Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Road to Dolpa

Nepal has been an area defined on the world map for centuries however almost up to the end of the 18th Century is was regarded by many as only being the Kathmandu Valley.

The Treaty of Sugauli was drawn up between the British East India Company and the King of Nepal following the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814 -1816 on 2 December 1815 but it was not ratified until the 4 March 1816.  The Treaty established the new boundary line of Nepal post war, and called for territorial concessions in which some of the territories controlled by Nepal would be given to British India and also for the establishment of a British residency in Kathmandu, it also allowed Britain to recruit Gurkha soldiers for military service. 
Anglo-Nepalese War 1814 - 1816
Under the treaty, about one-third of the Nepalese controlled territory was lost including all the territories that the King of Nepal had won in wars during the previous 25 years or so, areas such as Sikkim in the east across to the Garhwal Kingdom in the west. Some of the Terai lands were also restored to Nepal in 1816 while more were restored again in 1860 to thank Nepal for helping the British to suppress the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Old maps show the area then known as Nepal spreading well to the west of the present day boundary. The oldest written, and thus officially recognised as being fairly reliable chronicles of Nepal’s ancient history only date back to the 14th century. One of the first entries being an inscription associated with King Manadeva 1, who reigned from 465 to 505 AD and who was from the Licchavi Dynasty that ruled Nepal from the second to the ninth centuries. King Manadeva was the legendary builder of the Boudhanath Stupa near Kathmandu.

A map showing the extent of Nepal reaching far across Northern India

In Nepal the Hindu princes eventually succumbed to the expanding power of the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Modern Nepal can, consequently trace its origins back to the Gorkha Empire. Many of the soldiers fighting for the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah, were the Gurung people and were rewarded for their efforts by being paid with the spoils of war hence the Gurung ethnic group is one of the most widely dispersed ethnic groups in Nepal.

The famous image of King Prithvi Narayan Shah
For most of its history Nepal has been isolated from the north by the mighty Himalaya and from the south by the Ganges and from the rest of the world as a result of the seclusion imposed by the Kings of Nepal in fear of the British in India to the south. While the rest of the modern world developed Nepal lived in isolation. The British were exploring the high peaks of the Himalaya throughout their Indian empire and in Kashmir and Baltistan to the west, and Darjeeling and Sikkim in the east. They gained permission from the Tibetan government to approach Everest from the north, however, Nepal’s borders, containing some of the jewels of the Himalaya, remained firmly closed. 

Dolpa, one of the most fascinating areas to the west of Mustang, consists of a maze of valleys and mountains. To the immediate north is Tibet and to the south the Dhaulagiri Himalaya. Communication in this region is difficult and travelers have to cross over several 5,000 metre passes to enable them to access neighbouring valleys. Consequently, the people from this region have been little affected by the outside world. Although these people were largely illiterate and appeared somewhat untidy they were at one time by no means poor. They grew barley, potatoes and wheat, and bred cattle and sheep, deriving a good income from selling their livestock. The people of Dolpa used to take their cattle north where the Tibetan Drokpa tribesmen used to graze them on good grassland in exchange for grain and a share of the animal products. 

Until the end of the 18th century Dolpa was a territory of Tibet and was ruled by the powerful flanking Kingdom of Lo and princedom of Jumla Dolpa. Later Dolpa came under the province of Lo. After the union of Nepal at the start of the 19th century the coalition with Lo was ripped apart as the border between Nepal and Tibet was redrawn with Dolpa being located on the Nepal side of the line. For a long time the population of northern Dolpa consisted of an ethnic group called Bhotia with their Tibetan origins, but, after the occupation of Tibet and the uprising in Lhasa in 1959/60 Tibetan refugees moved further south into the areas of Lower Dolpa. The Dolpo-Bhotia and Tibetans lived mainly in the villages and subsist on agriculture, trade and animal husbandry. 

Dolpa is the largest national park in Nepal and is situated in the Far Western Region
Dolpa was opened for the foreign tourists in 1951 which initiated changes in several regions of the district. Because of the allegations that the Tibetan Khampas (rebels fighting for a free Tibet) were taking shelter in the region, Dolpa was then closed to foreign tourists in 1974. The danger being that the Republic of China could claim its former territory justified the restriction during that time. In 1989 the southern regions of Dolpa, Lower Dolpa, Phoksundo, Tichurong and Dho Tarap were once again opened for the tourists but the upper region remained closed.

