Dolpo Expedition with Val Pitkethly: Photos & Notes

It took me a while to be ready to write up last April/May’s four week trek via Dhorpatan to Dolpo, which we did with Val Pitkethly and Sirdar Chhiring. I struggled on trek, and after, with the disappointment that our route wouldn’t take us into what I considered “Dolpo Proper”, aka Shey-Phoksundo. But now I’ve spent a few weeks revisiting my diary and photos, I can see that we had a rare experience on an expedition that took us to some little visited villages and valleys and over some amazing passes. I shall just have to go back again to dig deeper into Dolpo.

You can follow most of our route from Thankur to Jomsom on the GHT Dolpo & Mugu map (jpg, very small!). Charles put together this route map once we got back:

2017 Dolpa Trek - Route map by Charles Ng
2017 Dolpa Trek – Route map by Charles Ng

My photos are all in my Nepal – April/May 2017 album on Flickr.

Günter Seyfferth’s Dhaulagiri Himal page has proved invaluable in identifying many a mountain, and has a map plus superb annotated satellite photos of much of the Dolpo section of our route.

Here’s what we did.

Thursday 06 April 2017 / Friday 07 April 2017: LHR – AUD – KTM (photos)

Steffi and Sam arrived on Wednesday evening, from deepest West Wales. Thursday spent pottering and making final preparations before taking the tube to LHR to rendezvous with Charles and complete check in, aka dropping off our big bags. My hand luggage, full of vacuum packed clothes donated by Sonal and friends, weighed a tonne (well, definitely >9KG) but we had a generous chap on the Etihad check in desk.

We were on Etihad Airways EY18, which left London Heathrow at 20.45 and landed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, at 07.05 on Friday 07 April. With a few hours between flights, we changed planes onto Etihad Airways EY290 leaving Abu Dhabi at 10.10 and landing in KTM at 15.45.

Long queues for visas – we each got a 30 day one, even through we’d be staying 31 days. The Nepalese Embassy website had suggested we get an extension from the Visa Office in Pokhara.

Chhiring’s younger brother Nima and KK Tours scion Tenzi met us at the usual spot outside the airport and drove us through KTM to the Hotel Marshyangdi in Thamel.

Checked in, sorted out rooms, Val materialised and introduced us to Ernst. Christine catches us up in Pokhara on Sunday. Sorted out USD with Val then headed down the road for dinner at the usual thakali place.

Alarm set for 5am. Can’t quite believe we’re about to embark on our Dolpo Expedition.

Saturday 08 April 2017: Kathmandu – Pokhara (photos)

An early morning start to beat the roadwork delays on the main highway out of Kathmandu (काठमाडौं).

The drive to Pokhara (पोखरा) took about 6 hours, with a snack/loo break at “The Original” Highway Restaurant at Gunadi. Great views of the Ganesh Himal (गणेश हिमाल) and in due course Manaslu (मनास्लु), the Langtangs, Annapurna (अन्नपूर्णा), Machhapuchchhre (माछापुच्छ्रे) and Dhaulagiri (धौलागिरी) too.

Our first stop in Pokhara was the Tashi Ling Tibetan Village where we had a homemade lunch with Tseten, Val’s “Tibetan Mum” (so good to meet her after all this time) before driving up the rough stone paved road to the Siddhartha Garden Hotel, near the World Peace Pagoda. A lovely peaceful spot with views out over a rural valley.

The afternoon was spent unpacking, repacking and relaxing on the veranda. A late afternoon stroll to the Peace Stupa gave us our first views of Pokhara and Lake Phewa (फेवा ताल) and on our return, as the cloud lifted a little, glimpses of the big mountains in the soft early evening light.

Back at base, we relaxed on the veranda with beers before dinner and bed.

Sunday 09 April 2017: Pokhara (photos)

Not a great night’s sleep in the Pink Room, but at least that meant both Steffi and I were awake for sunrise over Manaslu. Sun up, we wandered back to the Peace Stupa, coinciding with a group of Nepali tourists who wanted photos with us.

A fine breakfast back at the Siddhartha Garden set us up for the walk to Pumdi Kot viewing tower. Great views of Pokhara, the lake and mountains, plus soaring, circling Himalayan Griffin Vultures and kites. Glorious. Lots of photos.

Back at the guest house, Christine and Chhiring had arrived – lovely to see them both again.

Resupplied with suncream and water – it was a very hot day – we walked back to the Stupa and down the path to Tseten’s for another lovely lunch. Then over to Tseten’s shop to buy prayer flags for the passes, and on by taxi to Lakeside for clothes shopping. Our return route featured a Phewa Lake Pedalo and stone steps up through shaded woods to the Stupa and the hotel.

Spent the rest of the afternoon on final preparations (aka hair washing and packing) before dinner at 7.30pm.

Monday 10 April 2017: Pokhara (830 m) – Beni (830 m) – Darbang – Sibang – Muna (1800 m) (photos)

Another early morning, but after a proper night’s sleep and time for another set of sunrise photos before breakfast at 6am and a final photo up on the ridge wall: stunning snow capped mountains beneath big blue skies, and 6 clean trekkers – Ernst, Christine, Steffi, Sam, Charles and me.

Minibus to Beni (बेनी) (11.30am) for an early lunch at the Hotel Mustang Lete while Chhiring supervised negotiations and kit transfer to “local community transport” – a jeep and a battered bus. Further “negotiations” before we could depart Beni on the dirt road following the Myagdi Khola for the dusty, twisty, bouncy journey to Darbang (Darwang दर्बङ) for sweet tea and seat swop, Sibang (the original planned overnight stop) where we met lentil winnowing girls and Muna (मुना) where the road now ends in a volley ball pitch-cum-car park by the school.

Val, Chhiring and the crew set up camp and we kept out of the way, sorting out our tents and chatting in the blue mess tent as dal bhat dinner was prepared. Charles produced his never-ending-tub of home made chilli which was to last us for the full four weeks, like magic.

To bed c 9pm under a big bright moon.

Tuesday 11 April 2017: Muna (1800 m) – Lumsum (2250 m) – Moreni (2275 m) – Upper Moreni (2552 m) – Jalja La pass & camp (3418m) (photos)

The first proper day of our trek commenced with bed tea at 5.15am followed by breakfast in the mess tent featuring Frank Cooper’s Original Oxford Marmalade, courtesy of Christine, plus porridge, fried eggs and toast.

Departure was delayed by dancing ladies and the village band (and donations), but we were on the path by 8am and followed the Myagdi Khola and then the Dara Khola through fields and farmlands, passing a big waterfall en route to Lumsum / Lamsung (2250 m) where we stopped by a house where small children gathered and we were given a red forehead mark (tilak) each and a piece of greenery tucked behind our ear, for good luck (and for a donation).

As we continued up valley to Moreni (2275 m) rhododendrons started to appear and the path grew steeper. We stopped for lunch at Upper Moreni (2552 m), and for views of Gurja Himal (7193 m). Porter problems (part 1: 4 no shows, 1 ill, 2 struggling meant that the rest of the crew were sharing loads between them and making repeating carries) made for a long break, and it was hot on the hillside so the next stretch, a steep climb up through forest, brought much welcome shade for all and views back to Annapurna and the Nilgiris.

Emerging from the trees we paused at a porter rest stop seat and scrambled up to the small shrine above – a really lovely spot with fab views of Dhaulagiri (धौलागिरी, 8167 m) and Gurja Himal (7193 m). Then on to our first pass – the Jalja La (जलजला, 3418 m) – where we’d camp for the night; a grassy plateau used for summer grazing with a couple of basic buildings.

Val, Budi and Nima headed back to find the rest of the porters and to help carry loads. We cheered each person as they made it to the pass, and kept out of the way while Nima sorted out tents and the kitchen crew set up shop in the stone “hotel”; a couple of porters went back to get water from the trickle at the struggling spring in between the porter rest stop and camp.

A small group of Nepalis arrived, portering potatoes to their village back the way we’d come, and settled into one of the wooden huts.

Slowly the mountains materialised – Annapurna I (अन्नपूर्णा , 8091 m), Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri – and we all relaxed with tea and biscuits.

