Day 1: Pokhara to Kagbeni
Last Friday morning I woke up at 5:30 with a feeling of dread—I was flying to Jomsom to start my seven day trek around part of the Annapurna Circuit Trek. Most people would be really excited to trek in such a beautiful environment and to see Nepali village life. But all I could think of was walking uphill and downhill for hours and hours every day. I left my beloved iBook with the reception at my hotel in Pokhara and stepped outside into the darkness where my porter, Shiva, was waiting with a taxi to the airport.
My backpack weighed in at just under 10 kilos (the limit for my porter, I was told) and was inspected by hand. I was also inspected by the thorough hands of a female security guard before being sent out onto the tarmac to walk to the plane. This plane was similar to the plane I flew in Tajikistan, but with a few less seats—about 14. We were allowed to walk up to the open cockpit to take photos out of the front window of the plane but there wasn’t a great change in scenery during the twenty minute flight.
The difference in temperature between Pokhara (884 meters) and Jomsom (2713 meters) was significant. Looking around at the other tourists bundled up I realized I hadn’t seen my winter hat when I packed for the trek. We stopped for breakfast (I had a coke), registered my $30 trekking permit at a check post and started walking out of town. We were soon overtaken by a crowd carrying flowers and playing horns and drums—a wedding party. The bride and groom rode small white horses and wore terrified expressions. The bride’s veil was red with gold sequins and the groom wore a green turban. We waited at the groom’s family house where a banner and streamers hung. The two were ushered inside while a band played, men threw flower petals and old women danced and sang.
The trail headed out of town, across a river bridge and along the rocky riverbed. The canyon was dry and reminded me of the American Southwest with rocky formations towering along the sides of the mountains. Kagbeni is a town located at the enterance to Upper Mustang—the restricted part of the provence that borders Tibet. It was beautiful, but the more the more I travel I realize that The United States has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
I stayed at a hotel that was formerly the local monastery’s library. The restaurant walls were covered in old murals and the building had a nice Tibetan feel to it. This part of Nepal is heavily Tibetan but the architecture doesn’t have any of the great details that you see in Tibet. The town itself had some interesting mud buildings, stupas and an endless parade of donkeys passing along the narrow stone pathways. At the edge of town, where upper Mustang begins, a route of prayer wheels lead into town.
We only walked three hours the first day, which I appreciated. The last thing I needed was to be dropped into a seven hour hike after two weeks of inactivity while I got over my cold in Kathmandu and Pokhara. In fact, I had just finished a course of antibiotics the day before and I prayed that the winds whipping through the canyon and cold weather wouldn’t bring on a recurrence of the bronchitis or sinus infection I had.
Day 2: Kagbeni to Muktinath
As we walked out of Kagbeni I was prepared for the worse—a seven hour uphill hike. At dinner the night before I met a woman with a three year old. She had carried the girl up to Muktinath herself, taking seven hours. Another middle-aged woman told me the trip took her six hours. The average time to Muktinath is five hours, so I figured I’d fall somewhere in-between a middle-aged woman and someone carrying a 40 pound child. I didn’t have much confidence in my hiking ability.
I felt the altitude a bit, but walking uphill has never been easy for me, altitude or not, so I took my time getting up to the ridge overlooking the wheat fields below. We saw groups of travelers on ponies and I wished that I had hired a horse for the day. A small road had been dug from Jomsom up to Muktinath and we were occasionally covered in dust by passing motorcycles. We walked we passed dry mountains covered in caves and got a small glimpse at Upper Mustang before continuing on a high ridge toward the next town.
The path up in this part of the trek was dotted with stalls set up by Tibetan women selling jewelry or yak wool scarves. The locals also built resting platforms out of stones for hikers and porters to take a break. We stopped at one in front of a restaurant where we saw Drew, an American from Northern California. I ran into him in the airport the day before and hit it off so we continued up to Muktinath together along with his porter, Mohan, and Shiva.
The beginning of the day turned out to be the steepest part and I surprised myself and Shiva by making it to Muktinath in four and a half hours. This gave me plenty of time to take a solar-heated shower and make my way up to the monastery above town. Looking up toward the climbing, whitewashed wall around the monastery, I had second thoughts about walking any more that day. I was pretty tired from the hike and just wanted to relax. Of course, that’s when I see Drew and Mo and the decision is made, I’m going up.
The walk up wasn’t as bad as I thought and the views over Muktinath and two other towns we had passed were stupendous. The temples themselves are unimaginative and totally uncamparable to the temples in Tibet. There was interesting feature—one of the temples was surrounded on three sides by horse head-shaped water spouts used for ritual bathing. Even in the summer the mountain water running out must be freezing—there was ice on the ground surrounding the water route.
