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Book of the month: Dolpo

Friday, 1 March 2019

Dancing Clouds. © Gerda Pauler 

A culturally Tibetan remote mountain region in north-west Nepal, Dolpo is home to breathtaking snow-capped landscapes and an unspoilt Bon culture. Essentially ignored by the government, in it's isolation the people of Dolpo have developed a self-sufficiant lifestyle but despite access difficulty and tourism restrictions, the area is a popular trekking destination. Gerda Pauler, author of Dolpo: People and Landscape and Great Himalaya Trail, is a veteran of countless journeys to the Himalaya and Central Asia and she never tires of visiting the area. In this extract, she shares some facts about the Dolpo region. 

Buy Dolpo this month and get Great Himalaya Trail free. 


Perhaps the westerner’s yearning for values other than economic growth and wealth has led to unrealistic and romantic perceptions and understandings regarding life in Dolpo.

While roaming the vast wilderness, we conjure up a long-forgotten past when life in the West was similar to the one in Dolpo; rife with mystic and magic, indigenous knowledge and earth-bound values. And when snuggling into thick down sleeping bags, slogans like, ‘living in harmony with nature’, ‘fighting with the elements’, ‘self-sufficiency’, ‘oneness’ and the ‘here and now’ start a joyous dance in the head. However, we once had good-enough reasons to opt for development and improvements, education and health care, heated houses and hot showers, roads and elevators. Why do we want the Dolpo-pa to be different from us? Was it their inherent self-sufficient lifestyle and independent character that made them settle here, in a harsh and hostile surrounding? It is more likely that the isolated location of Dolpo forced the people to develop a self-sufficient lifestyle that involves hard work, daily risks, and the constant fight for survival. Daily life in the isolated settlements close to the Tibetan border is changing rapidly and, depending on the observer’s standpoint, this can be seen either as a loss or an indispensable and long-awaited development that makes life more comfortable and less risky. 

A few facts

  • Dolpo is one of the least-developed rural regions of Nepal; bypassed and largely ignored by the government.
  • Approximately sixty-five per cent of the population are illiterate.
  • The majority of the Dolpo-pa live below the poverty line.
  • Hardly anybody has access to safe drinking water.
  • The few basic medical facilities are understaffed, poorly equipped and there is not one single doctor on duty.
  • There are no family planning programmes.
  • According to the World Food Programme sixty per cent of children show signs of chronic malnutrition.
  • The Dutch charity SNV states that life expectancy in Dolpo is forty-eight years for men and forty-six years for women.

Although the facts paint a gloomy picture of Dolpo and the living conditions there, they need to be put into a wider perspective. While about twenty-five per cent of the Nepalese people are landless and partly in forced labour (unfree recruitment, impossible to leave the employer, subject to coercion) with no other options for livelihood (according to the International Conference on Agrarian Questions and Comprehensive Solutions, 2014), the Dolpo-pa have been independent throughout history; they own livestock and property, trade and travel and are not obliged to hand over at least fifty per cent of the harvest to a landlord.

The Dolpo-pas’ isolated way of life forced them to develop the knowledge, techniques and mechanical skills required to produce all the items they needed for daily life.

Although affordable products manufactured in China have become easily available and popular in Dolpo, many villagers still know how to make old-style shoes, clothing and tools, and use them.

Wherever arable land and irrigation promised survival, villages have developed over time and display specific characteristics due to the natural surroundings.

The old part of Chharka Bhot resembles a solid medieval fortress where the buildings seem to stand closer together than in other villages in Dolpo.The houses are built on the very top of a stony hill that stands out from the fertile green fields around the village. It gives the impression that the inhabitants are reluctant to waste one single square metre of land that could be used for food production.The yak pens create a kind of impenetrable wall around the settlement, and there is only one entrance for visitors. It comes as a surprise to find some three-storey buildings in Chharka Bhot, because high-rise buildings were reserved exclusively for the local nobility in older times.

In other places, a wide valley floor might be scattered with stone houses, or a mountain slope is dotted with lonely farms as if the buildings and their owners had been searching for warming sun rays when choosing the construction site.

The majority of the houses are two-storey buildings, frequently surrounded by high protective walls.They are home to both the people and their animals.

Normally, the windowless ground floor is used for storage and as a shelter for smaller animals such as sheep and goats in case of bad weather. From the dimly lit storage place a makeshift ladder leads to the upper floor where the kitchen, the heart of the house, occupies most of the space.

Here, the family lives, eats, sleeps, works, and socialises with friends and relatives. Husbands agree on trading terms, wives give birth to children and older kids do their homework in front of the recently introduced smokeless stoves, mainly provided by WWF Nepal and various partner organisations.

Although some houses have artfully carved and painted window frames, the sun’s rays rarely enter the rooms. The transportation of windowpanes is too testing and costly for the majority of Dolpo’s inhabitants. In order to prevent the cold wind from coming in, the openings are either very small or covered by wooden planks, as in medieval Europe.The few buildings with window-panes are either monasteries, health posts, schools or the homes of wealthy traders.


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