Flocking to Nepal’s Dashain Festival – Herders and the Herded

“To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Finally, after hiking for ten days up the lush Marsyangdi Valley, we trudge across the 4516 m Thorung-la. Below, the trail descends into the desert-like Mustang of the Kali Gandaki River – a stark contrast to the way up.

Descent to Dashain

Our climb down to Tatopani coincides with the preparation of the Hindu sacrificial festival of Dashain. This is the only time of the year when many Nepalese are permitted, or are able, to supplement their diet of dahl baht (rice, lentils, potatoes and greens) with meat.

At first, we don’t think anything of it. But, after a few days of herding (and being herded by) flocks of goats and sheep down the trail, our curiosity gets the better of us and we ask about them. Apparently, farmers and shepherds are bringing their goods to at the nearest town, Pokhara.

Kali Gandaki River in Nepal's Mustang

Mustang and Kali Gandaki Valley

Animals have a natural aversion to suspension bridges. So, getting dozens of goats and sheep across one is no easy (or speedy) task. With a mule train on one side and a herd of uncooperative and desperate cattle on the other, traffic jams at each end of the bridge are commonplace. Perhaps a group of pilgrims – on their way up to the eternal holy flame in Muktinath – are stuck in the middle, suspended hundreds of feet in the air.

Sheep and Goats are herded along Nepal's Annapurna Trail
Sheep and Goats are herded through along Nepal's Annapurna Trail

Flocks of sheep and goats are herded down the mountains for Dashain

We can hear the river raging far below the near vertical path of a recent landslide. Negotiating a trail across one requires steady nerves and nimble feet, but negotiating one trampled by thousands of hooves requires a leap of faith. Shepherds scramble up and down the steep slopes adjacent to the trail, dragging and separating their color-coded sheep.

Sacrificial Lamb

At the crossroads in Tatopani, a sheep – effectively hobbled by a broken leg – cries us awake all night. But, we enjoy some respite from the bleating masses with a detour to Macchapuchhare and Annapurna Base Camps for a few days. We rejoin the march where the trail meets the road and countless buses wait to shuttle tired trekkers to Pokhara. On the roof of the bus to Kathmandu, our packs keep company with three or four of these wretched creatures – sheep and goats, not trekkers.

Diane relaxes at Macchapuchhare Base Camp in Nepal

Diane relaxes at Macchapuchhare Base Camp high above the flocks and herds

We return to the capital just in time for Dashain and Kathmandu is awash in blood. Animals are being slaughtered and bled in the middle of downtown. The auspicious sprinkling of goat and sheep blood on the tires of all vehicles (from bicycles to airplanes) is believed to ward off bad luck for the coming year. Safe driving skills and habits are, demonstrably, unnecessary if one is able to get a hold of a goat once a year.

Animals are sacrificed and their blood is sprinkled on tires in Kathmandu for Dashain Festival

Animals are sacrificed and their blood is sprinkled on tires in Kathmandu

We followed this procession from its unwilling origin high in the Himalayas, to its bloody conclusion in the streets of Kathmandu. In the meantime, we caught a wide-eyed glimpse of Nepal’s fascinating culture and realized how from home we really were.


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