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.