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Rolwaling, On Your Own

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Getting There

The isolated Rolwaling valley is only accessible by a few routes. The two trekking routes into the valley both enter at the extreme western end via Simigoan and the Tamba Kosi valley. Two routes over high passes, requiring guides and proper mountaineering equipment are over Tesi Lapcha Pass from Khumbu and over the Yalung La from Suri Dhoban or the Junbesi area. Another route, which is off limits, follows the traditional trading route over the Menlung La from Tibet. The two routes of interest to independent trekkers, beginning in Barabise and Dolakha, both pass through Simigoan before entering the valley. Information about the trek into Rolwaling from Barabise can be found in Jamie McGuiness’ Book “Trekking in the Everest Region,” or the book by Steve Razzeti “Trekking and Climbing in Nepal.” For those who dislike retracing their own footsteps, it is possible to trek in and out on different trails, although, some amount of backtracking (1-2 days) is still required. Another option is to hire a guide and equipment to attempt a crossing of the famous Tesi Lapcha Pass into Khumbu, o the less technical Yalung La into the little explored region south of Rolwaling.

The trek from Dolakha to Beding is the quickest and easiest route into the valley, taking 3-5 days. It offers a wide range of environments and numerous outstanding vistas. Ranging in altitude from 800m to 5000+ m, this trek covers a large number of Nepal’s varied ecosystems. The Express bus from Kathmandu to Dolakha takes about 5 hours, while the local bus can take as long as 7 or 8 hours. BUS TIMES AND NUMBERS. Dolakha is a large bazaar town at the end of the paved road. It is also the district seat and a popular retreat for Nepali and Indian Pilgrims. There are several lodges, with the most accessible and the one best geared for tourists being the Dolakha Lodge, immediately uphill from the bus station. It is possible to arrange porters in Dolakha if needed. The normal rate is about 300 Rs. per day. Note that if you have porters they will probably insist on taking five days, or at least getting paid for five days. Food, lodging and tips for the porters are not included in this figure, but are usually expected. The guided group treks typically stop in Singate, Jagat, Simigoan, and Drongkhang before reaching Beding. For this reason these villages have the best established tourist infrastructure and the highest number of visitors. It is possible to stay in most of the other towns along the way, but expect very simple accommodations.

If the bus arrives early enough, it is possible to begin the trek immediately. Otherwise, the hike begins the following day with a long, steep descent. From the Dolakha lodge, work your way down and left through the sprawling village. Ask the locals to point the way to the right trail. “Singate jaane bhato” (Singate-going path?) is usually enough. It is important to note that very few people along this trek speak little more than rudimentary English. Therefore, a basic understanding of simple Nepali phrases will be helpful. A phrase book could come in handy as well. SURVIVAL NEPALI Once on the trail, it takes about 1 to 1½ hours to reach the suspension bridge over the Doni Kosi below. For those coming directly from the bus, there is a simple lodge immediately before the bridge with excellent food. The elevation here is about 800m. From the bridge a short uphill brings you to Nagdaha where it is also possible to stay in simple teahouses. The path continues its gentle climb along the Tamba Kosi, occasionally jumping up and down to avoid obstacles. Although there are numerous teahouses spread out along the way, the next major village and substantial lodges are found in Pikhuti (2-3hrs from Nagdaha). This large town has at least three lodges in the main square. Immediately after leaving the town, the trail crosses a suspension bridge before continuing along the northern side of the Tamba Kosi to Singate (3/4-1 1/4 hrs). Wind your way through the numerous gardens and fields of this pleasant town to yet another suspension bridge. After crossing the bridge, look to the right for the Malla Hotel. Other accommodations may also exist. Dolakha to Singate is a solid days hike. The next town is still a few hours away. Leaving Singate, the trail passes a police checkpost that was recently destroyed by the Maoists. The path begins to jump up and down with increasing frequency through this next stretch, avoiding numerous cliffs and landslides, and often clinging to the hillside above dramatic drops to the river below. After about ¾-1 hour the first bridge and a small village are reached. Another 30 minutes yields another bridge and the village of Suri Dhoban. Like most villages along the way, it is possible to stay here, but the lodging is quite modest, often consisting of little more than floor space in a villager’s house. From Suri Dhoban, the trail immediately jumps up a steep hill to a small chorten before continuing its ups and downs along the southern side of the Tamba Kosi. Eventualy the trail gives way to flatter terrain and several cultivated fields. 30-45 minutes after leaving Suri Dhoban brings another small series of teahouses. Along this stretch of trail, numerous cascades tumble down the steep cliffs and into the river below. Manthale, the next major town is about 1¼ -1½ hours away. There is little in the way of services here, but another 45 minutes leads to the suspension bridge across the Tamba Kosi and into Jagat. There are two lodges here, both immediately across the large bridge.

