Section 10. Annapurna

June 10. Dharapani to Chame. 17km. 5 hours. 930m up. 260m down. It was a very easy stay at the Heaven Hotel. I had a hot shower, Santos washed my clothes, and I did all my digital duties in the comfortable room. We left quite late at around 0800 but it was a shortish day up to Chame. I expected much of the day to be on a dirt road and it was, but it was not nearly as bad as I feared as there was hardly any traffic.

For the first 6 km I felt fit and strode out ahead up the road. There were a few side trips to villages like Odar and Tache, and I am sure they would have been very nice but I don’t think they would have been much different to the villages of the Ganesh Himal or the upper Nubri Valley which we had just passed through, and they would have been very time consuming detours. The villages through which the track passed, like Bagarchap and Danakyu, were largely a collection of lodges and even the hamlets between them were solely orientated towards tourists with even the most meagre building advertising solar shower and “fresh fooding”. There seemed to be a great merit in claiming to be “organic” but I doubt the menu differed much from what I had seen since Langtang. Indeed I think most food in Nepal can have some claim to being organic, especially for vegetarians, maybe with the exception of eggs.

The string of villages and hamlets of lodges and teahouses continued to the Danakyu Khola stream which the track forded. I had not seen one tourist all morning for the 6 km and wondered how many hundred it would take to fill all the lodges I had passed. At the stream the path left the track and started a steeper 300-400m climb up steps through the forest to the village of Timang. It was hot and humid now and we stopped in Timang for tea. It had a marvellous view to the east of the Manaslu Massif and even the northern end of the Himalchuli Massif which rose to the south of Manaslu. Unfortunately it was right into the sun and the clouds were already building. The forest around Timang was sparse and there were many piles of well ordered firewood, one was even stacked in a manner which would have merited a mention in one of the in vogue wood-stacking books. The forest around Timang was mixed conifer with Bhutan Pine, Silver Fir, Spruce and Hemlock.

297. A great woodstack near Timang above Dharapani.

From Timang we were back on the road again as it levelled off and contoured round the hill to Thankchowk. This was a village which had avoided the trekking tourism altogether and it still looked quite humble. The fields were full of ripe barley and it was being harvested terrace by terrace by groups of families. Here and there were apple trees which were bearing some fruit but they looked unripe and bitter.

298. The village of Thanchowk was pretty much bypassed by the passing trekking trade and remained quite traditional with older houses and busy activity in the terraced fields.

After Thanchowk the valley sides got steeper and rockier and only the pines seemed to thrive on the arid, craggy slopes on the north of the river. To the south where the track went hemlocks, firs, pines and spruce all seemed to co-exist. It was not far down to Koto which was busy but quite scruffy.

Here there was an alternative trekking route called the Naar-Phu Trek. It would have added a good three to four days onto our trip and needed a special permit, so I had long decided not to do this. Naar was also infamous for a yarsagumba incident where eight yarsagumba hunters who did not have a licence from the town of Gorkha got into a quarrel with the locals at Naar, who considered they were raiding their heritage. It ended with all eight hunters dead at the bottom of a gorge. The locals claimed they slipped and fell, but the police believed they were pushed and many locals went to jail.

From Koto it was a quick hike up the track to Chame. I walked with Bharat and voiced my concerns about the lack of permits we needed in five days time. He assured me it would be OK. Chame itself was quite busy. It was the district capital of Manang District. There were plenty of tourist hotels and all were empty, it being off season. I was hoping for a nice pick however Bharat went for a very mediocre one, explaining it would be embarrassing for him not to use it as he always had and they had helped him out of some pickles in the past. All the hotels were the same price so I always wanted to go for the best. Bharat’s choice had tolerable WiFi so I could upload all the previous sections photos. There were just 35 but it still took an hour which was par for the course.

Today definitely had none of the sense of wonder or the mystery I felt when I walked up this quiet wooded valley nearly 30 years ago. Then the “Annapurna Circuit” as it was then known was thought to be the best trek in the world for ordinary mortals.  There is no denying the road has changed it but not as much as I thought. Even if the road had not been here the villages and hamlets would have changed to what they are now, as Manaslu is changing. Bharat assures me though that above Chame some of the charm of the old “Annapurna Circuit” remains and the jeep traffic is almost nil.

