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

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

Day 10 – Batsyak Camp To Damodar Kunda

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

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  The brown of the satellite image above had been replaced by the scene you see below!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

looking south from Batsyak La

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

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

the faint trail to Damodar Kund from Batsyak La

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damodar Kunda – within 1000 meters and yet not visible!

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

Next were the two shelters –

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

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

Our crew set up our toilet tent some distance away.

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

our Damodar Kunda campsite near the pilgrims’ shelters

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

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

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

the small metal shrine room at Damodar Kunda

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

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

                                                                        See here for the source

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

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

close-up of Vishnu statue at Damodar Kunda

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

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

the Buddhist chorten on the ridge above the Damodar kunda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Problem With The Nepal Govt Survey Dept. Map!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Post: Day 8 – Luri Gompa To Ghuma Thanti

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

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

satellite view – Ghuma Thanti to Parsye Khola

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

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

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

the first hour of walking included our first bit of snow

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

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

the trail crosses a plateau on the way to Batsyak Khola

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

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

looking down at our Parsye Khola campsite

the Parsye Khola/ Barche Khola / Batsyak Camp

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

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

the Parsye Khola Campsite – late April 2018

an interesting fold in the rocks by Parsye Khola camp

a view of the Barche Khola campsite from downriver

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

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

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

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

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

Day 8 – Luri Gompa to Ghuma Thanti

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

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

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

  • YARA TO LURI GOMPA (4005M), WALK APPROX. 2‐3HRS
  • LURI GOMPA TO GHUMA THANTI (4600M), WALK APPROX. 7‐8HRS

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

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

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

That’s where everything went south.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

donkey caravan on the way to Ghuma Thanti

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

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

more of the trail to Ghuma Thanti from Luri Gompa

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

our first view of Ghuma Thanti

the trail to Ghuma Thanti – the home stretch

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

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

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

our campsite at Ghuma Thanti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Ghuma Thanti To Saribung Peak

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Post: Day 6 – Tsarang To Yara Via Dhi

6:45 a.m. – early morning sun on Yara

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

Yara – herders releasing animals from their pens for the day

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

a corner shrine at the Rooftop Guesthouse dining hall in Yara

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

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

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

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

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

heading down to the Puyung Khola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the ceiling of Tashi Kabum’s main cave

some of the floral detail below the auspicious symbols circle

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

graffiti inside the main Tashi Kabum cave –

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

the key keeper from Yara descends from Tashi Kabum

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

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

our tent site below Luri Gompa at 3840 meters

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

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

the Luri Gompa cliff cave temple

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

the path up to the Luri Gompa cave entrance door

the chorten in the Luri cave temple

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

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

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

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

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

lotus flower detail from the Luri Gompa ceiling

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

a second image on the base of Luri Gompa chorten

the least intact of the four chorten base images

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

chorten base image at Luri Gompa cave temple

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

the historical Buddha in the touching the earth pose

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

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

another of the wall paintings at Luri Gompa cave

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

Luri Gompa wall painting

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

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

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

Luri Gompa wall painting – Guru Rinpoche in teaching mudra?

Luri gompa cave temple painting with fresh graffiti

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

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

crumbling chortens and the lower gompa at Luri Gompa

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

central worship area in the lower Luri Gompa building

locked door to a room in new lower Luri gompa

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

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

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

 

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

Next Post: Day 8 – Luri Gompa To Ghuma Thanti

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 6 – Tsarang To Yara Via Dhi

Previous Post: Day 5 – In and Around Tsarang

Himalayan Map House – Upper Mustang Trek Map

  • time: 7:45 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. with one hour + for lunch
  • distance: 11.5 km.
  • high point: Yara (3650)
  • campsite: the tenting area behind the Rooftop Guesthouse in Yara
  • maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos: 2983 16 Lomanthan  

Our walk up the Kali Gandaki Valley to Tsarang from Jomsom had introduced us to upper Mustang’s wow-inducing geology and the structures – both ancient and more recent –  of those who have made the valley their home over the past two thousand years. Hundreds of “sky caves” high up in the sandstone cliffs,  dozens of chortens on the trail,  and in the villages there are gompas and dzongs and mani walls to check out.

We had one more day in this world before heading east on the pilgrims’ trail to Damodar Kunda, a set of three small “lakes” with karma-absolving properties that compels the occasional intrepid Hindu to make the difficult journey.

Day 6 – satellite view of route

Not for the first time, the official trip itinerary would have me scratching my head.  It reads –

We follow the main trail for approximately 2 hours. We turn right and head downhill for another 2 hours and reach our lunch camp at Dhi. After lunch we cross a suspension bridge which is above the Kali Gandaki River. We arrive in Surkhang and then follow a narrow valley to Yara village. This is a unique area where we find ancient caves set into stone walls.

Instead of following the main trail north of Tsarang we headed down a gully to the south of the monastery and were soon walking along the Tsarang Khola.  (See the satellite map above for the approximate route.)  At the confluence with the Kali Gandaki we turned left and walked up the broad dry river bed to Dhi.  We never did arrive in Surkhang since we bypassed it both approaching and leaving Dhi.

following a faint trail down from Tsarang to the  Tsarang Khola

making our way down to the Tsarang Khola river bed

one of a couple of “bridges” to cross on our way to Dhi – this one over the Tsarang Khola

walking up the west side of the Kali Gandaki river to Dhi

The walk up the west side of the Kali Gandaki was memorable for the incredible rock formations we passed.  Thanks to the morning sun and the deep shade on the east side my attempt to capture some of the magic was not a success!

from Nepal topo map 2983 16 Lomanthan

approaching Dhi from the south

Entering Dhi sometimes with gao or gaon meaning “village” attached it its name –  was like coming upon an oasis. Fifteen or twenty households, most relying on agriculture,  make it their home.  Fields of lush green spread south from the village to the Puyun Khola; on its east side is the Kali Gandaki with its promise of water later in the year.  On the south side of the Gandaki/Puyun confluence sits Surkhang, a somewhat smaller settlement.

entering the village of Dhi in Upper Mustang

We were headed to the Hotel Potala,  one of the two or three guesthouses in the village where a dining hall on second floor was ready for our use.

the Hira Hotel entrance in Dhi

the courtyard of the Hotel Potala – our Dhi lunch spot

a corner of the second floor dining room at the Hotel Potala

a column in the Hotel Potala dining hall

While waiting for the cook team to get things ready I struck up a conversation with the owner. We talked for a while about the village and his hope for a few more guests  as the Tiji Festival up in Lo Manthang approached.  Then he asked if I wanted to see the family shrine room, an offer I much appreciated.