Simple dal bhat for dinner and photos of the orange moon and of the mountain ridge to our north before bed at 9pm. I slept through the overnight leopard visitation.

Wednesday 12 April 2017: Jalja La (3418 m) – Gurjaghat (3015 m) – Dhorpatan (2864 m) (photos)

A fab start to the day – frost on the tents and an al fresco breakfast at our Jalja La camp (जलजला, 3418m), complete with crystal clear views of the snow capped skyline to the north. If only I knew what they were….

Setting off around 7.40am it was an easy downhill stroll through rhododendron woods, over substitute bridges and through forests of pine and juniper, following the river to Gurjaghat (3015 m), where we entered the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve.

An early lunch – 11.30am – on the banks of the Gurjaghat Khola provided time and opportunity for an impromptu hair wash (for some). Tasty dal bhat all round, with a friendly Tibetan Mastiff (?) polishing off the leftover rice. Lots of ladybirds.

Onwards under overcast skies and a tricky river crossing just after lunch – balanced on fallen tree trunks – led to a dunking for poor Charles. Emerging from the woods into the broad valley of the Uttar Ganga river we had  a couple more hours along the wellmade route to Dhorpatan (2864 m) where we camped in the grounds of the Dhorpatan Community Hotel.

”Dodgy Dhorp” was definitely not my favourite place in Nepal – not all the Namastes were nice, and the hotel only offered expensive beer, a “turned up to 11” TV and a dirty campsite. A few more of our Beni porters trickled away here too, Nepali New Year festival time luring them back home.

On the plus side, Sani and Mossum, our senior cook crew, caught up with us and our post dinner briefing with Val produced the famous HOLY MACKEREL! from Ernst.

Thursday 13 April 2017: Dhorpatan (2864 m) – Pass 1 (3176 m) – Chetung (3117 m) – Kolabesi – Takur La / Phalgune Dhuri / Fagune Lekh (4044 m) – Takur / Taktor / Thankur (3220 m) (photos)

Our HOLY MACKEREL! Double Pass Day started at 6.40am with bed tea and coffee, muesli and fried egg toasties as a breakfast treat.

I think we were all delighted to depart Dhorpatan. We followed the “road” for a while before turning right onto a footpath that took us up through farms and stone-walled fields back into the woods and rhododendron zone, eventually bringing us to the first pass.

Turning our backs on the Uttar Ganga river valley, we headed downhill through the farmsteads at Chetung (3117 m) and Kolabesi, then up, up, up to the Takur La / Phalgune Dhuri / Fagune Lekh. Huge, huge, rhododendron trees gave way to smaller shrubs as we climbed. We passed porters returning ahead of an American party shooting blue sheep in the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, and it turned out the Nima and Val knew some of them. A false pass took us out of sight of Pass 1, and closer to the Phalgune Khola as we left the tree line behind us. A breather at an abandoned stone hut, then the final push up through the ever-narrowing valley, emerging at the stone cairn that marks the pass around 12.30pm.

Fab views of Putha Hiunchuli (Dhaulagiri VII, 7246 m) and Churen Himal (7385 m) and time for lots of photos and snacks from our picnic lunch before setting off downhill under ominous grey clouds, with Nima at the helm while Val waited for Chhiring and our full crew to make it across the pass.

Not such a good afternoon – we weren’t really sure how far we should go, and the clouds delivered first rain, then “polystyrene” balls of snow/hail, then thunder and lightening. At least there was only one path to follow, and we weren’t in trouble when Val did catch up with us. Frustrating though.

Down through forests of prickly oak and bark-shedding birch, emerging at 3.50pm at the farmstead at Takur, set in meadows on the banks of the wide gravelly river of the same name.

All hands on deck to help once the porters started to arrive, setting up tents just as rain threatened to resume. Soup and masala tea revived us and kept the wolf from the door until dal bhat dinner in the mess tent at 7pm. Bed around 8pm after a long day.

Friday 14 April 2017: Takur / Taktor / Thankur (3220 m) – Ghustung Khola bridge (2710 m) – Khaim / Hiyam Nulla (2890 m) – Tatopani (2444 m) (photos)

6am bed tea and the bad news that our prepaid man-with-a-horse-to-carry-some-of-our-kit had disappeared overnight.

Breakfast in the blue tent and on the trail by 7.30am. Down through more oak forest, following Budi and his huge load down to the beautiful waters of the Ghustung Khola and then up again through the forest. Water availability (and concern re lack thereof) meant an early lunch at 10.30am-11.30am, then up to the ridge line (3140 m), eventually emerging from the tree cover at the two-house village of Khaim / Hiyam Nulla, where we were asked for a donation for their school.

A super steep trail (and I stupidly didn’t use my poles) took us down through two three-house settlements to Tatopani, home to two small hot springs that give it its name and the junction of the Jatlung Khola and the Pelma Khola. Definitely not a spa resort and not the most prepossessing camp site either. We pottered around and once our bags arrived the springs provided a chance to wash selves and clothes without needing to bother the porters or the kitchen crew.

A snooze before dinner, which proved a highlight – pizza, chips and veg – before a big, big storm, complete with thunder and lightening circling our spot. To bed around 8pm, fast asleep before the storm petered out/moved on c 11pm.

A grumpy day for me. Only 6 photos.

Saturday 15 April 2017: Tatopani (2444 m) – Pelma (2425 m) – Guibang / Gulbang (2680 m) – Dhule (3328 m) (photos)

6.20am bed tea after strange dreams involving tiger cubs and trains. Time for a few photos of Tatopani camp from the path ahead before settling down to breakfast under blue, storm cleared skies – cheese toasty and veg omelette. Yum.

We set off around 7.30am. A steep section up from the Pelma Khola bridge followed by some contouring brought us to the lovely village of Pelma. Well built stone houses, goats in the fields, ladies at home tending chickens and shelling walnuts. Rakshi and roti on offer.

Onwards on a good trail, hugging the hillside. Steep drops down to the river on our right. Val distributed a few LED solar lights at the farmsteads we passed. You can read more about Light Education Development (aka LED) on the website – it’s Val’s charity, I’m a trustee.

Up, up, up to a large village – Guibang / Gulbang – set on the steep hillside, houses with flat roofs stacked with winter wood and pitched ones clad in wooden shingles. A young mum was taking her baby, which sported a sparkling bonnet and a green balloon, on a tour of the village with her friends – a birthday perhaps?

A further climb brought us to a flat area and the school, then it was more relentless ascent up steep slopes wooded with rhododendron, oak, pine and birch. Hot work, but as we climbed we got superb views of the mountains, covered with fresh snow from last night’s storm.

The trail emerged from the woods into a narrow gulley of sparkling mica leading up to the pass, a gateway to the village of Dhule nestling in its protective bowl of green. Before heading down to the village – smart houses and a couple of lodge-shops attested to the money to be made from yarsa gumba – we followed a trail from the pass along a short ridge to “Lone Pine Peak” which provided a fabulous panorama: the pyramid of Putha Hiunchuli (7246 m), Churen Himal (7385 m) and Dhaulagiri (IV 7661 m or VI 7268 m – I’m not sure which), the route we’d come from the Takur La / Phalgune Dhuri, and more snowy peaks and ridges to the south. Lots of photos, and some fun shots at the Lone Pine.

Down in Dhule the kitchen crew had set up shop on the volleyball pitch, but water was proving elusive. Lunch would be a while, so Ernst, Steffi and I set off up to the prayer flags, fluttering over a ridge looking west. Deep valleys and more snowy ridges beyond. A lovely spot to soak up the sun and take in the views.

We returned to our camp to be greeted by hot juice and Val and Christine who, it transpired, had been drinking rakshi at the Blue Roof House! Leisurely lunch on the tarp c 2.30pm and tents pitched soon after. Late afternoon we all headed up to the Blue Roof House where the lady of the house provided us with mugs of her home made rakshi warmed with wild honey. Noodles for dinner rounded off a great day. Bed c 8pm.

Sunday 16 April 2017: Dhule (3328 m) – Sen Khola camp (3900 m) (photos)

An out of sorts morning, even though we’d been presented with beautiful flower garlands and khata scarves before departing Dhule.

