Gateway to Rolwaling: Two Weeks with the Thami in Chokati

Gateway to Rolwaling: Two Weeks with the Thami in Chokati
The remote Rolwaling Valley. Photo by Herman Thapa

In September I accompanied a group of North American teenagers to stay for two weeks in the farming village of Chokati, located in Sindhupalchowk District. Our team of three instructors and eleven students enjoyed home stay accommodations with families throughout the village, spread out along a sweeping, undulating valley. Chokati is one of the few villages mainly populated by the Thami (Thangmi) ethnic group, who have preserved their indigenous language and identity despite their low numbers. Thami is a Tibeto-Burman language closely related to Newari, and the people believe they migrated from an area bordering Tibet.

Bahrabise Bazaar is the nearest town to Chokati. It’s roughly 80 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu, and takes four hours by bus. Local buses regularly depart in that direction from Koteshwor on the Kathmandu Ring Road, and proceed along the beautiful Araniko Highway via Bhaktapur, Banepa, Dhulikhel, and through the lush countryside of Kavrepalanchowk. The highway meets the Bhote Koshi River at Dolalghat, passes turn-offs to popular trekking destinations Helambu, Jiri, and Rolwaling, onward to Bahrabise Bazaar, and follows the Bhote Koshi all the way to the Friendship Bridge, which crosses the Tibetan border at Kodari.

Gateway to Rolwaling: Two Weeks with the Thami in Chokati

The village of Beding in the Rolwaling Valley. Photo by Herman Thapa

After reaching Bahrabise from Kathmandu in time for an enjoyable local lunch of dal bhat, we were met by one of our local hosts, Ram Bahadur, who led us on a gradual four hour walking ascent along a dirt road and foot trails, northeast to Chokati. Locating Chokati on a map can be difficult, as many maps of the Rolwaling Trek don’t extend far enough eastward to include it, and until recently the village did not even had a gravel road.

In monsoon and early autumn, the ranges above Chokati ascend into a misty sky like a Chinese scroll painting, inviting the wandering mind into their heights. Water continuously flows down the valley sides to the Sun Koshi River below, providing plenty of irrigation for farming. Like many Himalayan hillsides that are blessed with ample water, where the forests have not been gambled away through over-forestation or reforested with non-native species that reduce the water table, the people and animals are able to enjoy and rely upon abundant natural resources of ningla (small bamboo), baas (bamboo), sisnu (stinging nettles), hardwoods, wildflowers, wild mushrooms, herbal medicines and plenty of fodder.

Gateway to Rolwaling: Two Weeks with the Thami in Chokati

Photo by Michael D, Smith

Slightly off the traditional tourist route, the Chokati Gau Paulika (Village Municipality) consists of over 800 families, yet has no guesthouse catering to travelers, despite the holy Lateshwor (“Lord of Dreadlocks”) Shiva Temple situated an hour up the valley in Latu, a destination for domestic Nepali tourists and Hindu pilgrims. The enchanting temple has large water taps and an enormous tree growing out of the shrine. It is said to have been built by a cowherd who, having discovered his cow giving away its milk to a stone in the forest, struck the stone with his axe, splitting it and causing the stone to spill water, blood and milk. He realized the stone was an incarnation of Lord Shiva and built the temple as an atonement.

In rural areas, staying with a family is the best way to directly understand how people make their living off the rugged land. For the first few days, our hosts insisted on offering us their every hospitality, not even allowing us to wash our own dishes! However, after repeatedly requesting to join them in their work, our new friends provided us opportunities to experience household chores and agricultural life, though they were shy at first. Ram Bahadur Nagarkoti taught us how to prepare fields with organic compost, spreading the mixture of manure, dry leaves, and decomposed weeds around, breaking dirt clods, and casting tori (mustard) seeds to harvest to make oil. Afterwards, he led us up a small jungle path to see where he captures honey bees in a trap made from a log.