The dining room was filled with travelers at dinnertime and we all got to know one another around the large communal tables. This was when I first met Taylor and Maury, a pair of firefighters form Colorado who I hung around with during the trek. At these higher altitudes (3710 meters) the tables are heated by open coal pits underneath. With the amount of fires and shoddy wiring in these places I can’t believe the wood buildings have survived. I just leaned aside every time a young girl headed toward me with a shovel full of red hot coals.
Day 3: Muktinath to Marpha
This was a long day. When Shiva told me where we were going and I checked the map I didn’t believe him. We were heading all the way down past Kagbeni, past Jomsom, another hour on to Marpha. The hike was mostly downhill but it was about 15 miles of hiking over the course of almost seven hours. We started out a little past 8am, as usual, and headed quickly down the steep dirt tracks and onto the plateau above Kagbeni.
From here, we bypassed the town and stayed on the ridge, slowly heading down a dirt slope. I got my last glimpse of Upper Mustang and the beautiful riverbed snaking through the valley. Around 10am the wind started and we had to cover our faces from the sand and dirt being kicked up. It was very strong like people had warned me, but not strong enough to cause walking too difficult.
Local porters passed us carrying lumber, large boxes of beer and other necessities up the steep path. Pony trains with bags of rice strapped to their sides passed as well and I wondered why anyone would carry a huge load themselves instead of putting it on an animal. Shiva told me that many traders bring their goods up themselves to make the most profit.
We stopped for ginger tea in the same little cafe we stopped on day one, halfway to Kagbeni. It was amazing that we could cover so much ground so quickly. I was feeling really good downhill until lunchtime in Jomsom. By then my feet were starting to develop blisters and I could feel my quads tensing up. I was starving and had a veggie burger, fries and salad for lunch which just made me want to go to sleep. After Shiva got his Daal Bhaat (the Nepalis have to wait until Westerners are served to eat), we took off for the last hour or so to Marpha.
After a good rest my feet start to stiffen up and it usually takes a good 15 minutes to get them back to “normal.” Somewhere along the way I could feel my blisters break and start to slide around in my shoes. Shiva kept going at our fast downhill pace while I limped along through the empty rock-filled riverbeds toward Marpha. The town was cute, with narrow alleyways and stone houses. Buddhist temples and stupas hung above town on the rocks of the mountain. The stairs leading up to the sites past houses and business looked interesting but the sun had already passed behind the nearest mountain and I sat down to assess the damage to my feet.
Drew, his friend whom we met up with in Muktinath and I were the only trekkers staying in our hotel that night. Usually the porters suggest a place to stay (where they have friends or get the best/cheapest food and accommodation themselves. But Shiva’s suggestion in Marpha looked like a prison cell. The hotel nextdoor was just as cheap at 50 rupees (70 cents), and had a cute little courtyard garden so I decided to stay there instead. Luckily I spotted the others when they arrived after me, otherwise I would have been in the place alone and been forced to entertain Shiva.
With Shiva paling around with the other porters I had a good chance to talk to the 23-year old girl working there. The youngest of four daughters and two sons, she was the only girl left unmarried and was totally responsible for running her parent’s business. Her English was excellent and she even spoke with a hint of sarcasm, something many second-language speakers don’t pick up. She wasn’t sent to upper levels of school because her parents only had enough money for the boys—boys get preferential treatment over girls all over Nepal. It was sad to see such a bright girl stranded in this tiny town with no hope for leaving. All of her friends are married with kids and she can’t talk to them about things she’s interested in. Because she grew up alongside Westerners she has taken on a lot of the same views, which are not accepted in Nepalese society.
I asked her why she wasn’t married and it turns out she wakes up every day in fear that it’s the day her parents will announce to her she’s been paired off. Arranged marriages are still commonplace in rural Nepal and she only get four days notice! Although she longs to live in Pokhara or Kathmandu with her brothers, her parents have forbidden it. And considering all of her sisters have been married to local men the future doesn’t look hopeful for her.
Shiva and Mo came back, drunk on apple cider. They broke into a speech about how wonderful Shiva is, with his 11 years of experience. Mo wanted to make it clear that even though, at 32, he was four years older than Shiva, he was not nearly as wonderful as him. Shiva mumbled that being a porter was beneath him—he hadn’t carried a bag in years! I started to get annoyed because I hired a porter and if Shiva didn’t want to be a porter he didn’t have to accept the job from his agency. When I offered him cold medicine he was insulted and said “you don’t understand! I’ve been at 6,000 meters!!” I just laughed at him and rolled my eyes.