Many people describe western Nepal as "unexplored", but Westerners have a bad habit of assuming that what is unknown to them is unknown to everyone. Western Nepal has a large population of both Hindus and Buddhists, and the countryside is crisscrossed by trails in all directions. It is remote and unknown from the Western viewpoint because of its relative inaccessibility and its distance from Kathmandu. Regular flights to Jumla and several other airstrips in the west reduce this remoteness somewhat, but add considerably to the cost and to the logistical problems. Another factor that discourages trekkers in western Nepal is that many of the culturally and scenically exotic regions are in restricted areas with high permit fees. Many of the trails in the west continue to the northern side of the Himalayan ranges of Nampa, Saipal and Kanjiroba, making it easy for trekkers to zip up trails along river valleys and into Tibet - a practice that both the Nepalese and Chinese would like to discourage. Some of these treks, including Shey Gompa to the north of Phoksumdo Lake and Humla to the north-west of Jumla are described in the section on Restricted Areas.
The history and anthropology of western Nepal is complex and fascinating. The region is predominantly Hindu. Tibetans make up only a small part of the population, yet they have had a significant influence on the area through trading. Most of the homes are Tibetan style. Their flat roofs covered with packed earth are well suited to the semiarid conditions of the region behind Dhaulagiri. In many villages the houses are packed closely together one atop another, climbing up the hillside and sharing common roofs. There are few stairs inside the dwellings. Instead, people climb from one level to another on carved log ladders outside the house. This is the only place in Nepal where Hindus live in such obviously Tibetan-style houses.
Cultural roots extend north into Tibet and west to Kumaon in India. Until Jumla was conquered by the army of Bahadur Shah in 1788, the people of western Nepal had very little reliance on Kathmandu. The Chhetris of western Nepal are categorised into three groups: Thakuris, who are the aristocracy; normal Chhetris as found throughout Nepal; and Matwali Chhetris, "those who drink liquor". The status of Matwali Chhetris is fascinating because many Tibetan immigrants long ago masqueraded as Chhetris. For many generations they have evolved their own form of religion that is a peculiar combination of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Most of western Nepal is either outside of the monsoon's influence or else in the rain shadow of Dhaulagiri Himal. Summers tend to be dry and there are few leeches. The best time for trekking is from late August to September when the wildflowers are in bloom. Winters are cold and there is a considerable amount of snow - so much, in fact, that there is some potential for skiing in parts of western Nepal. The trekking season, therefore, is from late spring and throughout the summer until late October. One problem with summer treks in the west is the inordinate number of flies that gather on food and inside tents.
Jumla to Rara Lake
Rara Lake is the focal point of Rara Lake National Park and is a good destination for a trek in western Nepal. The route is very much "off the beaten track" and affords glimpses of cultures and scenery very different from that in the rest of Nepal. Rara is a clear, high altitude lake ringed with pine, spruce and juniper forests and snowcapped Himalayan peaks. In winter there is often snow on the ridges surrounding the lake. Except for the army assigned to the park, nobody lives at the lake because the government resettled all the people of Rara and Chapra villages when the area was declared a national park.
Jumla to Dolpo
Dolpo is a remote region of Nepal that has been bypassed by development and, until recently, by tourism. Although a few anthropologists and geographers had explored the region, the entire district was closed to trekkers until 1989 when the southern part of Dolpo was opened to organised trekking groups. This trek traverses the interesting trade route from Jumla to Dunai, then visits Phoksumdo Lake and the Tibetan style inner Dolpo region of Tarap before flying back from Dunai to Nepalgun j.
Peter Matthiesen'sThe Snow Leopard and Snellgrove'sHimalayan Pilgrimage have contributed to the mystique and attraction of Dolpo. Both writers visited Shey Gompa to the north of Phoksumdo Lake. Shey Gompa is not particularly interesting, and there is a $700 permit fee levied by the Nepal government, butit's possible to include a visit to Shey in this trek.