This entry was drafted after the fact, pulling from personal journal entries and memory.
After the pass, the train changes considerably. Almost as if you were hiking in Oregon and went through some sort of warp only to end up in Arizona in only a few hours time. The environment is just that different.
The mountains are still there, of course. But the land is golden instead of green, with spots of dull green in the form of the low shrubs that line the hills between you and the Himalayas.
This is Mustang, the district that borders Tibet and resembles Tibet the most. Lower Mustang, to be precise. Upper Mustang, the part of the district that borders Tibet directly, requires a special permit at $70/day to travel through. A traveler we met (an elderly gentleman who never learned that a conversation requires two people and monologued at us extensively whenever we saw him) who had just gone on an extensive trekking tour of “off the maps Upper Mustang” and he described the region as “Tibet 100 years ago.” (He is not that old, but I digress.)
The first town in Mustang, Muktinath, is a famous pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. (It is telling of both Nepalese and Indian cultures that the temple complex houses temples for both faiths.) We visited the complex the day after the pass. What makes the waters of Muktinath holy (I think) is the natural gas that causes the water in a place (under a very, very old Buddhist nunnery) to be on fire constantly. Which is pretty cool, actually.
Walking from Muktinath to Kagbeni – only a four hour walk – is pretty miserable. One of the things endangering the Annapurna Circuit as a classic trek is road construction. The trek is along the village paths, so the villages, when they wanted a road, just turned the path into a road. A flat, dusty road. Many trekkers take a jeep from Muktinath to Jomsom and I can’t say that I blame them. In the afternoon, the winds get so strong that it’s like walking through a wind tunnel. A wind tunnel with plenty of dust. The only way to breathe is to cover your mouth and nose with a bandanna or scarf. So for the next three days we all looked like bandits with our faces covered with sunglasses and bandannas, our hats firmly secured, and our bodies diagonal to cut the wind.
I am glad that we trekked it – taking a jeep (unless you’re ill) seems like cheating. Also, Kagbeni, where we slept after Muktinath, is a very adorable village to walk through. The lower levels of all the stone houses are devoted to animals, and the upper to people. It feels very much like walking through a medieval village, at least until you come across the Yak Donalds (we didn’t eat there, but its existence makes me happy). The Buddhist monastery there also offers great views of the valley from its rooftop.
The next day of walking was much the same as the first – dusty and windy and flat. We passed through a village called Marpha (known for their apples). Our bellies filled with apple crumble, on our way out of the village, we were swarmed by baby goats.
A goat herder (with a goat under each arm) was followed by about three dozen baby goats who found us very curious. At one point I had six baby goats trying to crawl over my lap, nibbling on my hands and bleating at me.
Baby goats are possibly the most adorable of the baby animals.
After Marpha, the land turned green again. I did not realize how tense the dusty brown environment was making me until the green came back and I felt the tension leave.
Most of this stretch of the trail was along the Kali River (Kali means black – and yes, the river is an odd slate color), which at times involved making clumsy tributary crossings. At one point, we didn’t see a decent place to cross, so the ten or so of us lined up and started building a bridge out of rocks. Sanu would drop a rock in, stand on it, and someone would hand her another rock, which she would drop and then stand on, the process repeating itself, assembly line style.
When we were halfway done, our industry was paid off with the sight of a group of trekkers behind us walking thirty feet down the river and crossing over a log.