A Cave and Two Monasteries

The next day, we rode north to the area of Chhosar and the village of Garphu. We followed a rough sandy track, on the western bank of the Kali Gandaki. Here it was much narrower and quite dry. Its vertical banks were a long way above the small rivulets, timidly snaking their way at this time of year. Around us the land spread out, dry and barren but for the patchy clumps of spindly grass. High on rounded hills stood the ruins of forts. I read that sky burials were performed in this remote place.

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Our arrival at Chhosar piqued the interest of three small grubby children who stood staring at us, fingers in mouths, thick streams of snot heading south, outside the one shop, which doubles as a cafe, selling warm Coke and cans of Budweiser with Chinese writing on the sides, Lhasa beer, juice poppers, biscuits, noodles, chips, strings of beads, shampoo, vaseline, phone recharge cards and anything else a village might need. A radio blared “I’m a gangsta baby!”.

We followed Jit on foot across a hard dirt soccer pitch and up to the Shija Jhong caves.

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Holes could be seen going up about five levels. A set of stairs had been constructed for easy access to the entrance, but once inside it was extremely cramped and difficult to get around. The main entrance cave was about the only one with any space for more than a couple of people and in which anyone could stand comfortably. Here an old woman in grubby traditional dress sat on a bench, smiling a toothless smile. It was her job to guard the caves but there wasn’t a lot to steal. Against the inside wall was a glass-fronted cabinet containing dusty clay bowls and flasks, a few broken saligrams (Ammonite fossils revered by Hindus as incarnations of the goddess Shiva), a couple of traditional animal skin shoes and one gold Buddha pendant on a chain. On another wall hung a filthy striped apron, torn and fraying, a few small canvas bags, and some white and yellow silk katas had been strung across the ceiling. All of the blackened walls had been graffitied, with things like “Ganesh” and “Jomsom” and things in Devanagari script, the traditional script of Nepal. The ceilings were as though covered in black diamonds, hard and shiny, presumably blackened by centuries of cow dung fires.

In places the caves formed corridors along which other caves led off. There was nothing in any of them except piles of feathers on the loose dirt floors. They gave off a cold dusty smell. We stooped our way through them and up and down ladders, puffing heavily in the thin cool air.

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After the caves we headed over to the Nyphu monastery. It was perched above a small collection of houses, all joined together. We stopped to look south.

Cirrus clouds feathered across the hard blue sky and in the gap between the barren hills which sat either side of the village, the snow-capped Annapurnas could be seen once more, far to the south now. The place seemed deserted except for an old woman who came walking up the side of one of the houses, hands clasped behind her back, the coloured stripes of her apron dulled by layers of brown dust. Her head was wrapped in a green scarf, black leggings emerged from the bottom of her equally dusty bukkhoo and she wore white joggers on her feet. She gazed up at us then turned to see what we were looking at.

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As we walked up the stairs to the monastery door, a goat went ahead of us and stood with us on the front porch as we waited for someone to bring the key. At last one of the monks appeared and, after shooing away the goat, unlocked the wooden door with much creaking and scraping. As he pushed it open, the smell of incense rushed out. It was a small monastery, 700 years old and of the Nyingmapa sect, the oldest one, established by Padmasambhava the same as Lo Gekar. The wall paintings were in very bad condition, blackened and fading as in the monasteries of Lo Manthang. Gold Buddha statues sat complacently behind glass, one holding a pearlescent lotus flower, the other holding two of its hands in a prayer position while the other two hands were held out to the sides, fingers and thumbs curled toward one another.

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Garphu monastery sat in a small courtyard amongst the houses. Atop its entrance were gleaming golden statues of two deer facing the Dharmachakra or Dharma wheel. This is a common image above the entrance of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. These mythical deer, a male and female, representing peace and compassion, have just one horn and are known as Tibetan unicorns, magical creatures that manifest only in the presence of great teachers. They raise their eyes to the Dharma Wheel in aspiration to reach Dharma or Nirvana.

