After the exhausting glimb over Thorong La, Muktinath, snowy, muddy and visually unappealing as it may have been was still a welcome relief. I followed Dr. Alex and Jo to their guesthouse (which proved to be the one where most of the pass-party was staying) and did my best to dig some clean, dry clothes out of my pack.
Despite the fact that my gaiters had come undone and become repositories for rather than barriers to snow, I was in surprisingly good shape. My knees were a bit sore from times when I’d cracked them on invisible rocks on the way down, my muscles were all stiff and a bit sore, and I was ravenous after having walked so long with minimal nourishment, but generally I was in pretty good condition.
That evening I dealt with the hunger issue in fine fashion by ordering a dinner that consisted of: a vanilla milkshake, a plate of french fries, a vegetable omelette, apple crumble and delicious mushroom cheese and tomato spaghetti. Normally I wouldn’t have been nearly so extravagant with my meals, but I figured I deserved it after the day’s hard work.
While we’re on the subject, a few more notes about food on the trek: The guesthouses along the trail had done their best to avoid the negative price pressures that competition can bring. Each town or region along the way had a central tourism committee that approved the menus of all restaurants in the area. These menus (as you may have gathered from my order in Muktinath) were often fairly expansive, though at higher altitudes you paid heavily for the privilege of eating. Far from the trailhead almost everything had to be brought in by mule, or sometimes even by human porter. This led to such astonishing tariffs as 450 rupees (C$8) for a large pot of coffee or 250 rupees (C$4.50) for Dal Bhat, the simplest of simple Nepali staple foods. And this in a country where, in major cities it’s possible to manage lodging and food for less than C$5 per day!
Expenses aside (and prices Muktinath wasn’t as outrageous as those cited above) the dinner was absolutely wonderful, but, unsurprisingly, as nice as the company was, almost everyone went straight to bed after eating.
The temptation to have an all out rest day the following morning was exceeding great, but it seemed that most people (like me) had managed to resist it and opted for the short, downhill walk to the town of Kagbeni, about three hours distant.
Before departing, however, I took some time to look around Muktinath. Though at first sight the place wasn’t really enthralling, it is one of the holiest cities in Nepal, both for Buddhists and Hindus. Most of the town’s temples are located in a walled, tree filled enclosure that I’d passed on the way into town (the trees in this area were pretty much the only ones around, as we were still well above the
“natural” treeline.) While many of the temples weren’t all that awe-inspiring, the natural surroundings most certainly were. Indeed, it is nature that makes Muktinath such a holy place. In one of the compound’s many temples a natural gas jet rises up through the ground and the springs, providing the fuel for a natural eternal flame that has been burning for hundreds of years. This actually wasn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds, but the Buddhist prayer flags all around, the pretty Shiva temple at the centre of the complex, and especially the 108 water spouts surrounding it upped the attractiveness quotient significantly.
Once my wander through the temples was finished (I’d met almost all of my fellow pass walkers during it) I returned to the hotel, grabbed my already packed bag and hit the trail once again.
Now that I didn’t need to be focussing all my efforts on simple forward progress, I could spend longer looking at my surroundings. My surroundings were almost entirely different since crossing Thorong La. The rough, wooded landscapes of Manang district had given way to a dry, desertlike environment on this side of the pass. And it wasn’t just the land that had changed. As I walked I met small sparrows and pigeons, both of which were nowhere to be seen on the other side.
The first town I came to in this new environment was Jharkot, a fortress-like town perched on a finger of land that jutted into the Kali Ghandaki valley. Knowing I had plenty of time to reach my destination, I spent a while wandering around the muddy streets of Jharkot, several of which doubled as drains. From the far side of Jharkot it was possible to look back up the valley and see one my final views of the exit to Thorong La. I looked back at the pass, which had so tormented me the previous day and tried to think of rude gestures to make to it, but couldn’t come up with anything harsh enough.
Past Jharkot the lower altitude and shining sun meant that the valley was empty of snow. It was here that I got my first good looks at the arid landscape that was to be my companion for the next few days. I also met the first of the horses that drew their name from the district I’d recently entered: Mustang.
Throughout the walk, I met several people walking in the opposite direction, something that would have been a rarity on the Manang side of the circuit. This portion of trail, however, was also part of the popular Jomsom trek, which involves flying one way to the town of Jomsom, a walk up to Muktinath, then a walk back down to Pokhara. I felt very relieved for the people I met that none of them were planning on crossing Thorong La. Along the way I also met a canine that I named (in my head) rasta dog. Perhaps he’d escaped from the Bob Marley cafe in Muktinath? (Yes, there really was a restaurant in Muktinath called the Bob Marley Cafe.)After a very pleasant, slow downhill walk through the valley I finally came to the steep path leading down into Kagbeni. From afar it was a beautiful sight, perched on the edge of the river below, surrounded by green fields and blossoming apple trees. Up close it was even more wonderful. The guesthouse where everyone had decided to meet was almost luxurious. The places I stayed thus far had ranged from barely four walls and a bed to this positively palatial place in Kagbeni. In addition to their pleasant nature, Kagbeni’s hotels and restaurants also featured some of the most amusing copyright infringements it’s been my pleasure to encounter.
