It was kind of crazy how this trip came about. For the better part of a year, I had been excited to go wander around the Phillippines. I was ticketed through Seoul and on to Cebu City. One month before my trip, I got a little too scared of all the vigilante and police killings related to the Duterte presidency. Things just seemed a little too wild, I didn't like the vibe. A pity because the Phillipino people I know are wonderful. They are embracing the drug war of the new president, many innocents are getting caught in the crossfire and it seems that the police are slipping a few political opponents into the death tally. Save it for another time.
So, sadly, I decided to go elsewhere. I had a non-refundable ticket to Seoul already and also had plans to meet a good Slovenian buddy in Micronesia later on the trip. That meant I was going to Asia, I've been there many times but wanted somewhere new. I was traveling in early November, most of Asia is still in typhoon season. I sleuthed around for a place with good weather, I usually favor places with a coastline. It became
clear that all of them might be storm affected. One night I just decided to look for places in Asia with good weather, coast or no coast. It hit me one night, Nepal had ideal weather that time of year, I would go. I got an affordable ticket and in a matter of a week, dreamed up a great adventure. November 3rd I hopped on a plane in Seattle. Two days later after a great one day stopover on Lantau Island near Hong Kong, I was off to Nepal for the first time in my life.
The night before, I slept poorly in my Lantau Hotel, i was so excited. I woke super early, had breaky with a couple visiting US pilots I met in my hotel. After wandering the streets and having a confusing ATM experience, I jumped on a very early morning 1 hour bus to the traditional fishing village Tai O, many say what Hong Kong used to be like. The vegetation was lush on the bus ride out, beautiful, tropical and mountainous. It was a weekday and early, not many tourists were out my way. This village of Tai O is just far away from
Hong Kong to have maintained many of its traditional ways. The bus got to the end of line, still only 7AM, pretty much locals and the one crazy early morning traveler, me. I hopped off walked across an old bridge and down by the shore, through this amazing little village starting to wake up.
The subtle early morning light was great for photos. I walked by people selling live fish, shrimp, eels. This place was a charming and a fully functioning community of stilt homes, well preserved and maintained. Although tourism helps this place survive, plenty of people live and work here. I walked down winding lanes with big banyan trees to very quiet part of the village. I sat for about an hour all alone at a Buddhist temple, found a path that headed up past some grave sites. Amazingly it took me all the way up the small mountain behind Tai O. I crested, walked on a gorgeous path along some cliffs overlooking the channel. Great views, actually saw some pink dolphins down below. With a city of 8 million only one hour away, I was all alone in this beautiful place. I had no idea the
day would work out this way, truly like a dream.
At the end of the ridge, I bushwhacked through underbrush down a narrow trail. After a few wrong turns, I found a place where all the real fishermen and their families lived. very cool fishing boats everywhere, people repairing their nets. There were really interesting homes made primarily of metal. little temples everywhere. People were surprised when I walked by but smiled welcomingly. I made my way back into Tai O town, it was really starting to bustle. I ducked into a little cafe for noodle soup with pork and veggies, found a strong coffee too. I didn't have a lot of time left, my plane was going to leave in about 4 hours. I met a cool Filipino guy in my cafe, he lived and worked here in Hong Kong, as many of his countrymen did. He was heading over to Hong Kong proper and said that if I followed him, I would have time to pull it off. What the hell, I went for it.
We hopped on another bus, got down to a busy ferry terminal, him guiding me through all the logistics. The ferry,
not very busy, was a stunning 30 minute ride into Hong Kong Harbor. The islands, topography and architecture of Hong Kong were quite amazing. I had flown in to the area in the nighttime, this was the first time I was seeing it. We hopped off the boat, walked along the bustling waterfront, people living and working here from all over the world. I had never been that interested in Hong Kong before, I learned how wrong I was. What a city! My buddy took to this super cool area a few blocks from the waterfront, an indoor outdoor multi floor shopping center focused on Filipino people. Shops, smells, smiles food, in one hour I got a taste of the Phillippines. He got me to the train and waved a big goodbye. 45 minutes later, just like that, I rolled into the Hong Kong Airport. Wow.
I had a little time to burn, changed a couple things on my Nepal plans, got to my gate with an hour to spare. Lots of Hindus waiting for the plane. I somehow thought of Nepal as primarily Buddhist but learned quickly that almost half the people are Hindu. Took off, rose above
the Honk Kong skies for my 4 hour flight to Nepal. I thought I would sleep for a couple hours, foiled again. Sitting right next to me with a big smile on his face was a 32 year old Swedish guy who lives in Hong Kong going to meet his 65 year old dad to trek together in the Himalayas. A few beers later, we shared stories. He was a former professional poker player working in finance. Cool guy, neat dreams.
We broke through the clouds, it was 10PM, the lights of Kathmandhu were down below. Wow, I've been saying that name my whole life and now I'm here. It's a bit odd to arrive to a big new city you've never been to late in the evening, I don't like it. Because it was late and I wanted to be safe, I had a room reserved and found a guy at the airport to drive me there. He called the hotel, they told him they were full and to take me to another place nearby. It was dark, things were starting to feel a bit scary. My worries were unfounded, we pulled up to this little place called
Guesthouse Analise. My $25 room was massive, totally clean and safe, the innkeeper extremely welcoming. I crashed hard for 4 hours, felt a little better, had some coffee, my hotel had packed me takeaway breaky as I had an early flight at the domestic terminal. I walked to the corner, got a ride with a sweet taxi guy.
I was ahead of schedule and had heard that there was an exceptional Hindu temple called Pashupatinath quite close to the airport. We stopped down the road from it, I had my taxi guy wait for me, told him i would be back in an hour. There is something about going into a place in the early morning. It is peaceful, hardly anyone is there. With my big pack on my back, I wandered into this massive ancient complex alone. It was straight up fascinating: vibrant colors, monkeys everywhere, sadhu holy men with dreadlocks, rivers through old temples, people washing their dead relatives in the river before cremation, the snow covered Himalayas in the distance. I was overwhelmed but peaceful, strolled back to the car, light of spirit, to the airport.
