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For the independent and solo hikers looking for an authentic off-the-beaten-path adventure on the cheap, this is for you!
This hike is not for the faint of heart, and there are quite a few hurdles to overcome even before you begin the trek, but it was absolutely worth it.
This multi-region journey was a once in a lifetime trek through multiple regions of Nepal including Annapurna – Mustang – Dolpo – Jumla (and I continued on to Rara Lake in the Mugu district afterwards).
Mugu is known for being both the most remote district of the seventy-seven districts in Nepal, as well as the least developed in the country.
This post is written by my good friend, Brianne from Canada, which did this trip in late summer 2019.
My trekking partner and I agreed that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, partly because these regions are changing so much that we would never be able to experience them all the way we did, and partly because we may never again have the time and conditions to just go for it.
But, we also agreed that it was a once in a lifetime trek because during the obstacles, over the many passes, by the end of it all, we both swore we’d never do it again because once was enough.The more you know about organising your trek in advance, the smoother it is getting started, and the permit situation (especially if you are a solo trekker going with a Nepali) is a nightmare so definitely check out the PERMITS section of this post to get the details.
It is critical to clearing the police checkpoints, and you cannot get a permit without a Nepali guide.
Our original plan was 25 days to get to my friend’s home village near Jumla (extend four hiking days or one transportation day to get to Ghamghadi (Rara Lake) in Mugu district).
We started in Jomsom, where Annapurna meets the Mustang district.
I’d just gotten off the Mardi Himal trek two days before starting this trek, and If I’d had more time and flexibility, I would have considered adding another ten days to connect Mardi Himal to Poon Hill and the Poon Hill trek to Jomsom.
We had to change our route a few times along the way, but you can find our exact route under ROUTE OPTIONS.
If you have flexibility, I strongly suggest adding an extra three to five days to your trip so that on days where trails take longer, passes are rougher or you need a longer rest when you hit a village; you can honour your body and take a break.
I would have loved to spend an extra day in Charkabhot, and in retrospect, I could have, but it was an option I regretfully didn’t take.
About My Nepali Trekking Partner/Guide:
My trekking partner used to be a female Nepali guide but now owned Malama Spas in Pokhara, Nepalgunj and Dunagiri.
She wanted to get back into guiding but in more remote and rare locations in Nepal to scout hikes she hadn’t yet guided.
I needed a trekking partner that I felt safe with as a woman hiker and someone who could translate along the way to make our journey easier.
NOTE: Despite Tibetan languages being mainly used in the areas we were trekking, which had been a concern of mine, we often found enough Nepali speakers to get us where we needed to go.)
My friend had never tented or cooked on a camp stove (they use big, heavy charcoal stoves) because as a guide as she was often guiding trekkers to guesthouses throughout Langtang, Everest and Annapurna regions and had cooks and porters to pack the food and cooking gear and to prepare the meals.
She wanted a more wild and rugged trekking experience that would familiarize her with new regions to guide, so when a mutual Nepali guiding friend of ours linked us up, immediately, our sense of adventure was a match.
We were both eager to wander into the great unknown with a companion, so we began working out the details.
She refused to take the regular guiding fee $25/day as she had never trekked this region and I was already handling all the gear and food preparations, but since she was also my translator and in charge of the permit process for the region, I wanted to pay her a wage and cover food costs.
We agreed on $15/day ($375 USD/25 days) for a “guide fee” (she gave all the money to her Mom when we arrived in her village which made me feel good about where my money was going).
I paid for her food and accommodation when we were in villages (Jomsom, Sanghta, Charkabhot Do Tarap and Ringmo aka Phoksundo lake) however this is something you can work out with your guide in advance – for full costs of the trek see COSTS section and FOOD + ACCOMMODATION.
Dolpo is where the majority of our trekking days took place. A decent map on the Dolpo region was hard to find, and I ended up with at 1:70 000 map which it would turn out was incredibly limiting in its indication of campsites, trails and passes.
We were expecting a 25-day trek on a rough trail through 7 passes, 5 of which were over 5000m. Instead, we followed small mule trails whenever we could and on occasion found no trail at all (this was rare).
There was no signage until we arrived in Phoksundo on Day 16 and by the end, we had conquered 11 passes, 8 of which were over 5000 m.
We got lost twice; we shimmied through a mountain cave, we almost froze one high-altitude night and one deep river-crossing morning.
(Hearing myself say this ignites the adventurer in me, but after experiencing it, I have to temper the excitement with the uncertainty and at times, fear that comes with the adventure.)
Without a constant stream of hikers and locals, we had plenty of doubts along the way, and we more or less kept them to ourselves and kept trucking.
Throughout the uncertainty and struggles, we also found stores of inner resolve; we leaned on each other as our trust and mistrust in our adventure rose and fell, and in the end, we made it, feeling immense pride at the end of it all.
For more on getting started, check out SAFETY, ADVENTURE GEAR and PREPARATIONS to see if this is your kind of exploit.
Our Hike Synopsis
NOTE: We did our hike in October (this is the beginning of the trekking season for the Annapurna region because the rain ends and it is the end of the trekking season in Mustang and Dolpo as winter will set in the following month.
Also, note that the mule trails we took could change depending on the locals and/or the season in which it can be rerouted for events such as flooding and safety. A GPS and a quality map are highly advised if no one in your trekking group has been to the region (and even if they have).
We had neither of these things and survived anyways, but there were times we really wished we had them. Lastly, there were at least three places named Yak Kharka during our trip – it is a common name for locations where yak herders settle for the night and often have some kind of hut for themselves or a stone corral for their herd and a water source nearby.
Day 0 – POKHARA (1400m) – JOMSOM (2100m) – 12.5 HRS travel time
Our bus departed at 7:00 AM and reached Jomsom by 7:30 PM. I did not leave from the same place as my friend (there are several stops before leaving the city).
I was directed to the wrong spot and feeling paranoid that I would miss the bus. I called and told them where I was located.
They asked me to put a local on the phone and told us where to meet the bus that was nearby. The local escorted me to the bus. Nothing is more valuable than local help when it comes to hiccups along the way.
I walked to a string of buses thinking… “please not that last bus, please note that last bus.” We were on the last bus. It was old and rickety, and I didn’t know if it would hold up on the ride and it definitely wouldn’t have air conditioning.
I paid 2500 NPR for our two tickets (looking at the bus I wondered what our money was going to but figured as long as it got us there in one piece it was worth the money.)
I felt uneasy leaving the city without our permits already fixed and I was right to feel so because it turned out the place I was leaving (Pokhara) was one of the two only places that could organize a Dolpo trekking permit.
(I was given wrong information at the Permit Office and would find this out in Kagbeni).
The man arranging our permits didn’t really know much about Dolpo trekking. Unfortunately, they sent me to the office to get the TIMS permit and in a difficult to translate scenario, I was told I had to get my permit in Kagbeni.
The details are in the PERMIT section, but it was a disaster of a start. Our bus slogged through mud which it should have gotten stuck in, drove through creeks and under waterfalls, squeezed along rock faces as we were launched back and forth, side to side, and it was the first adventure of many to come.
As uncomfortable as it was, we had a blast getting up there with young Nepali graduates singing Nepali tunes at the top of their lungs and exploding with excitement over each new scene of a country they’d never explored.
The scenery is stunning, and the goat herds are by the hundred. Upon arrival, we grabbed a room at Majesty Hotel (1000 rupees – paid for the two of us) which turned out to be a great atmosphere created by the trekkers finishing up their long treks from Annapurna.
Day 1 – JOMSOM to KAGBENI (2800m) to… JOMSOM again (2720m) 3+ HRS hiking time
We passed the permit office on our way out of Jomsom and stopped in. They told us we could not get a permit for Dolpa there, but they checked my TIMS permit and trekking permit for Annapurna before we left.
We still assumed we could get our Dolpo permits in Kagbeni at this point, so we continued down the dry dirt road, pausing to turn and say our last goodbye to the Dhaulagiri mountain range that towered over Jomsom.
We walked the road the whole way to Kagbeni, and it was a hot, dusty walk with the traffic going by.
We reached Kagbeni by 11:45 (2800m). It is a charming town surrounded by colourful crops. We headed for the permits office there where yesterday’s worries and concerns were confirmed.
I was really frustrated because we’d hired someone to take care of this for us, but those in the Annapurna region really don’t know much about the Dolpo region and their permits.
I was not pushy enough about pestering them and ensuring everything was done correctly. Because I didn’t want to overstep and I should have so I was as much to blame for the disaster. LESSON: Micromanage the permits even if you’re annoying as hell doing it.
It was late afternoon by the time we finished at the permit office there which said our best bet was to plead with the police in Jumla to write us a notice to checkpoints on the hike excusing us from permits for reasons of research in the region.
