JOMSOM TREK, ANNAPURNA RANGE (October 10-17)
What distinguishes a trek, I suppose, is that you're treading a path that serves a clear, practical purpose: that of connecting human settlements that don't have roads. So unlike hiking, you're sharing the road with people who actually need to get someplace. And it's incredible what you'll find people carrying, often suspended from a strap around the forehead: produce, firewood, big wicker baskets brimming with personal items, cases of packaged foods, cages full of chickens, and so on. The folks shouldering these burdens are nearly always tiny, and often female, old, a child, or some combination thereof. Most are shod in nothing more than rubber flip-flops.
The Lonely Planet describes the Jomsom Trek as the "classic" tea house trek. The tea houses provide food and lodging, which allows you to travel quite light as you don't need to carry food or a tent. The LP also mentions that its days are numbered as a road is being built which will make it redundant. We saw evidence of this a few days along. V chose this trek because it's relatively short (8-12 days, depending on your pace and whether or not you cut the return trip short and fly back from Jomsom) and only moderately difficult. Moderate or not, I found it sufficiently challenging (but then again I'd been in India the past six months, eating lots of curries and doing absolutely no aerobic exercise.) We also decided to go it alone, not to hire a guide or porter. This was possible as the trail is quite easy to follow and our packs were pretty light. Most of the folks we met had either a guide, a guide cum porter, or guide and porter.
The JT essentially covers the last part of the massively popular, 16-20 day Annapurna Circuit trek, and peaks at Muktinath (3800 meters.) Since we were going in the opposite direction to maybe 80-90% of the trekkers, we encountered new people every day on the trail and every evening at our tea house. We also came to know a few people who were traveling in the same direction.
DAY 1: Pokhara to Naya Pul (car), Naya Pul to Tikedungha; Elevation Change: +525 meters
An inauspicious beginning (?). V woke up with a cold, and the sky looked ominous. After breakfast at our guest house in Pokhara, V decided that he was up to the task, so we took a taxi 45 km to the trailhead at Naya Pul. It was 10:30 by the time we reached. Despite the late start, within the first hour we stopped several times to drink chai, Fanta, Coke, and eat bananas.
We reached the first village, Birethanti, in no time. From there we followed a river (a common feature along the trek) between the mountains. It turned out to be sunny and warm, and we sweated an incredible amount under our packs. The landscape varied from bamboo forests to verdant, terraced rice paddies. Around 1:30 we stopped for lunch. It took about an hour to be served our food. In the meantime we spoke with a couple of guides who were with an older English woman.
Later we ran into a herd of goats (or possibly sheep, they were awfully hairy for goats but had beards,) just as we reached a narrow part in the trail. After waiting about 10 minutes for the 2-300 goats and their herders to pass, a Western guy from the other direction passed me and remarked, "Nepali traffic jam."
We spent the night in very basic accommodation. The walls didn't quite fit together, and there were gaps around the window frames. It was fairly cold, and around 7:00 it began to rain. It continued to pour heavily most of the night, and I couldn't help but wonder if we'd be slogging through the rain in the morning.
DAY 2: Tikedungha to Ghorepani ; Elevation Change: +1225 meters
V was reluctant to get up in the morning (no surprise there, but he did have a cold,) and breakfast took forever. I don't think we got a meal in under 45 minutes the entire trek. (We later learned to arrange meals in advance, though this was not possible for lunch.) When we finally hit the trail around 8:30, it seemed every other trekker in the village had already moved on.
Outside Tikedungha, we crossed two small suspension bridges (once waiting for a pack of mules to pass) then began a steep climb up cut-stone steps. This continued for over an hour, when we finally reached Ulleri, where we stopped for drinks. I spoke to a Tibetan guy who'd studied in Dharamsala. After Ulleri we continued to climb, and soon entered a forest of oak and rhododendron. The woods were dark and damp, and had a primordial feel. Moss and creepers covered everything, ferns grew from rocks. The previous night's rain had created impromptu waterfalls on the mountainsides, and the river rushed by swift and clear. the trail was rather messy, mud and rock.
Along the way we encountered fewer and fewer people than the previous day. Food and drinks became progressivesly more expensive- the liter of mineral water we purchased for 10 rupees in Pokhara sold for 80. Everything here had to be carried in by mule or man.
We ate lunch in Nangathanti at a tea house with a large, open garden. A sign said 1-1/2 hours to Ghorepani, but I made it in 45 minutes :) It started raining just as I emerged from the forest, so I hightailed it to the nearest tea house. A beautiful girl with Tibetan features served me (and a table full of admiring local youths) chai.
