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 from the entry checkpoint at Koto just before Chame on the Annapurna Circuit trail.  [See the map below.]  Increasingly, the trek up to Phu and then back to Nar and over the Kang La before returning to the Circuit trail is on the trekkers’ radar as an add-on or alternative to the main trail.

The Annapurna Circuit “trail” has really become a road.  Admittedly rough in parts, on the east side it 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 the 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 locals 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.  See here for a statistical profile of Phu taken from the 2011 National Population and Housing Census.

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 stepping 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. His services cost about US$25. a day.
  • There is a $90. a week restricted area permit for each person. It is a bit cheaper in the off-season.
  • you also need an 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 get the entire guide-book.  The Annapurna chapter has a section on Nar/Phu including a recommended itinerary and fairly up-to-date (2015) info.

Older  accounts of visits to Phu that are worth reading include these two:

Himalayan Pilgrimage by the British Tibetologist David Snellgrove, who came up to Phu in August 1956. [He refers to it as Nar-tö (Upper Nar).]  He and his crew were at the end of a six-month trek through Nepal’s Tibetan lands of Dolpo, Lo (Mustang) and the upper Marsyangdi. Insightful, erudite, readable – the book is a classic. Click on the title to access a downloadable copy! It includes a few pages on the walk from Manang to Phu.

photo source here –  the Dalai Lama with von Furer-Haimendorf

“Bhotia Highlanders of Nar and Phu” (1983) is a study based on early 1980’s field work by the Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, whose entire career focussed on cultural groups of northern India and Nepal.

For decades he was a professor of anthropology at the same School of Oriental and African Studies in London where David Snellgrove also taught.

Note: I only became aware of these two excellent sources after my trek!

Approaching Phu:

The rest of this post will focus on Phu.  While we came to Phu from Nagoru to the north,  most visitors will approach the region of Naar/Phu from the Koto entry point.  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.

In Himalayan Pilgrimage (see above) Snellgrove describes his approach to the village –

We passed under a gateway adorned with three small chortens and observed how in earlier times the track had passed over a bridge guarded by a fort, just like the one further down the valley. This fort is now totally ruined and the bridge destroyed. The present track continues for a while above the right bank of the river and then descends to cross by a less impregnable bridge further on. In the days of bows and arrows this upper valley must have been safe from all foes. From the second bridge the path leads upstream for about half a mile, where one suddenly comes upon the village of UPPER Nar, built onto the cliffs above.” (See the end of this post for online access  to his book, which is available for free download.)

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 have that newly done look!

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

Before 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 recharging her digital device in the dining hall of the Karma Hotel.  It had electricity thanks to the solar panels, a feature which all but one of the households in the village have.

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 and consciousness to remind the villagers of the upcoming ritual cleansing of a spiritually polluted building.  The Lonely Planet guidebook’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 make it medieval.

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

Phu doorway with prayer flags above

passageway to upper Phu 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?

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 established (at least, according to 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 understand the significance of the Tibetan lama was who escaped from 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 Snellgrove’s Himalayan Pilgrimage 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 hilltop, 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!

Since Snellgrove’s visit was in  1956, he would not have met the  Karma Sonam Rinpoche, a lama from eastern Tibet who fled his country in 1959.  He made the hilltop monastery in Phu his new home.  A 2003 WWF award was presented to the lama for his 45 years of advocacy for the snow leopards.

“For the last 45 years Lama Karma Sonam Ringpoche [sic] has been involved in conservation in Phoo village, Manang, in Annapurna Conservation Area. His initial decision to stay at Phoo village was ruled out when he discovered that the villagers hunted and killed snow leopards. However, through his religious and personal beliefs, he could convince the villagers to stop killing this rare species. Furthermore, the villagers also assured him that they will not kill snow leopards, which made him decide to make Phoo his home,” a WWF Nepal release said.   See here for source

While some trekking agencies in 2018 still promote a visit to the lama at the monastery as one of the highlights of a trek up to Phu,  he apparently spent his later years in Kathmandu and may well have already died. What you can see on your visit is the monastery room where he lived.

This passage from the field report “Bhotia Highlanders of Nar and Phu” by Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf from 1983 adds another dimension to our knowledge of Karma Sonam Rinpoche –

Karma Sonam Rinpoche - Phu gompa

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 the 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 Nagoru at 4500 meters; follow the trail further northwest 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 Nagoru is like.  With a tent and some food, it would make an interesting day-and-a-half 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 had 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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