When Daniel approached HAL to organise a custom trek in Nepal, he made it clear that he wanted to explore the less frequently visited part of the Himalayas. Inspired by Robin Boustead guidebook on Great Himalayan Trail we set our eyes on GHT in west Nepal – plotting a plan of action to traverse from Mugu, Dolpo and Mustang.
In early October, Sudeep along with his friends Avash and Srijan headed to Rara to explore the GHT trail – going east from Rara, leaving the Mugu Karnali river valley and entering Shey Phoksundo National Park and eventually Dolpo. Team Khacchad (mule) made it to Chyandi High Camp before pulling the plug due to various reasons (this trip deserves another blog). Nonetheless, this trip was much more than just finding trails, it was about finding a part of the country – a glimpse of Bon and Tibetan buddhism, high alpine landscape and smooth moonshine – that was unknown, well at least to our party. We felt so fortunate to explore parts of this country that we call home. It also gave HAL a perspective on different elements to lookout for while organising a camping trip. Thanks to Avash and Srijan for coming onboard and making it fun!
The journey begins
Rara was our starting point for this trek but first we had to take two flights to get to Talcha airport, the closest airport to Rara lake. Thanks to our ticketing partner Mystic Holidays for arranging a connecting flight to Talcha, without spending the night at Nepalgunj. Nothing against Nepalgunj, it’s just that we would rather spend more time in the mountains than in terai 😉 It was surreal to see the mountains of Western Nepal, through a small window of a tiny plane, the cobalt blue and aquamarine shades of Rara lake from up above.
After we landed on a tiny airstrip in Talcha we hiked along the eastern section of the lake, high tides of afternoon trying to tap our toes. We reached the camp site on the north side where we met with the rest of our team of porters and kitchen staff. The team camped next to serene Rara lake, watching the sun go down, looking with awe at the mountains, sacred Chayanath in the east where we were headed.
After leaving Rara we briefly stopped at Gamgadhi, the district capital of Mugu, sipping tea while arranging remaining supplies. We decided to buy all the essentials in Gamgadhi, only bringing in gear and food (from flights and ground transportation) which could not be found locally. We camped in villages of Lumsa (barren field), Pullu (front yard of a government office) and Shirenchaura (juncture of Mugu and GHT trail) before venturing into wilderness for next ten days, with no villages or settlements until Pho. As we passed through the villages the crew was an exhibit for locals who most probably did not see much tourists since the covid pandemic.
On day 3 we stopped at Mangri for tea. Most of the porters hailed from this beautiful Tibetan village; houses with gardens full of greens, lower floor for animals, upper floor to people, thatch roof to dry autumn harvest of barley, buckwheat and hay. We saw a girl as little as eight carrying a load of hay on a narrow ladder made out of log, to the roof followed immediately by her grandmother in her seventies. Daniel and I thought how everyone in the village had to help out regardless of their age for the sustenance. As tempting as it was to think of how amazing it would be to settle down in one of these villages, the harsh realities were right in front of us.
From day 5 onwards we left the civilization at Shiranchaura Kharka (kharka means a pasture) and entered the Chham Khola valley towards our first pass – Chyargo La 5150m. Thajuchaur was our first acclimatisation point where we spent two nights to let our body adjust to altitude and soak in the atmosphere, looking at the ‘dandas’ that border the largest national park in Nepal – Shey Phoksundo NP. Little did we know that these dandas would block the sun at around 2pm forcing us to scramble for our layers. A glimpse into what was yet to come – piercing cold nights as we climb higher. The streams were starting to freeze with ice, night temperature dropping to ~ 10 c freezing our water bottles. Every morning we yearn for sunshine, and fortunately we were bestowed with warm sun throughout the trip, barring the last couple of days when we were already on our way out of the mountains. On our acclimatisation day our camp was approached by three locals descending from Chyargo La collecting Katuka and other Medicinal & Aromatic Plants (MAPs). The locals left the sacks uphill because one of their team members got sick and could barely walk. I did a brief examination, gave some meds (thanks NOLS for Wilderness First Responder course), and advised to descend quickly and to attend a health post, the nearest was in Pullu. We hope he is in good health.