We sat on the side of the roads trying not to feel deflated waiting for a bus to come. It took some time, but a bus finally came from Muktinath and dropped us in Jomsom where we had 10 mins to get to the police station to plead for permission to start our hike without a permit.
As could be expected, we were denied, and they reiterated that there was a $700 USD fine if we were caught without a permit. They may have been bullshitting us or trying to scare us into getting a permit; we don’t know for sure.
By evening I had unwillingly parted with my passport. I had to give my passport and two passport photos to a trekking guide who was flying back to Pokhara in the morning, who would deliver them to the man who was supposed to have arranged our permits the first time in which he would get the permits done in Pokhara and send them back to Jomsom by plane.
They would leave by morning and if we were lucky we would have our permit and my passport by the following morning. I didn’t want to pay 1000 again for the night, so I went down the road to a bit rougher looking place run by two squabbling old sisters and got us a room for 500 rupees (so long as we ate a meal there.)
Day 2 – JOMSOM (2701m)
Due to permit problems (see PERMITS) we were stuck in Jomsom for another day until our permit and passport arrived. We decided to walk up to Dhumba lake and the stupa up overlooking Jomsom while we crossed our fingers over permits.
NOTE: That day a guy left his backpack out on the steps wandering around to take some last photos and his bag was stolen so keep your gear close!
Day 3 – JOMSOM (2701m) – PHALYAK (3175m) 4+ HRS hiking time.
ROUTE CHANGE: We decided to skip KAGBENI and head to PHALYAK instead of hiking to YAK KARKA from KAGBENI the next day.
After a day of roaming Jomsom, we were ready to get back on the road. My passport and the permit were delivered that morning. We left Jomsom at 8:30 AM to stares from people who sized up our giant bags on our tiny frames. I was carrying close to 30kg and my friend 20kg.
We had food to last us 20+ days. We took a much better route to Kagbeni this time along the river bed (less dusty and more beautiful) following a guide who was taking a big group to upper Mustang.
He was not the first to be surprised at our route and to comment negatively on our ability to do it with our bag weights and the danger of being only two girls.
This was the most difficult part for us as the weeks leading up to it; we’d heard many people criticize or try to dissuade us from our trip.
We didn’t want to ignore information and advice, but so much of it came from men (most of whom hadn’t hiked the area) and was because we were women and we tried to weed out what information was important despite the patriarchal culture.
Only one man who was a guiding friend of my trekking partner, and who had done the route in reverse gave us worthy information two days before our departure, and he was worried about us getting lost.
He said the trails would be difficult to navigate if you don’t know the area and it is easy to get lost in certain areas where various mule paths diverge.
Two passes, in particular, would be very difficult with our bags he noted.
We were nervous and unwilling to show it (except to each other and sometimes not even) because we were going for it, but every time we encountered another doubter, it was harder to convince ourselves we were doing the right thing. In a situation like that, you’re never really sure what you are doing is right, so it’s easy to doubt yourself, and it’s equally as easy to stubbornly ignore important information. We did both.
We crossed the suspension footbridge just before Kagbeni and headed to Phalyak. After the suspension bridge, we would encounter our first uphill. It wasn’t hard to meet locals working in the fields and clarify we were on the right track.
We arrived in Phalyak at 12:40 PM and were looking for the campsite that was marked on the map, but we didn’t see it anywhere because hadn’t gone far enough out of the village and there was signage.
We were on our way further past to find it when a man my friend spoke with offered us the roof of his home to pitch our tent on for 200 rupees.
We checked it out, and the view of the white stone houses roofed in wood and straw was captivating. We ended up staying on the roof sheltered from the wind and paying for a meal of dal bhat (300 rupees) and eggs and roti (200 rupees) for a take-along lunch.
Day 04 – PHALYAK (3175m) – Sangda La Pass (5120m) – SANGHTA (3777m) 3 HRS hiking time + 5.5 HRS tractor ride
We left Phalyak at 6:50 AM. The itinerary I was using to estimate hiking hours said Sangta would take us 5-6 hours. This was not even close to the 12-14 hours it probably would have taken us had we not caught a tractor ride.
NOTE: The local time estimates were very different from our actual trekking times as they often don’t carry the loads we were; they are also familiar with the path and very well-conditioned in travelling it, often keeping the pace of their mules.
Likewise, the trekkers doing this route (there are only a handful, and none did the route in reverse with packs) have mules and porters carrying their loads and have only a day pack, if that, which sped up company itinerary estimates.
NOTE: If you get a tractor ride – check what they are carrying wherever they throw your bag. Our bags were completely soaked in gasoline when we arrived due to a leaky barrel. The smell never fully left my bag after a month.
The trip was not off to a great start as the chicken my friend offered me off her plate the day before in Jomsom made me sick in the middle of the night. (I never eat meat until the end of a hike in Nepal, so this was stupid as it is an easy way to get sick).
We took down our tent and packed our gear up. And as the owner handed us our egg and roti wrapped to go, he offered us his mules to get us the three days to Charkabhot (the next village after Sangta) for 4000 rupees a day if I continued to be sick.
I was starting to feel better after some rehydration salts, and we headed on our way, but after 45 minutes of hiking uphill after a small wrong turn and ten-minute detour, I was very weak and having to stop every few minutes to go to the bathroom.
My friend headed back down to see if we could get the mules to take us to Sanghta.
Unfortunately, he would not have them available to us for a couple of days. The most difficult part of the trek was deciphering what someone meant by what they said and having things properly translated back to me.
He thought maybe we had the time to wait around for a few days until the harvest was finished. I felt like I only had half the information from the conversations at all times on the trip and it only got worse as we got into Tibetan speaking territory as my friend would also get lost in translation and have to read between the lines before anything got relayed back to me (if it got relayed back to me.)
My partner arrived back on the hill by 8:30. We were incredibly lucky to hear a tractor in the distance, plodding along a road we couldn’t see, but knew passed up above us somewhere.
We had a very difficult uphill with the last 25 minutes being up a gravel cliffside (I almost couldn’t keep my backpack from toppling me backwards).
We were taking a very difficult short cut to try and cut off the tractor to see if we could get a ride as the road only led to Yak Kharka or Sangta.
We were both struggling with the climb and our heavy bags, and this was one of the three most doubtful times during our month trek as we’d only just begun and couldn’t imagine having the strength to do this through a 5000m passes let alone multiple ones.
Within 15 minutes the tractor had arrived, and they allowed us to throw our bags in the back with the oil barrels and hop on the very tiny and uncomfortable seats with two Dolpo girls also getting a ride. (At the end they demanded payment which surprised my friend as tractor driver’s in her home region of Jumla carry people for free, but I was willing to pay the 1000 rupees (500 each).
The ride was far rougher than any bus I have ever taken, even the one to Jomsom but the scenery was stunning and sweeping mountain vistas satisfying, not to mention we arrived in one piece. By our arrival at 3:30 PM, I had become much sicker.
We were directed toward the campground and found a little gated compound where a guide was sitting with a horseman.
They were guiding an Italian woman in the same direction we were which shocked us because trekkers don’t generally take our route this direction.
She was filming a documentary and had to start from Jomsom but would be heading up to Upper Dolpo after Charkabhot. She told us that they had a couple of beds inside for 300 rupees each. I didn’t care about saving money at this point, as I was becoming sicker and sicker as each moment passed, and I just wanted to go horizontal and sleep it off.
By night time I could hardly sit up from dehydration, and I was fortunate as the Italian woman offered me antibiotics as I became increasingly worse and I woke up every four hours to take them (which in the end made a huge difference to the speed of my recovery).
Day 05 – SANGTA (3777m) – Jungben La Pass (5560m) – KHOLA KHARKA (5445m) 9 HRS hiking time
ROUTE CHANGE: We hiked past Ghalden Ghulden to Khola Kharka to keep pace with our new friends
By 6:00 in the morning, I was feeling much better, strong enough to hike but not with my bag on. A man who was passing through and had an extra mule on route to Charkabhot offered to pack our bags to Khola Kharka (where the Italian woman and her team were setting up their camp.)
It was further past Ghalden Ghulden (where we had intended on staying) and over the Jungben La Pass (5560m). I wasn’t fully recovered, but we decided we’d better continue on since we had a mule to pack our bags and a guide familiar with the region to meet up with that night before we overnighted in the wild on our own.
We packed our bags on the mules and agreed to pay 3000 rupees when we arrived at our destination then headed off at 7:45 AM. We traversed the cliffside overlooking a steep river valley below, and our horseman was much faster than us even without our bags.
We went down into the valley, across the river and all the way back up through dirt, rock and pine until we arrived at Ghalden Ghulden at 12:10.