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Back at the shop-cafe we ordered fried rice and Jit and Netra sat and drank warm Budweiser. Many people came into the shop and bought Coke. While we waited, we watched the TV, on which men with perfect hair and heavy eye makeup chased each other along some busy Indian street, and laughed along with the others. We couldn’t understand a word of the Hindi movie, but there didn’t seem to be much of a story anyway.

 

The Buddha Who is to Come

As we wandered the streets of Lo Manthang, we kept passing a tall red building, solid and windowless. There were rectangular holes cut into the lower part of the walls and I put my eye to them but felt only cold blackness. I turned the torch on on my phone and shone it through the hole, but its feeble light was no match for that darkness.

There was one thing I was determined to see in Lo Manthang, and that was the enormous statue of the Buddha that Michel Peissel had come across in his explorations, and I suspected that this dark building was where it sat.

Jit arranged for us to see the three monasteries of Lo Manthang. We first visited the Chode monastery where the monastic school is located and heard eighty-three small monks reciting their scriptures. Next to the monastery was a chorten that contains the body of a powerful lama. It also contains a relic from an abbott who had died twelve years before and the guide told us that when he died, snow fell in Kathmandu for the first time in sixty-two years.

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Door of Jampa Monastery

Another guide, Tashi, carrying a large torch, led us along the streets and into a courtyard. We climbed some steps to the walkway above and he unlocked the padlock on a heavy, carved wooden door. The sound echoed as in a large cavern and we stepped into the gloom. As my eyes adjusted, there opposite, rising up out of the gloom below, was the great, golden statue of the Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come, at once benevolent and forbidding. For 600 years, since the founding of Lo Monthang, it had sat there. On the altar against the railing before it, as well as butter lamps and bowls of water, were offerings of rice, money, biscuits, a juice popper, and a cylinder of Pringles chips. A woman stood, fervently intoning prayers.

Leaning over the railing, I peered down into the lower floor where the base of the statue sat. Beyond the base, impenetrable darkness.

I asked Tashi what was in the floor above and he told me it was a Mahakala room and therefore dangerous to enter. Mahakala is the fierce protector god.

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Second and third floors of Jampa Monastery

Tashi then took us to the Tubchen monastery. We entered what I can only describe as a vast cathedral. Great pillars, thirty-five of them, the width of whole tree trunks held up the roof, almost eight metres high, the floor space 28 by 18 metres. The brackets atop the pillars were intricately carved and around the edge of the skylight recess were snow lions, mythical creatures of the Himalayas symbolising fearlessness and unconditional, youthful joy.

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Entrance to Tubchen Monastery

Tashi was one of a group of artists working with Italian experts to restore the Jampa and Tubchen monasteries. In both, the paintings had deteriorated from age, soot from the butter lamps and incense, and water leaking from the ceilings. The walls had been cleaned and, in some places, resurfaced and new paint added. In some places, whole new paintings were being added to replace those completely lost.

Thousands of dollars of foreign money is being spent on the restoration, but younger Lobas are leaving and those with money invest it abroad. In a place that has no health facility beyond a health post staffed by the equivalent of a paramedic, there is tension about the money being spent on the restorations. While some people feel it is important to maintain their heritage and culture, others feel it is the foreigners who really want it. There is speculation that the palace will not be restored before the Raja is too old to return and that it may become a museum.

Will Lo Manthang eventually become just one great, remote museum for foreigners to visit?

 

Enter the Walled City

We first saw, over to the west, the red monastery of Namgyal, perched on a rocky outcrop, halfway up the mountain. High on the crest of a barren brown hill were the ruins of a round tower and a wall—the fortress of Ketcher Dzong, built by the warrior and first king of Mustang, Ame Pal, who founded the kingdom of Lo in 1380. We saw Lo Monthang long before we actually arrived. It seemed close, but as we wearily trudged towards it, with that feeling of fatigue that begins to descend when you know you’re close to your destination, it didn’t seem to come any closer. What we saw was a sprawl of buildings and green trees in the midst of which was a concentration of buildings, the red monasteries standing tall above the rest.