I was off to Pokhara, gateway to the Annapurna
circuit, much adventure lay in front of me, I could feel it. Locals and a few trekkers were on my flight, everybody seemed happy and excited. As we flew west, I had a coffee and was transfixed by stupendous views of the mountains, the biggest ones I had ever seen. I had always thought of Nepal as mountains, to see them though was something else. To be clear, Nepal is more than mountains, the whole southern part is tropical, somewhat flat, even very flat with safaris and tigers in the wild in places near the India border like Bardia National Park.
We landed in Pokhara, a number of other trekkers get off here to start their Annapurna 3 week circuit trek. This trek is unique in the world as it skirts all the way around Annapurna, goes over mountain passes but all passable by people who are in reasonable shape. It can be done self directed and is unbelievably inexpensive. The trekkers hike from tea house to tea house each night, they are free to stay and the meals are often less than $1. It truly is gorgeous and a budget backpacker's dream come true. I didn't have this
much time and had another plan hatched. After just an hour of waiting, I hopped on a very small plane flying north to the Mustang Region, near the Tibet border. I had heard that it was very authentic there, a Shangri-la of sorts. I was so right. I still dream about it, magical.
Where Pokhara had been tropical and had fairly lush vegetation, as we skirted the west side of the Annapurna massif, it got progressively more arid. It was clear that the huge mountain stopped the storm systems that came from the south. On my plane were two guys (who were partners) who had worked for a couple years 5 years ago in the Peace Corps in this region and had come back to hike and visit the villages they knew. There was also a Malaysian woman, a funny 60 year old Italian guy who lived in Nepal and about 10 Nepalis, some locals, some domestic tourists. Our small plane curled up to the north side of Annapurna, much dryer with river valleys around, rugged cliffs, very different from what i has seen so far. We banked shockingly hard and dropped onto a small runway that I hadn't
even noticed in Jomson, Mustang area of Nepal. I had come to a place that was special, I could feel it. Many say that after China crushed Tibetan culture, this area feels almost more Tibetan than Tibet.
So, as a group we piled off our little plane, said hearty goodbyes to each other, somehow bonded by our startling decent and beautiful flight. The two guys headed off on their trek right away, I walked with the others through this little town, had heard we might be able to catch a ride on the other side of the village. After an hour or so of waiting in this dusty place filled with color and interesting faces, a jeep came along that had room for all of us. So we piled in, the Italian, the Nepalis, the Malaysian and me, 12 or so of us and me crammed in like sardines. We were joyous, off on a journey to one of the most sacred pilgrimage spots in all of Hinduism, Muktinath in the mountains, nearly 12,000 feet in altitude. Earlier, I had planned to stop at a town at lower elevation, acclimate before going up. When the ride came along, I
guess I thought it was early in the day, i could go up there and look around, then come back down to 8,000 feet to spend the night. I had heard this system worked pretty well for other travelers. I ended up doing it differently and paid a price for my carelessness.
The ride up was on very potholed roads, we were thrown all over the jeep, wrapped our scarves around our faces as dust was swirling. Sunglasses on, I definitely felt like I was in the middle of a movie. One of the Nepalese women started getting sick, threw up (mostly) into a bag someone gave her. We were all scrunched together, the smell was bad. The woman was a lower caste Nepali woman, some of the domestic tourists were clearly more wealthy. No one was doing anything, I yelled for the driver to stop and let the woman out. One of the upper caste Nepali upper caste woman frowned daggers at me, didn't want to be bothered to stop for just a peasant woman. I snapped at the upper caste woman, supported by the Malaysian and Italian. The sick woman needed help and felt much better after
taking sometime outside and a little water. We got back in the jeep, i encouraged the driver to stop driving like a bat out of hell. He said it would make us get to the high mountains late, I told him I didn't care.
The road got steep as we passed the ancient trading town of Kagbeni, my plan was to come back here and sleep the night. The woman who had been nasty decided to be nicer to me, she actually started treating the other woman better and made an effort to mend feelings with me, handing me a little piece of candy, which I promptly gave to the lower caste woman. Smiles all around. We rode bumpy dusty roads for hours then finally came to the end of the jeep track, were told to get out and walk the rest of the way. I could feel the altitude right away, it was gorgeous and sunny outside. I was tired but also extremely alive feeling, excited and strong.
I dropped my big bag at a little hotel, paid a bit to have them watch it, was told it was completely safe. Walked through Muktinath village 2 km
up to the temple with a few travelers and loads of Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from as far away as India. There were many Buddhists prayer flags fluttering, horses and yaks walking through town, women spinning wool on the streets. I felt a little disoriented from the sudden altitude gain, also wondered how much being tired was affecting me. Some of the people with us rode donkeys, I trudged happily on, lines of pilgrims in front of me. We reached the ancient temple, stunning, glorious weather about 80F outside. Pilgrims were all around, everyone congratulating each other for making it here. There were giant rocks in the background. The main temple seemed Hindu but with many Buddhist elements incorporated. There were prayer flags, mini stupas and prayer wheels around. People were chanting, walking and reflecting reverently, incense heavy in the air. People were milling about, spontaneous displays of personal and religious excitement. There were people of all ages here, I believe all Nepalis are supposed to try to come here at least once in their lifetimes. Families, couples, young and old, all on a journey, like me.