After a twenty-minute snack break, we began the long ascent up Jungben La Pass which was the most difficult pass of the entire trek for me because I was exhausted from being sick and it seemed to go up and on forever.
This was without my bag. It was one plodding step at a time along a zig-zagging mule trail, but the views were breathtaking.
There were plenty of horsemen coming from and heading to Charkabhot, and we were relieved that there was foot traffic that we could ask along the way to Charkabhot.
We met a Swiss woman trekking with two others, a mule, a horseman and a guide all coming from the other direction who said they did not envy us doing the pass in reverse and we were willing to agree with them on that though we hadn’t seen the other side yet. At the top of the pass, there was a small pile of rocks and prayer flags congratulating us as dusk broke.
Much of our concern along this hike was not knowing how long our days would be as our itinerary was built for trekkers without packs and the hours were way off. We wanted to be done with mountain passes during the day, so we had the remaining light to arrive at our destinations and set up camp. We were very uncertain about timing and distances as our maps, and the local guestimates became less reliable.
We were lucky to have the Italian woman and her team for some company that night at Khola Kharka. It was a fairly quick and moderately sloped descent down to the blue tin roof and winding river at Khola Kharka, arriving at 5:00 PM. We promptly set up our tent inside the stone barn that was intended for the animals (tons of mule and goat shit on the ground). It was already freezing cold, and we wanted to be out of the wind as our tent was not the warmest.
NOTE: If you can help it, don’t buy your tent (and other important gear) in Nepal as it is often knock-off. NOTE: If you have to go pee in the middle of the night, it is freezing, but the sky is incredible.
Day 06 – KHOLA KHARKA (5445m) – Niwa Pass (5120m) – MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (lost) 11.5 HRS hiking time
ROUTE CHANGE: We hiked past Nolumsunda (Yak Kharka) instead of camping. This was not a good call.
NOTE: Nepalis eat three meals in a day, two of them usually dal bhat so they are used to massive portions three times a day instead of well-balanced snacks throughout. If you’re going with a Nepali, you have to be very clear, even when they say I’ll eat whatever you’re eating.
My friend was avoiding eating dried chickpeas, dried apples, granola bars etc. because she was used to meals, but because we were carrying our own food, our biggest meal was chowchow noodles for dinner, and we relied on protein and carb-laden snacks throughout the day with boiled eggs when we could. It was a cultural issue, but she became tired very easily as she avoided her Western hiking food.
We were up at 6:00 AM to start packing up. My friend was eating a Nepali breakfast given to her by the other guide, and we had to have a talk about making sure she ate enough food. We had eaten by 6:30 AM and then began Niwa Pass which started as soon as we crossed the river (the edges had frozen over – if it hadn’t been as big as it was, it would have frozen over, and we would have been out of a water source.
NOTE: Don’t wait until the morning to replenish your water supply in case it freezes overnight. Niwa Pass zigzagged up just like Jungben La Pass had, but it was much shorter as we started at the foot of it and I’d finished my last antibiotic that morning, so I was feeling much better.
We began it at a slow crawl, and by the one-hour mark, we wished we had mules. The second hour was even slower. Two-thirds of the way up, the documentary team caught up with us, and the horseman offered to carry our bags up with his mule for 500 each—steep price for a steep climb.
It was only a short way up, but after the last two hours, we didn’t hesitate to take what we could get. We waited up at the top of the pass napping in the sunshine for an hour until they finished filming so we could thank them for the help.
We carried on down, and it took us about two hours from the top of the pass to Yak Kharka which is also named Nolumsunda – this was originally where we had planned to stay, but we arrived late afternoon. It was moderately sloped down, followed by a nice rolling path meandering along the river which led us to the misshapen tent that provided shelter at Yak Kharka.
We went inside for lunch and decided on whether or not we should push on despite this being our destination for the day.
It was early, and after having a rest and refuelling, we decided to carry on to the next campsite, which was supposedly two hours from here. We thought we might even be able to make it two hours past that, to the last campsite before Charkabhot.
NOTE: This was too ambitious (and irresponsible) because we still did not have a good understanding of the terrain and the time it would take for us to hike it with our bags.
We crossed the river (an easy crossing at Yak Kharka where you can see the trail on the other side) and took the easy-rolling path along the river in the sunshine for two hours until we arrived at Nobulung campsite which was a bumpy but flat enough spot to pitch a tent near the river that had shallowed since Yak Kharka. It had taken exactly the amount of time we estimated, giving us a false sense of confidence.
I have a general rule not to hike past 4:30, and it was already four. It was incredibly sunny, and my friend was pushing for the next campsite and the idea of making up time since we’d lost a whole day from the permit debacle was appealing, so we both agreed to push on to the last campsite before Charkabhot. This was a huge mistake.
For the next two hours, we followed the river across rockfall and boulders from continual rockslide as the river rose and gained momentum, carving a path through the valley. We should’ve turned around, but now it was a race against the darkness that was slowly threatening and we wouldn’t make it safely back if we turned around.
NOTE: This whole section could have been avoided had we stayed at Nobulung and crossed the river there the next morning.
By 6:00 PM, we ended up stuck between a landslide and the river with a tiny little stone wall about two feet high as if horsemen had been stuck in this same spot years ago.
My friend took this moment to tell me about a river crossing that the other guide told her about this morning. He said that we would need to cross the river and suggested we use rope because it was fairly deep and a little bit sketchy. We both fretted about this as we didn’t have a rope, nor did we have spotters, nor did we know exactly where to cross.
We wondered if we had come to the right spot as the trail had led here, but disappeared and the river was too wide and the sky too dark, to see any trail on the other side.
There was nothing we could do with darkness setting in, so we set up camp in the five feet of space we had before we dropped into the river. We ate dinner quietly as we tried to warm up and settled in for a sleepless night.
Day 07 – MIDDLE OF NOWHERE – CHARKABHOT (4110m) hiking time
This morning we had a decision to make. Cross here or go back to Nobulung. I opted to go back to Nobulung and at 7:00 AM we were packed and leaving our site.
We were 5 minutes into our hike back to Nobulung when my friend questioned the decision, and we got lost in translation and ended up agreeing on crossing where we already were.
The river was freezing cold and 3ft deep. As we neared the river, my friend was stalling. I didn’t like the waiting around and waffling in decision-making, and I thought crossing here was what she wanted, so I took off my socks, my shoes and my pants and scoped out a zig-zagging path of rocks that might keep the water from going past my mid-thigh.
My feet were the coldest they’ve ever been (and I’m from Canada). I moved as quickly as I could and started to panic at halfway because my feet were so numb; I couldn’t feel out the rocks anymore and wasn’t sure I’d keep my footing or my balance and remain standing.
My feet were sluggish and hard to control by the time I reached the other side, and I immediately shoved them in my down jacket to try to warm them up.
NOTE: They remained numb for 3 weeks afterwards – particularly my left big toe.
At this point we weren’t just questioning if the next campsite was as close as the map and the locals time frame suggested, we were questioning if we were even on the right trail anymore.
On the other side of the river, I couldn’t think of anything outside of my frozen toes, but once my compression socks and my dry boots were back on, I consulted the map several more times; it seemed to fit with the map so we headed up the sandy trail and caught a couple of shoe prints that gave us some hope (though we’d followed shoe prints up to this point so it wasn’t as reassuring as you’d think.)
The footprints disappeared into the river, and we realized we would have to cross again.
We could see some of the trail that had disappeared at our campsite resurface on the other side. My feet hadn’t come close to recovering from our crossing 20 minutes ago, but I stripped down my socks and boots – it was a little less daunting, and the water wasn’t moving quite so fast and deep this time.
My feet froze numb all over again, and it was difficult to get them to step where I wanted, but we both made it safely across. I immediately pulled open my sleeping bag and climbed in, desperate to warm my feet. This may well have been the scariest part of the trip for me as I couldn’t regain the feeling back in my feet.
We didn’t bother cooking breakfast that morning, we thought we’d take it on the other side of the river once we got oriented, but two river crossings left us exhausted, so we each just ate an apple as we attempted to warm up.
We followed this new trail that disappeared on and off for about 30 minutes as it dipped onto watery outcrops and returned up on high cliff sides that hung out over the water. It wasn’t promising, and the sketchiness had turned my friend right off to the point that she vocalized wanting to turn around.
We lost the trail a minute later and didn’t see it resurfacing anywhere ahead, so we turned around wondering what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into.
About 15 minutes backtracking, my friend looked way up the cliff on the other side and saw several horsemen with their mules trailing behind them. We started yelling and calling to them, realizing that we absolutely had the wrong river crossing and the trail must have cut across further back then where we’d come from and taken them uphill to the trail they were descending.
