From Mustang To The Phu Valley Via Saribung La: Day 14 – 15 In And Around Phu

Previous Post: Day 14 – From Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail  To Phu

We came at the village of Phu from the north after an eight-day traverse of upper Mustang from Tsarang.   Only in 2002 was  the Naar-Phu valley opened to tourists and the entry point was at Koto.  [See the map below.]

The Annapurna Circuit “trail” has really become a road – admittedly rough in parts – that goes from Besi Sahar to Manang.  One attraction of the Naar-Phu valleys is the absence of vehicles;  donkeys are still the way that things get moved up valley to the various settlements from Koto.  Another “plus” is the lack of other tourists!  One evening in early May 2018  I asked the Koto checkpoint official how many Annapurna Circuit and Naar/Phu walkers he had registered that day.  The answer – Annapurna: 203; Naar/Phu: 7.

1991 census figures  – Phu 187 ;  Nar 302; Manang 391

A third point to make is this – the region also  has very few inhabitants. [See the Phu/Fu and Nar stats for 2011 above. The number is probably less in 2018.] Villages have been abandoned and others are all but dead. In part, it is because some lower down the valley serve as winter settlements and others are inhabited during the spring-to-fall period while the local engage in their traditional  agriculture or herding lifestyle. Eking out a living above 3500 meters is not easy anywhere and other possible work and a gentler climate act as strong lures to draw the people elsewhere, one or two families probably leaving each year.

Still, the chance to leave the Annapurna Circus and experience a seldom-visited side valley is worth the extra money for trekkers who have had enough of inhaling the dust stirred up by the vehicles on the road they are walking.  You really are steppng back in time when you cross the bridge at Koto and start your journey up to Phu.

See the Himalayan Map House website for paper copies of the Naar Phu: the Lost Valleys

Certain requirements must be met before setting off for a visit to these remote villages.

  • A trekking party has to have at least two people.
  • The trek has to be arranged with a registered TAAN trekking agency
  • You have to be accompanied by a guide.
  • There is a $90. a week restricted area permit for each person. It is a bit cheaper in off-season.
  • you also need a ACAP permit to get to the trailhead at Koto.

Lonely Planet’s Trekking In the Nepal Himalaya

If you are interested in doing the Nar/Phu trek as outlined in blue on the map above, an excellent source  is the Lonely Planet’s Trekking In the Nepal Himalaya. You could just download the chapter on the Annapurna Region.  However,  given other chapters like the ones on Planning, Kathmandu, and Understanding Nepal & Survival Guide, it makes more sense just to ge the entire guide-book.  The Annapurna chapter has a section on Nar/Phu including a recommended itinerary and fairly up-to-date (2015) info.

The rest of this post is going to focus on Phu.  While  we came to Phu from Naguro to the north,  most visitors will approach the region of Naar/Phu from the Koto entry point on the Annapurna Circuit,  Accordingly, I’ve arranged my images of Phu and its surroundings from a south-to-north perspective.

Approaching Phu:

As you come within a couple of kilometers of the village, you pass the ruins of a dzong.  Making sure to walk on the left side of the mani wall!  As you continue your eyes are drawn to a few chortens.

the ruins of a dzong and a mani wall a few minutes south of Phu

just south of Phu – some chortens and ruins

a close-up of the chortens and ruins before Phu

Tsarang entrance chorten – internet sourced image

Like the kani chorten at Tsarang in upper Mustang, the square bases of the chortens  make use of the double circle.

When we were in Tsarang in April of 2018 the circles had been painted in, with the circles containing one of the four mythical creatures associated with the four cardinal directions. [See here for a more detailed look at the Tsarang chorten and the painted in figures.]

Before you reach the bridge there is another mani wall with the mantra “Om mani padme hum”  written in white a few times on flat stones painted blue. The stones look newly done!

approaching Phu – the mani wall just south of the metal bridge across the Phu Khola to the road to the village

By The Bridge Across The Phu Khola:

In front of the bridge that takes you over the Phu Khola and to the path leading to the village gate are a couple of information boards – a map and a list of points of interest.

Phu village points of interest – ACAP info board

And then – a look across the river to the village built into the side of the hill with the forty or so Tibetan-style houses with their flat roofs stacked one on top of another.  It is quite the sight.  Thoughts of Santorini and Sorrento came to mind as I took in the scene; what I was looking at was a somewhat grittier sandstone-coloured version!

Thanks to the building materials used and the general lack of paint, the stacked buildings all but blended in with the hill behind them. The vertical Tibetan prayer flags here and there throughout the village did add some colour to the dominant sandstone.  Scanning the top of the hill I see the ruins of a dzong. Later I would ramble up to the top for a fine view of to the monastery.

a shot of Phu from the east side of the bridge across the Phu Khola

We crossed the bridge and, as we got closer to the gate, I turned around and took a photo of the metal bridge that spans the river. To the south snow-capped mountains are visible.

a shot of the bridge across the Phu Khola to the south of Phu

The Southern Entrance To Phu:

approaching Phu’s entry gate from the south

There are two guesthouses – the Tashi and the Karma Hotels – at the bottom of the village. They both have the same owner, a woman named Tashi Khandru.  We never did meet her during our brief stay but it was perhaps her daughter whom I saw fussing over her digital device.  The dining room where we ate had electricity but I never did find out how the power was generated.

our campsite at the Tashi Hotel

Our tents were set up in the yard facing the Tashi Hotel and we made use of the dining room in the Karma Hotel across the way.

our Phu campsite by the Tashi and Karma Hotels

In the Lonely Planet’s Trekking In The Nepal Himalaya (2015) the writer notes that –

“There are no formal shops in Phu but you can buy supplies like milk powder, jam and biscuits at Tashi’s, and will be well fed on porridge, soup and daal bhaat. All supplies are carried here by mule caravans from Koto.”

When I saw the cabinet  in the dining hall of the Karma Hotel crammed with all the items the LP lists,  I knew that I had found the “storeroom”!

Phu’s grocery store in a cabinet in the Karma hotel’s Dining hall

Walking Up To the Hilltop Terrace:

What follows are a few shots taken as I wandered on the various paths up to the top of the hill, passing by doorways and yet more alleyways and enchanting views.  The one thing I did not see is signs of a living village!  Given that, at most, the population of Phu is 160 inhabitants, and that we were there at the end of April and thus some who used the settlement had not yet arrived for the season, I saw at most eight people, all women or children.  The twenty-five in our trekking party may well have doubled the population of Phu that evening!

There will be no photos of a vibrant village square with locals sitting around while children race by and monks in Tibetan garb, perhaps interrupting a deep exploration of the nature of mind, stop to remind the villagers of the upcoming ritual cleansing of a spiritually polluted building.  The Lonely Planet guide-book’s use of words like extraordinary and medieval  to describe Phu must surely be in reference to the “look” of the architecture and the absence of the usual signs of modern times – overhead electricity wires, billboards and advertisements, etc.

The term medieval also has the negative connotation of backwards, uncivilized, primitive. Is it being used to describe the lifestyle of those who live here or is it meant to describe the physical look of the village?  Given that it is a seasonal settlement with a very small population of herders and agriculturalists eking out a subsistence living at a 4000 meter-plus altitude, maybe those factors makes it medieval.

a shot from above the Tashi Hotel with the Karma Hotel to the left

Pho doorway with prayer flags above

passageway to upper Pho from the Tashi Hotel

steps up a Pho passageway

A number of doors had locks,  some of which looked like they had not been touched in some time.

We did not get over to the gompa on the hill across from the one that the village is built on.  The sign in the image below is pointing the way; the path leads to the scree slope that goes down to the metal bridge across the river.  Then it is a walk up the other hill to the gompa.

Looking Over At The Tashi Lhakhang Gompa

While there is a gompa above the village –  Samtenling Gompa – it is apparently closed most of the time. It was only in looking at the map (see the photo above) on leaving that I realized that it existed!  Now I m left wondering why such a small settlement would have two gompas.  Presumably they would belong to two different lineages of Tibetan Buddhism?  Let me know if you have some background info that wold make sense of it. The fact that it is usually to always closed does mean something!

Phu sign – Way To Gompa on the hilltop on the other side of the river

The living gompa – the Tashi Lhakhang Gompa – is not in or above the village but rather on the hilltop across the river on the north  side.  Belonging to the Kagyu Lineage, it was was established (at least, the Lonely Planet guidebook)  in the mid-1600’s by the 10th. Karmapa,  Choying Dorje (1604-1674).  However, an hour spent researching the Karmapa’s life turned up no mention of Phu.   On the plus side, I now have a better idea of who the Tibetan lama was who escaped Tibet in late December 1999 to the consternation of Chinese officials. He was the 17th Karmapa of the same Kagyu lineage with whom the gompa is supposedly connected. (See here for a Guardian article.)

Reading through the Tibetologist and trekker David Snellgrove’s Himalayan Pilgrimage (see the end of the post for access and free download of the book!) I found this in his account of his 1956 visit to the gompa:

I asked how old the monas­tery was, and receiving a vague reply, asked further if there was no local history.  One of the laymen left the cake he was mould­ing, went down below and returned with a dusty volume. It was a manuscript copy of the biography of the founder-lama, who was named Urgyan Ihun-grub rgya-mtsho and had been a con­temporary of the founder-lama of Drakar Monastery. (Snellgrove, pp.230-231)

As for what Snellgrove and his crew found at the gompa on the hllltop, he puts it this way –

It was in fact far smaller than we had been led to believe and contained very little of interest. There is a small temple, the walls of which have been recently painted with the thirty-five Confessional Buddhas, thus obscuring older and presumably more interesting frescoes. Three images, ‘Lotus- Born’, ‘Fierce Master’ and ‘Lion-Headed’ Dakini, stood above the table of offerings. In fact there was nothing of iconographic interest in spite of what Nam-gyel, the Shang Lama’s monk and the villager of Pi had told us. But we could only know this by seeing for ourselves. (Snellgrove 230)

In spite of the disappointment of having walked up to Phu from Manang and not finding Exquisite pieces of Tibetan Buddhist art – “medieval” thangkas, frescoes, statuary and other cultic objects, Snellgrove walked back down the valley happy to have visited!

Our trekking crew never did go over to visit the gompa that afternoon and by 7 a.m. the next morning we were on the way to Meta.  If you visit, set aside a second night at Phu so you can visit the two gompas and perhaps have your guide arrange a tour with someone from the village.  Being able to ask a local some questions would elevate the visit to a higher level.

I did get a view of the Tashi Lhakhang Gompa from the terrace up on the top of the hill by the ruins of the dzong.  In the image below,  the two bridges – the metal one and the wooden one we had crossed to get to the entrance of Phu – can be seen spanning the river. The switchbacks from the metal bridge lead up to an entrance gate and a series of chortens before the gompa complex is reached.

a view from upper Phu of the monastery across the Phu Khola

Phu’s Tashi Lhakhang Gompa

Phu gompa view from upper Phu terrace

A visit to the gompa would include a bonus, i.e. the photos and video you would get looking back to the village and down valley!  Next time for sure!

