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.