After Vinod arrived and had his tea, we registered at the Police Checkpoint (this was the second, the first having been in Birethanti,) and checked into a fantastic guest house. Tukuche Peak View has a lodge-like feel. Half of the ground floor is an open dining room with windows on three sides (one with incredible views of snowy peaks, at least when it's clear) and a cozy wood stove in the center. Our room was simple and clean with big windows and not much else. So it's not surprising that most of the guests-- trekkers and guides/porters alike-- spent their waking hours in the dining room.
DAY 3: Ghorepani to Tatopani; Elevation Change: -1560 meters
We'd set our alarm for 4:50 with the intent of climbing Poon Hill (approximately one hour steep ascent) to watch the sun rise. It's said to have one of the best views in Nepal of the Himalayas, and nearly everyone at Tukuche Peak View was doing it. When our alarm sounded, we could hear people downstairs eating breakfast. Snug in our beds, we debated whether or not to get up and join them. V said that he was still sick and needed the rest, and I did nothing to persuade him otherwise. By the time we got up, people were already beginning to trickle back. As far as I could tell, the only guest besides ourselves who did not go was a woman in her 60's. I spoke with one guide, and when he heard we hadn't gone up, he asked if we were staying another day. He couldn't believe that we'd come to Ghorepani and not climb Poon Hill!
Another late start. Yesterday we'd gone from 1525 to 2750 meters; today we lost all of that elevation gain and more. V seemed to think that the downhill was going to be easy-peasy, but I was worried about the impact on my knee.
The trail began with a continuation of yesterday's oak and rhododendron forest, then opened up to views of terraced green mountains. This part of Nepal (the first several days of the trek) looks remarkably like Himachal Pradesh, which I suppose is not surprising as both are the foothills of the Himalayas. We walked through a few small villages, across suspension bridges of varying height, length and sturdiness. At the edge of one village I was attacked by a band of children, the oldest possibly five, demanding sweets and money. They grabbed at the pockets of my pack, clung to my legs. V was beaten with a switch when he failed to comply. An appalling number of children on the trail greet you wtih "Namaste" then proceed to ask you for school pen, sweets, rupees, but this was the first time we were actually assaulted. We passed several flocks of sheep/ goats. By now we hardly even slowed down for them, just made our way through the herds. The animals are quite frightened of humans, which is hardly surprising since they're constantly being hit with sticks and pelted with stones.
The second half of the day was fairly rough going, a seemingly endless succession of stone cut steps. Soon V too was complaining. The descent was surely tougher than the ascent had been. About 5-10 minutes outside of Tatopani, I stumbled and fell on rocks, cutting the palm of my left hand. In town, we checked into the first guest house we saw and V cleaned up my wound.
"Tato" means hot in Nepali, and "pani" is water (same as Hindi. The languages are quite closely related.) The village is known for its natural hot springs. Once we were settled into our room (complete with en suite bath/toilet!) we got changed and headed for the baths. Totally exposed on the rocky riverside, the scene was nothing like any hot spring I'd ever been to: two pools, one for locals and the other for trekkers (including their guides and porters,) a few spigots for bathing and washing clothes. Both tubs were jam-packed, and the whole thing was rather unappealing. After the pounding my legs had gotten that day, a hot soak surely would have felt good, but I simply couldn't bring myself to enter the murky water. V too declined. That out of the way, there wasn't much to do besides return to the room.
DAY 4: Tatopani to Ghasa; Elevation Change: +930 meters
After massive breakfasts in the garden of the guesthouse, we registered at the Police Checkpoint and left Tatopani behind. Just outside of town we had to traverse a landslide of fine silvery-black mica soil. It was quite hairy and required the use of our walking sticks and hands. Amazing how the locals manage with their hefty burdens.
Again we were walking upstream along a river (which one, I still don't know.) The it wasn't all steep, the overall effect was one of going up, up, down, up down, up, up... We stopped at the base of the waterfall at Rupse Chhahara for lunch. We shared a table with an Italian guy who was at the tail end of the Annapurna Circuit. It was Day 13 for him, and both he and his guide were in bad shape. Clearly he just wanted the trek to be over. He said that you expend so much energy in anticipation of and in the crossing of the high pass (I forget the name, it's about 5400 meters,) that once you're over it it's difficult to feel motivated.
Around 3PM we got stuck at one side of a long, high suspension bridge waiting for a caravan of ponies to pass. Four young Nepali student-types, two girls and two boys, were also stuck. I'd earlier seen the boys chugging whiskey on the trail. they looked like city kids.
Finally we crossed the wind-swept bridge, and within 15 minutes reached a sign pointing to the Village of Ghasa. V didn't believe that it was really the village and wanted to continue on. We asked the kids, and they confirmed that it was indeed Ghasa. After some bickering, we decided to try to continue on to Lete, an hour and a half further. We continued on the main path for about 30 minutes and found that we were still in Ghasa. We decided to call it a day after all.
