"But the dust here is fresh, unlike in Kathmandu!": Upper Mustang Valley: Trip Report

Posted by Michael Martin on

When the red-stained doors of that afternoon's second gompa (monastery) swung open, and we observed inside a monk on a prayer mat, his meditating voice booming through the dark chamber, Shuttle and I knew that we had come to a very distant place. Eager to greet us--we were essentially given a private tour--the monk guided us through the gompa--using my headlamp to illuminate twelve foot tall walls of brightly painted Buddhist art, which seemed to loom out of the shadows. Shuttle and I noted that he had his thermos of tea and cell phone with him beside his prayer mat.

This was the ancient, walled city of Lo Manthang, the centerpiece of Upper Mustang Valley, a haven for travelers along the trade route between Tibet and India, and the culmination of our journey to Nepal this November. In May of 2010, on my first visit to Nepal, I had walked the Annapurna Circuit. After Thorung La, the trail takes you to Kagbeni, a little gem of a village in Mustang Valley, and I had stood at the checkpoint blocking entrance to the upper valley and thought, "Someday, I'm going to do that." This summer, I decided someday had come. I called my man in Kathmandu (I've used the same trekking company twice now), acquired the permits, created a private group, and we were off!

Of course, it was not quite as easy as that. Two events, in particular, made things more complicated than they should have been. I got HAPE in the Wind River Range at an altitude I would have considered rather pedestrian. And then there was the unprecedented disaster on Thorung La, where dozens of ordinary trekkers were killed by avalanche and exposure. We didn't plan to go quite that high on this trip (my own crossing of Thorung La in 2010 was not problematic), but the omens in the entrails weren't all that good. I called Bhairam and re-configured the trip to give me a few more nights at moderate elevation and avoid flying directly into Jomsom at 2,800m. I think he thought I was being very cautious, but I was the one who had had HAPE. I was resolved to walk my way to elevation, which I think is how best to avoid problems.

Fast forward. Shuttle and Torch met me at IAD and we boarded the long flight to Doha. I had never been on the ground in the Middle East. We found Doha super modern and friendly, as if someone had decided to rebuild Manhatten on the Persian Gulf. We had a rather swanky suite at the Hilton, right on the water. La Bamba had told us visit the souk, so we did, and had dinner there.

We had a few drinks at the hotel bar--it seemed to cater to western construction dudes who preferred rugby and soccer to real 'Merican football--slept some, photographed dawn over the gulf, then headed back to the airport for the flight to Kathmandu.

Bhairam met us at the airport, and we met up with Jose and Cristina at our hotel, which was in Thamel--essentially the foreign quarter of the spawling, chaotic city. Her Majesty--who has been working for the State department in Nepal--met us at the Kathmandu Guest House, and showed us a great spot for dinner. We all enjoyed hearing her tales of nearly two years abroad in Nepal. She had done the Upper Mustang trek herself in October, so she filled us in on the details. As always, Thamel is a crazy place. As one gawks at the endless knocked-off trekking goods, one is in constant danger of being run down my a scooter or a rickshaw.

Next morning, Torch, Jose, and Cristina took a flight to see Everest, while Shuttle and did a quick tourist round of some of Kathmandu's major sites--the Monkey Temple, the Buddha Stupa, Durbar Square.

Shuttle was nearly at the center of a violent controversy among the monkeys, but we extricated her. This *was* a short visit to the city, but I've never heard of anyone saying, "Yes, let's spend more time in Kathmandu." The mountains are out there, indeed.

Unfortunately, our flight to Pokhara on Yeti Airlines--Max, I'm holding you responsible--was cancelled. As we stood around in the parking lot of the domestic terminal, among the stray dogs, and waited for Bhairam to come and get us, an SUV pulled up to take an Italian woman to Pokhara by road. The Nepalese driver said "five hours." I chortled, "Yeah, right, it takes five hours. More like seven or eight!" I've done that drive now four or five times. I pitied the Italian woman.

Bhairam pulled up and informed us that we, too, were driving to Pokhara. The sun was setting. It was about 5pm, and I was right about the time. It took us 45 minutes to get back to Thamel, and we didn't reach Pokhara and our lakeside hotel until 1am. It's tough to describe how exhausting this drive was ... the constant swerving and zipping along in peril of your life. Not fun. But we did get there, and promptly passed out.

By this stage, I think we were all ready for some hiking, which was good, and we had 10 days of it planned.

Michael Martin posted on

Next morning, we met our Nepalese crew. Chubby would guide Torch, Jose, and Cristina, along with Harry, Vishnu, and another fellow whose name escapes me. They would do the Poon Hill circuit, then head to Chitwan. Bikram would guide Shuttle and I to Upper Mustang, with Dick as our porter. We chuckled that it was best to keep Dick and Harry apart.