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Crossing a small stream we ambled up and along the south wall to our lodge. We’d arrived but all I could feel was grateful to be stopping in the same place for three nights.

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After unloading at the lodge, we went in search of the “real” coffee that was reputed to be found in at least one establishment in Lo Manthang. We found it, just a few doors up from our lodge, at the Hotel Mystique. One small coffee machine sits on a counter next to a water purifier and takes ten minutes to heat the water, which was no problem for us as we weren’t rushing anywhere. The proprietor, a tall young woman in traditional dress, told us that since the installation of the solar plant, just outside of the city, things were much better for her business as she could now use her machine all day.

The 70 kilowatt plant was installed just two weeks before we arrived, fully funded and constructed by the Chinese government. 300 solar panels now stand in three rows outside the city to the south and power poles line the streets surrounding Lo Manthang. Electricity wires now accompany the fluttering prayer flags, surreptitiously snaking under walk-ways and along walls, attached to the ancient mud walls and hitched above the doorways of monasteries built long before electricity was ever discovered.

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The entry gate Lo Monthang

After our coffee we walked into Lo Monthang. I found it to be one giant maze and no matter how much we walked around I could never get my bearings. It felt like we kept going in circles and when I thought we’d seen it all, Neville assured me we hadn’t.

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The palace

Although Upper Mustang was annexed by Nepal in the late 1800s, it still has its own King or Raja, albeit with only local authority. The palace was damaged in the earthquake so the Raja and Rajini had moved to Kathmandu and it’s unclear when or even if they’ll return.

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The main square

The main square, where the festivals and other gatherings are held, was full of rubble and a new building was being constructed on one side.

That night, we celebrated with hot lemon drinks “coloured”, as Jit liked to say, with some Kukri rum. We’d arrived at the so-called “Forbidden City” and tomorrow we would explore.

Lo Gekar

IMG_0409From Tragmar we climbed steeply between the red cliffs and, after stopping to catch our breath, set off across gently undulating country. The yellow, grey, and white of the Tibetan plateau stretched before us, shadowed in places by heavy, dark clouds.

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There were no villages now before Lo Manthang, but at morning tea time, we descended a gentle slope to the ancient monastery of Lo Gekar. Also called Gar Gompa or “house monastery”, Lo Gekar means “pure virtue of Lo”. It sits on a rise above a stream, surrounded by trees. The horses were let free to graze on the green grass that stretched away to the edge of the stream, while we explored the monastery.

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Jit led us into a small building where we turned the large prayer wheel three times, then we climbed the steps and entered through a heavy brown wool curtain into the gloom of the monastery. Lo Gekar is 1300 years old, the oldest monastery in Mustang, and was established after Padmasambhava stopped there to meditate on his way from India to Tibet where he introduced Buddhism. It smelled of smoke and incense. Small paintings of Buddhas covered two walls and set in an alcove behind glass, were life-sized statues of two goddesses, one seated on a cow, the other on a horse. David Snellgrove identified the one on the cow as “Fierce lady with Good Things”; our guide told us she was the protector goddess, which I guess amounts to the same thing.

After lighting a butter lamp for our safe journey, Jit called me over to one corner and we crouched down to see a small image of the Buddha carved into the stone wall. It was about a foot high, worn smooth over time; in the creases were remnants of gold paint.

“Tara,” the guide said.
“Tara?” I replied.
“Ya, Tara.” I had no idea what he meant. I later learnt that Tara is a female incarnation of the Buddha. Jit searched hard for the words to explain.
“This is, errr, nobody is, err, it’s a-come just out like that. Maybe when some, errr, meditation, err, Padmasambhava it comes like that.”
I had been concentrating hard to understand him, then realised what he meant.
“So it just appeared?” I said
“Yes!” replied Jit.
“So it just appeared in the stone?”
“Ya,” replied Jit and the guide together.

It was a “self-emanating” Buddha, of which there are apparently several throughout Mustang and Tibet.

