The last time we visited Nepal, back in 2010, we did the classic introductory treks: the three passes loop in the Everest region, and the Annapurna Circuit (which was not yet ruined by the road back then).
When we revisited Nepal in 2017, we were ready for something more challenging and remote. While searching for ideas, we stumbled upon the excellent blog post by Howard and Sue Dengate describing a 33-day trek from Jumla to Jomsom, across the beautiful and very remote Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) High Route and the Upper Dolpo. We were immediately hooked!
We did this trek in 30 days, starting in Jumla on 23 September 2017 and finishing in Jomsom on 22 October 2017.
We used the excellent trekking agency Visit Himalaya Treks who has done this same trek and variations thereof multiple times before.
Blue markers indicate overnight camping locations and red markers indicate passes above 5000 meters.
Day 1 (Sep 23, 2017): Jumla to Danphe Langa
Once the mules are loaded and the porters are ready, we start walking from the center of Jumla village. Since we are used to hiking solo, our expedition seems quite an intimidating sight: four porters, a guide, a cook, five mules, and a horseman. I have to admit that a slight feeling creeps upon me “What were we thinking and what have we done?” But, everyone steps forward and off we go, through Jumla town, namastaying left and right and trying to look like we completely know what we are doing. Jumla supposedly is a big town, which (in retrospect) is definitely true but doesn’t say a lot. If you want to buy supplies, make sure you get them in Kathmandu, except if you want to stock up on cookies or instant noodles. We follow the broad road up and out of town, going through the outskirts and getting to rural pastures. We stop for lunch, an elaborate affair as we soon learn, and have our final views of Jumla and the valley. After lunch the trail goes continues up to a pass, our first one of many to follow. The trail itself is beautiful, easy to follow, with views all around. We truly enjoy this! Our staff continues after the pass to set up camp. We make a little detour with Iswhar, our guide, to a viewpoint above the pass. We hang out at the viewpoint until dark clouds roll in and we feel the first raindrops. Then, we quickly walk down to a tiny village some 30 minutes from the pass. Tents have already been set up and as will happen every day, our crew is waiting with tea, coffee and cookies for us.
Jumla: GPS 29.274520 82.18788298, Altitude 2368m
Danpe Langa: GPS 29.357218 82.159731, Altitude 3530m
Actual walking time: 5h15
Day 2 (Sep 24, 2017): Danphe Langa to Bulbule Army Checkpost
We start around 9am. For the first couple of hours, we walk along a combination of dirt road and short cuts. Not too interesting since the way goes through forests, a lot of cut down trees and not a lot to be seen (no views, no villages, no people). We reach the river, pass a beautiful little village, and reach the house of our horseman. We stopped here to pick up another mule, which will carry the food for the other mules. We continue along the river and have lunch halfway up under an overhanging rock. The original plan was camp in Chautha but since it is still early we decide to continue to the Bulbule army post. This was supposed to be another 30 minutes but turns out to be 90 minutes, the path again being a combination of dirt road and short cuts. We passed the military checkpoint for Rara National Park and the soldiers allow us to camp in a beautiful green area just beyond the checkpoint. The soldiers are super nice and we can even get water at their barracks.
Bulbule Army Check Post: GPS 29.458980 82.127910, Altitude 3261m
Actual walking time: 6h30
Day 3 (Sep 25, 2017): Bulbule Army Checkpost to Rara Lake Entrance Office
Our horses and porters start early and leave separately. Ishwar and us do two little side trips because it is going to be a short day. First, we venture into the valley to the left hand side of the campsite. Then, starting from the small pass on the official trail close to our campsite, we climb a ridge that has excellent views of snow capped mountains in the distance. From the pass we descend steeply through beautiful forest for a couple of hours. We pass a little shepherds summer camp. The forest is teeming with life at lower elevations with shepherds leading their cattle up to the pastures. After a long descent we finally reach the road where our staff is waiting with a delicious elaborate lunch. Lots of kids and people come to check us out. We continue over the road for a bit and than go up a very steep short-cut. We arrive at the official entrance office of Rara National park. The official camp site next to the office is not ideal: lots of jeeps parked there, lots of locals drinking at night. A much better campsite is just 100m away, over the ridge on the left of the road. It isolated from all the hubbub and it has great views of valley we just came from.
Rara Lake Entrance Office: GPS 29.509878 82.110056, Altitude 2914m
Actual walking time: 5h30
Day 4 (Sep 26, 2017): Rara Lake Entrance Office to Rara Lake Campground
To get to the lake we first follow a wide road until we reach a huge open high meadow. Since there is no water it’s unfortunately not possible to camp on the meadow. From the meadow the trail continues down into the forest towards the lake. Loads of local horsemen pass us, trying to convince us to take a horse to the lake instead of walking. Rara Lake is a very popular Nepalese holiday destination and since the national holidays have just started, it is quite busy with local tourists. We exit the forest after a while and come to open grasslands on the South side of lake. A walk around the West side of lake takes us to the official camp sites on the North side. Before reaching the campsite, at a bridge crossing, you can take a left for a side trip to Morma Top, which is what we did. Getting to the top takes much longer than expected, it takes us 3 hours up, two hours down, but it is absolutely beautiful. There are gorgeous views of Rara Lake and the mountains in the far distance. At first, the trail to the top is obvious and passes through a small traditional village. At the end of the village we have to take small side trail passing bee hives (ask for directions). Halfway to the top, there is a T-split: the main trail continues level but to get to the top we have to take a small side-trail on the left hand side for a final steep set of switch-backs to the actual top where there is a newly built view tower. We spend a major part of the day with this side trip. When we finally descend at the end of afternoon, we continue to the campground next to a hotel. It is not too busy and quite relaxing. We get some beers and spend sunset looking at people taking boat rides on the lake. Not bad at all.