We headed north, up a trail through the woods above the village, catching up with a group of Nepalese lads who were “out on a picnic”, and who stoned and killed a monkey in the trees after we’d overtaken them. Yarsa gumba season starts next month, but people are already setting up camp in their favoured spots, hoping to find a fortune.

Emerging from the trees, my spirits were revived a little by more magic views of Putha Hiunchuli and Churen Himal – snow, ice and glaciers gleaming and steaming in the morning sun. Still grumpy though. Not much chat all round. An occasional stop for a drink of water.

Our trail followed the Sen Khola / Seng Khola, and as we continued north the terrain became bare, with coarse grass replacing trees and shrubs, smooth rock gulley waterfalls cascading in on our left.

After about 4 ½ hours, the path dropped into a large level area covered in flat stones, with beaches and large boulders at the river side and a small semi circle of flat stones formed a seat for 4 around a large low stone table. We’d reached Chhiring’s Sen Khola camp.

As Val and the kitchen crew sorted out camp, we “members” found a sheltered spot down by the river and whiled away a couple of hours. Lots of small birds to watch, and to try to capture on film. I’ve lots of “empty” photos…

After dal bhat lunch we set off “for a bit of uphill to acclimatise”, Steffi, Sam and I following Ernst over the grass and up the steep slopes above camp. He reckoned our “Sen Khola viewpoint” was around 4100 m. Great views of camp and the river valley. Beautiful – it put me in a much better mood.

Down in camp everyone had arrived, and we had the offer of hot water for a wash. Clean top tomorrow! Spent the rest of the afternoon pottering and chatting. A relatively late dinner, but another winner: momos, fried potato scallops and green bean and cabbage salad, and an Easter Day Freddo Frog from Charles. To bed c 8.30pm. Restless night.

Monday 17 April 2017: Sen Khola camp (3900 m) – Panidal La / Purbang Pass (4468 m) – Purbang camp (4012 m) (photos)

Paratha and fried egg breakfast then off up the valley, following the Sen Khola. Our left turn mirroring the river’s course proved to be an error. Scouting around the hillsides revealed that we should have turned off uphill much earlier. Chhiring and Budi, who had done the route last year, had both stayed back at camp sorting out the perennial problem of porter loads – too much stuff, not enough practised porters.

A short stretch cross country brought us back to the trail though, and we contoured around and up to emerge at the first (unofficial) pass, which we christened Purbang Pokhara Pass (4300 m). A special place: a tranquil pool, a chorten, flags, a stone gateway, and snow.

An undulating trail took us over flatter terrain and brought a few tricky sections – icy scree, lots of mud – but a beautiful snowy landscape. The Panidal La wasn’t that obvious, but Chhiring and Val marked the occasion with a stop at a low outcrop of stone for snacks and photos.

Our descent took us over snowfields and then grassy slopes and muddy paths to our campsite at Purbang, which we christened “Purbang Meadows” – a beautiful site, embraced by two shallow gravel streams and high mountains.

A hot afternoon so I washed my trek trousers and pottered – stretches with Steffi and Val, reading in the tent, tea, digestives and Ten Thousand, diary. Finding it frustrating that we’ve had so many half days, but I understand why. Tomorrow promises to be a longer day. And my birthday.

To bed under a sky full of stars.

Tuesday 18 April 2017: Purbang camp (4012 m) – Jang La Bhanjyang (4535 m) – Upper Sahar Tara (3010 m) – Tarakot (2600 m) – Tarakot School camp (2498 m) (photos)

A good start to my birthday day: clear skies, 6am bed tea and a card from all the team, a surprise one from Phil and the one I’d brought with me from dad and Jean.

Our route from “Purbang Meadows” took us up to the main camp used in yarsa gumba season which boasted lots of litter, and a ferris wheel. From there, an easy path brought us to the first pass, marked with a small cairn which we garlanded with a few of our khata scarves. Great views of yesterday’s snowfield descent.

Undulating high plains led towards the main pass of the day, Jang La Bhanjyang. Super walking. Four large cairns adorned with prayer flags mark the Jang La, and Ernst and Budi added the first of ours. The pass has stunning views out over Dolpo and its mountains and back towards the Panidal La, and a speedy side trip up the rise on our right gave even better views, including snowfields ahead. Lots of photos.

Not so much snow as yesterday, and softer too which made it easier going across the snowfields. Back down near the tree line we could see smoke / dust below, and the skies stayed grey as we continued our long descent. Hard going on the knees, and increasingly humid.

Hot squash and veg noodle soup at the first summer hut gave everyone a bit of a breather, then more down, through woods and high pastures, goats and sheep grazing and two large birds circling overhead. Our first views of the Barbung / Bharbun Khola and our trail into Dolpo.

Farmhouses started to appear,  followed by small village with a camping field and a gompa (Upper Sahar Tara, Tanti Gompa). The site was waterlogged so Budi led the way down through the village and across fields, eventually getting us to Tarakot. It’s a relatively large village, perched on a ridge, and the camp ground is in the school another 100 m down below, by the streams feeding the Barbung Khola river even further below.

It was a tricky, slippy final section down the dirt path to the school and we all arrived tired, but got stuck in helping to set up tents. A little later neighbours arrived – 4 Brits camping on the other side of the first stream; the only time we shared a site with other trekkers on the whole trip.

Dinner in the mess tent was rounded off by a huge birthday cake, complete with candles, my choice of present from Christine (I went for the dot-to-dot) and tin mugs of rakshi procured by Val and Budi. A lovely end to a long day.

Wednesday 19 April 2017: Tarakot School camp (2498 m) – Lasicap (2600 m) – Musi Khola camp (2890 m) (photos)

Low altitude and cloud cover had made for a too warm night. Al fresco breakfast and then off east along the Barbung Khola / Barbung Chu, leaving Chhiring to head west to Dunai in search of substitute donkeys. The ones due to meet us at Tarakot had dumped our resupply and left. More stress for Val and her crew.

The proto road down by the river was rough going and took us all the way to Lasicap where our Dolpo permits would be inspected, and where Val anticipated delays. The valley narrowed and the road climbed high above the river, cedar trees clinging to the roadside. We passed unkempt mani walls and chortens – all a bit gloomy.

Lasicap formalities were dealt with surprisingly speedily, and we continued on along a softer path on the south bank of the river, strolling through pine / cedar woods. Many treks leave the Barbung Chu at Lasicap and follow the Tarap Chu to Do and thence to Ringmo. We weren’t to go that way 🙁   No Shey Phoksundo for us.

We stopped at a couple of stone houses, home to 2 widowed ladies and their children. They’d repaired the ruined buildings and we saw signs of their ingenuity and industry on the next stretch – pine trunk water channels and 14 strand bamboo rope. Val gave them an LED light each.

A short while later we caught up with the kitchen crew, rustling up dal bhat lunch by the waterfall used by the ladies as their water source. Grey and blue lizards sunbathed on the big rock. We baked on the tarp.

The morning had been hot and humid, but as the afternoon wore on the clouds regrouped.

Our final stop was at the home of a youngish couple with 3 kids (and woodworking tools that intrigued Ernst). They convinced Val that her planned campsite – a gravel beach beside the river about 45 mins further along and with a spring for clean water – had been destroyed by a landslide. So we camped in their field instead.

A simple dinner due to scarce supplies. No news of Chhiring, so Nima and Dawa set off back down the trail to see if they could find him. Val and Budi’s plan to follow them after dinner was abandoned when the lady told them that there was a big leopard in the area…

Rain and distant thunder overnight. Luckily no leopards.

Thursday 20 April 2017: Musi Khola camp (2890 m) – Kakkot Gaon (3358 m) (photos)

Another al fresco breakfast, under clear blue skies. No news of Chhiring, Nima or Dawa.

We set off along the trail through the cedar trees a little after 7.30am. Destination Kakkot Gaon / Kakotgoan about 5 hours further up the Barbung Chu / Barbung Khola.

A super morning’s walk. Clear skies and peaceful surroundings help. A short way out of camp we crossed the Musi Khola / Musi Chu on a relatively new suspension bridge. Further along several sections of the path were built out from the hillside, with only cedar / juniper trees between you and the river waters way below. We passed Val’s riverside gravel beach camp site, unscathed by any sign of landslide, and sections with mani walls and chortens.