Florida Guest House had clean rooms* and a cozy dining room. We ate dinner at a big common table. They'd put hot coals underneath so that it was quite toasty. We spoke to our neighbors, a Canadian woman and a Scottish woman who'd hooked up on the Circuit and had been traveling together for some time. Their guides were a study in contrasts: one mid-thirties, dark, serious, sturdy; the other young, hip and light-hearted. The women, both still in their 20's I'd guess, were exhausted. The Canadian was so thin as to be nearly two-dimensional. On the other hand, a group of middle-aged Hong Kongers who'd been at their guest house the previous night as well were partying it up with beer and a whole chicken.
Also at our table was a German couple. We'd passed them and their guide on the trail earlier in the day. Their English was limited, but they were friendly. The following morning they were still eating breakfast when we headed out. They were surely the most chill Germans I'd ever met.
*You may find it odd that I keep mentioning that the rooms were clean. Well, if you've spent any time in India you too would be surprised at how relatively clean everything-- and toilets in particular-- is in Nepal.
DAY 5: Ghasa to Marpha; Elevation Change: +560 meters
Distance- (and possibly time-) wise, this was our longest day. The LP actually breaks this into two days with an overnight stop at Larjung. There wasn't a lot of sharp elevation changes though, and the path was fairly smooth, so we didn't find it too challenging.
Most of the climbing was accomplished at the beginning as we climbed up to Kalopani at 2530 meters. One the way we crossed a semi-dry riverbed, one of the summer shortcuts. We may well have been better off sticking to the longer winter trail. To cross the several streams, I changed into my sandals and rolled up my pant legs. V charged through in his "waterproof" boots and got soaked. At Kalopani we were surprised to see jeeps- motor vehicles!
Somewhere around Tukuche the green began to disappear and the landscape changed to a more barren, Ladakh-like topography Tukuche itself was somehow charming, and having had such an easy day, we took it very easy the rest of the way to Marpha.
We reached Marpha (self-proclaimed Apple Capital of Nepal) fairly late, after 5PM, and checked into the Neeru Guesthouse. After lovely hot showers, we ordered dinner and went out to explore the town. The people of Marpha have really got it together. There are loads of "provisions" shops selling just about everything you might need, and plenty of Tibetan souvenir shops. V bought a yak wool scarf (it was quite cold at night) and heavy wool socks. I managed to pick up an adapter to recharge my now-dead camera battery.
I noticed that with the change in the terrain came a change in the look of the people. There are loads of Tibetan refugees living here, and also, various Nepali ethnic groups who look basically Tibetan. A massive ochre-orange gompa (Buddhist monastery) towers over the town.
We ate dinner next to a couple of North American guys were teaching silly drinking games to a group of Brits. They were hilarious. When the lads eventually lost, one actually said, "Dude, I can't believe we lost to foreign people."
DAY 6: Marpha to Kagbeni; Elevation Change: +130 meters
Another pleasant day. We got started at the usual time, a little after 8 (a compromise time, really, as I'd prefer to leave earlier and V likes to sleep late.) Along the trail I joined a 60-ish Englishman and walked the rest of the way to Jomsom with him. He'd last been here in '83 when he'd done the Circuit. He told me that Jimi Hendrix had once stayed in Jomsom, and on the wall of his hotel had written, "See you in the next life." In Jomsom, which has jeeps and motorbikes and Internet for 30 cents/minute, we purchased air tickets for Pokhara on the 18th (3 days hence.) Then we ate delightful apple crumble with real filter coffee at the overpriced Magic Bean Cafe. After registering at the Police Checkpoint, we continued on to Kagbeni.
It took a while to make it out of Jomsom. We passed a heavily barb-wired military instillation and sheer rock face with giant white letters proclaiming WELCOME FOR CLIMBING. Then we crossed a small suspension bridge and walked through the narrow streets of Old Jomsom. At the far side of town we again descended to the riverbed and walked across rocks. The valley was wide open and windy. People coming from the opposite direction, with the wind in their faces, were bundled in bandanas and scarves. It was mostly flat, but there was no real path, and the going was slow.
We did a bit of up-and-down. The wind was relentless. Two hours outside of Jomsom we reached medieval village of Kagbeni.
We checked into "the first guest house on the left," the New Annapurna Lodge, recommended by a Brit we passed on the path. The rooms were lovely, all wood paneling and exposed beams. We also had massive windows on two sides, one overlooking the river. Unfortunately there was hardly any water in the taps and absolutely no hot water, so we had to settle for a snack instead.
We took advantage of the remaining daylight to wander about the narrow lanes of town, among the livestock and crumbling buildings. It felt a bit like Old Leh in Ladakh. We passed a restaurant called YacDonald's on our way to the gompa. It didn't seem like a living monastery, but the caretaker monk was friendly. He'd lived for years in India. The gompa itself was not very exciting after my month of monastery hopping in Ladakh, but the view of the old town from the roof was fantastic.