Among the statues, thangkas, and pictures of lamas I noticed the words “Dehra Dun” on a couple of them.  I tried to make clear the connection after I returned home with a bit of internet research. I learned that the lama Trichen Jurme Kunzang Wangyal (1935-2008) had fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 along with a number of other monks from Tibet’s great Nyingma monastery at Mindrolling.  In 1962 he was chosen the eleventh Mindrolling Trichen.  Dehra Dun was to become the location of a new Mindrolling Monastery and he spent much of his time there.

Unfortunately none of the online images of the 11th Trichen look like those I think I saw (I took no photos) in our host’s shrine room!  To complicate matters it turns out that Dehra Dun, like Dharamsala, is a major Tibetan refugee center and it has monasteries belonging to other Tibetan lineages too. So my attempt to  figure out what lineage our host belonged to was a failure.  However, as at every shrine in upper Mustang there was a photo of a lama I did recognize – that of the current leader of the Gelugpa sect, the Dalai Lama!

Surkhang Village on the south side of the Puyun Khola from Dhi

After our early lunch we were back on the trail and, as the images below hopefully will show, were presented with some excellent photo ops of the dramatic landscape we were traversing on the way to Yara.

looking back at Dhi from the top of the concrete steps

we spot more cliff caves as we walk to Yara from Dhi

a staircase up to Yara from the river bed trail

more sky caves as we approach Yara

sky caves  near Yara

There were yet more caves dug out of the cliff sides.  Some were used as burial caves by a little-known culture that may predate the Tibetan Buddhist one by a thousand years. Others may even have been shelters and later used by monks as temples or retreats. The next day we would visit two such temple caves, the ones at Tashi Kabum and Luri Gompa. We could only look at the others and wonder if anyone had checked them out and what they had found.

our first view of Yara village, mostly hidden behind the ridge

Yara would be our last village for seven days until we walked out of Mustang and came to Phu on the other side of the Saribung La.  It has three or four guesthouses. Ours was the one with the dramatic view overlooking the village. In the image below it is the white building just a bit up from the very center.  Rooftop Guesthouse is a fitting name!

entering Yara from the road from Dhi

a view of the Rooftop Guesthouse on the eastern edge of Yara

As we had the previous five days, we made use of the guesthouse’s dining room and toilet facilities. Next to the building was a walled-in animal pen which would become our camping space in the evening. For a part of the afternoon, we shared it with the three locals leashed to a metal post not far from my tent door.

looking over Yara village from our vantage point at the Rooftop Guesthouse

early afternoon Yara view from my tent

our Yara tent site at the Rooftop Guesthouse

front facade of a dzong-like Yara building

end-of-day feed time in one of Yara’s yards

We were now at 3650 m. – just 100 meters higher than the day before at Tsarang.  Always in the back of my mind was Saribung La at 6040 – now the high pass was just seven days away.  So far no one had any acclimatization issues and I hoped my body would have enough time to adapt.

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

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 5 – In And Around Tsarang

Previous Post: Day 4 – Tamagaon To Tsarang

Charang/Ghar Gompa/Lo Manthang

  • time:
  • the high point of the day: Ghar Gompa (3950)
  • campsite: Maya’s Inn – Tsarang
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos: 2983 16 Lomanthan  

We had taken four days to walk up the Kali Gandaki from Jomsom to Tsarang. Elevation gain was moderate; from 2720 meters we had moved up to Tsarang’s 3560.  We did 2/3’s of our walking in the mornings, thus avoiding the worst of the afternoon sun and the wind which seems to pick up in the afternoon.  We sometimes benefitted from the morning shade created by the sides of steep valleys we went up.

Now we had a rest day – actually, the only one of our trip! What to do? I had asked about the cost of a jeep to Lo Manthang; $150. U.S. for the day was the answer, a bit much for the thirteen-kilometer ride up to the capital of the once Kingdom of Lo with its famous village walls and three ancient (well, 500 years old!)  gompas.  No one else expressed an interest in making the ride up to Lo Manthang so I let the possible visit drop.

While it does seem strange to come within a day of Lo Manthang and yet not include it in the itinerary, our day in Tsarang did give us the time to visit the monastery and royal palace and walk up the valley to  Ghar Gompa, said to be one of the oldest in Nepal.  Had I rushed off to Lo Manthang I would have had to miss some of  that.   I also walked back to the entrance of the village to take a closer look at the entrance chorten.

The Western Entrance Chorten To Tsarang:

the west face of the entrance chorten to Tsarang with the village in the background

the west face image – Thanks to fellow trekker Muz for the shot!

the north face of the Tsarang entrance chorten

Of all the chortens we saw in our almost-three-week walk in upper Mustang and then the Phu/Naar valley, this one was the most elaborate.  We approached it on the road coming down from Tsarang La.   A barbed wire fence surrounded the base and it looked like some less-than-urgent repair work was underway. Cracks in the crumbling plaster, peeling paint – it needs some attention.

On each of the four sides of the base of the chorten was a double image of some figure from Tibetan Buddhist myth.  in this case, they seem to be associated with the four cardinal directions. Walking around the chorten, I got a photo of each of the following –

  • north – Windhorse
  • east – elephant
  • south – garuda
  • west – dragon? peacock?

the Windhorse with the Three Jewels of Buddhism on its back

Tsarang entrance chorten –  the east face

elephant and garuda figures with Yama at the corner

the south face of the entrance chorten to Tsarang

The Monastery Complex in Tsarang:

a view of Tsarang’s monastery complex from the Royal Palace

chortens at the entrance to Tsarang’s monastery

Both the monastery and the dzong/royal palace are a short walk from Maya’s Inn.  We went up in the early evening.  First, the monastery. It seemed all but abandoned as we walked into the compound.  In the image below you see the gateway we came through.  On the left is the main temple, whose doors are hidden by the black curtain. The building on the right-hand side seemed shut down. Nearby was a pile of lumber and other construction material, but it wasn’t clear what was being worked on.

looking back to the entrance to the Tsarang monastery from the interior courtyard

 

Administrative offices were on the south side of the courtyard and the living quarters are on the west side as shown in the image below.  In front of a couple of the doors were shoes and other indications of human presence but, all in all, the place seemed empty.  Our guide did find a monk whose English was good enough to make for an interesting visit to the main temple.  He pulled back the black curtain, unlocked the doors,  and in we went.

