Monthly Archives: May 2010

Nepal trek day-by-day

From May 3 to 26, we took our third long trek in Nepal, this time to the area north of Annapurna known as Upper Mustang. This is a border area of Tibetan culture along the Kali Gandaki river north of Jomsom, which we visited on both previous treks. Like Dolpo, it is a restricted trekking area, which means more expensive permits but fewer people.

It's an area we've wanted to visit for a long time, even more since we gazed on its varicolored canyons from the trail out from Dolpo. We timed our trip to attend the Tiji or Tenchi Festival, which takes place in Mustang's capital every year on the 27th to the 29th days of the third month of the Tibetan lunar calendar.

After 17 days in Upper Mustang, we spent another week walking back to Pokhara through areas we already covered on our second trek last November. Spring brings new vistas and rhododendron blooms, and we wanted to see some places that we'd passed through too quickly last time.

As before, I have written detailed day-by-day postings with lots of pictures. This time there are even more pictures because I had trouble choosing among the many remarkable views.

To see all the postings, you will have to either keep saying “next page” or select them sequentially from the navigation area to the right.

We are now in Ladakh (India) on a long trek without internet access until we fly home on July 12.

Day 1 – May 3 – Jomsom and Marpha

————— beginning of detailed Nepal trek postings —————

We left the hotel for Pokhara airport at 5am in three trips by motorcycle to beat the Maoist roadblocks, which went in place at 6am. We later saw people rolling suitcases on foot, and we were glad we didn't have to do that.

The air had been cleared by the evening rain, so we had our best view yet of the front of the Himalayas from Dhauligiri in the west to beyond Manaslu in the east. It used to be clear like this every day, but now pollution has made it a rare sight. We might have benefited from the Maoist strike's keeping vehicles off the road.

The flight to Jomsom was a 30-minute thrill. Sitting on the right side of the plane, we first watched as the plane rose over the Modi Khola river draining the Annapurna Sanctuary. The plane then flew over the treetops of the pass near Ghorapani and turned up the Kali Gandaki valley. The north face of Annapurna I was visible as well as the high pass Maurice Herzog's team crossed to get to it. The plane finally landed on the paved runway at Jomsom.

Today was a rest day built into the schedule to allow for delays. Although we planned to go there again on the way back, we decided to stretch our legs with the 90-minute walk to Marpha. It was quite pleasant walking along the road without the noise or dust of jeeps – much like this area must have been 20 years ago.

Marpha is everybody's favorite village. Compact with a monastery at its center, it is one of the most prosperous and best-maintained villages in Nepal. The local economy revolves around tourism and apple-growing. We had thought of visiting the local brandy distillery, but it was outside town and probably closed. So we settled for buying a bottle of “medicine” for our trip.

Back in Jomsom, we tended to email and other mundane tasks.

Day 2 – May 4 – Kagbeni

The walk from Jomsom to Kagbeni is an easy four hours along the flat Kali Gandaki river valley. Many people now cover this stretch by jeep as we had done on our previous Annapurna trek. But this time we did it on foot to acclimatize to the altitude and get back in the habit of walking.

Kagbeni is a medieval village with houses in a tight cluster, with narrow paths snaking between and sometimes under them. Graphic male and female fertility statues stand at the north and south entrances (pictures on request).

A large gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) dominates the village. We enjoyed the paintings and the dancing masks, and we were amused by the presence of a Chinese prosperity pig at the center of the altar. The inscription “be as rich as you wish” sounded like a plea for donations.

Yakdonald's Restaurant had internet access until the power went off. I don’t think they pay franchise fees to either Macdonalds or 7-11, but the goats are genuine.

Day 3 – May 5 – Top of the main Kali Gandaki valley

Leaving Kagbeni, the trail enters the restricted area that requires a special permit costing $50 per day. Originally intended to limit numbers and impact of trekkers on the culturally interesting and militarily sensitive border region, the permits now have become a simple moneymaker for the corrupt Nepali government. Still, it keeps out the hordes of college-age trekkers that flood the Annapurna trails.

The walking was again along the flat Kali Gandaki floodplain, although we increasingly had to climb side hills in places where the river ran right up to the edge. Around mid-morning we passed the stream that drained the valley we crossed on the last few days of our Dolpo trek. We could look up and see the trail where it crossed the ridge 1600 meters (one mile) above.

The sandstone cliffs in this area were dramatically different from the Himalayan mountains to the south. Natural and manmade caves have provided shelter since prehistoric times.

Lunch was at another walled village overlooking the river. Another male fertility figure stood at the north entrance. Water was plentiful, as the village had diverted a stream to feed the town and its irrigated fields.

