Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 17 – Koto To Tal

Previous Post: Day 16 – Meta To Koto

Day 17 – Koto To Tal

The night before when we arrived at Koto it really felt like the trek was over and done. We had gone up the Kali Gandaki valley, gone across the Khumjungar Glacier and Saribung La, and gone down the Phu/Nar Valley.  There was more commotion in Koto than we had seen in a couple of weeks.  And coming up the Annapurna road were the occasional jeeps, trucks, and motorcycles. During the afternoon a couple of dozen hikers – mostly in their twenties – came through Koto on their way to Chame.  I wondered how they were coping with the dust kicked up by the vehicles on their shared path.  We would find out this day as we set off for Tal.

I did know that we would be losing another 900 meters of altitude this day.  And while we did eventually walk down into Tal by mid-afternoon,  it did not start that way.  The first two hours of the morning walk is uphill!  Koto is at 2600 and Timang is at 2750.

To our left were fields; to our right the steep slopes of pine-covered hills that morph into the Annapurnas! The first hour was for some reason the worst in terms of vehicle traffic.  Trucks and jeeps, one after another…gauging which way the wind was blowing, I moved to one side of the road or the other and tried not to breathe for a minute while the dust cleared.  No images of vehicles in this post!  I put my camera away to prevent dust from getting inside.

We slipped past one small farming settlement after another – Thanchowk, Timang, Danaque – and by 11 we were in Dharapani.  We would have a lunch break here before finishing our walk down to Koto, with the last stretch on a trail across the river from the road.  It was a treat to walk without thinking about vehicles coming from both directions.

local Annapurna road traffic west of Timang

Walking through the villages certainly made clear the guesthouse economy that has developed over the past forty years since the Annapurna Circuit was created as a trekking trail.  Before that, the local economy was built primarily on farming and trade. As more trekkers come up to Chame by vehicle what will happen to all those who invested in guesthouses in hopes of getting their share of the money spent on food and accommodation.

Timang at 2750 would be our high point of the day.  Just after Timang, there was a tired-looking  ACAP trailhead map for a camping trek south into the Annapurna range.  It crosses Namun La and passes by Dudh Pokhari, a lake sacred to Hindus, before coming back down descending to Siklis and a road to Pokhara.  The views of the Annapurna peaks and of Lamjung Himal from another 2000 meters up would certainly be superb!

The Namun La Side Trail & Acclimatization

As I looked at the map,  I did wonder about the acclimatization factor if you approached the pass from Timang at 2750.  On the map pictured above, the pass is at 4860 meters  – a 2100 meter ascent.  You’d figure at least three or four days would be needed to allow bodies to adapt and yet the actual distance from Timang to the pass is not all that great.

Even more alarming,  when I checked the Himalayan Maphouse map (see above)  that evening the altitude indicated is 5560 meters.  That is 700 more than the elevation on the map board!  A look at the Nepal Govt topo from 2000 provided yet a third number,  one close to the Himalayan Map House figure – it was 5496.

A third map – the 1:125,000 Annapurna Circuit map from 2002 by Shangri-La Maps –  also has the 5560 figure for Namun La. ( (Click here to see the map!)

If trails like this one are going to be offered as alternatives to walking on the Besi Sahar – Manang Road, then we need to start with accurate numbers.  At 5560 Namun La would be higher than Thorung La’s 5416!

When I got home more research on Namun La and turned up a number of websites, a few quoting the ACAP figure but most the Himalayan Mountain House one!  I also found a gripping trip report of a 2007 trek from Siklis over Namun La to Timang at the Summit Post. Org website. Click on the title – once you start reading you will not stop!  Marooned In The Annapurna Wilderness. Of the pass, the report notes this –

The Namun is a high (5,560 metres) and difficult pass formerly used for migration and trade between Tibet and the Gurung (Ghurka) Nepalis of the region but now virtually unused by anyone other than the occasional trekking party. Once across the Namun, a long 1-2 day descent would put us on the tourist path at Timang…

More googling somehow led me to the Mountain Kingdoms website even I found a new-for-2018 trek titled Namun La, Annapurna Wilderness Trek which includes this highlight – “Cross the remote and challenging Naman [sic] pass, 4,850m/15 ft.”  