The day was lovely, there were two large cold pools, people urged
me to join them. Like the others, I stripped to my boxers, followed their lead and dunked my whole body in the ice cold water, walked nearly in a trance from one pool to the next, some local people leading me by the hand. I walked with them over to the side of the temple. They pulled me along, told me to stay stripped down, explained to me that the ultimate goal is to walk under the 108 (an auspicious number) ice cold fountains that surrounded the temple without giving up and running out in pain. So surreal and amazing, painful but exhilarating. I meditated, somehow made it though, was taken into the inner courtyard of the temple with the group near me. Someone handed me a sarong to dry off, I put my clothes back on and felt warm sun on my face. Intense incense, bell ringing, the priest put a red dot on my forehead and gave me a slap on the back. Many local pilgrims grabbed me for family photos. It really was quite something, an out of body experience almost.
I walked off alone to the stupas on the hill near temple, about as high
as you can go here. there was a big Buddha made of stone, the wind was picking up. I realized after talking to some locals that it was a lot later than I thought, I had gotten lost in the moment and spent a lot more time than planned at the temple. I made my way back into the village, was stopped by a large fun group of Israeli trekkers. They pulled me over to their table for beers, laughs and songs. After sitting here more than I had planned, still feeling pretty good, I made the fateful and misguided decision to stay in Muktinath for the night.
I asked in at a place called Bob Marley's Guesthouse and they found a simple spartan room for me for the night. It was to get cold when the sun went down, my bed had heavy blankets on it. The room was offered to me for free if i promised to eat my meal at the restaurant. Never heard of that, sounded great. Got my big bag from down the road, had a shower down the hall, lay down on my cot and was home. Amazing, reflected for a minute, what
a day it had been. In addition to many Nepalese and some Indian pilgrims, I had run into trekkers from Israel, Spain, Latvia and Russia. Most of these people were halfway through their three week trek, fully acclimated. They had been in tiny villages and this place with its guesthouses, good food and beer, was a celebration.
Soon after this, it was clear that i had miscalculated. I had a bad headache coming on, stumbled up to relaxed dining space of the place and collapsed on a sofa. It was getting cold, very beautiful chill space dining room. Many of the trekkers wandered in for dinner, all stopped by to say hello. Blankets were brought out, Bob Marley was playing, we sat on cushions in this far away place. I was asked to join a couple groups but chose to sit alone as I wasn't feeling well. I had a big yak steak, tasty salad, tasty ginger tea. The people who ran the place could see i was in real pain, brought over raw garlic for me to chew on. They told me that the decision to come straight up to this altitude probably wasn't the best, but they
could see I was strong and said i would be okay. It also wasn't good that i had chosen to have beers with the Israelis, they were so fun though.
So I just sat for a couple hours, drank ginger tea, chewed on raw garlic, drank water. The people who work here were amazingly comforting and welcoming. They took good care of me, suggested that I drink lots of water and walk around some a few times during the night. I'm at the end of the earth in this magical place in a free room having eaten yak steak. Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix are playing. There are good people around. I'm not feeling the greatest but working through it. The traveler vibe is exceptional here, food tasty and, mountains are overwhelmingly beautiful. The night was pretty tough. I walked around a few times, curled up and managed to get some sleep. It was so cold that it made you think twice before you chose to get up and use the bathroom. Great covers but I bet it was 40 in my room.
I had gone to sleep quite early so woke at 5AM or so, took a
stroll through the village, bought some yak scarves from a local woman. I walked back part way to the temple, all alone watched an amazing sunrise over the mountains, in the presence of these 25,000+ foot giants. At 7AM, popped in to the dining room, feeling hungry, good sign. I wolfed down delicious apple porridge, organic coffee, onion omelette and ginger tea. My fellow trekkers were up and looking motivated for the day's hike, wherever they were going. I met a really nice Swiss hiker at breaky, we struck up conversation and decided to head off together, had plans to go in roughly the same direction down through ancient valleys and towns. I said goodbye to the excellent people at Marley's, strapped on my pack. The food had helped, I felt a little weak still but better.
We walked down valley, huge cliffs with little caves in the distance. The cliffs were barren but with pretty cultivated river valleys between them. Little villages, farm fields, children happily playing, my first real look at rural Nepalese life. Had a splendid hiking day, feeling stronger as time went on and altitude decreased. Good to get physical and get the blood flowing.
Spent about an hour exploring the medieval and inhabited towns of Jhong and Jorkhat. I was tempted to stay in Jhong as it was so pretty. It came too soon though, I had more hiking in me. Great lunch in Jorkhat with some Japanese trekkers. After lunch we got on the road, too many pilgrim buses coming by, very dusty. Finally left that, took a trail with some steep switchbacks and then suddenly saw beautiful Kagbeni village in the distance in a windswept river valley surrounded by farms fields. We had been walking through a very arid area so this was most welcome. Came over a final crest with a little stupa and many prayer flags blowing in the wind and headed down to the village.
It was rather magical as we walked into town, apple trees, buckwheat fields, fertile river basin. This is a very old town, a stopping and trading point on old routes from India through Nepal to Tibet. salt, apples, textiles and all kinds of goods have passed through here and continue to. All around were herds of domestic yaks, Tibetan Buddhism readily visible including animist symbols (village protectors in the form of statues, animal
horns). These are probably elements of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which I was to learn more about. Kagbeni had magic around every turn, very old stone buildings dating to the 1400s. Cliffs surrounded the villlage, as we strolled into town we could see them. To the north was the forbidden kingdom of Upper Mustang, you can only go there with a guide and expensive permit. Strong winds pass through here, mystical people travel here to collect shaligrams, ancient fossilized snail like shells that were in the salt water sea that was in this area millions of years ago. In the distance, as always, were the mind-blowing snowcapped massive Himalaya mountains.
I ran into a few other trekkers coming into this town from different places, was starting to collect some good ideas from others' experiences. I got a really sweet room with my own shower looking down valley at the mountains for about $4. My guesthouse was very humorous called Yak Donalds. I got settled, chilled for awhile, strolled around the winding passageways of this old town. Had dinner in my guesthouse with a fun group of trekkers, I had yak meat curry, buckwheat gluten with a fiery curry sauce,
salad, apple brandy and apple pie. Walked around the village in near darkness afterwards, lots to see here, friendly locals. I collapsed into my bed at about 8PM, up as you might expect about 4am.
