At over 20 miles, today’s trek to Tinje was to be one of our longer days. Following the Panjyan Khola north we would see the valley widen and would gradually lose height to a mere 4110m (13,484ft) – still one of the highest permanent settlements in Nepal after Gorak Shep at 5100m (16,728ft), near Everest base camp.
The highest permanent settlement in the world is believed to be at La Rinconada, a mining community in Peru at 5100m (16,728ft). Other countries with communities living at 14,000ft or higher in addition to Nepal include China, India, Chile and Argentina. The highest town in the USA is Alma in Colorado at 3560m (11,680ft) although the residents of nearby Leadville also claim that title as it depends on the definition of ‘town’. Less contentiously, the highest town in the UK is apparently Flash, a community near Buxton within the Staffordshire moorlands, at a lowly 463m (1,519ft).
We set off at around 8 am in the morning sunshine with the terrain being very much the same as yesterday. We were in a flat, scrubby and sometimes bouldery valley bottom with a freezing but not now entirely frozen meandering river. Either side golden sandy hills rose steeply to grey mountaimns in the distance. The going was reasonably easy on deep dusty and stony tracks.The big difference was that the track meandered too and for the first time un-bridged river crossings were needed. Where possible stepping stiones were used but these weren’t always available.
Our first crossing was at about 9:30 and we elected to remove our boots and socks rather than risk walking the rest of the day in wet footwear. With trousers rolled up and with socks in our boots tied around our necks we set off accross the Panjyan Khola. While not very deep the river was still quite wide and without boots the river bed was slippery and painful to walk on, and so progress was slow. However the most striking aspect was the temperature. If the river had been frozen solid as previous rivers had been the crossing would have been straightforward, but bare feet moving slowly and carefully through calf-deep ice-cold water get painful very quickly. Very quickly indeed! Once on the other side our feeling-free icy feet were dried as quickly as possible before socks and boots were put back on. The picture below shows Lizzie with boots suspended around her neck being assisted across by our horseman from his vantage point on a mid-stream rock with his boots still on, while Sangye returns to collect Jovi. It was not that she or Jovi needed help as such, but the impact of a slip or fall in those conditions with a long way yet to go would have have made for, at best, a very uncomfortable few hours, so most of us accepted a steadying hand. While the horseman kept his boots on and put up with wet feet thereafter the approach taken by Gyalbu and Sangye was to keep just their socks on. This did nothing to keep their feet warm but did reduce the pain walking on sharp rocks and provided a little grip on slippery ones.
Thirty minutes after the crossing our feet were again warm and at about that time we saw a train of 6 mules approaching with two handlers; a mother and her son. The lead mule was an unladen grey, and its head, neck and haunches were decorated with a red and yellow head-plate and long red hair-like raffia. Later we met two young men with their 4 mules laden with grain, and shortly after a man and woman with a mastiff and a string of 4 grey mules. As none of the mules in either string were decorated we were left none the wiser as to the reason why the first grey had been. But it did look rather splendid.
Towards lunchtime and about 11:30 we encountered a herder with nearly 30 yaks and some laden mules so we moved to one side to let them pass. Shortly after another herd of yaks came by, followed by a herd of 50 or so sheep. It was getting quite busy and Chharka Bhot was going to be even more full in a couple of days.
From time to time we saw herders’ encampments on both sides of the river, but otherwise the day passed with us making good progress down the valley. After lunch, at around 2 pm we reached a junction where the Sulun Khola joined the Panjyan Khola from the south-west. While admiring the ancient and huge triple-layer chorten on the tongue of land between the two rivers, and the ruined village of Chhamdang to the north, we noticed something odd about the far bank. It included a straight line. As nature, at least nature in this part of the world, rarely does anything in a straight line, the road had caught our eye. Yes, a road! Ok an unmetalled but engineered track, but this was the first time we had seen a road in Doplo and I understood there to be no roads of any type in this district – but there it was. It ran along the west bank of the Panjyan Khola from the north as far as this river junction then continued along the west bank of the Sulun Khola. There was no traffic on it but it was there. You can see it on the photo below above the river valley on the far bank.