An hour or so later the valley closed in forcing the river through a narrow corkscrew gorge. The trail crossed at the narrowest point, a stone stairway hugging the cliffside leading to a short suspension bridge, its older wooden predecessor close by. Upstream, the valley widened again with the river broader and braided between gravel bars. Very photogenic!

There followed a stiff uphill section weaving between large cedars to emerge onto a small area of grassy flatlands where goats and sheep grazed. Quite an alpine feel, and a lovely view back down the valley. Lots more photos. We arrived just after one of the nanny goats had given birth, her kid still covered in birth gunge. The couple tending their flocks were very shy, very Tibetan in dress.

Onwards passing a series of large chortens, half collapsed, meeting the odd dzo or two, taking in the valley views. In time the trail dropped down to the river bed where we walked on gravel and stone strand, the waters hugging the spur that forces a bend in the river here. The trail then climbed up under the high cliffs, initially on a sloped rock outcrop and then back down in a long stone staircase. Wonderful.

A final section across the grey sands and stones of the river bed and up into pine trees brought us to Kakkot Gaon / Kakotgoan, a beautiful village nestling at the base of a 400m bluff topped with Tibetan prayer flag poles. Stone built houses stacked one on top of another, with painted wooden window frames and tree trunk ladders leading up to roofs where firewood seasoned. Three well maintained chortens welcomed us into the village. The trail from Musi Khola campsite to Karrkot Goan marked a transition in the trek.

We walked through the village and on to the school where we’d camp for 2 nights. The school was on a vast “sandbank” raised above the river, backed with sandy cliffs leading to steep hillsides. Glacial sediment maybe? I wish I knew more geography/geology. A little further along a new village was being built on the same flat section – the high lama had advised the move after a rockfall at the older village.

Ernst and I helped Budi put up the tents while the kitchen crew settled into one of the old school buildings and got to work on a late dal bhat lunch, . Inquisitive school children came over during their break to say hello. Charles charmed them with photos. We lunched in one of the older classrooms, with primary school English language books piled on bookshelves and the windowsill.

A pottering afternoon in a beautiful setting. We’re on the north side of Putha Hiunchuli and Churen Himal, with Dhaulagiri IV occasionally visible too. A veranda provided a nice shady spot for reading, and a long hose pipe brought water through the school yard, so a chance for some washing.

As the afternoon wore on the wind got up bringing dust and clouds – and Nima and Dawa with the excellent news that they’d made contact with Chhiring who was on his way with a mule man and our supplies. Relief all round, and celebrations when Chhiring and the mule train turned up just before dinner. Val recognised the mule man, and had photos of his brother’s family, so the potentially short lived hire was extended to cover the next few days.

So good to have Chhiring back, and it was pizza and chips for dinner!

Friday 21 April 2017: Kakkot Gaon (3358 m): Rest day (photos)

Our first rest day of the trek – much needed by the crew.

Hot again overnight; the villagers tell Val unusually so. Woke up gloomy and grumpy well ahead of 7am bed tea.

After breakfast Val sent us off with Nima and Tenzi to climb up to the prayer flags – the poles we could see high above the old village, which she reckoned were at about c 3660 m. A tricky trail, very steep, sand and small stones making it slippery underfoot, and a steep drop down. Not fun for all, but we made it, and it was worth it – splendid views of the villages, the Barbung Khola valley plus Putha Hiunchuli, Churen Himal and Dhaulagiri IV. Nima and Tenzi looked for an easier route down, but in vain. Ernst was a superstar, providing comfort and confidence throughout our descent.

Lemon juice and decompress back at base and another washing session down at the school tap before 1pm lunch which featured coleslaw sandwiches and cinnamon rolls amongst other treats. Sani and Mossum produce amazing meals.

A spot of diary catch up and then around 3pm we headed over to the gompa and explored the new village construction site. Back to camp under grey skies and the old spot of rain, which set in in earnest a little later.

Val whisked Steffi off on some medical visits…. and we didn’t see them again until gone 8pm. They returned with info about the route on to Chharka and the promise that Pema, one of the villagers, would come with us to show us an alternative route should the river be running as high and wild as recent reports suggested. We felt our luck was improving.

Saturday 22 April 2017: Kakkot Gaon (3358 m) – Seri / Sheri (4048 m) (photos)

Breakfast, mules loaded, Pema led the way though the new village and on along the river to a suspension bridge a short way out of Kakkot Gaon. Once on the south bank of the Barbung Khola we had a stone slab/tree trunk bridge across a tributary chu, then a steady stretch of up, along and down, following the Barbung as it runs west-east.

Hot.

A lot of up and down.

Below Pimde village we spotted two flocks of goats, high on the hillsides above the river.

A narrow defile with huge boulders gave way to a very narrow corkscrew gorge with a wooden bridge back across the river to the north side. We stopped for lunch soon after, by a stone-walled enclosure just below a spur and across the trail from a large group of carved Mani stones. Standing by the stones and looking across the river you got a super view up the side valley opposite up to snowy peaks whose melt water gushed down to join the Barbung. Lizards played hide, seek and suntan on the hot stone walls of the enclosure.

While dal bhat lunch was being prepared, Val and I walked around the rocky spur and a little further on along the path, and got more fab views up narrow gorges to the ridge between Dhaulagiri IV (7661 m) and Churen Himal (7385 m).

And then a red-backed goshawk flew past. Just magic.

After a leisurely lunch break we continued on. Easy walking, but the cloud was building and the skies darkening… strong winds chased us up the valley towards Mukot (मुकोट) on the other side of the river gorge, catching us at a series of mani walls where Val concluded we’d missed the turn off for the higher trail to Seri. Pema had gone ahead with the porters. When Chhiring and Sani Cook caught us up they confirmed we needed to go up, so we did – scrambling over stony hillsides, finding the higher trail easily. And the rain held off.

Our luck only got better. The higher path turned north, passing a lady in Tibetan-style dress and her daughter tending their flock of goats, and climbed, bringing the ridge Churen Himal (Churen Lek) into view as the clouds cleared – WOW. A little later, snow covered triangular peaks emerged above the junction of the Barbung and the Mu Chu … followed by Dhaulagiri II peeking out of the clouds. Mani walls and chortens led us up and on, the clouds continuing to clear and the air temperature warming. Fantastic views back down the valley to the Dhaulagiri Massif – crystal clear views of Dhaulagiri II (7751 m) and III (7715 m), and the fluted northern flanks of Churen Himal(Churen Lek).

Amazing.

Ahead of us, to the north, Seri village came into view – beautiful stone houses set amidst stone walled fields. A stunning location.

We were camping just above the school, and by the time Charles and I arrived (we’d been taking lots of photos….) the tents were up and the village children overcoming shyness to inspect their visitors.

After more photos it was time for afternoon tea and biscuits in the blue mess tent, which gradually morphed into an impromptu health clinic as news of Val and Steffi’s arrival spread.

Before dinner we headed down to the school to distribute LED solar lights. In return, we received a thank you song and dance ceremony, accompanied by a young man on a taimur (?), butter tea and rakshi. Just smashing. Late to bed – 9pm! – after a really wonderful day.

I feel like we’re really in Dolpo (དོལ་པོ) now.

Sunday 23 April 2017: Seri / Sheri (4048 m) – Dukot – Yallay / Yale (~4100 m) (photos)

A beautiful morning, good views again of the twin peaks of Dhaulagiri II (7751 m) and Dhaulagiri III (7715 m).

After breakfast, down to the school for an official farewell from the villagers – katak scarves and a bottle of rakshi to be consumed before we left! Fabulous.

Slightly tipsy, we took the trail north, contouring high above the Barbung Chu / Bharbun Khola. A gateway gompa and a stone staircase gave us our final glimpse of the village – Seri was one of my favourite places of the whole trip.

Lots of undulations. Streams coming down from the hills above. Big birds cruising the thermals below us. Hot. Birch trees came and went and we met a lone man leading his horse coming the other way. Val picked his brains on conditions ahead.