They were yelling and waving for us to go further back to a safe river crossing. That would have helped about two hours ago. My friend was already impatient about the time we’d wasted, and she made a decisive call to cut straight across the river and up the cliff. It would absolutely suck, but we were losing steam and morale, and we just needed to get back on the trail.
We didn’t bother taking our shoes and socks off this time. We held hands, and we forged across the river and attacked the cliff with everything we had left. It took us 40 minutes of slow frozen plodding straight up the hillside before we hit sunshine and stopped for a snack before another 30 minutes of a steep climb, choosing to zigzagging the rest of the way up to the trail.
NOTE: We followed the correct trail on the map; however, the locals had rerouted the trail when the river became too high, and the trail became too dangerous – this correction was not made on the map.
We were so relieved to be certain again about the trail after yesterday evening and this morning, and while we were exhausted, we didn’t want to stop. It was rolling moderate descent which took us down to…. yet another river crossing.
This was the river crossing the Italian’s guide was talking about that could be unsafe and needed rope. It wasn’t even close to what we’d just been through a few hours earlier. We tromped across soaking ourselves again (not that we were even dry yet) and continued on the trail. We hit another set of uphill that continued through the rocks.
It had been a few hours, and we still hadn’t come across the campsite, and a couple of men leading mules stacked full with loads told us the disheartening news that Charkabhot was very far from us and we may not make it there at our pace. We were a bit deflated, but I kept looking out for flat spots with a water source as we plodded on that we could use if we got stuck again.
The uncertainty is one of the most difficult aspects of hiking unknown terrain. An hour into this new section of uphill trudge, we finally stopped for food. We cooked up some chow-chow noodles in the hopes that a few horsemen would pass with an empty mule and save us from this treachery.
A woman and a man passed and had only one mule carrying big loads (as were the couple themselves). They gave us much greater hope by saying we could reach Charkabhot at a slow pace by evening.
We were relieved and well-fed, so we hopped up and followed them as the trail finally flattened out and eased up. An hour later at the top of a grassy hill, we overlooked a beautiful expanse of mountain and the valley that would lead us to Charkabhot. We noted the bridge far below us that we would cross and the trail on the other end of it that wound back up around the mountainside… another climb.
At 3:30, we lay there on the ground giving our backs a break, and we broke into laughter at our disaster morning. This was the first time we felt secure we were going to make it.
The couple who’d passed us and reassured us we could arrive in Charkabhot before night kept close and we would not be far from them the rest of the way to Charkabhot (which still took us a few hours). As we crossed the bridge and began the climb up the side trail, we saw the second campsite.
We would never have made it here yesterday, and it was a poor choice to aim for it. The good news was that the uphill and the warm sunshine made it the first time we were hot enough to start de-layering.
After three hours and two yak attacks that put us on edge, we arrived in Charkabhot (the most charming village I’ve been to in Nepal).
We were pointed in the direction of the camping and accommodations, and my friend asked with exasperation if we were tenting tonight. I promised her we’d stay in a room for a night if they had one. Fifteen minutes later, we opened the wooden door to a little compound with a square two-story stone “hotel” and to our delight, a bright orange tent that belonged to our Italian friend.
They hadn’t it made it all the way to Charkabhot yesterday either even with their mules and had ended up camping at the campsite three hours out that we’d been aiming for. We indulged in massive helpings of dal bhat and a few sips of Tibetan butter tea before ducking our heads into our room and having a much-needed rest.
Day 08 – CHARKABHOT (4110m) Rest Day
Charkabhot is a village filled with character, and we were there during harvest, so I wandered around (backpack free!) to photograph and explore. I ended up befriending some locals and participated in the harvest for a couple of hours. A few hours of cutting, wrapping and carrying loads of wheat was enough for me after yesterday’s escapades, so I returned back to our room to rest.
I should have made an executive decision to stay an extra day there to help us recover and re-organize. Instead, we were sitting with locals and guides trying to figure out the next chunk of our trip. It would take two days and one night to get to the next village of Dho Tarap.
The itinerary I had gotten from an independent guide before I left had us looping south to get to Dho Tarap instead of looping on the northern trail. Based on our map it showed that this route had one less mountain pass and a campsite halfway.
The north route on our map, while more common (we later learned), showed no campsite. This was to be our next disaster, and with total confidence, we can tell everyone we meet to take the well-used northern trail. It does have campsites, and the extra pass would be well worth the confusion and uncertainty of the lower trail.
Mapping out our next day with the locals, we started to lose our confidence as they told us the river had risen above the trail that my map was showing we needed to take and as a result, we would have to scale a mountain (“go up the crack where two mountains meet”), and at the top, there will be a “small cave that will lead you out to the other side” to descend back down.
The horseman had taken it before and assured me it would fit our backpacks. We had somewhat of an uneasy sleep that night, but the good news was that if we took the main trail and missed our turn off the Chhapchu campsite, we would end up in a village which was hours of trekking out of our way, but better than lost.
Day 9 – CHARKABHOT (4110m) – CHHAPCHU (4320m)
Our alarm went off at 5:45 AM, and begrudgingly we crawled out of bed to the frigid Dolpo air (I softened up and bought us another night inside the room for warmth).
We would have felt much more comfortable joining the Italian’s crew on the upper trail but form there they were cutting off to head further north and we (according to our map) would be out of a campsite.
We hiked out of Charkabhot at 6:15 on Nepali flats (ups and down and rolling moderately) for the first 45 mins before the paths diverged.
We took the lower path (towards the village of Dhadgoan) and continued down for 45 mins, wary of varying mule and goat trails cutting in and out.
We were warned of the confusion around this trail and did our best to find locals that could confirm we were still on the right trail. This did not work out in our favour as we first came across a goat herder speaking very little Nepalese.
When we asked the trail to Do Tarap, he pointed up to the upper trail that we’d veered from 45 minutes ago. We switched to asking him about Chhapchu, and he pointed down the river valley towards which we were headed.
We did not leave him feeling confident and came across an old woman at a creek 20 minutes further. She also pointed us back up to the upper trail when we asked about Do Tarap and pointed us down the river when we changed our destination to Chaapchu.
A steep climb up the creek bank and across a plateau to some moderate uphill took us above and along the river and sent us down and across for a steeper climb up the other side where we rested. It was just like Charkabhot; we kept thinking it would be closer than it actually was and practically had to double the local’s timeframes.
We continued down alongside the river and refilled our water, but after a couple of hours, we weren’t sure if we were still on the right trail or not.
Eventually, we came a split between two mountains, and it was a steep rocky scramble for 30 mins until I heard my friend shout, ‘I think I found the cave!” I think when we asked the horsemen if it would fit our backpacks, we were implying that it would fit both us and our backpacks.
It wouldn’t, so we took our bags off and dragged them through the cave the best we could with our headlamps on until we came out the other side.
It was a stunning view, to say the least, and we felt a bit better knowing we were still on the right trail (though that confidence didn’t last long).
We carefully made our way down the steep gravel trail that wound down the mountain and leads to moderate rolling trail alongside the river again.
A couple of hours later we likely would have missed the trail to Chaapchu which was non-existent in a section of mossy knolls and the trail we were on continued down to the village we were trying to avoid.
My friend poked around the area and found somewhat of a trail up the hill that veered off to our left, and with lucky timing, two locals from Chaapchu confirmed we were headed in the right direction and weren’t too far away. They warned us to not push on past Chaapchu as there were no places to camp.
We walked another 30 minutes before we found a stone coral and a still water alpine lake at the top of the hill. It would be windy and cold up here, and it wasn’t ideal.
Because it was only 3:00 PM and we were worried about getting to tomorrow’s pass by daylight we wanted to push further, but we heeded the local’s advice and set up camp by 4:00 PM.
Day 10 – CHAAPCHU (4320m) – Chholuk Khar Tal Pass (5668m) – Lost Again 12 HRS hiking time
ROUTE CHANGE: Our involuntary route change came as a result of getting lost, and we did not arrive at the campsite on the other side of the Chan La Pass (5382m) as planned but rather at a campsite on the other side of the Chholuk Khar Tal Pass (5668m) on the upper trail between Charkabhot and Dho Tarap.
We were up at 4:30 this morning to beat the day as we wanted to hit the pass as early as we could and ensure we’d descend during light and find our spot to camp. It was freezing cold both overnight and in the early morning, and my friend had discovered that her -10 sleeping bag was not in fact minus ten. She was lucky if it was even made for zero degrees.
NOTE: Again, do not buy important trekking gear in Nepal unless at a legitimate outdoor store in Kathmandu.
