Day One – Jomsom To Kagbeni
- time: about three hours
- high point: Kagbeni (2810)
- campsite: Kagbeni – Paradise Trekker’s Home, one of a cluster of guesthouses as you walk into the village from Ekle Bhatti
- maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map. See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
- Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos: 2883 03 Jomsom; 2883 04 Muktinath
We were at the airport in Pokhara at about 7:45 a.m. Our baggage – checked and carry-on – was weighed and those with more than 15 kilograms had to pay a small surcharge. (It may have been 100 rupees per kilo, certainly nothing to lose sleep over or a reason to leave something behind to cut down weight!).
The alternative to the twenty-five-minute flight up to Jomsom is a gruesome nine-hour journey by jeep on mostly unpaved road from Beni on up. While flights later in the day are sometimes cancelled because of wind issues up in Jomsom, our early morning departure left without a delay. Whew! It would mean that much more time at the other end of the road to do the easy walk up to Kagbeni and some time to explore the village instead of spending it getting jostled in a jeep or being delayed for an hour or two by a road construction crew.
Jomsom serves as the Mustang district’s administrative center. (It gets its name from the Tibetan dzong sam which literally means “new fort”. It has a number of different spellings in English.) Other than Manang on the other side of Thorung La, it has the only airstrip in the region.
We landed before 9:00 a.m. While I didn’t manage to get a right side window it didn’t matter anyway. Haze and very dirty plane windows meant that there was little to see or to snap photos of. I contented myself with looking at the road down below as it snaked its way up the Kali Gandaki valley, said to be the world’s deepest gorge thanks to the 7000- and 8000-meter mountains on either side. Later in the day at Kagbeni, I would chat for a few minutes with a solo traveller from Winnipeg who had done the bus journey up to Jomsom two days earlier. He said he was definitely spending the U.S.$125. for the return flight to Pokhara!
Our support team had driven up by vehicle a day before along with all the gear – the tents, the food, the fuel, etc. – that a camping trek requires. We would meet some of them at the airport where they would carry off our duffel bags to a nearby guesthouse to organize the porters’ carrying loads.
Not everyone landing in Jomsom is heading off to upper Mustang. A major attraction to the east of Kagbeni is Muktinath, a renowned Hindu pilgrimage site associated with the god Shiva. Back in 2006, I had passed through the temple site on the way down from Thorung La on the Annapurna Circuit.
The only complication for those landing in Jomsom and heading for Muktinath is the 1000-meter gain in altitude; some pilgrims may not handle the rapid increase in elevation well.
Our goal – Kagbeni – was less than 100 meters higher than Jomsom so acclimatization was not really an issue.
From Jomsom, we crossed the Kali Gandaki at the north end of town and then walked up the east side of the river, sometimes on the gravel road and sometimes on an off-road trail not far away. As the photos show, in April there is little water and lots of river bed!
Ekle Bhatti – literally “lone teahouse” – now has a couple more structures. That’s it in the images below. The first one was taken from the south as we were approaching; the other two were taken at the north end of the settlement.
The region we were about to enter – upper Mustang – requires visitors to have a special permit, as well as a trekking agency guide to enter. The permit costs an initial U.S.$500. for the first ten days and $50. for each additional day; $25 to 30. U.S. a day is a typical guide cost. We would be spending 13 days in the restricted area so that would be $650. of our trek cost!
Given the annual 3000 permits issued for the past few years, one does wonder who benefits from the U.S. $1.5 million+ collected. It does not seem to be the dwindling number of Lobas who live in upper Mustang.
We could already see Kagbeni as we were approaching Ekle Bhatti. “The gateway to upper Mustang” sits above a rare patch of green, thanks to its location at the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and the Jhon Khola. Like other settlements in the southern part of the district, its fields can grow two crops a year. The further north we walked from “Kag” – and the more we moved away from the Kali Gandaki valley – the more desert-like and arid and treeless it became.
