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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The Southern Entrance To Phu:
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 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.
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”!
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 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!
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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