She “froze” that night and I assured her that was nothing when it came to real cold. I think we’d only dipped to zero or minus one at the most. It was not a comfortable sleep, to say the least, but at 5:30 AM we were already packed, and we’re making our way along a trail in the darkness and by dawn, down a rocky section across several diverging creeks.
Forty-five minutes into our hike we came across another campsite with a corral and running water that was much safer for drinking than the still lake water above, making us wonder if this was Chhapchu and not the place we’d stayed.
NOTE: My steripen and 3L filter bag had failed us by this point and were useless, so we switched to iodine tablets as a backup.
We were now confused – was this Chaapchu then and the one above was not? According to our map, we should follow along-side the shallow river, but it would completely depend on which site was Chhapchu and which was not. There was only one trail on our map that ran alongside the river, and there was only one trail visible that ran alongside the river where we were sitting.
But we couldn’t agree on which direction to go, which I thought was crazy because there was only one clear trail. My friend went searching around up in the bushes west of the beaten trail that was headed north-northwest up the river and found a trail that tapered out after a couple of minutes. She wanted to take that trail, and I was confused as to why when we had a clear trail ahead that coincided with the map.
We decided to eat breakfast in the hopes that a local would pass through and advise us on the trail to Do Tarap.
NOTE: Again, translation is a very big obstacle with cross-culture hiking partners, and it is best if you demand information from your Nepali guide every step of the way as they often will not disclose it to you unless demanded and even then, many details will be left out. After each conversation with any local, have them translate the information.
Not doing so was a grave misstep on my part as my friend had been told by a local to take the trail that seemed like it disappeared and it would reappear and take us to Dho Tarap. My friend didn’t think to provide me with this information when we were at an impasse on which trail to take, and because my route seemed correct based on the map and she didn’t want to challenge it.
I hadn’t been open enough to her choice of direction because I thought she was just guessing and was completely unaware that she was basing her decision on local information which trumps both maps and GPS on a trek like this. She agreed on taking the obvious trail that I’d lobbied for, and it started as a comfortable meandering side trail along the river that crossed back and forth over the shallows a few times.
It became a harder climb across massive boulders for several hours until we hit dry grassy hills. We were completely surrounded by mountains in all directions, and we both agreed that we should be heading left (northwest) at some point, but the trail never veered off as expected and (though we lost it for ten minutes or so) we continued on in what instinctually felt like the wrong direction another two hours before we crossed a shallow river and arrived at the foot of a mountain pass that had a small mule trail zig-zaggin up it into a snowy peak in the opposite direction we were expecting to go.
At 2:00 PM, without exchanging words, we trudged up to the top, which took just over an hour. For every ten steps I required a ten-second break of deep breaths, and as much as we wanted to celebrate our arrival at the top, it was freezing cold, and we still were confused about the direction of this pass we were on.
But, we were in high spirits because if the map was correct, we should come down the pass (which I took to be Chan La) in about an hour and a half or so and hit our last campsite before Do Tarap.
That is exactly what happened (the steep side-slope down was rough on the knees but carefree thinking we’d be settled in our tent so close to Dho Tarap within just a couple of hours.
It turns out we had just traversed what we think was Chholuk Khar Tal Pass (5668m) and cut across from the lower trail all the way to the upper trail and landed ourselves far closer to Charkabhot than to Dho Tarap.
There was, in fact, a campsite waiting for us an hour and a half after the pass as we had expected, only we found out we were lost when we got to the bottom and met a huge team of guides, porters and cooks taking some Europeans from Dho Tarap to Charkabhot.
The good news was that we were still on a trail to Dho Tarap and we had people we met to consult on directions (because there was no way we were trusting our map anymore). The bad news was that we had to cross another pass in the morning to get there. To make things worse, they said the correct trail can be confusing and there may not being anyone to ensure we were on the right track tomorrow.
They thought we were crazy for doing these passes alone and without knowing the region and we were starting to agree. They confirmed our fears about our map and told us not to trust it from here on out.
NOTE: You will want to buy 1:250 000 map of Dolpo for this trek if you can find one. We did our best to pick their brains and gain the general direction of tomorrow’s trail before we made dinner from our tent and barely talked as we were both feeling a bit disheartened.
By the time we settled into our sleeping bags which weren’t nearly warm enough for the altitude we were at, we had shaken off most of our dismay and shifted our perspective to preparing for tomorrow.
Day 11: Unknown Campsite (~5000m) – Jhyarkoi Banjyang Pass (~5200m) – DHO TARAP (4080m)
It froze to minus ten in the night and both we and our tent were not prepared for that degree of cold. Our tent (a summer tent we picked up in Pokhara) had frozen from the inside, and throughout the night and morning, ice-shavings would fall from the inside of the tent and wet our sleeping bags that were only suitable for zero-degree weather.
NOTE: This problem could easily be fixed with the right gear which neither of us had as this was an impromptu adventure pieced together in Nepal in a week.
Neither of us slept much, and we were up by 5:00 AM, eager to get out of our tent. Packing it up was particularly slow and difficult this morning as our hands were too numb to shove, wrap and tie the tent. I was now using a sock on my hand like a glove as mine had disappeared a couple of days back.
We talked about whether we should head back to Charkabhot with this big expedition team and try to regroup or attempt to continue onward to Dho Tarap. We both easily would have chosen Dho Tarap if we were sure of the trail and certain we wouldn’t get lost again. Secretly we both wanted to go back to Charkabhot in the safety of this group, but neither of us said it out loud and so at 5:45 AM we said goodbye to the guides, porters and cooks (the trekkers were still sleeping) and headed towards Jhyarkoi Banjyang Pass (5000+m).
We hiked 45 minutes before we stopped at a herder’s fire pit and cooked some breakfast. We had to break up creek ice to find water to refill our bags. Both of us were completely drained and had both a headache and nausea. We were not well-rested, and our bodies were tired while above 5000m and trying to get through another 5000m+ mountain pass. If we incurred any more symptoms of altitude sickness or the symptoms we had become any more intense, we would have to turn around.
We took in the morning sun as much as we could and by 7:45 AM we were continuing onwards. The up-side to our huge backpacks (of which we had slowly eaten some of the weight down) was that we moved slow enough for our bodies to adjust to the altitude. It was a tough slog up to the pass more so because mentally, we were struggling to be as positive and resilient as we had managed to be in past days.
Forty more minutes and we were at the base of a pass. We didn’t dare assume it was the right one this time. The pass took us about an hour and a half and so far, the timeline from the big group of trekkers of 9 hours (5 up to the pass, 4 after it) was proving pretty solid. We gained our momentum about halfway up the pass and were feeling much more certain when we hit the cairns at the top and referenced it with the information we’d gathered.
We were in much better spirits as we headed down the pass, but it was a long, steep descent filled with loose gravel on which we skidded many times and by the end, I was unwilling to expend energy on keeping myself from falling, I just let myself go…several times. From the bottom, we followed the river through the valley for the next few hours hitting a tiny village 20 minutes from Dho Tarap and were relieved to know we were only 20 minutes out of our resting destination.
By 4:00 PM, we had finally made it to Do Tarap where we took accommodation and a hot meal at a newly built, cosy guesthouse called Star Mountain Hotel and Grocery. We were so relieved to be safe and sound that I promised my partner (who now strongly disliked tenting) an extra rest day and accommodation for all three nights to help both of us properly unthaw, (my friend had never experienced temperatures that cold before and my feet were still numb from our river crossing several days before).
We had dal bhat for dinner and were happy to see another couple that had arrived in Dho Tarap coming from the Phoksundo direction. When it was time to crash, we had beds with thick blankets and even pillows (the only pillows we’d experienced on our trip), so we were pretty excited at landing such luxuries.
Day 12 – DHO TARAP (4080m) Rest Day
We celebrated a morning of not being lost with eggs and roti. It was a sunny but cold day of laundry, eating, napping and journaling.
You can continue to eat from your pack here or purchase meals, but remember, you may be paying for you and your guide unless you arranged otherwise so you should factor that into your costs.
After another rough day of getting lost, the last thing we wanted to do was eat more food from our packs so this night, we dug into our freshly made Thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) for dinner and cosied up for the evening.
Day 13 – DGO TARAP (4080m) Rest Day
ROUTE CHANGE: We took an extra rest day in Dho Tarap
Today I ate muesli from my pack before taking a photography trip while they ox-ploughed the fields and finished the harvest. Winter was rolling in quickly, and the last two passes already had snow (or hadn’t lost it from last season).
This was our last easy day before we started for Numa La pass. My friend wanted to try and fit our next three days into one long haul, which meant two passes in one day.
I refused to take that risk after what we’d just gone through.