We camped at high camp just before Chyargo La overlooking the ridge line, a faint trail covered in snow that led to our first pass in the east. In the west we saw a breathtaking sunset – an orange hue turning the sky into a spectacle.
Next morning at 0855 the crew made it to the pass in the best of conditions. In the west we were greeted with layers of ridge lines, around Rara where we came from. In the east numerous unnamed peaks, among which we could recognise a snow dome of Yala Kang at 5745m. We will be crossing its ridge line at Yala La 5414, to enter Dolpo!
Following Chyargo La we descended to Takla Khola at 3785m, our next camp site. At a warmish temperature and firewood nearby it was a welcome change for the crew. From here there are two routes to get to Chyandi Khola camp. Either a steep climb right off Takla Khola to the east which contours along a massive ridge before a steep descent into a river junction which you cross to get to the south side of Chyandi Khola. The alternative route avoids the steep up and down and contours along the Chhimimaru Khola crossing wooden logs which look like a fallen tree! After ~ 2.5k you wrap around a ridge following a river trail to your northeast and follow Chyandi Khola, on the south side. On our recce trip we went the high route so this time we decided to follow along the river. Warning – avoid the river tail during summer and monsoon as the river washes the trail!
We passed through undulating grasslands on our way to Yala La, often stopping for pictures, to snack on biscuits and staring at Palching Hamga himal to the north which borders Nepal and Tibet, just 4 kms away. Each pass is a crux in a trip to the Himalayas. For our team it was Yala La for multiple reasons – end point for the earlier scouting team early in the season, medical issues in our Dolpo team, and a burned tent! We were barely halfway through the trip and it was already a weave of adventures, and a few misadventures, but nothing we could not manage! As we carefully trudged on snow enroute to Yala La we were greeted with majestic views of the peaks near and far, a footprint of a snow leopard, and a warm sun which (almost) melted out tiredness. As we descended into Pung Kharka – a narrow valley bordered by two rivers on either side, towering hills made out of limestone, grazing yaks stopped to look at the strangers in their homeland. We spend the night away admiring the beauty of this kharka, and feeling a bit lighter after crossing Yala La.
Every single step, climb, rolling hills, snowy passes, freezing river crossings, delicious food added unique shades to our expedition. One of the highlights of the trip came on top of Nyingma Gyanzen La 5563, when we saw half of Nepal – from Saipal himal in the west to dome of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massif in the east. As Robin Boustead rightly says, the terrain on top of Nyingma Gyanzen La felt like walking along the spine of the planet.
After ten days of wild camping without seeing another human being we made it to a barren village of Pho. It was a mixed feeling to see people other than our crew members. We celebrated with a drink made out of barley – ‘uwa ko raksi’. For the next couple of days we stopped at villages of Bhijer, Tata and scouted religious sites of Shamling and Shey Gompa.
In Bhijer we stayed for two nights to give ourselves a some rest and time to explore this beautiful village on a trans Himalayas – a fossil of centuries old traditions. We were fortunate to stumble into Pemba in Bhijer who showed us around his beautiful village and open the doors to his home where we got to taste the famous cheese from a cheese factory.
Our next pass was Nagda La, our fourth and incidentally last pass for this trip. Our initial plan was to get to Jomsom through Dho Valley but since we burned the extra number of days and Daniel having to fly on a fixed date we planned on a detour down south from Phoksundo to Jhupal. On day 20 of leaving Rara lake we reached Phoksundo lake, mesmerised by its dry rugged rocky terrain and tantalising lake with its ever changing colour with altering shades of light. Memorable is an understatement for this trip – it was truly a journey of a lifetime! As a reward to the expedition we took, we camped next to the lake for two nights, before exiting through Jhupal.
Final word, or sentences!
We would like to pay a special tribute to our crew (picture below) from Mangri, Chitai Kuna, Solukhumbu and Okhaldhunga without whom this trip would not be possible. Also, thanks to Kshitiz Budha at Rara Shangri-la Resort (logistics partner for Mugu), Pemba Lama (porters lead), Sagyan Malla (logistics in Jhuphal), Michael Fagin (Everest Weather), Bimal Regmi (Mystic Holidays), Pranav Koirala (trip doctor), Sanjib Bhandari (back-stopper), Robin Boustead (for trail consultation), Seth Wolpin (watching our tracks) for their support.