Unfortunately, no photography was allowed. We did spend about 10 – 15 minutes making our way around the large room, marveling at the artwork – the thangkas, the wall paintings, and statuary. Short of having a voice recorder to note your observations as you take it all in, there is no way you can remember the scene.  Not only was I overwhelmed by what I was seeing, but  I only half-understood most of it!  Now add to my memory visits to the monastery in Kagbeni and the one at Lo Gekar and, other than an overall WOW feeling for having visited, I could not tell you exactly what was there!

When I got back home after the trip, I did find a copy of David Snellgrove’s Himalayan Pilgrimage: A Study of Tibetan Religion By A Traveller Through Western Nepal.  It is a detailed recounting of his 1956 travels through a Nepal that had just been opened to foreigners a few years before.

That it describes a Himalayan culture as it existed sixty years ago adds another layer of fascination to an already-readable account. Click on the book title to access a digital and downloadable copy of the book from The Internet Archive.

Here is Snellgrove’s remarkably detailed account of the inside of the monastery temple as he saw it in 1956.

You have to wonder how much of what Snellgrove saw all those years ago is still in the temple. Statues and thangkas are easy enough to remove and sold off to buyers in search of exotic Tibetan Buddhist artifacts. Hard times would give the monks themselves a reason to sell off an item or three to keep their monastery alive.

monks’ quarters at Tsarang monastery

Tsarang Monastery – identification board

a display of stone, bone, and plastic on a ledge near the central shrine room

See here for a pdf extract (1.5 MB) of Snellgrove’s account of his visit to Tsarang’s monastery.

The Royal Palace:

There was a 200 rupee entrance fee charged at the monastery.  It would be another 200 at the dzong, the fort-like royal palace across the way and, again, no photography was allowed.

In the case of the palace, it really didn’t matter given that it is all but empty of the things that would have been there when it was a living building and the all-in-one political, military, and religious administrative center for the area.  Our guide translated what little the watchman had to say as he took us on a brief tour of the various rooms.

looking from the Tsarang monastery’s entrance chorten over to the dzong/royal palace

Built in the 1370’s and once the palace of the ruler of the Kingdom of Lo as well as holding an impressive collection of manuscripts in the kingdom,  the dzong now is empty and sorely in need of some maintenance.  The 2015 earthquake only made things worse;  we noticed visible cracks in a few of the walls.

Meanwhile, the “books” are gone as is any of the furniture and decoration which may have made it a royal residence. We did get up to the top floor to view the famous desiccated hand of – depending on the story being told – a monk or a thief or the building’s architect.  The man on duty did pick up a series of random objects – an urn, a knife –  and attach to each an anecdote about some king.  You just knew that this was not a history lesson!

David Snellgrove’s already mentioned Himalayan Pilgrimage has this account of his 1956 visit –

a view of Tsarang’s royal palace – a five-storey dzong

 

Ghar Gompa (Lo Gekar):

A 7-kilometer morning walk mostly on a road up the west side of the valley from Tsarang brought us to Ghar Gompa.  It sits right on the trail from Dhakmar to Lo Manthang and visitors to Lo Manthang can pay a visit either coming or going.

destination sign and building housing gigantic prayer wheel

On the other side of the Tsarang Khola from our west side path is the village of Marang; we would walk through it on our way back to Charang.

an overview shot of Ghar Gompa – shot from the east side of the river on our return to Charang

Guru Rinpoche and his 8 manifestations

The monks of Ghar Gompa belong to the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma (“The Ancient Ones”).

It is said that the lineage was established by the Indian Buddhist Padmasambhava (“the Lotus Born”) in the 700’s C.E.  He is known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche and is considered the Second Buddha following the historical figure (560-480 B.C.E.) we know as Siddhartha Gautama.

The following info board connects Rinpoche to the building of this gompa after an epic struggle with local demons resistant to the Dharma. Having noted the red cliff near Dhakmar and the long mani wall on the outskirts of Ghami the day before, I was impressed with the creative use made of local geological and cultural features in the demon dragon story!  I also wondered who had taken the time to scratch out the name of the Buddhist sect associated with this gompa.

Ghar Gompa history – the ACAP info board

We spent some time at the site and with one of the monks as an opener of doors and guide, entered the main shrine room behind the black curtain you see in the image below. Again, no photography was allowed inside.

We were taken away by the age-old feel of the wall paintings and the statuary.  However, the room does get active use from the group of monks living here.  Noting the wool blankets on the benches behind the row of low tables, we were told that during night-time sessions it got a bit cold and the monks would bundle up.

a view of the Ghar Gompa central shrine building from the courtyard

I did not confirm this but think that you can overnight at the monastery. The building to the right of the monastery has windows with a dozen stickers from various trekking agencies. When we arrived, we met the Italian group that we had chatted with the afternoon before at Nyi La.  They were sitting in front of the white-washed building, and their donkey was loaded and ready to go.

Ghar Gompa – a view from the top of the courtyard

This gompa is in better shape than the one in Tsarang.  Note, for example, the new concrete steps leading up to the main shrine rooms on the first floor. Unlike at Tsarang, all around the Ghar Gompa site, there is evidence of repairs and upgrades to the structures.  It must have better access to a funding source outside of Mustang!

the front of the central shrine building at Ghar Gompa

a view of the two-storey buildings framing the Ghar Gompa courtyard – overnight stays possible in the building to the left

The term “Ghar” means house in Nepali.  It refers to the architectural plan of the gompa.  Snellgrove writes this in his account:


[If you are interested in Snellgrove’s full account of his visit to Lo Gekar, a 1.4 MB pdf file of the relevant pages (pp. 191-193) from Himalayan Pilgrimage is here.]