I think originally in my mind I had imagined taking a bus from Kagbeni down to Jomsom. Many of the trekkers i had been around for the past couple days were committed to walking. That way of thinking had started to get under my skin, I was enjoying being on the trail so decided to commit to it for the next week. I loaded up my pack, left at about 8AM with my Swiss friend, hiked up a steep little trail east of Kagbeni. After an hour or so, we joined a group of elderly German trekkers, most who lived in Bavaria, part of the German Alps hiking club. We had become a group of about 10 people, fun chats about where we had been and were going. We hiked up to a plateau and a piled rock stupa. There were stupendous views of Dhaulagiri, nearly 27,000 feet and the 7th tallest mountain in the world. We were at about 10,000 ft, it looked
We stumbled down a long rocky trail into a river basin, looking for a little hidden village called Lupra. I heard from another traveler who had passed through that this place was supposed to be infrequently visited and a very authentic look at the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. We got to the river as a group, saw a settlement upriver in the distance about a mile. The river was pretty low this time of year, we were able to navigate a rough trail through the river basin. As we got near, we could see a little stupa down by the river, the settlement perched magically up the hill from there. There was something very, very special about this place. I kept thinking that every place I got. This though, was truly unique.
Our little group of travelers walked up into town, very quiet place. We got permission from a local elder to go into an ancient temple and I actually held 1000 year old prayer books. The inside was dark, beautiful, filled with animist Bon symbols and newer ones of Buddhism. There was incense, very old painted walls and wall paper. I must explain, this building was actually
1000 years old, very sturdy and still used today by the village. Its colors and prayer flags were stunning in harmony with the river cliffs and basin of this area. Stretched up the hill were simple stone and mud houses, a very productive and intricate agriculture system expertly using the river basin. I heard that they grew apples, rice, buckwheat, green, herbs, marijuana too. There was livestock around. It was s simple place, no internet but decent electricity. I think about 70 people lived in the village, they are known for having a profound respect for nature and the environment.
My fellow trekkers had to leave. It was probably about 2PM. They took off, I decided to stay. I found a young 25 year old who had some simple rooms for about $3, mine was actually pretty big, up on a roof, views out over the river basin. The guy told me to meet them later for a walk up to the temple at the top of the hill, guess they had to do some work in their farms fields. He also invited me to have dinner with them in their little home. Suddenly they were gone, walked off
somewhere. I lay down in my room, all alone, it was very quiet in this little mystical village in the middle of the Himalayas.
There didn't seem to be any running water so i headed back down to the river with my towel and soap. I saw an older woman washing clothes, she smiled and pointed me to a calm part of the river. I went up there, about 500 meters from her, stripped down and lowered myself into ice cold river water. It was magnificent through I didn't last long. I washed, did a little laundry in the river, felt incredibly refreshed. I smiled at the woman, went back to my room, hung up my clothes. My buddy was back with a friend, they brought me some ginger tea and then we hiked up steep trails. After a stop for an hour or so at their fields (I helped) hoeing and turning over the soil for winter, we walked up to the monastery at the very top of village, hoping to meet the local lama. It turned out he had been meditating in a cave for 15 days and wasn't back yet. I got a nice look around
though, great views down below, prayer flags flapping wildly.
We carried down, went by a school. I walked into a classroom, filled with beautiful faces. they had just stopped to have soup. i guess kids come from all over remote parts of Mustang and Upper Mustang and live here during the school year. I surprised them but the teachers were very welcoming. I kicked a soccer ball with some of them on a field outside. Some kids were bold, some shy. Really neat experience, i left a couple pads of paper and colored pencils I had brought along to give to someone. Got back to my room again, the guys told me to meet them downstairs in about an hour. I did, we had a tasty meal with dal baht (lentils), chicken, local veggies, ginger tea and some kind a a pure grain alcohol, very strong. Then they brought out a potato, noodle, carrot meat soup that tasted great as it was getting chilly. Then they brought out beers and some meat jerky. It was quite a spread, I offered to pay and they refused. I didn't understand but accepted with gratitude, the magic of travel and being on
the road without plans sometimes.
I crashed in bed early, tired but happy after these long days. I had acclimated, jet lag was gone, I had hiked for a few days, I was feeling strong. I told my hosts I was leaving early, they thanked me for our time together, so much intention and respect in these cultures. I was up at 4AM and left at 4:30 in the darkness with my flashlight, heavy pack strapped on, walking with the moon and a million stars overhead down the mostly dry riverbank towards Jomson. It felt so vast, the skies around me. I was alone in the dark walking in this incredible place. I forded the smallish river a few times, jumping rock to rock. About daybreak, I walked by the little airport I had landed 4 days earlier. This incredible place, seemingly so exotic before, was starting to become familiar to me. I had originally planned to fly back to Pokhara from here but was now committed to walking as much as i could. Just when i got to town, the little office for Tara Air opened, i was able to get my ticket refunded, they actually were happy
as they needed the seats.
Met some Nepali pilgrims, a sweet family from Kathmandu. We had some delicious dal baht breakfast with local bread and more ginger tea. I sensed that as I came more and more out of the highlands I would have more curries. We visited for a while, they were on their way up to Muktinath and asked me about my journey. People seem very happy and proud when you tell them stories of loving travel in their country. They invited me to their home near Kathmandu later in the trip, I was off with my pack down the road. I crossed a bridge, made it to the main road and walked briskly, sun on my face, about 1 1/2 hours to Marpha. It was reasonably quiet on the main road, which is dirt. After being in the mountains, the road seemed busy even though it really wasn't. I saw the village of Marpha in the distance, fellow travelers had spoken very fondly of it and told me I must stay.