We ended the day at Chele, a small village at the head of the valley. Here the river comes out of a narrow slot canyon markedly different from the floodplain below. The canyon is narrow enough that no trail can go through, so we will spend the next few days climbing over a ridge on its west side.

Day 4 – May 6 – Samar

This was the first real climb, going up a beautiful trail on the side of a lateral mountain. At times the trail was carved right into the sandstone. A compact village faced us across the valley.

Although we thought we were pretty well acclimatized after two months at 2000 meters elevation in Kunming, the elevation gain up above 3100 meters proved too much for Marcia. She was feeling a little nauseous even at breakfast and it got worse as she climbed, with diarrhea in addition. We weren't sure whether it was altitude or an intestinal bug, so we treated for both.

Our original plan was to climb to a teahouse at 3900 meters, but given Marcia's condition, we decided to stop at our lunch place Samar, a three-yak village at 3600 meters. Marcia slept all afternoon and felt a lot better in the evening as long as she didn't exert herself.

While Marcia slept, I read a book and walked around the village. A two-year-old boy on his grandmother's back looked at me cautiously as we passed. Village children often don't know what to make of a tall man with fair skin and a beard. But this time, once he had reached a safe distance, the boy waved and blew me a kiss.

Day 5 – May 7 – Four passes to Ghami

Marcia was feeling better but still not up to the 7-hour day that would be required to get back on schedule. I had our guide inquire about the cost of a horse, and it was only US$30, plus $3 for the horse man. It says something about the standard of living when a horse costs ten times as much as a human. In any case, we proceeded with Marcia atop a very gentle steed named Siddha, the rest of us walking.

This was indeed a long day, crossing four low passes and considerable distance. Traveling south-north in Mustang is like crossing the ribs of a comb. Nothing high, but the series of passes and ravines is quite tiring.

Along the way were a number of small teahouses and villages. Views changed rapidly as every hill seemed to have a different color or texture. The weather was mostly cloudy with a few drops of rain, fresh snow in higher elevations. We did catch a glimpse from the pass of the very peak of Annapurna I.

Day 6 – May 8 – Ghar Gumba to Tsarang

There were two routes to Tsarang, our next overnight stop. Marcia was still not feeling strong, so she went with our cook on the easier one over a low pass. I went with our guide Kinna on the scenic route over a higher pass visiting a famous monastery named Ghar Gumba.

Ghar Gumba is very old, possibly the oldest Tibetan monastery in the world. The story goes that people were trying to build Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, but a demon destroyed their work every night. They sent for a famous lama, who did battle with the demon across much of Tibet. Finally he told the people that the demon could not be defeated until they first built a monastery here at Ghar Gumba. They did so and the lama killed the demon, allowing them to proceed with Samye and then other monasteries in Tibet.

Along the trail we passed several other remnants of the mythical demon. Just as we were leaving Ghami in the morning, we went along a the longest mani wall in Nepal, possibly the world. A mani wall is built with holy stones usually carved with the mantra om mani padme om. You walk respectfully to its left. In this case the wall was several hundred meters long, said to be the dead demon's intestines.

We spent the next several hours climbing alongside spectacular reddish cliffs unlike anything we'd seen elsewhere in Nepal. The “hoodoos” of Utah's Bryce Canyon are the closest analogues I could think of, but these were larger and more varied. The story goes that these cliffs owe their red color to the demon's blood, which it dropped while dying from the lama's blows.

We climbed up through the hoodoos to a viewpoint where we had lunch. From there we had views of the Himalayan peaks to the south, with the great north face of Annapurna I towering over the rest. From most places to the north, the view of Annapurna I is blocked by what Maurice Herzog called la Grande Barrière, a 6500-meter knife ridge that no one would ever want to climb over. But we were far enough away that the whole top of the mountain was visible over the barrier.

Kinna had told me that the pass was at the top of the hoodoos and that it was flat from there on. I am learning that a Sherpa defines “flat” as anything less than a 10% slope. In this case we had another 100 meters to climb to the real pass.

The gompa was small but interesting. Some of the statues had clearly been replaced. One gold Buddha looked might have been mass-produced in China. But the main image of Guru Rimpoche was clearly of great antiquity. About a dozen pilgrims, mostly women, had made it this far up the hill to do their prostrations. The resident monk blessed me by putting holy oil on my head, which was already greasy enough.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking down the long valley to Tsarang, another monastery town where the King of Mustang has a second palace that seems to be gradually tumbling into ruin. The king obviously prefers to spend his winters in the milder climate of Kathmandu.

There were more great views of Annapurna I just before sunset from just above the village.