June 11. Chame to Ghyaru. 22km. 6 hours. 1180m up. 250m down. I had a quick breakfast at the dirty Manaslu View Hotel. Bharat might have had some loyalty here but I would not stay again. Indeed Chame had few charms. The best hotel seemed to be at the far end just to the right of the right of the footbridge as you left town. From here I followed the road through the pines for a good hour on the north side of the Marsyangdi Khola. It was a deep gorge with sparse pine forest clinging to the cliffs on the north side.  The south side was a bit lusher but there was no path.

After a good hour I came to an apple farm at Bhratang, where the floor of the gorge had a shelf. It seemed a well run operation with fields of trees and a large cool storage facility. There was also a very modern and almost luxurious lodge there. However the whole operation was on the floor of the gorge with a huge cliff just to the north of the trees. Perhaps the climate of the gorge suited the apples, but I am sure there were better places. I stopped at the cafe for a tea. The owner was there and I chatted with her. They had 60,000 trees in all and just three varieties: Gala, Fuji and one other. They bought the trees from Italy when they were two years old, planted them in the spring and were already harvesting from them that autumn. It was the biggest apple farm in Nepal, and so far Nepal was the sole market. Without the road it could not exist. It seemed to make something of the passing tourist trade with the lodge and the cafe.

Just after the farm the road went along a shelf, jackhammered and blasted from the vertical rock face. It was a narrow shelf just wide enough for a jeep or small lorry, and a driver with nerves of steel, as it was a fatal drop into the raging river far below. After this gorge the valley sides opened up with a forest on the west side and a huge 45 degree bare rock face of one huge curved slab. I remembered it from 27 years ago. The slab of rock, possibly granite, went from the river all the way up to the crest of the ridge some 1600 metres above the river. In Europe this slab would have been covered in climbers, but I don’t even know if there was a route here or not.

299. The road above the apple farm at Bhratang was hacked into the cliff with jackhammers and some dynamite to remove the stubborn rocks.

Below the slab the road crossed the river to the west side and then climbed up through the dry pine forest on a path shortcutting the road to Dhikur Pokhari. It was noticeable how dry it was here in the rain shadow of Annapurna 2, which towered with ridges covered in fluted snow and glaciers clinging to the steep side for some five vertical kilometres above me, to reach nearly 8000m. Before Dhikur Pokhari the path re-joined the road before entering the hamlet which was just a cluster of some 10 lodges along the road. I chose the nicest looking, as they were all the same price, and had fried momos for lunch. Just as I finished and was talking to an American couple at another cafe,  Bharat and the others appeared. Ramesh and Santos had already been up when I left the dirty Manaslu View but Bharat had still been in bed and he looked sheepish now. I explained I was going to Upper Pisang and then Ghyaru which involved a steep hot climb. I could see Bharat’s disappointment as he had probably hoped that we would take the easy, but tedious, road to Lower Pisang, and then again tomorrow to Manang.

300. The Manang valley above Dhikur Pokhari was full of pines. Upper Pisang is up to the right and Lower Pisang is up the road which is hidden in the trees on the left.

The route to Upper Pisang was short and easy. It crossed the Marsyangdi River on a suspension footbridge beside two well made traditional stone and log cantilever bridges, one of which could take motorbikes at least. From here I sauntered through the Bhutan pines along the valley floor on the north side of the river, climbing slightly. I passed a few grazing goats near a tarn and then walked up a gentle spur for 15 minutes to crest it and find myself in Upper Pisang which quickly unfolded in front of me. Across the river to the south was the road, Lower Pisang and then the massive bulk of Annapurna 2. Upper Pisang was a village of two halves. The east half had a nice collection of some 10 lodges which looked newish and clean and most had a fantastic view. The west half was local stone houses which resembled small fortresses. Most were three stories high, with no windows and a facade of wooden balconies and ladders from one floor to the next. Many were a bit dilapidated but I don’t know if that was attributable to the 2015 earthquake or poor maintenance.

301. One of the old fortress style houses in Upper Pisang. Typically they are built on three floors with the lowest floor being for livestock, the second floor is living quarters and storage. It has a solid earthen roof on which some stone or wooden sheds are built to form the top floor.

