Kathmandu -- Our Royal Nepal Airlines helicopter swept low over the bright green rice fields of the Himalayan foothills and entered the Kali Gandaki River gorge -- the deepest in the world where it bisects the Annapurna and Dhauligiri mountain ranges -- before emerging above the arid heights of the Tibetan Plateau. Within 30 minutes, we had passed from the subtropical climate of Pokhara, northwest of Kathmandu, into the rainshadow of the Himalayas.
The airport town of Jomsom looked like the setting of a Tibetan Western. Ponies wearing colorful saddles stood in front of squat stone homes, and frequent gusts of wind blew dust down the single cobbled street. After acclimatizing to Jomsom's altitude (11,000 feet) for two days, I joined Prem Gurung, a Nepali agriculturalist, for the half-day trek up the Muktinath Valley to Jharkot village.
When I visited the area three years ago, Prem had not yet begun his year-old research to record the ways in which doctors of Tibetan Medicine in Nepal's northern Mustang region collect and use medicinal plants. Now I would accompany Prem and a local doctor on one of their collection and identification trips. The goal was to evaluate opportunities for the Tibetan Plateau Project (TPP) to support similar medicinal plant research and conservation efforts.
Many of the people north of the Nepali Himalaya are known as bhotia, indicating their Tibetan origins. The bhotia brought their customs and knowledge to the area, including the system of Tibetan medicine -- a 1,200-year-old practice employing physical diagnosis, natural medicines and spiritual guidance to treat and heal a variety of illnesses and diseases. Tibetan doctors, called amchis, study for up to 12 years as apprentices to practicing physicians or in monasteries. Often, they are the only source of treatment for Mustang villagers.
Tibetan medicines rely on some 1,000 plants, as well as various animal and mineral ingredients. Of the medicinal plants, 650 occur in Nepal and 365 are native to Mustang. Soma Namgyal, a monk and amchi at the Muktinath Traditional Medical Center in Jharkot, has collected and prepared many of these plants for medicinal uses and stored them at the center on the grounds of the village temple.
Since my last visit, amchi Namgyal had taken on 17 apprentices -- including two girls -- ranging in age from 11-24. In addition to daily study, the students assist Namgyal by collecting important plants from the Muktinath Valley.
Tsampa Namgyal, an amchi and farmer from the neighboring village of Puthok, took Prem and me on a similar plant collection trip to gather more information for Prem's UNESCO-sponsored research on the environmental threats to Mustang's medicinal plants. Anecdotal information provided by several amchis suggest that some species may be declining due to overgrazing, microclimate changes and a shift in land-use patterns. …