Views of Phu From the Western Edge

Phu panorama from the west side of the village

Phu – mani wall detail from west edge of the village

Visiting The Mani Wheel Temple:

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at when I saw the building below; I thought it might be a small temple holding images of the various Buddhist figures. Luckily when I got to the door, it was not locked.

approaching the mani wheel temple in upper Phu

Phu – mani wheel shrine door

Inside the 3 meter x 3 meter building was a large mani wheel with the usual “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus” written on it in Tibetan. Spinning the wheel is believed to invoke the blessings of Tibet’s patron saint Chenrezig (Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara), the bodhisattva associated with compassion. Inside the wheel are multiple copies of the same mantra so one spin may well release the benefit of tens of thousands of “Om mani padme hums” into the universe.  I gave it a few spins and then took a look at the wall paintings.

The term “wallpaper” would be more accurate to describe what I found.  In the image below is a part of one wall with Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), revered in Tibet as the second Buddha. I had seen some of the same wallpaper on the porch walls of  the new building housing the large Buddha figure in Kagbeni.  Rinpoche  seems to be most associated with the Nyingma lineage but it may be that all the Tibetan Buddhist sects pay homage to him.

Going North of Phu:

We crossed  the river on the wooden bridge pictured below.  (It is still the Layju Khola and only becomes Phu Khola south of the settlement.)  A bit of a climb on the steep trail and you get the viewpoint of Phu shown in the images below.

old wooden bridge crossing the Phu Khola at Phu – the new metal one is just upriver a bit


a View of Phu from the north

a view of Phu from the north – Phu is almost dead center in the image!

North of Phu the trail leads to the abandoned settlement of Naguro at 4500 meters; follow the trail further northeast and you will eventually reach Saribung La and the border of Mustang District.  We had come down from Saribung the day before. See this post (Day 14 – From Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail  To Phu) for an idea of what the trail to Naguro is like.  With a tent and some food, it would make an interesting day-and-a-haf addition to your visit.

Click on cover!

Himalayan Pilgrimage is a  detailed and very readable book by the scholar of Tibetan religion and language David Snellgrove .  It deals with a trek he did in 1956 through the Himalayan region of a Nepal which had just opened up its borders to foreigners.

The last half of Chapter V – Nye-Shang and the Nar Valley – recounts his trek  from Manang over the Kang La to Nar and then the walk up to Phu. (See page 222 for the trek to Nar/Phu.)

As visually striking as the architecture of Phu may be to most visitors, it drew no comment from Snellgrove!  He and his trekking team spent all of their time at the monastery on the other side of the river where he seems to have had a very agreeable time. This contrasted with  the rude and inhospitable treatment they received from the Manangis down below (as he describes at the start of Chapter V).

The book can be accessed (and freely downloaded in various formats)  at the Internet Archive website.  Click on the book cover to access the site – or here!

Among the interesting tidbits I learned from the book are these:

  • The Tibetan name of the settlement  was actually Nar-tö (Upper Nar).  It was the 1931 British-led Survey of India mapping team which labelled the summer settlement as Phu-gaon, phu meaning “head of the valley”  and gaon meaning “village” in Tibetan. It was not the name used by the locals!
  • In Tibetan the ph is a variant of the “p”  sound and not the “ph” in “phone”.  Given that Phu has now become the village’s  name,  its correct Tibetan pronunciation is  Poo and not Foo!  The English connotation is unfortunate!

Next Post: Day 15 – From Phu To Meta

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 14 – Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail To Phu

Previous Post: Day 13  –  Khumjungar Moraine Camp – Saribung La –  Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail

  • time: 7:10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
  • the high point of the day: our moraine camp below Bhrikuti at 5000 m
  • campsite: Pho (4080) – Tashi’s Guesthouse
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Annapurna Circuit Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House. They are available in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps:  2884 02 Phugau Ghomion

Day 13 – the below-Bhrikuti Moraine Camp to Pho

The garbage found around our campsite was a sign that it sees some use by trekking and climbing parties.  Like us, some trekking groups would use it as an overnight stop after  their crossing of Saribung La.  Climbing groups with Bhrikuti Shail (6361)  or Julie Himal (6337) as their objectives might use it as a base camp and then set up a high camp 600 or 700 meters further up. [See Bhrikuti Base Camp Rubbish  in the online American Alpine Journal for one account of how garbage happens!]

As for our trekking crew, after a week and 2500 meters in altitude gain from the Kali Gandaki, we were losing altitude fast!  From Saribung La we had already dropped 1000; on this day we would drop another 920!  The acclimatization worry was over!

our moraine camp at 6:30 a.m. – looking west

At 6:00 a.m. there was a dusting of snow on our tents. An hour later as the crew was taking down the tents, the campsite was no longer in the shade and the snow had mostly melted.

moraine camp below Bhrikuti campsite – a morning shot

The trail also became increasing defined, thanks to a beaten-down path and frequent stone cairns and chortens that led us downward.  In the image below you can see a couple of cairns that provide reassurance in what looks like a mess of scree.

cairns show the way down the valley to Naguro and Pho

I took the shot below about 1 1/2 hours into the day’s walk.  Amazingly, the peak you see in the center of the image is the same peak you can see left of center in the first two of the day’s photos!  Also visible are a few of the porters coming down the trail to where we are. The river we were following down at this point is the Layju Khola; it meets up with the Phu Khola at the village of Phu which sits above the confluence on the west side.  That is where we were headed.

looking back towards our below-Bhrikuti moraine camp 1 1/2 hours into the day’s walk

looking south – a couple of porters taking a break above the Layju Khola

9:20 – a view from the left (east) side of the Layju Khola

It is not as if there are 1000 meters of downhill and no climbing at all! The following shot is one of those where I got to look back at oncoming trekkers and porters.  We have left the river bank and are gaining some altitude!

some ascent needed on the way down to Phu!

Bill spotted a yak on the slopes above us.  He could have been a wild yak but while there are an estimated 15000 in the trans-Himalayan region they are considered to be extinct in Nepal. More likely it was a stay domesticated yak who had become separated from his herd.

a stray yak in the hills above Naguro

Ten minutes later we passed a herder’s shelter but there was no evidence inside that anyone had been there for some time.  The stone walls of the animal pen were also in a state of disrepair. However, it was still early in the spring; the herder would likely be up in a week or two.  Perhaps he would also find his missing yak!

a yak herder’s shelter on the trail to Naguro

yak herder’s shelter on the trail above Naguro

The first settlement we would come to on our descent to Phu was the abandoned village of Naguro. We would pass a few chortens on our way there; by now I had decided that I would not be taking a photo of every chorten from Kagbeni to Koto!  But – here are two that I did point my camera at!

a chorten on the trail just above Naguro in the Naar-Phu region

terraces on the hillside at Naguro

chorten and stone buildings of abandoned Naguro

Above the path which goes past the chorten and into the village from the north is the rock face you see below. A few caves and a splash of the red ochre paint used on gompas. We had seen the color on chortens and on gompas from Kagbeni on up to Luri Cave front facade.Then we walked through the ruins of the abandoned village.  Even when it was alive, it would have only been a seasonal settlement. In the winter people went down valley to Meta or below where the weather was less harsh.

cliffside caves above the site of Naguro

a view of Naguro’s stone buildings

The cook crew was already busy preparing lunch as we stepped over the almost dry Jyamdau Khola to our “dining room” on one of the many terraces in the vicinity. Lots of liquids – juice, soup, tea – and a peanut butter chapati or two.  I hadn’t had a chance to dry my boots the previous day after our traverse because the afternoon had been overcast. Now I took them off, took ut the footpads,  and set everything  in the sun.  Dry feet are happy feet! In the image below that is the Jyamdau Khola running diagonally from middle right to bottom left. We are on the south side of the river and the village remains are on the other side to the left.

11:30 a.m. – our lunch spot below the Naguro village site

By 12:30 we were on the move again.  We still had about 400 meters or so to drop before we got to Phu. [BTW, it is apparently pronounced Poo as in “pool” and Foo as in “fool”!]

from Naguro trailside chortens show the way down to Phu

We were now on the other side of a steep valley wall we had climbed up and I turned around to get a last look at Naguro.  For one of maybe four of the 1000 photos I took, I changed lenses to my telephoto and zoomed into the view you see below.

On the bottom left is the trail we followed past the village entrance chorten; above the chorten is the cliff side caves and the ochre paint. The ruins of the village itself are visible in the bottom middle of the image, looking like the next “sandslide” will cover them up completely.  After two weeks of walking on sand and other larger bits of broken mountains and contemplating the impermanence of all things,  it was time for “the works of man” to get the same treatment! It is easy to get into a Buddhist frame of mind!

looking up the valley to Naguro and the trail we have just walked

trailside chorten below Naguro in the Phu Valley

1:40 – approaching Phu from Naguro – another three kilometers to go!

We had left our moraine campsite at about 7:15.  It was now 2:15 and we were looking at Phu, our destination for the day, having descended a whopping 1000 meters (and probably ascended another 200!).

a View of Phu from the north

The trail leads down to a couple of bridges below the steep sand slope you see towards the right-hand side of the image.  We would cross the old wood one and sit there for a while before beginning a climb up that sand slope.  Luckily three people were coming down the slope; they told us to follow the path at the base of the rock face for the entrance to the village. So – back down we went! We had been spared a unnessessary climb!

They were the first people we had seen since the retreating climbing party in Ghuma Thanti five days before.

old wooden bridge crossing the Phu Khola at Phu – the new metal one is just upriver a bit

Waiting for the crew to get the tents up, I bought a can of Coke and got my camera gear ready.  Then, after unpacking my duffel ad setting up the Thermarest and the sleeping bag, I set off for a rambling though the village.  While the place seemed almost deserted, it asks to be photographed thanks to its layout and architecture.

My next post is a look at the village and the surroundings. While we left the very next morning,  I could easily have spent another day there.  A word to those walking up to Phu from Koto – set aside two nights at Phu. Do not walk all the way up to Phu only to turn around the next morning!

our Phu campsite by the Tashi and Karma Hotels

Next Post: The Village of Phu (April 29-30, 2018)

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The Street Art of Banksy Comes To Toronto

Related Post: Checking Out Downtown Toronto’s Street Art 

My one sustained exposure to “street art” in downtown Toronto left me mostly cold.  In the fall of 2016 I spent a morning checking out the street art of the Kensington Market area and the famous Graffiti Alley.  While what I saw was often colorful and sometimes quite skillfully done, it rarely had anything to say.  And then, of course, taggers with even less to say came along and put their markings on top of it all.

The Banksy exhibit which just opened on Stirling Street near Lansdowne (click here for the Google map) is several notches above that.  Gathered in one big rectangular box are eighty pieces of Banksy’s work. (It seems one was stolen during the setting-up phase so make that 79!)  Provocative, irreverent, political – Banksy has a point of view.  Toronto is the fifth city to host the exhibit, following Melbourne, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, and Auckland.

My two favorite pieces were also the exhibit’s two largest –

  1. Flag Wall, a comment on the American Dream

  1. Forgive Us Our Trespassing, a 7.5-meter-high  meditation on organized religion

It should be mentioned that the exhibit is not put together or endorsed, approved, authorized, or promoted by Banksy himself!  Rather, it is his former manager, Steve Lazarides, who put the show together.  How Banksy himself feels about all of this is an open question. Both Banksy and Lazarides are from Bristol, England; they first met in the mid-1990’s when Banksy was beginning his “career”.

