We stood atop the roof on the edge of Muktinath and hung our laundry from the lines, glad to have put the grueling Thorong La behind us. A chilly wind cascaded down the canyon from the direction of the pass, stirred our hanging socks, and then swept into the canyon below. Behind us the Himalayas towered miles high, and on the other side of the canyon in front of us was a different world altogether: the former Kingdom of Lo.
Crossing the pass put us in Mustang, the isolated district of Nepal sandwiched between the imposing Himalayas to the south and a closed off Tibet to the north. The people of Upper Mustang live a secluded life that has changed very little since the 15th century. Culturally, they are Tibetan, and the language, architecture, and customs are a reflection of this. Until 1992 the area was completely sealed to outside visitors; Upper Mustang was once an independent kingdom, the Kingdom of Lo, and was ruled by a monarch. This all came to an end in 2008 when Nepal became a republic, but access to Upper Mustang remains tightly controlled. The King of Lo still lives out here, just 25 miles north of Muktinath, and life goes on just as it has for the last six hundred years.
There is a rough jeep track that weaves its way through the Himalayas, leading to Upper Mustang, and I’d had my eye on it for months. It would be the greatest overlanding triumph of our trip to drive this road and emerge five hundred years in the past on the Tibetan Plateau in a wild, shuttered Himalayan kingdom. But when the time came, we were foiled by the cost of permits, which was $1,000, and would only be good for 10 days. Our Tibetan discovery, just like our dream of driving through China, was not to be. But by a stroke of luck the Nepalese government had very recently lifted restrictions on a small sliver of Upper Mustang, and we could now trek through it and witness what is considered by many to be the best-preserved example of traditional Tibetan life in the world.
When we left Muktinath, we didn’t head East along the jeep road as is normally done. Instead we turned North, crossing several streams on log bridges, and within a half an hour we entered the formerly restricted portion of Upper Mustang.
As soon as we crossed the boundary we were in a different world. Muktinath, having long been accessible to the outside world, was similar to many of the other villages we’d passed through on the Annapurna Circuit. But a half hour of walking brought us to Chhongkhar, and it was as if we’d been transported to a far off land. Buildings were constructed in a completely different manner, tall and smoothed over with plaster, flat-roofed, and painted with colorful vertical stripes. In places, people had made snowballs out of yak dung and thrown them at the walls to create a collage of manure discs, which when dried would be used as fuel. The people in this village acted differently than other villagers we’d seen. They hadn’t jumped on the entrepreneurial bandwagon yet, and simply went on with their lives while we walked through, gazing wide-eyed as if discovering Himalayan life for the first time.
We left Chhongkhar and soon arrived at Jhong, where the village was dominated by an imposing but crumbling mud tower fort, built in the 14th century for King Pondrung Throgyal, the kingdom’s founder. We climbed to the base of the tower and watched robed monks scurry about on the village paths below. Beyond the cracked and crumbling fortress the trail descended through orchards where, not having found anything to eat in the villages, we scavenged a couple of famous Mustang apples from an overhanging branch and paired them with a couple of packs of cranberry flavored Clif Bloks for an impromptu picnic lunch.
The hours passed and the weather began to turn, and by mid afternoon a strong, freezing wind had set in. We topped a rise and were met by a shepherd with a herd of goats. The shepherd’s face was withdrawn into the protection of his jacket hood, but he flashed a big smile at us as he passed. Before long the wind brought with it pellets of cold rain. We donned our rain gear from head to toe and resumed a slow but determined march across the eerily damp and cold steppe, slowly descending into the bottom of a river valley.
As we neared the bottom of the valley the rain let up and we downclimbed through a chute carved in a dry mud cliff. A half mile farther we came to Kagbeni, the village marking the edge of restricted Upper Mustang. We planted our weary selves at a guesthouse overlooking the river where I could wile away the hours staring longingly up the valley into the adventure that might have been. We woke up the next morning and proclaimed that we had earned a rest day. We had been on the trail for twelve days.
We spent a restful day exploring the nooks and crannies of Kagbeni, drinking coffee in the sun, getting lost in cobbled back alleys, watching people tend to their animals, and admiring the primitive but charming buildings that gave the village its ancient ambience. When we awoke the following morning, we donned our packs and stepped into the windy valley.
To the South the river valley snaked toward Jomsom, and beyond it modern civilization. Behind us was the secluded pocket of Upper Mustang, a region very unlike any other place on Earth—a place situated in between the world’s most imposing natural barrier and one of the world’s most politically guarded regions. It is one of the few places left where people still live as they have for centuries, cut off from the modern world. How lucky that we were born when we were, and to be of a mentality that provokes us to explore it. In a few years Upper Mustang will have changed; as we speak plans are moving forward to run a highway right through the middle of it to create another link between Kathmandu and China.