The pull to speed up our trip was at play, and I had to fight that and put my foot down on a couple of occasions. If we kept a good pace, we could likely turn three days of hiking into two, but it was too hard to tell at this point and rushing led to a poor decision and in our case, being stranded, so I paused that conversation until we were hiking and had a better idea of time and distance.
We prepared for tomorrow by requesting an egg and roti wrapped for lunch, which they happily agreed to. I also purchased 12 hardboiled eggs (which cost me an arm and a leg because my friend didn’t think to ask for the price and assumed they wouldn’t take advantage because she was Nepali.
It was not her fault, and I was quite shocked at the price myself. I had been straying further and further away from my budget, trying to accommodate my partner with accommodation and meals I hadn’t planned for the trek.
NOTE: If you are trying to stay on budget, you may want to oversee the purchase of items in advance instead of waiting till they kicked you in the butt.
Things are naturally more expensive the more rural you get, but $20 for a dozen eggs was a robbery.
I balked when I looked at the bill the next day. You will get charged $4 in most rural villages if that. I did not oversee the purchase and also did not make it clear to my partner to request the price before ordering which was a mistake.
Day 14 – DHO TARAP (4080m) – NUMA LA HIGH-HIGH CAMP (4900m) 5.5. HRS hiking time.
ROUTE CHANGE: We hiked above Numa La Camp and (accidentally above) Numa La High Camp and made our own High Camp closer to the foot of Numa La Pass
We enjoyed a late morning, leaving at 9:00 AM since we weren’t intending on pushing it today and only had to get to Numa La High Camp. At this point, we were loosely referencing our map in combination with Lonely Planet pages (in reverse), and we had another day of tense uncertainty after several hours.
The trail led us to climb up, but Numa La Camp was so subtle at the bottom before we climbed that we walked right past it. We headed up the hill for an hour’s trudge past a cairn that we then thought indicated Numa La Camp because there was a flat-ish spot just big enough for a tent and the old remnants of a fire. (This turned out to be Numa La High Camp).
After four hours of hiking, we were both comfortable continuing up further to where we thought we’d arrive at Numa La High Camp. We climbed up as high as we could before a flat trail carved around the side of the mountain and down to a creek where the Numa La Pass (5290m) started from.
We realized our mistake, and we settled for a higher and bumpier, but relatively level spot with stunning views of snowcapped peaks and the trail to (Saldang) Upper Dolpo below. We couldn’t quite believe that we had come from those snowcapped mountain peaks only a few days ago. We enjoyed a happy meal together high-fiving on successfully making it to our next pass without getting lost.
Day 15 – NUMA LA HIGH CAMP (5000m) – Numa La Pass (5238m) – DANIGER (4631m) 8 HRS hiking time.
NOTE: Daniger is also referred to as PELUNG TANG
We started at 4:30 AM this morning with ice still on the tent, but this time at least it was on the outside only. By the time we were done packing, my hands were frozen, and my sock-glove was little solace; I was eager to start the climb so I could get into sunshine and warm my extremities. My frozen hands were made worse by having to hunt for water as the entire creek was frozen over and I had to break a section with rocks to fill my bag.
We began hiking just after 5:30. Both Nisha and I found the pass much easier (but still exhausting and slow) than those past, minus the fact that the water in my camel pack tube had frozen and I couldn’t access my water until the top. It took us about an hour and from the top of the pass we could see Shey Shikar (6139m) and Kanjeralwa (north?) at 6289m and our old friend, one of the Dhaulagiri sisters (Dhaulagiri I 8,172m) we’d left in the backdrop of Jomsom.
We had now entered snow leopard terrain, and I knew the odds of seeing one was so unlikely, but I hoped anyway (because we hadn’t encountered enough dangers already!) It was a very long descent, gentle at first, then over massive boulders from an old rock slide with a beautiful valley panorama below.
We crossed over a creek running down (most of it still frozen) before we hit a steeper descent in which we saw two people below. We were wary of this at first because we changed our original trek from Beni-Dolpo-Jumla due to robberies and a kidnapping in the Annapurna section which was still fresh in our minds, but we were also always so relieved to meet people along this route due to the scarcity of people and confusing trails.
A guy from Alabama and his neighbour in Kathmandu who used to guide and was originally from Dho Tarap had just finished Upper Dolpo. He had also paid for an extra person (which is hundreds of dollars more expensive than the lower route we were taking) as did our Italian friend, so I was not the only one who had jumped through permit hoops to trek solo (as a foreigner).
We continued on down into the valley and along the river and then crossed and headed up high over the river along the side of a mountain.
A horseman we met told us Daniger was 10-15 minutes away and that the Baga La Pass could be done in 3-4 hours. We walked around the ridge and his 10-15 minutes was actually 40 minutes which didn’t bode well for his time estimate of the pass.
We sat for lunch at Daniger and decided whether to carry on and arrive in Dajok Tang six hours from now at 6:00 PM or to stay put and set up camp. I had another pass left in me, but I didn’t trust the timing, and I didn’t want to risk it. We agreed on having an easy day today and a long day tomorrow before a rest at Phoksundo Lake, which was, in a way, our ultimate destination as it got us back into civilization.
We set up the tent by 1:00 PM and tried to get some sleep in while it was warm. We’d barely managed to fit our tent into the corral, and it was covered in droppings, but we would take warmth over the bad smell.
Day 16 – DANIGER (4631m) – Baga La Pass (5169m) – RINGMO (Phoksundo Lake 3600m) 10 HRS hiking time
We packed up all our gear and were ready to leave by 6:30, refilling our water at the river crossing before the Baga La Pass (5214m) began. The pre-pass as I like to call it was a steep zigzag 30-minute trudge up to a little flat spot called High Camp. I took a moment to try and thaw my camel pack hose before starting another uphill section covered in rock and snow.
The trail and the Lonely Planet guide (in reverse) confirmed the various cairns and trail along the way. We stopped for lunch at a big set of cairns before traversing along the mountainside up, up, up to the Baga La Pass (5169m) – the last of our trip (or so we thought – it was at least our last pass above 5000m).
It had taken us 2 hours to get to the top, and we were greeted by an Alaskan man with his porter and guide who had, like me, also paid and arranged for a two-person permit. Our descent started out gentle, but it had steep sections that demanded good footing around chunks of rock and loose dirt.
There were also some very large boulders we were able to hop over to avoid a stream that cascaded to a beautiful waterfall that we passed below. We took the path on the other side of the stream as directed by both the Alaskan and the Lonely Planet guide. Ending up on the left side of the river would have been a day of extra work for us, and we would have found out the hard way.
The trail cut just slightly above the river we were following. We moved a little more quickly today, knowing we had a long journey ahead. As we headed down a beautiful green valley, we encountered the first trees we’d seen since hiking up to Ghalden Ghulden. We took a switchback down steep dirt to what we assumed was Dajok Tang (Yak Kharka) covered in prayer flags on a wide-open plateau.
It had been six hours, and we still had another four or five to go so we packed up our lunch and continued to stay right of the river as we headed down to and along the water on Nepali flats (ups and down with some moderate slope) until we discovered the real Dajok Tang where there was a cluster of several log huts with grass growing on the roof. Everyone had left for winter to somewhere warmer.
We cut through the grassy slope to the trail on the other side that would lead us into rhododendron and juniper. We continued on Nepali flats for another hour before we got into consistent incline that climbed higher and higher above the river along the mountainside.
We continued up on some sketchy mountainside (one piece of which helped up with a thinning piece of wood with rocks stacked around it) that eventually spiralled and switchbacked up and took us over to the other side where our hike continued (not so steeply) until we hit what we were looking for, a huge string of Tibetan prayer flags indicating we were getting close to Phoksundo.
We could see a big waterfall across from us, and we entered a forest of white pine that sloped moderately down until we arrived in Ringmo, the village next to Phoksundo Lake.
Through a path lined with domestic yaks on each side (we were still keeping our distance since our attacks on the outskirts of Charkabhot,) we crossed the suspension footbridge and by 4:30 were scouting out a place to stay. What was once a run-down but busy home lodge for 250 rupees was now a large, under-renovation guesthouse with a dining hall and multiple floors for 1000 rupees.
It wasn’t finished yet, but the price was high none the less. Food was served in their cosy home just a few steps across from the lodge. The owner and I agreed on 800 rupees if we stayed two nights. My friend and I excitedly ordered French fries as a snack, feeling like we were finally living a life of luxury!
Day 17 – RINGMO (3600m) – PHOKSUNDO LAKE (3600m) Exploration + Rest Day
We had a nice sleep in and after a breakfast of too many crepes (they’re not cheap, but it was worth it for me) we headed off to find the checkpoint where we could get our permits stamped. Apparently, there were an additional 3000 rupees national park fee we would have to pay. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the man in charge of stamping our passport was so drunk he couldn’t even stand.