Subsequent on-line reasearch has shown that in 2012, the World Highways website reported that the Nepalese Government was pushing ahead with its road network improvement programme. The government had managed to upgrade roads in 72 of the country’s 75 districts despite the geographic challenges presented by its mountainous terrain and frequent steep slopes. The three districts without improvement included Dolpo and later reports said that district was a priority for improvement. I further found that in March 2012 a Bidding Document for Procurement of Works was issued by the Nepalese Ministry of Physical Planning and Works seeking bids for the contract to construct a road from Marim (on the border with Tibet) via Tinje and Dho Tarap to Dunai, the district capital. I assume that this was unsuccessful as 2 years later, in June 2014, a second bid document invited ‘sealed bids from eligible bidders’ for the excavation of a road from Marim via Tinje to Dho Tarap only. Two years on, it was that un-metalled road that we saw on the bank of the Panjyan Khole heading south-west to Dho. With the inevitable development that the commissioning of this road will bring it would seem that we are some of the last people to experience an unspoiled Dolpo.
By 3 pm we could see Tinje in the distance, some 2 miles ahead to the north down the now dead straight Panjyan valley. It would be darker by the time we got there as the westerly shadow was already encroaching and with it would come the cold.
We entered the village at 3:45 with sinking hearts. We could find no ‘hotel’ or shop, not even closed ones. The village appeared empty and lifeless, and grey in the shadow. In style it looked similar to Chharka Bhot in that the houses of which there were several dozen were all surrounded by animal compounds, but they were all stone without a white fascia and none of the window casements appeared to be painted. This gave the settlement an austere countenance that not even the prayer flags could dispel. We did manage to find one person, a woman who seemed to be hiding in the shadow of a stone farm building, and we asked her if there was anywhere in the village that might feed or lodge us. Her response was a simple (in Nepali) ‘I dont know’ then she disappeared.
We continued into the centre of the village and found 2 young men repairing a motorcycle; the first vehicle we had seen in Dolpo and an indicator that the Marim to Dho road was already having an impact. In response to our enquiry as to food and lodgings one of these fellows took us to the house of one of his friends. That family was welcoming and friendly but although they offered to feed us they could not accommodate us. That wasn’t a problem as our horseman had by now joined us and our tents were to hand. However we wanted to experience a ‘homesleep’ if possible. The mechanic then took us to another of his friends and this time we were in luck. This family would feed us, and we would be welcome to sleep in the main room where they normally slept, while they slept elsewhere. This felt to us like a huge imposition and we initially demurred in favour of a tent, but the father of the house insisted and we eventually, and gratefully, accepted his hospitality.
The family comprised father, mother and three children. A relative was statying with them too. Their main room was similar in style to those seen previously, except this time it was illuminated by two small wattage solar power-driven bulbs so my photographs taken without flash are a lot lighter and the scene is easier to see.
This photograph shows the father sitting at the stove by the hearth. The stove is the same as we had seen before with a fuel hatch at one end and a simple stove pipe at the other but this time was smaller with only room for 2 pots. In this room the stove pipe really did go through the ceiling so the room was much less smoky. Around the stove are the customary rugs and around the walls are narrow storage units with pots and pans, cups and glasses, thermos flasks and other basic kitchen and household items. On the far side of the room the man’s older daughter, in her late teens and dressed traditionally and with a purple cardigan and with her long black hair plaited to her waist, is selecting cups in which to serve us tea. Her mother is not in the picture but is pouring Raksi to warm us. The family relative, another woman, is seated on the floor wearing a black jacket over her robe and apron. The younger children were not in the room at this time.
We trekkers were sitting behind the decorated bench/table bottom-right of the picture above and this part of the room is shown below, this time using a flash so the scene is lighter than it was in reality. You can see that by then we had each been served, and eaten, fried meat sukurte in little metal bowls and from the lack of leftovers you can see that it was very good. We had also had a small glass of Raksi which was poured from the green-lidded plastic jug bottom-left. Next to the relative in her black jacket the son joined us and had sat down next to Jovi, who was showing him photographs of his wife and children on his iPhone. The lad was enthralled.
Later the younger daughter arrived and Jovi again showed his family photographs.This time her father and older sister wanted to see too.
Meanwhile the mother, as usual, had been doing the hard work of preparing our dinner, a delicious yak meat stew with potatoes and rice. After dinner the conversation around the hearth was all about us and our journey. The family had never hosted visitors before but were apparently enjoying doing so, and of course making a little money. They told us that after this experience they would be opening a ‘hotel’ and would put a sign up outside their house to encourage more visitors. After just one more Raksi, and after the mother had shown us to their toilet, still a stand-up but this time with an inlaid plastic bowl rather than an air-drop, the family left us. We unrolled our sleeping bags onto the floor and, all of us together for the first time, went to sleep around the still-warm stove.
From an unpromising start Tinje had proven to be very hospitable, and the family with whom we stayed were perfect hosts. I couldn’t help speculating how their lives would change once the new road was commissioned but was so glad to have been here before it was.