The best known of the many isolated high Himalayan valleys across northern Nepal, Dolpo preserves one of the last remnants of traditional Tibetan culture. Legend says it's a one of the "hidden valleys" created by Guru Rinpoche as a refuge for devout Buddhists in troubled times. Surrounded by high mountains including the Dhaulagiri massif to the south-east and cut off by high passes closed by snow half the year, Dolpo's easiest access is from Tibet, where its people emigrated from perhaps 1, 000 years ago.
Upper Dolpo shelters about 5,000 people, whose lives revolve around Buddhism, barley, and yaks; their villages (over 4,260 meters) are among the highest settlements on earth. A large portion of Dolpo has been set aside as Shey - Phoksumdo National Park, at 3,555 square km Nepal's largest. Meant to preserve a complete example of the trans-Himalayan ecosystem, the park shelters blue sheep, Himalayan black bear, leopards, wolves, and the exclusive snow leopard.
Dolpo is the best-known of Nepal's forbidden northern border regions. The 1989 announcement that the government was opening the region to group treks caused a flurry of excitement.
To reach here, you must trek through a registered company, which will obtain permits. Groups generally fly from Nepalgunj to the Juphal airstrip, then walk few hours to the district headquarters of Dunai (2,100 meters). The trail follows the Suli Gad River, passing through thick conifer forests and a few Thakuri Hindu villages. The National Park check-post is one day from Dunai; two steep days later, you reach Phoksumdo Lake.
Flying in and out, the trek takes less than two weeks. Phoksumdo Lake (3,627 meters) is the highlight of the whole trek, a basin of unearthly turquoise blue ringed by rocky crags and forest, framed by snow-capped peaks.
Legend says a demons fled here during Gum Rinpoche's conversion of Tibet's resident spirits, offering local people a gigantic turquoise to keep her passage a secret. Guru Rinpoche transformed the turquoise into a lump of dung, and the disgruntled people revealed the demons hiding place. In revenge she culled down a flood upon their village, submerging it beneath the lake. The legend is a concise mythic summary of the ancient struggle between Bönpo and Buddhists; the latter won, but the former remain, even here at Phoksumdo.
At the lake's eastern end is the village of Ringmo, also called Tso. The town's entrance chorten has nine complex Buddhist and Bönpo mandalas painted on its wooden ceiling.
The people are Bhotia and only very distantly related to Tibetans. They are gradually becoming Hinduized, adding Chhetri surnames to their Tibetan names.
The Bönpo monastery, Tso Gompa, is two km from the village, set above the lake on forested cliffs with views across to Kanjiroba. Below the village, a gigantic waterfall cascades over a series of rock steps, draining into the Suli Gad fur below. A visit to the Bönpo Gompa at Pungmo, two hours up aside valley to the west, is a worthwhile expedition.
The best part of Dolpo lies beyond the lake, along a difficult trail that crosses a high pass into the real Dolpo. Shey Gompa, named after nearby Crystal Mountain, is several days' walk north of the lake.
Another trail to reach Shey Gompa leads trough the Tarap valley over several high passes and magnificent villages like Tarap-Dho, Saldang and Pijorgaon.