To get to Marpha, you turn off the main road and walk about half a mile. Annapurna is to the left, Dhaulagiri massif to
the right. It is a mind blowing location next to a river, famous for apples, dried apples, apple brandy, apple pie, all things apples. People dry apple rings on their roofs. The town is quite old, on the same ancient trading route, buildings and homes made of sturdy and ancient bricks and mud. I was still on the dry side of Annapurna, I could see small signs that I was headed to places that get more rain. I walked into the little village through a stone gate, stopped in the first place I saw, got a room with sweet view of Dhaulagiri for $1.87, as in less than $2. Very sweet people, rooftop deck at the place. Had some delicious Tibetan curry noodle soup with chicken, my first taste of this dish that I would eat much of on the trip, addicted.
Settled into my room, showered to wash off the road dust, did a little more laundry in a bucket. Walked around the pretty town, lots of little alleyways, steep hike up to the Buddhist monastery, excellent view of the mountains and over rooftops, lots of prayer wheels and flags. back down to the main town. There were
a few souvenir shops with owners who engage you casually when you walk by. The products seemed to be from the mountains, many of the yak wool scarves and blankets i had seen earlier. I had heard that many who live up in the high mountains come down to this region and other places in the river valley in the winter, as it is too cold up above. I also ran across a number of hardcore climbers, as this is the entry point for people who are attempting to summit Dhaulagiri or even the base camp. It is a 3 week journey, people come through here in each direction. I meet these people and admire very much what they do but don't really have the same drive. I'd rather see more things, people, countryside, than be committed to a climb for three weeks.
I also met quite a few Annapurna circuit trekkers in Marpha, the ones who go for 3 weeks that I have spoken about. Although they were clear that I wasn't doing exactly what they did, they were starting to give me a little respect for doing over a week of it. I was joining more conversations
and actually had something to add. The Lubra Bon village was a feather in my cap many of them hadn't experienced, as the more direct route is Muktinath-Kagbeni-Jomson-Marpha. So, I milled about the town, was considering staying two nights here and healing my body. I went to bed early, happening almost every day. I felt like i had seen most of this town and felt its vibe, that's one benefit of getting to a place early. I actually felt pretty good and decided to roll out in the morning, maybe by bus or maybe on foot. The next stretch south was supposed to be very dusty with some jeeps so I was a little undecided. Off to bed weary and happy.
Came down early to order breakfast, the owner of guesthouse told me that if I ran, I might be able to catch a long distance morning bus headed south. I packed quickly and hit the road, running through the village back to the main road. I got there, found out that all of the seats of the bus that would be passing by had been prebooked. There were a few backpackers who were going to wait for another
bus coming in about 3 hours. That sounded boring so i just took off down the road, walking south, putting my thumb out whenever a vehicle came by. I walked about 4km to the village of Tukche, a local bus had just dropped someone off stopped and offered me the last seat. Great bus ride, raucous Hindi music playing, wild colors inside, felt like I was in a 70s disco. There were cool windows toward the top of the bus that gave us great views of huge snowcapped mountains. We bumped and jostled down the river valley road, picking up a little more vegetation as time went on. Very dusty ride, we all had scarves wrapped around our faces.
The bus was a good ride, after a few local stops took me all the way to a bus depot in a town called Ghasa. The other trekkers on the bus got out to hit trails here, some locals were waiting around for another bus, found some snacks and a cold beer. I just took off walking down the road headed south. The road got rough again, I could see why this local bus didn't go any farther. It seemed
like more rivers had joined the river I had been traveling along, the flow was much bigger. I kept walking, hitching as jeeps came by now and then. No one had space for me though I got lots of waves. Nepalese had been overwhelmingly friendly so far.
The walk was great, really was getting a sense of rural life and the countryside. The foliage was increasingly lush, big river gorge on the left, started to see some waterfalls and Annapurna Peak to my left. Then far ahead, I saw what turned out to be Waterfall Rupse, one of the biggest in the country. When i got closer, I felt and urge to go up to the top, took a side road that sloped way up the side of the falls. I turned into a path, bushwhacked for about 15 minutes, ended up at the upper level of the waterfall all alone. There were unreal views of Annapurna, a little temple, I was on a little deck observatory (as high as you can go up) with falls crashing all around me. Powerful and serene up there.
I climbed down a pretty steep stairway to the bottom of the falls
and the main road. Many domestic pilgrims and a few trekkers stop here to admire the falls, pretty spectacular place that throws up mist all around. Took some photos with some local boys who called me over. I think they thought I looked pretty funny with a bandana around my head and all dirty. They asked where I had come from, made them laugh when i said "top of the falls". There were some tasty food stalls, got some veggie pakoras and a cold Coke, much needed. I learned from these guys that the hot springs village of Tatopani was only another 1 1/2 hour walk, 7 more kilometers, that would be 16 km walking for the day. My feet were a bit sore but I was strong, wanted to make it. The last 3 or 4 km were rough, long day, very tired. Even though hot, there were increasing amounts of big trees as I truly was due west of Annapurna and part of the tropical storm systems made it here. It was refreshing and invigorating, the trees giving off a life and vitality that I had been missing. I rolled into the village, set right next to the
I was a bit woozy, disoriented, went right down to the hot pools by the river, paid my fee, got a towel and a cold beer, changed, checked my bag with the woman who ran the place. There are two big concrete pools next to the river, fed by very hot natural springs. Nepalese and trekkers sit in the pools for hours, visit, drink beers and sooth their tired muscles. As I eased into the pool with my tired body, I asked one of the locals who had won the US election as it was election day. To my utter shock, Trump won. That's all I'm going to say about that in this wonderful journey, except to tell you that my shock lasted for days. Other trekkers rolled in as I was sitting in the tubs, people from South Africa, Spain, Israel, Canada and the US. Many people looked forward to staying overnight here, it was a legendary place with healing waters. I guess on the 21 day Annapurna circuit, this would be about day 17, home stretch.