An early stop for soup gave today’s bad weather time to catch up with us – grey clouds arrived and it got colder. We passed the next couple of hours isolated in our GoreTex hoods, getting strung out along the good trail.

As rain/sleet set in Sam and I spotted a village – fields, people and hellos – ahead of us. Our spirits rose as we descended towards Dukot… across the rock strewn route of a side river … then Nima and the porters continued on uphill and we left green and pleasant Dukot (or so we imagined it … ) behind.

On we slogged, but thankfully not too much further. Just most of it “up”. Dilapidated chortens and mani walls materialised, and a couple of neat and tidy stone houses came into view high on the hillsides to our left. We’d reached Yallay / Yale where Budi and the vanguard of porters had set up shop in the old school house, keeping an eye out for us.

Sam and I sheltered in one of the ex-school rooms finishing off our packed lunches, as gradually everyone made it into camp.

Tents up, Steffi and I adjourned to tent 3. Sleet turned to ice on the walls of our tent.

But the day ended well: Sani and the kitchen crew worked wonders for dinner, serving up spring rolls and chips. YUM.

Monday 24 April 2017: Yale / Yallay (~4100 m): LED Light Distribution & Top Chorten viewpoint (4210 m) (photos)

Bed tea at 7am as we were having a rest day in Yale, although our mule man had set off much earlier on the start of his journey home.

The sun was slow to reach us in the narrow valley of the Barbung Chu. But it did – and the looking back down the valley we had our first view of Dhaulagiri I / धौलागिरी (8167 m), crystal clear.

Villagers from Yale and people from further afield were already gathering, having heard tales of solar lights and medical checks. Chhiring and Budi had gathered names and numbers on their recce last autumn. Val asked me to do the official handing over of the LED solar lights. A real privilege. An old lady was delighted with a pair of the spectacles Val had brought, donated by friends in the UK; a middle aged man was less keen on Steffi’s needle-in-the-nail for a nastily swollen, nail-bed blood blistered thumb.

Val whisked Steffi off to do a mobile medical clinic and while Charles and Sam opted for R ’n’ R in the warm morning sun (and sans afternoon winds), Ernst Christine and I headed up to the Top Chortens above the village, Chhiring sending Budi and Tenzi to keep us company. We walked up through the village, passing the gompa, stone houses, lots of fields, a spring with a juniper tree and the village reservoir. Super views down the valley to Dhaulagiri I et al, and across the valley to snow dusted ridges. Another Himalayan griffon vulture soared overhead.

Time to give my trousers a wash before lunch, and although I failed to find the water pipe further along the trail (despite Christine’s directions) I did get to Yale’s northern gateway chorten, with lines of fabulously old-looking mani walls and mini chortens. Lots more mani walls and chortens were visible on the other side of the valley too.

Hash brown rösti and a fried egg for lunch, followed by a leisurely afternoon. Val and Chhiring disappeared off on a horse to another village where an old lady needed medical attention, leaving us to our own devices. I finished off My Last Duchess and then headed back along yesterday’s trail to take a look at our route in better weather (until I got “leopard fear”).

Back at base, Charles and I pottered back to the trail-side chortens to the north of the village, and met a yak train which settled in near the old school for the night. Lots of photos in the lovely afternoon light.

Eagle-eyed Ernst spotted the first blue sheep of our trip – safe on the far side of the Barbung Chu gorge. We eventually made out a group of four, photographed on maximum zoom.

Afternoon tea and biscuits in the “dining room” turned into map perusal and a few games of Ten Thousand.

Dal bhat for dinner followed by vanilla pudding.

A starry night, snug in our tents.

Tuesday 25 April 2017: Yale / Yallay (~ 4100 m) – Chang Yak Pa / Chap Chu (~ 4360 m) (photos)

6.30am bed tea for our onward route from Yale to a riverside camp at a place called Chang Yak Pa by Val and Chap Chu on the map.

Val and Ernst took the high route up to the village Val had visited yesterday and the rest of us took the gently undulating lower trail north. Easy going and lots of rest stop photo opportunities for the ever improving views back down the valley of the Barbung Chu. For the early sections we had more great views of Dhaulagiri II, and then, as our route veered north east a little, the fluted ridge on from Dhaulagiri II appeared, and then Dhaulagiri I / धौलागिरी (8167 m) itself.

Another blue sheep sighting, this time on our side of the river. Lots of people out looking after their goats and yaks, so lots of Namastes.

Budi led, with Sam and I close behind and it wasn’t until we dropped down to a section of trail along the stones of the dry river bed that we realised Tenzi had taken Charles, Steffi and Christine on the higher route.

A flat grassy area on the banks of the river, three short mani walls and two young girls guarding their goats (and chatting shyly with Sani and Mossum), marked our camp, Budi, Sam and I arriving around noon, and the others about half an hour later. It turned out that none of us could remember all the words to Loch Lomond

Packed lunches eaten, we lazed in the sun. Lots of people (relatively!) passed by, including a group of men returning from election canvassing in Charka and bringing reassurance that the next section of route was do-able.

The wind picked up as the afternoon wore on (as always), and we all sought refuge in our tents. Just before the sun disappeared, a large herd of goats, young and old, streamed through camp.

4.30pm to the mess tent for tea and chat until the cold persuaded me back to my tent for a snooze in my snug sleeping bag. Pasta and veg for dinner. Dark chocolate pudding with tinned mango slices for pudding – A Hit. Bed c. 8pm.

A cold night. Clear skies. The Milky Way on display way above.

Wednesday 26 April 2017: Chang Yak Pa / Chap Chu (~ 4360 m) – Chharka / Chharka Bhot / Charkabhot (4360 m) (photos)

Another half day – but what An Epic Half Day of icy river crossings!

6.30am bed tea. Frost on the inside of the vestibule and on the outside of the blue mess tent…. It had been a cold night.

Cheese omelette chapattis (after muesli) and plenty of tea, then off … and straight into our first river crossing. We crunched barefoot across the cat ice and frozen mud, and then into the icy waters of the Barbung Chu. FREEZING. My feet were numb before I was even a third of the way across. The river is low and slow enough to ford, but that means it’s wide too. Mercifully the stones weren’t slippy and my poles held. Safe on the far side, we did the frozen feet dance to revive the circulation.

10-15 minutes further on… a second crossing. Trickier this time as the river was deeper and faster flowing, constrained in a high walled gorge. Sani helped me to cross and I hobbled over to a sunlit stone slab to do the frozen feet dance for a second time.

Once we were all were safely across (the porters were taking the higher route, which involved ropes…), the trail inclined up from the river, staying in the sun. For the rest of the morning our route stayed high and dry, and mainly flat. A stop at a prayer flag cairn gave us a prime viewpoint and an encounter with more young men returning from Chharka, plus a politician and his entourage who rode by on horseback – very flamboyant.

As the wind started to pick up (plastering ‘Himalayan Gris‘ over everything) and clouds gathered, we arrived at two large chortens with mani walls, and a third chorten a little further on turned out to be the gateway for Chharka (छर्का). Turning the corner at the chorten, a large village materialised out of nowhere. Stone houses, higgledy piggledy, narrow lanes lined by dry stone walls and fields outlined by more stone walls, lots of chortens dotted the hillsides, and two gompas – one Bonpo and one Buddhist.

We walked through the “old town” with its fortified centre crammed on a small hill at a bend in the river, and to the Dhaulagiri Hotel – run by Wangmu, an old school friend of Val’s Tenzi, which was to be our base. We were camping a short way down the lane, in a stone walled yard next to one of Chharka’s shops (shops!).

Hot lemon then noodle soup lunch, sat in the courtyard of the hotel, followed by a free afternoon. I explored the village, finding Badiji already ensconced in Chharka’s rakshi joint, a lady weaving on a loom outside. Too windy to stay out for very long though, so I went back to our tent to catch up on my diary. Although we’d been through some superb scenery and stayed in amazing villages, I was a bit fed up with the half days and rest days. I should have brought more to read.

Tea at 4.30pm, snug in the hotel’s main room, then a slow game of Ten Thousand followed by Yahtzee. Dinner at 7pm – Pizzas and crispy scalloped potatoes! Sani sure does spoil us…. And a rakshi chaser before bed. We walked down the lane to our tents under a light fall of snow….

