het wordt herhalinh,maar hetbis gemeen, respect, diep diep respect!
    Hou het veilig verder, verzorg jullie, waak over elkaar.
    Recupereer nog even en als jullie weer verder gaan, good luck!
    Liefs en dikke knuffels,
    Nicky

    Like

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