Monthly Archives: May 2010

Day 10 – May 12 – Tiji festival final day

There were no events in the morning other than the continuing pujas in the monastery, so we took a walk around the walls of the town.

After lunch we staked out our place at the festival. The crowd was smaller than for the previous two days, which seemed odd since this day's activities were at least as interesting.

The afternoon began with a solemn puja of the monks now chanting and blowing their horns in the middle of the town plaza. The tsowo, among the chanting red-hat monks, performed ritual offerings and then another exorcism of an effigy of the demon. This time, however, he stuck his ritual daggers and knives into a piece of goat meat that had been sprinkled with red powder. Three masked dancers assisted him. By the end of the ceremony he had cut the meat into small slices, neutralizing the evil it embodied.

For the conclusion of the ceremony and the festival, we all moved outside the city walls. Throughout the pujas, the monks had been preparing five tormas, small ritual piles of tsampa (barley cakes) covered with sacred red power. The tsowa now needed to throw them ceremonially on the ground in an auspicious direction that would ensure rain for crops and the other goals of the festival.

By tradition, the king chooses the direction by firing a gun. This time, the 77-year-old king delegated the task to his nephew, the crown prince. Helping him were bodyguards and other members of the royal family, all of whom wanted to take a few shots with the medieval muzzle-loaders. All fired their muskets to the north.

Once all the royals had fired their shots, the tsowa slowly threw each of the tormas upside down on the ground in the same direction. To complete the ceremony, he covered them with an old snow leopard skin and gave a final whack. The festival was now successfully finished and everyone filed back into the town.

We then did something no other visitors could do. We joined the royal party at the king's palace. Our guide Kinna had been to Mustang over 50 times in the 20 years it has been open, and with his fluent Tibetan he had struck up friendships with most of the royal family and their bodyguards. He was therefore able to talk his way through the barriers and get us an audience with the king. (Some other groups also visited the king, but they had to wait for a non-festival day.)

The king was in his living quarters on the fourth floor of the palace (the first three seemed to be mostly storage). Since he didn't need to go out into the festival this year, he was dressed in faded Western sportswear and could have been mistaken for any local on the street. We each offered him a kata (ceremonial scarf), which he insisted on putting around our necks to bless us. At his request, we sat for ten minutes sipping an orange drink and making small talk about innocuous subjects like the weather in San Francisco (also arid but not as cold as Mustang) and then said our farewells. We also gave katas to the elderly queen and crown prince, who was in another room whooping it up with his friends. On the way out, Kinna was happy when one of his royal friends gave him a cigarette – Marlboro rather then the cheap Nepali brand.

Day 11 – May 13 – Garphu

Lo Manthang was much quieter with the festival over. Most of the foreigners had left and the locals were sleeping off their hangovers.

Being in no rush, we planned our trip so we could spend two more days exploring the valleys that stretched northward toward Tibet. Today we chose the northeast valley where the monastic village of Garphu is located.

We hired horses for the trip, even though we could have walked. I hate to admit it, but despite all my years of rough and ready tours, this was the first time I had ridden a horse. This one was easy: he was well-behaved, knew the route and rarely went faster than an easy walk. Nepali horses are smaller than American horses, so this also reduced the difficulties of mounting, dismounting, and saddle discomfort. He did, however, drop to his knees and dump me on the ground once in apparent protest over my weight.

Garphu is quite a population center, with more than a thousand people spread out over several villages. The only high school in Mustang is located here, so children from Lo Manthang either need to make the two-hour walk or live at the boarding school.

It has been a population center since prehistoric days, judging from the large number of cave dwellings in the cliffs above. We were able to visit one of these, which had five levels of rooms hollowed out of the sandstone. The 150-centimeter (5 foot) ceilings were a problem for me but probably not the local inhabitants. On the way out we bumped into the crown prince, who was also on the same excursion.

We then visited two small monasteries on the opposing hill, ate our sack lunches and returned to Lo Manthang.

In the late afternoon, I checked my email on the one satellite link in town. Good thing, because there was a question I had to answer from the travel agent in New York who was working on our visas for our planned trip to Uzbekistan in the fall. More on that in another blog entry about Delhi already posted.

Just to be sure, I resolved to call the agent when she came in to work. 9am New York time is 6:45pm in Nepal (the silly 15 minutes are a political statement to show that they are not the same as India, which in turn needs to be 30 minutes different from Pakistan).

Telephone calls can be very fustrating in Nepal. Although almost every store offers ISD (international) phones at about $1.40 per minute, they cannot always get a landline connection. This particular evening it was impossible. Finally, the man of the house came home at 8:30, an hour and a half later then he had promised, and he let me use the few remaining minutes on his cell phone. Fortunately, I was able to reach the agent and confirm everything was now ok.

Day 12 – May 14 – Namgyal

The northwest valley is much shorter and could be visited on foot in half a day.