Leaving Jagat, the trail begins to get trickier. The ups and downs become more numerous and the terrain gets rougher. The trail enters a steep walled gorge with countless waterfalls and other surprises lurking around every turn. The mellow Tamba Kosi turns into thundering whitewater. A single small teahouse and a school are reached 1¼ –1¾ hours after leaving Jagat. Cross the small tributary using the suspension bridge or take the shortcut over the bamboo bridge below. It is at this point that the trail from Barabise meets up with the trail from Dolakha. (See BARABISE) A few minutes leads to the town of Gongar and a few simple lodging options. A rest break at the next group of teahouses, called Chechet, is advisable (2¼ - 2¾ hrs.). The most difficult part of the hike is just across the river. At the last cluster of teahouses, keep an eye out for the trail down to the river and across the suspension bridge. A very steep and hair raising climb brings you to the village of Simigoan (~2000m). Keep a watch for the playful monkeys who frequent the cliff faces along this short stretch of trail. But don’t take your eyes off the trail for too long or you’re likely to loose your step and end up back where you started! Once in Simigoan, make your way to the lodges at the very top of the town. The trail through Simigoan splits into numerous small paths making route finding difficult. Follow the trail past the first large mani wall and through the open field before breaking left to head up to the ridge above. Ask the locals to point the way to the Gompa. There are two lodges here, the one closest to the Gompa caters more towards independent trekkers. From this little saddle, there are excellent views of Gauri Shankar and the steep valley walls below.

The next day brings you beneath colorful prayerflags and into the much-awaited Rolwaling Valley. The next major village, Beding, is a full day or two ahead, with few teahouses or people in between. It is here that you begin to get a feeling for the true remoteness of the valley. The higher altitudes also make for more comfortable temperatures as you leave the sub-tropical forests far below. The trail drops out of the saddle at Simigoan toward the Rolwaling Chhu. After a single small tea house (1 hour) it begins its long ascent up the valley. Along the trail there are numerous signs of its limited use. Leaves and overgrowth litter the trail and moss grows between cracks in the man made steps. The foliage is incredibly thick and lush, making off trail exploration impossible. Another 1-1½ hours brings you to another small teahouse. A few minutes after passing the teahouse, the trail splits. Both trails eventually meet up again later, but the upper trail is more traveled and offers a spectacular view of an incredible waterfall. The climb continues, eventually easing into a nice traverse with excellent views of the valley below and the mountains above. From here 1-1½ hours brings you to a small group of teahouses, called Kelche, where it is possible to stay or get a quick meal. A final ½ hour trot down hill brings you back to the Rolwaling Chhu at Drongkang. This small squatters camp was nonexistent ten years ago, it has sprung up recently to cater to the needs of trekkers and their porters. The accommodations are very simple here, but sharing floor space next to the cooking fire is a great experience and the food is excellent.

