Monday, June 7, 2010

Annapurna Circuit in 7 days (Part 4)

This is my last post on my trek around Annapurna, and it will cover crossing the 17,700 foot Thorung La pass to the town of Jomsom via Kagbeni, and the not so straight forward trip overland from there to Pokhara. These entries have been titled Annapurna Circuit in 7 days and if you're keeping track there is only one day left. This last day was a long 23 mile journey that brought me from the highest point on the Annapurna trail, all the way to its exit point.

Clouds clear as I ascend above High Camp

So after a cold night at high camp I rolled over at 5AM, looked out the window and it was as I had feared; fog. Ughh. I was kicking myself that I had not gone over the pass the day before. Finding it difficult to get the courage to get out from under the warm blankets I waited until almost 6AM to actually get out of bed. I had eaten extra the night before, and didn't want to take the time to eat breakfast, so I paid the guy running the guest house and was on my way to meet the 17,700 foot Thorung La pass.

With all the luck in the world, the fog started to burn off almost as soon as I left High Camp, and as the picture above shows, it almost cleared out completely when I was only a few hundred feet above the camp. With the fog clearing away you could clearly make out the surrounding peaks, the snow glinting in the sun. Just a little ways on you could here the distant rumble of an avalanche on one of the nearby peaks. Sometimes you can watch them as the snows get warmed in the early morning sun, though this one I did not see, just heard the echoes of it.

Yak train bars the trail east of the Thorung La Pass

 About forty minutes into the walk I came across a yak train that seemed to be stationary on the trail, stopped on a scree slope that was to narrow for me to pass them. The guy at the front of the yaks signaled for me to stop so that I wouldn't spook them too much by getting any closer. I motioned to him the universal "What the hell am I supposed to do?" I wasn't in a hurry, but I also didn't want to just stand on a cold scree slope staring at the back side of some yaks. The young guy up front didn't seem to concerned. Thankfully the older guy who had gone down to a lower stream to get some water started to give the younger guy hell when he returned and got the yaks moved up around the corner where I could pass them on the high side of the trail (passing on the steep drop off side is asking for trouble). 

After this incident I was alone with the very high peaks and nearby glaciers. There were more false peaks to this pass then there are Hindu Gods, and thankfully I had long ago trained myself to always expect another climb when you mount a visual summit. This mental trick is invaluable as the moral that can drain from you when you have convinced yourself that you are working to the top and it isn't the top is extremely counter productive. It's amazing sometimes how much of hiking is a mental game, and I can only imagine how many tired and oxygen deprived trekkers have summited those hills only to see another one and let some non family friendly words come gushing from their mouths. 

And you do get tired and out of breath fairly quickly up there. This was only a little lower than the highest I've been (19,340') and you find that after a good climb you stop to catch your breath for a bit before moving on. Luckily this trail was wide and really not that steep. It was the easiest high altitude climb that I have done by quite a bit. For instance I did the last part of Kilimanjaro carrying only a pack for water as opposed to the full thirty or so pounds that i had on me here, and this was still far easier. I was also surprised at just how warm it was up there, I barely needed a windbreaker over my fleece and the temperature was maybe a bit under freezing. When I went up to the Everest area or Kilimanjaro, both at comparable elevations, they were much much colder with the latter being around -25F. I was pleased that I did not have to put up with that kind of extreme cold.

Sign swamped in prayer flags greets me in Nepali style English at the Thorung La pass

After a bit of a slog and a couple more false peaks I reached the high point of the pass and was greeted by a sign that was literally drowning in prayer flags, to the point where they did not look at all attractive.  It kind of looked like around this sign is where prayer flags go to die. So after about two hours of climbing, I took in the views for a bit, got some pictures and headed down toward Mukinath. The pass marks the division between the Manang region and that of Mustang. Mustang is one of those semi mythical kind of places to travelers, and the capital of Lo Manthang in upper Mustang is rarely visited due to a $500 permit fee for ten days and its somewhat remote location. In fact this part of Nepal was a semi-autonomous Kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Lo until the reforms here in 2008 which abolished all monarchies. 

Map showing the route I took from High Camp to Jomsom

From the pass the trail descended almost Immediately and a new set of dry reddish brown mountains presented themselves to the west of me. The plan was get down to Mukinath or possibly Jharkot and check out some of the villages just north of them that use to be only accesible through an Upper Mustang permit. I figured I could do this today and then make my way to Kagbeni, which serves as the gateway to Upper Mustang the next day, and depending on time maybe go to Jomsom. At least with the pass now behind me I did not have any artificial road blocks in my way, the only thing that limited me was daylight and how tired I was. 