Initially hired to do some photography work for Banksy, Lazarides soon became his manager and promoter and arranger…they worked together until 2008 when the relationship ended. Unclear is what prompted the break-up.  It does explain why the exhibit only covers work up to 2008 and gives it a noticeable historical feel given the absence of any Banksy responses to the political earthquakes that have happened in the decade since.

In the shot below you see a series of three photos taken by Steve Lazarides the documentarian as Banksy was putting up a version of his Pissing Guard in Powis Gardens. Note that Banksy’s head has been blurred out to maintain his anonymity. While some people obviously know his real identity, no one has stepped forward and said: “I’m Banksy!”  He won’t be appearing at this exhibit to bask in any praise for his art!

So – $35. (plus another $10. in HST and handling fees) a ticket to see an anti-capitalist graffiti artist’s work put together by his ex-manager and current only up to 2008? Eighty middle finger gestures at the British Establishment, the Monarchy, the Police, the Military? Well, not exactly. There are some more gentle moments too which take you to a different place. The Girl With the Balloon is an example. Lazarides is quoted as saying –

“It’s a fairly simplistic, political message that everybody can get, and I think it provokes conversation and now in the age of social media, things get spread around so quickly that that’s what’s made him a global star.”

I am guessing he meant “simple” and not “simplistic” but – whatever!

Available at $5. is a phone set with Lazarides providing commentary on various pieces as you make your way through.  I barely used my set but others seemed much more conscientious on getting the complete run-down!

From early on Banksy produced limited-run prints which were sold at Pictures on Walls, a London print gallery influential in promoting work by artists sharing the same anti-Establishment ethos.  It is noteworthy that the gallery closed at the end of 2017.  The end of an era?  Banksy himself would be in his forty’s by now! Given the “best before date”  of most artists, you’d have to figure his best days are behind him.   Here is POW’s goodbye –

POW was started sixteen years ago by a loose collection of graffiti artists and illustrators shunned by the controlling influences of the day. Working from borrowed office space in East London we set about producing, promoting and distributing our own art. The invention of the internet and the cardboard tube enabled us to circumvent the centuries-old grip of the established art world and we laid waste to their cronyism and vested interests and good taste.  (See here for source)

The first thing you see is the following piece, a copy of the classical Greek  Winged Victory of Samothrace statue. Like the original now in the Louvre, it is missing the head. Unlike the original, it has a CCTV camera in place!  Provocative even if the intent is unclear – make of it what you will!

“Mindless vandalism can take a bit of thought.” Banksy

Lazarides has emphasized that all the pieces in the exhibit come from private collections. If they are works that Banksy did on the street they are the photographs that Lazarides took and not the actual work.









Easy targets for a bit of irreverence and  ridicule, the monarchy and the police appear in a number of pieces.

Flag Wall:

My single favorite piece in the exhibit. I spent an hour taking the whole show in; I spent about five minutes here and came back for a second look.

Apparently, the Flag Wall has not been seen since the  Banksy exhibit: “Barely Legal” in Los Angeles in 2006.  That show, by the way, happened with Banksy’s approval. Lazarides mentions (on that handheld device I occasionally turned on?) selling a number of pieces to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on their visit.  It undercuts the argument that Banksy himself would not do something so seedy as have a gallery exhibit of his work!

Iwo Jima is not a photographer!







“Taking the photo by Iwo Jima…”  So who wrote up the brief explanatory panel about  Flag Wall? I will assume it is some millennial in Toronto who was not paying attention during history class!   The iconic photo on which Banksy based his “take” on the American Dream was shot in February 1945 on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.  It depicts U.S. Marines raising the flag on top of Mount Suribachi during their battle against the Japanese who held the island. That would be WWII and not the one in Vietnam.

Forgive Us Our Trespassing

The other dramatic work –  the 7.5-metre tall “Forgive Us Our Trespassing,”.  Of the piece, one of the Live Nation promoters of the show, Michel Boersma, says this –

We’re very proud that we’ve got “Forgive Us Our Trespassing,” which is this 7-meter high… It looks like a stained glass window, which Steve hasn’t seen for the last 10 years. It’s been in a bonded warehouse and this is the first time we’re going to be able to show it. (source here)

Kneeling in front of his handiwork, is the trespasser himself.  For a moment I thought of Bart Simpson, another agent provocateur!

If the inevitable gift shop – a Banksy Gift Shop! – is any indication, the most marketable image in the exhibit is the Girl With Balloon/Balloon Girl.  Coffee mugs, T-shirts … there is something for everyone!  Full disclosure – it was this image on a bus shelter in my Riverdale neighbourhood that first piqued my curiosity about Banksy, whose fame as a graffiti artist I was vaguely aware of.  Credit the image for putting  me on the path to coughing up $45.

Was it worth it?   A tad overpriced and if you want to really want to get into it,  the entire situation is heavily laden with irony.  Also, as I mentioned above,  for an exhibit of the work of an artist who was always totally current and fresh in his response to what was happening,  it seems somehow dated in its concerns.  Maybe that why those pieces that have a timeless feel – the Flag, Forgive Us Our Trespassing, Balloon Girl – engaged me the most.

Read the reviews below for all the reasons you are too “cool” to go.  I am glad I went. It has also given me another reason to revisit Graffiti Alley and Kensington Market to see what is there two years since my last visit! Maybe a next generation Banksy working in obscurity!

Checking Out Downtown Toronto’s Street Art 

Girl with balloon - Banksy.

Lots of  visitors were using their phones to take pix.  A few had more “serious” cameras. I used my Sony A6000 and the Sony 10-18 F4 lens to take the photos in thos post. While the ultra-wide angle is handy in close quarters, I should also have brought my 24mm F1.8 along.  I also need to work on the colour balance of the above photo!

Worth Reading:

a review by John Semley in Now Magazine with the catchy title  The Art of Banksy Is Utterly Vulgar

a negative take on it all by The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor – Unauthorized Banksy show strips street art of its power while cashing in on its fame

a Maclean’s Magazine article by Adrian Lee – “The real art in the Banksy exhibit isn’t the graffiti—it’s the exhibit itself”.  Included is a brief video which gives you a feel for the exhibition space itself.

a Billboard Magazine article – Banksy Exhibit to Make North American Debut With Toronto Warehouse Show Putting the ‘Art in Context’with some good quotes by the Live Nation promoter of the exhibit.

the Wikipedia entry Banksy


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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La:  Day 13 – Khumjungar Moraine High Camp To Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail

Previous Post: Day 12 – Japanese Base Camp To Khumjungar  High Camp

  • time: 6:45 to 3:00
  • the high point of the day: Saribung La (6040)
  • campsite: moraine camp below Bhrikuti Shail High Camp (5000)
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps:  2884 01 Damodar Himal.

the route from our Khumjungar High Camp to Saribung La and down the other side

The temperature had dipped to -15ºC overnight;  my water bottle was frozen. The agency-provided down sleeping bag  – as bulky as it was – kept me warm through the night. I also had on a Polartec fleece base layer as well as a synthetic mid-layer jacket. I zipped up the down jacket – also provided – and then slipped the bottom third of the sleeping bag inside the jacket.  I had a good night’s sleep!

Wake-up time was 5:30 and by 6:15 we were having breakfast. No dining tent at this campsite!  It would be delivered to our tent door by Tsering and Kamansang; the trip leader Judda also dropped by to see how each one of us was doing. The answer was “Great!”.  We got going by about 6:45; it would be a while before we felt the sun since we were on the west side of the Kumlung Himal massif. Only when we turned the corner at the south end of Sonam Himal did the sun brighten things up.

a look down the Khumjungar moraine at where our campsite was

The above and photos were taken within seconds of each other. First I looked down the glacier to where our camp had been just two hours before. Now I watched the last of the porters coming up the moraine! I turned around and took the shot below – it shows where we were headed this morning – i.e. further up the moraine and then around the corner towards the literal high point of our trek, the 6040-meter Saribung La.

a brighter view of where it is we were headed for the day – up to Saribung

It was another sunny and windless morning; we would have more great weather all day as we put in probably our longest single day of the trek. We set off about 6:45 and would reach the Pass between 9:30 and 10 and then spend the next five hours or so walking down the lateral moraine of the Bhatchauk Glacier to the third and last of the regularly used campsites below Saribung La at 5000 meters.  But first – getting to the pass –  Saribung La!

We followed the thin strip of moraine you see in the images above and below to the base of the rock face.

a moraine highway leads us to Saribung La

The first notable landmark we passed is De Hults Pass, the gap you see in the image below between the Kumlung Himal massif and Sonam Himal (6225). Given the presence of this one European name in this corner of Nepal, I wondered about who De Hult was and how his name got to be chosen.  An American Alpine Journal article by Paulo Grobel and translated by Todd Miller answered the question – and more!

a view of De Hults Pass from the Khumjungar Glacier

an early morning view of De Hults Pass from the Khumjungar Glacier

During a previous trip to Phu, I learned an amazing story about Alfred de Hults, a passionate hunter who visited Nepal in the early 1950s. Later, thanks to de Hults’s grandson Luc-Emmannuel, we were able to get in touch with Alfred and his family in Belgium. Here is what he told us.

After having searched for snow leopards deep inside the Kingdom of Lo, de Hults made his way back through the Phu valley. Not wanting to return empty-handed, he used his boundless energy to climb a beautiful, snowy peak of more than 6,000m, which he named Bhrikuti. At the time he was constantly occupied with thoughts of a woman, with whom he had fallen deeply in love. He even had problems sleeping at night. This young Nepali woman possessed a radiant, almost divine beauty. But he had to keep his feelings to himself, because Bhrikuti was also the daughter of King Thribuvan.

Once back in the king’s court, he told of his adventures in the mountains between Mustang and Phu, his random summit climb, and the name he gave to the mountain. The old king was no fool, well aware that his daughter had appeared particularly happy ever since Alfred returned. Far from condemning this improbable relationship, the king congratulated the young couple and offered them his blessing.

Alfred married Bhrikuti in a formal ceremony, which must have been kept discreet, because we couldn’t find any record of this marriage in the royal archives. The young couple settled in India, where de Hults became a successful businessman. Later, they relocated to Belgium, where the beautiful princess converted to her husband’s religion, as was the norm. They lived there happily and had several children, enjoying a humble existence.

This correspondence with our new Belgian friend allowed us to lift any doubts regarding the first ascent of Bhrikuti. It had indeed taken place on April 18, 1952 via the south face by Alfred de Hults, solo. Alfred told us that he arrived at the summit at 11:25 a.m. after no great difficulty. He stayed there under sunny skies for more than half an hour, admiring the view and thinking about his distant Bhrikuti. There is only one photo, now in very poor condition, which attests to his story. In 2005 we had simply repeated Alfred’s route. (See here for the source.)