Rara Lake Campground: GPS 29.537955 82.076646, Altitude 2979m
Actual walking time: 1h15 (not including side trip to Morma Top)
Day 5 (Sep 27, 2017): Rara Lake Campground to Chaila
We start walking North-East from the campground and pass the Rara Lake military checkpoint. At first, the trail is wide and easy, but it becomes increasingly eroded as we continue up. We reach and cross a little pass where there is another military checkpoint. For there it’s all downhill. We stop for a cup of coffee at a local teahouse and continue on to Ghamghadi, the district capital. Ghamghadi turns out to be a fascinating buzzing little town. There is one big main street lined with shops and lots of people (and goats) out and about. The houses are in a typical style which we don’t notice anywhere else on the trek: two floors with a wooden balcony. In Ghamghadi we are interviewed by a local radio journalist; evidently tourists are still a bit of a novelty. Our staff gets some extra supplies and we continue in the heat and dust, following ever increasingly steep short-cuts down to the river. We stop for a brief lunch at the bridge across the river. After lunch we continue on what is essentially a broad dusty dirt road along the river (no motorized traffic, though). Basically, we continue along this river for the rest of today and the next two days until we reach Maila. Fortunately, the track along the river gets increasingly more narrow, less road-like and more trail-like. After a couple of hours we pass through the first of many traditional villages: Lumsa. Since it is the first encounter with a traditional village it is especially wonderful. However, kids have clearly seen foreigners before and come running out “Give me balloon! Give me camera! Give me money!” We are happy that we have decided to continue to the next village, Chaila. This is a slightly smaller but also wonderful traditional village. We set up camp on a just harvested field at the start of Chaila town.
Chaila: GPS 29.581771 82.274358, Altitude 1951m
Actual walking time: 8h00
Day 6 (Sep 28, 2017): Chaila to Pulu
We spend some time exploring Chaila village before we set off for the day. We meet a local young boy whose English is surprisingly good (he studies at a boarding school in Kathmandu and spends the summer vacation in Chaila). He shows us around in the village: his home, the school (closed), and the many agriculture fields where they grow lots of things (tomatoes, corn, peppers, oranges, mandarins, potatoes, …). Around 10 am we start our trek, continuing along the river. The horses take the high trail (mandatory because of erosion) and we take the low trail on the other side of the river. We meet again for lunch at a beautifully decorated local house. Refreshed we continue after lunch on our way to Pulu. The river is wild and beautiful and refreshing to walk next to. Upon arrival in Pulu it turns that the campsite that the staff had used at in previous years now has a house built on it. Instead, we set up camp in the one available open flat space of any kind of in the middle of the village. We are quite the curiosity of town with lots of kids and adults coming over for a peek. Most of our staff can sleep in a nearby building and use the cooking facilities inside.
Pulu: GPS 29.577576 82.394715, Altitude 2247m
Actual walking time: 5h15
Day 7 (Sep 29, 2017): Pulu to Maila
Once again, we continue along the same river for the third and final day. It’s more of the same as yesterday and again very warm. We pass some very beautiful stupas after a bit of an up and visit a monastery along the way. Unfortunately, the monastery seems to be abandoned but we can peek inside through some windows. We stop at a tiny Tibetan settlement for lunch. We are seated inside a simple home (hut) with a tent next door where the staff cooks and lunches. After we follow the river some more, we finally reach our destination: Maila village. Just before the actual village we cross a bridge and reach a house where we set up camp. (Note: the original route continues to Maila village proper, which is another 5 minutes further along the river. However, the bridge there was washed away and the trail has been rerouted.) From Maila our horseman returns because the mules cannot cross the mountainous remote section for the next week. Until day 14, when we reach Phophagaon, we won’t have mules and our entire load will be carried by the porters only. Ishwar (our guide) and Shambu (our cook) have hired two extra local porters for the next couple of days to help out.
Maila: GPS 29.651036 82.519298, Altitude 2896m
Actual walking time: 6h30
Day 8 (Sep 30, 2017): Maila to Chyarga La Low Camp
Today is a difficult day for the porters: they have to carry everything that was previously on the five mules. Fortunately our two extra local porters show up and are willing and capable. Today’s climb is not particularly difficult, except for a couple of spots that would have been a challenge for mules if we still had them. Still, it’s a long slog up, more than 1000 meters vertical. From Maila, we continue along a different smaller river. This is a side river of the one we walked along the previous couple of days. It is much steeper, it has more waterfalls, and it is narrower and wilder than yesterday’s river. In the beginning there is more walking through the forest but eventually we exit the forest and enter a wide open grassy valley. Yay, finally above tree line! We have the first real mountain views along the sides of the valley. We set up camp here. This is our first really cold night (first time above 4000 meters), so we give some extra clothes to porters. In an halfhearted attempt to speed up the acclimatization process, we undertake a very small excursion to a hill right next to campsite.