From Upper Pisang the path went through the large but tatty kami gate and then contoured round the hillside into a dry gully. After emerging from the gully it continued to contour across the pine clad hillside. The trees were small and sparse and it was easy to look through them to the increasingly spectacular views, especially of Annapurna 2, across the valley. Between the pines were clusters of wild rose shrubs, all of which were in bloom with delicate pale yellow flowers. The path eventually veered north into a side valley where there was a nice old mani wall full of carved stones all with prayers on in Tibetan script, and with a few chortens in the row of tablets.

302. A typical mani stone in a wall of mani stones. The stones are engraved with prayers usually in the Tibetan text. This mani wall was just below the climb up to Ghyaru.

Here the route started a long hot climb up the side valley. It was about 400 metres and took about an hour. Without any wind it was hot and I had to pace myself so I did not sweat. As a consolation the more I climbed the better the view got. With each zig-zag of the path the valley ahead up to Manang opened up and I could see it was flat and covered in small pines and junipers. But the main event was across the valley with Annapurna 2 and 4 dominating right across the valley and Annapurna 3 and Ganggapurna dominating across from Manang. All these mountains were just a bit under 8000m, so were extremely spectacular.

After an hour of climbing I reached Ghyaru arriving first at a large stupa. I was immediately taken with the village. There were a few lodges but they were all in keeping with the stone mini-fortress like houses. I spotted one lodge called Yakru, (Yak horns), but went for a wander through the narrow streets between the high stone walls of the houses. It was a fascinating village, and reminded me of my first visit to Manang or Dolpo 30 years ago. There was so much culture within these narrow passageways and in the houses. Everywhere were signs of farming which had not changed for centuries. Wooden implements and vessels were still used as everyday items. I passed four or five rustic lodges and got to the top of the village where there was a monastery. I went in to the compound and to the door of the Gomba, but there was a puja in progress and five or six pairs of shoes at the door. I peeked in and took a few photos but was self conscious. The Monastery looked a few centuries old.

303. The interior of the monastery at Ghyaru. It looked like there were about four monks associated with the monastery.

304. The upper houses in Ghyaru incorporated the monastery also. In the evening two of the monks appeared on the monastery balcony with horns and blew them in the still late afternoon air over the village

I had not seen any lodges which matched the Yakru, so returned to the bottom of the village and went in. It was a solid stone and wood house with a courtyard. The courtyard was covered over with old corrugated iron to give the impression one was in an old dilapidated hacienda. The old craggy Manangi lady who ran the place showed me a room on the upper floor off the courtyard which was accessed by a very rustic set of steps. The room was sunny and warm but out of the window I could see the whole of Annapurna 2. In fact I could see it from my bed. It was a great room in a great village and it made me feel much more enthralled about my Annapurna experience. I was here for almost three hours before the others arrived. Just behind them were the American couple and Chilean man I had spoken to at lunch time and I persuaded them to take a room, hoping for a chatty evening.

305. The view from my bed at the Yakru lodge was straight across the valley to the enormous, glacier covered bulk of Annapurna 7937m.

June 12. Ghyaru to Manang. 14 km. 4,5 hours. 420m up.  650m down. When I woke around 0530 I opened my eyes and looked straight out of the window towards the clear sunny covered towering Annapurna 2. It was one of the most impressive vistas to see out of the window and I did not even have to get out of bed. I had the usual 0630 breakfast and was ready to go by 0700. Our graceful older host, who would have been a distinguished lady had she had an education, came to say goodbye to us as we packed up. We wandered through the medieval village and its maze of lanes and passages under the solid walls of the mini fortress houses, past mani walls, and then went through the kami gate to exit the village and enter the bare rocky hillside.

306. Our graceful host at the Yakru lodge in Ghyaru village

307. A row of prayer wheels in Ghyaru village. Each time the wheels are turned a prayer is made. In the distance, beyond the stone house is the mountain of Ganggapurna, 7454m.

308. The western kami gate, or entrance chorten, to Ghyaru village. All villages in Manang have similar gates which are usually decorated with Buddhist painted panels on their ceilings.

It took about an hour to traverse the hillside round a spur on a newly built rough track. I walked with Adam and Emily from Arizona and Claudio from Chile and we chatted profusely as we sauntered along looking down on the valley far below and the Annapurnas beyond that. At one stage there a lammergeyer vulture swooped past us doing tight turns to catch the updraft from the warming hillside. Within a few minutes it was hundreds of metres above us.

309. Looking back to the village of Ghyaru from the west on the road to Ngawal. The whole village was built of solid stone 2-3 storey houses which resembled small citadels.