 Note: The peak referred to as Bhrikuti appears on the Himalayan Map House map as Bhrikuti Shail.  There is another  peak named Bhrikuti (6476) on the other (i.e. west) side of Saribung La.  The Nepal Govt topo only has Bhrikuti Shail which it labels as such. Not lablled is the Bhrikuti on the west side of the Khumjungar Glacier.

the two Bhrikuti peaks near Saribung La

As we continued the vistas to the south and east opened up and some of the peaks south of Saribung La came into view.  Below are views of what I think are Chhib Himal, Alfred’s Belvedere and Khumjungar Himal Peak (6759). And yes, the “Alfred” referred to is Alfred de Hults!

a view of what I think is Chhib Himal to the south of Saribung Peak

In the image above you can see some porters on the bottom left.  They are at the base of Sonam Himal and coming up is Saribung La!

a view of what I think is Alfred’s Belvedere (6226) and Khumjungar Himal Peak (6759 )in the clouds

After I rounded the corner at the base of Sonam Himal, I started the upward climb in the tracks laid down by our lead sherpa Tsering and a couple of my fellow trekkers, Bill and Rob.  The snow may have been twenty centimeters deep. Stopping for a brief rest, I looked back at a couple of porters coming up behind me.   In the background on the west side of Khumjungar Glacier is what the Himalayan Map House labels as Bhrikuti (6476).

our porters ascending to Saribung La – Bhrikuti (6476) in the background

In the photo below Saribung Peak is to the right of our sherpa Tsering Lama with my fellow trekker Bill following right behind.  The snow-covered dome can be “climbed” via a moderate 30º slope from the pass that we were approaching. (It is not a technical climb and would probably be rated an F for Facil. The altitude is the single biggest objective danger. However,  ropes, harness, ice axe, and crampons may be required. See here for an article on grading systems.)

our sherpa Tsering and fellow trekker Bill set the path up to Saribung La

A Tangent On Required Mountaineering Equipment!

Mountaineering boots are required on DAY 15 of this itinerary only. Because of this we recommend you hire boots in Kathmandu for about US$3/day. You can however bring your own pair of boots to ensure proper fit and comfort if you wish.

The World Expeditions gear list included mandatory mountaineering boots for this one day of our trek. At $60. U.S.  for rentals for a half-day’s use, I figured I’d bring a pair of my own.  But which ones? I had two to choose from, neither considered “modern”!

  1. the Scarpa Invernos – the classic poor man’s  double plastic boot weighing 6.3 lbs (3 kg.) or

  2. the Salomon Super Mountain 8’s, an older pair of single leather boots that were still in good shape and had last taken me up 6032- meter Tocllaraju in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in a pre-dawn climb. They weigh 2 kg.,  almost a  kilogram less than the double plastics!

On the advice of the WE sales person in Ottawa, I initially went with the Scarpas.  However, the night before departure I reconsidered the situation.  We would not be doing a 2 a.m. ascent but rather would be setting off after dawn. We would also not be at altitude for an extended period of time.  The Salomons would keep my feet warm until the morning sun kicked in and we started peeling off layers of clothes.

Then a surpise!  In Kathmandu at our pre-trip meeting, our guide told us that mountaineering boots were not necessary,  that our trekking boots would be fine. My leather hiking boots –  the Zamberlan Vioz  – had already done an ice climb with steel crampons in Chile so, having arrived in Kathmandu with the Salomons,  I was happy to leave 2 kilograms behind!

I also saved another 500 grams with my choice of crampons! While dismissing the need for mountaineering boots, the trip leader did recommend crampons for possible ice on the glacier.  He had a few inexpensive pairs to sell to those who were still without. [They were urban crampons like the Yaktrax you see some people wearing in the city in icy conditions.]  It would save them a trip to a gear rental store.  The post-use consensus was that they were pretty much useless!

The night before I left home I had also taken the steel Grivel G-10’s out of my duffel and replaced them with my pair of Grivel Air Tech Lite which weighed 455 grams, almost 400 grams less since they are made of aluminum.  I decided that the steel crampons were overkill for what we were doing.  As for the Air Tech Lites, I had worn them on an ascent of Mt. Blanc where they had clearly been inadequate. The ice climb at Tacul de Mt. Blanc’s 45º slope was a challenge with crampons that were only meant for lite glacier traversing. They would be perfect for the glacier traverse and moderately sloped pass that we were doing at Saribung.

On this day I would wear the crampons a total of one hour and, given the conditions we had, I could have done without them.  Of course, had the conditions been different,  they may well have been essential. In that sense,  it was good to have them in my pack.

As for the mountaineering boots, the thing I realized is that none of the guides or the porters had a pair.  Had all 25 of us – 5 trekkers and 20 staff – had a pair of mountaineering boots at 2.5 kg. a pair that would have been over 60 kilograms of boots to carry.  All that for one morning’s use!

Two extra porters would have been needed just to carry the mountaineering boots!

a panorama shot from Saribung La looking east – mega downhill coming up!

Somewhere on our way up to the pass, I walked by three porters sitting there. They seemed to be struggling and they had no water!   I asked them if they wanted a drink and passed my Nalgene bottle over to them. I hadn’t intended for them to drink almost the rest of the contents but the bottle came back all but empty!  It was about 9:30; for the next four hours I would go without. Sometime before 2 p.m. I caught up to Rob, one of the trekkers ahead of me. He poured a half-liter from his water bag and The Great Thirst was over!  Soon after I walked into camp.  More water!

A Brief Pause At Saribung La:

But first – the pass! The photo immediately above was taken just before I started walking down the other side. Once we left the pass we would no longer be in Mustang, the pass being the border between Mustang and Manang districts. To my right of the image is Saribung Peak, looking like a mere pimple as opposed to a mountaineering objective. However, it is another hour and 300 meters of altitude gain to get to the top and I am sure the views are stupendous, given how great they were from the pass!

Some well-acclimatized mountaineering groups actually camp on the pass, spending the rest of the day there after summitting Saribung Peak. They then continue on towards Phu the next day. I would not be lingering!

the snow trail to the Bhatchauk Glacier and our moraine camp at 5000 m

It was down, down, down…we would lose 1000 meters of altitude by the end of the day’s walk.  Ahead of me were some of the porters and the cook, as well as our sherpa Tsering and a two of my fellow trekkers. Behind me were the other porters and the other two trekkers with the trek leader. I would stop often to enjoy the view and snap a photo or two and eat a bit of snow to keep my tongue wet!

on the way down the Bhatchauk Glacier – following the snow trail

To no surprise, it was the two hours or so walking up to the pass and then walking down the first two or three kilometers on the other side that came closest to giving me that “I’m in the Himalayas” feeling.  Stupendous views all around and a dozen climbing possibilities in the 6000 meter + range.  Even Saribung Peak looked more serious from the east side!   That is it in the two images immediately below with a bit of exposed rock face below the peak.

porter and guide descending from Saribung La – Saribung Peak on the left (south)

a look back at Saribung Peak from the east side – looking more impressive!

coming up ahead – some altitude loss on the Bhatchauk Glacier

We had traded the Khumjungar Glacier on one side of Saribung La for the Bhatchauk Glacier on the east side.  Now we followed it down on the north – i.e. left side. From reading a few trip reports I already knew that the walk down was going to feel like it would never end. Now I got to experience it for myself!

a Himalayan dreamscape – the Bhatchauk Glacier descent

11:30 a.m. – passing by what looks like a small glacial pond on Bhatchauk Glacier

The weather had also changed for sunny and clear to cloudy with occasional snowflakes.  The “trail” down the moraine was usually obvious thanks to the cairns that marked the way.  And if there was a doubt,  then a porter would appear up ahead or come up from behind and I would be reassured!  In the image below I am behind four porters as we make our way down.

For the next 2 1/2 hours my sole focus was on getting to the campsite.  So – between the above shot and one below, no photos! I would eventually catch up to Rob and ask him for some water.   It may have had a slight smell of kerosene but I didn’t notice as I drank my first few sips.

2 p.m -. and we are still heading down the Bhatchauk Glacier moraine to our camp at 5000

I would only take two more photos this day. The first was of a cairn ahead.  Given its size, I figured it might indicate something significant coming up.  Little did I know!

the cairn above the Bhatchauk moraine camp at 5000 m

Hidden behind a ridge in the image above was our campsite!  It was a well-used site if the bits of garbage I noticed later while walking around were any indication.  Tsering, Bill, and Rob and a few porters and the cook were there already and the cook tent was up.  The day was done and I was pretty much done too!  I took the photo below and then put my camera and my brain to rest, happy that the epic day of Saribung La was over. That night I would not take my 1/2 Diamox tablet!

from Kumlung to Saribung to Camp at 5000 m – see 2884 01 Damodar Himal

On the Nepal Govt Survey Dept map our Day 13 campsite is somewhere on the moraine  on the bottom right.

Below is a shot of the campsite the next morning. My tent is on the left, red duffel bag sitting there, and everyone is feeling great and ready to go.  We had come down to 5000 meters on Saribung La day; now we would lose another 1000 meters of altitude and stay in the village of Phu.  We were back to where people lived – Tibetan style!

moraine campsite below Bhrikuti Shail  – a morning after shot!

Next Post: Day 14 – Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail To Phu

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La:  Day 12 – Japanese Base Camp To High Camp

Previous Post: Day 11 – Damodar Kunda To Japanese Base Camp

Japanese Base Camp to Khumjungar High Camp

  • time: 7:15 – 11:30
  • distance: about 5 kilometers
  • the high point of the day: our moraine camp at 5680 meters
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps:  2884 01 Damodar Himal.

Japanese Base Camp To High Camp on Khumjungar Glacier – Note: North is at bottom of  image

We started the day off at 5250 meters; by early afternoon we would be at about 5700 meters, having mostly walked up the lateral moraine running along the west side of the Khumjungar glacier before walking across the glacier to a long thin thread of moraine on the other side.

We did not experience the impassable crevasses and seracs mentioned by the trekker we had met at Ghuma Thanti. They were supposedly the reason they gave up on the planned ascent of Saribung La and Peak and returned from Japanese Base Camp.  She had spent the day at the Base Camp while the guide did reconnaissance up the glacier.

looking back at our first hour’s progress since leaving Japanese Base Camp

Much of the day’s ascent was on snow.  It proved to be less demanding than the 560 meters of altitude gain we had made a few days before from our Batsyak Camp on the Parsye Khola (4890) to Batsyak La (5450).  It was sunny and windless during the morning while we did most of our walking and only clouded over and started to snow in mid-afternoon after the camp had been set up.

As I walked up the “trail”  layer after layer of clothing came off!  For the first time ever on a mountain trek, I stopped and took off my fleece long johns!  While they had been appreciated at 6 a.m. when the temperature was -7ºC in the tent, by 9:30 they were making my legs feel dead.

the high altitude desert look had been replaced by an alpine one

Everyone – trekkers and porters – walked at a different pace, taking time to frame photos or to put down the 30 kg. + pack load for a brief rest. I ended up somewhere in the middle of the string of bodies moving up the glacier and followed the footsteps of those ahead of me, occasionally passing porters and then being passed by them thirty minutes later.

footprints  in the snow – walking up the Khumjungar Glacier

Looking ahead – as in the photo above – or looking back at where we’d come from – as in the photo below…always footsteps to follow if you are not Tsering Sherpa breaking trail the front of the line!

8:30 a.m. – walking on the moraine and ice of Khumjungar Glacier

a walker ahead of me on the Khumjungar Glacier

Then came the traverse across the glacier to the campsite on the other side. In the photo below some of the crew are already making their way beyond the ice ramp that they have climbed up with the aid of a fixed rope. It was our first (of two) instances this morning where it got more complicated than just walking with trekking poles.