Chyarga La Low Camp: GPS 29.663225 82.594656, Altitude 4010m
Actual walking time: 4h45 (not including side trip to hill).
Day 9 (Oct 1, 2017): Chyarga La Low Camp to Chyarga La High Camp
Today is a very short trekking day, which is a welcome respite for our staff after the long arduous trek of the previous day. It has to be a short day for acclimatization reasons since we ascend from 4000 meters to 4500 meters. We trek along a gorgeous little mountain range and over beautiful autumn colored grass steppes for a little over 2 hours. After lunch (the staff had set up a table with beautiful mountain views) we go on an acclimatization hike since will cross over the Chyarga La pass the next day. There are plenty possibilities for acclimatization hikes in the area; we choose to explore the left hand side of the valley. This leads us up to a beautiful rocky plateau where there are a lot chortens and vertical long stones. We learned from our guide that in May and June locals come specifically to this place to look for an aphrodisiac plant and put these phallic stones up in honor of their search. We can see a pass a couple of hundred meters higher but decide to stop at the phallic stone plateau, at 4950 meters. This side trip takes us about 4 hours round trip. Today is Tecla’s birthday and our chef Shambu has baked her a birthday cake, sweetest surprise ever!
Chyarga La High Camp: GPS 29.668215 82.625770, Altitude 4490m
Actual walking time: 2h15
Day 10 (Oct 2, 2017): Chyarga La High Camp to Takla Khola
Today is a straightforward rocky ascent to the Chyarga La pass (5146 meters). It takes us about 2.5 hours to reach the pass. From the pass, there are gorgeous views towards Tibet and plenty of photo opportunities. Since camp is supposed to be less than another 2 hours, we take our time on the pass, enjoying the beautiful views and weather. The descent is easy and straightforward, first all above treeline, later descending into beautifully autumn colored birch trees and closer to camp, pine trees. We camp next to the river (make sure to walk out to the riverbed to enjoy the views).
Chyarga La Pass: GPS 29.680316 82.640083, Altitude 5146m
Takla Khola: GPS 29.670328 82.693598, Altitude 3670m
Actual walking time: 5h00
Day 11 (Oct 3, 2017): Takla Khola to Yala La High Camp
A new trail has been constructed for the majority of this section, a big improvement for trekkers since the views are stunning. However, for the porters it seems to be quite a challenging affair (although, the longer we trek the more impressed we are with their absolute amazing ‘goat skills’). The first couple of hours of this new trail are a long traverse with excellent views of the Kanjiroba range. It’s quite a steep up, but because of the stunning scenery, one doesn’t mind. There is a little bit of cliff scrambling but nothing too complicated. This is followed by a steep dusty descent to the river and after that we follow the river, first through birch trees and boulders, and later on grassy, open lands. The valley opens up completely and we have to cross the Chysandi Khola river as the last challenge of the day. Our porters cross at a wild, deep spot but we follow our guide further upstream where the river has meandered out to a very wide and easy to cross spot. We set up camp at a beautiful spot with extensive views.
Yala La High Camp: GPS 29.653376 82.774386, Altitude 4487m
Actual walking time: 7h00
Day 12 (Oct 4, 2017): Yala La High Camp to Pung Kharka
It is a 3.5 hour trek up to the pass with beautiful mountain scenery and a tad bit of exposed scrambling on the way up. We pass a gorgeous glacier on the left hand side while still in the flatter part of the valley. We walk up one of the little hills facing it and take a little break to enjoy it’s beauty. The view from the pass is not as impressive as from Chyarga La but we linger on the pass quite a bit since we do not want to arrive too early at camp and the weather is gorgeous again. The way down is straightforward; the only difficulty is the many animal trails that at times make it a bit difficult to find the correct way. Camp is set up in the valley, facing a beautiful glacier, which means that it is pretty darn cold at night. We meat the first foreigners since Rara Lake: a French group who are making a documentary. The two extra porters we have hired back in Maila leave us at 1am in the morning, determined to make it back home in Maila at 8pm the same night. Interesting nutritional fact: they eat the instant noodles raw so they don’t need a stove.
Yala La Pass: GPS 29.653686 82.826871, Altitude 5407m
Pung Kharka: GPS 29.634686 82.847900, Altitude 4618m
Actual walking time: 6h00
Day 13 (Oct 5, 2017): Pung Kharka to Nyingma Gyanzen La High Camp
A short day today in preparation of the highest pass of the trek, the Nyingma Gyanzen La (5557 meters). An easy trail follows the river for the first couple of hours, up and over a challenging bluff and then up into a gully to camp. It takes three hours in total for us, but for our staff this doesn’t mean the end of the day. Since we have no horses anymore, they have decided to carry as much of the luggage as they can just over the pass and store it there for the night. Instead of crossing the pass once carrying 35-40kg each, they opt to cross the pass twice carrying half of that each time. They go up and back in a little over 3 hours, and do not seem to be floored by this expedition. We weaklings are resting up for the next day, getting ready for the big ascent :-). The campsite is impressive: in a little canyon with spiky mountains surrounding us.