Thursday 27 April 2017: Chharka / Chharka Bhot / Charkabhot (4360 m): Mola Lek (4850 m) (photos)

A rest day in Chharka today, so a leisurely start – 7am bed tea then breakfast back in the Hotel Dhaulagiri’s dining room. Pema had made his quiet departure well before we were up.

We spent the rest of the morning out. First stop, the Buddhist gompa back in the old town, visited clockwise – refurbished side chapel, big prayer wheel, the main chapel. Then up via the ridge chortens, on a trail the took us higher and higher, pausing at the three white prayer flags to take in the view of Chharka, the Barbung Chu and our routes from yesterday and tomorrow, the mountain ridges opposite, then up again to the crumbling defensive chortens high above the Jagkhel Chu, where we sheltered from the wind, snacking and taking in the views of the Jagkhel Chu valley, the old route to Tibet. Blue sheep were spotted – four males on the mountainsides above us, a large group on the hillside below, blending in so as to be almost invisible.

We got wind blasted on the final scramble up a rocky ridge, which got us closer to the four male blue sheep, and more views out over the main valley. Too windy to stay long up there on the Mola Lek (4850 m), so a speedy descent down steep, sometimes slippery hillside trails, back to the hotel for hot squash in the sunny courtyard and lunch, which featured tangy cheese momos, chips gundruk (fermented green veg), kidney beans and Chhiring’s special chilli mayo.

Steffi and Val headed off to do some medical visits, so I took the opportunity for a proper wash in the tent and spent the rest of the afternoon until 5pm tea time getting my diary up to date. Tea was followed by a tot of rakshi at 6.30pm (another exception to my general rule of “no drinking on trek”!), with refills making us all rather more garrulous.

7pm dinner – veg fried rice with sultanas and cashews, spicy potato and cabbage curry for me, goat curry for the meat eaters. Chocolate cake for pudding. Tea and tatopani prolonged dinner until almost 8pm, then I was officially allowed to go to bed.

Friday 28 April 2017: Chharka / Chharka Bhot / Charkabhot (4360 m) – Naliyang Sumdo – Norbulung (4750 m) (photos)

Chirpy sparrows and Himalayan finches provided a dawn chorus on Chharka departure day. Blue skies outside. Very bright. Bed tea at 6.30am. Steffi hadn’t had a good night, but I’d slept through most of it.

Breakfast back in the hotel – muesli, pancake and omelette and lots of ginger tea, a thank you to Wangmu, then off heading east out of town following wiggly mani walls and the Barbung Chu (although I think it is probably called the Chharka Khola / Chharka Chu in this area), which we crossed at a “new” metal box bridge.A large flock of goats grazed on the south side of the river and two girls were carrying kid goats across the bridge in basket backpacks – the kids’ feet were so small they would have slipped between the metal slats.

The trail took us up the narrowing valley, patches of snow on the ridge tops lining either side of the river, which was running clear over rocks and boulders. More mani walls. Easy underfoot, with a very gradual climb to the suspension bridge at Naliyang Sumdo, the intersection of the Barbung / Chharka Khola and the Thansan / Thasan Khola. A short steep descent down to the bridge, and an even shorter, steeper climb back up again to the sentinel rock ridge that marks the junction. At the top the terrain opened out and a short way further on we found a dip with low bushes providing extra shelter, where we waited for Val and Steffi to catch up, a large flock of ?Himalayan larks swirling overhead.

Naliyang Sumdo marked the point where we said farewell to the trusty Barbung and turned south to follow the left hand bank of the Thansan /Thasan Khola upstream. This next section brought more of a climb and a nasty rockfall-risk stretch across small stones / gravel / scree covering a steep hillside. A short final section through a very a narrow rocky defile, the river far down below, brought us into an enclosed scoop where four valley meet as the Thansan /Thasan Khola gathers tributary streams and rivers and flows on through the meadow on a wide gravel bed – Norbulung.

The cook tent was already up and running as Ernst, Sam, Charles and I came into camp, and Nima, Budi, Tenzi and one of the porters were putting up our  yellow / orange tents. Tents up and kit sorted, we sat by a glacial erratic sheltered from the wind and enjoying the sun, waiting for Val, Steffi and Chhiring who’d gone back to meet them with a flask of hot lemon. When they did arrive Steffi went straight to bed to try to sleep off her bad stomach.

Lunch at the rock: noodle soup and bits and pieces from our packed lunch of fried dough sticks, dried apple slices, a slice of cheese, boiled egg and the always-available coconut biscuits. Just as we were finishing, a small group arrived from the other direction, returning to Chharka from Jomsom. The man with the large rucksack was the school teacher, the lady on the horse recognised Val! Lots of chat as they stayed for a while to cook tsampa for their lunch before continuing home to Chharka.

I spent an hour or so exploring – a “stroll around the grounds”, then across the snow covered stream flowing in from the north west, following the footsteps of the Chharka travellers, the icicles dangling above the stream where the snow had melted. I walked up the Thansan Khola valley a short way before back tracking and scrambling up to the well made cairn on the outcrop overlooking our camp, the meadow scoop and junction of the stream and the main river.

As the sun dipped below the mountains I retired to the mess tent to do diary, not in the mood for James Graham’s A Game for Heroes (WWII thrillers are not my usual reading material but beggars can’t be choosers). Periodic checks on Steffi (she’d taken some meds but was still throwing up. Val stayed in our tent, keeping an eye on her), helped Tenzi set the table for dinner, generally mooched. Even took a selfie to see how much of a trek wreck I looked!

Dinner around 7pm – popcorn, soup, dal bhat, choc pudding (aka custard with lots of drinking chocolate powder added, it turns out) – then Val and I swopped sleeping bags and kit bags so that Val could stay with Steffi overnight. All a little bit alarming.

Saturday 29 April 2017: Norbulung (4750 m) – Molum Sumda (4860 m) (photos)

6.30am bed tea. A lone bird calling. Frosty tents.

Breakfast of muesli, savoury cheese chapattis with omelette, nice and cosy in the mess tent once the sun hit. Steffi still not 100% but on the mend.

We crunched across the snow covered side stream, then along the north side of the Thansan Khola. The valley was narrow, and the river (and the trail) were in solid shade, the river frozen. Super photogenic.

An easy 5 hours walk upstream. A few narrow sections required scrambles over rocks but most of the trail was dirt and turf track. As the valley broadened out we crossed paths with another group returning to Chharka, horses laden with supplies and a couple of grannies. The final approach to camp was over another thick layer of snow covering the Thansan Khola in the shady side of the valley, and stepping stones where another river (the Malung Khola?) flowed down a sunnier valley to meet it. Molum Sumda is the raised flat area between the rivers, and a good place to camp. It’s used by summer yak herders and there were basic stone buildings scattered around the valley.

Camp chairs were ready and waiting for us, set up in a sun trap in the lee of one of the buildings, and we supped on hot juice and noodle soup, enjoying the views as the tents were set up. Steffi adjourned to the tent and I headed over to the cook tent for water, and was treated to a cup of the Tibetan Tea which Chhiring was making for the porters – black tea, milk powder, sugar, salt and a bit of butter, all whisked up together. Tasty…

Joined Steffi (asleep) in our tent, embarked upon A Game for Heroes, and snoozed.

4pm tea and peanut cookies in the mess tent. Another group of travellers with horses had joined us in camp, they were on their way to Jomsom. Grey clouds were providing the odd dot of snow, which grew heavier as the afternoon turned into evening.

Big day tomorrow.

Sunday 30 April 2017: Molum Sumda (4860 m) – Sangda La / Tuchela Bhanjyang / Jungben La (5563 m) – Sangda Phedi (4190 m) (photos)

Clear skies and cold. Beautifully quiet save for the snow cocks calling.

I’d not slept well – my dusty throat had transformed into a cold. Not great for the highest day of the trek, complete with 2 passes. No voice to say good morning to Chhiring when he delivered our bed tea! Val dosed me up with Vicks VapoRub and paracetamol.