It's a long way down; Trail down to Mukinath from the Thorung La pass

It was amazing just how much easier it was going down then going up. Sure some of the footing was a bit unstable and the slope a bit steep in places, but because I was not really using my muscles to push all my body weight up I didn't need to breathe hard, and because I didn't need to breathe hard the lack of oxygen wasn't a limiting factor to my progress. To be honest I was not at all envious of anyone who chose to do this trail in reverse, as the western slope was far steeper and went on for far longer than the one on the eastern side. It is very clear that this ascent is vastly more difficult to approach from the west, that and you have to gain quite a bit more altitude in a single day due to there being no guest houses until you reach the very minimal structures at Chabarbu. Before that you have to go all the way from Mukinath which is about five thousand feet below the pass. I did pass a few trekkers that were headed up from this west side and they looked quite tired, I did not envy them at all. You kind of want to give words of encouragement to people you see taking on such a task, but saying they were almost there would have been a lie, or telling them that it got easier would have been too. Instead I just smiled, said hello and went on my way quickly aproaching the town of Mukinath.

Mukinath, Temple Complex & Town

Some time around 11AM I wandered into the town of Mukinath, marked clearly by a large walled in temple complex on its eastern border and a good amount of greenery in an otherwise semi-barren enviroment. The temple complex at Mukinath is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Nepal, as it is is holly to both Hindus and Buddhists. Some Hindu pilgrims that had come from Kathmandu for some reason wanted to hang out with me, and they showed me around a bit and chatted about the place. There were plenty of Sidhus, most of them hanging around the sacred springs where the water flowed from valves that were shaped like cow heads. Another attraction was an eternal flame fed by a source of natural gas. Apparently it is this confluence of water, earth and fire that makes this place special. I always feel a bit awkward taking photos in places people consider holly, so I didn't get any. 

The town of Mukinath itself looked like it was completely under construction. Before even leaving the temple area motorcycles bearing pilgrims from India and Nepal were zooming past me, and when you got to the town this was complimented by a number of 4WD vehicles that had ferried pilgrims in from Jomsom. The new buildings going up are no doubt to serve the vast number of people now coming to this site by vehicles. What I knew for sure upon reaching it was that this was not where I was going to stay, and judging from the time I figured there was no reason I couldn't make it to Kagbeni, even if I wanted to check out the villages across the river. After checking in at the police office I made my way to Jharkot.

The very interesting town of Jharkot

This town was a real gem on the trail, as I had never heard of it and it was quite interesting. Anyone coming up and over the pass, I would highly recommend stopping in here over Mukinath...that is unless you are hiking in late May or early June when apparently just about everything is closed. Although I was hoping to get lunch here, as I never did have breakfast, but most of the tourist centered places were closed or no one was at the desk. I did however get to go to an old monastery and check out some cool paintings and other stuff, and it only cost like a 100 rupee donation. 

Guardian Statues with Pre-Buddhist Bon influence

In the middle of the town was this old gate that was flanked on either side by a pair of what appeared to be a nude male and female figure, both anatomically correct, and the male was quite stimulated. I found this a bit odd, as it didn't really seem to mesh with the Buddhist themes all over the rest of the village. I read it has something to do with their religious precursor to Buddhism called Bon, but I know very little about that, except that it has a somewhat animist tradition. Anyway, made for a fun photo. A similar male statue was also found at a gate like this in Kagbeni. 

Moving on from Jharkot, and deciding that the villages to the north looked interesting but more of the same, I started to make my way further west toward the town of Kagbeni. The trail and the road from Mukinath on are one in the same, and due to the construction and the pilgrims there was traffic passing you quite regularly. The dry ground here meant lots of dust and it was at this point that I decided for sure that Jomsom would be the end of the line for me. Walking on a road with this much traffic isn't trekking, and though I was very much enjoying the scenery in this section, I knew it just wouldn't be worth it once I left the Mustang area. The scenery along this stretch was quite beautiful as the canyon beside me looked like something you might see in Arizona, but the odd village here or there with greenery and trees due the irrigation gave a really striking contrast.  Added to this were the towering mountains on all side of you roaming over twenty thousand feet high. 