Nyingma Gyanzen La High Camp: GPS 29.578070 82.831635, Altitude 4694m
Actual walking time: 3h00
Day 14 (Oct 6, 2017): Nyingma Gyanzen La High Camp to Phophagaon
From the campsite, we first climb up the second half of the scree gully (after having climbed the first half yesterday at the end of the previous day). We cross a ridge and enter a wide open cirque surrounded by mountains on all sides. We swing around to the far side and clamber up nicely graded switch backs to a clear narrow gap at the top with prayer flags. Spend some time here and enjoy the beautiful views on both sides. But don’t rejoice just yet – this is not yet the pass. From the gap we swing left to a 30 minute ascending traverse with deep views on your right to the actual pass. On the way up to the pass, we run into a very interesting crew of local villagers. About ten people are doing trail improvement work. They are doing an excellent job with limited equipment: a rake, a shovel, and a pick ax. They convert the trail from a messy landslide into something resembling an actual comfortable walking trail. After the traverse, we reap the rewards of our work: the Nyingma Gyanzen La pass, at 5557 meters, is not so much a traditional pass but more of a local peak with mind blowing sweeping views in all directions. We can see as far as Tibet and the Kanjiroba range. The colors are amazing – every variation of swirling brown with big dollops of white snow on top. We recommended to linger as long as possible on this peak, as well as on the beautiful descending traverse to the village of Phophagaon that follows. Phophagaon is a very nice busy village, a welcome sight after a week in pure nature and wilderness. The harvest is in full swing and the beating of millet is heard everywhere. Goats and yaks are roaming around and we receive quite a bit of attention from the kids.
Nyingma Gyanzen La Pass: GPS 29.559230 82.819125. Altitude 5557m
Phophagaon: GPS 29.518965 82.865818, Altitude 4049m
Actual walking time: 7h00
Day 15 (Oct 7, 2017): Phophagaon to Bhijer
Today, we combine two days of our official itinerary into a single day. We spend an hour walking around in Phophagaon village and then take off on what we thought would be a reasonable day. However, the pass is further and 400 meters higher than we thought so we spend more than 7 hours reaching Bhijer. Regardless, we really like the long day, and if we had to do it again, we would still combine the two days. From Phophagaon, we descend deep down to the river along a dusty trail. On the way we pass beautifully colored red cliffs. We cross the river across a rickety bridge. On the other side, the path initially climbs steeply along the cliff side, occasionally towering over the deep river gorge below. Eventually, the climb relents and follows a stream (that soon peters out) up to the pass. Along the way we pass some deserted houses on a flat area where we were supposed to camp according to the original itinerary. Good thing we did not stop there since it was still very early in the day and there was not water anyway. We continue on through beautifully autumn red colored shrubs to the 4800 Yambur La pass. Since the day is fading, we take only a short break at the top and continue on the long traverse down to Bhijer. While admiring the extensive views of the Kanjiroba range in the distance we finally reach the gorgeous village of Bhijer at the bottom of the valley.
Bhijer: GPS 29.452168 82.916908, Altitude 3853m
Actual walking time: 7h15
Day 16 (Oct 8, 2017): Bhijer Rest Day
Bhijer is a lively gorgeous little town and we love having a rest day here. It is highly enjoyable and relaxing, with loads of things to see and to do. We visit the school, which is built with the help of Swiss donors and which is impeccably maintained by the local staff. They even have a vegetable garden and shared delicious tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables with us. Thank you! At one end of town, there is a Bon monastery called the Chakhang monastery. It is famous because of beautifully carved book covers, but these are locked away and you cannot see them. This monastery is badly damaged by water and in the process of being renovated. Right next to the Chakhang monastery, there is an impressive health clinic. The local nurse speaks excellent English and makes the visit more than worth it. She is a wealth of information and tells us a lot about the clinic, life and health in the mountains, and the history of the gompa. On the other side of town, there is a Buddhist monastery. Here, the restoration is already complete and the paintings are amazing. Two local kids, little monks in training, open the gompa and show us around. Our staff buys a goat, so we have delicious mutton momos for dinner. Bruno claims these are the best he has every eaten! It was explained to us that the Bon religion is closely related to Tibetan Buddhism, but the only concrete example of a difference between Bon and Nepali Buddhism that the locals can provide is that one walks clockwise and the other anti-clockwise.
Bhijer: GPS 29.452168 82.916908, Altitude 3853m
Day 17 (Oct 9, 2017): Bhijer to Den Khola
We leave Bhijer in the early morning, heading out past the red Bon gompa, on our way to yet another pass. It’s funny that after you have a couple of passes under your belt, passes under 5000 meter do not count anymore, they are just considered a ‘slight up’. This pass is one of those: just a slog up while yaks and mules pass us left and right, on their way to Shey Gompa. After the initial climb to a stupa that overlooks Bhijer, we veer to the right and start a traverse towards Shyamling gompa instead of taking the direct route straight over the top (our horses take this route). It’s an easy traverse, with views into the valleys, Bhijer behind us, and the typical rounded brown Dolpo mountains surrounding us. After a first small pass, we follow another traverse to the left and quite unexpectedly, we suddenly see Shyamling Gompa laying in a bowl below us. It’s quite a big complex, silent and majestious. We stop to enjoy the beautiful sight. There are various buildings and supposedly the gompa has been renovated but we can’t confirm either way since there are no monks to open the doors at the time. We were told in Bhijer that the monks were busy with the harvest and would return to the monastery only later in the season. It didn’t matter since walking the grounds and soaking up the atmosphere was more than enough. We continue our walk, passing the little village of Tata on our way to an unnamed pass (Tora La?). Before the pass, the short-cut trail from Bhijer and the one via Shyamling gompa meet again and both end up at the pass. Once again, there are extensive views of the Kanjiroba range and even the Nyingma Gyanzen ridge / pass. We leave the pass and traverse two exposed scree slopes. They are not as bad as they seem: locals travel with fully loaded horses and don’t even blink. Shortly after the pass, we spot our camp, another beautiful spot in a little valley. Once again, we have the place to ourselves – no one else around. It’s bitter cold so we call it another early night.