We first climbed to two ruins overlooking Lo Manthang. The higher one had once been the king's palace but was now just a few wind-eroded walls. Good views but a lot of wind.

We next visited Namgyal monastery, one of the largest in Mustang. Built on a hill, this monastery had 500-year-old paintings blackened by as many years of soot. A monk offered us tea and snacks in the student dining hall, which we consumed quickly because the young monks were starting to file in for their lunches. Also, the weather was starting to threaten, depositing a dusting of snow on the higher peaks.

On the way, we saw several white Himalayan vultures working on a dead horse. These and their larger brother the lammergeier are among the largest birds on earth and have been known to fly as high as Everest.

In the afternoon, I handled some more email, unfortunately creating work for my dear brother who was handling our affairs while we were on another planet. Simple things like making a phone call or faxing back a form were impossible here.

Day 13 – May 15 – Downhill to Yaragaon

We packed and left the house where we had spent the last 6 nights. We considered ourselves very fortunate to have been able to spend this time with an extended family, even if we had to deal with the Alzheimer's-afflicted grandmother coming into our room three times a day wondering who we were.

We had chosen to take a longer route back down the east side of the valley. The first day of this involved a gradual climb up a ridge and then a steep descent to the river through a slot canyon that could have been in Utah.

The desert mountain scenery was varied and fantastic. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We spent the night in a small village called Yaragaon about an hour up a side canyon. Opposite was a wind-sculpted cliff that could have been an impressionist painting. In the cliff was another extensive set of cave dwellings.

Day 14 – May 16 – Up and over to Tangge

We knew the days back on the East side would be harder and they would become increasingly difficult as we went on. Like the West side, where we went up, the trail climbs high over one ridge after another, but here the trail also has to dip down to the river valley between each climb, as the East side is cut by deep ravines draining the high mountains north of Annapurna.

By staying at Yaragaon we had already completed part of the first climb. Without much trouble, we climbed the rest of the way up to a broad shelf above the wind-eroded cliffs we had seen on the previous day. Like the US Grand Canyon's Tonto Shelf, this canyon had a wide, slightly sloping area that was relatively flat before plunging over cliffs to the inner canyon.

The trail was obscure enough to be missing from our map, but our guide knew the way. By late morning, we had reached the next side canyon, where we dropped down over the cliffs and crossed the stream.

Our map did show the next section but was unclear on its location. Thinking we just needed to climb to the next shelf, we happily began the climb. But it soon became obvious that the trail actually climbed up over a pass almost at the top of the ridge. In exchange for our efforts, we got great views over the canyon landscape.

On the other side of the pass, we could see why this was necessary. Between this ridge and a smaller one to the south, we had to cross a section of rutted badlands. Up high, this meant merely crossing six or eight ravines where the trail dipped five or six meters (15-20 feet), then climbed back up. But lower down, these dry watercourses would have been completely impassible. At the other side, we crossed the lower ridge and were rewarded with another flat shelf that could have been somewhere in Nevada.

A kilometer or two later, we dropped down a cliff to Tangge, our resting place for the evening. Tangge has a linked group of chortens (burial monuments).

We stayed at a small house that was more primitive than anything before. Being only one story high, this house had no bathroom other than an easy trip out the back door. As before, we were told to sleep in the house chapel, which was mostly a storage place for drums and yak butter lamps. Another room held a loom, which the family used for making rough cloths. Our guide helped the illiterate father write his address so we could mail him this picture we took of his children.

Day 15 – May 17 – The big climb to Paha

We knew that this day was to be the biggest climb of this trek. From the river valley, we needed to climb 1000 meters (3500 feet) to the top of a ridge, which we would follow the next day back down to the river.

We climbed without too much difficulty, but we were concerned that our guide and one of our porters had fallen behind. Normally porters run up the hills twice as fast as we do so that they can deposit their 40-kilogram (90 pound) loads as quickly as possible. We later learned that this porter had come down with a cold and our guide was staying with him to give support and carry his load if necessary.

A few minutes after reaching the top, a couple of Nepali men came up. They spoke enough English to confirm that our camping place was another 30 minutes along the main trail, and they agreed to let us follow them there. We later learned that these men were hunting yartsu-gumba, a small fungus-parasite/plant combination that fetches thousands of dollars on the Chinese medicinal plant market.

Some groups combine this and the next day into a 10-12 hour march over the pass. Being in no hurry and trying to preserve our aging legs, we split it up with an overnight camp at a small spring called Paha, the only water on 30 kilometers (18 miles) of trail. Our staff cooked and slept in a stone porters' rest house, while we had the more comfortable accommodations of our tent. In the evening, shepherds brought through several herds of goats, one of which became part of our dinner. At night, a Tibetan mastiff dog with big red eyes barked for an hour or so, delaying Marcia's trip to the bathroom.

Day 16 – May 18 – The long descent

We broke camp and started on the long trail along a ridge back down to the Kali Gandaki valley. By staying high on the ridge, we were able to avoid crossing four deeply eroded canyons. The trail was generally flat or down and we made good time.