My spirits lifted, as did my energy levels, once we set off, continuing up the main valley alongside the shallow waters of the Thansan Khola (or is it the Thajang Chu?). Snow and ice hoodoos sticking up from the ice sheets and frozen mud. Soft valley undulations led us slowly up, snowy ranges on the right and ahead as the river valley gained height. We emerged onto the high yak kharka plateau – a wide open space lined by two ridges and the Dhaulagiri Massif at the far end. Yaks galore on the hillsides.

A cairn marked the end of something – we weren’t sure what, but it wasn’t the first pass. Still it was a marker, so Ernst put his engineering skills to work and raised a string of prayer flags. As we were waiting at the cairn, Nima pointed out the far end of the long black rock range on our left, telling us that was where the first pass was. I was more taken by the snowy mountains beyond that…

As we trekked across the vast yak kharka, last night’s horse traders caught up and overtook us. Then it was the long, hard slog up the shaley hillsides to the pass. Thin air made the final section hard work and I was thankful that Chhiring was setting a steady pace. Then, as prayer flags fluttered into view we emerged at a low saddle, a cairn marking our arrival at the Sangda La / Tuchela Bhanjyang / Jungben La (5563 m).

(Lots of the maps show the Niwar La / Niwas La (5120 m) as the first pass. Unless it was the cairn, then they’re wrong.)

Fab, fab views – almost 360° – and lots and lots and lots of photos. With Chhiring’s help, we strung some of our prayer flags amidst the rocky outcrops. Ahead of us (to the west I think), a mountain range was wreathed in cloud, a river curving around its base down in the valley below. Looking back we could see an array of peaks, ranges and valleys. If only I knew which!

It was pretty much downhill all the way from now on – not that that made things any easier…. A very steep descent, initially over old snow before progressing onto muddy shales and dusty trails all the way back down to a river, where Sani and co awaited in a blue roofed stone building, brewing up hot lemon and veg noodle soup. Shelter and hot drinks were both very welcome – the weather had closed in as we’d come down from the pass and it had started to sleet.

An easy trail, undulating above the river, brought us to a second passmarked with a cairn and prayer flags – possibly the misplaced Niwar La / Niwas La (5120 m)? We added contributions to both as the clouds swirled around us delivering the odd flake of snow…

Ernst, Christine, Sam and I followed Budi down the trail of scree and shattered rock as snowfall set in. All was quiet and still, all you could hear was your own breathing and the sound of your steps on the scree. It was a lot more down, but just after shrubs and juniper bushes had started to reappear we spotted the blue roof shelter of Sangda Phedi and the yellow / orange domes of our tents. We’d come down almost 1400m since the high pass.

Steffi and I settled into sleeping bags and milk chai materialised with Val. Early dinner at 6.30pm – roast potato balls were a big hit – and S and I were back in our sleeping bags by 7.30pm with good intentions to read, but sleep got the better of us.

Very windy overnight and my cold shifted to the hacking cough and snotty stage. Sorry Steffi…

Monday 01 May 2017: Sangda Phedi (4190 m) – Sangda (3710 m) (photos)

Awake before Budi arrived with bed tea, and a glimpse of the low clouds and snow falling outside.

After breakfast – with coffee as a treat – Nima led the way as we continued our descent into the Chalung / Kyalunpa Khola valley, Ernst, Christine, Sam and I in one group, Val, Steffi, Charles and Chhiring in another. A dusting of snow on the juniper and on rocky “Bryce Canyon-like” pinnacles made the mountainsides a magical fairyland. A lot of down brought us to the Chalung / Kyalunpa Khola and a metal suspension bridge. Less relieved to see the trail steeply ascending back up on the other side! Soon done though, and we found ourselves on an easy trail that hugged the hillsides, keeping mainly on the level and, in time, bringing us out of the snow.

A second descent over mud and rocks brought us to our second (side) river crossing, this time with stepping stones, and another ascent and narrower trails. Sheep and goats roaming the hillsides. One final, slippy, side stream crossing just before we got to Sangda / Santi / Sangde. The trail acquired stone walls, and we walked past fields, chortens and mani walls, spotting the blue mess tent soon after, and our yellow / orange tents materialising alongside hot orange as we strolled into camp around noon.

A super morning’s walking.

We were camped just outside the school (and used their loos), set above the village, which gave us a great vantage point for watching all the comings and goings.

Yesterday’s pass had brought us out of Dolpa and into Mustang District (मुस्ताङ जिल्ला) and the Annapurna Conservation Area, so we were on a different permit, and in a different kind of place. The village has a dirt road leading up the valley from the Kali Gandaki (गंडक ) and the main towns below. It’s still a traditional looking village though – stone houses with flat mud and branch roofs, terraced fields.

Puri, chips, sweetcorn and broad beans for lunch, and visits from village ladies with coral and turquoise to sell.

The skies cleared up as the afternoon progressed, and we got super views back up the valley and to the mountain range we’d crossed yesterday, and our descent – we could see both passes and the blue roof at Sangda Phedi. Lots of photos during the afternoon, plus diary, a spot of manky hanky washing, snoozing, reading, chatting….

Tea, Ten Thousand then dinner. In bed by 8pm for another night of snotting and coughing.

Tuesday 02 May 2017: Sangda (3710 m) – “Last Pass” (4425 m) – Phalyak Pass (~4315 m) – Phalyak (3175 m) (photos)

6am special delivery from Val – a chest infection combatting beverage, which turned out to be ginger and honey plus one of her oregano capsules (with their very menthol-like aroma). Very effective.

No more eggs (we’d had some pretty much every day on this trek), so spicy potatoes and two types of bread – puri and chapatti – for breakfast. Packed lunches were handed out – tibetan bread, cheese, butter biscuits, dried apple rings, dried papaya … and a mini snickers!!!

Very bright out so more photos before we set off straight up the hillside above our school camp, joining the trail (avoiding the road) up to a cairn which brought stupendous views back to the passes and the Dhaulagiri Massif behind us, north and south to the snow clad peaks and ridges that create the gorge of the Chalung / Kyalunpa Khola, and east to the Annapurnas.

Magic … until Sam and I got told off for going up too fast, which put me into a contrary mood for the rest of the morning.

Contoured round the hillside below the road, joining it for a section at the snout of snow coming off the snow covered range to our south. I think we all caught the sun on our right sides from the snow glare there. We continued on along the road, winding along the mountainsides getting ever-improving views to the east…

Traditional Pilates “plank” photos and prayer flags at the official “Last pass” (a somewhat underwhelming cairn at the side of the road), followed by a grotty stretch of mud and shale porridge that put me into an even worse mood, which was a shame as the route was really rather marvellous.

I perked up when we reached the end of our high altitude valley, and Phalyak Pass: stunning views over the Kali Gandaki (गंडक ) Gorge, from Annapurna (लोमान्थाङ) to Mustang (मुस्तांग) – north to the red and ochre pinnacles of Upper Mustang and the valley of Lo Manthang (लोमान्थाङ), straight ahead and south the long, long range of mountains – Annapurna II (7937 m) and IV (7525 m), Annapurna III (7555 m) and Gangapurna (7455 m), Annapurna I (8091 m),  Nilgiri and Tilicho Peak (7135 m) either side of the easy to spot Thorong La (5416 m), and the green, green pools of crops and orchards around the villages of Kagbeni (कागबेनी) and Muktinath below. Just wonderful.

A super descent, getting greener all the time, with a particularly steep section down into a narrow waterfall gorge where the snow still lingered in the shade. Easy going – accompanied all the time by the amazing views – to the final cairn pass at 3710 m, which brought magical views of Annapurna to our south and Phalyak village down below surrounded by fields and orchards, a river flowing through it on its way to join the Kali Gandaki. We could see the yellow domes of our tents pitched on a rooftop near the new “fort”. Val reckoned the village was at least 3 times bigger than on her last visit 10 years ago.

Juniper bushes, purple and magenta primula and yellow gorse brightened up our route as we zig zagged between sweeps of the road, making a speedy descent towards Phalyak. Pasang met us with a kettle full of orange squash and metal cups – very welcome as today’s trail had been thirsty work.