During the first five days of our trek as we walked up the Kali Gandaki valley, our “campsites” were always in the backyard of the guesthouse in the village we stopped at for the night. In Kag that would be the Paradise Trekker’s Home, one of perhaps four or five guesthouses in the village. It was all very well-organized; clearly, the agency has used these guesthouses on many previous trips. Everything just seemed to fall into place and if there was a complication our guide Judda Rai was very quick with the right solution.
We also made use of their dining hall for lunch, supper, and breakfast the next morning and our cook crew used some of the guesthouse’s facilities to put together the meals for us. To the very last day of the trek some 18 days later we remained amazed at what the cook – Kancha Tamang – and his crew were able to come up with given the rudimentary conditions!
Kagbeni is a small and seemingly prosperous village of 937 people in 274 households according to the 2011 national census. (Click here for a bullet list of stats about Kagbeni gleaned from that census.) Of those 274 households, 70 are absent, and the 125 people belonging to them are presumably living elsewhere but keeping their Kagbeni property.
With our tents set up, I opened my duffel up for the first time to set up the Thermarest and the sleeping bag – a ritual that would become very routine by the end of the trek! then it was time to explore the village. One image I had seen on the ‘net was of a Yacdonald’s sign somewhere. I walked into it right around the corner from where we were staying!
The main attraction in Kagbeni is the Kag Chode Thupten Gompa (monastery). The long name translated means “monastery of the place to stop and develop concentration on the teachings of Lord Buddha”. In the image below you see the new structure that has been built in the past decade. Behind it is the older gompa; in fact, it may be one of the oldest buildings in the region since it was erected in the 1420’s. While it housed as many as 100 monks from nearby communities in the mid-1700’s, these days it has a small fraction of that.
I would stop to give the shaggy dog you see below a bit of attention as I stepped into the monastery courtyard. Delighted with the ear scrunches and belly rub, he ended up following me around for a while.
While I was able to walk into the new monastery building, the entrance to the old one was locked. Later I would return with the others and we would get a guided tour with one of the resident monks. (A 200 rupee donation is expected and will go towards maintaining the ancient gompa as well as helping to complete the new one.)
At the entrance to the new monastery are classic Tibetan Buddhist images like the one below. In a nod to modern times, the images are wallpapered! I would see similar wallpaper at other village gompas and mani wheel shrines on our trek.
No photo taking is allowed inside the old gompa. It means that a month later I cannot recall exactly what I saw inside without mixing it up with the insides of the three or four other gompas I visited with a similar ban on photos! A possible reason for the photo ban? Many artifacts have been looted from monasteries over the past fifty years. Having images of precious and sacred statues, thangkas, woodwork, and the collection of texts on the internet is said to provide a potential buyer with a virtual shopping list that only needs someone willing to fulfil it.
Strangely, the Trip Advisor page on the Kagbeni monastery does include a couple of overview photos taken this very year of the inside of the old gompa! See here!
Other than the monastery, Kagbeni offers lots of photo ops as you ramble around its narrow paths and alleyways. Here are a few that caught my eye.
One Kagbeni establishment I somehow missed in my ramble around the village was the guesthouse The Red House Lodge. Once it housed Buddhist nuns and was known as Tharwa Chyoling; in the 1960’s it also served as a Khampa depot and residence. It was in a state of collapse when the current owner took it over and restored it as a guesthouse while keeping elements of its previous religious function, including a dramatic shrine room. See here for the story. For an independent traveller, it might make an interesting place to spend a night or two!
It doesn’t take long to walk to the north end of the village and another superb view of the Kali Gandaki. The next morning we would begin our walk up the east side of that valley all the way to Chele and marvel at the geology of the terrain, as well as gain a couple of hundred meters in altitude in the process. We were walking up a 3000 meter high mass of crumbling sandstone and limestone that was once (that would be sixty million years ago!) an ocean floor.