After the rush on the Everest Trail in 1999 following the huge global success of the IMAX film, Monsoon 2000 has seen a rush on Dolpo. This is mostly due to the Oscar nomination in the best foreign film category for the unique French-Nepali production, Caravan. The film lost to Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother, but not without a successful box office run all over the world, including our own Jai Nepal Chitraghar where it was screened for an unprecedented four months. Trekker traffic in Dolpo has seen a six-fold rise this season with about 20 groups travelling all over Lower and Upper Dolpo, a few of them even traversing the high pass into the Mustang Valley. And because of Caravan, the must-sees in Dolpo these days are not just the waterfalls and Bon Po monasteries, but also the locations where memorable scenes from the film were shot.
Across the lake, along the slender path to Shey Gomba above the gossamer Phoksundo Lake is the exact spot where the yak fell into the water. The locals will tell you how the filming was done, how it was not a live yak that fell, but a
make-believe, French-made stuffed yak. A stunt yak did the last bit just before the fall. The path looks well maintained now, no danger of humans or yaks falling victim to gravity. Down near Ringmo are the wheat fields across which the
film's hero, Karma, was seen film-mainly because Eric Valli tried not to glamourise Dolpo and used its grime and earthy colours effectively. We looked for the handsome lead yak, Nygimpo (who plays himself in the film) everywhere but couldn't locate him.
All in all, despite reports in the Kathmandu press to the contrary, the film seems to have done a load of good for the local economy. Aside from the Rs 7 million or so that the production team spent directly in yak caravan rentals, renovation of gombas and houses, maintenance of trails and hiring locals to act in the film, the fallout of increased tourism is now bringing an indirect bonanza to locals. With more trekkers, more Dolpopas are being hired as guides, there are more porters walking up from Baglung and Pyuthan with rice and other essentials.
The trekkers are mainly from France, Switzerland and Germany and stay in their tented camps and eat what is brought in from Kathmandu. But the tea shops along the way are doing brisk business selling potatoes, salt, oil and tsampa to the porters that accompany the tourists. Every tourist needs at least five porters to carry the essentials needed on a Dolpo circuit from the airstrip at Jufal to Tarap, Ringmo, Phoksundo and back. "I haven't seen the film myself, but we have no reason to complain. The film made Dolpo known all over the world, and people are now coming to see what this place is like," says Kunga Tsering, who owns a tea shop in Ringmo. Earlier, Eric Valli had chosen a Tarap lass to take the part of the heroine, but the role was too demanding, and in the end he settled for the astoundingly professional and restrained acting of Lhakpa Tsamchoe from Dharmashala.
Except for her part and that of Karma's, everyone else in the film was a local, including Thinley Lhondup from Saldang (who plays Thinley). The grandson was played by a Saldang boy Karma Wangel, who is now studying in an English school in Baudha in Kathmandu and is seen walking to class in a shirt and tie!
Outside tarap,we ran into another "extra", a lama in the local monastery, who had acted in the dance sequence following the funeral. He has gone back to his normal life of saying prayers and raising barley.
With increased tourism, Dolpo is also drawing in food, consumer goods and other items from outside. The big change these days in the Dolpo valleys are the traders from Tibet, and the bazaars are full of Chinese beer and a potent whiskey with a Chinese label depicting a lion that the locals call "singha marka". There are also Tibetan mountain goats and wool in abundance. Dolpo is now obviously more accessible from the north than from the rugged, roadless parts of central Nepal-another reason why the film Caravan was such an ethnographic masterpiece in documenting the life (even though it was fictionalised) of the endangered salt caravans from Tibet. It is now easier to transport even rice and flour from Tibet instead of sourcing it from the Nepali rongba (lowlander) traders from the south.
The other item of hot trade between Dolpo and Tibet today is the "Himalayan Viagra", which locals say is a half-plant half-worm that the Tibetans call yarchagompo, a Dolpo speciality. As a worm, the yarchagompo slithers in the shade at elevations of around 4- 4,500 m during the monsoon. One yarchagompo hunter from Ringmo took us to see the young worms with their tails sticking out from the ground and wagging in the air when the sun shines. He looks for the tails and pick them off the ground, putting them in a big sack on his back. Dolpo yarchagompo is taken into Tibet and can be seen laid out on the streets of Lhasa, and even in traditional Chinesemedicine shops in Hong Kong. In Dolpo, one little yarchagompo about 7 cm long used to cost just Re 1 about 12 years ago, today a dried yarchagompo in good condition can cost up to Rs 70, onekilogram costs Rs 150,000. Yarchagompo can be pickled inside a raksi bottle and taken like ginseng, or ground into powder and mixed with milk. Either way, the locals swear it
After eight days of walking from Jufal, across Numa La pass (5150m) the trail drops steeply down to the holy Phoksundo Lake at 3,600m. Nothing prepares you for the size and the vivid colour of its deep waters. The forests along the side and the steep mountain flanks that plunge into the waters give the lake an out-of-this-world scenic quality. By the lake side in Ringmo is a Bon Po shrine-the animistic religion that preceded Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet. It is in the Tibetan rimlands of Mustang and Dolpo in Nepal that Bon Po survives.
As the indigenous early shamanistic religion of Tibet, Bon Po has a powerful following. Some Bon Po practices have
been assimilated into Tibetan Buddhism and two exist syncretically. One tip: while passing a Bon Po shrine go around it anti-clockwise while you have to do it clockwise for a Buddhist chorten or monastery. Along the lakeside, you still see shrines, dilapidated bridges and steep rails described by David Snellgrove in his great 1961 Dolpo adventure classic, Himalayan Pilgrimage. Others have been through here: Peter Mathhiesen before writing his book, Snow Leopard. French anthropologist Corneille Jest also did most of his work among the Dolpopas of Tarap.
Jest's book Tarap Dolpo will be translated into English this fall by Himal Books. Seeing the outstanding physical beauty of the place, the fascinating layers of Bon Po, Buddhism and modernity it is no wonder why they keep coming. Phoksundo lake is drained by one of Nepal's great natural wonders: the Phoksundo Falls. A lone lammergeier circles lazily in the watery mist that rises from the falls, and we think it could very well be the same one that "acted" in Lhakpa's funeral scene in Caravan. The spectacular waterfall descends 1,600 m through a series of steps to the confluence of the Bheri and Tarap Chu at Dunai. From Dunai it is a three-hour climb up to the airstrip at Jufal to which private airlines now operate regular flights from Pokhara and Nepalgunj. You can see that even without the film, change is coming fast to Dolpo. Powdered iodised salt from India has now replaced Tibetan rock salt from the lakes on the plateau, and with this the traditional annual salt caravans are disappearing. The yaks these days are more likely to be carrying "singha marka" Chinese whiskey or flour from the roadheads in Tibet to cater to Dolpo's trekking industry.