So what is the actual altitude? Who is right?

An email to Mountain Kingdoms received this response based on a trek the representative had made in the fall of 2017.

The height you are looking at on the map of 5560m is a spot height – i.e., the height of an adjacent hill – it’s not the height of the actual pass, which is 4850m.  I had a friend accompanying me when I did this trek last November and his Garmin showed this to be an accurate height for the pass.

As the classic Annapurna Circuit dies as a trekking route,  the locals can either forget about appealing to trekkers or they can redefine what Annapurna trekking means by developing alternatives that will take them off the dusty and increasingly busy road.  This high altitude trek would be one such offering; others include the Nar/Phu trek and the traverse from Manang to Jomsom via Tilicho lake.  the Annapurna Base Camp is already an established off-road trek. Unfortunately for the guesthouse owners, off-road would mean away from their properties on the Annapurna road.

(See here for a map which shows the Mountain Kingdoms trek route (Siklis – Dudh Pokhari – Namun La – Timang – Dharapani) over nine days.  Combining it with a walk up the Naar/Phu valley or a traverse from Manang to Jomsom via Tilicho Lake would undoubtedly make for a different experience than what is left of the Annapurna Circuit!

a morning view SE into the Annapurnas


While the future may lie in leaving the classic route and going high, we were staying low! Next up – Danaque – or Danakyu on both the topo and HMH maps.

approaching Danaque from Timang

the Annapurna road through Danaque – a look back at where we came from

Tsering and Bill lead the way through Danaque

New Manaslu Hotel Danaque

I sipped on my first bottle of Coca-Cola of the trek and, after a half-hour pause, we were on the downhill again.  By 11 we would be sitting in the dining hall of a Dharapani guesthouse and enjoying the shade while our cook team whipped up their last lunch!

Dharapani and South To Tal

the Marsyangdi and the Annapurna Road between Dharapani and Karte

the Annapurna road south of Dharapani – a closer- up shot of the scene above

the Marsyangdi passes by Karte with the  Annapurna Road on the right

As we approached Karte (see the image above) an alternative trail leading upriver from the village was visible.  When we got to the bridge crossing the Marsyangdi, the map answered the question of where that trail went – up to Dharapani.  The sign also points trekkers to three guesthouses in the village.

We kept on to the main road and soon came to another pedestrian bridge, which we did cross.  It took a half-hour to reach Tal, away from the road on the other side of the river. Along the way we were able to walk down to the river and take in some beautiful beach views; the bends in the river here have led to the collection sediment piling up over the millennia!

The River Left Trail To Tal:

looking up the Marsyangdi from just north of Tal

the trekkers’ trail to Tal is visible on the left; the road to Manang is visible on the right

approaching Tal from the north

a view of Tal from the north – the Besi Sahar-Manang Road is on the other side of the Marsyangdi

the entrance gate at the north end of Tal

downtown Tal – early May 2018

Our guesthouse side lawn would be our last campsite of the trek. it was fairly quiet in the village.  While there at least a dozen guesthouses,  there seemed to be few trekkers about. Increasingly, they are skipping the lower section of the classic Annapurna Circuit – i.e. the part from Besi Sahar to Dharapani, and just taking a jeep ride up to Dharapani or even Chame. The trip can be done in eight hours or so.

Vehicles can access the village from the south end, where there is a bridge over the river to the switchback road up to the Manang -Besi Sahar road.  Between the village entry gate pictured below and the river is a parking lot.

Tal’s southern entrance gate – a shabby welcome statement

In the early evening, I took a walk to the south end of the village.  The mildew-covered entrance gate and a dilapidated billboard make a negative first impression on trekkers coming up the road from Chamje.

The guesthouse dog gave everyone a reason to make use of those earplugs again.  Since we had left the Kali Gandaki villages night times were fairly quiet.  In Koto and Tal, we were reintroduced to village life!

The next day would be our last in the Annapurna region. On the itinerary was a half-day of walking to Chamje and then a jeep ride to Besi Sahar – the trip was almost over though our arrival in Koto already felt like the end of the journey.