310. A griffon vulture cruising in the thermals between Ghyaru and Ngawal villages. In the background is the mountain of Annapurna III, which is 7555m.

After the spur we entered the high side valley on the west side of it where there is the village of Ngawal. It was like the twin of Ghyaru with some 40 old massive castile-like stone houses on three levels. Most had flat earthen roof supported by old smoke covered wooden beams. Separated by a field and a small stream was a cluster of tourist lodges, one of which looked very fancy and almost a resort. We wandered through the passages here exploring the houses and courtyards of this ancient village.

311. Some of the houses in Ngawal. They were all at least two storey but some were three. The bottom floor was animals and the second floor were living quarters, with storage and drying areas on the roof.

From here we had a dilemma; we could either follow a path which continued to traverse the dry barren hillside to the ancient village of Braga. This route took four hours. Alternatively we could follow the dusty road which dropped down to the valley and here we could follow a path on the valley floor on the north side of the river through the very sparse pine forest. The latter route took two hours to Braga, so we took it. The road section was very short and then the valley floor was much more pleasant than it looked. I recognised a few things here as it was the path I had taken 27 years ago, like a traditional cantilever bridge and a large chorten. We stopped at Munchi for a poor lunch. I was that unimpressed I just had tea.

After Munchi it was just a short hour to Manang. En route we passed the village of Braga. It was just as I remembered it, except electricity poles had been added. The houses here were the typical mini-fortress of the area with three floors; the animals below, humans in the middle and storage on the lean-tos and wooden sheds on the flat earthen roofs. All the houses had prayer poles with flags fluttering in the warm breeze. On the other side of the bowl in which Braga lay was a newer monastery and more of the fortress like houses. It had made a big impression on me when I passed last time and I felt the same this time, it being a village from another era.

312. The monastery at Braga was on the hill. Beneath it were living quarters for monks and some was still under construction. Below that were some of the village houses.

Just beyond the track rose up to Manang. It had many more new hotels on the east side some three or four stories high. All were the same price so we chose the Tilicho Hotel, which seemed to be the place. Many of its rivals were closed for the off season and were being renovated. We all piled in to the large courtyard and got rooms. There was a Swiss lady in the seated area and we started chatting. Her name was Maria. After a few sentences I realized she was the elusive person we had been chasing in the Ganesh Himal who was also doing the Great Himalaya Trail. She had started some 60 days ago with a crew, who turned out to be amateurs and she had to abandon her trip at Lumba Sumba Pass after some three weeks. She then went back to Kathmandu regrouped with a new crew and restarted her trip at Thame with the Tashi Labsta Pass. It was like meeting a long lost penpal and we chatted for a good few hours. We would have the same itinerary for the next few days to Kagbeni so there was plenty of time to chat. Her guide and Bharat also had a chat about sharing permits for the restricted areas, as we both had to buy two permits each with one being a “ghost” permit. If we could become each others ghost that would save us a lot of money for the expensive Mustang and Dolpo restricted areas.

June 13. Manang to Throng la Phedi. 21km. 6 hours. 1110m up. 250m down. I left the hotel and lodge areas in Manang and wandered through to the west part. It had not changed since I was last here nearly 30 years ago, except that there were electricity poles and lines now. There was still a warren of passages and alleyways between the massive and solid stone houses. I poked my nose into a few courtyards. They were all similar with paved areas stacked with firewood. There were small dark doors into areas on the ground floor where I assumed animals, probably yaks, were kept in the winter. They seemed empty now, as I assumed the animals had been turned out onto the mountainsides and were grazing high up. Log ladders went up to the first floor where there were the living quarters and more log ladders to the roof areas on which various flat roofed rooms and sheds had been built. It was a medieval scene which would not have changed for many centuries. Every nook and cranny held something interesting. It was as wonderful as I remembered the first time I saw it and it was refreshing to see how resistant the culture was despite the road

313. Manang from the village of Tengi to the west. Beyond Manang is the Marsyangdi Nadi River valley up which we walked.

314. The heavily decorated facade of the monastery at Tengi. The monastery looked quite new and it almost looked the decorators had tried too hard.

