Nomads of Dolpo

It is one of the last nomadic trading caravans in the world. For more than a thousand years, the Dolpo-pa people of Nepal have depended for their survival on a biannual journey across the Himalayas.

Once the summer harvest is over, the people of Dolpo sew flags and red pommels into the ears of their yaks, rub butter on their horns and throw barley seeds to the cold wind. Then they leave the fertile middle hills of their homeland and head north, to the plateaux of Tibet, where they carry out an ancient trade with their Tibetan neighbours.

Dolpo is a wild, mountainous region in the far western reaches of Nepal. Once part of the ancient Zhang Zhung kingdom, it claims some of the highest inhabited villages on earth. There are no roads and no electricity; access is by small plane or several days’ trek over high passes. Fierce winter snowstorms ensure that these routes are impassable for up to six months of the year, when Dolpo is isolated from the rest of the country. But during the summer months, when the alpine fields are alive with yellow poppies and the lower slopes are furrowed with barley and buckwheat, the paths are navigable again.

Dolpo is beautiful, remote and culturally fascinating, but it is also one of the poorest areas in Nepal. It lies in the rain-shadow of the mighty Mount Dhaulagiri, so monsoon rains needed to irrigate the land are infrequent, and eking out a living from the arid soil is a challenge. Most Dolpo households only produce enough food to last for six months. Staple foods include tsampa (roasted barley flour), yak and mutton, eaten with radishes or wild nettles gathered from the fields. And in a tree-less environment, it is only yak dung that provides the fuel for fires.

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