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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Beginning

The journey begins in Kathmandu.

Nepal was closed to foreigners until the 1950s, but it would be another 42 years before Upper Mustang would be opened up. After China invaded Tibet in 1950, Upper Mustang became a highly sensitive area, surrounded as it is on three sides by Tibet. Khampa warriors used Upper Mustang as a base from which to launch assaults against the Chinese. So in 1964, Michel Peissel had to apply to the King of Nepal for permission to enter. It took six months, but on April 23rd he finally set out to explore Mustang and discover for himself the city of Lo Manthang.

We arrived in Kathmandu in September 2015 during the Tij festival and the city was a sea of red. Long lines of women in beautiful red saris led down to the temple of Pashupatinath, where the dead are cremated on the bank of the Bagmati river. The Tij festival is a three-day Hindu women’s festival. On the first day the women feast. On the second day they fast and visit the temples to make offerings. On the third day they can eat again. We saw many women in groups singing and dancing. This is all done for the health and prosperity of their husbands.

 

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We arrived at our Kathmandu hotel, the International Guesthouse, and soon after our guide arrived. Jit is a highly experienced guide, but hadn’t been to Lo Manthang since2001, back when a government official had to accompany all groups entering Upper Mustang and his costs had to be covered by the guide. There were no lodges either, so trekkers had to camp. He would be packing a tent and sleeping mats in case we arrived somewhere without a lodge.

The next morning we walked out early to see Kathmandu waking up. In 1964 the Himalayas could be seen from Kathmandu. Now it is only possible on a very clear day as a haze of pollution hangs over the city. It was just five months since the earthquake that killed almost 9000 people and made thousands more homeless. The damage was most evident in Durbar square where whole temples had crumbled.

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We passed markets laden with colourful fruit and vegetables, mounds of marigolds strung together, huge chunks of pink Himalayan rock salt. In one narrow street people crowded around a man and woman frying balls of dough in hot oil.

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We joined them and walked away with two hot dumplings on a piece of torn newspaper. We wandered back through Durbar Square and saw a dog limping along, one paw held up and hanging limp. A man and woman beckoned it over and it gingerly lowered itself down and sat with them.  I bent down and patted its head and it looked up at me and shivered slightly. It was just one of many street dogs you see in Kathmandu, sick and injured, and none of us were in a position to help. I did discover later that there is a clinic for street dogs, run by foreign vets and volunteers.

Michel Peissel, his assistants Calay and Tashi, and his “six hundred and fifty pounds of excess baggage” flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara to begin his journey to Lo Manthang. We would be driving with Jit and a driver, a distance of only 200km, but a five hour drive on winding roads that cling to the sides of the mountains above the rushing Trisuli river.

 

 

 

 

Travelling back in time

I am a travel writer working on my first book about Upper Mustang, Nepal.

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The Kali Gandaki river

I learnt about this area about five years ago when I was researching Nepal before my first trip there. That’s when I came across the mediaeval walled city of Lo Manthang. That there was a walled city on the Tibetan plateau, built in the Middle Ages, still in existence, still occupied by descendants of the original inhabitants, still with its own royal family, was mind-blowing.  I had to go there. I looked for books about it but the only one I found was a book written in 1965 by a Frenchman, Michel Peissel, called Mustang: The Lost Tibetan Kingdom, but nothing since. I tried to get a copy, but it was long out of print. Copies went for as much as $400 on the Internet, but I persevered and finally found an affordable copy.

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After reading his book I decided to set out on horseback for Lo Manthang in the footsteps of Mr. Peissel, fifty years after his journey, to see what he saw, what was the same and what had changed. It was a journey into north-western Nepal, but in reality a journey into Tibet as it was before the Chinese occupation; it felt like going back in time.

Come back and visit and I’ll tell you about it.