After I went through the kami gate on the west side of Manang I climbed up to the hamlet of Tengi where there were more citadel like houses and a well decorated monastery. From this hamlet there were fantastic views south across the valley and up to the hanging glaciers and narrow snow ridges on Ganggapurna and Annapurna 3. From Tengi the path traversed across the dry treeless valley with just some rose and juniper bushes growing out of the gravelly surface. Ahead the valley disappeared up to Thorung Phedi and it looked very arid, with vast brown bare hillsides covered in stones and scree. I met an American girl called Danika and we walked together from here to Yak Kharka chatting. The time passed quickly and three hours after leaving Manang we reached the hamlet consisting of just four or five lodges. We went into one for cups of tea as it was a warm and dry. After tea Danika headed off as she wanted to get to high camp, while I was just settling for the base of the pass.

315. Heading up the valley from Manang towards Thorung Phedi. The wild rose bushes were in bloom everywhere.

316. Heading up the valley near Yak Kharka towards Thorung Phedi and just passing one of the many chortens.

There were a lot of makeshift shelters up this part of the valley where yarsagumba hunters were camped. Manang was supposed to be one of the best places as the caterpillars here were larger than else where in Nepal except Dolpo, and fetched a higher price of nearer US$ 6-10 each. However the picking permit cost more here. I followed the path as it traversed across the valley sides looking up to the brown grasslands high above where hundreds of people were on their hand and knees looking for the yarsagumba. I passed through Ledar heading for a small tea house further up the valley on the other side of a bridge.

It was the Duerali Tea Shop and a couple of years ago I saw a video of the owner, a feisty Sherpa lady from Solu-Khumbu threatening and berating a posh spoilt English lady who had argued with her about the price of a dollar cup of tea. The English lady had a video camera on and recorded the whole incident and then sent the video to a sensationalizing British redtop newspaper. It transpired that the English lady and her son had flown first class to Nepal for the trek and here she was arguing about the price of a cup of tea. The video went viral as Crazy Nepali woman attacks British family on Annapurna Circuit, Nepal. It is here on YouTube: The facts are blurred, but Gemma Wilson has a website called tinytrekkers, and travels with her family around the world, sometimes travelling first class. It serves her right for haggling about the price of a cup of tea. I went especially to the Duerali Tea Shop to congratulate the owner and offer her my best wishes as Gemma Wilson had tried to demonize her and make money out of exaggerating every aspect of the story.

317. “You people dog, you people donkey” The feisty Sherpa lady who owns the Duerali teahouse is not a lady to quibble about a cup of tea with.

From this tea shop I walked another hour up to Thorung La Phedi. There were three lodges here. I took the lowest as Ramesh’s friends worked here. It was the same one I stayed at 30 years ago when the father ran it. It had since burnt down and been rebuilt and is now run by the son. He was a cool dude and married to a South African. His English was perfect and he was well educated and we had a good two hour discussion on all things Nepali and Manangi. He was not so sympathetic to the Sherpa lady who ran the tea shop but I was giving her the benefit of the doubt. He explained why Manangis were one of the richest groups in Nepal – it was due to their trading history and tax breaks given by the previous king some 50-60 years ago. I enjoyed my stay here but the alarm was set for 0400!

June 14. Thorong la Phedi to Muktinath.  24km. 5 hours. 1090m up. 1970m down. The alarm went at 0400, breakfast at 0430 and we set off at 0500, with the South Americans. It was a great morning with a sliver of golden sun rays on the summit of Ganggapurna. The sliver grew quickly as we went up the first of the zig-zags, until it lit up the whole top of the mountain. It was cold but I was in shorts and shirtsleeves and I had to keep moving so as not to get too cold, and pretty soon I was a couple of bends ahead of everyone else except Ramesh who kept up. Halfway up to high camp we came across a herd of about 20 blue sheep. The lambs were leaping about on a very steep rock face with confidence; even chasing each other. It took just 40 minutes to climb the 350 metres up to the so called High Camp at 4850m. There was no sign of life here so I assumed everybody had already left at around 0500 also. The other three were out of sight behind me so I just carried on.

318. A blue sheep grazing on the shrubs near Thorung Phedi. Blue sheep were common in this area and almost fearless of humans.

319. Annapurna III, 7555m, (centre) and Ganggapurna, 7454m (right) about an hour after sunrise, seen from the climb up to Thorung La Pass.