This weighed profoundly on my mind, and it was with heavy feet and heart that we departed to the south. It is needless to say that we will be back one day in the not too distant future to discover the untainted Upper Mustang before it’s too late.
Jomsom is situated eight kilometers downstream from Kagbeni, and is a popular stopping point for the Annapurna Circuit because of its accessibility by jeep and the fact that it has a small airstrip. The stretch between Kagbeni and Jomsom was a pleasant jaunt along the wide and rocky riverbed, and as we approached town we could feel a marked difference between this and other villages as a result of its accessibility by road. The town had buildings constructed of concrete and the edge of town was demarcated by a thick line of parked jeeps in various states of disrepair. As we reached town it felt as though we’d been thrust back into civilization; mechanics rolled in the dust replacing wheel bearings and broken leaf springs, day trippers and trekking tourists scurried between stores and restaurants. It was lunch time, so we quickly grabbed a bite to eat and got out as fast as we could.
As we made our way down the road out of town we found ourselves shielding our faces against dust kicked into the wind by jeeps and buses, and we paused on occasion to watch the small prop planes jump into the sky and thread their way perilously between snow-capped peaks, transporting trekkers back to Pokhara.
By late afternoon we had found our way off of the road and into the forest on a side trail. After leaving Kagbeni the towns seemed more entrepreneurial and commercial, and we already missed the wildness and desolation of Manang and Mustang.
For days on end we’d been lugging around our tent and the rest of our camping gear, and every day Sheena reminded me and everyone we met just how big a moron I was for insisting we bring it along. Seeing the opportunity to escape the commercial towns and the road, and desperately wanting to prove my decision a worthy one, I used this as an opportunity to swoop in and save the day. We sought out a clearing next to a small stream and happily built our own camp. After dinner we bundled up in our down bags as darkness and a stiff chill settled into the valley, and fell asleep to the sound of a light breeze rustling our tent.
After trading the jeep-riddled dirt road for the alternate trail on the other side of the valley, we were very reluctant to trade sides again, a reluctance that saw us fluctuating wildly in elevation as we traversed the steep mountainside that hugged the edge of the river. After two days of climbing and descending through pine forest, we finally emerged at the busy hub of Tatopani.
Tatopani, as it turns out, is a popular jumping off point for myriad one-to-five day hikes. As one can imagine, we found it full to the brim with people. We found our way into town and checked into a bustling guesthouse comprising a couple dozen shoddy bungalows and a busy restaurant.
In the evening I walked down to the river where I had heard about a hot spring, but was disappointed to find a concrete pool filled hip to hip with overweight Russian men. I stood there watching for a few minutes, angry for having allowed myself to get excited about this over the last few days. Some excitement trickled back as I noticed that the crowded pool was in fact not the real hot spring, and that a hose lead down to a natural pool nearer the river from which the hot water was pumped. I carefully clambered down to the steaming pool amid the rocks and dipped my toe into it. To my surprise, the temperature of the pool had somehow been allowed to exceed the limits imposed upon liquid water by the laws of physics, and my toe very nearly caught on fire and burned off. I shrieked and limped over to the river to sit on a boulder to cry it out.
The final test of our trek had come, and in the morning we awoke early and headed for the hills. We began on the dirt road, but soon turned off on the climb toward Poonhill, whose summit it is said has the region’s very best panoramic views of the Himalaya range.
The trail quickly assumed the form of a steep stone staircase, and for hours we climbed. By midmorning we had caught up to two small Nepali girls dressed in school uniforms, so I rattled off some of the Nepali greetings I’d been learning.
“Kasto cha timilai?”
“Chikaicha. Kasto cha tapailai?”
“Ekdam ramro, dhanyabat.”
Seeing that I was able to make and return a simple greeting, they assumed that I would be able to engage in a deeper conversation, probably about string theory or molecular physics, but their squeaky banter went right over my head. I returned their attempt at conversation with a defensive statement I’d put in my lingual briefcase just for such situations, and which I found myself using many times daily.
“Ma Nepali bhasa sikna tahansu tora mero bhasa butchha justo cha.”
That means, I’m learning Nepali, but at this point my language skills are like those of a child.
This explanation of my handicap satisfied them, so they helped us out by switching to English.
“So where are you girls going?”