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I needed the toilet and after following the directions found a free-standing building perched above a steep drop that fell away down to the river. It was a rough squat toilet, just two boards set into the floor with a gap in the middle. I tried to ignore the enormous pile of excrement underneath. I stood up and looked out the small square window. The view to the east looked over the terraced fields of the village of Marang, pink and fading green, edged with dark green trees, like all the other villages, defiantly brimming with life as the desert mountains jealously closed in around them. Craggy bare hills stretched away, and to the south, white peaks guarded the horizon.

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After sweet tea in the dining room upstairs, we set off once again crossing the rocky stream via a small wooden bridge, before climbing to the next pass and on to Lo Manthang.

Cliffs of Blood

We crossed flat country now, then began the arduous climb to the Nyi La, our highest pass at 4000m and the gateway to the Kingdom of Lo. As they reached the top, first Netra, then Jit called out “Lha gyal lo!”, meaning: Victory to the gods!

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From the top of the pass we looked down on the green and yellow fields of Ghami. Across the gorge was a large modern building surrounded by a wall. Boards covered the entrance and most of the ground floor and there was no sign of life. This is a hospital, built by a Japanese man in the early ’90s. It has apparently been in and out of service over the years.

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Next to the hospital was the longest mane wall (or prayer wall) in Mustang. Across the gorge to the west, red-stained hills were visible at the end of the next valley. The story goes that a powerful demoness was defeated by a Guru Rinpoche and her blood stains the cliffs, while the mane wall was erected on the place where her intestines were thrown. Her heart was cut into 108 pieces and buried beneath the chortens that surround the monastery of Lo Gekar.

We descended and entered Ghami, where we had lunch at the Royal Hotel. We entered the cool, plant-filled courtyard where a boy was sitting on the ground next to a mound of apples, cutting them up. Our hostess thanked us when we agreed to try both her freshly squeezed apple juice and her apple pie, saying she had so many apples she didn’t know what to do with them.

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From Ghami, we crossed a wooden bridge strung with prayer flags under which rushed a milky-blue stream and by early afternoon reached Tragmar at the foot of the red-stained cliffs. It was like something out of a fairy-tale. A small stream ran through it, bordered by stone walls and poplar trees, and criss-crossed by rough wooden bridges. Sheaves of pink buckwheat stood in bundles in the fields, and great stacks of hay lay in walled yards. Over in one field a group of young people sat chatting in a circle, and next to a white-washed house two small children played with a sheet of zinc and a long stick.

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Above all this towered the great red cliffs, dotted with caves, ominous and forbidding.

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We stayed at the Tenzin Hotel and Guest House, the only one open in Tragmar.

Next morning I woke early and sat in my warm bed and watched out the window. Next to the stream people squatted in turns by a hose, cleaning their teeth, washing dishes, one in a “Free Tibet” beanie. A man came along with several horses which stopped to drink from the water that pooled there.  I heard the jingle of horse bells and two men and a woman with a baby strapped to her back galloped past.

After breakfast, Jit called to us to come outside and pointed to where, just below the cliffs, rare blue sheep, or gharals, were grazing on the slopes. They were almost invisible until they moved. They are prey for snow leopards that stalk these valleys. Just a couple of weeks before we passed through 120 sheep were killed in the nearby village of Marong.

We now set out for Lo Manthang.

 

 

Ghiling

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The road now climbed above Tsele heading north-west away from the excoriating wind. Neville, Jit and I set off together leaving Netra and Dabendra to finish getting the horses ready. We didn’t walk far before Nev and Jit turned off the road taking a walking track too steep and narrow for the horses. I sat and waited for the horses but was only able to ride a short distance before once more dismounting. We now joined Neville and Jit again as the track climbed very steeply clinging to the edge of the cliff face, overhung with rock in places. It was extremely hard going. It seemed like we would be climbing forever and I kept hoping that around the next bend the path would level out, but we kept climbing.

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The same track on which Peissel led his yaks

As we ascended we saw the mountains to the south rising with us. To the west, steep hills rose above us, dotted with spiky, stunted bushes. Settling on top were dark, heavy clouds that in the end brought only a brief shower.