With the help of an army guard who walked him to the room with the permit papers, he managed to find a sheet to write on and the army guard left in which the man promptly passed out at his desk on top of the papers, and there was no waking him from his drunken stupor. We didn’t know what this meant for other police check posts, but at this point, we had tried in Do Tarap (they had left for the winter) and now Phoksundo. We might as well have joined our Italian friends and gone to Saldang in Upper Dolpo!
It was a beautiful sunny day, despite the cold, and Phoksundo Lake was a beautiful turquoise and blue surrounded by pine trees mixed with deciduous leaves turning autumn colours and a backdrop of snowcapped mountainous. We decided to follow a path along the lake for an easy walk. On the far side, we could see a long yak caravan scrambling on the narrow path. I wanted to tour that side sans the yaks. We went around about 20 minutes to a monastery and back.
On our way back we passed the campground which I had originally intended on staying at and low and beheld there was the Italian with her cook/guide and her horseman. We were thrilled to see one another and couldn’t believe it had only been a few days since we’d last met. We enjoyed dinner inside at the fire, and I had stocked up on a few more packages of chowchow noodles to last us until we got to Dunai, the biggest centre we would see since left Jomsom.
NOTE: We ended up bypassing Dunai to get straight to Tibirikot which shaved off a day, but the selection of camping food (aside from eggs) was not great.
Day 18 – RINGMO (3600m) – CHHEPPKA (2838m) 6 HRS hiking time
ROUTE CHANGE: We agreed on leaving Phoksundo Lake a day early (for Chhepka) because winter settled in blocking our exploration routes and we were becoming restless.
We woke up to a blanket layer of snow on the ground and significant dump on the mountains we’d just come from. I was glad we spent the night inside under blankets. The route around the left side of the lake to an upper viewpoint that we’d planned for the day would be too slippery and dangerous. By about 10:30 we randomly decided we should just head on down to our next destination – a campsite 5-6 hours away.
Upon paying, it wasn’t the eggs that were ridiculously priced this time, it was the roti, at 100 rupees/piece. I paid our outstanding bill after we packed up and by 11:30 began a faster-paced hike down to our next campsite (Chhepka), so we could beat dusk after a late start.
It was a beautiful but narrow, and at times, steeply declining path along the mountainside (across the valley from where we had entered into the forest that led us into Ringmo). We were wary of the loose gravel, but we were happy to finally have a steady descent for a few days.
The trail eventually floated up and down alongside a turquoise river with several steep but quick ascents and descents. On the rolling flats, I definitely started to feel my pack and my feet. I think my body had waited until we were through the toughest parts before it let me feel the aches and the strains.
Finally, the forest trees cleared and we passed along a few houses and stables until we arrived at a fenced-in campsite filled with orange tents – tour groups getting ready for their big trek through Phoksundo and Upper Dolpo. At 5:30 we were done setting up our camp, and for the first time on our trek, we were at a low enough altitude to smell our sweaty clothes, and we hung them outside in the damp cold instead.
NOTE: In Chhepka and Phoksundo (and likely other campsites at lower altitudes) it is not free camping, it is a little compounded area. I much prefer wild camping and isolation, but my friend enjoyed the safety and security of the compound. The campsites are only marginally cheaper than a guesthouse, so you have lots of options when you are starting and ending the trek.
Day 19 – CHHEPKA (2838m) – TRIPURAKOT (2206m) 9 HRS hiking time
ROUTE CHANGE: We bypassed Dunai and headed straight to Tripurakot/Tibirikot to save a day
By 7:45 We were packed up and off to our new destination of Tripurakot which would save us an extra day by cutting out Dunai. We ended up skipping the checkpoint at Sulhighat – the last checkpoint on our way out of Dolpo that could charge us the national park fee.
After the last two, we decided we didn’t care anymore about getting our permit stamped and hoped for the best leaving the Dolpo district (this worked in our favour – probably because it was so close to the season’s end).
We went slower today, and there were fewer steep ups and less steep downs. What ascents and descents there were had been sandwiched between side trails and rolling terrain, so it felt much easier on our bodies.
Many sandy sidehills later, out of the protection of the forest and exposed on the gradual ups and downs on the other side of the river; we were fortunate enough to run into our Italian friend and her team one last time.
Their filming was over, and they were headed to Juphal to catch the next flight out. Since she no longer needed the horse free of gear for filming, she graciously offered the horse to us (free of charge) for the next 45 minutes to just before Juphal where we would part ways.
We were quite thankful because as difficult as the passes had been, the long moderate trail we were now on was more monotonous and mentally challenging it seemed. I started to feel my bag hanging uncomfortably on my back (it was not well-suited to me, nor was it really set up to be a trekking bag) and my friend’s boots were falling apart with every step.
We parted ways as one road diverged to Juphal and the other below to Tripurakot. We carried on down our road as it crossed to the other side of the river and we followed along the river path for the next several hours as the trail rose and fell, meandering to Tripurakot and arriving around 5:00 pm.
It was harder here to find a campsite than a room, so we inquired at the first place we stopped – a new establishment that was just finishing their renovations. (The name is written in Nepali, but the telephone number is in the photo on the sign.) We agreed to pay 400 rupees for both of us with dal bhat at 200 rupees per person. We were relieved that prices had returned to normal as we descended.
The owner really knew how to host tired trekkers, and she served us hot black pepper tea while we waited (it was incredible, and I was addicted to it by the time I left) and fried potato crisps that were so delicious we knew we’d found the right place.
After moving our bags indoors, we began to search for food that would last us the next four days of the trip before arriving in Jumla. This was difficult as they didn’t have snacking items that had the trekking nutrients we would need to maintain us. Regardless we purchased many packages of cookies, moon daal and another dozen eggs that we boiled ourselves on our camp stove.
We returned for dinner (the best, most flavourful dal bhat I’d had in all of Nepal) and had an early night.
Day 20 – TRIPRAKOT (2206m) – GHODAKHOR VILLAGE (3200m) 10 HRS hiking time
ROUTE CHANGE: We did not make it to Forest Camp (Balangchaur 3850m) near the base of the pass. We were half an hour from there but exhausted and hurting so we stopped short.
The meadow looked very nice when we passed it the next day, though.
We slept until 7:00 AM, enjoying the idea that the hardest aspects of our trips were over and there would be little uphill to Jumla (this was incorrect information, the walk that day was all uphill, and we stopped just short of yet another pass – this one less than 5000m thankfully.)
By 8:10 AM, we packed the boiled eggs and our gear, thanked our host as she handed us our packed lunch of two eggs and two roti, and wished her luck with her new establishment as we followed her pointing finger toward the day’s trail.
After asking around it was clear we would not make our one last lingering pass (Balangra Lagna Pass 3870m) by the end of the day because we didn’t know what we would find on the other side of it (it wasn’t our last pass anyways it turns out).
The slow upward climb by road and trail was very monotonous, and the slow incline seemed to never end. It was, however, enjoyable passing through the little hillside villages who were harvesting the last of their crops and drying them on the roof.
Eventually, we wound down through forested area and came to a suspended footbridge which was followed by a steep uphill climb through the forest that felt like a pass before the pass.
I was struggling greatly with my pack as it was aggravating my back and neck; my partner’s shoes were far worse than the day before which were aggravating her feet. (These may be issues you can fix if you are coming to Nepal solely to hike and can bring the best designed and fitted equipment with you).
Finally, at the top, we reached the village of Ghodakhor just as the beginning of dusk hit (around 5:00 pm). The campsite was 30 minutes past, but we were so finished we were looking for camp spots in the village. They were priced as highly a storage room with blankets for 400 rupees.
I wouldn’t recommend it as you don’t get even close to your money’s worth, but we were completely spent. Since we’d left the high altitudes, we had become ravenous, and we ate most of the snacks we’d bought yesterday in Tibirikot and demolished our chowchow rations for the night.
Day 21 – GHODAKHOR VILLAGE (3200m) – Balangra Lagna Pass (3870m) – BALASA (3085m) 10 HRS hiking time
NOTE: You can hike further to CHAURIKOT
We woke up at 5:00 AM long before our alarm went off, eager to get out of our small stuffy quarters. By 6:30 AM we were packed up and heading out of the village on route to Balasa which showed a campsite symbol on our map (that we didn’t trust.)
The next village past Balasa was Chaurikot, and my friend wanted to push until there, but we really had no idea how long it would take and where we would be at 10 hours from now, so there was no point in deciding.
NOTE: My friend was hoping for guesthouses the entire way back. I had felt a bit guilted into them at times on the trip so make sure you are clear at the beginning because even though I was very clear, my friend didn’t know how much she didn’t like tenting until she experienced the cold.
