November 1, 2010
We didn’t sleep well. At first, the room was so cold, the snow on our bags didn’t melt. We could see our breath, and the chill hurt. To prepare for bed, we wore everything, cinched up our mummy bags tight, and wrapped ourselves in the fuzzy blankets provided.
In the middle of the night, I woke up sweating. It was so hot, I had to take off my jacket. Still to hot. I took off my next jacket. Again, I was still to hot. Eventually, I shed my gloves, hat, extra layer of pants, and socks too. Ankit started snoring. Laying in bed, the air felt thin, and just as my eyes would drift closed, I awake with a gasp for more oxygen.
When Joshua’s alarm went off just before 7, I was already wide awake, just waiting for the night to be over. In the single bed across the room, Ankit was holding his head and groaning in that special way you do when your nose is thoroughly plugged and yours ears feel as though they are stuffed with cotton. As we headed for the door, he drew the blankets up and over his head to catch a couple more hours of sleep.
Downstairs, I found a cat curled up on the bench. When I sat down next to it, it stirred, looked at me, yawned, and then immediately crawled into my lap. Sticking its head into my belly, it began to purr loudly. I was in love.
For breakfast, we had the usual: buckwheat pancakes with honey, black tea, and oat porridge with apple for Joshua. Once we had finished eating, we headed towards Jhong. When I made to move, the cat in my lap growled low in its throat, warning me that my intended course of action was not acceptable. When I gently tried to move it, it sunk its teeth into my jacket. Finally, I swung my legs onto the other side of the bench, getting up with the cat still nuzzled tightly into my belly. It stretched, sticking its nose in my armpit and wrapping its arms around my arm. Finally, it let go.
As we walked out of Ranipauw, we passed shopkeepers setting out their wares on low tables. Coral, torquise, and bright yellow stones were strung into colorful necklaces, and behind them, mini prayer wheels, votives carved in yak bone, and buddhas sat ready for purchase. Women wearing the traditional, long dress worn by the Tibetans in Dharamsala gestured towards fuzzy scarves hanging in a rainbow of colors and designs: ‘you want scarf? Good yak wool. I give you good price. Discount!’
Past Mukhtinath, we ventured onto a narrower path. This region is dry, and the hills surrounding the area are tawny and almost desert-like. In the river valley, tall, fluttery trees that look like aspens and poplars pop up. Right now, their lovely yellow leaves gently part ways with their branchly homes and drift down to the ground where they are covered with a light dusting of frost. We walk on top of them, and for the first time in six years, it really feels like autumn. The are smells crisp, and our feet crunch pleasantly.
Crossing a stream, we flirt with ice-slick stepping stones. Joshua’s foot is thoroughly dunked.
In the first village, we pass more thin, silvery trunks dressed in yellow leaves. The buildings have been formed from brick, mud, and timber, and many of them have been painted with dripping yellow, red, and orange stripes. A mani wall of prayer wheels separates the path, and in the gardens, there are baby calves, chickens, and dogs. They’re curled up in corners, perched on walls, and bent over, eating.
There are no guesthouses, no shops. There are no cars, no tourists. It’s quiet, and the air is still so cold that we can see the big white plumes of our breath.
On the other side of town, we enter a thin grove of trees. Autumn has thinned their hair, and light filters through, revealing more calves and yaks, grazing. The path leads us over irrigation ditches the meander through small fields where their harvest once grew. Now, dry, shorn stalks wear a white dusting of snow.
We’ve lost the path to Jhong. Ours peters out in fields high above a river valley. On the other side, we can see more fields and a charming red and gold village. Far behind in the valley, we see the suspension bridge we should have crossed.
It would have been nice to see this little-seen village, but it’s hard to be disappointed. Perched on a hill overlooking Mustang, we sit like the Nepali do: with our arms around our knees, our seats of the ground. In the distance, high on the horizon, snowy mountains embrace our dry valley. We can hear the rushing of the river far below.
Check out time is 10 AM, so rather than find the path we lost, we sit for a bit and then turn around. We head back through the village, where people have ventured out into their yards to chop wood, feed chickens, or carry big bundles of who-knows-what who-knows-where.