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After a couple of hours we made a welcome stop at Samar–which name means “red earth”–crossing a small stream surrounded by a grove of trees, following the stony path through a low entry passage to the Annapurna Guest House.

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Here we sat in the kitchen where a wood fire burned in one stove and our host, a woman in traditional Tibetan dress, made us sweet milk tea on a gas cooker, ladling the tea continuously to dissolve the powdered milk.

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In a walled yard outside a man and a young girl sat breaking rocks, which they then put into canvas feed bags. In one corner of the yard dung was spread on the ground to dry for use later as fuel.

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From Samar the path led out through another gateway, down and across a bubbling, milky-blue stream, before once again climbing along the side of a cliff.

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We stopped for lunch at the tiny village of Bhena. The tea house was just three rooms: a kitchen, dining room (which was also the entry) and a bedroom with a storage loft above. A small baby lay softly mewling in the bedroom and suspended above him was a plastic beachball, the only thing resembling a toy that I saw in Mustang. His older sister, who was about five, slowly inched towards us as we sat waiting for our lunch. I took out my phone and showed her how to take a “selfie” with which she was very pleased. After a few more photos that game was exhausted so I took out my small notebook and a pencil and agave it to her to draw in. Instead, she began to write ABDEF, over and over, always leaving out the C. So I wrote it correctly for her and she copied it a few times. I then handed her the pencil, indicating that she could keep it and she skipped away to show everyone.

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After crossing the pass above Bhena, at 3800m, we descended to the impossibly green and beautiful village of Ghiling. As we approached, a man and woman called out and a loud discussion ensued; it was obvious we weren’t expected. Nev and I sat and waited while this was sorted out, but I had resigned myself to camping that night before Netra said “please come” and crossing a walled yard, where the garden was edged with empty Tuborg beer bottles, we entered the tea house via a passageway that led to an interior courtyard covered with a green translucent roof that bathed everything in a weird green light.

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Next morning, Jit took us to the monastery that perches above the village. Back in 1992, when Mustang was first opened up to tourists, thangkas (religious paintings) and statues were stolen from the monastery. Now someone sleeps on a bed inside the entrance to guard it. A square skylight let some light into the dimly lit assembly hall where I lit a butter lamp and the monk dipped a brush into a plastic container of water and flicked it over the lamps, intoning prayers. Outside we climbed onto the roof and Jit pointed to a smaller monastery above, but said it was forbidden for women to enter, and anyway it was locked.

As we looked down on the patchwork fields of Ghiling, Jit pointed to a faint track leading away to the west between low, barren hills; this would lead us to our next destination: Tragmar.

Only later did I learn that Ghiling had lost more than 60 houses in the earthquake.

Tsele

It was at Tsele that we left the modern world behind.

Now there was no internet, limited phone coverage and patchy electricity. After lunching in Chhusang, we followed the river again before it narrowed dramatically running through a rock tunnel, formed long ago by an enormous piece of the cliff falling against the other side. In the cliff face high above was a uniform row of caves, some of the many thousands that dot the cliffs throughout Mustang, and about which little is known.

IMG_0181When Michel Peissel reached this point he encountered only a simple bridge of planks of wood bolted together, impossible for his yaks to cross. There is now a steel bridge, which we walked across, but the horses had to wade across the shallow river, just as the jeeps do when the water is low enough. A road bridge is now being built and will provide vehicle access all year round.

Peissel took his yaks up the very steep and narrow gorge of the Ghyakar Khola that runs beside Tsele:

The sides of the canyon were so steep and so close together that in many parts the sunlight could not reach us, and we advanced as if in a cave, from whose bottom we could only occasionally glimpse a bit of blue sky.

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He bypassed Tsele, but we took the almost vertical track beside the khola up to the village, entering via a wooden gateway, following the path as it continued up and between white-washed walls before arriving at our lodge for the night.