The food and relaxing and jovial feeling in the air was contagious in this town, my one day turned
into two. I soaked in the tubs many times, caught up on laundry, got some full nights of sleep. All filled up, I walked out early the second morning, 5am before the sun, love that time of day. I wanted to walk again, had grown to love it. In fact, since this trip I have just wanted to walk more in life. You see things, the pace is good. I used my flashlight for a bit until the sun came up, little villages, big cliffs and jungle all around me. A dog walked with me probably 3 miles. The sun (and eventually the heat) came up. This was not the easy walk i was hoping it might be. Hills, little rivers, rocky declines, dust, passing jeeps. This walk this day would be 20km, pretty epic. Just when I thought I might be getting closer as my pace had been strong, I was completely deflated by a sign that said 10km to Beni, where I was going. That means I had only gone halfway for the day.
I dug deep and carried on, my back was sore from the rocky declines. I was famished, really hadn't had any food for
the day. I came to a tiny stand with a sweet smiling woman in the middle of nowhere. I was joined by a Nepalese family from Kathmandu in a nice SUV going to Muktinath, gave their sweet boys balloons I had brought along. We sat on little plastic stools by the road, this food tasted so good. The woman brought out delicious home made lemon cardamom tea, hard boiled eggs, nepali veggie curry, noodle soup with prawn curry and nepali bread. She brought me seconds and thirds. I think all of it was $1. All filled up, walked on down the road another 4 km or so, crossed a pretty river with lush vegetation all around it probably 2km shy of the larger town of Beni. I had planned to stay in Beni but this location was so nice, relaxing place to eat outside. Used their wifi, had my best cup of coffee the trip so far. The owner asked me if I wanted to stay, said he could give me a river view room for $3. Why not? Sweet people, threw my bag down, had another cold beer and showered. What a day it had been!
bit, took my daypack. walked down the road awhile then hitched a ride into Beni town, about 30,000 people. It was the biggest town I had seen on my journey. The ride I got was stopped by some road work, I got out, walked around it the rest of the way into town. From the first moment i got to this town I loved it. I found a barber, then wandered through town, almost no tourists. Amazing smiles everywhere, I'll go back someday. It's interesting, most people going on bus or jeep to from Pokhara to Mustang just pass through here. Trekkers peel off at Tatopani and head back into the mountains. Anyway, this little town that the guide book doesn't talk much about is very authentic and vibrant. It's a real town with a town center, government buildings, shops, restaurants, markets, almost anything you could want.
I had some street food I couldn't resist, crunchy beans and lentils with salt. I walked all over town, found a bridge over the river to the "poor" side of town. What I found kind of blew my mind. Kids dancing, following me everywhere, really interesting musicians with drums and long horns,
women in very colorful saris. Their music would build to a frenzy while people danced wildly. They were Hindu and I'm sure the music had religious fervor significance. I didn't understand it but quickly, they all grabbed me, pulled me into the middle and made me dance with the kids and a few adults. I pulled out some Irish jig Riverdance steps and made them howl with laughter. I twirled the kids, just on this little street on the wrong side of the river in Beni. Loved these people, as a group they took me over and showed me their little neighborhood temple and fed me. It was quite an honor, they asked if I wanted to stay. I literally had to rip myself away from these fine folks as it was starting to get dark. So, after walking 20 km, I danced for about an hour. With many of them waving vigorously, I crossed the bridge back into Beni.
Had a beer and delicious tandoor chicken expertly made for me by a guy on the street. I was caught up in the moment and delved back into this great town, beautiful friendly faces everywhere. The evening markets were
open, i ate until I was stuffed, all kinds of great food. This had been a wonderful transition from the high mountains back to town life. Two big beers later, I caught a ride with a guy i met back to my guesthouse. There was a loud fun group on the patio having dinner and drinks, 15 employees of a US solar company doing installs of equipment and panels that they had donated. It's a big company I guess, US Solar. It's always a little odd to be completely immersed in local culture and then come back into the realm of Westerners. Not bad, just odd. The two groups have very different ways of communicating. All filled up, time to wander on tomorrow. Love this, no plans, it's all working out.
Slept well after all the food and beer, took my early morning departure as usual. Walked down the dusty rocky road toward Beni town, quiet in the morning. After 1 km or so, I hitched a ride into town, walked through town and to the other side, positioned myself on a corner visible to cars leaving headed south. I didn't really want to walk this next patch as
the road to Pokhara was busier. The second guy who went past smiled, slowed down, told me to hop in. He had been visiting family in Beni, was driving to Pokhara but had a flexible day and could take me beyond it, to Begnas (Lake) Tal, where I wanted to go. What luck! I hopped in, his English was pretty good. We skirted down the southwest side of Annapurna, the climate was more tropical, farm fields, cultivation and amazing views of the mountains. He was nice enough to stop a few times for me to take photos and look around. Beautiful drive, nice to not walk for the day.
Rolled past busy Pokhara, the place where pretty much all trekkers launch from on the Annapurna circuit. It had seemed a little too busy for me. I knew I would be in Kathmandu later and wanted to have one more special experience before I headed to the city, had heard about Begnas Tal and that it was very special. Probably 10km east of Pokhara, we arrived. The nice guy who drove me looked around with me, he wasn't very familiar with this place. After an hour or so, he dropped
me by the pretty lake. It was the weekend, many people come here to have family picnics, relax and enjoy the mountain fed pristine water. Little boats (with or without guides) are available to take out on the lake.