As we walk, Joshua tells me that he’s been inspired by the man we met in the Penines. From Edinborough, this older gentleman told us that he worked three years and then, on every fourth year, he took the year off. He called it ‘constructive laziness,’ and I called it brilliant.
Now, we’re talking about having a family. How do you travel with kids? Sure, most people don’t, but we think it’s possible. Perhaps, on every fourth or fifth year, we’ll live abroad for a time. We’ll get to go on adventures as a family, and our kids will learn so much. Hopefully, another language; certainly, another culture. Compassion and worldliness and adventure.
Perhaps we’ll go to Mexico. Maybe we’ll teach English in Nicaragua. I want to go to Southeast Asia. Joshua cooks up a plan where we buy a trailer and then road-school our kids: we start in the Northeast of the US and read all the New England classics. We teach them about Manifest Destiny and move westwards. In the Grand Canyon, Geology. In the plains, Willa Cather and the Dust Bowl.
Back at the Caravan Guest House, we rouse Ankit and begin packing. It takes a while to get going, but by 10:30, we’re out the door. We check in with the ACAP Office, and then we head towards Kagbeni.
The trail from Mukhtinath to Kagbeni follows a road. We see our first jeeps since Besi Sahar. A Belgian trekker catches up with us and says, ‘the road’s a shame for the Circuit, but I suppose you can’t begrudge them for wanting four-wheeled transportation.’ He’s right. I’m sure this place was even more romantic and wild without jeeps or motorcycles, but it’s unfair to expect that the Nepali live as they always did, while we live in luxury and travel in plains, trains, and automobiles. They’ll make their own mistakes. We’ve made ours.
This place is so, so, so beautiful. It’s dry, but at the lowest parts of the valley, streams, rivers, irrigation ditches, and even waterfalls bring life to apple orchards, silvery trees, and herds of horses. Below Mukhtinath, we pass Jharkot, a lovely red and gold village with a few guest houses. I feel a bit envious of those who had the presence of mind to forge on past charmless Mukhtinath. A gust of wind blows hundreds of birds out of their roosts, and they fly over the village like omens or angels.
The sun warms our backs, and after a little while longer, we stop to buy some famous Mustang apples (for 10 rupees a piece) and shed a layer or two. After four nights without showering, a 5500 meter pass, and no deoderant (Joshua thought this little toiletry item unnecessary), we’re all pretty smelly. My hair, over-fond of shampoo, is slick with neglect.
Chomping on our delicious apples, we spy Eric, Nora, and their guide, Purna, walking up behind us. We’re all happy to see each other one last time.
As we walk, I ask Nora’s advice. Where would it be best to teach English in Mexico? She asked us if we prefered urban or rural, and of course, we said rural. She asked us if we prefered beach or mountain, and then she changed her mind. Mexico has everything; you don’t need to pick.
Both Eric and Nora recommended Chiappas and Oaxaca. They’re rich in indigenous cultures, archeology, beaches, and mountains. They’re beautiful and interesting. Nora went to visit for two weeks and stayed for three months. They’re that good.
Next, I asked about road trips through Mexico. They’re fine, they assured us. They’ve been on many before, and they’ve had a lot of fun. Oh, and we can bring our dog.
I ask Nora a little bit more about Mexico City. She’s clearly in love. Its got a little bit of everything, and it’s only five hours to the beach where you can eat fish that’s been freshly caught and stay in cabinas for less than 10 dollars a night. It sounds wonderful.
Nora sighs. There is a problem with drugs in Mexico, and really, it’s both our problem. Mexico supplies, and the US buys. It’s always in the news, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. We talk about the reasons why there is such a market in the US. Is it that people find excitement living outside the law? Are they self-medicating?
We continue to descend, and after a bit, we come to a fork in the road. For Jomsom, you head left; for Kagbeni, you head right. The five of us stop for a photo and hugs. We tell each other to keep in touch, and maybe we will or maybe we won’t, but as we’re walking away, I feel a little sad. I’d have like to keep them in my pocket, too. Either way, I’m blessed to have met them.
It’s another hour or so to Kagbeni. We keep descending, and the views continue. We pause, looking at the naked hills, the folded cliffs, and the mountains behind. Over the next ridge, we see Kagbeni, nestled near the Kali Gandaki, at the foot of Upper Mustang, adorned with yellow leaves and silver trees.