Something for World Expeditions and their Nepal agency Highland Excursions to consider –   please eliminate the unappealing road sections of the trek by –

  • Ending the trek at Koto and gaining a day by driving from Koto to Besi Sahar.
  • Gaining another day by driving from Kagbeni to Chele and then walking to Ghiling from there.
  • Spending the two days saved in Lo Manthang, supposedly the #1 cultural highlight of a trip to Upper Mustang,

The roads up to Lo Manthang from Jomsom and from Besi Sahar to Manang will only get better and see more vehicles.  Better roads mean worse trekking.  The trek route and itinerary need to change in response to what is happening.

(coming soon) Next Post: Tal to Kathmandu

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 16 – Meta To Koto

Previous Post: Day 15 – Phu To Meta

Meta To Koto – Himalayan Map House

  • time: 7:00 – 2:00 p.m. with many rest stops
  • distance: about 14.5 km.
  • the high point of the day: Meta at 3586 m
  • maps: Himalayan Map House Annapurna Circuit Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos:  2884 05 Chame; 2884 Bagarchhap

Meta to Koto – approx. 14.5 km.

6:15 a.m. – our Meta campsite on the front lawn of one of three or four guesthouses in the village

6:20 a.m. – our tent crew dismantling the tents while we have breakfast at Meta

Just above and to the south of our guesthouse (it may have been the Terelha Guesthouse and Restaurant) was what looked like a newly constructed Hotel Marpa International.

Meta – the new Hotel Marpa International

Steps leading down from our guesthouse to a lower level and, at least his morning, a group of donkeys waiting for their day to begin.

an overview of the guesthouse scene at Meta – three or four choices

620 a.m. – Meta donkeys waiting for another Naar/Phu workday to begin

And then it was off – Koto on the Annapurna Circuit was the day’s destination and it felt like the end point of our trek even if the official end was Besi Sahar. This day we would meet seven trekkers coming up from Koto, more than we had met in the nine days from Tsarang.

Also noteworthy was the number of bridges we crossed as the trail bounced from one side of the Naar Khola to the other.

first bridge south of Meta

looking down at the Phu Khola  on the trail to Koto from Meta

About an hour into our walk we passed by Singenge Dharmasala. If you’re coming from Koto it is a possible tent site before moving up that last 1 1/2 hours to Meta; the porters’ shelter, the outhouse, and the litter at the site show that some have. I guess it would all depend on how tired you were when you got there. It certainly has none of the views and facilities that Meta has! There is that steel bridge just south of  the site and five minutes further down a waterfall that the trail passes under.  It would make for a brisk shower! (Not the place to lose your footing!)

Dharmasala – a possible stop on the way to Meta from Koto

waterfall over Meta-Dharmasala trail

the 2nd bridge down from Meta











waterfall over Koto-Meta trail near Dharmasala

looking south from the Koto-Meta trail

a porter with a 1 m x 3 m corrugated aluminum sheet

the porter passes us by on the way to Meta and beyond

bridge #5 S of Meta on the trail to Koto

Meta-Koto trail cut into the rock wall

9:40 a.m. – a teahouse stop on the Koto-Meta trail

Just a bit south of our tea stop was a more substantial teahouse – the 3 Sister Restaurant and Lodge. For those coming off the Annapurna trail from Koto (2600) and making the ascent up to Meta (3560), it might be a good intermediate stop instead of trying to do Koto-Meta in one long hard day.  By now the pine forest and the lush vegetation has really taken over from the barren alpine look!

3 Sisters Restaurant and Lodge – about 2 km. north of the Soti Khola campsite

We pass another new teahouse/lodge soon after.  The trail runs through a pine forest and it is actual soil underneath! On a stretch of collapsed hillside we see a crew of ten young men in “break” mode from their task of rebuilding the trail.  They seem to have minimal equipment; most are wearing flip-flops and wool caps.

A bit further down the trail, we step aside for a few moments as another donkey train makes its way up to Meta and points beyond.  The animals do not seem over-loaded and look to be well-treated.

At 11:00 or so we are approaching the confluence of the Soti Khola and Naar Khola. On the north side of the junction is what looks to be a well-used campsite, given the litter dump on the side of the trail and the presence of a stone outhouse.  Our cook team is already there and within minutes lunch is served.  We spend perhaps an hour sitting in the shade and relaxing and then it is off again.

