Seven days in Little Tibet

A blow-by-blow account of a week spent in the restricted NarPhu valley searching for snow leopards and their calling cards.

Day 1

Start: Koto 2600m

Finish: Mehta 3560m

Net altitude gain: 960m

Journey time: 8 hours 45 minutes

Armed to the teeth with permits, we were let into the valley by the police without any problems. Immediately a different world: no tourists, no road, hardly any litter. The river gorge we followed was incredible – 1,000m/3,300ft rock walls towering over us on both sides, the sky a sliver of light far above. Sore neck from continually gaping upwards. Below the narrow path a sharp fall to certain death in the ferocious Naar khola (river). Exhausting walk. Out like a light.

Blue sheep, common throughout the valley

Day 2

Start: Mehta 3560 m

Finish: Phu 4080 m

Net altitude gain: 520 m

Journey time: 8 hours 45 minutes

The second day of our long walk to Phu village. Muscles still aching from yesterday’s odyssey. In snow leopard country. Three herds of blue sheep sighted at close range, between 7 and 50 individuals. Plenty of food fo hungry leopards. Several abandoned Khampa settlements – exiled Tibetan nomads who sought refuge here and plotted revenge against the Chinese army in the 1960s. Ghosts of a bygone era.

Ruined Khampa settlement

Ruined Khampa settlement

Day 3

Start: Phu 4080 m

Finish: Phu 4080 m

Net altitude gain: 0 m

Journey time: 0 hours 0 minutes

Blessed relief – a lie-in and no rucksack to carry. Ten household questionnaires completed in morning. Sixty livestock lost to snow leopards in the last year alone. Magnificent village of Phu clustered around low hill at mouth of four valleys. Life her like it has been for centuries. Villagers preparing fields for planting. Dice with death ascending and descending ladder to bedroom on guesthouse roof – a notched log propped precariously against the wall. Shangri-la.

Phu village

Phu village

Day 4

Start: Phu 4080 m

Finish: Yunkar Gompa 3480 m

Net altitude gain: -600 m

Journey time: 7 hours 15 minutes

Tough walk back down half the valley in blazing sun, to junction of path to next village: Nar. Route crossed several glacial moraines so plenty of uphill as well as down. Passed site of domestic sheep killed yesterday by a predator – probably a snow leopard – but carcass already removed by farmer. Crossed swaying cable bridge over gaping river chasm in strong wind. Overnight at beautiful Yunkar Gompa (monastery).

Yunkar Gompa

Yunkar Gompa

Day 5

Start: Yunkar Gompa 3480 m

Finish: Nar 4110 m

Net altitude gain: 630 m

Journey time: 2 hours 45 minutes

Short and sharp ascent above hill behind Gompa to Nar village. Briefly got lost and had to bushwhack up a steep slope back to the path. Saw a vulture with 3 metre wingspan alight on nearby rock and a jackal scampering through the low scrub. Also body of horse, dead for some time. No bite marks on neck to indicate death by a predator but aged scat alongside carcass indicated a snow leopard had probably fed on it.

Inspecting the dead horse and the snow leopard scat

Inspecting the dead horse and the snow leopard scat

Day 6

Start: Nar 4110 m

Finish: Mehta 3560 m

Net altitude gain: -550 m

Journey time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Villagers in Nar also preparing fields for planting – irrigating, manuring and ploughing fields with yaks. Village lost around 50 livestock to snow leopards last year, as well as 20 or so to jackals. Village sheep and goats owned individually but herded communally. Out of a herd of 200 each knows which byre to return to at the end of the day when they come down from the pastures. Left the humdrum of Nar once surveys and interviews were completed and began our descent.

Nar village

Nar village

Day 7

Start: Mehta 3560 m

Finish: Chame 2700 m

Net altitude gain: -860m

Journey time: 5 hours 30 minutes

Bone-jarring descent back down the valley and out of the NarPhu valley. Our seven days in Little Tibet were at an end, in this corner of Nepal that bears more cultural and ecological similarities to Tibet than to South Asia, tucked away from the modern world. Marvelled once more at the towering walls of the gorge, the rushing river, and, lower down, the ancient trees festooned with mosses and lichen. And maybe, as we left the lair of the léopard des neiges (as the French call it), a pair of amber feline eyes marvelled back at these strange humans on their equally strange quest.

The river gorge

The river gorge


2 responses to “Seven days in Little Tibet

  1. Gareth Davison

    Wish I was there with you bro.

  2. Reblogged this on Dr Jonny Hanson and commented:

    One of the world’s most remote and extraordinary places, Nepal’s NarPhu valley has everything: stunning scenery, challenging trekking, Tibetan Buddhist culture, Cold War history. And did we mention the snow leopards? A week of wonder in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 17.

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