“We go to school,” one of them squeaked. They strode with such energy, devouring the stairs like they were nothing.
“How far is school?”
“And you walk there and back every day?”
The pair then went on to tell us the Nepali names for everything they could think of. Suddenly one of them stopped, looked into the trees, and then raised both arms and started yelling and running towards the forest. A small family of monkeys saw her coming and scurried back into the undergrowth. She picked up a few rocks and threw them at the monkeys, although it must be noted that her aim was very poor, clearly having to do with the fact that Nepal has no baseball culture. I decided to show her a little bit of American baseball prowess, so I picked up a rock, threw it, and very nearly fell flat on my ass on account of my two hundred pound backpack. The rock flew off in a direction approximately 90 degrees opposed to the direction of the monkeys, and the expression on the girls’ face was one of utter unimpressedness.
We eventually made the call to complete the whole climb before lunch. We were back in the jungle, and I make no secret of the fact that jungle trekking does not rank high on the list of things that I like to dawdle for long periods of time doing. Still, I concede that completing the whole trek before lunch may have been a mistake. At 1:00, six hours after we started, we dragged our battered bodies into the ridgetop village of Ghorepani having ascended 5,500 vertical feet of uneven stone stairs. We were the first trekkers of the day to reach the top of the hill, but we certainly didn’t feel like we’d won anything. We settled into a guesthouse with a stunning view of 26,795 foot Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh tallest mountain. With a view like that, overpriced and underflavored Nepali pizza never tasted so good.
The hike from Ghorepani to the Poonhill summit is an easy one hour jaunt up a stone walkway, and there is something about it that brings out the inner Edmund Hillary in many a hiker. In a repeat of Thorong Phedi, dozens of our fellow trekking comrades awoke us at 3:00 the following morning by slamming their fists into the walls of the guesthouse hallway and yelling to nobody in particular about how psyched they were to bag this summit. I whimpered softly, mumbled a string of incoherent, half-asleep profanities into my pillow and tried to reverse my unsolicited departure from the candy cane dreamland I’d just left behind. Two hours later we forcefully removed our zombie-like bodies from our beds and walked out into the darkness.
It was pitch black on the way up to the summit, we could trace the line of headlamps up the stone staircase before us all the way to the summit. We emerged at the top a half an hour before sunrise and found a comfortable place to watch, taking note of those poor uncomfortable bastards who’d so explosively departed at three in the morning, only to sit up here in the freezing cold darkness for two extra hours.
As people gathered around the summit we reconnected with friends we’d made along the trek: four Canadians we’d met near Marpha, and had come to refer to as Team Canada; Lance from Nebraska, who had quit his job, built himself a house, and then didn’t know what to do with himself so he flew to Nepal; Andriy and Olga, charming Ukranian photographers we’d met in Thorong Phedi while preparing for our shot at the pass; and our ever-interesting, always-smiling, wild mushroom scavenging friends from Portland, Jake and Kendra.
On the day that we crossed the Mexican border at the very onset of our around the world drive, I spoke of sunsets. On that day, and perhaps it was made more beautiful because we were drunk with joy, the sky had exploded into flames like a cheap polyester suit. On this morning at Poonhill it happened again, only in the form of a sunrise. The sky slowly transformed from black to deep blue, the horizon began to glow, and then in slow motion Annapurna, Machhapuchhre, Dhaulagiri, and the rest of the Annapurna range was set alight by crisp sphere of yellow rising from the eastern horizon.
It was the perfect end to the trek. We retreated to the guesthouse for breakfast, and then descended the untold millions of stone steps down the far side of the mile-high ridge. We grabbed a local bus back to Pokhara, arriving after dark, and then hailed a taxi for the final 10 kilometers back to our campground where Nacho awaited. It is needless to say that after nearly three weeks of high altitude trekking, we slept like rocks. When at long last we awoke the following morning, we found ourselves camped next to a pond in the middle of a golden field of rice.
The Annapurna Circuit Trek
- Total days: 18
- Nights camped in our own tent: 2
- Distance trekked: 146 miles (234km)
- Highest elevation: 17,769 feet (5,416m)
- What we brought but shouldn’t have: Tent and camping equipment (Sheena says, “I told you so.”)
- What we didn’t bring but should have: Trekking poles
- Equipment notes: Steripen would have been preferable to pump water filter.
- Equipment winners: Garmin Fenix GPS watch, GSI collapsible water bottles
- Equipment losers: Neon gaiters, SPOT Tracker. Just kidding, I threw the SPOT Tracker in the garbage after it caused that minor international missing persons incident.