The path climbed past the High Camp and then levelled out and went into a small side valley with a dirty torrent draining a glacial bowl. As I walked towards the torrent I could see the group of plump Nepali women struggling up on their horses which were being led by a handler on foot. I crossed the bridge over the torrent and then climbed steeply again. I felt very fit as I powered up the slope slowly catching the horses. Far below I could see Bharat, Ramesh and Santos, who must have stopped for a rest somewhere. About half an hour after the bridge over the torrent was a simple tea shop but it was closed as the owner was probably away picking yarsagumba.

Behind me the sun was just rising over Chulu West, an imposing trekking peak covered in a glacial cap. The Annapurna range was hidden by the flanks of the valley into which I was now climbing which had a couple of 6000m plus mountains on each side. The terrain was now mostly small rock, and the easy path was largely gravel having been pounded by thousands of feet and hooves each year. The rocks here seem to readily break into small scree. About here the sun finally cleared the surrounding mountains and started to shine on the path. It took the chill out of the air but a breeze started, almost at once, and this negated the warmth. I had just about caught up with the groups who stayed at the High Camp by now and first started overtaking the horses, then a game Kiwi who must have been nearly 80 and finally Maria and her guide. By the time I arrived at Thorung La Pass, 5416m, in just less than two hours, I was first and had a great view over the parched arid landscape in Mustang where we would be spending the next half week or so. Beyond this were some higher snow capped ridges and unseen on the other side was the mysterious and exotic Dolpo, where we would spend nearly three weeks.

320. The view west over the tangle of prayer flags from Thorung La Pass, 5416m at 0700 in the morning. In the distance are the mountains which separate the region of Mustang from Dolpo and we would be going over them, just to the right of the mountains in the centre.

321. Another view of the mountains we would be walking into after leaving Annapurna. The route we will follow is up the valley which rises from centre right towards the centre of the photo. It is a dry area which the imminent monsoon rains will hardly effect.

322. A view of the town of Muktinath from the east as I descended into it. The religious complex is in the bottom of the photo and largely obscured by trees. The peak in the background is Dhaulagiri, one of the world’s highest mountains at over 8000m.

I had time to reflect on the pass before one of the horse handlers arrived and then the Kiwi right afterwards. They took a couple of photos of me before the cold breeze forced me to set off down. There was a good path marked every 100m or so with a pole. It was easy to walk fast down it, stretching ones legs. Within half an hour I made it down to a porter shelter which looked like it had been recently erected. There was a tragedy on this pass some four years ago when an unseasonal storm and whiteout disorientated 100’s of tourists, guides and tourists. Many made it down but about 50 tourists and 100 Nepalis froze to death. Unfortunately tourists had been using the shelter as a toilet and it was full of crap and toilet paper (hence tourists), why they could not just crap in the scree I don’t know, but the shelter was already ruined.

I blasted on down and passed another two shelters, also unusable, when the terrain steepened. I heard something behind me and turned round to see Santos ahead of a cloud of dust he had kicked up. I don’t know how he had done it with his load and slippery soles, but Santos was the downhill master. We chatted a bit as he paused his descent to match mine and then after half an hour took off again to reach Thorung La Phedi West Side. Here there were about five lodges but they were all closed. Santos said they were probably looking for yarsagumba on the brown grassy slopes above. It was only an hour from here to Muktinath so I decided to carry on while Santos waited for the others.

It was a tired hot trudge down the shallower rocky slopes past shrubs which were being grazed by goats to a suspension bridge. Further down the valley I could see old traditional hamlets on the north side with small terraces. However I had to round a spur to reach Muktinath which I could not see. Once I rounded the spur I was a little shocked to see the village I once stayed at 30 years ago. It was now a town with plenty of five or six storey hotels spread out along the main street. Muktinath had always been a holy place, due to an eternal flame which burns from a gas seepage. This holy site had grown massively and was now visited by thousands of pilgrims a year, both Hindu and Buddhist, especially Indian Hindus. The hotels were predominantly for them, but also for the Annapurna Circuit trekkers.

I wandered down to the walled compound which housed the religious sites and a monastery. There were pious Hindus everywhere in typically Indian cloths and saffron robes. There all had large tikkas on their foreheads and were carrying small vessels with offerings and artefacts. I could have been in Varanasi. Many were on horseback as it was a bit of a climb from the town to the holy sites. Large plump Indian women in saris with their large bare midriffs wobbling with each stride of the horse and men with big moustaches and beards holding staffs streamed towards me as I headed into town. I walked through half of it and spied a hotel, then walked a bit further and realized the Bob Marley Hotel was probably the best. I went in and got two rooms. It was just 1000 in the morning but we had put in a good shift. The others arrived an hour later.