Every one we’ve talked to has recommended Kagbeni. They love this village and its narrow streets, and so we’ve taken the short detour here. It’s only a couple hours hike, so it’s a short day, but when we arrived in Kagbeni, we had to agree: this place is cozy and quaint.
It’s also a bit confusing. We wandered around, trying to get our barings, and finally, another trekker took pity on us, asked us if we were lost, and then led us to the Red House, a 300 year old lodge.
The Red House has a wall of prayer wheels inside, old Buddhist paintings in the dining hall, and a maze of wooden steps that lead to hidden halls and rooms. The proprietess led us up to the rooftop where she showed us two double rooms with a shared shower. For 200 rupees a room, we agreed.
As soon as we shed our packs, we ran downstairs to eat. Sitting in the sunny dining hall, we read while we waited for our Chowmein, Veg Noodle Soup, and Ginger Tea to come.
The food was delicious, and once we had finished we stayed in the cozy room. After a bit, I went to go take a miraculously hot shower and wash some of my clothes. Hopefully, that wasn’t a really stupid idea; the sun was almost setting, and I don’t know if they’ll have time to dry by tomorrow.
Back downstairs, Joshua and I went for a little walk to explore the parts of Kagbeni we hadn’t already seen (when we were completely lost). We stopped first to buy dust masks for the trail ahead, and then we wandered through the narrow streets, ducking into hidden corridors, and passing through painted gates. At one end of the village, a sign forbade us from walking any further: Upper Mustang is available through guided tour and permit only. For a while, we stood looking at the gateway to this forbidden region. The Kali Gandaki’s river bed is wide here, and there are rivulets and streams that spring off across the stones, only to join it once more. On the horizon, dry, brown hills and mountains hide the Kali Gandaki’s source, and we can see just a glimmer of another red and gold village.
The wind is blowing through the valley, but we stay just a little bit longer to watch a shepherd lead his goats along a cliff-face and down into the valley. The goats barrel down the impossible angle, and we are amazed when, after 10 minutes of throwing rocks and shouting, he manages to line them all up and continue on.
The sun is starting to set, so we walk for a bit more. The shepherd has brought the goats into the village, and we gape at their amazing, gnarled horns that loop once, twice, and sometimes even three times.
Back at the Red Lodge, we wait in the dining room for Dal Bhaat. When it comes, a large, hammered, copper dish contains kala chana (toasted chick peas), steamed greens, potato curry, fermented pickle, rice, and dal. It’s delicious, and we all eat seconds.
After dinner, a sick Ankit went off to bed, and Joshua and I stayed back to read and write. Once the other trekkers had gone off to bed, Tanzin, the proprietor came over to us and sat down. For the next 30 minutes, he told us a little bit about his culture and what he’d like to take from our culture.
The Kagbeni are part of the Mustangi region. Along with Mukhtinath and Upper Mustang, they speak the same language and practice the same religion. Just a couple hours down the road, Jomsom has a different language. Across the pass, Manang has another language. Tanzin believes that Nepal is rich in culture. There are many different ethnicities, and each one has their own language and their own religious practice. Also, they all have their own caste system. For example, in Mustangi, there is the high caste, two middle castes, low caste, and no caste. In Kagbeni, there is only one low caste family. They are tailors.
One of Tanzin’s family members has visited the US, and she noticed a few things: we don’t know our neighbors, our families live a long way apart, we all speak the same language, and everybody works hard all the time. She admire that we work hard, because she likes to work hard too, but she prefered the Mustangi way of knowing your neighbors and staying close to your family. Tanzin agreed that there are some things that are better in Nepal and some things that are better in the US. We have a lot to learn from each other.
Finally, Tanzin talked about Buddhism. His father’s father was Buddhist, so he’s Buddhist too, but he doesn’t know everything about his religion. He only knows what his family has always done. In Mustangi culture, if there are three boys, the middle boy becomes a monk, and if there are three girls, the middle one becomes a nun. He thinks that the monks and nuns love Buddhism, but perhaps they are lonely and wish they could marry.