Porters on the left-hand side of the image heading across the glacier to the rock face – enlarge the pic for a better view!

In the image below is a close-up of the ice ramp and shows our cook/ice screw and rope technician watching someone pull himself up the ten meters or so of ice. It took all of twenty seconds per person to get to the top and then it was fairly straightforward walk the rest of the way. No need for mountaineering boots here!

ice screws and a rope come out as we scamper over some ice and snow to the moraine on the other side of the Khumjungar Glacier

On the “down” side of the ice ridge, we did the same thing – ice screw and rope to give us something to hang on to as we made our way down.  And then it was across the glacier…

trekkers and guides coming across the glacier to the lateral moraine on the east side of the glacier

It wasn’t even noon and there we were on a long narrow thread of scree on the east side of the glacier. The moraine runs for about a half-kilometer; the image below looks down the moraine to where we have come from while the next two look up the moraine in the direction of the next morning’s walk.

Khumjungar High Camp area just after we arrive before noon from Japanese Base Camp

the view later that afternoon after some snow

11:25 a.m. shot – the lateral moraine on Khumjungar Glacier as it stretches up to Saribung La

the same view 5 hours later after the camp was set up and a bit of snow fell

This would be the one night of the trek when the dining tent would not be set up!  Instead, we would be served in our tents! Tea, Dal Bhatt, it all arrived at our door thanks to our two sherpas, Tsering and Kamansing.  As it is, the dining tent table and chairs had been flown out in the morning by the helicopter along with the porter suffering from high altitude cerebral edema and the other porter with the leg problem.  We were all relieved to find out the next day via sat phone that they were doing fine down in Kathmandu.

My sleeping pads were arranged in an off-center way to take into account some badly placed rocks that were pushing their way up into the tent floor!  Somehow the closed-cell foam underpad and my cushy Neo-Air Thermarest made it work,  and I would get a decent night’s sleep, having swallowed the last of my Diamox tablets.

I was not the only one who would fall asleep thinking about tomorrow’s ascent and crossing of Saribung La, the literal high point of our trip.  Twelve days of our trek were already done – now we just had to deal with lucky 13!

The red circle on the  2884 01 Damodar Himal topo map above is my best estimate of our Khumjungar Glacier High Camp.  I found evidence of garbage left by previous trekking and climbing parties as I walked up and down the moraine.  The altitude given in various trip reports for this campsite will depend on where on the moraine they decided to make camp. There is maybe a thirty-meter variation from one end to the other.

Also on the map is the next morning’s route to the literal high point of the trek as we walk up to Saribung La at 6042!  Amazingly, the next day would end with us at 5000 meters!

Next Post: Day 13 – Over Saribung La To Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La:  Day 11 – Damodar Kunda To The Japanese Base Camp

Previous Post: Day 10 – Batsyak Camp (Parsye Khola) To Damodar Kunda

  • time:  7:20 start – 10:30 finish
  • distance: about 5.5 km.
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps: 2984 13 Damodar Kunda;   2884 01 Damodar Himal.
  • route: from Damodar Kunda on the north side of the Namta Khola to the Japanese Base Camp on what once was the bottom of the Khumjungar Glacier (it has receded about 700 meters)

If you are using Google’s Chrome browser, click here to access this view

On the day’s “to do” list was an easy 5.5-kilometer walk on a clearly defined trail along the north slope of the Namta Khola, following it all the way to the toe of Khumjungar Glacier.  Located there – about 260 meters higher in altitude – is a campsite known as the Japanese Base Camp, presumably because a Japanese climbing expedition used it as a base camp for their ascent of one of the nearby peaks.

a look back – the trail from Damodar Kunda – with borders provided by Yara villagers

We set off around 7:15  and, as the images show, it was more of the sunny weather we had for most of the trip. About a half-hour later, I stopped on the trail to take the photos you see above and below.  First I looked back at some of the approaching porters and a couple of my fellow trekkers. Visible in the image is the row of small boulders.   I figured that it was the work of the Dhi and Yara villagers keen on developing the trekking route through their district.

Then I  turned around and looked at the trail with yet more porters and trekkers. The snowy peaks would increasingly dominate our views for the next three days – we were now in the mountaineering phase of our trip!  The trip notes had even recommended mountaineering boots and crampons as essential for at least the crossing of the Saribung La a couple of days later.

looking up the trail along the Namta Khola

We passed by a large rock cairn and down below we saw a herder’s corral. Other than the retreating climbing party at Ghuma Thanti, we had seen no one since leaving Luri Gompa. No herders, no pilgrims, no trekkers.  Perhaps things get a bit busier later in the season?

the trail to the Khumjungar Glacier Japanese Base Camp

Two porters can be seen on the patch of snow in the bottom third of the image below. They would continue over the upcoming ridge and then head down to the Namta Khola river bed and round the corner towards our campsite to the south.

our porters up ahead approaching the bend in the Namta Khola

It was late April and the river was a mere trickle with parts of it frozen. It would look different in August or September with a summer’s worth of glacial melt streaming down. Then trekkers may have to do some wading to get across; we would not have to do any of this.

the Namta Khola near to its beginnings at the toe of Khumjungar Glacier

rounding the corner of Namta Khola for Japanese Base Camp

Two hours into the morning’s walk – and perhaps a half-hour from our campsite, the spot below became a gathering spot for five of our ten porters.  Approaching them is the sirdar, the one responsible for organizing them each morning. Behind them is our trip leader with a couple of my fellow trekkers.

porters and trekkers at the top of Namta Khola on the way to Japanese Base Camp

the last stretch to Khumjungar Japanese Base Camp

taking a break at the top of Namta Khola just before Japanese Base Camp

By 10:00  we had reached the outskirts of the Japanese Base Camp on the Khumjungar moraine.  I turned around to take a few more shots of the terrain we had just walked up. the one above has Rob taking a short rest; the one below is the same scene but with prayer flags that some trekking or climbing party had set up during their stay.

the beginning of the Namta Khola below Khumjungar

Not far from the prayer flags was a small garbage dump with rusted cans and a small collection of empty whisky bottles.

  • There are a number of peaks in the mid-5000’s and Bhrikuti Shail (6361) on the Nepal/Tibet border a couple of kilometers to the east.
  • There are also Khumjungar (6759) and Chhib Himal (6650) and other possible climbing objectives to the south, including Saribung Peak (6328).

All would involve leaving Base Camp for a High Camp before the ascent. Hopefully, the whisky in those bottles was savored in celebration!

a Japanese Base Camp garbage dump

Looking beyond the prayer flags I could see that the cook tent was already up on the other side of the patch of snow.  It is almost dead center in the image below.

Japanese Base Camp at the bottom of Khumjungar Glacier

our tent site by Japanese Base Camp on the Khumjungar moraine

In the early afternoon, the weather would turn to overcast and we would get a flurry of snowflakes.  We had ample time to go for a ramble up towards the glacier; the pix below all figure with bits of broken mountain and chunks of ice and snow.

a view of the Japanese Base Camp area and our tents  from higher up the moraine

blue Khumjungar ice – above Japanese Base Camp

Khumjungar ice and glacial puddle

looking up the glacier and wondering about the next day’s route to High Camp at 5700 m

looking back at Japanese Base Camp from the south

view of Japanese Base Camp from the upside of the moraine

The Gamow Bag Comes Out:

What would we do if one of us actually had a severe case of altitude sickness or HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema), or HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema)? While the protocol is to descend immediately at all speed, given our route the affected person would not be able to go down quickly enough.

For example, we were at 5250 at Japanese Base Camp; it would take four hours to get back to Damodar Kunda and it was less than 300 meters lower. Another six hours and we’d be back at the Batsyak Camp but it is still at 4890. And Ghuma Thanti? Another six hours and an altitude of 4750, only five hundred meters lower than our start point many hours – perhaps a couple of days – previously.  This would not do.

Calling in a helicopter is the obvious answer in such a case but doing so will not necessarily result in an immediate rescue.  Sat phone in the afternoon, for example, and it is unlikely that one would arrive until the next morning, especially given our fairly remote location east of the Kali Gandaki.  The afternoon winds also factor in.

internet-sourced image of a Gamow bag and foot pump

Our trek leaders would have to deal with just such an incident.  At our Japanese Base Camp, one of our porters showed signs of HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Endema).  Shortly after arriving at the campsite, he would collapse, lose consciousness,  and be revived.  Soon he was placed inside a bag similar to one invented in 1990 by Igor Gamow of the University of Colorado.

Wikipedia has a nice simple explanation of how it works –

Gamow bag (pronounced Gam-Off) is an inflatable pressure bag large enough to accommodate a person inside. A patient can be placed inside the bag which is sealed and inflated with a foot pump. Within minutes, the effective altitude can be decreased by 1000 to as much as 3000 meters (3281 to 9743 feet) depending on the elevation. The bag is pressurized to 105-220 mm, pressure gradient is regulated by pop-off valves set to the target pressure.[1] It is primarily used for treating severe cases of altitude sickness,[2][3] high-altitude cerebral edema, and high-altitude pulmonary edema.[4]

We were told the porter felt better after a half-hour in the bag. Unclear, however, was for how long he would feel better and exactly what the plan was for the next day.  Did the trip leaders  think that the porter could continue another 400 meters to High Camp and then yet another 300 to Saribung La?  Later that afternoon in my tent I accessed my digital copy of the Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya guidebook (2015) and read this –

Emergency treatments for serious symptoms of AMS include supplementary oxygen, nifedipine, dexamethasone and repressurisation using a device known as a Gamow bag (this should only be administered by health professionals), but these only reduce the symptoms and they are not a ‘cure’. They should never be used to avoid descent or to enable further ascent.  The only effective treatment for sufferers of severe AMS is to descend rapidly to a lower altitude.”

And that is what happened.

The next morning, after the porter collapsed a second time, it was decided to call in a helicopter. (I am not sure about this – perhaps the decision to call had already been made before he collapsed.)  When we set off from camp the trek leader and another staff member stayed behind with the affected porter and a second porter with a knee problem.

We would hear a helicopter sometime later while we were making our slow ascent up the lateral moraine to High Camp.  Word received at the end of the day informed us that the porter was recovering nicely and would be okay, as would the one with the knee injury.  The incident brought home the potentially fatal consequences of rapid altitude gain, a problem no doubt compounded with the physical exertion needed to carry 30 kilograms’ worth of client and camp gear from one camp to another.

Random Thoughts Prompted By The Above:

Something I wonder about is this:  in both this incident and in the one I described in this post (here), it is a porter and not a trekker/client who suffers from HAPE/HACE. In both cases, the clients seem to fare okay. To be clear, however, so do most of the porters! Given the 80,000 trekkers walking in the Himalayas each year, some stats on how many actually suffer from HAPE/HACE would be useful. The Wiki article on HACE mentions 1%  of those who go up to 4000 meters but in Nepal you are often above that.

One explanation offered by the guide was that the night before the porters had slept in the pilgrims’ shelter at Damodar Kunda where a Hindu pilgrim had supposedly died the year before.  Given the traditional Nepalese worldview the notion that some bad karma had been left behind would explain the cause of the porter’s misfortune.

four of our porters on the Phu side of Saribung La

I never did pick up a porter’s load and try walking with it for a while but a load of at least 30 kilograms is what each of them was dealing with.  Meanwhile, my pack weighed 10 kilograms.  30+ kg. is quite the workload, especially for those porters who were not much older than 16 and on their first trek.  It must also be said that there were older and experienced porters and the sirdar himself who on occasional lightened the load of a flagging porter. Our entire crew was Tamang and had been hired by the sirdar.