After our visit to the “rooms” on the first floor, we went up a set of narrow steps to the second floor, which seems to serve as living quarters for the monks these days.  Our tour of the main building done, we spent a bit more time on the site before heading back down the valley to Tsarang. On our way up we had come on the west side of the river; on our return we would cross the river and go down a well-traveled road via Saukre and Marang –

It is 2.5 kilometers down to Marang from the gompa; another 4 km. and we were back in Tsarang.  Not only had we seen Lo Gekar, but we had also done a beneficial acclimatization exercise.  The gompa is about 440 meters higher than our campsite in Tsarang and any time spent during a day at an altitude higher than that evening fits in with “Walk high, sleep low”.  We wouldn’t go as high again until we reached Luri Gompa a couple of days later.

a view down to Marang from Ghar Gompa

As we passed through Marang, the hammer and sickle painted on the wall was a reminder as to which political party was most popular in upper Mustang – the Communist Party of Nepal, Unified Marxist-Leninist!  In fact, the leader of the party – K.P. Sharma Oli –  is Nepal’s current Prime Minister after his party’s showing (33% of the popular vote and 44% of the seats) in the February 2018 National Assembly Election. In the Provincial Assembly Elections (Mustang is a part of Province 4 with its administrative center in Pokhara) the winner, the candidate elected in upper Mustang,  was Indradhara Bista, also a CPN-UML member.

Walking through Marang on our return to Tsarang

mid-April fields to the north of Tsarang above the Tsarang Khola

a brand new chorten at the north end of Tsarang

Next Post:  Day 6 – From Tsarang To Yara Via Dhi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 4 – Tamagaon To Tsarang

Previous Post – Day 3 – Chele to Tamagaon

Day 4 – Tamagaon to Tsarang

Day 4 – Tamagaon To Tsarang

  • time: about 5 hours
  • high point: Nyi La (4010 m)
  • campsite: Maya’s Inn in Tsarang below the dzong and gompa
  • maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos: 2983 16 Lomanthan  

Day 4 on the trek and the routine was setting in!  The day began at 6:00 with a combination wake-up/breakfast tea at my tent door, followed a few minutes later by some warm water in a wash bowl.  Meanwhile, I was stuffing everything back into the agency-supplied duffel bag.  The very bulky goose down jacket and sleeping bag were making the process a bit of a pain!

Then it was off to the dining tent for breakfast, which consisted of porridge and other cereals, toast with peanut butter and assorted jams, and for the non-vegetarians – i.e. everyone but me! – the occasional egg. Coffee, tea, and juice were served and water bottles were filled up for the morning’s walk.

Given the importance of staying well- hydrated at altitude, especially if you are taking Diamox for acclimatization, the cook team kept the liquids coming at each meal. All of us were making use of the drug as a prophylaxis except for Rob, who had just done the Everest Base Camp trek and was already well-acclimatized.

By the time we left around 7:45 the tents were already down and the duffels had been bundled and assigned to the various porters. The government-set maximum load for a porter is a whopping 30 kilograms although I think some of our guys were carrying somewhat more. I never did pick up one of the porters’ load to see what it felt like.  Even if I had, carrying it for a few minutes would hardly come close to the six hours the porters put in.

looking southeast into the morning sun towards Tamagaon

Today the porters got a break.  Arrangements were made with the Tamagaon guesthouse owner for a tractor ride all the way to Tsarang, our destination.  The next two images show our ten porters and their loads in the back.  They look very happy!  They would also get the next day off as we spent two nights in Charang before moving on.  That’s when the real work would begin!

the trekkers watch the Tamagaon tractor go by

our  porters getting tractored to Charang from Tamagaon

The road they took was essentially  the one we walked except for some switchbacks that the trekkers’ trail was able to eliminate.  The road was “Nepali flat” from Tamagaon all the way to Zaite, after which there was some steeper uphill as we approached our first pass of the day – Nyi La (4010m). We got some great views from the top looking back to Zaite and Tamagaon and were even able to see Ghiling to the east.

Just behind us was a group of four Italian trekkers with their mandatory guide, as well as a donkey carrying a full load of their gear.  They had slept in a guesthouse in Ghiling the previous night; we would see them again the next morning at Ghar Gompa above Tsarang. The map and the following images show the easy downhill walk to Ghami from the pass, mostly on the jeep road.  Already visible as we walked down was the next pass. Tsarang La (3870), which would take us down to Tsarang in the early afternoon.

Italian trekkers on Nyi La

This crew of four Italians would be the only trekkers we would meet until we got to Phu ten days later. There I spoke briefly with a German man. The next day I met another German guy and his French companion and their compulsory Nepali guide. They had all come up to Meta from Koto on the Annapurna Trail.  In Kagbeni on the first short day of our trek I had snapped a photo of a chart on the wall of the Mustang checkpoint. It was a graphic illustration of where visitors to Upper Mustang were from –

The recent annual figures for visitors to upper Mustang

  • 2016   3918
  • 2015   2686
  • 2014   4146
  • 2013    3344

At a minimum of $500. U.S. per visitor for ten days, where does that money go?  Maybe it pays for the road to China?  Increased vehicle traffic will end upper Mustang as a trekking destination but makes travel and transport of food and goods much easier and cheaper for the 6000 to 7000 who still live there.

the road north from Nyi La to Ghami

looking north to Ghami village with Tsarang La (aka Choya La)  on the horizon

a view of Ghami from the south

But first Ghami.  After Lo Manthang and Charang, it is the largest village in upper Mustang. We stopped at the first guesthouse – Hotel Lo-Ghami –  on the south end of the village and entered the grounds through the gate pictured in the image below.

Home on school break from her Kathmandu boarding school was the owners’ daughter and we spoke briefly about the coming high season and how they hoped the number of overnight guests would increase as it got closer to the annual Tiji Festival in Lo Manthang,  still a couple of weeks away.

our lunch stop in Ghami – the Hotel Lo-Ghami

After lunch, we did not spend any time in the village but headed to the south end and crossed a small stream.

  • For trekkers on the direct route to Lo Manthang the more common route is the one northeast from Ghami to Dhakmar and on to Lo Gekar and Ghar Gompa. (See the trail marked in red on the map.)
  • Meanwhile, we walked the route marked in blue past the district’s (and maybe Nepal’s!) longest mani wall.  The wall goes on for a couple of hundred meters and we followed it all the way to the top as we made our way to Charang La.

exiting Ghami for the Tsarang La

the mani wall east of Ghami

Behind the mani wall are a number of buildings, including a Japanese-built (and paid for) hospital.  It is one of the few such facilities in upper Mustang. Given the U.S $1,000,000. (and more) that the government takes in from entry permits each year from the 2000 to 3000 non-Nepali visitors, you have to wonder where that money ends up.