Den Khola: GPS 29.390176 82.973965, Altitude 4757m
Actual walking time: 6h00
Day 18 (Oct 10, 2017): Den Khola to Shey Gompa and side trip to Tsakhang Gompa
We cross the river and slowly start a 300 meter ascent, passing a little traditional yak settlement along the way. As every day, the views are extensive: jagged peaks, rounded Dolpo mountains and snowy caps. They are all around us and we take it very slow to enjoy the mesmerizing landscape. The trail we take is new according to our guide: the old trail used to go between two mountains, but the new one is a much nicer open traverse with views everywhere. After the initial 300 meters up, it’s one long beautiful traverse, with views of the famous Shey monastery, built into a high red cliff, near the end. We descend towards Shey Gompa, which is actually much smaller than we expected: it’s basically a gompa, a couple of houses and some local nomadic tents. However, there is plenty to see: a couple of yak trains arrive, locals are hanging out in the tents, consuming a glasses of tea, beer or raksi. While our crew sets up camp near Shey Gompa, we continue on a side trip and hike 1.5 hours to the Tsakhang gompa. According to our altitude meter, Tsakhang is almost at the same altitude as Shey but that seems hard to believe since we are both convinced that it was quite a bit up. When we were there, no monks lived at the Tsakhang monastery. If you want to see the inside, you need to convince the Lama (who lives in Shey Gompa) to do the walk with you to open the door. You need to give the Lama a head-start since he is old and slow and half-blind. We met a couple of tourists who had tried to convince him the day before but alas without luck. We had more luck: after we offered a small monetary incentive he decided to go with us. It was absolutely gorgeous and worthwhile. However, be prepared that the inside of the monastery is tiny: it’s just one prayer room and a kitchen. It’s more about the surroundings and the stunning setting.
Shey Gompa: GPS 29.351585 82.966733, Altitude 4331m
Actual walking time: 3h00 (not including side trip to Tsakhang Gompa)
Day 19 (Oct 11, 2017): Shey Gompa to Namgung
Note: we camped in Namgung but it is totally doable to trek from Shey Gompa to Saldang in one day.
We begin the day on a trail that slowly ascends towards the Sela Bhanjyang pass (5106 meters). It’s easy going, except for the final 30 minutes to the pass itself that climbs more steeply. The colors are just unbelievable: high desert, all shades of gold, brown and black mountains, and a stiff wind. It feels desolate, remote and lonely… until we meet this young man on his way to Saldang with his four year old son. The little kiddo is carried up on the back of his dad to the pass but lowered as soon as they reach the saddle, and happily they both dart further on, while we of course break to soak up the beauty. The day is supposed to be short so we decide to take our time and linger wherever we can, stretching another beautiful trail day as much as possible. We can see most of the trail, again a long open traverse. (One big advantage of this trek is that it’s all above treeline so there are always extensive views.) Eventually, the trail disappears around the corner, dropping into the little hamlet of Namgung. We visit the gompa, difficult to distinguish who is more dirty: the Lama or the little kids surrounding him. But the gompa is surprisingly beautiful on the inside: beautiful new paintings and quite elaborate. The Lama proudly shows us some carefully kept pictures: one of them is taken by Dr. George Schaller in 1973…
Sela Bhanjyang Pass: GPS 29.370746 83.011386, Altitude 5106m
Namgung: GPS 29.400948 83.029411, Altitude 4414m
Actual walking time: 4h00
Day 20 (Oct 12, 2017): Namgung to Saldang
We venture further into the land of yak trains and yak shit. Everybody is in the mountains with a basket on his/her back, collecting the yak dung as fuel for the winter. People who have horses or yaks load huge bags of yak dung and travel back to their villages or onto their next sale. It is fascinating to realize that there are no roads here for at least a week, no cell phone coverage – not even a working landline – and no television. It is a hidden world, not poor, but indeed very though without a lot of luxury. However, the houses that we visit are warm and comfortable and although the diet is very limited, no malnourishment seems apparent. It’s only 2 hours to Saldang so we spend the rest of the day exploring the village and scoring a couple of beers for the night. We have another beautiful camping spot overlooking the village, valley and mountains, just outside of town.
