Kagbeni and Muktinath - Annapurna Region, Nepal
At the end of my Lumba Sumba trek in Eastern Nepal, my partner Sonya flew in from New Zealand to Kathmandu to meet me. It was her first time in Nepal.
Following several weeks of hard remote trekking, we felt inclined to do an activity more rambling. We wanted some comfort, mixed in with a small dose of exploration. Plus, it being December, the mountains were getting cold. Sonya also had a sore foot, so we decided on some less strenuous travel.
From Kathmandu, we flew to Pokhara. I had been to Nepal a few times, but I'd never visited this second city. Unfortunately, Pokhara's famous mountain vistas were obscured by a dusty haze. On the whole, Pokhara is a pleasant place - warmer, sleepier and greener than Kathmandu. There didn't seem to be a lot to do. The town's lakeside was a pleasant stroll, but, like a lot of places built around tourism, there was an oversupply of hotels, shops and restaurants. It felt like many of them had been knocked together quickly and cheaply over the last couple of years. Many were unfinished. There was no shortage of ugly developments.
In the morning our small plane took us up the valley from Pokhara to Jomson, another temporary kind of town. The snowy mountains towered overhead. There was a dry alpine atmosphere. We were looking for transport to Kagbeni, an hour up the valley, but there weren't many vehicles around. The place seemed deserted. We wandered around aimlessly for a bit. Eventually, we found a lift in a jeep.
The bumpy and dusty ride up the river valley didn't take long, delivering us to the dubiously named hotel; Yak Donalds. Kagbeni also seemed empty. The tourists and trekkers had deserted the mountains as the winter set in. At first, we strolled the newer part of town (the old town wasn't immediately apparent) and up into the nearby fields. It was cold, windy, dry and desolate. It felt like there should have been tumbleweeds.
Approaching the village from another angle, we found an entrance to the old town. Still cold and empty, the dark medieval stone lanes felt little changed (excepting an occasional power pole/powerline) from hundreds of years ago. The crooked alleyways were a maze of tunnels, stairs and passages. Hidden among the narrow streets and were Buddhist Stupas, a fortress, bubbling open waterways, the Gompa (Monastery) and a surprisingly erotic statue. Occasionally, we would encounter a local, returning from the fields to the warmth of home. Many were herding goats, horses or cows. It was a quiet and lonely place.
In the morning, before the wind got up, we trudged across the wide empty river bed to the village of Thini. Also empty, this Tibetian style village is the furthest north you can go without a permit to get into Mustang. We climbed a hill with sweeping and spectacular views into up the valley towards Mustang. As the wind picked up, we walked back to Kagbeni, following a path on the opposite side of a deep ravine that dropped into the river. The old Kagbeni village and burgundy monastery looked like it was slowly crumbling into the gully. In the distance, we could see the Tharong La - the main pass of the Annapurna trail - ringed by snow-capped peaks.
Back at Yak Donalds for dinner, there weren't many customers or trekkers around. Despite the cold, we ate a good Dal Bhat in the silent unheated dining room and went to be early.
Muktinath was a short jeep ride up the valley and the traditional end of the Annapurna trek. It is a significant pilgrimage destination for Hindus and Buddhists - mainly from Nepal and India. We parked up among the pilgrim's busses near the town and temple area. In contrast to Kagbeni, this was a rapidly developing new high altitude tourist destination. Superimposed on the arid mountain terrain, modern multi-story hotels, resorts, restaurants and souvenir shops looked like they had sprung up overnight. While the mountain setting is spectacular, the town itself is ugly. Aside from the Bob Marley Hotel - which seemed to be where the foreign trekkers gravitated - the streets were deserted as well - the pilgrim and trekking season was almost over.
On the far side of the town, it was a steady climb to the Muktinath temple, which in and of itself is relatively simple. A semi-circle of water spouts gush into a waterway, and a small temple sits in the centre. Parts of the stream were frozen up, and there were very few pilgrims around.
As the sun set we drove back down the valley, via the much pleasant old Tibetian village of Jharkot (I'd say stay the night here, not Muktinath). We arrived in Jomson well after dark. Again, the accommodation was cold, the small restaurant was empty, and we hurried to bed to try and find what warmth we could. In the morning we were to fly back to Pokhara, then on to Kathmandu.