The last part of the climb from Drongkhang to Bedding is filled with breathtaking views and almost no sign of human habitation. Don’t plan on any teahouses until just before Beding, aside from a few small shacks there is nothing. The trail begins with a short climb, winding its way through rhododendron forests and mossy boulders before coming to the suspension bridge across the Rolwaling Chhu (1- 1¼ hrs). The vegetation on the other side of the river opens up and is much dryer due to the southern exposure. Great views and towering cliff faces surround you. The impressive peak on the left hand side of the valley is called Tabayabum. The trail levels off slightly after ¾-1¼ hours, offering great views of Chekigo. Beding is tucked against the northern side of the valley, directly below this peak. Another 30-45 minutes brings the trail back alongside a temporarily calm stretch of the Rolwaling Chhu and a fork in the trail. The trail coming in from the left and across the log bridge is the high route over the Daldung La that is used when the regular trail is impassable during the monsoon. The prayer flags and katas in the trees and surrounding area mark the Samtar Gora, a sight sacred to many Hindus as well as Buddhists. This sight was discovered to be the dwelling place of Chi Gora (Nai Devi) when a Yak was found spilling milk at the spot every night. Twice each year, the Sherpas make offerings of milk at the small shrine. Lowland Hindus make the trek each November to present their offerings. The trail to Beding continues strait ahead. Another 30-45 minutes brings you to the first of the winter settlements, called Nyimare, which is marked by a row of mani stones. Bedding is now only ¾-1 ¼ hrs away. Before reaching Beding, the trail passes the other winter settlements of Ramding, Gyabrug and Chameka. These villages are named after their unique climactic virtues. Nyimare means “good sun” or “early sun,” Gyabrug means “late but warm sun,” Ramding refers to the avalanche prone waterfall across the river, and Nyimare means “wolf no” referring to the trees that were cut to destroy the habitat of livestock killing Jackals. Once in Beding, there are 4 advertised lodges, although just about anyone is willing to offer a bed or floor space for a reasonable price. The lodges themselves are little more than peoples’ homes and therefore have limited space. Many plan additions and improvements to be ready by spring 2002, with at least one planning on building a full-scale lodge. Flexibility is the key to finding a place to stay.

What to do in Rolwaling

There are countless opportunities for exploration and relaxation in the valley. A few of the more popular attractions and activities are listed below.

From Beding it is possible to make a quick ascent up to Chamgang, the meditation retreat perched in the cliffs above the village. This interesting building was constructed and financed by Lama Nawang Tembi, with help from local villagers. A small elusive path skirts the left side of the major rock buttress before crossing below the yellow prayer flag and continuing along the wide ledge to the small white building. From here there are excellent views up and down the valley. The three major peaks that make up the southern valley wall are all over 5,500 meters. From left to right, they are Yalung Ri, Dorje Phagmo and Tabayabyum. If the weather is clear, late evening offers impressive displays of alpenglow on these craggy peaks.

Also in close proximity to Beding are several photogenic waterfalls. One can be reached by a short walk to the upper end of the village. Another impressive cascade cuts into the rock above the suspension bridge at Chameka. It is possible, albeit difficult, to reach the cirque above the falls by staying close to the eastern edge of the steep valley and finding a little used path. The stream which forms this waterfall is known as Jomoi Gul Chhu, the water melts directly off of Gauri Shankar’s southeast face. To reach the top of the falls and the cirque at the base of Gauri Shankar, begin by leaving Chameka through the upper fields on the hill. Head northeast up the slope toward the steep cliff face that forms the right hand side of the valley. Hopefully you will intersect the trail at some point. If not, continue alongside and under this cliff before eventually breaking left across the gullies and toward the few lone trees on top of the slight ridge. Make your way through the thick Juniper bushes and down to the river before hiking up into the cirque. Note the three large boulders immediately before the river pours into the slot. This is where you will need to regain the ridge on the return trip. On a clear day, this hike offers views directly up the steep ice and rock walls that form the Tibetan border. From some vantage points, it is also possible to stare up the imposing southeastern flanks of the Holy Gauri Shankar.

No stay in Beding is complete without a visit to the small Gompa situated at the beginning of town. The thankas inside the Gompa were painted in 1960 by the famous artist, Kappa Kalden from Khumbu. Although the external displays near the entrance are in poor condition, the interior paintings have been well preserved. The northern wall of the Gompa is filled with the books of the Kangul and Yum, which were carried from Tibet after being printed in 1944. If you are lucky, you may be able to witness one of the numerous festivals that take place at the gompa each month. Two new gates were built in 2001 which frame each side of the courtyard and enclose the gompa compound. The lamas request that pictures are not taken inside. As with all of nepals gompas, donations are expected.