I spent the early afternoon walking around the town, wandering in and out of the medieval alleys, tunnels and passageways that were the streets of Kagbeni. I would periodically run into children playing hide and seek, and I thought to myself that this was the absolute perfect place for it. Tiny doors were stuck into walls, ladders led up through the roofs of tunnels. Where any one of them led was anyone’s guess… Sometimes it was a courtyard, sometimes a private home, sometimes a tiny animal pen. On the outskirts, the town wasn’t nearly as cramped and featured pretty, peaceful apple orchards and lovely little waterways running in and around its periphery.
From the edge of town, it was possible to gaze up the gorgeous valley into Upper Mustang. For myself and most others, this is the closest it was possible to get, given the monstrous US$700 per week fee that is required to enter the legendary region. (I was informed by some locals that the steep price is mandated by the King of Upper Mustang who is still semi-independent of Kathmandu.) Before finishing my tour I attempted to visit the town’s Buddhist monastery, but couldn’t find anyone to let me in, and had to content myself with a walk around the exterior.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the guesthouse’s sunroom, reading Michael’s guidebook and planning the rest of my walk. That evening I enjoyed a HUGE dinner of Dal Bhat (three big platesfull) and a couple of tiny sips of the local apple brandy and cider. That evening I also took my leave of the group who had been my trekking companions for several days. I was planning on speeding up my progress markedly on the way down, and this would probably be the last I’d see of them.
The next morning I got off to a very early start, having a pot of (at last again reasonably priced) ginger tea for breakfast. As I left town I got a beautiful view of the peaks of Nilgiri to the south, and also passed by an old Tibetan man chanting pacing around the roof of a house, dressed in a traditional costume, clutching the shoulder blade of a goat and chanting along to the simple music coming from within.
As I headed away from Kagbeni I felt that my early start was giving me a wonderfully privileged view of the place. The trail to Jomsom led down the wide, stony bottom of the valley. On the way down I passed a shepherd bringing a huge herd of long haired goats across a suspension bridge, then down the valley ahead of me. As I passed by them, I attempted to take a shortcut along the riverbed, and much to my dismay discovered that my (supposedly gore-tex mined) boots leaked as I stepped into the stream. Grr.
My early start meant that I arrived in the large town of Jomsom as students were gathering in front of the town’s boarding school. The town also featured many guesthouses, restaurants and shops (for once, the majority of them seemed to cater to Nepalis rather than trekkers) and even an airport. The main road through the town was tidily paved with flagstones, and I was disappointed to see that there were even (at least) four motorcycles that drove around on it. I followed the road out of Jomsom, past the ACAP and police checkpoints and the Nepali Army’s mountain warfare training centre. With Jomsom behind me, I sat down by the riverside and enjoyed a breakfast of the muesli I’d purchased there, with the towering Niligris watching me from above. Throughout my walk I’d been amazed by the scale of the land around me, and it was perhaps most pronounced while walking down this valley. So often I’d find myself thinking: ahh, the next town, the next view, the next whatever, is only just around this bend or that hill, only to discover that this bend or that hill took two or three or more hours to walk around. It was difficult to fathom the true size of the mountains that I was walking through, but this helped to bring it home, at least a bit.
As I headed on down the valley trees started to reappear, mostly small cedars, and mostly on the other side of the valley, but they were there. The trail carried on down the valley towards Marpha, “Nepal’s Delightful Apple Capital.” I had to agree that at this time of year, with the trees blossoming, the tidy little town really was delightful. Though it was a bit over-run with souvenir shops (only the MOST developed towns on the Manang side had so much as a souvenir stand, much less actual shops) Marpha was a very pleasant place. Had Kagbeni not been so lovely I would have regretted not spending the night in Marpha.
Even before noon, the wind had been blowing down the valley, but by the time I passed Tukuche, the next town along, it was doing it’s best to howl. Given that it had switched directions and was now blowing into my face it made walking rather difficult. Thankfully this was countered by the fact that the river level was low in this, the dry season, making it possible to forgo the bumpy trail and walk along the straight, flat riverbed.
By Tukuche, the architecture had very clearly changed from the simple flat roofed stone buildings I’d seen higher up into something more reminiscent of the Newari style of Kathmandu (though the piles of firewood on top of many buildings was definitely something NOT seen in the capital.) The faces of the towns’ residents had changed as well. Gone were most of the rosy-cheeked Tibetans who had been the inhabited most villages I’d passed through. In their place were the more Caucasoid peoples that seemed to dominate the lower altitudes in Nepal.
Shortly after Tukuche, the Nilgiris began to disappear on my left, but XXX reappeared on the other side of the valley. In the town of Larjung, I stopped for lunch, which I took sitting on the rooftop of a guesthouse, basking in the breeze and the sun, while admiring the view of XXX that had started to unfold on the right hand side of the trail.
The path crossed the river at this point, and after a climb up to a hill, a small, steep side path led down to the valley floor. I took it, and was relieved to find that yes, it did lead to a shortcut. Had it not, I wasn’t sure if I could have made it back up. This shortcut across the valley floor cut out a huge chunk of walking time, and put me at the start of Kalopani by 04:30, leaving me plenty of time to make it to Ghasa, my intended destination.