Saldang: GPS 29.425281 83.068120, Altitude 4084m
Actual walking time: 2h30
Day 21 (Oct 13, 2017): Saldang Rest Day
We decided to spend a rest day in Saldang. In the morning we try to map out the remainder of the the trip since some of the hiking times on the itinerary seem to be wildly off. But with some creative suggestions and flexibility of our guide and staff we come up with a satisfactory alternative itinerary. Then, we set off on a day hike to Marang and Karang, two villages located a couple of valleys behind Saldang. They are both beautiful and well maintained villages, definitely worth a visit. You traverse high above the river valley in which Saldang is located and the views are, as every day, outstanding. Upon our return, we have been surrounded by a group of foreign trekkers – they literally put up their tents between ours. This is all the more funny since there is absolutely no lack on camping space in upper Dolpo. Oh well…
Saldang: GPS 29.425281 83.068120, Altitude 4084m
Day 22 (Oct 14, 2017): Saldang to Khoma Gaon (via Cha Gaon)
Our original itinerary has us going directly from Saldang over the Khoma La pass to Koma Gaon. However, since this would only give us 4 hours of hiking time, we decided to extend the day by taking a detour via the village of Cha Gaon. This turned out to be an excellent decision. The first 3 hours took us along the river, a delightful trail passing little hamlets, people harvesting and pounding millet, gompas and of course yaks. In Cha Gaon there was even a hotel; we only stopped for a coffee but it looked well organized and the first careful beginnings of a tourist industry. (Note: we did see banners / signs of hotels in some of the previous villages as well. Sometimes they were closed but sometimes they did have sleep / eat opportunities – or at least the possibility to buy a beer.) In Cha Gaon we crossed the river and started on the hike up to the pass. Since we did not cross the original Khoma La, we had to go up another 200 meters and I will be honest, it felt like Mt Everest! But as usual, the views were worth it, breathtaking and we were happy we had chosen this route. After the pass, we started a long, stunningly beautiful descent past a little lake. After 7 hours, we finally see Khoma Gaon, a beautiful village protected from the wind by the surrounding mountains.
Khoma Gaon: GPS 29.431665 83.140346, Altitude 4194m
Actual walking time: 7h00
Day 23 (Oct 15, 2017): Khoma Gaon to Tinje Gaon
The days starts with an easy ascent to the Shimen pass, then a traverse, followed by a descent to the town of Shimen. From now on for the next couple of days we will follow the river. We expect this to be a little boring but this is far from the truth: it’s beautiful wild country and truly enjoyable, and there are not a lot of ups or passes to be crossed 🙂 We leave Shimen and walk past extensive mani walls, made from beautiful round white river boulders. The walls are works of art and truly impressive. We walk to Mendo where we visit the little gompa. The gompa itself is not very impressive but the setting is stunning: in a little valley surrounding by stark mountains. Reaching Mendo is interesting. After crossing the river and a short but steep climb, we have the feeling that we reach a high plateau. It suddenly levels out and we follow the wide river from here to Tinje without any major landmarks. Along the way there are many huge rocks carved with Buddhist mantras, mani walls and locals traveling to/from Tinje on sometimes… a motorcycle! The motorcycles are imported from China and the locals proudly ride around on these iron horses, music blaring and transporting goods that were previously loaded on horses or yaks. The wind is blowing fiercely when we reach Tinje and we chose to set up camp closely to the village to be at least a little protected from the wind. The side effect of camping close by the town is that we end up being a kind of circus attraction: we are surrounded by little kids who look at us curiously, mucus dangling from various parts of their face. We go inside of one of the houses to buy a couple of beers and chat with a local guy who speaks excellent English who has just come back from China with his yaks to buy rice. There is a fascinating trade going on between the neighboring countries, either by yak, horse or motorcycle!
Tinje Gaon: GPS 29.371573 83.289950, Altitude 4179m
Actual walking time: 7h00
Day 24 (Oct 16, 2017): Tinje Gaon to Rapka
Before continuing our trek, we first explore the village. It’s delightful now that the winds have died down and the town is basking in the sun. Tinje turns out to be a very active town: people are pounding millet, loading and unloading pack animals and we are invited into several houses and tents. We leave Tinje around 10am and continue along the meandering river. The valley opens and narrows several times and we see less and less traffic on the trail. It is beautiful soothing country: nothing difficult, nothing extraordinary, just enjoyable. We stop for a nice lunch and continue on to Rapka where the valley really widens and becomes completely wide and open. We end the day with a deep, cold, and long river crossing but we all chicken out and use the horse of our horseman Akash to get across. The sun is already setting when we finally reach camp and it quickly becomes bitterly cold. As usual, the camping spot is beautiful and we enjoy our solitude in nature.
Rapka: GPS 29.186608 83.297223, Altitude 4585m
Actual walking time: 6h00
Day 25 (Oct 17, 2017): Rapka to Chharka
Today another easy pass. We hike up the valley, crossing the shallow river multiple times. We only need to take off our shoes once, the other times it’s cross-able with hiking poles. We pass two local guys relaxing next to a makeshift tent with a… motorcycle parked next to it (according to our guide, they were there last year as well). The last 20 minutes up to the Chharka La pass are steep up but nothing extraordinary. From a little after the pass, there are beautiful views of Dhalaughiri and it is nice sitting and resting outside of the wind. The descent to Chharka is longer than we expected, the trail keeps weaving in and out of the mountains and up and down. Nothing too strenuous, just tiring after a couple of hours. We both had expected to see Chharkabot earlier, but it feels like it’s hidden completely at the end of the village. At first sight it looks quite small but it’s quite stretched out. The upper half of the village resembles an old medieval castle, while the lower part is dedicated to goat keeping and hotels/camping (at least every house has a sign/banner offering a wide range of services).