Another possible hike from Beding is toward the Menlung La. The trail breaks left off of the main trail several hundred meters up the valley from Beding. The steep climb gains a lot of altitude, making acclimatization important. Those that have already been to Na or higher shouldn’t have problems. This hike brings you to the Glacier below the Menlung La. It was over this high pass that Rolwaling locals traditionally carried out their trade with Tibet before the Chinese closed the borders in 19--. They would trade yaks, salt, wool, rice, and other goods between Tibet and India. This is also the sight where Eric Shipton spotted the Yeti in 1951 and took his famous photographs. His was the first western sighting of the elusive creature and sparked the hype surrounding its controversial existence that continues to this day. The border is still officially off limits to tourists, and it is possible that even a trip close to the pass could be considered illegal. However, for those willing to take the risks, and for those with the proper equipment and knowledge of glacier travel, it could be possible to reach the border or cross into Tibet at this point.

One and a half hours up the valley from Beding is the last major settlement, called Na. This village is the oldest in Rolwaling and was the main settlement before the agriculture shifted its focus from barley to potatoes. Once the potatoes were introduced, cultivation became possible at lower altitudes and the Sherpas built Beding and the winter settlements. Its fields, lined by several kilometers of rock walls, still produce the majority of the valley’s crops. While a daytrip to this area is certainly worth the hike, at least a day or two should be spent here to really enjoy all it has to offer. Several options for lodging exist, though it is best to ask in Beding. The three main attractions are Omai Tso, Tsho Rolpa, and the meadows below the Yalung La.

Omai Tso (Milk Lake) is a beautiful small alpine lake that offers excellent views of massive mountains. This little gem is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. Numerous Hindus from the lowlands make a yearly pilgrimage to this lake to worship Bhoudou on August 1. Buddhists believe the lake is inhabited by invisible spirits which are half man and half serpent. These “Lu” inhabit all large bodies of water and bring good fortune. The Valley’s Sherpas hold a festival here in mid-summer. The fluttering prayer flags and small chortens add to the spiritual and photogenic quality of the area, while the massive mountains of the Nepal-Tibet border are reflected in its still waters. In addition to visiting the lake for spiritual purposes, the Sherpas spend several weeks each year in the small yak camp at the far side of the lake as well as another one, located farther up the valley. To get there follow the trail out of Na and across the bridge. Continue up the valley to a second bridge at the base of the glacial moraines (about 1 hour). Immediately after crossing this bridge, head left following numerous faint trails and cairns up the terminal moraines of the Ri Pimo Shar Glacier to the small lake on the left edge of the glacier. This is a good half-day trip from Na and the perfect picnic spot. As with all areas of the valley, please keep the area clean and keep its sacred nature in mind.

For the energetic, it is possible to make an ascent of the ridge (Ri Pimo) just north of the lake. This ridge is straightforward and offers outstanding 360 degree panorama of the area. Gain the ridge by heading up the steep slopes from the far northern end of the lake. Continue up the ridge as far as you see fit. In addition to offering outstanding views, this is an ideal acclimatization hike for those heading over Tesi Lapcha or up one of the valleys high peaks.

It is also possible to combine a trip to Omai Tso with a visit to Tsho Rolpa. This giant glacial lake has received a great deal of press in recent years. Fear that this lake may breach its natural dam and flood the valley below has lead to a much international intervention. While previous attempts to siphon the water from the lake have failed, a current program which employs a series of deep trenches cut in to the terminal moraine, has lowered the water level slightly. Still, the danger for an outburst exists. Early warning sirens have been installed in villages throught rolwaling and the tamba kosi valley far below. The buildings and signs at the edge of the lake detail some of this information. To get there from Omai Tso, walk along the far lower end of Ri Pimo Shar’s terminal moraine, eventually meeting up with the main trail before heading up past the large boulder on top of the ridge. Be especially careful when crossing the moraine. The steep sides are extremely unstable and any attempt to take a short cut could trigger a landslide. Instead be prudent and find a gradual and stable point that can be crossed safely. The large cairn and prayerflags have been dubed “Dutch Rock” after the ….. efforts to solve the Tso Rolpa problem. Trekkers are encouraged to add more stones to this monument to …….. From Na, the trail to Tsho Rolpa breaks right after the second bridge and follows the well-worn trail to the lake.