The day was still bright as we stumbled along the rock-strewn road into Phalyak, up a side lane to our “hotel”, and up a steep ladder staircase to our rooftop tents. Next door, an orchard of apple trees about to blossom. Veg noodle soup was served in the dining room soon after our arrival, followed by tea and biscuits. Extra veg in the soup from Phalyak’s market gardens.

Zonked out in the tent to the tune of horse bells (and occasional dog barking) until dinner, a feast of fresh veg in coconut milk sauce with pasta, plus custard with preserved mango for pudding. Bed soon after. Yes, another night of sporadic sleep thanks to cough and snot – and too hot!

Our last night under canvas 🙁

Wednesday 03 May 2017: Phalyak (3175 m) – “Telecom Pass” (3465 m) – Jomsom (2720 m) (photos)

Clear blue skies again, and coffee at breakfast. Strange to think we’d be eating inside from now on. Sani and Mossum had left early, catching the bus back to KTM and then on to Lukla for their next job and leaving Pasang in charge of the kitchen.

A short day, taking the high road over what we christened “Telecom Pass” (due to it having a telecom building and mobile signal mast) and then dropping down to Jomsom (जोमसोम).

A steady climb back up though Phalyak and south over shrub land, meandering between juniper, gorse and flocks of goats, brought us to the pass and fab views – mountains galore, mainly Annapurna taking centre stage as Dhauligiri was stubbornly shrouded in cloud, Jomsom and the Kali Gandaki river far down below, Phalyak and yesterday’s last cairn pass behind us to the north.

Steep scree/pebble descent, eventually arriving on the ever increasing outskirts of Jomsom just as the wind really started to pick up, which made for a dusty walk though the town. Some stretches were vaguely familiar from 2009’s Annapurna Circuit but my overall memory is of lots of construction, lots of people – surprisingly unsettling.

Hotel Mountain View won our custom on the basis that we’d be allowed to cook in their kitchen as much as for their location close to the airport. We’d be flying to Pokhara tomorrow. All Being Well. We were all starting to get a bit twitchy about that – not the flight, the getting on a flight…. We’ve not had a great hit rate with these final hops back towards KTM.

We settled into the sun room on the first floor, people watching and then tucking into our last lunch – chips, curry, chickpeas, carrot and green bean coleslaw, and fresh mango slices for afters. Big thumbs up to Pasang.

Our bedrooms were quite basic but came with a view out over the airstrip and an en suite featuring a sit on loo, a sink and a shower … luxuries which we all succumbed to during the afternoon (the shower provided cold water, not that much of it, but enough to get rid of a layer of Himalayan Gris), semi-inspired by the rain that set in around 2pm. Thank you cards were written, tips prepared, luggage rejigged to meet the 10kg kit bag / 5kg hand baggage limit. Caught up on diary as buses and lorries roared out of Jomsom down below.

Dinner at 7pm – another Pasang feast of beetroot soup, followed by 2 types of chicken (for those so inclined) with fresh veg and scalloped potatoes and then a ‘See You Again’ cake, accompanied by Marpha Apple Brandy. We held the Grand Farewell Ceremony at 8pm, followed by drinking, singing and dancing, Tenzi on a 4-string guitar and Budi and one of the porters on a drum. Super.

Bed 10pm!!!

Still raining hard…. but no water in the hotel.

Thursday 04 May 2017: Jomsom – Pokhara (photos)

Oh how I hate these end of trek flight days.

A sleepless night of “will we fly? what will we do if we don’t?” stress, snot and cough.

6.30am bed tea and then a final trek breakfast of muesli / porridge, fried eggs, toast and the last scrapings of Christine’s marmalade.

Clear skies, a few clouds on the peaks. Everyone on edge worrying about the flight and wearing / carrying all the necessary items to ensure our kit bags were < 10kg in anticipation (but without any way of telling how heavy anything was).

At least we had tickets. Skirting big muddy puddles we followed Val down the road to the airport where she and Chhiring checked in our kit bags and we had our handbaggage weighed – but thankfully not ourselves. So then it was just a matter of waiting… I finished off A Game for Heroes. Val and Christine managed to snag seats on an earlier flight, and the rest of us, chaperoned by Chhiring, got on ours OK despite the airstrip windsock having reached a solidly horizontal state. Great views of the fields and market gardens around Jomsom, then a short bumpy flight against the Kali Gandaki’s notorious headwinds to Pokhara.

Hot in the lowlands.

To Tseten’s for lunch, then back up to the Siddhartha Garden Hotel for a warm welcome followed by a lengthy shower and hair wash with the luxury of a plentiful hot water supply, clean towels and clean clothes. Steffi and I were in the same room as before, but with blue bedding this time rather than pink.

Then a lazy afternoon out on the veranda, reading my accumulated email – lots from Phil. Steffi, Sam and Charles headed into Pokhara, Christine and Ernst pottered and snoozed.

As the afternoon wore on the heat turned humid, bringing a thunderstorm that became a hailstorm.

6.30pm Ernst and I met for end of trek beers, joined by Christine and Chhiring (and bombay mix courtesy of our host) and a little while later Charles, Steffi and Sam returned, having holed up in a bar in Pokhara to sit out the rain and hail.

Friday 05 May 2017: Pokhara – Kathmandu (photos)

Early breakfast, after a return trip to the ridge for final photos of Lake Phewa and the marvellous mountain backdrop.

Katak scarves and farewells from the Siddhartha Garden Hotel team, then we piled into the minibus which had arrived with Val.

A hot drive to KTM, with a traffic jam on the long road up to the pass in/out of the Kathmandu valley. The roadworks on the outskirts of the city didn’t appear to have progressed much during our 4 weeks away, while in Thamel the road to the Hotel Marshyangdi was now being dug up so we drove to the back door to avoid the quagmire.

Steffi and I had a junior suite overlooking the courtyard car park. Skipped lunch, opting to unpack/repack and then to lounge in bed. My cold was still in full flow. Steffi back, we went out with Charles for coffee and cake at the Mandap Bakery, then a mooch around the shops before eventually tracking down an internet cafe with printer where we did online check in for Sunday’s flights home.

Early evening beers in the Marshyangdi’s courtyard – very busy with young VSO volunteers on a R&R weekend – then down the road for dinner at the usual place – the restaurant at Hotel Mandap – courtesy of Kang Kora Travels.

Saturday 06 May 2017: Kathmandu (photos)

A spare day, so Steffi and I had decided to head out early to visit Swayambhunath Stupa (स्वयम्भू स्तूप) aka the Monkey Temple. A good breakfast at the hotel, then a taxi to Swayambhunath organised by Chhiring. Val had already left for her journey back to the UK.

Hot, even at 7.30am. Lots of steps up, and lots of people visiting at the weekend, some in sports gear, others making offerings.

Sorted out a shared taxi back for 400R and got back to the Marshyangdi in time to join the others for a second breakfast.

Ernst and Chhiring headed off to purchase supplies for a fortnight making furniture for the health post LED is part-funding in Chhiring’s village. The rest of us walked to the real North Face shop, and around the Thamel side streets failing to find Durbar Square.

Back to the hotel via the minimarket for Vicks VapoRub, then the rest of the afternoon lounging around the courtyard and snoozing in bed, emerging briefly to wave off Christine at the start of her journey home.

Dinner at the Fairfield’s Italian restaurant, and farewell to Ernst. Heavy rain. Out of sorts.

Sunday 07 May 2017: Kathmandu – Abu Dhabi / Monday 08 May 2017: Abu Dhabi – London (no photos)

Another feast of a breakfast, after more of a lie in today. No energy. We hung out in “our” booth in the courtyard, people watching and making return visits to the buffet. Then back to the room for a final shower and snooze before 12noon checkout, leaving the others to go shopping.

Tenzi, Budi and Nima all on hand for our airport transfer. Airport formalities all very straightforward, even though we’d overstayed our 30 day tourist visa by a day.

Good flight to Abu Dhabi then a long 6 hours before our connecting flight to London. Lazed in the “lounging chairs”, listening to podcasts to try to stay awake.

Farewells at LHR, then tube home. Shower and straight into work. It took me a couple more weeks to shake the cold.

Everything comes to an end so suddenly.