From what I understand, the labor market in Nepal these days is such that there are other “easier” ways of making money –

  • post-earthquake reconstruction work
  • road construction projects.

Those jobs may be more attractive to unskilled and poorly educated male youth entering the labor market. Just how much does a trekking porter make a day?  My guess of 2000 rupees a day (that is about $20. US) was not confirmed by the guide.

The Australian adventure travel company that organized my trek, World Expeditions, does have a page dedicated to porter welfare (see here).  The Nepalese agency which actually ran the trek – Highland Excursions – does provide its porters with clothing, boots, and everything else mentioned in the World Expeditions porter welfare page.

Next Post: Day 12 – Japanese Base Camp To Khumjungar High Camp

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 10 – Batsyak Camp To The Damodar Kunda

.Previous Post: Day 9 – Ghuma Thanti To Parsye Khola (Batsyak Camp)

Day 10 – Batsyak Camp To Damodar Kunda

  • time: 7:15 to about 1:15
  • distance: 9 kilometers
  • the high point of the day: Batsyak La (5450)
  • our tent site: near the Damodar Kunda at 4985 (the map above has Damodar Kunda’s  altitude incorrect – 4980 would be closer!)
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps: 2984 13 Damodar Kunda;   2884 01 Damodar Himal.

We crawled out of our tents at about 6:00 to see a light dusting of snow covering the slopes and our tents.  The brown of the satellite image above had been replaced by the scene you see below!

looking across the Parsye Khola riverbed at the Batsyak camp just after 7 a.m.

Wes started off by walking up the river about 400 meters before beginning our ascent of a switchback trail.  The initial section – about an hour -involved some fairly tenuous footing on the gravel slopes as we gained some altitude. My trekking poles – the down-slope one 12 cm. longer than the up-slope one – helped.  For a moment my mind turned to a consideration of how much my backpack would protect my body if I went tumbling down the steep slope!

Our high point of the day, Batsyak La, would also be the highest point so far of our trip at 5450 meters; that is 560 meters higher than our Batsyak Campsite.

Eventually, the drama passed and what you see below is what the rest of the walk up to the pass looked like.

the porters lead the way to Damodar Kunda from the Batsyak Camp (Parsye Khola)

Batsyak La comes within the first 1 1/2 hours of leaving our camp  –  a gain of 560 meters in very little time.  It provided us with a nice bit of further acclimatization at a higher altitude for a couple of hours before we descended down to the Damodar Kunda campsite and an altitude about 100 meters higher than the previous night’s. “Walk high, sleep low” in action!

heading for the day’s high point at Batsyak La (5450)

The pass is really a kilometer-long plateau with no more than a 100-meter change in altitude from one end to the other.  It was the point where I finally felt that I was in the Himalayas!  Looking east and south, the views were stupendous, awesome, wow-inducing…it was one of those moments where you acknowledge your good fortune to be healthy and wealthy enough to be in that very spot and take it all in.

looking south from Batsyak La

porters and trekkers on the trail to Damodar Kunda from Batsyak La

After Batsyak La it is easy downhill walking on a path like the one you see in the image below to the Dhechyang Khola and the French Camp.

the faint trail to Damodar Kund from Batsyak La

Day 10’s home stretch – a view of the French Camp and the Damodar Kund neighborhood

Down at the Dhechyang Khola, I stopped for a water/Clifbar break and looked across at the trail winding around the hillside.  Given the substantial cairn,  I thought we were at Damodar Kunda!

the cairn by the Dhechyang Khola – the French Camp is around the corner on the trail you see on the right-hand side

Expecting to see three little ponds as I rounded the corner, I was instead looking up a long flat valley with no “lakes” in sight!  As for Tsering, Bill, and Rob – they were already about one kilometer up the valley.   It was only later that I found out that the campsite above the bank of the Dhechyang Khola is called the French Camp.  There was just a bit more walking to do before Damodar Kunda, tucked behind a ridge on the horizon,  would come into view!

the French Camp on the south side of Dhechyang Khola – not quite there yet!

We got to Damodar Kunda just after 1 p.m.

Damodar Kunda – within 1000 meters and yet not visible!

We walked into Damodar Kunda from the bottom of the image above, passing the first “lake” on the left.   This pond is known as Tamra to devotees; later we would walk up to the Rajat and Neel ponds near the metal shrine box.

Next were the two shelters –

  • the first one is constructed of stone with a blue corrugated tin roof and
  • the second one –  newer since it does not yet appear in the Google Earth satellite image – with blue corrugated tin walls as well as roof.

Nearby was a structure with roof and doors containing two toilets.  Both were full to overflowing and very much in need of attention. I shut the door quickly!

Our crew set up our toilet tent some distance away.

To the south of the site flows the Namta Khola. The next morning we would follow the river up to the beginnings of the Khumjungar Glacier and our campsite at Japanese Base Camp.

our Damodar Kunda campsite near the pilgrims’ shelters

Hindu shrine and two of the three kunda (small pools of water)

Tents up and duffel emptied, I set off for a walk around the site.  First up was the shrine and then the two kunda – Rajat and Neel – nearby. I thought back to the words of the woman we had met at Ghuma Thanti as she waited for the helicopter at the end of her unsuccessful expedition.  She had expressed disappointment at the tiny size of the Damodar “lakes” she had expected to see.  I saw her point!  Given that they are not much bigger or deeper than puddles, the term”lake” hardly seems appropriate.

However, to the faithful who endure hardship to come here the size of the kunda is not an issue.  They believe they are at the very source of the Kali Gandaki.   The ponds’ significance is exponentially increased by the belief that the god Vishnu, also known as Narayan, exists in the pool in aniconic form as a shaligram and that to bathe in the holy water is to have the karma of a lifetime wiped clean.

the small metal shrine room at Damodar Kunda

The words of this Hindu pilgrim from India (and fellow WordPress blogger) make clear the power of the Damodar Kunda –

Few spiritual people there, were delighted by our presence and reminded us that is great fortune to visit this auspicious place on earth. This place is not known to many and hence has maintained utmost sanctity. It is said that reaching this place itself is the rarest opportunity for a human-being and comes after continuous prayers of many lives (janmas). Doing Shradda / Til tarpan wipes out accumulated sins of past lives of our ancestors and paves way to reach Mukti (heaven). As referred in Puranas & blessed by Lord Krishna, those who take bath here, their soul gets mukti/moksha in the future. It is surprising to note that the average number of pilgrims visiting this sacred place is only 3 per day.

                                                                        See here for the source

some of the ritual objects and devotional items inside the Damodar Kunda shrine box

Inside the shrine, a four-armed Vishnu figure stands at the center.  In his hands, he holds different objects (clubs, a possible conch shell, a discus?). Devotees have smeared red powder on the surface of the statue.

close-up of Vishnu statue at Damodar Kunda

Below the shrine to the south are the two ponds.  Our porters spent some time circling the one on the left.  It is the pond that gets most of the attenton from pilgrims. They were looking for the Vishnu shaligram said to be in the pond but if it is indeed there they could not see it, perhaps because of the ice which covered half the surface.

two of the three Damodar kunda as seen from the shrine box

the Buddhist chorten on the ridge above the Damodar kunda

Above the ponds and the campsite is a chorten draped with Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags.  It would seem that the site, like Muktinath to the south,  has significance for Buddhists too.  Visible in the image above is Tamra Kund, the third small pond,  which is below and to the left of the chorten; it was the first one we passed on our way to the tent site.

graffiti left by pilgrims to the Damodar site – perhaps helicoptered in

On the wall of the newer shelter a helicopter crew had taken the time to write their names. Instead of a long and difficult trek from Jomsom to Damodar Kund, Hindus can make a helicopter pilgrimage!  I had read about these ‘copter visits and wondered if we would be blessed with one during our stay at the site.  The thought that you could – with enough rupees – buy moksha brought to mind the selling of indulgences that prompted the Protestant Reformation in Europe.  Of course, in the Damodar case,  private entrepreneurs and not a corrupt Hindu hierarchy are the ones selling salvation.

While the pilgrims may leave behind bad karma, they also leave behind all sorts of garbage. In the image below, those are oxygen canisters used by passengers who have flown from Jomsom at 2600 meters to this site at 4990 for a quick one- or two-hour visit.

Damodar Kunda – take nothing but photos, leave nothing but prayers!

The first phase of our trek – the walk up the Kali Gandaki – had taken us five days. Now with the end of Day 10 the second phase – the Hindu pilgrims’ trail from Yara – was also done.  Beginning with Day 11 we were moving into the mountaineering phase of our multi-faceted walk.  We were heading to the Khumjungar Glacier and some more altitude gain.

Next Post: Day 11 – Damodar Kunda To The Japanese Base Camp

A Problem With The Nepal Govt Survey Dept. Map!

The 2001 edition of the Nepal Government’s Survey Department map (done with the Finnish Meteorological Institute) has Damodar Kund in the wrong place!  Take a look at the Himalayan Map House map below; note how the trail from Batsyak Camp goes south to Batsyak La and then in a south-easterly direction to the Damodar Kunda.

Now look at the official Nepalese Govt topo.  It too indicates the trail from the Batsyak Camp at Parsye Khola to the Damodar Kunda. However, its trail leads you to a location just northwest of Gaugiri.  And if there are indeed three little ponds to be found there, they are not the Damodar Kunda!

2984 13 Damodar Kunda – the trail from Batsyak Camp (Parsye Khola) to Damodar Kunda

Turning to the Nepal topo 2884 01 (Damodar Himal), the actual location of the Damodar Kunda would be the small pond on the map below.  I’ve labeled the French Camp location as well as that of the Damodar Kund.

Damodar Kunda – the actual location on the Nepal topo map – between Dhechyang Khola and Namta Khola

Next Post: Day 11 – Damodar Kunda To The Japanese Base Camp

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 9 – Ghuma Thanti To Parsye Khola

Previous Post: Day 8 – Luri Gompa To Ghuma Thanti

Day 9 – Ghuma Thanti to Parsye Khola (aka Batskyak Camp; Barche Khola)

  • time: 7:15 – 11:00 a.m.
  • distance: 6 km.
  • the high point of the day: 5320 meters
  • campsite: Parsye Khola 4890 (also referred to as Barse KholaBatsyak Camp; Barche Khola; Daune Khola)
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps: 2984 13 Damodar Kunda;  

satellite view – Ghuma Thanti to Parsye Khola

Every once in a while during the night, I’d think – “Gotta get up early tomorrow in case the helicopter comes in…” As for the acclimatization issue, in spite of my concern, all systems were “Go”.  Not even a mild headache!

The helicopter never did come in until after we had left the site shortly after 7. The two images below show the first bit of snow of the trek that we got to crunch our boots in.  It made for a nice change from bits and pieces of mountain rubble!

looking back at Ghuma Thanti about ten minutes into the day’s walk

the first hour of walking included our first bit of snow

Our route for the day included the 5300-meter Kyumu Pass and then a gradual downhill most of the way to the campsite on the banks of the Parsye Khola (the campsite is also referred to as Batsyak Camp or Barche Khola in other trip reports). [On the Himalayan Map House map above they have the river as the Batsyak Khola; on the Nepal Govt topo it is labeled as the Parsye Khola.]

