Annapurna & Mustang , Nepal
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
In October 2012, seven middle-aged Brits walked to Lo Munthang and back. Here's how it went.
Day 1: Jomson to Kagbeni
The flight in isn't usually where you start, but this one is a thrilling prelude. From Pokhara, our little plane climbs and climbs, but never gets any higher above the hills below, as they transform from jungle-and-rice-terrace to forest and gorge, to alpine meadow and rock, with snowy peaks appearing through the clouds above, to dry desert cliff and canyon. Then the alarmingly short Jomson runaway is dead ahead (a loaded term, here) through the open cockpit door, and we are lurching down through the thermals toward it. Then we bump down, and all is well: we stop in good time and are soon clambering out of the low door the astringent air and piercingly clear, fierce sun. We are at 2,700 meters (8,000ft) and it is a different world.
I learn later - unfortuntely before our flight out - that the airline recently changed its name to Tara Air because of its accident record. Tara is the Tibetan goddess of mercy and intercession.
We loiter on the flat roof of the nearby Tilicho Hotel, while our pots, pans, food and other kit are assembled from heaps in the courtyard yard below us. Across the valley, the amazingly white cone and ice slopes of 7,000m Nilgiri are offset by a startlingly blue sky. What an introduction.
Introductions to our team are a bit haphazard. Dear Dendi, who got Ali and me and Reggie across the Himalayas and round sacred Mt Kailash in western Tibet, is organising everything. He has been up Mt Everest since, and started his own business, and looks older but in complete command. Phurba, our cook and Dendi's deputy, turns out to be highly intelligent and a culinary magician. And then there are younger Sange, small, tough assistant guide and Evereesteer, and Pemba, a trainee guide and nephew of Dendi (I think they are all related - good Asian practices prevail). Then there are two kitchen assistants and two or three (definitely three by tipping time) pony men, rougher and local, hired by Dendi for the purpose. A couple of ponies and eight or so mules, in the process of being loaded with our bags, make up our group.
Then we are off along Jomson's main drag, which has a decidedly wild west feel - herdsman and porters intent on some post trek fun, shops selling everything that the outlying villages could need. We photograph all sorts of forgettable subjects which we will regret when our batteries run out.
After crossing the wild Kali Gandaki river for the first time and passing through a much-"improved" old town, we are out, trudging across the huge, barren, rocky flood plain about which the river braids itself. We join a track up onto the right bank, then dip back onto the river rocks.
The infamous afternoon wind is whipping up clouds of dust as we slowly swing north; it is chokingly, eye-scratchingly unpleasant as we cross the tumultuous bed of a big valley coming in from the Annapurna massif.
We trudge steadily on, enjoying views across the huge gorge bottom to villages and their terraces clinging to the hillside far above, surrounded by 5,000 metre crags.
After a bit over three hours, we reach the old caravanserai village of Kagbeni, and unexpectedly turn into the door of an old inn. Up a steep - very Tibetan - flight of stairs, we are through a doorway and in a little courtyard with our tents already pitched on sparse grass. Surreal: there is just room for them, with high walls all around. It is delightfully sheltered from the dusty, windy world outside. Upstairs is a bright room with wonderful views down and across the gorge. We have a large late lunch followed by snoozing and exploration (I pant up the bluff above town to catch the shafts of late light raking down between the western cliffs. Reggie is already there, braced against the wind like a yachtsman.)
Back indoors,I do a not-great pastel of the valley, not helped by the fading light. Then it is a huge supper and we waddle cumbersomely to our sleeping bags.
Day 2: Kagbeni to Chele
Sleep was light and interrupted: it is always thus the first night out. There was a loud and long rockfall on the obviously unstable slopes across the river.
A start that seems early - 6.30 - but which is to be the norm. The first morning is always slow, as we get our minds round packing and organizing ourselves. By the end, we will be efficient old hands, but it is a dopey performance today.
Breakfast helps, a handsome and extensive repast complete with strong teas and coffees. As usual, I'm not going to be losing any weight.
We start with a delightful wander through Kagbeni, which we learn through subsequent experience is a typical old trade route village: its centuries of (relative) prosperity are evidenced by sturdy houses, courtyards and alleys, animal pens, water channels, prayer wheels and chortens. And a small but ancient monastery, which had fallen into disrepair, but is being revitalized by a young, vigorous and perhaps too-smooth abbot, who presides charmingly over the courtyard and extracts $10 from us. (He produces a business card - bad sign.) The prayer hall is reached up steep steps, and is a perfect little chamber, its reds and golds glowing in the slanting morning light. On up a ladder, we get a wonderful view across the village. The monastery is perched on a cliff above the stream, at huge risk of erosion. It looks like they are trying to do something about it: rock and wire barriers have been laid to push the current outward. Beyond a large mani/prayer wheel wall is a Hindu temple down by the river. All very ecumenical looking.
