Surviving in an Unforgiving Paradise

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

Story by Dorje Dolma

My mother gave birth to eleven children and I was the oldest. We lived in an extremely remote, underdeveloped Dolpo region of Nepal.

It is known as the district behind the Himalayas and as much as life above 13,000 feet in Upper Dolpo seemed like a paradise, it was a constant battle of survival amidst the odds. I grew up in a primitive life surrounded by rich, ancient Tibetan culture.

Being isolated from the rest of the world without proper roads, electricity, water, education and healthcare was hard to survive. Five siblings of mine died due to similar reasons before I was even ten. I had enough share of my traumatic experiences dealing with death.

My life started centering around the rest of my younger siblings and our family’s sheep, horses, goats, and yaks. At age five, I began herding and was soon taking the animals to the mountains as high as 7,000 meters and I had to defend them from wild wolves and snow leopards.

I was only seven when I chased a huge snow leopard that killed my goats. At one point, I remember gazing at the snow leopard’s eyes with blood on its face with a dead goat between us. Surprisingly, it didn't harm me. That was a dreamlike moment - scary yet peaceful.

In some way, the snow leopard taught me to face my inner fears. Now, it is one of my spirit animals.

In 1994, my parents took me on a month-long trek to Kathmandu to get medical treatment for my severe scoliosis. My spine was damaged and was crushing my lungs.

The journey was tough. Sometimes we walked for eight hours a day and ran out of food. We tried to survive on roasted barley flour, dry yak cheese and water with no shelter.

Once we reached Kathmandu, the doctors took X-rays of my back and plainly told me that I will not live long. I did not want to go back to Dolpo, I wanted to live and sought ways to get help. Just when I was about to give up, I discovered the Rokpa International, a non-profit relief organisation.

I am forever grateful to Lea Wyler, currently the president of Rokpa. Even on a busy and cold day, she listened to my story.

I knew I would have to bid goodbye to my family, but I had to make a sacrifice to improve our lives. Even though I was small, it was a major turning point in my life.

Rokpa graciously took me and provided me with new clothes, home and education. There, I met my now American family who later brought me to America. At age eleven, I went through four surgeries in America that saved my life. The doctors were grateful I came soon because I had two years to live.

I have had my fair share of discrimination on the basis of my race, gender and my inability to speak English, but I worked twice hard. It was an amazing moment when I completed my degree in Fine Arts from the University of Colorado.

Initially, I worked as a preschool teacher. Then, I decided to work on my interests on art and writing. These two felt extremely therapeutic to me.

I ended up writing my first book, "Yak Girl: Growing Up in the Remote Dolpo Region of Nepal", which is a memoir filled with stories of my early childhood memories in Dolpo and started selling my art too.

I got opportunities to tour to different places as a speaker and share my stories with people, especially the younger generation. I realised how happy these things make me.

Now, I'm a writer, visual artist and an inspirational speaker. Nevertheless, I'm still building my career one step at a time.

I am beyond touched by the kindness of others and I hope I can continue to help others too with my work. If anything that I do motivates people, especially women, nothing makes me happier than that.

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