Naar Phu Khola  lunch stop just above the Soti Khola

The trail leads to a new metal bridge perhaps 20 meters up but we choose the log bridge.

crossing the Soti Khola – two choices!

the log bridge over the Soti Khola

There are still a couple more bridges to cross as the trail goes from one side of the river to the other.  The sections of forest trail are interspersed with some dramatic 100-meter stretches carved out of the rock face.  The one in the image below is on river right as we approach Koto.

looking back (i.e. north)  at a section of the trail near Koto blasted out of the rock face

trekkers sign at the bridge at Koto

As we walked across the metal bridge I stopped to take a photo of the fourth major river of our trek.

  • We had walked up the Kali Gandaki to Tsarang in upper Mustang:
  • We had roughly followed the Dhechyang Khola all the way to Damodar Kunda and then the Namta Khola to the toe of the Khumjungar Glacier.
  • Once over the Saribung La, it was the Layju Khola and then the Phu/Naar Khola that we followed to get to the bridge I was standing on.

Now I was looking at the Marsyangdi Nadi, the river whose headwaters is up near Manang and which flows down to Besi Sahar, the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit and the end point of our trip.

The rivers, as much as the snow-covered mountains they come from, had provided the framework of our 200+ kilometer walk through some incredible country.

the Marsyangdi Nadi as it flows under the bridge at Koto

Just on the other side of the bridge I looked down to the left and saw a town garbage dump. My thoughts turned back to the trekkers’ notice on the other side – “Return batteries and non-disposable waste for proper disposal”.  Later that afternoon I would see the following dump no more than 5 meters off the road into Koto –

Koto garbage dump on the side of the road

While not discounting the mess that a few trekkers cause, the garbage dumps like the one I was looking at are clearly the work of Nepalis and they need to take responsibility and do something about the plastic containers and wrappers and glass beer bottles.  Perhaps putting a price on the empty bottles and cans would encourage people to bring them to a central deposit place where they could be dealt with more appropriately.

Naar-Phu Checkpoint and gateway to the Nar Phu trail

Main Street Koto is the Annapurna Circuit trail.  We passed the checkout and turned left on to the road you see below.  We were headed for the Hotel Super View and its lawn, which would be our campsite for a night.

Koto at 2 in the afternoon

Koto street scene – later that afternoon

Koto – Hotel Super View – one of many guesthouse options

Next Post: Day 17 – Koto To Tal

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 15 – Phu To Meta

Previous Post: In And Around The  Village of Phu

Phu to Meta – Himalayan Map House

We set off for Meta at about 7:15; it was Day 2 or our three-day walk down the Phu/Naar Valley and marked by yet more altitude loss, even if not as dramatic as the 1000 meters we descended from Saribung La the day before from the moraine camp below Bhrikuti Shail.

a last look back at the Phu village gate from the south

Out through the village gate, over the bridge to the east side of the Phu Khola, past the mani wall and the crumbling dzong and chortens (see the post  In And Around The Village of Phu for more images.)

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

As we walked by the narrow channel the river has carved through the sandstone a similar view from Day 2 at the start of our trip came to mind.  Two weeks before it was the Kali Gandaki carving its way through similar rock just before Chele.  Then we had stood on the metal bridge and looked north into the passageway; now we were on a trail on river left as in the image below.

more Phu Khola carving its way through the sandstone

the Phu Khola – a narrow river passage just south of Phu












Most of our walk down to Meta would be on river left with a few bridge crossings along the way, some simple wooden structures and others of metal. The trail itself was becoming more and more defined with an occasional chorten or a  mani wall to remind us of the Tibetan Buddhist cultural world we were in.

more mani walls and chortens and signs of increased human presence

the trail between Phu and Kyang

Sometimes the trail took us to the west side of the Phu Khola…

…and sometimes a bridge would take us back to the other side

Just around the corner from the bridge, we are crossing in the image above we passed by what I understood to be a porters’ overnight stop.  The rest house is about two hours south of Phu and could serve as a campsite if the lure of Phu did not provide the extra boost necessary to just finish off the walk that very day!

porters’ overnight stop on the trail to Phu – 2 hours south of Phu

Less than a kilometer down from the stone building we passed by the memorial erected by the Quebec (a Canadian province)  government in memory of three Quebec trekkers. They died near this spot in October of 2014 when the torrential rains from Cyclone Hudhud triggered a massive snowstorm and a series of avalanches in the Manang district.