This being the highest ridge on the trek, we got wonderful views of all of Mustang and the mountains around it. Unfortunately, the air had become quite hazy, but even so, we were able to see Annapurna I and Dhauligiri I, the 8000-meter mountains to the south. The deep canyons had varied terrains and rock colors.

By 2pm, we completed the long descent to the Kali Gandaki valley and our lodge for the evening. This is the point where we rejoined the trail along the valley floor that we had taken upstream on Day 3. Being almost back to civilization, the guest house was quite comfortable, even having electricity.

Day 17 – May 19 – Rough and ready tractor to Jomsom

The original plan was for us to walk down the river valley to Kagbeni, where we would leave the restricted area and take a jeep back to Jomsom. But since we had already walked this path in the opposite direction, we accepted Kinna's suggestion to spare our feet by riding on a tractor cart. Apparently some members of our staff had developed blisters and they too were anxious to take the easy way back to town.

The tractor came well before 8am and we all piled in. Our guide Kinna, Marcia and I rode on the tractor itself, which offered at least some springs and padding. The crew and our baggage rode in the trailer, joined by a woman and a baby who also needed to make the trip to town. Rough and ready though the trip was, the baby fell asleep in his mother's arms.

The advantage of the tractor was that it could drive down the Kali Gandaki streambed in the many areas where the jeep road was not yet finished. In many cases it just drove down the braided stream itself, crossing the main channel 13 times. The water often reached the front axles and several times it almost covered the front wheels. Our driver was a professional, though, and he had obviously done this many times.

The tractor dropped us right at our hotel's front door, which even a jeep could not have done, since there is no road bridge across the river.

Jomsom, although still on the frontier, has hotels with hot showers and relatively good internet connections. We did some business, wrote some postcards and relaxed.

In the evening we had our last dinner prepared by our kitchen staff, who will leave by bus in the morning. From this point on, we will stay and eat in guesthouses, so only our guide Kinna and our porter Dawa Jangbu will continue walking with us. We presented the five departing members their katas (ceremonial scarves) and their obligatory tips.

Day 18 – May 20 – Walking to Tukuche

The next three days were to fill a gap we left in November when we took a bus down the Kali Gandaki valley. Although it was the right thing to do at the time, resting our muscles and getting us to the Annapurna Base Camp while the weather was good, it sped us too quickly through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery on the planet. This time we planned to walk.

In a way, we had earlier been victims of our 21st-century thinking that if there's a road we must naturally take a vehicle. Even with the strike lifted, there was very little traffic on the rough jeep road, so apart from having a wider trail and having to cover our faces from the dust a few times a day, the trail was just as nice as it had been in its earlier times when it had been considered one of the highlights of the Annapurna loop. It had only been in our minds and our tour books that the road had “ruined” this trek.

Since we had already done the 90-minute walk to Marpha on Day 1, we had planned to take the bus that far. But because I needed to do a few essentials on email before leaving Jomsom, we missed the only bus before noon. So we decided to walk even that stretch and then continue on to our destination, the next town Tukuche.

The only trouble was the wind. Because the Kali Gandaki cuts straight through the Himalayas, it makes a 25-kilometer hole in the range. Every day as the plains of India heat up, the winds use this gap to move surplus air toward the Tibetan plateau. The result is a wind tunnel that starts up every day around 10am. We wore facemasks and occasionally had to turn backwards as dust clouds blew by.

On this short day, we were in our guest house in Tukuche by noon, which was fortunate because a big thunderstorm hit immediately after. We spent the rest of this partial rest day relaxing, reviewing Chinese and reading books.

Tukuche's houses were markedly different from the Tibetan styles up the valley. With wooden balconies, they seemed closer to the styles of Kathmandu.

Day 19 – May 21 – Titi Lake

The next stage was to make a short detour to a small lake on a shelf across the valley. This would get us away from the road and give a different view of the mountains.

The first two hours, however, continued down the main route past the base of Dhauligiri, which towered five kilometers (three miles) vertically above the valley. Immediately above us was the huge Dhauligiri icefall, considered unclimbable by the earliest expeditions. The ridge above pointed almost straight at us, so the summit was only a tip on the end. Most climbing expeditions approach the mountain from the back.

At the base of Dhauligiri, the river valley narrows and makes a 90-degree turn to the left. We crossed to the east side and began our detour up to Titi Lake. Our guide had never come this way before, so he took us on one unnecessary trip uphill, but after visiting a few young goats at a shepherd's house, we got back on our track and made it to our goal by lunchtime.

Titi was a very small farming village and the guesthouse was very basic. A dying cow was lying in the space next door. We walked a bit to see the lake, which was just a small pond, then relaxed and reviewed Chinese flashcards for the rest of the afternoon. Our guide cooked dinner for us so we didn't have to repeat dahl baht (rice and lentils, the staple of the locals).