The shot below is probably of the 5300-meter pass we walked across. Like the pass the day it was a non-event; we had come up to it fairly gradually and I don’t recall a cairn or marker of any sort to indicate that it was somehow a special spot.  We were there around 9:30, a bit more than two hours into the day’s walk.

the trail crosses a plateau on the way to Batsyak Khola

some easy walking on Day 9 – the trail to Parsye Khola.

A half hour late – shortly after ten a.m. –  and there was our next campsite!  Looking down to the dry river bed I could see members of the cook team getting water!  The downhill trail to get to the camp was quite steep even with the switchbacks.   By 11:00 a.m. we were down on the bottom.

looking down at our Parsye Khola campsite

the Parsye Khola/ Barche Khola / Batsyak Camp

This campsite lacks the shelters that Ghuma Thanit has.  The somewhat dilapidated corrugated tin shack you see in the photo below is all that is there.  Our cook team and porters took it over.

We had an entire afternoon to explore the surroundings.  A few of us walked up the river bed, checking out the beginnings of the next day’s trail to Damodar Kunda. We also walked downriver for a kilometer or so to the point where a big chunk of crumbling sandstone has broken off the mountain on one side and blocked the river’s passage.

the Parsye Khola Campsite – late April 2018

an interesting fold in the rocks by Parsye Khola camp

a view of the Barche Khola campsite from downriver

It had been another great day on the trail with more fantastic views of a sixty million plus years old ocean floor thrust 4000 to 5000 meters into the sky thanks to the India plate smashing into the Asia plate. It is amazing to think that acceptance of plate tectonics only occurred in the past fifty years.

The weather continued to be excellent too – warm, sunny days with little wind and at night temperatures that hovered around freezing and a couple of degrees warmer in the tent.  No frozen pee bottle in the morning – yet!

Next Post: Day 10 – Parsye Khola (Batsyak Camp)  To Damodar Kunda

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 8 – Luri Gompa To Ghuma Thanti

 Previous Post: Day 7 – Yara To Luri Gompa Via Tashi Kabum

Day 8 – Luri Gompa to Ghuma Thanti

  • time: 7:10 – 1:00 … about five hours with lunch out of our backpacks
  • distance: 9 km.
  • the high point of the day: 4930 m.
  • campsite: Ghuma Thanti (4750)
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps: 2984 13 Damodar Kunda

Today was one of those days I had been apprehensive about since signing up for the trip.  The reason? The gain in altitude from one campsite to the next.  With the Luri Gompa site at about 3840 meters, the one at Ghuma Thanti represented an increase of 910 meters to 4750, definitely beyond the oft-mentioned 300 meters a day guideline for ascending at altitude.

The logistical problem is this –  there is no good intermediate spot to camp that would make the altitude gain for the day less drastic.  All the other trekking agency itineraries I looked at had the same sequence of campsites.  Our trip itinerary did make the problem seem less of an issue by fudging the numbers a bit.


While the Luri Gompa campsite altitude is overstated by 160 meters,  the Ghuma Thanti one is 150 meters low.  As a  result,  it appears to be a less than a 600-meter altitude gain instead of the actual 910 meters.  [The Luri Gompa figure used – 4005 m – is that of the cave complex above the campsite.]


Here is what happened when another group of 12 clients on what sounds like a KE Adventure Travel trek (Saribung Peak and the Damodar Himal Reconnaissance)  came to this section of the itinerary. Not content with dealing with an already large increase in altitude,  their trek leader unbelievably compounded the problem!  A fellow blogger, the Vagabond Hiker, provides an account in his trip report here.  He writes:

Departing Lo Manthang, we trekked to the village of Yara, the last habitation before heading into the Damodar Himal, where we planned to camp for 7 nights as we made the crossing of Saribung Pass…

That’s where everything went south.

The decision was made to combine two trekking days, eliminating one camp. Thus we ascended more than 1100 meters in a single day, from 3600 m at Yara to 4745 m at the pilgrims’ shelter at Ghuma Thanti, crossing a 4900 m pass on this epic 9-hour day.  We arrived at camp as the twilight gave way to a starry, cold night.  By 9 PM the last of the porters finally arrived, completely shattered.   The next day we continued over an unnamed 5300 meter pass and then down to the Bharche Khola (4900 m) where we set up our second camp.

After a cold night (-12C) we were anticipating the tough hike over the Damodar Kund Ridge and a 5500 m pass before descending down to the sacred lake of Damodar Kund (4890m).  Then an emergency medical situation arose with one of the camp porters in the early hours of the morning. Suffering from pulmonary edema, three times he had to be revived when his heart stopped.  After calling in a helicopter with our sat phone and fashioning a makeshift stretcher, he was carried up to a nearby plateau where the chopper arrived to take him and another porter to Kathmandu for treatment.  (Eventually we heard that both porters had fully recovered).

The cold nights, combined with the near death of one of their friends, spooked some of the other porters, who refused to continue the trip.  The decision was made to spend a second night at the Barche Khola before retracing most of our steps back to Kagbeni where Jeeps would take us to Jomson for the dramatic flight back to Pokhara.  It would take a week to get back to Jomson, a disappointing, though understandable, conclusion to our trip.

The events are a harsh reminder of what can happen when disregarding the basic guidelines of hiking at high altitude.  In comparison, our itinerary from Yara to Ghuma Thanti in the customary two days didn’t sound so bad!  [On a less positive note, we would have our own crisis and helicopter rescue three days later below Saribung La at the Japanese Base Camp at 5250 meters. See Day 11 – Damodar Kunda To the Japanese Camp for the details!]

looking back at our Luri Gompa tent site from the south side of the Puyun Khola

We walked down to the river bed and crossed over to the other side. Then the uphill work began – slowly, slowly following the switchbacks as they made their way up.  The images above and below – one with people and one without but essentially the same perspective – show the uphill with a view of the campsite we had just left with Ghara higher above.

a look back at the north side of the Puyun Khola – our tent spot, Ghara, and to the right Luri Gompa

members of our crew walking along the ridge to the saddle on the ridge to the left

Here is a Google-derived satellite view of the topography we were crossing this day. [Note: the route is my best estimate. It is a bit off.  If you take a look at Google Earth you can see some of the trails.]   Average altitude was in the mid to high 4000’s with a 4930-meter pass in there somewhere. The terrain is fairly desolate with scrub being the only vegetation.

Missing from all of my shots of the day is one of the supposed 4900+ m pass we crossed! I remember thinking – “You mean this is it?” The usual prayer flags and rock cairn were not there to highlight the fact.

The pass may be the reason why we all stopped in the image below!  We had been on the move for a couple of hours by this time.

9:15 a.m. – break time on the trail to Ghuma Thanti

our donkeys coming up the trail on the way to Ghuma Thanti

donkey caravan on the way to Ghuma Thanti

looking back at fellow trekkers coming up on the trail from Luri to Ghuma Thanti

Looking back, looking ahead – in each case, the trail scratched out of the mountains of sand.  Easy to see on clear sunny days like this – but add a snowstorm and it would become a challenge, even with the occasional cairn that marks the way.  The Yara villagers have done some work on the trail in this section to make the path more clear for the hoped-for pilgrim tourists.

more of the trail to Ghuma Thanti from Luri Gompa

And finally – it was noon and we had been on the move at a moderate pace since shortly after 7:00, there was the blue-colored corrugated tin sheeting of the Ghuma Thanti pilgrim shelters.  It would take us another hour to descend down to the flat area where they were located.

our first view of Ghuma Thanti

the trail to Ghuma Thanti – the home stretch

Ghuma Thanti is a stop on the Hindu pilgrims’ trail to the Damodar Kunda, the eyedrop- sized “lakes” that we would reach in a couple of days.  The blue shelters you see have been put there for the use of those hardy Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims.  This is not the Camino de Santiago!   Arriving in Yara from Jomsom, they will often hire a guide and a donkey and go ahead from there.

The Hindi term for pilgrimage is “yatra” and in researching our route I had found an account of a yatri’s visit to Damodar.  Details of Gopal’s WordPress post came to mind more than once as I walked this stretch of our own yatra. (See here for his trip report.)

Ghuma Thanti is on a plateau with ample space to accommodate a number of campers.  (See the image below.) On the left is our toilet tent. The green tent is our dining tent. The blue-roofed buildings are permanent shelters that have been there since 2012.   One serves as a horse shelter, one as a cooking/storage shelter, and the third as a dormitory which can accommodate 20.  (Thanks to Gopal for the details!)  A few Nepalese Hindu associations keen on making the yatra a bit less difficult.

our campsite at Ghuma Thanti

That is my tent in the foreground on the right.  My boots are sitting out in the sun.  Not yet visible is a helicopter landing sign that was placed later that afternoon on a place spot not far from my tent!

Shortly after we had set up camp another trekking party arrived.  It was made up of a guide, a cook, and a couple of porters, and one lone client!

They were on their way back to Jomsom from the Japanese Camp at the bottom of the Khumjungar Glacier, having decided to abort their planned ascent of Saribung Peak.  And now the client, a woman in her late 30’s, having done the return walk from the glacier back to Ghuma Thanti, decided she would just helicopter out from here to Jomsom.  The guide called Kathmandu for a helicopter and set up the landing marker just to the right of my tent in the photo above.

an internet-sourced image of a helicopter landing in the Himalayas! See here for the source.

I stood there and waited with her for the helicopter. Eventually, I invited her to our dining tent and out of the sun for a cup of tea and some biscuits and got the whole story of her ill-fated trek.

As for the helicopter – it would not arrive that day after all.  After making it to Pokhara it was decided that it was too windy to consider further progress so its arrival was postponed until the next morning. From Pokhara, it would fly up the Kali Gandaki valley and then follow the Dhechyang Khola to Ghuma Thanti.   The guide, of course, would also hop in for the ride back. Not clear is what happened to the other members of the crew. We were on high up of a ridge on the south the next morning when we heard the distant sound of a helicopter.

As for why they were not going to Saribung Peak, it did not quite right.  Apparently, she spent a day at Japanese Base Camp at 5250 meters at one end of the glacier while her guide, who is said to have summited Everest three times, checked out the route to Saribung La. He told her that he found it to be impassable because of crevasses.  Our experience three days later had us wondering what he was talking about; we got to the pass – Saribung La –  with little drama.

Her very difficult return walk from Japanese Bas Camp to Damodar Kunda to Batsyak Camp to Ghuma Thanti had been made even harder since she carried with her the failure to summit a peak she had focussed on for months.

The map below shows the route from Ghuma Thanti to the Japanese Base Camp at the bottom of  Khumjungar Glacier and then what would have been her glacier approach to Saribung La and Saribung Peak.

From Ghuma Thanti To Saribung Peak

Another thing she mentioned had me wondering if the guide(s) were just looking for a polite way to get her to abandon her trek/climb.  She told us of the ten hours it took her to get from Japanese Camp back to the Damodar Kunda, a stretch which took us maybe three hours to do.  She may have been so slow – and/or not fit enough – that the guide doubted she could manage the long ascent up the lateral moraine on the west side of the Khumjungar Glacier and then the ascent up to the Saribung pass at 6040 meters, let alone the additional 300 meters of vertical gain to stand on Saribung Peak.