Gateway to Rolwaling: Two Weeks with the Thami in Chokati

Photo by Michael D. Smith

We often found ourselves challenged in the homestay situation: how to efficiently milk Santa Bahadur Bhika’s cows, how to weave simple bamboo mats with Man Bahadur Thami, and most of all, how to refuse the extreme hospitality of third helpings at meal time! At least harvesting and preparing cardamom for sun drying is easy enough for the novice, taught by fourteen-year-old Rajan Thami and eleven-year-old Gautam Nagarkoti. A few of our group stayed in the homes of the local blacksmiths, who were happy to let us try to pound a red-hot iron bar into the curved shape of the kukuri, the ubiquitous knife of the Nepali woodsman. Ishwari Thami, a local tailor, did a splendid job of measuring and stitching beautiful and practical cholo, the traditional women’s winter shirt, for some of our female group members. Our group also spent two days helping a local family deconstruct an earthquake-damaged stone house, and use earthen plaster to render the walls and floors of a newly built house, which was incredibly fun and excellent full-body exercise!

Like most of Sindhupalchowk, Chokati was heavily affected by the earthquakes of 2015. Every building in the village was destroyed, and most people still reside in temporary wooden or tin shelters provided by a hodgepodge of NGOs. Many families are slowly building permanent housing, now that Nepali Government funds have become available for reconstruction, but progress is slow as stone is excavated by hand from the hillside, and other construction materials such as bricks, steel and cement must be delivered up a the difficult gravel road from Bahrabise, adding to building time and cost.

The Rolwaling Valley Trek

The Rolwaling Valley Trek, which transverses the Gaurishankar Conservation Area from east to west, is an unexcelled yet strenuous journey for travelers who wish to explore traditional Sherpa culture in a remote setting little affected by tourism. It’s an expedition-style tent trek, rather than one that stays in lodges or tea houses. Most approach the trek by traveling east out of the Kathmandu Valley on the Araniko Highway, turning east on Feeder Road 32 to Ramechhap, and again turning north at Charikot. The mountain road passes the Bhimeshwor Temple, meets the Tama Koshi River, reaches Dolakha and eventually beyond the Upper Tama Koshi Hydropower project. This route to Dolakha District from Kathmandu can take eight or more hours along rough upper stretches.

The trail starts at Dolakha, or nowadays farther up in Shigati or all the way to Gonggar. Popular routes in the remote high Rolwaling Valley often visit Tsho Rolpa Lake (4540m), and cross the Tashi Lapcha Pass into the Sagarmatha National Park in Solukhumbu District. From there, the trail descends to Thangme (Thame), the eastern gateway to the Everest region of the Khumbu Valley.

Some choose to begin the Rolwaling Trek in Bahrabise, which reduces arduous road travel time and allows one to experience more of Nepal’s incredible geographical, biological and cultural diversity. From Chokati, the trail to Rolwaling wraps around the valley to the east, by the Lateshwor Temple, descends to cross the river, and turns northwest, ascending through villages and descending to cross streams on the opposite side of the valley. Trekkers often stop in Dolanga for the first or second night from Bahrabise or Chokati. One must pay the Rs 2000 fee to enter the Gaurishankar Conservation Area if this hasn’t already been paid in Kathmandu.

The following morning walk ascends the top of the Kalinchowk Bagmati Danda (Ridge), and crosses Tingsang La (Pass) at 3378 metres, where the trail turns north and descends east into the neighboring valley to Bigu Gompa. In this valley, the Thami and other lower altitude Nepali hill groups give way to Sherpa cultural influence.

From Bigu Gompa, the trail drops down to the Singati Khola (river), past Alampo and turns southeast toward Singati. The high route of the Great Himalayan Trail splits off to the east and crosses the river past Sarwa, climbs up to Loting, and skirts the villages along the upper reach of the valley south eastward to Laduk, and along the Gyalsung Danda for excellent sunset and sunrise views. The following day may be used to connect with the more popular Rolwaling Trek route at Jagat. The low route continues to follow the Singati Khola down to its namesake to meet the Rolwaling Trek route at Singati, where one can also return to Kathmandu.

From there, the Rolwaling Trek can be done in ten to fifteen days, or much longer, with optional high pass and peak ascents. You can also connect to other high Himalayan treks throughout the Everest region. Depending on time, one may return back to Kathmandu via domestic flight from Lukla, or continue walking to make a return via the airport at Phaplu, catching road transportation from Salleri, or even completing an extra week walking the loop down to Jiri through the charming town of Junbesi.

Due to the heavy monsoon in the area, a stay in Chokati combined with trekking in Rolwaling is best done after September and before June, and will certainly make for an unforgettable and unique mountain adventure.

This article originally appeared in issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.

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