As we talked, the lights in the dining hall faded in and out with surges of electricity. After a bit, Tanzin gave us a huge smile and wished us good night. We thanked him for sharing with us, and then we trundled off to bed.
October 31, 2010
The alarm went off at 5 AM. Prying ourselves from our warm cocoons of sleeping bags and blankets, we packed our backpacks and went into the dining room for breakfast.
The night before, we had ordered large breakfasts to fuel our long hike, but this early in the morning, a huge plate of fried potatoes and a buckwheat pancake didn’t look appetizing. Considering the 1700 meter climb ahead of us, I ate it anyway.
It took a little longer to get ready to go, and it was nearly 6:30 by the time we set off on the trail. Up ahead of us, we could see packs and pairs of trekkers slowly making their way up the mountain like a trail of ants. There were two or three couples within a stone’s throw distance from us, but otherwise, there was no one behind us. We were the last ones to start.
The night before, we had heard trekkers saying that they were setting off for the pass as early at 3 AM. Most were beginning the hike at 5. Lonely Planet told us that 6 AM was fine, so we went with their advice. Nevertheless, it was a little nervewracking looking up at all the people who had gone before us and seeing no one behind us.
To make matters somewhat more ominous, the sky was cloudy. Nevermind that the sky had been crystal clear and electric blue every day prior; today – the day we planned to reach over 5400 meters – was cloudy with hardly a patch of blue sky.
We started heading up.
From Thorung Phedi to High Camp, the trail angles steeply over rocky switchbacks for about an hour. Focused on our goals, we all headed up at our own pace, passing a couple trekkers as we went. At High Camp, I stopped to wait for Joshua and Ankit, and when Joshua arrived, he informed me that we had all taken on Into Thin Air aliases, and I am Anatoli Boukreev. Joshua’s Mike Groom or Neil Beidlman, and Ankit it Rob Hall.
From High Camp, we continued heading up. By now, the terrain was entirely mountainous, and the peaks surrounding us were closer to eye-level. Huge glaciers pitched down ragged cirques, and their icy-blue glow suited this landscape’s grey-blue palatte.
Up over a scree field, we passed another group of trekkers. A suspension bridge led us across a frosty river, and then we headed up and over another steep stretch. At the top, Ankit caught up with us, and we agreed that, after an ominous beginning (what with it being Halloween and all), we were loving it. Even Ankit took a little glee from passing other trekkers who had started off earlier than us. Joshua took the most glee, counting them as we went: 21, 22, 23…
It began to snow. For a second, I thought to be a bit worried about crossing the pass while it was snowing, but everyone seemed so enchanted with the tiny little flakes, that I continued on, singing ‘Winter Wonderland’ to myself.
At the Yak-kawa Lodge, Eric and Nora came out, and we happily greeted one another. Purna, their guide, was impressed that we had already caught up. We felt great.
It took a little over an hour to reach the pass from the Yak-kawa Lodge. The path wound over rocks and prayer flags, and there were many false summits. On our way, we passed a few more trekkers and porters, including a couple of Veteranarians from Massachusetts, who missed their dog as much as we do.
At high elevation, we took the steep path one step at a time, leaning into each foot forward as we went. Although we were breathing hard, both Joshua and I felt great. Ankit seemed to be a little high on Diamox.
Finally, after three hours of climbing, we reached the pass. Hundreds of prayer flags flapped in the wind, and as soon as we stopped, I donned another jacket. It was absolutely freezing. Snow was still falling, and my fingers could barely move in their mittens. We posed in front of the sign for a couple of photos, and then, hugging Eric, Nora, and Ankit as they each made it to the pass, we quickly started to make our way down.
Most people will agree that going down Thorung La Pass is much scarier than going up, and although I was still enjoying myself – I had had a ridiculous grin on my face for the whole hike – my hands were so cold, I absolutely had to get down as fast as possible.
Before long, Eric, Nora, and Ankit were far behind us. I felt bad going so far ahead, but I just had to get lower where it would be warmer and my hands wouldn’t feel like they were about to fall off.
It continued to snow as we picked our way down the mountainside. We passed a few more people on our way down, and a few people passed us. While I’m competitive going up the mountain, I’m not going down; I’d rather make it to the bottom in one piece. That said, we were cruising.