Om Mani Padme Hum in Tibetan script on one of the Ghami mani stones

fork in the road – Dhakmar or Charang – see satellite map above

From Nyi La in the morning, I had taken a shot of the eye-catching red and grey rock to the east of Ghami. Also discernible in the image below is the long mani wall as it runs diagonally to the left of some of the buildings you see. The Japanese hospital is one of those buildings but as we walked by the wall I never did get a view of it.

the trail east of Ghami to Charang La – photo taken from the pass south of Ghami in the morning!

our donkey team approaching Tsarang La (3870 m)

Tsarang La – small light coloured stones and khatas draping the central wooden pole

We spent a bit of time at the top of the pass, sipping on water, getting a few photos, and adding our light-colored rock to the impressive collection around the pole draped with prayer flags and khatas. Down below – about 4.5 kilometers away – was Tsarang (3560 m), where we would be tenting for the next two nights. An easy walk, mostly on the road, and we were approaching the entrance chorten to the village.

the road from Charang La to Charang – 4.5 km.

from desert to oasis – approaching Tsarang from the west

From a distance, the two most prominent buildings in Tsarang were already evident – the white-painted dzong/royal palace and the rust-colored monastery complex. Our destination was Maya’s Inn, located not far from the two buildings. After our tents had been set up in the campground attached to the inn, we would visit the landmarks.

(The next post – Things To See In and Around Tsarang – has some pix!

Tsarang – the entrance chorten, the royal palace, and the gompa in view

Tsarang’s entrance chorten – now cordoned off

Maya’s Inn – Tsarang’s #1 place to stay!

Tsarang – Maya’s Inn, our base for two nights

Maya’s Inn belongs to the former king’s niece, Maya Bista.  Considered Tsarang’s #1 guesthouse,  it will hold on to its ranking at least until the massive multi-storeyed new hotel nearby currently under construction opens in a year or two. The internet connection I made here would be the last until  Koto a couple of weeks later!

Maya’s Inn in Tsarang – side view

a view of the inside of Maya’s Inn in Tsarang Mustang

one of the dining rooms at Maya’s Inn in Tsarang

Next Post: Day 5 – Things To See To Tsarang and Nearby

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 3 – Chele to Tamagaon

Previous Post: Day Two – Kagbeni To Chele

Day 3 – Chele to Tamagaon via Syanboche

Day 3 – Chele To Tamagaon

  • time: 5 hours
  • distance: about 15 kilometers
  • high point:  Syangboche La 3850
  • campsite: Tamagaon – New Tenzing Hotel & Restaurant – 3600 m
  • maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos: 2883 04 Muktinath2983 16 Lomanthan  

Leaving Chele, we soon came to the sign pointing the way to Ghyakar. The village sits on a plateau at the other end a long suspension bridge spanning a deep gorge as seen in the image below.

our porters lead the way to the suspension bridge and Ghyakar

Ghyakar – shortly after 7 a.m. scene

It was at this village that we were joined by a handler from Jomsom and his train of six donkeys; they would help move our food supplies, fuel,  and tenting gear all the way to Damodar Kunda seven days later.  Beyond that point the glacial terrain and altitude are not appropriate for the donkeys. They would return to Jomsom where the donkeys’ owner would perhaps have a new job for the handler.

As it is, the improved road system means that vehicles can transport more and more of the goods that Mustangi horses and donkeys used to carry.  A decade from now fewer animals and handlers will be making their living from this traditional activity in the Kali Gandaki valley corridor from Jomsom to Lo Manthang.

hired donkeys and handler getting things ready

From Ghyakar we first walked up one side of a deep valley –  that of the Ghyakar Khola – down to a small trickle of a stream, and then scampered back up the steep trail on the other side.

On the “plus” side of this particular route (roughly indicated with dashed red line in the map) is that it bypasses two small  passes –

  • Taklam La (3675)
  • Dajori La (3735m)  
  •  [BTW the Tibetan word for pass is la.]

Our trek notes do not make any sense for this bit of the route.

A more challenging day ahead with the crossing of three passes. We cross a long suspension bridge hanging over the canyon which is used to access the village of Ghyakar, and climb on a dusty trail to the first pass, Taklam La (3624m) and then Dajori La (3735m).   See here for the World Expeditions itinerary

It has us both walk through Ghyakar (the path I marked in red) and over the two passes  on the cliff route on the other side of the gorge (i.e. the path marked in brown).  My understanding is that most groups  no longer use the Taklam La/Dajori La route.

trekkers on the road to Samar

panorama – a morning walk up the edge of a gorge from Ghyakar

the switchbacks trail down to the gorge bottom

Once up on the other side it an easy walk on to the village of Samar, first passing the Himali Hotel on the outskirts of the village.

approaching Samar from Ghyakar

our crew – donkeys, porters, guides, trekkers – walk past Samar’s Himali Hotel and Lodge

porters approaching Samar village gateway

We took a bit of a breather in the village itself, just long enough to sip on some water and munch on an energy bar. Then I set off for a quick ramble around the village. The whitewashed exteriors of the buildings and the piles of sticks and skinny logs on the rooftops were evident here; so too were the chorten and the village mani wall and a ram’s horn or two.  I snapped a few photos and then returned to where we left our packs.

a view of Samar’s houses and streets

Samar door with ram’s horn above

Our brief respite over, we headed for the northern gate, which you can see in the image below at the top of the long mani wall.  You will also notice the strips of hot pink marking tape. It told us that the 2018 Mustang Mountain Trail Race had passed through this morning. The tape pops up in a few of the following images!

Samar wall of prayer wheels leading to village exit gateway

exiting Samar – a steep descent awaits!

