Typically around 4000m high but surrounded by mountains over 6000m the Dolpo is inhabited by the toughest of people, the Dolpapa. The ending comes from the Tibetan, pa, meaning people.
The Dolpapa speak Nepali, Dolpo, which is a local dialect of Tibetan, and Kaike, a minority language spoken in just one Dolpo valley.They grow most of the crops they need and keep yaks, sheep and goats. Dolpo is not heavily populated. There are but 30 or so rough stone-built Dolpapa villages in an area of 1300 square kilometres.
Most Dolpapa are Buddhist although the Bon religion of Tibet, which pre-dates Buddhism, is still practised in some villages. The numerous fortified monasteries known as gompas, the frequent chortens (Buddhist shrines) and the animistic wooden dolls placed on buildings to ward off evil spirits serve as a reminder of the Dolpapas’ spirituality.
Lack of contact with the outside world has left the Dolpapas traditional culture and lifestyle largely untouched, but this also means modern development has bypassed the Dolpo and poverty is widespread, at least by Western standards. This adds another dimension to the areas rugged beauty. This is a hard place to live and Dolpapa have had to become self-sufficient and resilient.
The major occupation is agriculture and most households grow potatoes, maize, wheat, millet, buckwheat, Tibetan barley, high altitude rice and native crops such as chino and kagumo. However lack of water and arable land is a problem and many can’t grow enough to feed themselves for the whole year. As a result animal husbandry is an important too with the number of animals owned indicating a family’s wealth and status. Sheep, goats, cattle and yaks are taken up to the high pastures for grazing during the summer months and brought back to the villages for the winter. Usually younger members of the family accompany the herds, living in stone huts. Yaks are well adapted to survival in this harsh environment. Indeed they can only live above 3000m. With their thick bushy tails and heavy wool and hair coats they can live outdoors in temperatures well below freezing. Their hair is woven into blankets and clothing, their skin provides leather and their milk forms an important part of the high altitude diet, both as liquid and as a hard dried cheese. In this barren region dried yak dung replaces wood as fuel for cooking and warmth and walls are often seen adorned with drying yak dung.
Trading is also important, particularly for those in the more remote areas. There are no roads in Dolpo so yaks are used as pack animals. Caravans of yaks go up to the high northern areas and across the border into Tibet or other Nepali mountain areas to collect medicinal plants, salt and other mineral resources, which are exchanged in lower areas for food, grains and other essentials. Finally, the weather is a tremendous challenge. In winter, when conditions in the high mountain areas are too harsh and cold for human survival, many people from the high villages leave their homes and live in yak hair tents in the lowland meadows, typically around the district headquarters of Dunai, where they survive by trading.
But the future may be looking a little better. Yarsagumba, which translates as ‘summer grass, winter insect’ is the mummified body of a Himalayan bat moth caterpillar that has been infected by a fungus. Found in Himalayan alpine areas at around 4000m Yarsagumba is prized for its supposed aphrodisiac properties when dried and eaten mixed with milk or honey. It fetches up to £650 per kilogram in China where it is also believed it to be a medicinal panacea, curing everything from headaches to cancer. Hardly surprising then that increasing numbers of Dolpapa head to the mountains in late spring in search of this fungal good fortune.
Perhaps more sustainable than yarsagumba, a tourism-training project has been underway in the district since 2008 with the aim of developing a number of new skills among the Dolpapa, including conversational English, cooking and hotel management.
This photograph from Wikipedia shows Dolpapa at a meeting outside of their village.
Not all Dolpapa are struggling farmers. Tenzin Norbu Lama was born in 1971 into a line of painters dating back more than 400 years. He began painting and training from a very young age and while he also trained in sculpture and mask making, painting and drawing were his favourites.painting and drawing were his favourites.
Known for its harsh climate his village lies at 4,500m and its dramatic mountain landscapes feature often in his art. Norbu says that for inspiration he draws on his family, historical books, legends, and his own memories of Dolpo, which he often sees in his dreams.
Norbu’s work has appeared in many international publications, including National Geographic magazine as well as the feature film, “Himalaya”, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999. Norbu exhibits his painting regularly in Nepal and abroad.
Here are some examples of his work.