June 15.Muktinath to Kagbeni. 12km. 3 hours. 100m up.  920m down. There were quite a few trekkers staying at the Bob Marley Hotel. A few were barefoot and smoked joints all evening. They were still all in bed when we left at 0800 on a beautiful morning but they had all made it over the pass yesterday. We walked down through the town and then left on a small side track and then a path to reach Jharkot. It was one of the three or four old medieval villages which surrounded Muktinath up this side valley to the main Kali Gandaki valley below.

323. Looking up to the small town of Jharkot just below Muktinath. The red monastery is many centuries old and some suspect it is as much as 1000 years.

Jharkot was absolutely fascinating. It was composed of about 75 houses, all in the stone built mini fortress style of Manang. Between them was a warren of alleys and passages through which we wandered. Often a house would span an alley for 5-10 metres and the passage would be dark and the tremendous weight of stone and earth above would be supported by logs laid side by side. In the midst of the town was a much larger earth clad stone building which was perhaps four or five storeys high. I should imagine this was indeed a citadel where the village might store their produce or retreat to if 40 horseman came charging up the valley to loot and pillage. The citadel was now in ruins, its purpose defunct. At the end of the ridge the village was built on was a monastery. It was supposed to be nearly 1000 years old and was built at the same time as the one in Kagbeni and the one across the deep eroded valley in the village of Puthak. Through history all three of these monasteries have been aligned to each other and had communication systems to warn of danger. We went into the monastery compound but there was a festival going on and all the monks were chanting prayers so I did not go in to the actual monastery. However it was allowed to go onto the flat earthen roof where there was a fantastic view down the valley, across the eroded conglomerate gorge to Puthak and another two villages, and back across the rooftops of its own village. It was a great look out point for monk and tourist.

324. In the warren of streets in Jharkot on the way to visit the monastery. The houses were very similar to Manang and the other villages around here except they were painted white.

325. Looking back east to the village of jharkot, with its red monastery on the hill. Beyond is the almost hidden town of Muktinath. Between the snowy peaks is the Thorung La Pass which we came over yesterday.

After that the route followed the road for a few hundred metres and then headed off on a path to Khingar. We took the path which took us through irrigated orchards and meadows. There were a lot of poplar trees giving shade to the meadow which were green and damp due to leaks from the irrigation. At one point a meadow was covered in the iconic purple Himalayan primrose. We wandered through the medieval archaic streets of old Khingar which was very similar to Jharkot except the house were not painted white. Then we were forced by fences and topography away from the edge of the gorge and onto the road.

326. We managed to find a small path to Khingar and avoided the road. There were a lot of apricot orchards en route which were irrigated and in the damp meadows the Himalayan primroses flourished.

The last time I came here it was a path. The pilgrims visiting Muktinath then were a different class. They were then hardy saddhus with few possessions other than their robes, a small canister with holy artefacts, a large beard and moustache, and a swirl of dreadlocks bundled on their head. Then they all walked. Now they were plump middle class and middle aged Indians who mostly took a private jeep up the black top road. And this was the road we had to walk down for some 5-6 km. I hate road walking especially on reasonably busy roads as it is so humiliating with people whizzing past in vehicles.

There was an alternative to the road but it was much longer and it also went into Upper Mustang and as such it was in a restricted area. That alternative was to leave Muktinath and cross the deeply eroded gorge to the villages of Chongar and Puthak. From there a track crossed the arid hillside for 7-8 km, down to the lip of an escarpment, and then down to Kagbeni. Although it went along the north side of the eroded side valley just inside the restricted area there would be no checks, and if there was, one could talk a way out of it by saying you were disorientated. As we slogged down the black top road with buses, jeeps and motorbikes frequently passing, I looked longingly across the valley at the peaceful track.

327. Looking down onto the town of Kagbeni. It is the ancient gateway to the Kingdom of Mustang to the north. It shared many medieval architects with Jharkot and the monasteries were built at the same time many centuries ago.