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After tea on the terrace that looked out at the dramatic cliffs of the Kali Gandaki canyon, the table cloth nailed to the table so the fierce wind couldn’t whip it away, we explored the small village. It seemed quite deserted. One old man sat alone on a step spinning a prayer wheel and bid us a weary ‘namaste’ as we passed, women were out in the field gathering the harvest together before covering it with what looked like an old tent, and late in the afternoon a noisy game of volleyball was being played in a small courtyard below us, triumphant, joyful cries rising into the dimming light as dusk came on. Our lodge appeared to be the only one open.

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Here the altitude began to bite. We were at 3070m and I had a headache and had begun to feel vaguely unwell, but after I’d eaten some dinner I felt better. I also had some difficulty with the squat toilet. It was not so much the nature of the toilet as its location. It was outside in a separate building reached through a passageway between rooms. At the end of the passageway was a door and it had to be bolted shut to stop it banging in the relentless wind. The problem was that the bolt was on the inside. Inevitably, I had to use the toilet during the night which meant  I had to leave it unbolted and be quick enough to get back inside before someone got annoyed enough by the banging to get up and bolt it. I wasn’t, and when I emerged from the toilet block with only my head torch for light I found  I was locked out. I thought maybe the window next to the door was our room and tapped on it, calling Neville’s name softly, but wasn’t sure enough that it was our room to persist, which was lucky because it wasn’t. There was no other option but to bang on the door until someone opened it. Eventually a rather frightened Nepalese man opened it saying:

“It was open.”

“Wasn’t it bolted?” I replied.

“I didn’t know,” he said.

The conversation made no sense, and I must have looked and sounded angrier than I was.

That night, the Nepalese were glued to the television as their government finally handed down the first constitution. They didn’t know then that it would lead to deadly clashes on the border with India and a four month long blockade creating crippling fuel shortages, bringing the country to a standstill.

I awoke to the sound of the horses’ bells as Dabendra brought them up outside our window and got them ready for the next day’s travel. We would be climbing higher to the village Ghiling.

 

 

 

Kagbeni

We weren’t long on the trail before I had to dismount. The path along the river became slippery with smooth, wet rocks and the horse threatened to stumble. So I dismounted and walked until the path ended at a sheer rock wall that jutted into the river. Jit chose to double back and take the high path, leaving us with Netra and Dabendra to make our way around the rock. I remounted and Dabendra took off his shoes, rolled up his fraying jeans and, pulling and yelling sternly at the horse, managed to get it to enter the freezing water and over to a bank of gravel. We then went around the rock and crossed back through the water on the other side. Meanwhile, Netra rolled up his pants and, laughing at the cold water, cheerfully waded through and around the rock. I dismounted then Dabendra led the horse back around and led Neville around the same way, holding his walking poles aloft.

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Jit rejoined us after a few minutes and we continued on to the small village of Eklo Batti, just a shop and a couple of lodges, for a brief rest before continuing on to Kagbeni.

When Michel Peissel reached Kagbeni, he found a fortress town where all the houses were joined together for safety, accessed by narrow streets that tunnelled under the houses in places and was towered over by the square, red monastery. Now numerous teahouses obscure the old Kagbeni on approach and beside the old monastery, built in 1429, a new monastery is being built.

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We were the only guests at Nigiri Lodge that night, so named for the clear view of the mountain. We arrived in time for lunch—dal baht and apple fritters—which we ate in the sunny, warm dining room while the wind, which comes up every day like clockwork and builds to gale force by the afternoon, howled around the building and set the prayer flags flapping violently. This wind is driven by air heated down on the plains of India, which rises and is then funnelled up the Kali Gandaki river gorge. Peissel described it as “the ferocious wind from the south” and so it is. When we went out with Jit that afternoon to explore the town, the wind whipped dust into our eyes and stuck to the vaseline on my chapped lips and when I got changed for bed that night, grit fell from my clothes.

