Time catching up with timeless Dolpo

Images of Dolpo taken 40 years apart show little change. But that is about to change.

In 1973, the writer Peter Matthiessen spent two months trekking in this remote trans-Himalayan region of western Nepal with wildlife biologist George Schaller. The trip was made legendary by his 1976 book, The Snow Leopard. 

In it, he documented his pursuit of Zen Buddhism at a time of personal loss, Schaller’s pursuit of blue sheep and snow leopards to justify setting up a new wildlife reserve, and a timeless land that hadn’t changed much in 800 years. 

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(Left) Ringmo village in 1993. The traditional, flat-roofed, rammed earth houses had changed little in the preceding 800 years when this photograph was taken. (Right) Ringmo village on 30 May 2023. Remarkably, little change has occurred in the interim with the exception of a few more traditional houses. Road access in the very near future will assuredly bring with it new building materials (i.e., concrete), architectural styles, and new hotels to take advantage of the beauty of the nearby Phoksundo Lake. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Chorten near Phoksundo lake in 1971. (Right) The same chorten near Phoksundo lake on 30 May 2023 showing practically no major changes having had occurred, with the exception of a new paint job, in the interim. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Bridge near Ringmo village in 1971. (Right) The same bridge near Ringmo village on 30 May 2023, some 52 years later. Such traditional wooden bridges have been replaced with steel throughout much of the rest of Nepal. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)

There were no tourist lodges, the trails were primitive and exposed, food was scarce, and given their late November start the weather was unpredictable and uncertain. 

Shey Phoksundo National Park was established 11 years after Matthiessen's trek. But even though Dolpo had been ‘discovered’ by adventure tourists much earlier, it has still remained comparatively inaccessible and mysterious because of its remoteness, and expense. Only 600 tourists visited in 2022. 

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(Left) Bon Gompa near Ringmo and Phoksundo lake in 1993. (Right) Bon Gompa on 30 May 2023, showing virtually no change from the 1993 image with the exception of several structures having been painted in red. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Bon Gompa in 1993. The purple colour on the distant hillslopes and deep blue colour of the lake are most likely the result of colour saturation of the original slide film, as well as age. (Right) Several new buildings had since been constructed at the Bon Gompa when this photograph was taken on 30 May 2023 that partially obscure the foreground. The village of Ringmo, to the left in the background, appears to be more densely tree covered than it was 40 years ago. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Four young lamas walk along a trail at the Bon Gompa in 1993. (Right) Photograph taken on 30 May 2023 of new structures built in the interim show parts of the 1993 view partially obscured. All four of the young lamas are now senior lamas in Kathmandu. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)

 This, however, is about to change. Mustang and Dolpo are increasingly being connected by roads, and every major village within Shey Phoksundo National Park will soon be linked

Between May-July 2023 my wife Elizabeth and I spent 40 days trekking in upper Dolpo, photographing wild flowers for the Godavari Botanical Gardens (including the first photograph of the rare Primula ramzanae ever taken), making plaster casts of snow leopard pugmarks for the Natural History Museum, and noting the impact of yarsagumba harvesters upon the fragile, high-altitude landscapes. 

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(Left) Porter on the trail above Phoksundo lake in 1971. (Right) Jitendra Rai above Phoksundo lake on 1 June 2023. The lookout point with green roof in the background is the only real change that has occurred since Reinhard’s photo was taken in 1971. The lakeshore region in the background, however, will most likely be converted to a tourist hub with the coming of the new road, replacing traditional architecture with new homes and hotels made of cement, hotel-based as opposed to adventure tourists, automobiles, buses, and other modern amenities. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Porters on the trail above Phoksundo lake in 1993. (Right) Trail above Phoksundo lake on 1 June 2023. Little appears to have changed in the landscape since 1993, although the dangerous and exposed trails described by Matthissien in 1976 (some of which he crawled over on all fours) have since been improved. Yaks and mules, however, routinely fall to their deaths at certain narrow points. This section from Ringmo, crossing the 6,000m+ pass to Shey Gompa, might remain as a trekking trail. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) View to the north-east above Phoksundo lake in 1993. The extremely deep blue of the lake may be a result of colour saturation of the original slide film, and age. (Right) The same view photographed on 1 June 2023, with little evident change having occurred in the interim. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)

We also replicated 16 photographs of the villages and landscapes taken by noted anthropologist Johan Reinhard in 1971 and 1993 to assess the changes that had occurred.

Dolpo is still described as a roadless region by trekking agencies, available literature and websites. But new roads are planned and/or under construction from the Chinese border to Chakra Bhot, across to Saldang, down to Dho Tarap, and on out to Jomsom. 

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Contoured ‘mountain bike’ trails have been excavated by local communities from village to village to help bulldozers, which will link the remotest settlements within a few years. The Shey Gompa monastery featured in Matthiessen’s book will be linked as will Phoksundo Lake. 

Our original trek route had to be drastically revised as a result, as we played ‘dodge the new road’ to stay on traditional trade and trekking trails in upper Dolpo. 

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(Left) Trekker campsite near Shey Gompa in 1993. (Right) The same campsite on 10 June 2023. With the exception of a new stupa and several buildings in the floodplain to the right, very little is different from the image above taken 40 years ago. This, however, will change in the very near future when roads connect Shey with the outside world. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Scene from above Shey Gompa in 1993. (Right) The same scene on 10 June 2023. Only the red structure in the foreground, with its rectangular roof bordered with willow and juniper fuelwood, is new. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)
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(Left) Shey Gompa in 1993. (Right)  Shey Gompa on 10 June 2023, showing remarkably little change over the past 40 years. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / ALTON C. BYERS (RIGHT)

The repeat photographs thus took on an entirely new and unexpected meaning. The photographs actually show how little change appears to have occurred in the villages, monasteries, and landscapes that we replicated. 

But with the coming of roads, we can expect unprecedented changes within the next few years, such as new cement hotels, lodges, houses, and other infrastructure. Roads can bring positive (improved access to health care) as well as negative impacts (increased landslides, poaching). We left with the hope that the benefits will outweigh the negative, and that the magic and mystery of Dolpo will continue to prevail in perpetuity.   

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(Left) Tsakang Gompa in 1993. This meditative center near Shey Gompa was featured in writer Peter Matthiessen’s 1976 book The Snow Leopard. (Right) Tsakang Gompa on 11 June 2023 showing that little evident change had occurred in the interim period. Photos: JOHAN REINHARD (LEFT) / LAKPA NORBU SHERPA (RIGHT)
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(Left) Mother and daughter lodge owners in Yak Kharka identifying photographs of local people taken in 1971 and 1993 by anthropologist Dr Johan Reinhard. (Right) Ladies near Amchii Hospital identifying photographs of their friends taken in 1971 and 1993. Naturalist and mountaineer Lakpa Norbu Sherpa of Family Alpine Trekking and Mountaineering is to the left is holding the photographs. Photos: ALTON C. BYERS
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Elizabeth Byers (left) and the Head Lama of the Bon Gompa near Ringmo identify changes in landscapes and monastery structures from photographs taken in 1971 and 1993. Photo: ALTON C. BYERS

The historic and recent repeat photographs should provide a solid baseline for young Nepali scholars to conduct future studies on the impact of roads in Dolpo, one of the last of the remote, hidden, and mysterious treasures of Nepal and the world.

Alton C. Byers, PhD is a Senior Research Associate and Faculty at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), University of Colorado at Boulder.