Eventually the road made a series of steep zig-zags down to Kagbeni on the banks of the large muddy Kali Gandaki river. We shortcutted the bends on a gravelly path which was very sketchy when we had to drop down the steep embankment to the asphalt road. After some two and a half hours we eventually reached the small town of Kagbeni. On the south side of the town was an area with tourist type hotels, which we headed into and checked into a very clean New Annapurna Hotel.

328. Barley drying in a yard in Kagbeni. The other side of the yard was a very squat kami gate whose ceiling was richly decorated with Buddhist motifs.

The hotels were not near the heart of the old village so I went for a wander in it. There was a big monastery complex with the old monastery, which was associated with the other two at Jharkot and Puthak. There was a notice outside saying it was built in 1429, so the claims of the others being 1000 years old seem slightly exaggerated. This one still had its original statues and artefacts from its inception. The entrance fee was just 200 rupees but I had left my wallet in the hotel. Beside this simple rustic red monastery was a new larger monastery which seemed very busy and was teeming with monks young and old. There was also an accommodation complex for some 50-75 monks on the same courtyard as the monasteries.  Kagbeni also had the same warren of alleys and passageways. I explored many of them, trying to get a photo of the derelict citadel, but it was too congested. Many of the alleys ended in a locked doorway. Amongst them was a large old house which had been converted into what passes for a boutique hotel. It was called The Redhouse and it had a gallery and museum but they also charged entry and I had no money. I would maybe stay here next time. I walked back to the hotel through the newer streets which were wider but still lined with old houses.

329. The old monastery at Kagbeni was almost preserved as a museum. A new monastery had been built beside it and there were living quarters for at least 50 monks. The whole complex filled the centre of Kagbeni and it looked a thriving monastery.

By now the Kali Gandaki wind was blowing strongly. As the air in Upper Mustang and Tibet heated up it rose and new air to replace it rushed up the valley getting squeezed between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. It was essentially the deepest valley in the world. Dust filled the air and crops swayed in the gusts, some of which were about force 8 or 9.

Bharat, Ramesh and Santos were concerned about my plans to continue with the same team through Dolpo and Mugu, with the same small tent, my small fickle stove and instant noodles for food. They suggested we upgrade to the bigger tent, the large kerosene stove and their beloved dalbhat. I hadresisted the idea for two or three weeks but eventually gave in. The thought of leeches in the imminent monsoon creeping under the flysheet into the vestibule where I slept and me waking up with ten on my face did not appeal, nor meals of dry noodles because the stove did not work. But in upgrading the equipment we also needed another porter and this was the main reason for my resistance as it might upset our team’s harmony. However it was suggested that our climbing Sherpa, Dawa, be given first refusal even though he was a guide. To everyone’s delight he said yes. It meant he had to take three buses for 24 hours from his home to Kathmandu, pick up the gear we needed and the restricted area permits, and then take another three buses from Kathmandu to Jomson for another 24 hours. He is just about to arrive in Jomson as I write, and the owner of the hotel will go and pick him up on his motorbike with all his bags and the kerosene for the leg to Phoksumdo, quite how they will balance it all I don’t know. On the previous occasion Dawa was with us he was the social glue who held us all in such good spirits so I am greatly looking forward to him arriving.

The Annapurna Section was better than I thought. The road was not that bad except for the last day, and if I did it again I would take the track on the north of the gorge through the restricted area to Kagbeni. On the rest of the circuit where the road has replaced the path I walked on 30 years ago there is often an alternative, like up through the traditional villages of Ghayru and Ngawal. The lodges are now modern and clean as opposed to the old stone houses I stayed in before. I could have found bhattis and small homestays in these older houses, but a bit of comfort was nice. On the next leg, Section 11. Dolpo, there will be plenty of old houses to stay in and on both my previous visits to Dolpo my sleeping bag got infested with fleas.

The next leg will probably take about 20 days and then the leg after, Section 12. Mugu, will probably take about 10 days and be affected by monsoon rains. It is unlikely I will find any internet to upload the blog and photos until they are completed, and we arrive in Simikot in roughly 30 days time. After that we only have one more leg to complete our journey and that is Section 13. Limi, before we arrive in Hilsa and that is likely to also be about 10 days as we will linger in Limi Valley. So the next update will be around 15th July – but the tracker map will keep updating on the website to show my current location.

Section 10. Annapurna. 6 Days. 110km. 29.5 hours. 4839m up. 4300m down.

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