They were among the  21 trekkers and at least as many locals (guides, porters, yak herders) who lost their lives because of the storm.

As I looked back at the cairn from a few meters down the trail,  blending in with its surroundings and sitting on what appears to be a tilted pedestal.

looking back at the Phu cairn memorial to the three Quebec trekkers

About an hour further down from the memorial we approached a grassy plateau on the trail pictured below.  It was Khyang, for a brief period serving as a Khampa settlement.

Khyang (3887)

Khyang (one of many variations of the name including Kyang, Kyan,  and Kya) was the first of a string of abandoned settlements which we would walk through on our way to Meta.

I had assumed that the inhabitants had left in the past twenty years or so as the depopulation of the Himalayan communities near the border with the new Chinese masters continues. Their closing of the border had upended centuries of land use patterns and trade routes on which the communities on the Nepalese side had built their economies.

There was, however, an added complication to the above. It was the arrival (mostly in upper Mustang but also in Dolpo and the Phu to Meta area) of  Khampa guerrilla fighters who had fled Tibet in the 1960’s after an unsuccessful revolt against the  Chinese People’s Liberation Army.  More than 1000 kilometers from their eastern Tibet homeland,  they used their new bases in Nepal to conduct raids against PLA posts and convoys in Tibet.

Eventually, the Chinese officials exerted enough pressure on Nepal to dismantle the Khampa resistance.  Thanks in part to the Dalai Lama’s personal intervention, as well as the CIA’s decision to pull the plug on Operation Shadow Circus and their support of the Khampas, the Khampas gave up the fight and were moved to refugee camps in Pokhara and Kathmandu.

a view of Khyang from the north

David Snellgrove came up this valley in August 1956 as a part of his exploration of Tibetan communities in western Nepal from Dolpo to Nar/Phu.  Here is what he observed about Khyang –

We continued upstream and by evening reached another deserted village, known as Kyang, where we resolved to spend the night. We clambered through the empty broken houses, cutting through the tall weeds that grew in the courtyards, until we found one that would offer us sufficient shelter.

So – even before the mid-1950’s the village had been abandoned.  So much for my attempt to explain it as a result of China’s sealing of the border in the 1950’s!  His description does make sense of one thing – that is, how the Khampa resistance group was able to just move into a settlement.  What they had found was an abandoned one and made it theirs.

a view of Khyang from the north

Kyang sign as you enter the settlement from the south

Now Kyang is identified on the signage as a Khampa settlement, even if they only lived there for a decade or so.   The photo below taken from the south after we left Kyang shows a couple of new buildings – guesthouses with brightly coloured corrugated tin roofs  –  to the south of the village’s older buildings.  Our guides did chat briefly with a herder and his wife who live in one of them.

looking south from Kyang settlement

a view of Kyang from the south


As this Nepal Govt topo makes clear, there is a bit of a climb as you leave Kyang for Chyakhu.  Fifteen minutes up the trail I turned back for a last shot of Kyang (the photo above).  Then we went down on the other side of the ridge and crossed a stream before heading on mostly flat (“Nepali flat” our guides would say and chuckle) to Chyakhu.



donkey train between Chyakhu and Kyang heading up the valley to Phu

Chyakhu (3800)

approaching Chyakhu from the north

Ten minutes after stepping aside from the trail to let a donkey train pass by, we came to the settlement of Chyakhu, once (and maybe still!) a traditional winter settlement for Phu inhabitants.   While many of the old stone structures look like they have been abandoned, there are in 2018 also new buildings – in particular, guesthouses – being built.