At dinner we sat next to the German couple we'd met in Ghasa. It turned out that they were from the former East Germany, which explains their laid-back attitudes and poor English (they'd studied Russian as kids.) Much of the local brew, apple brandy, was consumed.
DAY 7: Kagbeni to Muktinath; Elevation Change: +1000 meters
This was the toughest day for me. The ascent itself was easy enough, but the cold really got to me.
It was raining when I woke up. In traditional Tibetan style, the folks at the guest house garlanded us with white silk katas when we left. Knowing that we only had about four hours of walking ahead of us, we took it easy, eating breakfast at YacDonald's in hope that perhaps the rain would let up. It was nearly 9:00 when we headed out. A porter slipped on the stone steps as we were exiting. He fell hard, and V had to help him stand up as he was so heavily-burdened.
We walked up, up, up, the view above and below impared by clouds. The first hour+ was fine, but as we approached the first village, Khingar (3200 meters,) the rain turned to sleet, then snow (we later got hail.) We stopped at a tea house to try to dry off and warm up, again hopeing the rain might stop. I huddled in a yak-wool shawl (which I later purchased for 400 rupees, about US $6.50,) and sipped tea.
Once we left the restaurant, I was ok, warmed by the constant forward movement. We encountered few people. As we neared the next settlement, Jharkot (3500 m,) the trail became particularly beastly: deep, sticky, slippery mud. We slowly slogged through this for at least half an hour. My meshy trainers and socks were soaked through and caked with mud. The road became steep as we neared Mukthinath, but it was less muddy and easier-going. I lifted my eyes from the ground in front of me to see the surrounding mountains dusted as if with confectioner's sugar. It was snowing steadily.
In Muktinath we stopped first at a place called the North Pole. They only had rooms with shared baths, so V wanted to try elsewhere. We saw a couple of familliar faces in the dining room. We checked out several other places, but no luck. All were either full or didn't have rooms en suite. We returned to the North Pole, but the guy refused to give us the room. It was rather bizarre. At that point we ran into a Dutch woman we'd met on the plane fromk Kathmandu. She and her guide were coming from the opposite direction, and both looked exhausted.
We finally settled into a Tibetan-run place called Caravan. We seemed to be the only guests, but considering the cold and muddy streets, the town didn't seem like a place you'd want to linger. I was feeling pretty grumpy. After a strange lunch, we discussed what to do. We could go back down to Khingar or Kagbeni, or we could stay. Still undecided, V went off to check out the temple comples (1 Hindu and 3 Tibetan Buddhist) while I sat inside, miserably cold, and read. Even wrapped in a blanket, I couldn't seem to get warm.
A group of four Canadians arrived. They'd crossed the high peak at Thorung La that morning and were tired but in high spirits. Around then the sun made its first appearance of the day, and I began to feel better (amazing how that is.) V returned boasting about the views from the temple complex. So I put on myu muddy shoes and we retraced his steps up to the temples. It was indeed warm in the sun, and felt good to be movin gagain. My black mood passed, and I felt guilty about my earlier negativity. The view of the mountains appearing and disappearing among the clouds, and the town below garlanded in cloud katas, were magnificent.
We ate dinner with the Canadians at a heated table. They were friendly, good people in that typically Canadian way. We were in bed, covered with heaps of blankets, by 8PM.
DAY 8: Muktinath to Jomsom; Elevation Change: -1100 meters
We awoke to sunshine, and actually ate and made it out before 8:00-- a record. In the clear morning sky, the 360 degree views of the mountains were amazing. We stopped often to Ooo and Aah and take photos. We'd missed all these stunnming views the previous day.
It was an easy walk, and we made good time. The mud around Jharkot was improved. Back in Khingar, the woman who'd sold me the shawl was outside weaving on her loom.
After a brief stop in Old Kagbeni, we pushed on to Jhomsom. On the way I was stopped by a Maoist asking for "donations for building a school." I waited for V to catch up, then gave them 100 rupees, for which I received a receipt and a paper entitled "Appeal to Foreign Tourists" explaining their plight. Though I abhor the violence associated with the Maoists, I somehow felt obliged to give them something. I should've just ignored him and kept walking.
I reached the Welcome to Jhomsom sign precisely at noon, then waited at a sunny spot for V. I'd walked the last 1-1/2 in just a t-shirt. Though the wind was cold, my core was warm from exertion. I barely even noticed my pack at this point.
In Jomsom, which seemed oddly familliar after the constant onward movement of the past week, we checked into the nice but overpriced Hotel Om's Home. It was run by a formidable-looking Tibetan woman in her 60's. We ate, bathed, and confirmed our flight before calling it another early night.