Having left the Kali Gandaki corridor itself we were treated to another one of the side valleys that feed into the large river.  Once again, we descended into a steep valley from one side, forded an almost non-existent stream (thanks to it being April and not a few months later!), and then followed the switchback trail up on the other side.

coloured chortens outside of Samar’s Northern gateway

looking back at Samar’s northern gateway and the three colored chortens

a close-up view of the mountains N of Samar

more chortens on the pass N of Samar

Having regained the 100 or so meters we had lost in dropping down into the steep valley, we had lots of mostly flat terrain to deal with until we reached our lunch destination, a solitary teahouse set back from the edge of a steeply dropping cliff edge. In the image below it is located about a third of the way into the photo. Also there were our donkeys and some workers from the nearby road construction crew.  After lunch we would follow that road in the image below right around the corner.

a view of the next stretch of road – from mid left to the center of the image

our donkeys at the lunch stop S of Syangboche

road S of Syangboche – one of many sections being worked on

It was at a pass just south of Syangboche that we met our first trekking group, four Italians with the required guide and a couple of donkeys and their handler.  We would meet them a couple of mornings later at the Ghar Gompa above Tsarang. They were on their way to Lo Manthang before their return to Jomsom.

pass to the S of Syangboche – Syangboche La?

There is not a lot to Syangboche – one street and maybe a dozen buildings. However, there seemed to be lots of activity as we walked up the road through the village. It looked like owners on one side of the road were working on the drainage pipes.

Syangboche rest stop before the last pass of the day

main street Syangboche – some construction going on

As we leave Syangboche behind there is a bit of uphill to deal with before we get to our destination for the day.  Our trip notes say “Ghiling” but we are going to Tamagaon.

The reason was not clear – it may have had to do with road construction in the Ghiling area or it may be that the approach from Tamagaon to the next day’s first pass is easier than the approach from Ghiling.  Whatever the case, Tamagaon it was, three or four buildings, a nearby mani wall and some chortens, and space for our tents and for our donkeys to graze.

looking back at Shyangboche – on the way to Tamagaon

colourful chorten N of Shyangboche

Tamagaon – Day 3’s end point

Tamagaon door with ram’s skull

ram’s skull on top of a Tamagaon wall

Next Post: Day 4 – Tamagaon To Charang

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Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 2 – Kagbeni To Chele

Previous Post:  Day 1 – Jomsom To Kagbeni

Day 2 – Kagbeni To Chele

  • time:  about 5 hours
  • distance: 15 kilometers
  • high point: Chele (3050)
  • campsite: Bishal Guesthouse in Chele
  • maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topo: 2883 04 Muktinath

Day Two – Kagbeni to Chele

We set off at 7:00 for our first full day of walking.  After a steep climb up to the road on the east side of the river, we walk for a bit and then turn around for a last view of the Kali Gandaki as it flows southward.  Nilgiri North (7061) and Tilicho Peak (7134) along with Nilgiri Central (6940) are to the east and make for a stunning early morning view.

panorama shot of Kagbeni from the north

Still clearly identifiable is the gompa with its gold-coloured top.  The green fields that surround the village make clear on what its prosperity is based.

looking back to Kagbeni from the road to the north

As we walk up the road – and occasionally a side trail that avoids the road for a while – we look across the river to Tiri, the last village (gaon) trekkers can walk to without that $500. permit. If nothing else, it would give visitors with another view of Kagbeni.

a view of Tirigaon  from the east side of the Kali Gandaki

By  vehicle it is possible to cover the 88 kilometers  from Jomsom to Lo Manthang in a day.  Given the amount of road work that we would see during the four days spent on the  walk to Charang, the district is undergoing a dramatic change which will greatly change its character.

Not far way is Kora Lathe lowest of the four passes indicated on the map below.  The Chinese road to the 4660-meter-high pass is already complete.  A major truck container port facility is planned for the Nepalese side of the pass.

Within the next decade the Mustang road from Kora La to Jomsom and on down to Beni will become one of four major supply routes from Tibet.  By then all the travel brochure talk about it being “the last of the forbidden kingdoms” with its exotic Tibetan Buddhist culture will finally be put to rest.

Instead of the backwater it became when the Chinese sealed the border in the early 1960’s,  it will perhaps be what it once was in its heyday four hundred years ago – an important trans-Himalayan trade route.  It was control of that trade route which paid for the palaces and gompas of the once Kingdom of Lo.  I am sure the locals – the 6000 – 7000  that are left – are hoping that the road will also bring economic opportunity for them as the district is flooded with Chinese goods. What it won’t be bringing is more trekkers. Like the Annapurna Circuit, the road development in upper Mustang will destroy much of what attracts the 2000 to 3000 annual visitors.

One thing the completed and upgraded road won’t do is take away from the stunning views. Multi-coloured rock faces and breathtaking karst formations and stretches of vertical sandstone rock face pockmarked with “sky caves” carved out by earlier inhabitants of the valley as burial chambers or perhaps even as living quarters. For anyone with an interest in geology, a trip up the Kali Gandaki from Kagbeni will never get old!

the road to the north of Kagbeni on the east side of the Kali Gandaki

one last look back at Kagbeni and the monastery

The vehicle traffic was thankfully light as we walked up the road. Given how dry everything was, those made-in-India Mahindra Bolero SUVs can stir up quite the dust storm as they pass by.  The Tangbe Apple Farm looked far from being a reality, its derelict front a reflection of the few young trees struggling to root themselves in sand.

the front gate of the Tangbe Apple Farm

The Tangbe apple farm orchard

Tangbe itself is to the north of the apple “orchard”. We did not enter the village but rather followed the road as it skirts the settlement. Busy at work in the vicinity was a road construction crew of about twenty with some substantial earth-moving machinery at its disposal.

the road as it nears Tangbe village

humble mud chortens and telephone poles near Tangbe in upper Mustang

North of Tangbe another stretch of green fields bordering the Kali Gandaki – apple orchards and fields of barley and buckwheat.

a splash of green farmland north of Tangbe

A bit to the north of Tangbe was our lunchtime destination – Chhuksang.  It is the thin sliver of green you see dead center in the image below. You can also see the road we walked along to get there.

walkers on the road to Chhuksang from Tangbe

chortens on the road near Chhuksang in upper Mustang

burial caves in the cliffs on the east bank of the Kali Gandaki

a view of Chhuksang on the east side of the Kali Gandaki floodplain

The Bhrikuti Guest House was our lunch stop on this day. We had the use of their dining hall; our cook crew prepared the lunch down below using some of the guesthouse’s facilities. While we waited, I set off on a walk up and down some of the village’s alleyways.

chorten – and porters’ stop – in Chhuksang on the east side of the Kali Gandaki

Chhuksang is said to be one of the five villages in the area – the others are Tangbe, Chele, Ghyakar, Tangbe and Tetang – where the Gurung culture is dominant.  