As to why – other than for economic reasons – a community would abandon the structures they had invested so much in putting up, Snellgrove’s Himalayan Pilgrimage makes these observations about Chyakhu (which he spells Cha-go) from 1956 –

We passed beyond, and having waded through a torrent soon came upon yet another deserted village, called Cha-go, with about thirty houses. The terracing below the village was still intact and the ground must have been worked within the last ten years or so. This was confirmed by our porter, who told us that villagers from Lower Nar used to come up and work the fields, but that the village itself had been deserted before his time. All the inhabitants were said to have died of disease (? smallpox) and no one has wanted to live there ever since. (Snellgrove 228)

As with Khyang up-valley, this settlement is now graced with a sign identifying it as a Khampa settlement.  Given that the Khampas – and other Tibetan refugees – would only have moved in after the 1950’s and then moved out in the mid-1970’s to refugee camps in Kathmandu and Pokhara, there is much more history here than the sign indicates.

the old Chyakhu looking abandoned

It was noon and this was our lunch stop. We made use of the dining hall of a guesthouse (on this day it was the unpainted wood building in the image below).  Our cook team readied the food, using some of the guesthouse facilities.  Not only did we get a surprisingly varied range of excellent meals but the attention to hygiene was such that only one person had any gastrointestinal issues during the 19 days on trek – and that was likely not the result of the food.

Chyakhu – two of its newly built guesthouses

Jhunam (3640)

Not far from Chyakhu – about 1.5 kilometers south is another abandoned settlement.  Time too for another Snellgrove quote!  In 1956 he came up this way from Nar.  Standing near the bridge crossing the river to access the east side trail,  he had looked down towards Meta and then started his walk up to Phu.  He wrote this –

Further downstream high up on the opposite bank one sees a deserted village of some fifteen houses. [He is describing Meta or Methang here.]  Crossing the trembling bridge, we followed the path up the far bank. After walking for about two hours, we came to another small group of deserted houses, known as Dzu-nam.

Dzunam – on the Himalayan Map House map it is Jhunum and the Nepal Govt topo has Junam Goth  –  has a few abandoned structures. The image below captured a couple of them:

the abandoned village of Jhunam south of Chyakhu

the Phu Khola as it flows down to Naar Phedi

Further south from Jhunam as we neared Nar Phedi we got some nice views down the valley from our trail on the east side of the Phu Khola.  Somehow the mist added to the magic!

from the Nepal Govt Survey Map  – 2884 05 Chame

approaching the junction of the Meta trail with the one to Naar and the monastery

Around the corner in the image above is the dramatic setting of the Nar Phedi Monastery (the Lonely Planet guide-book identifies it as the Narsadak Changu Tashi Choling Gompa). It is a new complex, having been built in the last ten years with the funding coming from outside the local communities.  It now includes a lodge for the monastery’s guests, as well as for trekkers. A number of Nar-Phu trek itineraries stop there for a night before moving on to Naar, another 500 meters up,  the next morning.

monastery near Naar Phedi

same, same, but different – the monastery at Naar Phedi in landscape orientation

We stayed on the east side trail and soon were approaching the kani (village entrance chorten) you see below.

Meta (3560):

Meta (also appears as Metta and Methang) is just to the south of the junction where the trail across the Phu Khola takes you west to Naar past the monastery you see on the west side of the river in the images above.

entrance chorten on the north side of Meta in the Phu valley

approaching Meta (Methang) from the north

From the Lonely Planet’s description of Meta, you wouldn’t expect to find much. It states:

Up among the stone houses of the empty village stands the simple Kang Garu Hotel (bed Rs 200, dal bhat Rs 300), but there are only three simple rooms here and hygiene is not a priority in the kitchen so you might want to consider camping. Villagers from Nar use Meta as a winter settlement and the village remains deserted for the rest of the year. [Trekking In the Nepal Himalaya, 2015]

Below is a view of the winter settlement of Nar and Phu villagers taken the next morning just before we set off for Koto. In early May 2018, there were three or four guesthouses available, including the new Hotel Marpa International pictured below to the right of center.

The next day as we walked down to Koto we would see yet more new guesthouses being built or just opened.  Perhaps locals are hoping that the positive reviews of their valley as a trekking destination will lead to more visitors.  The next day at Koto,  I would ask the official at the checkpoint how many trekkers had set off for Meta that day. His answer: 7.

an overview of the guesthouse scene at Meta – three or four choices

Next Post: Day 16 – Meta To Koto


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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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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: Phu (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; 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 Nagoru and Phu

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 stray domesticated yak who had become separated from his herd.

a stray yak in the hills above Nagoru

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 Nagoru

yak herder’s shelter on the trail above Nagoru

The first settlement we would come to on our descent to Phu was the abandoned village of Nagoru. 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 more that I did point my camera at!