Residents of Upper Dolpa who originally came from Tibet, in fact these people do not speak Nepalese even in 2016©Ian Wall

The mass influx of the Tibetan people into Dolpa not only resulted in lost grazing facilities in Tibet, but also of an over-grazing of Dolpa’s own limited grassland which was then being used by the Tibetan stock coming south. As a result, the number of animals was greatly reduced and the once substantial agricultural and animal business is now in rapid economic decline. This has had a devastating effect on all the people living in this area and there are many communities who are now malnourished and existing just above starvation point.

By the early 1960s the airstrip at Juphal had been constructed but this had little real effect on the region as it was mainly used by government officials and businessmen, the local people could not afford to travel by air and there was, at the time, no air-freight services. Although Dolpa was self sufficient for food the local people had to travel to Nepalgunj for clothing, iron goods and cooking pots, a return journey lasting at least four weeks.

Juphal airstrip in the early days now in 2017 it is being 'black-topped' 
During my recent visit to Dolpa I too travelled the old route from Nepalgunj, although now this avoids the constant climbing and descending of the steep valley hill sides. These trails, in places, were only a few inches wide and would require the use of a rope to safeguard passage where a slip would result in a long fall over the river worn cliffs into the fast flowing Thuli Bweri Nadi below, often resulting in the death. 

The route begins in Nepalgunj and basically follows the river systems north-east into the middle hills via Devisthan, Jajarkot and Jyamire before following the Thuli Bheri Nadi into Dunai.

Our route basically follows the valleys running out of Nepalgunj in a NE direction towards Dunai
The reason for my overland route to Dunai was due to the fact that in 2017 approximately 50 years after the airstrip was built it is only just getting tarmaced, or ‘black topped’, as the locals would say. Even when this modernization work has been completed Dolpa will still be very much at the beck and call of the weather as to whether the flights will actually operate to schedule, it is also an expensive option for locals and difficult when the flight operators give priority to dollar tickets. 

Chandra, manager of the Blue
Sheep lodge©Ian Wall
I traveled with Chandra who recounted his journeys along the original high valley route with his grandfather. ‘I had heard stories of the long and at times difficult journey but I was keen to see the ‘modern’ world. We would travel along with other village people and porters carrying baskets of food and other essential items for our ‘expedition’. At that time the region was rich in agricultural produce so the porters would carry plenty of food and each night we would leave a food dump at the resting place and continue on with our journey. By the time we arrived in Nepalgunj the baskets were empty and we could make our purchases and prepare for the return journey. We would set off early and follow the same trails back into Dolpa, every evening we would arrive at the resting place and find the hidden food, all we needed to do was to build a fire, prepared and eat the food. The whole trip would take us around four weeks.

As in many rural areas of Nepal new roads are being pushed into remote villages and valleys and Dolpa is no different. With foreign financial aid, local workers, civil engineers and the Nepal Army all are slowly carving a way through the narrow gorges and steep valley sides in an effort to provide alternative access to this very remote region.

This 'ledge' will eventually be carved out down to almost river level, but for the moment
provides an exposed traverse line into the higher valley. The yellow square to the left of the
 image is a compressor, the pipes run all the way up to the works of the ledge ©Ian Wall
In June 2017 the road was motorable as far as Jyamire. However the bridges are not yet built so although you can travel by jeep the journey requires five changes of vehicle with the linking gaps having to be walked crossing the rivers via Nepali wire bridges. June of course is at the start of the monsoon season and Lower Dolpa is subjected to heavy rain causing the road to turn into a quagmire of slippery mud which often manages to turn forward momentum into downward momentum!

Heavy rain causing the road to turn into a quagmire of slippery mud which often manages to turn forward momentum into downward momentum! ©Ian Wall
After two days of travelling and with a definite lack of sleep, unreliable jeep links we finally reached the end of the last jeep section at Jyamire where a bed can be found in very local accommodation but don’t expect too many hours of ‘shut-eye’. Despite the bouncing and banging, pushing and shoving of the previous two days the following day is the definite high point and crux of the journey. The first five or six hours consist of typical Nepali trekking, good trails, occasional tea houses, plenty of locals to chat to and all completed in the gentle rolling foot hills. However, before long things take a dramatic change. 