On the other hand, the ram’s horns and skull are talismans common in Tibetan folk culture; they are often placed above doorways to ward off evil spirits. I was surprised to find a few examples as I walked around this supposedly Gurung settlement. It may just be one of those customs shared by a number of cultural groups.

 

skulls above a passageway in Chhuksang

ram skull above a Chhuksang doorway

more sheep skulls above a doorway in Chhuksang

the Bhrikuti Guest House – our lunch stop in Chhuksang on the way to Chele from Kagbeni

trekking agency stickers on our Chhuksang guesthouse window

fellow trekkers – the three Aussies – chillin’ after our Chhuksang lunch

trucks loading up with gravel from the river bed by Chhuksang

Chhuksang – the Hotel Alice, an ancient dzong (i.e. fort)  above, and our guesthouse in the trees

Our lunch done, we would walk across the dry Narsin Khola riverbed and continue on our way to Chele. The photo above was taken from the north side of the Narsin and captures most of Chhuksang. The map below shows the fairly flat route up towards Chele and the bridge across the river.

the road from Chhuksang to Chele

Along the way yet more examples of “sky caves”, both on the west side of the river and in the cliff face on the east side above the bridge that took us over to the beginning of a steep climb up to Chele on the plateau.  Half way over the bridge we looked into the tunnel that the river had carved out of the sandstone.  North of this point the Kali Gandaki loses it wide floodplains look and becomes more narrow.  The road to Tsarang and Lo Manthang leaves the river at this point and climbs up to Chele and then over a series of a half-dozen passes and up, down, and across a few side valleys.

more cliff caves on our walk from Chhuksang to Chele

early afternoon on the road to Chele from Chhuksang – no shade!

our Chele base – the Bishal Guesthouse

We got to Chele (also spelled Chaile, Tsaile, and  Tsele on various maps) around two.  given the complete lack of shade during most of a walk up the valley, getting out of the sun is not a bad idea! The wind also picks up as the day progresses so the more kilometers you can do in the morning, the better. 

our Chele tent site behind the Bishal Guesthouse

Chele street view – chorten and prayer flags

feeding time in front of Chele’s Hotel Mustang

more ram skulls in Chele

Chele doors and window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the 2018 winner Chhechee Sherpa – image source here

While a few jeeps had passed us by during the day, we had yet to meet any other trekkers.

The one thing that was going on during our four-day walk up to Charang was the 2018 edition of the the Mustang Trail Race, an eight-stage race that took the twenty participants up to Lo Manthang from Kagbeni in three days with stops in Chele and Ghami (also splled Ghemi) on the way there. After a day off the race route returned to Kagbeni with another five stages. [The entry fee was a whopping US$3450  per person but it did include the $500. permit plus flights from Kathmandu and full room and board for eight days – but still!]

They had left Kagbeni shortly after us on April 17; we would be seeing the occasional strip of orange trail marking tape the next couple of days as a reminder that they had too had been this way – just a bit faster than us!  The fastest time  was posted by Sherpa Chhechee, who completed the 166-kilometer route in just under 22 hours.

In the late afternoon I walked back to the east side of Chele and from my rooftop vantage point got a nice shot of the river down to Chhuksang with the Annapurna peaks yet further to the south.

looking down to Chhusang from a Chele rooftop

Next Post:  Day 3 – Chele To Tamagaon

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Nepal’s Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Day 1 – Jomsom To Kagbeni

Previous Post:  Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La: Pre-Trip Planning and Preparation.  

Jomsom to Kagbeni and Muktinath

Day One – Jomsom To Kagbeni

  • time: about three hours
  • high point: Kagbeni (2810)
  • campsite: Kagbeni –  Paradise Trekker’s Home, one of a cluster of guesthouses as you walk into the village from Ekle Bhatti
  • maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  See here for info on hardcopy maps from Himalayan Map House.
  • Nepal Govt Survey Dept 1:50,000 topos:  2883 03 Jomsom2883 04 Muktinath

We were at the airport in Pokhara at about 7:45 a.m. Our baggage – checked and carry-on – was weighed and those with more than 15 kilograms had to pay a small surcharge. (It may have been 100 rupees per kilo, certainly nothing to lose sleep over or a reason to leave something behind to cut down weight!).

pokahara to Jomsom

The alternative to the twenty-five minute flight up to Jomsom is a gruesome nine-hour journey by vehicle on mostly unpaved road from Beni on up. While flights later in the day are sometimes cancelled because of wind, our early morning departure left without a delay.  Whew!  It would mean that much more time at the other end of the road to do the easy walk up to Kagbeni and some time to explore the village instead of spending it getting jostled in a jeep or being delayed for an hour or two by a road construction crew.

Jomsom serves as the Mustang district’s administrative center. (It gets its name from the Tibetan dzong sam which literally means “new fort”. It has a number of different spellings in English.)  Other than Manang on the other side of Thorung La, it has the only airstrip in the region.

We landed before 9:00 a.m.  While I didn’t manage to get a right side window it didn’t matter anyway. Haze and very dirty plane windows meant that there was little to see or to snap photos of.  I contented myself with looking at the road down below as it snaked its way up the Kai Gandaki valley, said to be the world’s deepest gorge thanks to the 7000 and 8000 meter mountains on either side. Later in the day at Kagbeni I would chat for a few minutes with a solo traveller from Winnipeg who had done the bus journey up to Jomsom two days earlier.  He said he was definitely spending the U.S.$125. for the return flight to Pokhara!

Jomsom main street at 9 a.m.

Our support team had driven up by vehicle a day before along with all the gear – the tents, the food, the fuel, etc. – that a camping trek requires.  We would meet some of them at the airport where they would carry off our duffel bags to a nearby guesthouse to organize the porters’ carrying loads.

downtown Jomsom – a view of Main Street

Not everyone landing in Jomsom is heading off to upper Mustang.  A major attraction to the east of Kagbeni is Muktinath, a renowned Hindu pilgrimage site associated with the god Shiva.  Back in 2006 I had passed through the temple site on the way down from Thorung La on the Annapurna Circuit.

temple in Muktinath

temple in Muktinath

Even visitors not intent on doing any trekking land in Jomsom and jeep up to Ranipauwa and Muktinath. The ony complication is the 1000-meter gain in altitude; some pilgrims may not handle the increase well.

