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.
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.
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.
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.
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.