Ever sinse we decided to go south from Saldang I have looked forward to going to Shey Gompa. In truth I was disappointed that our original route didn’t include this iconic location. The heartland of pure Tibetan Buddhism is the Crystal Mountain, or Shey, embedded with crystals that sparkle in the sunshine, and the 800 year old monastery (gompa) at its base: Shey Gompa. Known locally as the Shelri Sumdho Monastery, Shey Gompa faces the Crystal Mountain at the confluence of 3 rivers at a height of over 4300m. It’s importance to the Dolpapa cannot be underestimated and I was delighted that by the end of today I would be there.

Our night’s sleep on the gompa floor was fairly good being disturbed only by the creaking of the floor as first one then another of us tried unsuccessfully to tiptoe quietly to the door with dimmed head torch. A door with squeaking hinges, secured not by a latch but a block of wood leaned against it and which defied silent movement. Each series of small but significant night noises was repeated in reverse as the relieved individual returned. Relief was not simply due to liquid reduction but from having either successfully negotiated the trip into the valley looking for a suitable spot or opted for a closer location unmolested by the mastiff. At least by having everyone’s sleep reduced to a light doze the incidence of foundation-shaking snores was reduced.

Breakfast saw a return to tsampa porridge which didn’t encourage us to tarry, but the warm sunshine in the gompa courtyard was welcome while we packed our bags and the ponies were loaded. We didn’t see Mrs gompa-keeper during our departure but the keeper and the 3 children we saw yesterday were keen to be with us and were happy to be photographed sitting outside the gompa. We left shortly after 9 am.

The gain in height from Namgung Gompa to the Selma La was over 700m and we began to gain that height as soon as we crossed the Namgung Khola heading south-west. In no time the gompa looked like a model over our right shoulder and then slipped from view as we crested the first dry scrub and rock-strewn ridge. While the sun was warming down at the gompa it waned as we gained height and the windchill took over. Likewise the terrain became more barren. The scrub common lower down petered out and as our path contoured between the peaks around us the river froze. I soon found myself accompanied only by Jovi as others stopped to admire the views, rehydrate, take a snack or maybe a photograph, and in due course I was alone. I preferred to use a camelback, carry my snacks in a pouch on my belt and take photographs on the move so didn’t need to stop. While I still often walked with the group, on this occasion I relished a little solitude and strode ahead trying to catch up with Sangye and the horseman with the string. They had made a quick getaway from the gompa and covered ground fast so were a long way ahead. Each time I crested a ridge I expected to see them close, but each time they eluded me.

Towards midday I neared the pass at over 5000m. I could see no-one ahead and no-one behind. By this time the wind was screaming and was colder than I could remember all trek. Winter was definitely on its way fast and I once more gave thanks  for our decision not to go north. Taking the unusual step, for me, of donning my duvet jacket and hat I quickly crossed the pass and headed down the other side. But which way? While there was a single track before the pass there were 3 leading from it on the southern side. I took a chance on the path heading into the valley half-right, not because I was convinced of it being correct but because it disappeared over a minor ridge not far ahead which I thought might offer some protection from the wind while I checked map, compass and the GPS. As it turned out the area was a grit-bowl the contents of which were being driven hard, but I had to stop to confirm the route. The view of distant peaks, many snow-covered, was magnificent but one that had to be appreciated quickly.

Luckily my guess was right so it was off with the big jacket and a rapid descent. It was still blowing a gale but it was warmer and now on my back protected by a rucksack so I set a fast pace and once again scanned the distance down the valley looking for the ponies. After around 15 minutes I saw them. They must have been galloping to have got so far ahead, or maybe I wasn’t as fit as I thought. Either way I was delighted to have them in sight and doubly pleased to see they had stopped. I couldn’t see Sangye or the horseman but the ponies were grazing. When I had drawn level with them two behatted heads appeared from behind some scrub. The guys had been laying down in a depression to get out of the wind which was still howling. We laughed and I joined them, jacket on once more. After 30 minutes or so Tim appeared, with the others joining just 5 minutes later. We all then moved down the valley together for another few hundred metres to a more sheltered spot for lunch.

After the energy sapping morning and the chill at the pass we decided to have the best lunch available. This was selected from our ‘Look What We Found’ bag. More importantly it was Tim’s favourite which had been saved for a special occasion; and this was it. We made Lancashire Hotpot with mixed rice. It was awesome. Hot, tasty and exactly what we needed.

After lunch we continued our trek down the valley which would eventually lead us to Shey Gompa. By early afternoon our dry valley had joined that of the Sephu Khola which rose under the Selma Mukchun La to the east and in warmer weather flowed west to the confluence under the Crystal Mountain and Shey Gompa. As we followed the northern side of the Sephu valley the wind abated and our surroundings became more benign. Dusty sandy tracks bordered by scrub and low hills replaced the barren grey and gritty landscape higher up, although the few dwellings we saw looked empty and the river remained frozen solid.

As Tim and I made our way along a sandy track 2 or 3 miles from Shey Gompa Tim suddenly froze and said, quietly but with strong conviction: “ssshh … quiet!” He then dropped to one knee and studied the ground. “What’s up Tim” I said quietly. He just looked daggers at me, held his right forefinger to his lips and beckoned me forward to join him. As I came close he pointed intently at the ground and whispered hoarsely “snow leopard!”.

I froze, shivers running down my spine, and saw the clear fresh print inches from the end of his finger, shown here in the centre of the photo with 4 toes pointing down.
I mouthed to Tim “where is it?”. Tim just shook his head and rising to a half crouch tracked the animal print. He soon stopped and pointed again but the spoor was unclear to me. Tim pointed to several other, to me, less distinct prints. I looked quizzically at him with furrowed brow and a shake of my head. Tim said, quietly and almost into my ear, that he wasn’t sure but it appeared as though a mother and juvenile had been on the track recently heading east, but had doubled back and left the track heading north. Probably when they saw us. We continued looking for many minutes but there was no sign, no movement. The best that we could do was take a photo of the valley which we thought the pair has used to escape. To think that we had seen the fresh prints of a snow leopard within a few miles of where Peter Matthiessen saw his. They were up there somewhere. Honest!

Exhilarated at our find and saddened but not surprised that we had been eluded we continued the few hundred metres to Shey Gompa. We could see it in the distance from the snow leopard prints. The red bricked building is on the slope right of centre standing proud over the dry valley and the Crystal Mountain opposite but out of shot.

As we arrived at this most holy of Buddhist gompas Tim and I held back, allowing Gyalbu to approach first. 

Shortly after the horseman arrived with our bags and I waited pensively, well away from the gompa. Then from a side door firstly a woman, a nun, appeared followed by a monk. These were the guardians of Shey Gompa, the Shelri Sumdho monastery, and both were in working clothes. They smiled broadly and went to Gyalbu and embraced him. He was being welcomed and so were we all.

What an extraordinary day. Magnificent views from the Sela La, getting as close to a snow leopard as I am ever likely to, then being made welcome by a monk and nun at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism in Inner Dolpo.

I make no secret of it – there were tears in my eyes.