Tuesday, our first day was an easy one. We started at Nayapul, walked into just a few minutes to Birethani, entered the Annapurna Conservation District, and stopped at Hillel. We marveled at the tropical vegetation and enjoyed the built up tea houses. These were the last few miles of the Annapurna Circuit, for me, and it was fun to re-visit the area. Wednesday, however, we had the significant climb to Gorethani, about 1,500m straight up, starting with the thousand, or ten thousand steps ... we didn't stop to count. Poon Hill is the most trekked area in all of Nepal and the place was crowded with people of all nationalities. A Japanese woman was being hauled up on horseback, and seemed delighted by the experience. Shuttle and I reached upper Gorethani in the afternoon, and we all reconvened there by nightfall. The weather was hazy, and I was worried about whether the view from Poon Hill would be worth it.

But it was clear before dawn, and we climbed 500m to the summit (about 3200m) with 300 hundred of our best friends. This is still the most gobsmacking view I've ever seen. Before dawn, the Annapurnas loom ghostly in front of you, in all their titanic immensity.

We set up the tripod. Enterprising Nepalese folks sold tea. The temps were way below freezing, but the dawn was worth it. Toes slightly frozen--trail runners with running socks is a little light to be standing around for 90 minutes--we descended to Gorethani. After a long breakfast, we wished Torch, Jose, and Cristina luck as they would continue back east. Shuttle and I headed north for a 1700 meter descent to Tatopani. Annapurna South and Dhalagiri stood sentinel over this stretch, as we walked through terraced farmland, stopping for the occasional glass of tea.

In 2010, I had climbed this bit, pacing my Australian friend Sarah Keating up it. It had been an ass-kicker, even at the end of 19 days walking. The second hardest day, I'd say, of the entire Annapurna Circuit. Going down wasn't too hard, though. The last bit, someone had put a road in, and I got to experienced the outrage of older Annapurna hikers at this development. The switchbacks Sarah had climbed together had been obliterated by this dusty road. Off-trail, we slid down scree to the Khola Gadaki. As we pulled into Tatopani, though, we were accosted by a gang of school children, very eager to have their pictures taken. Somehow, they ended up with my poles. A girl mimed exhausted western trekkers, limping on their poles. We took the poles away just as it looked like someone might be impaled.

"Tatopani" literally means "hot water," and soon enough, we were at the hot springs, basking in boiling hot water. A happy hour was under way, so we drank Nepalese beer and chatted with folks from all over the world. Our evening was marred by only two developments. I locked Shuttle in the room and she, Rapunzel-like, had to appeal for help from passersby in the street. A British couple had told us that the mali kofta was especially good in the guesthouse. Indeed it was ... but it did not sit well with the bland, vegetarian diet I always adopt in Nepal. Much immodium was consumed.

Michael Martin posted on

Par for the course. It is Nepal, after all.

The next day, we would travel up the Khola Gadaki, a giant gouge cut between the Dhalaugiri and Annapurna massifs. Depending on how you count it, this is the deepest valley in the world. In 2010, I had walked it, staying in Kagbeni, Marfa, Kolapani, and Tatopani. But this is the much maligned section of the Annapurna where "The Road" has interfered with the footpath. We drove up it this time, Tatopani to Jomsom, in a 4 X 4 with a crazy fellow who looked like he had come straight from a rave. Sheep surrounded the vehicle, and there was a thousand feet of death on the side at points. We bounced along, bumping our heads on the roof. We drove through a waterfall. When the driver realized that we weren't so queasy, he started to show off, picking up speed and slamming through creeks in the Khola. Oh yes, it was wonderful.

We paused at Marpha to wander about the beautiful village, have lunch, climb to the monastery and take photos. We bought a flask of the town's apple brandy, and then looked askance at each other as it rang up for as much as a Fanta. We decided we'd save it for Tuscarora Trail, Section 8. A sign points to Dhalaugiri base camp: we laughed that the trail heads straight up, as I guess it would need to. Jomsom is just beyond Marpha, so we left the car there, and walked the two hours or so to Kagbeni, through the Valley of the Winds. This was the windiest stretch we dealt with, and it did whip around us. We soon got the sense that "phlegm management" would become a valuable trail skill.

We overnighted at Kagbeni with a group of Annapurna Circuit hikers--mainly Brits and Australians--at the same tea house I had stayed at four years before. Our dinner companions had just come over Thorung La and reported seeing the personal effects of fatalities from October's disaster. They were eager for easier days on the western side of the circuit. On the other hand, we were eager to jump off on what was our main objective. I'd be seeing new trail the next morning.

Michael Martin posted on

From Kagbeni forward, we were in the Upper Mustang proper--this was what we had come for.

Initially, the trail followed the riverbed, at times riding up high, then dropping down. We walked through villages where the locals were finishing their harvest. As would be the case for the entirety of the trip, the weather in the day was perfect. Highs in the 50s. No precip. Often not a cloud in the sky. Immediately, too, the environment changed. The tea houses were less built-up, more Tibetan in style. You'd enter to find a roofed over common room with bedrooms adjoining. And there were virtually no foreign trekkers--we went two days without seeing one. When we did, she told us that we might be the last trekker in Lo Manthang this year. This was inaccurate, but it did feel like that at times. It was late in the season, but that was not necessarily bad.