Jit took us to the monastery and we entered a courtyard to see small boys with shaved heads in maroon robes streaming out of the ancient building to where a monk was giving out afternoon tea. They jumped and tumbled about, one in a spiderman singlet, another in a superman jumper. The monastery had been damaged in the earthquake and a large crack ran the full length of one wall. It was not safe to go up on the roof, but we were still able to enter the main room where, like in all the monasteries we would see, two rows of seats faced each other, and gold statues of Buddha sat placidly inside glass cabinets lit from above. Seven bowls of water and some butter lamps sat along the ledge before them.

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Jit then left us to explore the village on our own and we wandered past the Yakdonalds, the 7Eleven sign, and the image of the Bon protector god with his erect penis. The smell of manure and urine permeated the whole village from the cows that wander the narrow streets. The odd chicken pecked about, old women sat in doorways turning prayer beads through their work-worn hands, and children called “Namaste”. We crossed a wooden bridge over the river and the wind threatened to whip my hat into the muddy, raging torrent below. A monk crossed over just after us and, laughing at the wind, continued on his way in the direction of Tiri.

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That night we warmed ourselves with hot lemon and homemade apple brandy, garlic soup for the effects of altitude, and more apple fritters drizzled with honey. When we retired to bed the only sounds were the calming wind, the pitiful miaowing of a cat and, in the distance, the rushing river.

Onward and Upward

Clutching our breakfast boxes supplied by our hotel, The Lakeside Retreat, we sat and waited in the airport. An Indian lady came in with her husband, and while he sorted out their baggage she sat down next to me and tried to strike up a conversation. Alas, I understood not a word of her Hindi. She kept pointing out the window at the mountains turning from pink to crystal white in the rising sun. I thought she was trying to impress upon me how beautiful they were. But then she counted the fingers on one hand, held her hand in the shape of a plane, then turned the hand upside down. She smiled a lot at the same time. I really have no idea what she was trying to say.

Low clouds hung below the green hills that ringed the valley but except for a few wisps higher up it was clear. We had just bought scalding hot milk tea when we were called to board, so we had to leave the tea behind and line up at the gate.

Michel Peissel flew to Pokhara from Kathmandu as there was no road between the two in 1965. He took his two assistants Calay and Tashi and 650 pounds of equipment with him, including over a hundred packs of cigarettes. But in 1965 there was also no airport in Jomsom so he had to trek there from Pokhara, a fraught journey during which his porters went on strike for more money then left him halfway. He managed to complete the journey with the help of several yak owners and their recalcitrant yaks. It took over a week to reach Jomsom.

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The flight to Jomsom is just 18 minutes, so no sooner were we up and flying along the Kali Gandaki river gorge that divides the Dauligiri and Annapurna ranges than we began to make our descent.

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After the warm humidity of Pokhara, the cool dry air of Jomsom was a relief; we were now 2000 metres higher. Jit took us to the Mustang Monalisha (sic) hotel where we sat in the sunny upstairs dining room and ate the contents of our breakfast boxes–two boiled eggs, a cheese sandwich, a banana, an apple and a small bottle of sickly sweet Frooti juice–washed down with sweet milk tea. We were waiting for our horses to arrive so I walked out into the street to take a look at Jomsom.

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It was still only about 7am. Smoke rose from chimneys and, except for a rickety bus wheezing up the street, there was little sign of life. Opposite the airport, Nigiri mountain rose high above the town. Jomsom was dry, dusty and brown and it possessed a serenity long absent from the chaotic Kathmandu and the bustling streets of Pokhara.

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After an hour and a half a young boy appeared leading a brown and a white horse. We had been joined at the airport in Pokhara by Netra, our assistant guide, and so with him, our horse-boy Dabendra, our two horses–one for me to ride, one to carry our packs–and Jit, we set off on the first day of our expedition into Upper Mustang, just as Michel Peissel had done fifty years before:

Our path now led us deep into the great gorge of the Kali Gandaki river. As we progressed, gone were the green slopes rising to snow peaks. We entered a parched, desert-like void, made up of huge yellow mounds and great towers of rock, rectangular in shape, soaring masses of eroded cliff, barren and dry. The sky along the horizon to the north was blue and crystal clear. We had left behind the world of vegetation, moisture and greenery, to step on to the edge of the great, barren Central Asian plains.