Chharka: GPS 29.089071 83.416743, Altitude 4308m
Actual walking time: 5h30
Day 26 (Oct 18, 2017): Chharka to Niwar High Camp
We have decided to combine another two days into one, continuing all the way to just before/below the Niwar Pass. The first half of the day is easy enough: in just over two hours we reach what would have been the camp spot according to the original itinerary. We left Chharka following the river, climbed up steeply, and entered a beautiful valley. We are now surrounded by stark, ragged mountains on both sides, different than the rounded Dolpo mountains from before. We keep following the river. Suddenly and unexpectedly, our progress slows down due to a huge landslide. We have to cross many boulders, which is not too easy walking terrain, for about two hours. We take a couple of short breaks but since the valley is in the chilly shade and the wind picks up, we keep walking and reach camp around 5:30pm. Our wonderful staff is already waiting with tea and coffee. Nobody sleeps too well since this is the highest camp of the whole trek: 4980 meters – thin air and freezing cold!
Niwar High Camp: GPS 28.943566 83.521435, Altitude 4978m
Actual walking time: 6h30
Day 27 (Oct 19, 2017): Niwar High Camp to Sangda Phedi
The ascent to the Niwar pass is easy. It’s still a mental challenge since this is the last major obstacle before reaching Jomsom; other groups doing this same trek have been forced to turn around here due to unexpectedly early snow storms. But the weather (as on the rest of our trip) cooperates nicely: blue skies and not even the slightest breeze. The climb up is straight forward. There are numerous braided horse and yak trails to choose from, but they all leak up to the saddle pass at 5555 meter. We all arrive at the top at the same time. We take plenty of time for photo opportunities. Our staff even celebrates with a quite elaborate dance, very impressive. They continue down and we continue up another 50 meters or so to an amazing view point with spectacular 360 degree views just above the pass. From here we can see the Annapurnas, Tilicho Peak, and the Dhalaugheri range. We spend about 2 hours relaxing and enjoying and then slowly make our way to the second, lower Sangda La pass. This pass is a non event, if there would be no flags you would not even notice it. From the Sangda La pass we have views into the narrow next valley and two snow peaked mountains. Finally, we descend another 30 minutes or so, and reach camp: Sangda Phedi. The descent looks steep and intimidating at first, but is actually quite easy. The grading is very nice and it’s not as exposed as you would first suspect. There are two possibilities of camp site at Sangda Phedi. We prefer the higher one since the views are a little better. Our cook would have preferred the lower one since he would have had a shelter to cook in.
Viewpoint just above Niwar Pass: GPS 28.920093 83.578061, Altitude 5595m
Sangda La Pass (a.k.a. Tucheje La Pass): GPS 28.914910 83.606021, Altitude 5118m
Sangda Pedi: GPS 28.914545 83.618660, Altitude 4355m
Actual walking time: 5h00
Day 28 (Oct 20, 2017): Sangda Pedi to Just Before Bhima Lojun Pass
Maybe because we already crossed the Niwar pass and were already mentally “home”, we both feel that today is a tiring day. Most likely because it is. We descend three times to the river, into the deep wild gorge far below, each time ascending quite high above it again. However, the trail is (as every day) beautiful and we truly savor these last days in the mountains. We contemplate the amazing journey that is slowly coming to an end now. Until the village of Lower Sangda the trail is a real trail, challenging because of it’s ascents and descents but beautifully traversing. The village of Lower Sangda appears to be around the corner but our guide had already warned us that looks were deceiving. And he was right: 4 hours later we finally arrive hungry at Lower Sangda where a delicious lunch is awaiting us! From here it’s a steep climb up to an unused road, and another 2 hours over this dirt road to a beautiful hilarious campsite just before the pass. The camp site looks as if we are going to fall of this hill, we are literally perched on the edge. But of course the views are astounding and memorable.
Just Before Bhima Lojun Pass: GPS 28.882220 83.715605, Altitude 4446m
Actual walking time: 6h30
Day 29 (Oct 21, 2017): Just Before Bhima Lojun Pass to Dhagarjun
The final pass that separates us from Jomsom, Bhima Lojun pass, is around the corner. From it’s saddle we have beautiful views of the Annapurnas, Tilicho Peak and all the other mountains in this range. We see Kagbeni, Mukthinat and the Thorung La, all beckoning us 🙂 The trail widens and we follow it down. It becomes hotter and dustier and we both feel that we have left solitude, mountains and simple life behind. We take a couple of short cuts (none of them too easy) to reach the final stretch of road to the village of Dhagarjun. The campsite they used before was turned into agricultural land so we camped in the compound of the monastery, which turns out to be quite helpful since it gives us at least some protection against the fierce wind. We visit the surrounding villages in the afternoon. You could also choose to skip this overnight camp and continue to Jomsom since it is only another 3 hours (or you maybe you can arrange for a jeep to pick you up from this village).