The trail to Yalung La is a steep, 700m climb, but well worth the difficulty. It yields breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and amazing sunsets. After crossing the first bridge from Na, be on the lookout for a small cairn and a faint fork in the trail (20-30 min). The trail leads up the steep valley via switchbacks, passing a small summer yak herding camp (1¾-2½) where the trail crosses a small stream. Continue west past several small cairns before continuing southward up the valley. From here, 30-45 minutes brings you to a small flat area that the trail crosses before heading up to a large flat dry lakebed (30-45 min). While the valleys below fill with afternoon fog, this vantage point regularly remains high above the cloud tops, rewarding the hiker with stunning sights. The garbage scattered in the sand marks the Yalung/Ramdung basecamp and illustrates one of tourisms uglier sides. It is best to reserve a full day for this trip. Even if you don’t make it all the way, the views are great from any height. From the dry lake, it is possible to explore the numerous high rocky ridges. Those with the proper equipment can use this basecamp to stage an ascent of Yalung Ri. This 5630m peak is a straightforward snowclimb up a small glacier culminating in an impressive technical summit ridge. This mountain should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers with proper equipment. This area also serves as the basecamp for those attempting to climb Ramdung Go, one of the valley’s two trekking peaks. An ascent of this mountain requires a peak permit and guides.

In Na there are a few sights worth a visit. The valley’s first Gompa was originally built in Na, but unfortunately it has fallen into disrepair. However, valley residents have raised enough money to rebuild the Gompa and construction is planned to be complete by June 2002. High up on the hillside at the western end of town is the Na meditation place, visible by its numerous prayerflags. The large rock under which the retreat is built is known as Urgen Drokang, thought to be a spontaneously created likeness of Guru Urgen Rinpoche. Below the meditation place, painted on a large flat rock, is a picture of Guru Urgen Rinpoche. And below this painting are several large mani stones which were also visited by the Rinpoche on his way through the valley and into Tibet. The large square stone is known as Urgen Shuti and is believed to be the chair of the Rinpoche during his stay in the valley.

(Drawn largely from The Sherpas of Rolwaling by Janice Sacherer)

Rolwaling residents believe that Guru Urgen Rinpoche or Pasamadvada, the Indian Yogin who brought Buddhism to Tibet, created the narrow Rolwaling valley with one pass of his giant horse and plow. In sherpa language, “rolwa” translates as furrow, and “ling” means place, heance the valleys hybrid name referring to the deep, narrow nature of the valley. After creating the valley, Guru Rinpoche rested and meditated for three months with his wife and 100 followers. This made Rolwaling one of eight beyuls, located throughout Nepal, Tibet and India. These beyuls are sacred valleys believed to be places of refuge for man, hidden from the strife and trouble of the outside world. As a result, the inhabitants tend to be devoutly religions. Killing is strictly forbidden within the valley, although now days trekking groups have been know to buy and slaughter goats, upsetting the local residents. Several Holy Landmarks and monuments are scattered throughout the valley. Most are connected in some way to Guru Urgen Rinpoche, although some are associated with non-Buddhist gods. Gauri Shankar, the massive sentinel which stands guard over the valley and, in particular, Beding, is believed to be the home of the oldest Tseringma Goddess. The others reside on the summits of Sagarmatha, Kankenjunga, Chobamari and Yalingma. This impressive peak is also considered to be the home of ……….., and is therefore very important to the lowland hindu population as well. The valley’s main Gompa is the Sanga Chholing Gompa in Beding. The valleys first Gompa was in Na and is being rebuilt. Several festivals take place at the Beding Gompa and other sites around the valley each month.

(Drawn largely from The Sherpas of Rolwaling by Janice Sacherer)

While the exact origins of the first Sherpa settlers in Nepal is still disputed, it is widely agreed that the first wave of immigrants arrived from Eastern Tibet in the 1500’s. The first immigrants settled in the nearby Solu region. Later groups gradually arived at later dates and settled in the higher areas of Khumbu. Recently a large number of Tibetans have continued to immigrate, may of whom are assimilated into Sherpa Society. Rolwaling was the last of all Sherpa communities to be settled in Nepal, largely due to its isolation. Families from peripheral areas of sherpa territory were the first to settle in the valley. A large number of the original inhabitants seem to have fled to Rolwaling to escape debts or other trouble.