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

terraces on the hillside at Nagoru

chorten and stone buildings of abandoned Nagoru

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 colour on chortens and on gompas from Kagbeni on up to Luri Cave’s 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 the valley to Meta or below where the weather was less harsh.

cliffside caves above the site of Nagoru

a view of Nagoru’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 out 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 Nagoru 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 not Foo as in “fool”!]

from Nagoru 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 Nagoru.  For one of maybe four of the 1000 photos I took, I changed lenses to my 75-300mm telephoto and zoomed into the view you see below.  Nice lens to have but dead weight most of the time!

On the bottom left is the trail we followed past the village entrance chorten; above the chorten is the cliffside 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 Nagoru and the trail we have just walked

trailside chorten below Nagoru in the Phu Valley

1:40 – approaching Phu from Nagoru – 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 were on the way to the monastery. They told us to follow the path at the base of the rock face to the entrance to the village. So – back down we went! We had been spared an unnecessary 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 ramble through the village.  While the place seemed almost deserted, it asks to be photographed thanks to its layout and architecture.

My next post looks 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 

In the fall of 2016 I spent a morning checking out the street art of the Kensington Market area and the famous Graffiti Alley in the Queen/Spadina area. (Click on the link above to see some of the street art I sampled.)

I Miss Hip Hop 1993

I Miss Hip Hop 1993 – one of my favourites in Garffiti Alley

I’ll admit I came away a bit puzzled.  While what I saw was often colorful and sometimes quite skillfully done, I often wondered just what the point was.  And then, of course, taggers with even less to say came along and put their markings on top of it all.  Perhaps thinking there has to be a point at all says more about me than about the walls I tried to “read”!

The Banksy exhibit which just opened on Stirling Street near Lansdowne (click here for the Google map) was definitely a more satisfying experience!  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, funny, 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:

If you’re wondering what Banksy is doing in 2018, this collection of recent  street art in Paris attributed him will give you a good idea –  Banksy Est À Paris – Les Premieres Images.

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

a negative take on the Banksy exhibit  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 – Over Saribung La 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 half-full water bottle was frozen solid. 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, wool socks, and hat!  To cap it off, I had 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 photos above and below 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! Then 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 morning 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, the one about 1000 meters below Saribung La.  But first – getting to the pass!

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 who De Hults 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 in Grobel’s account 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 labeled 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” refers to  Alfred de Hults!  Now I need to find out who the “Julie” in Julie Himal is!

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) on the left  and Khumjungar Himal Peak (6759 )in the clouds in the center of the image

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 map 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 surprise!  In Kathmandu at our pre-trip meeting, the guide (and trip leader)  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 a Canadian city in icy conditions.  It would save them a trip to Thamel to a gear rental store.  The consensus at the end of the day’s use 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 weigh 455 grams, almost 400 grams less since they are made of aluminum.  I decided that the G-10’s 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 up Tacul de Mt. Blanc’s 45º slope was a challenge with crampons that were only meant for lite glacier traversing. They would, however, 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 came to realize is that none of the guides or the porters had a pair.  If all 25 of us – 5 trekkers and 20 staff – had a pair of mountaineering boots at, let’s say,  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 close to 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:

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 the right of the image is Saribung Peak, looking like a mere pimple as opposed to a serious 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 coming down from Saribung Peak. They then continue on towards Phu the next day. On this day I would not be lingering at the pass!

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 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 heading 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 BC To High Camp on Khumjungar Glacier – Note: North is at bottom of the 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 climber we had met at Ghuma Thanti. They were supposedly the reason they gave up on the planned ascent of Saribung La and Peak and turned back 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 – 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 up 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 around 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 receding 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 also looks down the valley but I’ve stepped back to include the 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 Edema).  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 ascend 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 Tamang 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 – note the loads

I never did pick up a porter’s load and try walking with it, but a load of at least 30 kilograms is what each of them was dealing with.  Meanwhile, my pack weighed at most 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 all 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 – did 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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