Dhagarjun: GPS 28.821976 83.738908, Altitude 3218m
Actual walking time: 4h00
Day 30 (Oct 22, 2017): Dhagarjun to Jomsom
The final three hours, steep down along an eroded, dusty track, bring us to the little town of Jomsom that has a frontier feeling about it. We pass the main town, the check point, the army barracks, and the airport, to reach the Dancing Yak tea house. We check in, and thoroughly enjoy our first shower (a hot one!) in over a month. It is very, very sad that this trek is over. The most beautiful, humbling, impressive trek ever! Thanks to our wonderful staff from the Visit Himalaya Trekking agency: Iswhar, Shambu, Deveraj, Bal Bahadur, Nimang, Ujal, Akash and Neberaj!
Jomsom: GPS 28.781851 83.722086, Altitude 2735m
Actual walking time: 3h00
Transport To and From the Trek
Transport from Kathmandu to Jumla
We have heard that it is possible to get to Jumla by jeep, but we opted for the more comfortable option of going by plane. Jumla has a tiny little airport, but there are no direct flights from Kathmandu to Jumla; you have to go via Nepalgunj. Furthermore, in Nepalgunj there are no same day connecting flights, so you have to stay at least night in Nepalgunj. You wouldn’t choose to stay multiple nights, since there isn’t really anything to do in Nepalgunj and it is very drab and hot and humid. Still, you may be forced to stay longer than a single night since the flights to Jumla are rather unreliable. We had to stay one extra night because of torrential downpours (the very last of the monsoon season). We stayed in the Cygnett Inn Krishna hotel, which was rather upscale, had excellent food, and was located right downtown (not that this mattered much). The only downside was that it did not have a pool to escape the heat.
Transport from Jomsom to Kathmandu
When we arrived in Jomsom, we stayed one night in the Dancing Yak teahouse. Our original itinerary had us fly from Jomsom to Pokhara with a connecting flight the same day from Pokhara to Kathmandu. However, we finished the trek a few days earlier than originally planned. The trekking agency tried very hard to rebook the flight, but the Jomsom to Pokhora flight was not available due to the Tihar festival when lots of locals fly. So, instead the trekking agency arranged a jeep which drove us and the entire crew from Jomsom to Pokhara. We left at 7am and arrived at 5pm after a very long and tiring drive over a rough and bumpy “road”. The first part of this newly constructed road coincides with the last part of the Annapurna circuit. It was quite depressing to see lots of foreign trekkers trek along a dusty road with jeeps after coming out of the unspoilt nature that is the Upper Dolpo trek. We stayed one night in Pokhara in the very upscale Hotel Bahari, and caught a flight to Kathmandu the next day. If you have extra time, staying a couple of days in relaxed Pokhara is worthwhile.
The “actual walking times” provided above are just that: they do not include time for lunch, rest breaks, side trips, etc. We tried to keep notes on how long we walked, but we did not use a stopwatch or anything to keep exact times. Although we tried to be accurate, the times are still a rough approximation.
If you take a lunch break with the rest of the staff, count on one and a half hour to two hours for lunch. Hot lunch is an elaborate affair. There will be one meal for you, and Dal Bhat (which takes a long time to boil) for the staff. We often opted for a packed lunch instead of a hot lunch, so that we could continue hiking (for example on a side trip) with the guide while the rest of the crew had a proper lunch.
Walking times in the high mountains vary enormously from one person to the next. We are probably on the fast side of the spectrum. Most trekking companies will provide itineraries with much longer trekking times and/or more days for this trek than what is described in this blog. Trekking companies are often conservative and geared towards an older audience. In fact, the few foreigners that we ran into during this trek were older people, often into their 60s or even late 70s. Let’s face it – this is the audience that has both the time and the money that is required for this trek. We (late 40s and early 50s) were on the younger side of people doing this trek.
While on the trek, we found that some trekking times on the itinerary were grossly longer than what we actually walked. Sometimes it was a matter of personal walking speed (e.g. 5 hours in reality versus 6 hours on the itinerary). Sometimes the times were wildly incorrect (e.g. 2 hours in reality versus 6 hours on the itinerary). We ended up combining several days, and we ended the trek several days early. We would recommend going over the itinerary in detail with the guide who has actually done the trek before. Also make sure that it’s clear whether the itinerary times are actually walking times or include lunch.
Make sure that your trekking company and guide are flexible and are willing to change the itinerary according to your actual walking speeds (ours was!) Keep in mind that this flexibility is limited: it’s not just you, but also the porters who carry heavy loads. Also, it is not always possible to change camping spots due to acclimatization considerations, water availability, etc.
The GPS coordinates in this blog give the actual camp and pass locations. The names of places and and passes in this blog may not agree with those printed or online maps. Nepal place names and spellings are notoriously inconsistent.
Clicking on the GPS links in this blog takes you to Google Maps. The altitude shown on Google Map does not always agree with the altitude given in this blog. The altitude given in this blog is the correct one – it was measured on the spot using GPS (not barometric).
The vast majority of this trek has no cell phone coverage from any provider whatsoever. I would strongly recommend bringing a satellite phone for true emergencies and for contacting the trekking agency for changes in flights etc. We brought along a Garmin inReach (formerly DeLorme), which is essentially a GPS combined with a satellite phone that can only send and receive text message and which is not able to do voice calls. I used it extensively on this trek to communicate with the trekking agency and I have used it on many other hikes to keep my family up to date of where I am. It is a very reliable and affordable device that I would highly recommend (I will probably write a review blog some time). It does require an active subscription, however, and you should exchange some test messages with your trekking agency before you rely on it.