I was looking for a room for the night, walked way out along the lake, heard there were some pretty views on the other side. Found a little inn with an $8 room with drop dead views of the east side of Annapurna. Little boats were being rowed by, fishermen out. What a beautiful spot, I was told I shouldn't miss the sunrise, morning glow is cast onto the mountain. Again, this place was like a dream. I tossed down my bags, I was sweaty and the shower felt great. Big meal of fresh lake fish, salad and beer. An older man was playing this violin like instrument, I daresay he sounded a little bluegrassy at times.
Walked back over to the boat area. Family picnics and dancing were now more in full swing. Large groups of Hindu families come to the lake, many arriving in big buses they had chartered. They pulled out huge sound systems and blasted
Bollywood music, brought out BBQs and started cooking all kinds of delicious food. Beers and whiskey were all around. The women and children started dancing, after drinking the men joined them too. People held umbrellas to shield themselves from the hot sun. I was physically pulled into groups to dance three different times, each group brought me food and drink. The people were all physically affectionate, lots of hugging, I'm sure the alcohol helped. It was clear this would go on all day, I was actually exhausted from dancing in the hot sun, so much for a day with not much physical activity. It was also a good distance from one side of the lake to the other where I was staying. I walked back and forth a few times, probably covered 7 km this day. Got back to my room, serene and beautiful. Stepped out around the corner to get a little food. More fried lake fish, very tasty, with banana lassis and salad, decent internet at the dinner place, which was playing more Bob Marley. All over the world, Marley is timeless. Decided I would stay two nights in this beautiful place.
My bed was a little
hard last night, up early for a sublime sunrise as promised. This country really is exceptionally beautiful. I like to see places from the outside in, starting in remote locations and making my way back to the capitol. In that sense, I know the place and am ready for the city, rather than have the city be my understanding of the country. Had some dahl and naan bread and delicious fresh fruit. Took off for a walk around the lake, walked steep trails, rejoined the road. I found a little village on the northeast side of this sizable lake, gave some colored pencils and reading glasses to some villagers I met. Walked up this path to some "eco" place, discovered delicious coffee and veggie food. Met some French guys who had come here and ended up staying a week, I could see that it would be easy to do. Really pretty on this side of the lake too, lots of farm fields and jungley patches. i could see coffee and cacao being cultivated.
Pretty hot outside, walked back to my place along the lake, had become familiar after two days, recognized a few people who lived near there. Met
two jovial German travelers who had just pulled up to the lake on a scooter. They walked with me back to my place, had (you guessed it) more fish, beer together and a great chat. One guy was studying Buddhism in India and had just finished the Annapurna Circuit trek. The other guy had been living in Kathmandu for 2 months, gave me some cool ideas for my time that was coming there. So, here I am on a lake in rural Nepal talking about Buddhism, politics with some Germans eating fish and drinking cold beers, perfect. Another long day, early to bed with fading light behind Annapurna.
Up early at 6AM, ate some snacks, walked to Begnas town, hopped on local bus to the main highway, a busy road that goes from Pokhara to Kathmandu. It was time to brave the big city, I was excited to say the least. I knew there was amazing culture, architecture, healing after the devastating earthquake 1 year earlier. I got really lucky and got the last seat on a very sweet, comfortable minivan bus, settled in with my slightly more well heeled passengers who could afford this ride. This would be
a really nice 4.5 hour bus ride on good roads, no stopping at little towns to pick people up as everybody in our vehicle was going to the big city. I dozed off a few times, we did make a couple nice stops at food places. More tasty river fish, veggie pakora, veggie curry, cardamom coffee. We rolled on toward Kathmandu, the driver was fast and good. I saw swollen rivers on the left and even some kayakers on them. We passed lots of land being used agriculturally, we were out of the mountains now and in rolling hills, very fertile land. My fellow passengers were chatty, "where had I been, where was I going?" Their eyes got big when I told them I had been at Muktinath, there is great reverence for that place. They gave me more great tips for Kathmandu. I had decided to stay in the Patan area on the south side of the city and needed some advice about how to get there.
Nepalis: curious, funny, quick-witted, generous, honest, handsome, friendly, love them. We rolled closer to the city, towns started getting bigger, more commercial activity and industry noticeable. The roads were dusty coming
into this city of 2.5 million. We came into a very busy slightly shady bus station on the NW outskirts of town, one of my fellow passengers got me over to a local bus going where I needed to go, handed me some little snacks as a parting gift, told the driver where to let me off. The little local bus zipped away from the bus station chaos, about 30 minutes later the driver told me to get off on a street corner. I asked him if he was sure, he vigorously nodded "yes". I jumped off, had a ginger tea, strapped on my pack and asked directions. I had about a 1 mile walk through a very old part of town, i had been attracted to the Patan area rather than Thamel, where most backpackers stay. Patan apparently was very old Hindi Newari style architecture, tourists visited during the day but not many stayed. I liked that, thought it would be a great spot. I could not have chosen better.
I walked into Patan Durbar Square for the first time and was a little overwhelmed. The massive earthquake had taken a heavy toll on the old buildings, about
1/3 of them had collapsed. Life was going on, NGO activity was very visible. Some old temples were in rubble, some just needed work to salvage them. The proud Nepali people were moving on, there was certainly much architecture that had survived okay. I heard that towns to the east fared worse, i would see that later. I walked down a little alleyway, scooters zipping everywhere, chatter and great smells in the air. All kinds of shops, food stalls. Got a nice room with my own shower overlooking the magnificent temples for only $14. Stayed in Patan area for the rest of the day, really nice wander in the evening after the tourists had mostly left the area. Nepalis were out milling around in the slightly cooler evening air. I just strolled, visited with people, addictively eating Tibetan momos (dumplings). There are so many Tibetan people here, especially after what China did to their region. They are very much a part of Nepal, it's a good fit.
