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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Nepal's Upper Dolpo region untouched, untamed

October 16, 2008

Maoist rebels track and capture tourists
Michael Mccarthy,  Special to Vancouver Courier
Vancouver Courier
October 14, 2008

These days veteran travelers will tell you that every place in the
world has been explored.

There are cruise ships that take you to Antarctica and serve up
martinis on the beach and in 2009 the first flights to space take
place on board Virgin Galactic Airways. There are Starbucks in
Slovenia and video shops in Borneo. The hill tribes of Thailand
happily sell heroin to passing backpackers and there are tourist
traps in Tierra del Fuego.

There is indeed at least one completely untouched place left on this
planet and, in fact, I have been there myself. That very few people
from the outside world have ever been there doesn't mean that such a
destination doesn't exist. It's real enough, and you might even refer
to it as Shangri-la, although it's hell to get there. And even harder
to get back alive.

The Upper Dolpo region of northwestern Nepal is cut off from the rest
of the world by the Himalayan massif, and the only time you can trek
there is the brief window of opportunity right after the winter
snowmelt and before the summer monsoon when torrential rains turn the
rivers into raging torrents. Then there is the small problem of
having to cross several 20,000-foot passes where altitude sickness
may claim your life at any moment.

There are also no roads, no towns, no doctors, no medical supplies
and no possibility of any rescue in Upper Dolpo; it's too high for
helicopters to fly.

To the north of Dolpo lies Tibet, under the control of the Chinese,
and the border is closed to all. The Upper Dolpo region is also under
the strict control of Maoist rebels, who recently won the largest
share of preliminary elections to form a government in Nepal.

My trekking guide was Tinle Londrup, star of the Academy
Award-nominated film Himalaya, short-listed for best foreign film in
2000. Tinle is a national hero in Nepal for appearing in that film,
and--more importantly--he is chieftain of Upper Dolpo and guaranteed
my safety, which is the only reason I received a trekking permit to Dolpo.

We set out in late May, timing our trek to miss the monsoon. It took
five days for the Maoists to track and capture us, which they did at
the top of an 18,000-foot pass, where the 15,000 rupees I had stashed
in my bag came in very handy. Being robbed is one thing; being
kidnapped is quite another. I asked for a receipt and got one--a nice souvenir.

All told I walked approximately 500 miles into Dolpo and back out
again in just under a month, averaging up to nine hours a day of
hellish trekking, most of it straight uphill on extremely difficult
trails. Our party was headed by a Tibetan lama and our quest was to
find and rescue abandoned children living in the world's highest
villages. Upper Dolpo has been cut off from the outside world for a
thousand years. Trekkers are unheard of and the modern world is but a dream.

The scenery cannot be accurately described. High above tree level,
much of Upper Dolpo looks like the surface of the moon. Dust blows
constantly, and tiny villages at 17,000 feet are dwarfed by gigantic
mountains towering high above them.

On the trek into Upper Dolpo, though, one passes the legendary
Phoksumdo Tal, thought by those who have seen it to be the most
beautiful lake in the world, and perhaps the source of the legend of
Shangri-La. Here, at 15,000 feet, shimmers an alpine lake of
translucent turquoise, said to be over 600 feet deep.

Crossing the Himalayas into Upper Dolpo requires the utmost courage
and stamina. There is only one entrance, the incredible Kang La pass,
which requires a ten-hour nearly vertical climb to cross.

On the other side of the pass one emerges into another world; Shey
Meadows is the centre of the universe according to ancient
scriptures, an oasis of shimmering green at 15,000 feet that would
have inspired novelist James Hilton to write Lost Horizon had he ever
ventured this deep into the highest of the Himalayas.

Only a handful of outsiders have ever ventured to this almost
mythical place. It seems unlikely that few trekkers will ever make it
to Upper Dolpo, despite the shaky peace that endures in Nepal. In the
meantime, those interested in this region can read The Snow Leopard
by naturalist Peter Matthiessen.
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