The first settlement in the valley was located at Na, where its inhabitants grew Barley. The next houses were built in Beding. Around the 1880’s potatoes were brought over the Tesi Lapcha Pass from Khumbu which drastically altered their agricultural and social systems. Even today, the potato is essentially the only crop grown in the valley. The relative ease of potato agriculture, and its reliability as a stable crop lead supported a large population boom and lead to the construction of the lower winter settlements. Originaly, the main Gompa was in Na. After the winter settlements were established, the shrine in Beding was enlarged to a full size Gompa.

The first discovery of the Rolwaling Valley by Westerners was in 1951 by the second British Reconnaissance Expedition, lead by Sir Edmund Hillary. Shipton, Evans and Gregory approached the valley from Tibet over the Menlung La. Although they were unable to find a way down through the heavily crevased icefield, they were awarded with the first ever western sighting of the Yeti. Shipton took several famous photographs and sparked the intrest that has continued to this day. Hillary and Ridford approached the valley over the Tesi lapcha pass while testing oxygen equipment. After spending a few nights on the pass, they descended into the valley and become the first known westerners to set foot in Rolwaling. They returned to Kathmandu via Charikot (Dolakha) and Barabise. A year later, in 1952, another British mountaineering group approached the valley via Barabise. Present on this Expedition was Tom Wier who wrote East of Kathmandu which included the first written account of the valley.

During the following 12 years, several other expeditions made there way into the valley. These expeditions were primarily primarily parties with scientific and mountaineering objectives. Several attempts were made on Gauri Shankar, although none were successful. In 1964, the valley was closed to western visitors. Only a handful of individuals were issued special permits to carry out studies of the area. The valley was opened again in 1971 and became a popular destination, not only for mountaineers, but trekkers as well. The Nepalese government once again closed the valley in 1982???. In the early 1990’s it was opened only for groups with a mountaineering permit and accompanied by a guide. Unoficially, Rolwalling is now open to independent trekkers. There are rumors that trekking permits will soon be required.

(Drawn largely from The Sherpas of Rolwaling by Janice Sacherer)

Rolwaling’s unique climate is caused by a number of interacting factors. These include the various altitudes found within the valley, the great height of the surrounding mountains, the southern latitude, Nepal’s monsoon system, and the relationship of the air currents between Rolwaling and the lower Tamba Kosi Valley below. The average temperature is kept fairly low throughout the year, with average monthly lows typically ranging from –16 degrees C to 8 degrees C in beding during the evening. Nepal’s close proximity to the equator keeps the winter temperatures much higher than would be expected, with bedding’s average monthly highs ranging from 3 degrees C to 17 degrees C. The intense solar radiation resulting from the igh altitudes also creates drastic differences between sunshine and shade temperatures. The low latitudes means that it remains light for at least 11 hours throught the year. During the winter, the valley experiences small amounts of dry snow. Summers are charachterized by, large amounts of Monsoon rains. However, the high mountains along the southern valley wall efectivly blocks the monsunal weather patern and is responsible for reduced amounts of rainfall relative to other parts of Nepal. Rolwalling is therefore classified as a dry inner valley.

However, despite the relative dryness of the valley, afternoon fog is predominant throught the year and diferentiaqtes Rowaling from other dry inner valleys. This regular occurrence arrives with systematic integrity from the Tamba kosi valley and restricts visibility to a few hundred meters above the valley floor. This pattern occurs at eather end of the monsoon season, beginning in mid march and ending in mid September. During the monsoon it is typically overcast all day. From November until the end of April, the days are typically clear, with only occasional storm systems moving in.

One benefit that this weather system has upon the valley is that it contributes to the wide variety of plants which occupy the area. The valley’s physical qualities also contribute to the unique floral combination. There is a large difference between north-facing and south-facing slopes.