Our goal – Kagbeni – is less than 100 meters higher than Jomsom so acclimatization is not really an issue.

looking back at Jomsom from the east side of the river

From Jomsom we crossed the Kali Gandaki at the north end of town and then walked up the east side of the river, sometimes on the gravel road and sometimes on an off-road trail not far away.  As the photos show, in April there is little water and lots of river bed!

Roc Cafe on the way to Kagbeni from Jomsom

Ekle Bhatti – literally “lone teahouse” – now has a couple more structures. That’s it in the images below. The first one was taken from the south as we were approaching; the other two were taken at the north end of the settlement.

approaching Ekle Bhatti with Kagbeni in the distance

locals, porters, and trekkers at Ekle Bhatti

ACAP info billboard at the north end of Ekle Bhatti

The region we were about to enter – upper Mustang – requires visitors to have a special permit, as well as a trekking agency guide to enter.  The permit costs an initial U.S.$500. for the first ten days and $50. for each additional day.   We would be spending 13 days in the restricted area so that would $650. of our trek cost! Given the annual 3000 permits issued for the past few years, one does wonder who benefits from the U.S. $1.5 million+ collected.  It does not seem to be the dwindling number of Lobas who live in upper Mustang.

a view of Kagbeni from the outskirts of Ekle Bhatti

We could already see Kagbeni as we were approaching Kagbeni.  “The gateway to upper Mustang”  sits above a rare patch of green, thanks to its location at the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and the Jhon Khola.  Like other settlements in the southern part of the district,  its fields can grow two crops a year.  The further north we walked from “Kag” – and the more we moved away from the Kali Gandaki valley – the more desert-like and arid and treeless it became.

approaching Kagbeni from the south – green fields and the monastery

During the first five days of our trek as we walked up the Kali Gandaki valley, our “campsites” were always in the backyard of the guesthouse in the village we stopped at for the night. In Kag that would be the Paradise Trekker’s Home, one of perhaps four or five guesthouses in the village.  It was all very well-organized; clearly the agency has used these guesthouses on many previous trips. Everything just seemed to fall into place and if there was a complication our guide Juddha Rai was very quick with the right solution.

We also made use of their dining hall for lunch, supper, and breakfast the next morning and our cook crew used some of the guesthouse’s facilities to put together the meals for us. To the very last day of the trek some 18 days later we remained amazed at what the cook – Kancha Tamang – and his crew were able to come up with given the rudimentary conditions!

Kagbeni’s Paradise Trekker’s Home – and tent space

a view of Kagbeni’s rooftops from the roof of the Paradise Trekker’s Home

Kagbeni dog lounging outside our guesthouse

more Kagbeni accommodation choices – next to our Paradise Trekker’s Home

Kagbeni is a small  and seemingly prosperous village of 937 people in 274 households according to the 2011 national census.  (Click here for a bullet list of stats about Kagbeni gleaned from that census.)  Of those 274 housholds, 70 are absent, and the 125 people belonging to them are presumably living elsewhere but keeping their Kagbeni property.

With our tents set up, I opened my duffel up for the first time to set up the Thermarest and the sleeping bag – a ritual that would become very routine by the end of the trek!  then it was time to explore the village.  One image I had seen on the ‘net was of a Yacdonald’s sign somewhere.  I walked into it right around the corner for where we were staying!

Yacdonald’s/Mustang Gateway Hotel front

The main attraction in Kagbeni is the Kag Chode Thupten Gompa (monastery).  The long name translated means “monastery of the place to stop and develop concentration on teachings of lord Buddha”.  In the image below you see the new structure that has been built in the past decade. Behind it is the older gompa; in fact, it may be one of the oldest buildings in the region since it was erected the 1420’s. While it housed as many as 100 monks from nearby communities in the mid-1700’s, these days it has a small fraction of that.

approaching the Kag Chode Thupten Monastery

I would stop to give the shaggy dog you see below a bit of attention as I stepped into the monastery courtyard.  Delighted with the ear scrunches and belly rub,  he ended up following me around for a while.

my dawg Tashi at the entrance of the monastery!

Kag Chode Monastery entrance gate

Kag Chode Thupten Monastery info board

While I was able to walk into the new monastery building, the entrance to the old one was locked. Later I would return with the others and we would get a guided tour with one of the resident monks. (A 200 rupee donation is expected and will go towards maintaining the ancient gompa as well as helping to complete the new one.)

the monastery courtyard and the new and old worship buildings

Kag Chode Monastery’s new central Buddha statue

close up – Kag Chode Monastery’s new central Buddha statue

At the entrance to the new monastery are classic Tibetan Buddhist images like the one below. In a nod to modern times,  the images are wallpapered!  I would see similar wallpaper at other village gompas and mani wheel shrines on our trek.

Yama and the Wheel of Life chakra on the new Kag monastery entrance wall – See here for a full explanation of the symbolism

No photo taking is allowed inside the old gompa.  It means that a month later I cannot recall exactly what I saw inside without mixing it up with the insides of the three or four other gompas I visited with a similar ban on photos!  A possible reason for the photo ban? Many artifacts have been looted from monasteries over the past fifty years.  Having images of precious and sacred statues, thangkas, woodwork, and the collection of texts on the internet is said to provide a potential buyer with a virtual shopping list that only needs someone willing to fulfil it.

Strangely, the Trip Advisor page on the Kagbeni monastery does include a couple of overview photos taken this very year of the inside of the old gompa!  See here!

the door to the old monastery shrine room

Other than the monastery, Kagbeni offers lots of photo ops as you ramble around its narrow paths and alleyways. Here are a few that caught my eye.

an alleyway in Kagbeni – Tashi leads the way!

chickens strutting on a Kagbeni doorstep

Kagbeni – female figure affixed to wall

male figure – Kagbeni folk art!

It doesn’t take long to walk to the north end of the village and another superb view of the Kali Gandaki.  The next morning we would begin our walk up the east side of that valley all the way to Chele and marvel at the geology of the terrain, as well as gain a couple of hundred meters in altitude in the process.  We were walking up a 3000 meter high mass of crumbling sandstone and limestone that was once (that would be sixty million years ago!) an ocean floor.

the north end of Kagbeni – and another notice

closer up view of the restricted entry notice at Kagbeni

a late afternoon look up the Kali Gandaki River valley

Next Post: Day 2 – Kagbeni to Chele 

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