And so had we.

 

To Pokhara

Jit arrived promptly the next morning at 7.30 with a smart car and a driver. Bags loaded, Neville and I got into the back seat, which was covered with a piece of carpet. I put my seatbelt on while Nev dug around in vain for his.

“Everything Ok?” Asked Jit from the front seat.

“I can’t find my seatbelt,” Nev replied.

“Seatbelt not necessary.”

“Yes, but I’d like to wear it anyway.”

The driver started the car and we went out the hotel gate and squeezed into the rough narrow streets of Kathmandu. Nev looked at me in resignation, but after bumping along for about ten minutes, without a word the driver pulled over and got out.

“We look for seatbelt,” said Jit.

We both got out and the driver dug around down the back of the seat, but no seatbelt could be found; Nev would just have to hope.

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Women in red still lined the streets, wearing red and gold ornaments in their sleek black hair. With shoes off they sat on mats along the sides of the dusty road, oblivious to the blaring horns and traffic around them. Men with red tikka on their foreheads sat facing them and between them were plates of food.

As we wound up and out of the valley, we passed small groups of women, huddled together singing and dancing. The noise and dust of Kathmandu was gradually replaced by green hills, and soon we were passing verdant green rice paddies. High up among the terraced paddies one lone figure in red moved along a path.

It grew very warm and humid.

We passed a newly built factory by the river and I asked Jit what it was. After a short conversation with the driver he replied, “Is secret factory.”

“A secret factory?”

“Ee, yes. They were in India, now move here.”

A secret factory. I felt outraged that a company could build a secret factory. I took note of the name on the gate: Surya. Only after we returned home did I discover that Surya is a brand of cigarettes. A cigarette factory.

It was early afternoon when we drove into Pokhara, turned up a narrow drive and arrived at our hotel. Here for one last night we’d have the luxury of a modern bathroom, aircon and TV, at least when the power was on.

Lake Fewa Tal

Pokhara feels like a beachside holiday town, at least by the lake. Colourful boats sit at the waters edge waiting for hire, while Tibetans from the local refugee community offer beads and posters.

There is a large police presence, especially around the entrance to what was the holiday residence of the royal family. The monarchy was abolished in 2008. A high fence obscures the property, but from the lake a modest two-story house can be seen, sitting empty and abandoned. Another building sits out over the edge of the lake, the screens enclosing its verandah filthy and torn.

Temple Fewa Tal

From the centre of the lake smoke rises and bells can be heard from the Tal Bahari Temple which sits on a small island. Pilgrims paddle out to the island to light butter lamps and make offerings to the goddess Bahari, watched over by the Annapurnas which loom above the valley and are reflected in its lake.

Machhupachare

As the sun set, the sharp double peak of Machhupachare, the fishtail mountain, which dominates the valley, turned from glowing white to pink then purple. It is also called “Tiger Mountain” and if you look closely, you can see the sharp ear, snout, mouth, and front paws of a crouching tiger.

That evening we set out to enjoy a last good meal before we would have to endure twelve days of a bland trekking menu: rice, bread, eggs, and potato with much the same toppings and few fresh vegetables. Restaurants line the street that runs along the lake, and waiters in black pants and immaculate white shirts called to us to “just look” at their menus. We decided on a very new place, a hotel that was still being finished, and the staff were extremely eager to make a good impression, rushing to help us as soon as we made any movement and repeatedly asking if everything was ok. I asked them why there were so many police in Pokhara, and they stood trying desperately to find enough English words to explain, but in the end couldn’t; something to do with strikes was all I could gather.

We savoured our last taste of meat and toasted our upcoming journey with good wine before wandering back through the humid night air to our hotel. Many shops were still open, their owners trying to entice us in. Tourist numbers were way down since the earthquake and there was an air of quiet desperation.

Jit had asked us to meet him downstairs at 5.30 next morning. Flights between Pokhara and Jomsom, our next destination, are dependent on good weather, so we needed to be at the airport early to catch the first flight in case the weather closed in and we were forced to wait another day.