We reached Tschele and spent the evening watching WWE wrestling on satellite TV. We were fascinated to see that the locals--they would gather in the tea house common room--were entranced by these big, muscular men. Go figure. WWE, you are incredibly big in Nepal! The Nepalese would occasionally change the channel to Indian romcoms which were wholly unintelligible.

Next morning, we were up and climbing. From this point forward, we would be between 3500 and 4100 meters. I imagine at least a few people are curious how well my body handled the altitude. I took Diamox. It made me drowsy and I had the tingling sensation in my extremities, but the altitude gave me no problems. No HAPE. I did drink a beer at 3800 meters. Bad idea. My heart rate shot up. No alcohol for me after that. It definitely could have played a role in the Wind River Range. A sip or two seemed to have an effect.

In the morning, we climbed a narrow and precipitous trail along a gorge, then upped and downed through the villages. Though the trail was never especially hard, if it had been a sea-level, the 300m-500m climbs we repeated over and over took it out of us. I would not be surprised to learn that we climbed 4,000 feet every day, even though we remained fairly level (I wish I had carried the GPS). The footing was often rather scree-like. The environmental conditions were tough, though, despite the beautiful weather. It was so dusty that our throats burned from the moment we left the tea houses in the morning. Snot ran down our faces so much that I wondered if we could dehydrate ourselves via snot. We gave up drinking water and just drank lemon tea, which made it all better.

We lunched by the head of a decapitated sheep. Shuttle took a photo of me with a screaming toddler and a chicken that she found amusing.

Then we hiked on to Shyangmochen. When night fell, they brought us a stove thing stuffed with hot coals that was luxurious in the cold tea houses. We curled up with Tibetan blanks stuffed around our bags. A demonic duck quacked its way through the night. We swore we would eat duck when we got home.

Hua Davis posted on

[:D] A very interesting hiking other than in the US. Thanks Martin for the trip report. Hope to go there sometime in the future!!

Michael Martin posted on

On we marched to Tsarang, climbing pass after pass. Tsarang was the first of the more beautiful villages, Lo Manthang being the other. Tsarang is really rather impressive. Yaks peer curiously at us as we pass their enclosures. We visit the old palace of the King of Mustang, which is about to topple down on us. The monastery is abandoned, the monks in the south, but we ramble about, keeping out of the way of the "ferocious dogs" that are actually marked on maps, like "here be dragons." In the night, Shuttle and I stand on the roof of the tea house and take star photos. My skill is low, but the sky is magnificent. The Milky Way is plainly visible. We are frozen before we go to bed.

The next day, we endure a windy day of walking to come to Lo Manthang--the gem of Upper Mustang. It does not disappoint. We tour the gompa and revel in the ancient walled city. We do a little shopping as well--the merchants were most eager. We take great photos of the idyllic place--it is easy to imagine the centuries of merchants who have crossed this via on their way to China or India.

In the tea house, we encounter some jolly Italians who will share the road with us for the next few days. Their porters labor under tremendous loads.

Over the next three days, we descend from Lo Manthang to Jomsom, sleeping at Chami and Tschele. There was some concern about these splits but they weren't that bad. One day we do walk from 8am to dusk, descending a narrow path by the gorge in the last hour of sun. We had concentrate ... but this was never really too tough for a DC UL trip. Shuttle and I would joke that the TT in December was harder and certainly more wintery. And there was no one to make tea for us!

My one regret was that we did not have an extra day or two in Upper Mustang. With a little more time, we could have walked a triangle to Mukinath, which would have been nice. I originally planned this as a three week trip, but it got reduced to two. A little more communication with the trekking company would have resolved this. On the other hand, we were yearning for some filtered air by the time we survived the blasting dust from Kagbeni to Jomsom.

"Halfway" (we had so dubbed our guide Bikram) had out-done himeself with the hotel in Jomson. Boiling hot showers, which was a good thing, as we needed it. We were covered in a not-so-thin layer of snot and dirt and sweat by that point. We drank beer, ate steamed momos, and tipped him and Dick. The next day we would part ways, Dick heading home on a bus (dreadful to think of) while Bikram flew to Pokhara.

From now it was all plane, trains, and automobiles. We caught a crazy, low altitude flight out of Jomsom--fun and games with my head stuffed up--wasted the day in Pokhara, got to Kathmandu in the evening, re-united with Torch, swapped war stories with her over beer in Thamel, showered again. The next morning, we boarded the flight to Doha. After an interlude at the Amari Doha (a beautiful suite, five bars, but no alcohol and a $70 buffet!), we endured the 14-hour flight home. I watched all three LOTR films, saw another film, and still had time to twiddle my thumbs. We could barely talk straight by the time we got home!

But home we were at last ... And so ended my third Nepalese trek.

Thanks to Shuttle, Torch, Jose, and Cristina for hanging out with me on this long trip!

Will posted on

And you were unscathed by avalanche! Success! Thanks for the write up. Such a cool trip on the other side of the world!

JDH posted on

Did not realize there was a Part Deux on December 18, 2014, until now [2-19-'15]. BTW, what are LOTR films?

Michael Martin posted on

Lord of the Rings!