I also wonder how much that ride ended up costing and if the guide got a 10% commission from the helicopter company – there are three or four to choose from – he picked for the flight.

The helicopter would arrive the next morning after we left Ghuma Thanti. We heard it from the hills above as it made its approach to the landing spot near where our tents had been.

Next Post: Day 9 – Ghuma Thanti To Parsye Khola/Batsyak Camp

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 7 – Yara To Luri Gompa Via Tashi Kabum

Previous Post: Day 6 – Tsarang To Yara Via Dhi

6:45 a.m. – early morning sun on Yara

We were usually on the trail by 7:00 but today’s goal – Luri Gompa – was an easy walk only 3.5 kilometers away. By 6:30 I had already had my first cup of tea and walked behind the Rooftop Guesthouse for its great view of Yara. Down below the herder was releasing the animals from the pens for their daily rounds.  The whitewashed Saribung Hotel was nicely lit up by the rising sun.

Yara – herders releasing animals from their pens for the day

downtown Yara – the Saribung Hotel below our Rooftop tent spot basked in the early morning light

a corner shrine at the Rooftop Guesthouse dining hall in Yara

Breakfast done, we hoisted our day packs onto our shoulders and grabbed our trekking poles and set off for the day’s walk.  Here is the Google satellite view of the terrain and my attempt to create the approximate path we followed –

I  have probably not located Tashi Kabum in the right location! It is on the north side of the river (Puyun Khola) and may be a bit west of my guess. In any case, any groups going there will be in the care of a guide who will have made arrangements for the door to be unlocked and he will know the exact location!

looking back at the morning’s first bit of up-valley walking to Tashi Kabum and Luri Gompa

Tashi Kabum was the first of two cliff cave temples we would visit this day.  While the existence of the Luri site has been known for some time,  Tashi Kabum entered into general public awareness not much more than thirty years ago.   Both it and the one at Luri Gompa date back about seven hundred years and are now in the care of Yara villagers, who have the keys to unlock doors and who have also done things like upgrade access to the caves and also maintenance and repair work.

Both caves have a nominal charge and photography is allowed – 200 rupees for the first of the caves, Tashi Kabum, and 500 rupees for entry to the more famous Luri cave temple and its current gompa 150 meters below.

heading down to the Puyung Khola

looking up the path to the entrance to the Tashi Kabum caves

looking down at the dry river bed of the Puyun Khola from near the entrance to Tashi Kabum

The account by Gary McCue of a visit in 1992 (but written up in 2001) is worth reading for the detail he provides.  [Click here for McCue’s article on Tashi Kabum.]  One thing that has clearly changed is the access to the caves. He writes:

Access to Tashi Kabum is quite difficult, involving a steep scramble with precarious hand and footholds. None of my group were willing to climb up through the crumbling layers of packed earth and loose conglomerate rocks…

The Yara villagers have done some work on the path to the cliff and the cave and the drama that McCue mentions is gone.  It is now a visit anyone can do without fear!

The focal point of the inside of the temple cave is a two-meter-at the base chorten. There are at least 1.5 meters of free space around the chorten. On the walls and ceiling, which were covered with mud plaster once the physical space was carved out of the cliff face, you find frescoes of various sorts – mythical or historical figures, important Buddhist symbols, and geometric or floral patterns.

The ceiling of the cave temple has The Eight Astamangala nicely contained in a circular arrangement.  While the astamangala concept is used in the various Indian-subcontinent religious traditions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism) since this was a Buddhist temple the narrative connects the eight objects to gifts presented to Siddhartha Buddha under the Bodhi Tree when he became the Buddha, the Awakened One. In the image below the following objects are illustrated, beginning with the parasol at the top and going around to the right.

  1. The parasol
  2. The victory banner
  3. the lotus
  4. The endless or glorious knot
  5. The wheel
  6. The golden fishes
  7. The right-turning conch shell
  8. The treasure vase

the ceiling of Tashi Kabum’s main cave

some of the floral detail below the auspicious symbols circle

Lots of lotuses in the transition space between the ceiling and the wall paintings! I’m not sure whom the two wall frescoes below depict. It could be Chenrezig (the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) on the left and a lama or siddhi master on the right.










I have no usable shot of the chorten itself!  McCue mentions that when he was there in 1992 –

Unfortunately Tashi Kabum cave has been vandalized and the chorten is only in fair condition; the upper dome has been broken open, many of the bas-relief decoration pieces encircling the base of the dome are damaged or missing, and prayer text folios from inside the chorten are now lying scattered on the cave floor.

I can’t say I noticed the condition of the upper dome since it was draped so heavily with khatas, the Tibetan ceremonial scarves. If the khatas were not hiding the damage then it is likely that the guardians of the cave temple have had it repaired in the past 25 years.

Around the chorten’s base, I noted a couple of paintings of what I take to be another rendition of the eight auspicious symbols. I can’t say for sure if the other six were there too.  (Putting the camera in video mode for a minute or two while I did an overview  walk around the room would have made much more clear what was there!)








The lighting in the Tashi Kabum cave temple would prove to be better than that in the Luri Gompa later on that day.  In both cases, now that I look at the results of my visit I wish I had taken more time and been more deliberate with my camera settings! Still, along with our visits to the central shrine buildings of monasteries in Kagbeni, Tsarang, and at Ghar Gompa, those cliff cave temple visits were the cultural highlights of our trek.

graffiti inside the main Tashi Kabum cave –

Our fifteen-minute visit done, we walked back down to the dry river bed and continued on our way to Luri.  The Yara key keeper headed back to the village; in the afternoon another villager would show up at Luri to open up the door of the cliff temple there.

the key keeper from Yara descends from Tashi Kabum

approaching our campsite near Luri Gompa – the last bit of uphill

Our camp was set up not far from a herder’s rough shelter and animal pens constructed from boulders and mud.  We had lunch in the dining tent – the green tent you see in the image below – and then relaxed for a while before heading up to the cliff caves for a visit.

our tent site below Luri Gompa at 3840 meters

When I expressed my annoyance at the 500 rupee entrance fee – migawd! more than double what we had paid elsewhere! – Robert was kind enough to point out that I was making a scene about $3.!

The image below shows the path up to the temple; some work has been done to make it safer.

the Luri Gompa cliff cave temple

While the Tashi Kabum site did have another cave or two that were not accessible, the Luri site looks more developed and larger.  It included monks’ living quarters in separate caves though we only visited the temple cave, accessed by a ladder from a lower cave which had the locked door at its entrance.

the path up to the Luri Gompa cave entrance door

the chorten in the Luri cave temple

a blurry view of the Luri Gompa temple ceiling – mandala and images of 8 siddhi masters

The mandala at the center of the dome is that of Akshobhya Buddha, who is seated in the “touching the earth” pose in the middle. He is surrounded by eight goddesses, each representing one of the eight auspicious emblems.  It echoes the Astamangala found on the Tashi Kabum ceiling.

See here for a full description of the mandala. Below is another rendition of the image of the core of the Akshobhya mandala which is in the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

Surrounding the central mandala image on the dome is a series of eight portraits of either mythic or historical tantric masters (mahasiddhis).  The one below, for example, is of Luipa, said to be a siddhi master from East India.

a blurry shot of one of the eight siddhis (Tantric masters) portraits at Luri gompa

lotus flower detail from the Luri Gompa ceiling

one of four images on the chorten at the Luri Gompa cave temple – White Tara?

a second image on the base of Luri Gompa chorten

the least intact of the four chorten base images

On the northwest face of the chorten is a painting of Vajrapani, a protector deity meant to look mean and tough. In his right hand (Sanskrit pani) he holds the thunderbolt (vajra) which represents compassion; in his left hand is the bell symboliziing wisdom.

chorten base image at Luri Gompa cave temple

The following three paintings are on the Southwest wall – i.e. the wall you are facing as you enter the room.  On the left at the far end near the SW wall there is a window that lets in some light.  It may be why I focussed on these particular images!  Lack of light was definitely an issue that I wish I had prepared for better – i.e. with a faster prime lens and better ISO settings!

the historical Buddha in the touching the earth pose

The above painting is the second of the five on the SW wall.  It is of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, also known as Sakyamuni.  He is in the “touching The earth” mudra or hand gesture associated with the moment he became the Awakened One (i.e. the Buddha) under the Bodhi Tree. In his gesture he was calling the Earth to be witness to his steadfastness in the face of Mara’s temptations.

The next portrait, #3 in the sequence, is of Vajradhara, the Buddha above all Buddhas.  One of his traits is his dark blue color, as conveyed in this portrait.  His crossed hand gesture is the diamond (Anjali) mudra and he holds a thunderbolt and a bell, which represent compassion and wisdom.

another of the wall paintings at Luri Gompa cave

The next portrait, #4 in the sequence (and the last I got a decent shot of!) I have not identified. The uncrossed legs and the thunderbolt and bell in the figure’s hands may provide a clue.

Luri Gompa wall painting

On my way out I took some quick shots of the outer chamber’s series of twelve frescoes on the south wall.  As the images below will show, they seem to come from a different time and have a less accomplished look about them.

a wall painting from the Luri Cave temple – Guru Rinpoche?

The two frescoes below are the second and fourth of the sequence.  I wish I would have taken the time to put on my 10-18 mm wide-angle lens and spent the minute or two needed to capture the entire set.

Luri Gompa wall painting – Guru Rinpoche in teaching mudra?

Luri gompa cave temple painting with fresh graffiti

Back outside it was down the staircase and past three crumbling chortens to the modern gompa 100 meters below.

the Yara villager with the key and our guides coming down from the Luri cave temple

crumbling chortens and the lower gompa at Luri Gompa

The info board – similar in style to the one by Ghar Gompa – provides some historical background to the cave complex and the monastery down below. The monks are members of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Drukpa lineage. The Dalai Lama’s recent book (2104) Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions only scratches the surface of the dazzling complexity of the Buddhist tradition.  Reading a brief Wikipedia entry on the sect brought home for me how little I know about on-the-ground Buddhism as it is practiced by real believers.

central worship area in the lower Luri Gompa building

locked door to a room in new lower Luri gompa

Day 7 of our trek had been a special one.  It would mark the end of our cultural tour of the upper Kali Gandaki region.  Starting the next morning we would be doing some serious uphill walking and gaining altitude at a much faster pace. Instead of our 3840 m campsite at Luri we were heading for one at 4755 – a 900-meter increase in one day.

The route for the next four days was essentially the Hindu pilgrims’ trail to Damodar Kunda, a collection of three shallow “lakes” with reputed karma-absolving properties.

back to our Luri Gompa tent site near the herder’s corral


A webpage by Philip and Marcia Lieberman titled Tibetan Buddhist Wall Paintings (click on the title to access) hosted by Brown University was my source for much of the detailed information about the Luri Gompa caves.  It dates back to 2003.  As well as a comprehensive set of images it has excellent floor plans and wall layout that helped me reconstruct my 15-minute visit.  It has even more coverage of the gompas of Lo Manthang and would make an excellent guide for your visit.

Next Post: Day 8 – Luri Gompa To Ghuma Thanti

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