In Tibet, they are known as drokpa, or high pasture people. To the rest of the world, they are known by the region they come from, the Dolpo Pa nomads.
Geographically Nepali and culturally Tibetan, most estimates put their population at around 5,000. Most of the area they travel to raise and trade their livestock is located within the Shey Phoksundo National Park in Nepal.
Though their actual origins are largely unknown, researchers estimate that their ancestors have been grazing their livestock in this region for up to 8,000 years and utilized lands in Tibet, Bhutan, China, and Nepal. The Dolpo Pa were almost certainly the first users of the Silk Road, long before it even was the Silk Road. Today, their region is one of the largest remaining pastoral areas on Earth.
One of the most remarkable things about the Dolpo Pa is their animal husbandry. They have an intimate knowledge of their environment and how they and their animals react and interact with it. Their ability to handle animals is almost unbelievable and reminds all who witness it of the remarkable relationships between humans and animals. Adults and children can tell instantly when a yak is ill and almost as instantly how to help. This close scrutiny and intimacy is essential for survival of the herd and the nomads themselves.
The Dolpo Pa word for yak is nor, which is often translated as wealth. These animals provide meat, milk, hair, hides, and wool. They are used for riding and carrying and their dung is the number one source of fuel when firewood is unavailable. It’s doubtful whether humans could survive in the high Himalayas without yak. The Dolpo Pa are keenly aware that the yak makes life possible.
Subject to the elements, their life is built upon a different rhythm. They build their days around the seasonal movements of the herds and the grasslands they feed on. Even children know how to start fires with a flint and steel. Dolpo Pa dedicate themselves to spinning and weaving, which provides them with functional tents, blankets, clothing, pack bags for the animals, saddle blankets, rope, and more.
They are also adherents to the ancient religion known as Bon. The Bon religion has a deep reverence for the natural world and many gods, goddess, and natural events are depicted as animals. In addition to the temples and monasteries that dot the caravan route, there are many sacred lakes, mountains, passes, and valleys that are considered divine. The nomads pay homage to the spirits that live in the natural world and see their lives as interacting regularly (and hopefully positively) with these deities.
Though nomads have always responded to change (in fact their survival depends on a strong ability to adapt), recently, the Dolpo Pa have had to contend with more tumultuous changes. In the past decade alone, there have been political issues that have kept the boarders closed for much of the year, making it difficult to trade and graze the herds. They also must contend with more severe weather due to climate change.
Despite the fact that it takes up to three days on horseback to reach them from the nearest village, the Dolpo region is a popular trekking destination. But to explain their annual journey in kilometres is to miss much of the vastness of this life. A better gauge is to understand that it takes four months to move the caravans from Lhasa to Xining for trading.
Though they live under harsh conditions, they still evoke a sense of freedom and naturalness that many of us envy. Check out the incredible small group adventure that will take you to the Dolpo Pa and allow you to live among them for a while, learning first-hand about this ancient way of life.
Interested in finding out more about this nomadic people? This physically challenging and culturally fascinating adventure is a chance to join the Dolpo Pa yak migration and immerse yourself in the lives of these Nepali nomads.