Then we are properly off on the great trek, contouring above the river on the still little-used dirt road - ironically, great walking, as there is no need to watch our step, so we are free to enjoy the changing scenery. There is no wind, the sun is warm but the air still cool. Our spirits are high.
A plateau shows itself, its soft rock evidenced by the dramatically collapsed piles in the riverbed. Our first real ascent, a bit of a puff in the thin air, gets us on top, and a few minutes later we are at a rather surprising organic apple farm (the fertilizer comes from Jomson and is presumably human) - rows of timid-looking saplings over a large acreage enclosed by a mud-brick wall. Low-browed workers watch us with interest as we snack on delicious apples, presumably not theirs. A pair of men weave an ingenious netting from thick wire, apparently as a heart for a concrete water reservoir wall, or it could be for a rock-basket barrier.
A bit further on, we descend into our first deep side gorge, and plod out the other side and into Tangbe, another fascinating old village, which we explore with delight, ending up in the dappled shade of an apple orchard-terrace for lunch, which is cooked and bigger than we need, although I at least wolf down seconds. Lounging here after a long morning, chatting then snoozing in the light shadows, is exceedingly mellow and contentment-inducing. An eager young entrepreneur has set up a cloth with various things, including black river pebbles which crack open to reveal sharply-defined ammonites, remarkable reminders of the ancient sea-bed we are crossing. Small boys' presents found on Day Two!
We press on, the wind now picking up at our backs, enjoying the changing afternoon light on the vast, sheer walls, passing through fabulous Chhusang, of which more later, crossing the wide, rough bed of another incoming river (evidently tumultuous in season), and then after another hamlet reaching a particularly scenic chorten overlooking the vast - a kilometre wide? - pale, smooth-rocked bed of the great gorge.
We descend to the bed - the most direct route, if increasingly unlovely as a result of the dust picked up in the fierce gusts - regaining the canyon side under an uncomfortable overhang of soft-looking rock. We hear that the Dalai Lama fled the Chinese this way, and hid some precious documents in holes dug high in the cliff face long ago, so it must be more stable than it looks. Apparently the Karmapa Lama, a boy with whom Ali and I had a rather mad audience in 1999 at his Tsurphu monastery north of Lhasa in 1999, also fled this way, within six months after we met him.
We bridge the river by a vast wedge of cliff that has fallen into the bed and under which the stream now flows. Then it is an unpleasant, exhausting slog up a boulder slope to Chele. The dust is in stormy gusts here, and we have all donned the tubes of material we were given by Dendi that we can pull up over mouth and nose. My contact lensed eyes suffer something rotten. In the lulls, the view down the gorge, evening light slanting through gaps in the cliffs, is memorably beautiful.
The village is smaller and not quite so charming as its counterparts, although there is a sweet circular pond surrounded by willows in which some ponies drink and paddle in a desultory way. Just behind is the compound where we will camp, our tents already set up. Somewhat shellshocked, we sort ourselves somewhat inefficiently as the temperature drops now that the sun is down - it will take another couple of days to get military about this. We wash - some shower in a particularly insanitary chamber in the village. Not me, I fear. Then it is whisky and supper in a jolly purpose-built dining/mess room. Another huge meal: soup, big main, pudding. Seconds all round. Hungry work, walking. Then it is a tired but happy retirement, at around 9-ish. I get stuck into Mr Gibbon and his Roman Decline (all those volumes on a Kindle...), passing time in an attempt to build up for a final pee to forestall a freezing, sleep-breaking, late-night excursion. It doesn't work like that, sadly.
Day 3: Chele to Syangboche
An early start, it goes without saying but will be said anyway. The triumph of the morning, the first use of the portable loo seat I have requested (dubbed the Zimmer Loo by the reliably supportive Reggie), having popped a knee crouching in the Dolomites and met this contraption for the first time in Tanzania. Brilliant, no fear for fecal functions for the rest of the expedition!
A jolly breakfast in our hut, our first encounter with honey porridge, which quickly becomes a staple. Why hadn't I thought of that before? General inefficiency, probably increased by the particularly mellow morning light, leads to an 8.45 departure. Everyone is cheerful. We dawdle by the pool, taking group pictures in front of more drinking quadrupeds.
The climb out of Chele is a steep and dreary slog up a loose track, though this gradually eases off and the surroundings get more interesting. We find ourselves by a chorten above a new, graceful suspension bridge across the huge Ghyahar Khola gorge, the old trade track cut into and built out over the sheer sandstone cliffs of the northern side. Across the abyss, the perfectly intact village of Ghyahar nestles in its terraces. As soon as villages are off the main routes - and no doubt the new "road" in particular - they lose any outlying buildings and huddle in on themselves.