The Gateway to Upper Mustang; Kagbeni

As I came up to where the canyon started to widen out as the river was about to merge with another at Kagbeni, some serious winds started whip up over the ridge. Some gusts were so strong that I had to lean into them to keep form getting knocked over. I'm thinking this region could harness some serious wind power, but maybe the wind is almost too strong. Anyway I finally came into the picture perfect valley that is home to Kagbeni some time just before 2PM. The fields here swept back and forth with the wind creating almost hypnotic patterns, it was breathtakingly beautiful. In fact this has to be one of my favorite little spots from a scenery stand point. The contrast between the town, the landscape, trees, river and mountains was great. Pictures kind of fail to capture the real presence this place has. 

Old Fort in Kagbeni

The town itself was a kind of medieval maze of old buildings, tunnels, mani walls, gompas and the old fort at the center. It was also almost completely void of tourists. While wandering around taking some pictures and conversing with a young Buddhist monk who wanted to practice his English I bumped in to the two girls form the UK that I had chatted with a few nights back in Manang. We talked for a moment and I continued on trying to find a place to stay. I walked into two places and found them both closed for the season. Finally I went back to a place I had seen that was open that I really wish I remembered the name of because it was sooooo bad. It was called like the Green Kitchen or something and boasted organic food, and was totally marketed like it was in the middle of a Western country with prices to match.

When I arrived at the place I asked if there were any rooms available, and the guy after a bit of stuttering brought me upstairs, pass the two girls from the UK who also found this was the only place open in town, and up to a crappy attic room that was 500 rupees for a night. At this point the most I had paid was 150, and this just seemed like extortion, so I declined and joined the two British girls for lunch. I made the mistake of ordering a burrito (the place billed itself as quite savvy with prices to match so I thought I was safe). What I got looked like an Asian pizza made with chapati with beans underneath it...ketchup and all. I was hungry so I ate a portion of it, but even as hungry as I was I couldn't down too much of that. The British girls and myself both thought that this town was a bit off this time of year and that Jomsom seemed like a saner place to make a stop for the day. After all there was a hotel there that for 500 rupees a night had a sauna. 

Strangely Familiar; YacDonalds in Kagbeni

After begrudgingly paying for lunch I said goodbye to the Brits and headed out of town. On my way out I passed a strangely familiar sign for YacDonalds. If only I hadn't just eaten crappy food, and it was open, I could have had a YacBurger with cheese (yak cheese) hold the special sauce. Missed opportunities abound I guess. It was now just after 3PM and i had some miles and elevation under my belt for the day, though another two hours or so of walking along a river didn't seem too bad to me. So I set out for Jomsom.

Heading South to Jomsom

I joined back up with the road and about every ten minutes or so a 4WD vehicle or a motorcycle would pass me. Occasionally I left the road to cut across some switchbacks and meet up more directly with the road below. The scenery here continued to be amazing, with a large rocky river bed, dry hills fertile irrigated land, and the occasional grove of trees. What stood out the most though was the wind. Wow, what a wind. That wind blew from the south, so i was walking into it the whole time and it was relentless. It had to have been consistantly over thirty miles an hour with gusts that doubled that or more. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the winds along this walk were more sever than any storm or hurricane I have ever been in. Serious wind.

As I neared within a couple miles of Jomsom I could see that it was raining a bit over that way. The wind was so strong that it was carrying that rain horizontally over to me. The strangest part was that even though the rain was hitting me I was not getting wet. I looked at the ground, and you could see the drops occasionally hit a stone, but by the time I had walked over the stone it had vanished and evaporated. The wind was so strong and dry, the rain was disappearing on contact. Really strange stuff. As I got to the north end of Jomsom the rain came down a little more steadily, but still I was barely getting wet and the wind was almost drying me off as fast as the rain could land. 

Afternoon Views; Jomsom

With about twenty three miles under my belt for the day I wandered into the ACAP check point ready to have some good food and take a bit of a rest. I had to explain my days itinerary to the girl there several times as she kept thinking that I had come up over the pass the day before. Apparently most people don't walk this far. From that office I made my way to the Alka MarcoPolo. The room here was quoted to me as 600 rupees, and even though it was worth that, as it had very nice amenities and an attached bath, the woman only charged me 300 rupees for it. The food here was the best I have ever had trekking, bar none. I got to try some Yak with chilies and mixed vegies, and got some chicken jal frezie and chapati. They also had operational internet and very friendly service. Highly recommend this place to anyone passing through Jomsom. 