I met many trekkers in Nepal whose guides hoped their stance or your budget would change along the way (which sometimes it just has to, and you need to be flexible) so sometimes you just have to keep reiterating your stance even when you do make concessions so they understand those concessions may not be permanent.
Also, I paid my friend half of the money upfront so that she had financial freedom on our trip if she wanted something extra that I wasn’t paying for.
We wanted to hit the pass early and make it as far as we could; we passed what would have been a nice little campground area had we continued on and made our way through a meadow and then up into forested trail. Balangra Lagna Pass (3870m) was our easiest pass by far on the trip, and the descent was gentle, rolling down into a river and some creek beds and then back up through village after village.
It was then that we learned it would more or less be a continual uphill towards Jumla as we had another pass to tackle in coming days.
One of the big differences in this hiking was that we often saw other people; people waved us through as we passed their villages, army and police units patrolled through the forests passing us and on two occasions we met other trekkers heading the other direction. We followed a steep forested section down to Kaigon, the biggest village we would see until Jumla, and arrived by noon.
We restocked on cookies there and were called in by a guard after crossing the suspended footbridge over the river as we exited the village. FINALLY, someone wanted to see our permit papers! They gave us little trouble and waved us on our way, and we officially left the Dolpo region.
We continued up a long dirt road with a few hairpin turns (in which we often took steep shortcuts across to link up the roads) for a couple of hours. Excitedly, we stopped just shy of a village called Masgaon where a water hose ran off the ledge of a hill at shoulder height.
We hadn’t showered in three weeks and took some liberties, feeling better and better about our journey with each burst of freshwater and warm sunshine. We’d stopped a lot throughout the day, and around 4:00 PM, we rolled into a village enquiring about Balasa. She said we were in Balasa (you blink, and you miss it kind of village,) so we looked around and scouted for a camp spot.
There was no clear indication of any camp spot with a water source like the map showed and a local explained that they rerouted the new road (which was under construction) and the campsite that was used before no longer exists. Exhausted, and in no mood to go looking, we sucked it up and found a flat enough spot on a big cliffside above the road that looked out at the mountains and deep valley bottom.
It was a beautiful place to camp but more exposed than we would have liked as we were still at high enough altitude for a light coating of frost on our tent and the ground.
It was just after 5:00 PM by the time we’d pitched our tent, and we didn’t have a water source so we cooked the last of our chowchow noodles and decided we’d have breakfast on the road once we could refill our water and clean our pots and pan.
We had seen a tractor pass us as we neared Balasa and my friend said they travel from Kaigon to Jumla sometimes and she asked if I’d be willing to take one if it passed by tomorrow. I tried not to laugh picturing our last tractor ride and the hard work I’d done keeping my insides inside me as we were launched aggressively to and from for many hours at a time.
I knew she was eager to see her family and bring our crazy adventure to a safe and secure close, and it seemed there would be little hiking from here on out. Instead, we would just follow the inclining dirt road home, so I assured her I would take the ride if it came tomorrow.
Day 22 – BALASA (3085m) – Mauri Lagna Pass (3890m) – JUMLA (2514m)
NOTE: I think we also went through Khali Lagna Pass (3500m), but we weren’t sure, and as per usual our map was missing passes.
It was cold in the morning, and the alarm went off; we just laid there ignoring it – neither of us wanting to leave our sleeping bags.
The less demanding and perilous our trip became, the less energy and motivation we had to continue ten-hour days. It would take us anywhere from 6 to 10 hours to get to Chodra (our campsite CHHOPAGOAN aka Naphukana, would be right before this village) based on local estimates for us.
Leaving at 6:30 AM, we came to a running creek 10 minutes after packing our gear and getting back on the road. At the end of our first uphill, we found a place to sit and cook breakfast (I only had two bags of muesli left, and part of me was very relieved about this!)
My friend was restless and getting her hopes up of seeing a tractor before we began our slow and steady incline for the day. We could hear a tractor for about an hour, but it never arrived as it veered off onto another mountain track echoing along our road.
We also discovered a new pass, our ninth, that we would have to conquer, Mauri Lagna (3890m) also known as Honey Pass, which at this point in our trip, we didn’t find so sweet. At noon we sat on a bench outside a solitary restaurant that fed trekkers as they passed from Rara Lake to Phoksundo Lake.
We didn’t want to lose time, and we knew we’d be in a village this evening at the very least if we needed a good meal so from this rest stop we bypassed the road and headed up through a forested section for a shortcut.
The passage to the pass is by road, which is an option if you want a longer but more gradual incline. We took one last steeper shortcut path up the hillside coming out of the forest to speed things up and arrived at a false pass with prayer flags before heading another 20 minutes onward and upward to the pass itself.
From there it was 2-3 hours down (more likely 3) to Chotra and our campsite at Chhopagoan. The road continued to wind very slowly and gradually down in sweeping hairpin turns which we avoided by cutting straight down the steeper foot trails connecting the roads together.
An hour out of our destination, we finally heard it… the moaning cry of a tractor hard at work and grinding its gears to survive the downhill over big rocks and through riverbeds.
Two teenagers came bouncing around the corner twenty minutes later, and my friend flagged them down to speak with them.
They had agreed to drop us in Jumla where they were also headed, though we wouldn’t arrive until late in the night and had to endure another mountain pass along the way. Well, I said, “We started this journey by a rough tractor through a long mountain pass, we might as well end it that way as well!” We threw our bags in the back (no gas barrels this time thank goodness!) and climbed aboard.
I didn’t think a tractor or tractor ride could be less comfortable than the one we’d gone on three weeks ago, but this one was. The driver paused to stow a dip in his lips as he narrowly missed the edge of the road, avoiding the certain death that would have awaited us at the bottom.
Several times we questioned this decision in the journey, but by tonight we would we safely in Jumla. I was somewhat shell-shocked at this abrupt end to our journey and also felt after 6 hours on a tractor that it was not abrupt enough.
Several times along the way I accused myself of “cheating the trail”, but I was also quite relieved at the thought of having a shower (a bucket of hot water), three hearty meals a day and some solid rest before heading to Rara Lake on my own.
Basically, along the way of an uncharted trek, you have to continually let go of the best-laid plans and adjust according to whatever springs up because this journey has no road map to navigate it and things never work out quite the way you imagine (which is the point of an adventure really!)
An hour after leaving the village of Chotra, we all stopped for chowchow noodles at a wooden hut before getting back on the road. After six more hours, one more pass and two near concussions later, the two boys dropped us on the side of the road outside Jumla.
It was just after 9 PM and dark. We began the hour walk to her family’s home in Urthru. The sky was absolutely brilliant, and my friend was finally at ease on a familiar road to home.
We were starving when we arrived, and that trumped our exhaustion. Her sister-in-law reheated dal bhat, and we shovelled it in as fast as we could, high-fived on our accomplishments, changed into something a little less smelly and fell asleep in comfort.
There are plenty of guesthouses in Jumla and the various villages we skipped by getting a tractor ride (for free). The route from Juphal/Dunai to Jumla is listed in Lonely Planet’s Nepal Trekking Guide
We spent the next day resting and the three after that roaming around the beautiful apple orchards up on the hillside.
We picked enough apples from her mother’s orchard for me to make an apple crisp, we visited friends in nearby villages, but the best was the hike up to her plot of land that overlooked Jumla on one side and boasted snowcapped vistas featuring all the mountains we’d just come from.
My friend now owns several spas throughout Nepal, is currently building a guesthouse and café in Pokhara and then will finally turn her attention to her life’s goal, a bed and breakfast with a café atop her own little plot of land for trekker’s passing through and people who want to stop to enjoy all that the Jumla region has to offer.
I vowed to return when this project she was ready for construction.
After four days recovering in Jumla, it was time for me to get to Ghamgadi and meet up with the documentary crew I would be joining in the Mugu District of Nepal.
I was lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to catch a jeep there with my friend’s sister (crammed full of people) and it took us 10 hours. We stopped for painfully long periods with our driver and could have arrived in 6 hours.
But I arrived none the less, which would have been another 4 days walk through the Daphne Pass (see Lonely Planet for details on the trek to Rara).
The documentary DURGA: Forging a New Trail follows a Nepalese guiding friend of ours who refused her arranged marriage and ran away to become a guide in Pokhara, finally returning home to her village a successful and independent woman.
Campaign funding for the film starts in March 2020 and continues for the next couple of months as they finalize the work for film festivals around the world.
Check out the director’s Instagram feed for trailers and info about the Durga’s story and its evolution into a film! For more photos throughout the Nepal, region check out @placesileftmyheart on Instagram.
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