Day 7 – May 9 – Tsarang to Lo Manthang

The last day of hiking northward was along the dirt road that now extends from Tibet to two days south of Lo Manthang. In a few years the road will reach Jomsom, and constant traffic will break the tranquility of Upper Mustang. But for now traffic is limited to a couple trucks and tractors each day.

Fortunately, one of these trucks came along just as we finished crossing the first stream canyon. Marcia was still feeling ill from altitude, so we flagged down the truck and got her seated with the driver and two local girls in the cab. Our guide Kinna went along with the other men on top of the load.

I opted to keep walking. The road was generally flat and easy, though at the end it climbed over the 4000-meter Lo Pass. The weather was beautiful, giving crystal-clear views of Annapurna I, Nilgiri, and the other mountains to the south. I even caught a glimpse of the top of Dhauligiri, though real views will have to wait until our return down the east side of the valley.

From Lo Pass, I could see the walled city of Mustang's capital Lo Manthang and the irrigated green fields that surrounded it. Even more impressive was the huge, multi-colored valley that stretched up to the Tibetan border, towards which the upper Kali Gandaki river continues to eat.

Kinna met me at the pass and showed me to our lodging. Because of the festival, all guesthouses and camping areas were full, but Kinna had arranged for us to stay in the house of one of his friends. The house was at the southwest corner of the inner city, putting us right in the center of the action. We slept in the house gompa.

Day 8 – May 10 – Tiji Festival first day

We timed our trip to attend the three-day Tiji (or Tenchi) Festival in Lo Manthang. This is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist festival that is devoted to removing evil obstacles, thereby ensuring everything from summer rains to world peace. It is a commemoration of the triumph of Padmanasvara (Guru Rimpoche) over the forces of evil.

Even before the festival, the monks of Lo Manthang's four monasteries were busy performing pujas to the accompaniment of Tibetan bass trumpets. With a length and bore similar to the bass trombone I used to play, they are typically played on the pedal tone (fundamental) and second and third harmonics. The monks accompany their chanting with mudras (formulaic hand gestures) that can also be seen in Buddhist art works.

The dances are a reenactment of the myth of Dorje Shunu, who was reborn to make a series of dances to defeat the forces of evil. The lead monk dancer or tsowo plays the part of Dorje Shunu to do various ritual acts of purification and exorcism. The tsowo prepares for the ceremony with three months of solitary meditation.

The dancing started in the mid-afternoon and continued until dark. This first day's dancing was relatively simple, with mostly slow movements in a circle representing a mandala around the tsowo. The monks wore brightly colored robes but no masks on this first day.

The backdrop was an embroidered silk thangka of Padmasambhava unfurled from a three-story building on the end of the square. The thangka used on the first day is 400 years old.

Day 9 – May 11 – Tiji Festival second day

In the morning, monks were back in the monastery performing pujas, which continue into the afternoon's dancing.

We took the opportunity to visit one of the monasteries' museums, a dark room that held a number of historic treasures including manuscripts written in gold on bamboo leaves. A number of these had been recovered from cave dwellings in other parts of the valley.

The second afternoon's dancing was more dramatic than the first. The monk dancers wore elaborate masks and costumes and acted out roles in the action, which was like an exorcism of the evil spirits that might stand in the way of crops, world peace and other good things. The evil spirits were led to gather in a small effigy, which was then purged first by dancers in skeleton costumes and then killed by the tsowo performing delicate surgery with ceremonial knives.

Equally interesting was the crowd, which was predominantly local people of all ages. People were very involved, sometimes calling out at key times. An old man was selected from the crowd to hold the effigy in the dance with the skeletons.

On this second day, they used a newer thangka backdrop representing Padmasambhava in eight of his different forms. A half hour before the dance, a man brought the wrapped-up thangka out of the king's palace to the sound of horns and cymbals. Believing it to have magical properties, the crowd reached to touch the precious cloth.

The action continued after the thanka was unfurled. A stream of people came across the podium to give their hats and in some cases their babies to a Nepali police officer in camouflage fatigues, who touched them to the thanka and returned them. Nowhere but Nepal would a member of the military be so integrally involved in this traditional spiritual ritual.

At the end of the afternoon, police and volunteers held out the thanka so that the whole crowd could file under it for another blessing.

After dinner, I went back for a few minutes to see the school dance performances. I had unfortunately missed the previous night, when the more traditional folk dances were presented. This night featured mostly adaptations of popular Indian songs and dances. Even so, it was interesting to see how a small town puts together a show of amateur performances of its young people. The crowd was larger than for the monk's dance, almost filling the courtyard.