At Kalopani, I saw my fifth passenger vehicle of the day, a sort of bus that consisted of a large tractor pulling a trailer jammed with people. Kalopani was much more open and spread out than the other towns I’d so far passed through, and walking through it took a long time. I was sorely tempted to stop there, since I had caught occasional tantalizing glimpses of Dhaulagiri (at 8167m, the seventh tallest mountain in the world) but I’d only really be able to get a good in the morning, once the afternoon cloud had cleared away. I was unwilling to waver from my stated plan and soldiered on.
As I was just about to leave the next small town, Lete (in fact it had almost been continuous with Kalopani) I was beckoned over by a guesthouse owner who, in conjunction with my inmost desires convinced me to stop there for the night. I sat outside reading, and listening to the laughter of the local children as they played and argued over the pens and chalk I’d given them (even going upstairs to grab an extra to ensure they got one pen apiece.)
The next morning I woke and started out very early. No one really seemed to be about, so I handed my money to a Nepali man sleeping on one of the dining room benches and wandered out to take a few photos of the mountains. As I’d hoped, the view of Dhaulagiri towering over the town was spectacular in the early morning light.
I was passing by my hotel on the way out of town when the proprietor rushed out, speaking rather loudly. Apparently I’d actually paid another guest that morning! We went inside and sorted the whole mess out, and I was soon on my way.
As I suspected, it took just over an hour to reach Ghasa, not 2 hours as the man from the guesthouse had suggested the previous night. It seemed that time estimates to the next town were always very conservative. Perhaps this was to ensure that no one got stuck out on the trail. A more cynical view would be that it was done to try and ensure that people stopped in the town where the estimate was given or printed instead of heading on down the trail…
On the walk down to Ghasa, deciduous trees began to reappear. There were a surprising number of others on the trail, given how early it was. Many of them were wearing faded uniforms and carrying guns. They didn’t look quite like the police or army I’d seen earlier, and I began to suspect that they were the Maoists I’d heard so much about. They were all very friendly, and none of them asked for “donations,” but I figured it was only a matter of time. When I took a small side trail down to a bridge, and was yelled at to come back around to a checkpoint via the main trail, I was certain that my time had come, especially since one of the men at the checkpoint wore no uniform at all. But no, it was just another standard police checkpoint and after filling in their logbook I carried on unmolested.
Most of the trail for the past few days had been rather quiet, but that morning there was a positive symphony of noise. Birds tweeting and twittering, the roar of the river (which had narrowed and steepened at Kalopani) and the miscellaneous shouts, whistles and hisses of the mule train drivers.
As I stopped for breakfast I was passed by a large group of Japanese walkers, whom I passed a bit further down the trail.
The views of snow-capped peaks had more or less disappeared by this point, but the valley itself was still very pretty. And even though the mountains weren’t visible, they still weren’t that far distant. I was reminded of this when I passed a sign noting that I was walking through the world’s deepest gorge. It might not look like much, since the edges are some 35km apart, but its scale really is spectacular, as its cut by the Kali Gandaki between Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, each almost 6000m above.
As I headed down the gorge, I couldn’t help but note that the Nepalis I met along the way didn’t seem quite as friendly as those I’d met on previous days. Almost no one said “Namaste” (hello) unprompted, and several people didn’t even respond when I greeted them (and here I’m not talking about porters hard at work carrying massive loads, but ordinary folks walking along the path.) Some of the mule train drivers seemed to verge on surliness.
Perhaps some of this was due to the fact that it had grown quite hot, especially to be walking out in the sun. It was hard to believe that in less than 72 hours I had gone from 4 layers of clothing to shorts and sandals; from waist deep snow to slightly too hot for walking; from yaks to water buffalo and from a few scraggly lichens to lush orange trees and cacti by the side of the trail. Despite the warmth, every now and then I would receive a glimpse of a snow covered peak rising high above the valley. The sight of snow did little to cool me, however.
Thankfully, my very long walk the previous day allowed me to reach my destination, Tatopani, in the early afternoon, and limit the amount of walking in the hot sun I had to do.
Tatopani was a beautiful little town, squeezed between the valley wall and the river. Its name literally means “hot water,” a moniker it received as a result of the hot springs just below the town by the riverside. I spent the afternoon in Tatopani lazing about in the absolutely wonderful garden at the Trekker’s Lodge guesthouse, taking a walk through town where I chatted with several fellow trekkers and Nepalis, and finally heading down to the hot springs. I spent a thoroughly rejuvinating hour soaking in the springs with the Japanese group I’d met opn the trail, who were also staying at the Trekker’s Lodge. Bathing complete, I climbed back up to the guesthouse and enjoyed a delicious sandwich (with chips and salad) for dinner.
Once again, a break in the narrative to allow both readers and author to catch our breath. I do hope you’re all (or perhaps the implication of multiple readers in “you’re all” is a bit optimistic) enjoying this… One more entry to go before the trek is all wrapped up.