The two girls from the UK that I kept bumping in to also showed up at this hotel and being more responsible than me, they went and got info on the bus leaving town in the morning. They were told 8AM bus, and they should be fine if they get tickets by quarter past seven. I slept like a log that night and woke up to some picture perfect views some time before 6AM. I got my bags packed and around 6:30 I headed out to get some breakfast, thinking that I had plenty of time. As I stepped out my door, the man that co-ran the hotel was knocking on the British girls door and informing them that the bus had nearly sold all its tickets for today so it would be leaving early. Huh. I asked if perhaps I could get a ticket too, and he escorted me outside the hotel to a stall right next door.

I taked to some people, was assured I could get a seat and went back into the hotel to settle up my tab, sans breakfast bill. Instead while we waited for the ticketing guy to return to the bus stand, the British girls and I went across the street and bought some semi-stale cinnamon buns to tide us over. We were informed that the bus would take us about three or four hours of the way and then we would have to get out and walk for an hour due to road construction, then we could catch the final bus to Beni, where we may or may not be able to go onward to Pokhara in the same day. Awesome.

Tripped out Bus on the way out

Bus rides in Nepal are never ever dull. Aside from the awesome decor and cramped conditions, you can't ever help bat marvel at the terrain that these things cross. We spent much of our time driving down rocky wide riverbeds driving through streams that were up to almost two feet deep. Back home its rare to do that in jeeps, let alone on a passenger bus. The road was also typical back country Nepal, with incredibly long drops, plenty of loose stones and enough bumps to send you leaning into the person next to you or up against the window.

Eventually the bus stopped in the middle of a cliff side road, let us all out and we gathered our things and just started walking. Figuring our fates were somewhat linked together at this point, I accompanied the two British girls and walked past some waterfalls and unfinished road to the next bus. We could not determine for the life of us what made this stretch of road we were walking any less finished from what we had been driving over for the last four hours. I couldn't tell the difference, but if a Nepali bus driver didn't think it was safe, then I would rather walk, those guys will drive on anything. At one point a taxi drove up next to us and offered us a ride to Beni for 500 Rupees each, "Nepali price" he said, as opposed to the price for white folks. "Same price as bus." We thought about it for a minute, but we concluded that it seemed a bit high, that and we didn't want to be in a car with such little clearance on these kind of roads. It was a good choice, the next bus was only 350 and didn't make too many long stops. I do have to say though, that was the most remote place I have ever had someone offer me a taxi. To anyone who knows how persistent Asian taxi drivers can be with westerners this was quite comical. To be walking through this area so far from anything and here someone call out "Taxi?" was enough to make me grin from ear to ear.

After more bus riding along crazy roads we finally arrived in Beni, which still didn't look like it was close to anywhere, but at least there were more buses and taxis here. Now the goal was Pokhara. I figured it was maybe two hours away. It was some time after 3PM when we got there, we found out is was five hours to Pokhara via bus, but we could do it in three via taxi. With the bargaining power of the three of us combined we got a driver down to 500 rupees each, and set off for Pokhara. A long story short, after some serious rain, a couple stops and a very long drive, we arrived back in civilization, and I bid farewell to my travelling partners and got a room at the Boardwalk Hotel.

I ended the whole adventure with a trip to the Everest Steake House restaurant where I was treated to a very large helping of Fillet Mignon, vegies and fries for only 600 rupees. I will go back to Pokhara just to eat at this place again. back at lakeside where the whole trip started I relaxed and considered that the day before I had crossed the high pass, and now I was sitting eating some very good steak. Fun times, and another great experience to credit to Nepal. I'm glad I moved here every day, and experiences like this just multiply that satisfaction.


  1. As a side note I would like to point out to anyone planning on possibly doing this hike, that I kind of wish I had chance to stop in Marpha, a town just south of Jomsom. While I don't feel that I missed out on much from the rest of the lower western side of the trail, Marpha really did look like an interesting town, but at that point I was already on the bus. Just a heads up.

  2. First of all Thanks for the Beautiful blogspot, Well I been more then 30 times to Annapurna round . My favorable place is In Manag Dhukur Pokhari and In Mustang Marpha.

  3. Thank you for this extensive description, and also for comments on other regions.
    It would be useful to know the exact dates when you did this trek.

  4. It was a while ago now, but I believe I started on May 27th and ended 7 days later in early June. Weather wise I found this perfect, as have several friends that went after me around this time. The only downside is the number of facilities that are closed due to it being off season.

  5. It is really nice, i have been Jomsom Muktinath trek, more than 20 times. this is my best trek.


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