Mythology and geology are in agreement about the genesis of the holy Phoksundo Lake in this arid trans-Himalayan district, just as they are about many other natural features across Nepal.
Legend has it that a demoness had a run-in with a rival upstream. In a fit of rage, one of them brought down an entire mountain to block the Suligad River, creating the lake.
Geologists have confirmed that the lake at 3,600m was indeed formed when the river was dammed by a giant post-glacial mountain collapse 40,000 years ago (see below). The water finally found an outlet, and today plunges 170m through the spectacular Ringmo Waterfall to the valley below.
Whichever theory you believe, there can be no denying that this ink-like lake and the falls are two of Nepal’s most precious natural jewels. It must be the sheer beauty of the place that has made it holy to local adherents of the Bon Po faith.
The clouds, sky and mountains are worshipped here, the rivers are holy, waterfalls are believed to descend from heaven, boulders sculpted by rivers are venerated, plants and trees are treated like sentient beings.
For centuries, vast and desolate Dolpo has been protected by its remoteness. It is Nepal’s last remaining district without a road, but within two years the Nepal Army hopes to connect the district capital of Dunai with the rest of the country. The airfield at Jufal was recently black-topped, and there are now six flights every morning from Nepalganj.
As in Lo Manthang and Manang five years ago, locals are torn between support and opposition to the road. But there is general agreement that even if buses and trucks reach Dunai, the road should not be extended into Shey Phoksundo National Park.
“We have seen from Upper Mustang how the road has disturbed the sanctity and tranquility of the place,” says Raj Tamang of Responsible Adventures who was taking a group of Polish tourists on a boutique trek to Upper Dolpo last week.
Along the shore of the turquoise lake, the sound of hammer and saw breaks silence as new lodges are built to cater to the expected tourist boom. Pema Dolma Lama of Kanjirowa Hotel is adding five rooms and a dining area with large windows facing the lake. Showing visitors around, he says: “This is for Nepali tourists who will start coming when the road arrives, the foreigners all camp anyway.”
Even in this remote district, recent local elections already have an impact. The three VDCs of Vijer, Saldang and Phoksundo were combined to make up one Village Council with UML candidate from Saldang elected Head and the Deputy is from Vijer (see below).
A dispute over where to locate the Village Council has escalated to a point where Phoksundo has stopped seasonal yak grazing, yarsa picking and timber permits for up-country villagers. As in the Khumbu, Village Councils are raising their own fees in addition to the National Park royalty and other trekking charges.
Phoksundo’s newly-elected committee is upgrading the treacherous trail along the cliff above the lake that was made famous by Eric Valli’s Oscar-winning documentary, Caravan.
Tashi Lama (right) supervises the work, as he stands at the narrow ledge where the yak plunged to its death in Valli’s film. He says: “The trail was dangerous, several people have been killed, so we needed to make it safer not just for trekkers but for our own people.”
For Dolpo, as for many other parts of previously remote Nepal, the challenge will be to balance the local people’s need for tourism income with the equally important goal of preserving the ecology and culture of this fragile region.
Phoksundo Lake was formed 40,000 years ago by one of the biggest known rockslides in the Himalaya which blocked the Suligad Gorge, creating a barrier up to 500m high. The lake is 5 sq km and is the second largest in Nepal and second deepest (after Rara).
The rockslide is made up of blocks of limestone and sediment that detached itself from along a ridgeline at 5,700m to the southeast of the lake, probably during a seismic event. Geologists say the natural dam is sturdy and the spillway stable enough not to threaten downstream settlements. Phoksundo doesn’t have fish, and there are relatively few migratory birds using it as a stopover.
Photos and videos by Kunda Dixit
Mystical Dolpa in the mist, Hum Gurung
Caravan, Himalayan viagra, the Dolpopa, Padam Ghaley
Despair and hope in Dolpo, Dewan Rai
Saving Shey Phoksundo, Dawa Palden