Finally, after about an hour or two’s decent, the air grew a bit warmer, and my hands began to thaw. The path was still very steep, and I fell a couple of times, but luckily, I didn’t hurt anything. We continued on down the path, and eventually, we reached Charabura, a small pit stop with a few lodges and restaurants.
Inside one of the restaurants, we ordered noodle soup and momos. Gripping mugs of hot tea, we blew at the steam and looked worriedly outside, waiting for Eric, Nora, and Ankit. It started snowing in earnest. The hillside above us grew whiter and whiter. Inside the little mud-brick dining room, the snow on our bags never melted.
While we ate, we chatted with a couple from Australia. The two of them are also on a six month trip, and they also started in the UK. They looked absolutely miserable. Apparently, the altitude had gripped both of them with fierce headaches for the past three days, and near the top of Thorung La Pass, they had nearly considered turning around, they were in so much pain.
Luckily, they had continued on, and now, they were just stopping long enough to eat a candy bar and drink a cup of tea. They wanted to get as low as possible today – maybe even lower than Muktinath.
Once we had finished eating, Joshua left me with the packs and hiked back up the mountain to make sure Eric, Nora, and Ankit were ok. He came back 30 minutes later with Ankit in tow, and when they entered the lodge, Ankit collapsed in a chair and asked for a hot drink. I didn’t have to ask; I ordered him a hot chocolate.
Ankit told us that Eric’s knees had really been bothering him, so he had passed them a while back. He was exhausted, but otherwise, he felt pretty good.
While we waited for Eric and Nora, Ankit ate soup, and eventually, they arrived. Brushing snow off their shoulders, they entered the lodge to our applause. They were fine, but in the time that had ellapsed between when Joshua and I had gone down the mountain and they had gone down the mountain, the snow had built up, and the precarious, steep path had become even more slippy and dangerous. They had wisely taken their time and been gentle on Eric’s knees.
We all started to get a bit cold, so once Ankit finished his soup and we payed, we said goodbye to Eric, Nora, and Purna, and headed towards Mukhtinath. Outside, the snow was still falling heavily, and although the path was not nearly as steep, it was still down hill. With a thick layer of snow at our feet, we picked our way gingerly down.
Eventually, we reached a suspension bridge. Tightly holding onto the railings, we made our way across, and on the other side, we saw a sign that welcomed us to Mukhtinath.
Mukhtinath is a site of pilgrimage for both Buddhists and Hindus alike. A walled temple complex contains both a Buddhist and Hindu temple, and many worshippers and saddhus come from miles around to pray here. As we passed the temple, we admired the snowy landscape. The valley was cupped by mountains on either side, and through the falling snow, we could see smoking chimneys.
Past Mukhtinath, we entered Ranipauw. There were a dozen lodges, but the first two we checked were full. Finally, at the Caravan Guest House, we found a triple room with a double and single bed.
Dumping our packs in the room, we went out to the common area were plenty of windows gave us a view out onto the street. On the window sills, cacti and flowered plants creeped their way upwards. We ordered hot drinks, and from the room next door, an American lady from Eugene, Oregon came out to visit.
Lana had some local Mustang Brandy, so we all spiked our drinks. We chatted a bit about the pass and agreed that we felt proud of ourselves for completing such a grueling hike, and then we sat down to relax. While Joshua and Ankit played chess, I flipped through our camera’s photos and read.
It got colder. By the time the sun fell, we were so cold that we were simply huddled under all of our clothing and blankets, shivering. Lana told us that it had been zero degrees farenheit up at the pass, and it was about fifteen degrees down here. It certainly felt like it was about fifteen degrees inside.
Finally, the guest house keepers announced that they would light a coal-burning stove downstairs while we ate dinner. A group of trekkers huddled around the table, shivering, tired, and – dare I say? – miserable, and then one of the staff put a smoking, red hot burner under the table by our feet.
Just as we started to get warm, our dinners came out of the kitchen, and as I ate my veg chowmein, my legs were almost hot. Joshua complained about being to warm, but after freezing all day long, it felt nice.
Once we had finished eating, I could barely sit upright. I leaned into Joshua, and we sat there a bit longer, letting everything thaw out. Then, at 7:30, we went off to bed.