Workers above, walkers below, the guy standing near the edge of the worker group is still using his pneumatic drill
as people pass underneath him! ©Ian Wall
We were soon made aware of ‘what was around the next bend’ when we heard a loud explosion followed by an enormous dust cloud that seemed to hang over the valley for an eternity. We were heading up the trail accompanied my many fellow travelers who had been with us during our previous days jeep exploits. Many of these people had previously walked out of Dolpa via this route and were eager to advise us that ‘this way very, very dangerous!’ I have often heard the words ‘dangerous’ and ‘difficult’ being confused but in this case both were used in the appropriate way. 

Workers perched in precarious situations with little in the way of safety gear, but that is also
the trail for the local people to follow.. and trekkers at this time of year ©Ian Wall
When the dust had settled a large cliff several hundreds of feet high appeared through the haze covered in white ghost like figures scurrying around with large crow-bars, there was a mass of mobile ‘yellow hard hats’ giving the impression of attention to risk assessment and safety but on closer inspection it could be seen that the health and safety policy ended there, foot wear consisted of the ubiquitous ‘flip-flop’, no other protective clothing. Many feet above the trail there was a busy workforce prizing and shoveling the demolished cliff into the void below that was shared with the new trail which in turn was situated several tens of feet above the river. Exposed? Just a tad! Dangerous? Just a tad! The only passing nod to travelers’ safety was a ‘stop – go’ worker who would monitor the passage of locals passing under the cliff face, however, this ‘nod’ to safety did not extend to the guy with the pneumatic drill who continued happily banging away literally overhead. Many of the new cliff traversing paths were of a temporary nature, they were narrow often outward sloping and always covered in deep rock dust making it difficult to judge foot placements and almost impossible to see as every foot placement caused a small dust storm of its own, the whole situation was compounded by the frightened mules who naturally would stay in the danger zone for as little time as possible, speed, was for them, more important than personal safety.

A young guy in charge of the pneumatic drill.. with no safety clothing ©Ian Wall
And so it continued for the next six or seven hours, ascending, traversing and descending narrow paths, dodging falling rocks, avoiding fast moving mules, always with a wary eye on the exposed drop to one side or the other and blatantly aware of the strong gusts of wind that would spring up from nowhere and cause immediate loss of vision, dust storms and dislodge rocks. Resting was not an option. One of the mule boys admitted that the constant movement of animals was not for any commercial reason it was just so the mules could get use to the environment and learn the correct route through the treacherous landscape.

Work - a family affair ©Ian Wall
The civilian work force would start the initial uncovering and demolition of the river side cliffs, the army would then move in with their detonators and explosives, immediately the denotations were complete the civilians would return and start to reduce the piles of fallen rock. This process would be repeated several times until the cliff was far enough removed from the river to allow a road width of ‘flat’ rock terrace eventually allowing vehicular access up the next few kilometers of valley. I was surprised at the amount of heavy machinery that had all been air-lifted onto site, tens of compressors, kilometers of compressor pipes, pneumatic drills, JCB diggers, tractors and jeeps.

This woman was perched over 100 feet above the river prizing loose rock of a recently
blown section of the cliff ©Ian Wall
The new road will of course bring changes to this once remote destination and in my opinion one of the most unique regions of Nepal. Immediate benefit is that nearly all of the civilian work force is recruited from local people and of course they will be earning money.

A Welcome haven for many a Dolpa traveller ©Ian Wall
My only hope is that the powers that be take a long hard look at other developed tourist regions in Nepal and learn from their mistakes and only adopt the best of practices with a specific focus on protecting the environment, cultures and traditions, the very fabric of tourist attractions in Nepal and Dolpa in particular.

To conclude,  the Blue Sheep Inn is undergoing a big refurbishment system under the watchful eye or the original owner's son and daughter, a new kitchen, dining room, additional bedrooms, several fitted with attached bathroom facilities are all expected to come on-line within the next few months.

A young man showing his girl a good time! ©Ian Wall
At times it was difficult to breath.©Ian Wall

And even more difficult to see! ©Ian Wall
Dunai nestling in the bend of the Bheria Nadi ©Ian Wall

The start of the final 5 hour jeep journey, we had the dubious honour of being allowed to travel
during the hours of darkness, something normally not permitted ©Ian Wall
The last raise of the setting sun kissing the tops of the Mukuteshwar Himal ©Ian Wall
The older generation view the new developments with mixed feelings. ©Ian Wall
One of the many local lodges found along the way ©Ian Wall
The lead mule is always revered by the rest of the mule train and he is decorated accordingly
©Ian Wall
I always enjoy my time in Dolpa!©Ian Wall
The 'Team'.. next time Dolpa! ©Ian Wall

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