Slept pretty well last night, took a bit of adapting to city sounds again. Up early with pretty bad stomach pains and bad bowels. Experimental eating gets its revenge now and again,
amazing that this was really the first time all trip I had been sick, with the exceptional of the altitude sickness. Thinking back, I bet it was the fish I had at the roadside stall on the way to Kathmandu. Oh well, it was tasty. Tough first half of the day, stayed in bed, drank fluids, took warm showers. My kind guesthouse owner brought me ginger tea, I think I had 5 cups. They had been watching over me, offered to take my laundry and do it. I felt well enough about 2PM to wander out. Got some tasty Tibetan curry chicken soup (they call it Thukpa), kept it down. Took some Cipro earlier too that I think helped.
Got brave, hopped a ride with a local guy to the absolutely magnificent Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest in the world. It had taken damage to the spire during the huge quake but was mostly repaired. Locals and tourists were walking all around in clockwise motion, this is a well deserved UNESCO World heritage site, built in the 1300s. It is certainly of interest to foreign and domestic tourists, but very much a part of daily spiritual life of
the locals. Here is a link if you want to read more: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/nepal/kathmandu-boudhanath-stupa. The fabulous structure has buildings all around it with lovely rooftop restaurants that look over the structure and Himalayas beyond. I was there for sunset, had recovered enough to have a cold beer with my Tibetan soup, spectacular views. Home to bed, a few more momo dumplings first 😊.
Up the next day still a little sick but definitely better. This was my last day in Nepal and I would make the best of it. Got up very early, wanted to see sunrise at a very special place, Swayambhunath Stupa, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Huffed across the plaza from my guesthouse, found a driver at 5:30AM, my goal was to beat morning rush hour traffic as I was going to the other side of town. We mostly succeeded. Got to the the holy location, also called the Monkey Temple, while it was still a bit dark. The scene on the street was fantastic, people buying candles and incense to take to the temple. Slipped into a little stall for a coffee and plain momo bun, good on my stomach. Walked up the very steep stairs,
I bet there are about 400 of them. There were monkeys jumping around in the woods, lots of early morning Nepali exercisers. Made it to the top, pretty amazing. Huge beautiful stupa, stunning Himalayan views, hundreds of monkeys, people singing and chanting. Stayed there 45 minutes or so, watched the sun come up over Kathmandu.
Lonely Planet says "A journey up to the Buddhist temple and Unesco World Heritage Site of Swayambhunath is one of the definitive experiences of Kathmandu
. Mobbed by monkeys and soaring above the city on a lofty hilltop, the ‘Monkey Temple’ is a fascinating, chaotic jumble of Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Even the 2015 earthquake failed to topple Kathmandu
's best loved temple, though outlying buildings crumbled in the tremor.Coming to Swayambhunath is an intoxicating experience, with ancient carvings jammed into every spare inch of space and the smell of incense and butter lamps hanging heavy in the air. The mystical atmosphere is heightened in the morning and evening by local devotees who make a ritual circumnavigation of the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels set into its base. It is a great place to watch the sun set over Kathmandu
According to legend, the Kathmandu
Valley was once a lake – geological evidence supports this – and the hill now topped by Swayambhunath rose spontaneously from the waters, hence the name swayambhu, meaning ‘self-arisen’. The compound is centred on a gleaming white stupa, topped by a gilded spire painted with the eyes of the Buddha. Depictions of these eyes appear all over the Kathmandu Valley.The emperor Ashoka allegedly visited 2000 years ago, but the earliest confirmed activity here was in AD 460. During the 14th century, Mughal invaders from Bengal broke open the stupa in the search for gold, but the stupa was restored and expanded over the following centuries".
So, after this intense beauty, I came happily down the stairs. I had been thinking a lot about the earthquake and wanted to visit Bhaktapur, a historic town about 15km east of Kathmandu. This place had been close to the epicenter of the quake, many magnificent buildings came down and lives were lost. I wanted to buy a few souvenirs here, thinking that my money might be best used there. I caught a ride to the outskirts of the town, paid a fee (to help with restoration) to visit the
historic core of the town. I just strolled for a couple hours, 1/2 of the town was destroyed, still some nice temples standing, others being actively repaired. The damage was more intense than anything I had seen yet. It was an 8.0 earthquake, people I met told me that it was terrifying. Life is going on 1 year later, what else can you do? I have seen the same in Sri Lanka and Sumatra after the tsunami. These cultures have a period of mourning then get back to life.
I walked down this little lane, heard some sweet noise, ducked in a little doorway and found a group of older women playing music and chanting. They beckoned me to come sit with them, inside this party broken down building with old wood and incense all around me. They had chimes, an accordion piano thing and hand drums, gave me some chimes to join in. It was a reverent religious chanting, I could see though that they cracked a few grins in my direction with my off pace chime work. I said goodbye, found a neat little cafe by a big temple undergoing extensive renovation work. Could tell that much
NGO work is happening here, I really must salute the young western people who go to these disaster areas to help. It takes a special kind of person and the world is better because of them. I had a coffee, bought a few gifts to take home.
Time for one more stop on the way back to town, got a ride and got off at Pushpatinath, the Hindu temple (seemed like so long before) that I had seen my very first morning in Nepal a couple weeks earlier. Pretty intense scenes, families sobbing while taking their orange fabric draped deceased relatives to be cremated by the river. The mountains in the distance, the incense, the smells, the monkeys, more sadhu holy men when I climbed up the hill to see more temples. What a place, what a country. It felt like I only got a taste, but a good taste. There are many layers to uncover. Walked out of the huge complex, caught a ride with a young taxi guy who didn't seem to know his way around town, not good when one needs to be to the airport in a couple of hours. Finally found the way to
Patan, packed up, checked out. One more tasty dahl bat meal, ate with my hands the way Nepalis do in a mostly tourist restaurant. The tourists were newly arrived and looked at me funny, I told them "you must have just gotten here, you'll learn 😊". And that was it, hopped a ride to the airport and said good bye. Thanks Nepal, we'll meet again someday.
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