The traverse of this cliff is exceptionally exhilarating and inspiring. As we gain height, our field of view becomes deeper and deeper: behind the relatively rounded hills of loose stone behind the village, themselves in stark contrast to the cracked precipices below, the snowy mass of the Annapurna range gains prominence with every few steps we take, in gently hazy harmony with the clear morning sky behind. Raptors swing about on the thermals.
We escape the gorge, circuiting a little meadow to avoid losing height crossing it, and have a snack by a rocky pile, under festooning prayer flags, on our first proper pass. Below us is the huge Samar bowl, a cascade of terraces falling, between vast, crazily eroded sandstone cliffs below the eponymous village, which looks a most seductive huddle of white buildings in a large grove of poplars.
We would be happy to stay the night at Samar, when we get there, even though it is only lunchtime. After the hot, arid canyons and hillsides, the irrigation rills, drystone paddocks, shady trees and well-loved houses could turn us into immobile lotus-eaters. But it is not to be - their campsite is full (we resolve to stay here later).
We climb up - steep steps from a covered courtyard, again - to the Annapurna "Hotel"'s dining room, brightly painted in Tibetan hues (sky blue windows, ox-blood walls to dado height), with a riot of pot plants on all three window-sills, comfortably rugged seats and immaculate views down over the village to the dry hills far away across the great Kali Gandaki gorge. Lunch is again delicious and large, spinach pasties topping the bill. We lie back and luxuriate like gorged lions (well, warthogs, anyway).
But move we must. We discover, beyond the mani walls and prayer wheels of the village edge, and then a fine gatehouse, a disconcertingly deep ravine followed by what looks like another one, and then a broken trail leading to a high pass. Some walk to come.
Actually, it is fine if tiring, helped by both ravines being beautiful and the ridge between history-rich, with high walls, a little chorten or two and a sheep-pen littered meadow below. The long haul to the 3,830m (12,500ft) Bhena La gets a bit much, though, the altitude gain of around 2,500ft beginning to hit home. The view from the pass is (of course) superb, as we huddle on the lee side to escape a breeze so forceful it might drag the bowed and rattling prayer flags clean away.
It is far from over, though. We have a long traverse (if you can call something this rough a mere traverse) to enjoy, around wonderful, steep (often sheer) hillsides to the 4,010m Yamda La (Oh La La say the guides) - although I have to say, I remember very little of it, the effect, no doubt, of the altitude.
At last, we are at the pass, with a huge view opening northward over what look just like the brown broken hills of the Tibetan plateau. To the east, we can see, beyond the madness of the inner Kali Gandaki gorge, more of the wrinkled hills and then the black crags and ice fields punctuating the skyline. There is no sign of humanity.
Round a corner, we see the hamlet Syangboche in a wide valley some hundreds of feet below us. Its setting is spectacular: a path drops sharply away from it into what look like the rocky bowels of the earth, with great cliffs looming above it to the west - but we just want to get there, now.
Syangboche is initially disappointing on arrival - all three terraces of the little garden are packed with tents, ours crammed onto the lower level, a large group of Germans well ensconced on the upper tiers.
Our inn is intriguing, what looks like a traditional courtyard caravanserai with a roof thrown over the central space. A table is set for us in the middle, and we fall hungrily on the tea and biscuits that magically appear.
Two very sweet little girls, wrapped in heavy layers of woollens, get our female representatives' attention. Out comes that cure for tired limbs, the Laphroaig.
The evening's most memorable moments involve the antics of a Peeping Tom. The shower has a shoulder-high window out into the internal courtyard and Reggie spots him looking across at Sophie in the shower. He has to stand in front of the window, moving to block PT's efforts to see round him: PT is oblivious to having been rumbled, and leans sideways to see as Reggie himself leans to and fro to block him. Then Amanda goes in, putting up a calendar to block the view. PT actually removes it (we have left the courtyard), and her howls cause someone to hastily shove it back. She is a bit shocked.
Supper is huge and delicious again, although altitude has wiped any details other than that I ate a lot.
Afterwards, I am myself in the shower, when a head torch presses itself to the window. The face behind in deep shadow, I hold up my bosoms seductively, but it is only Paul (who else?).
Bedtime is slightly low-spirited - we have gained 800 metres over a long day’s walking, and is much colder up here, although fine once we have built up a fug in our sleeping bags. Cow-yak crosses (dzis?) in the pens below us put up such remarkable grunting that I think it must be Reggie snoring (poor Sophie!) and I shout at him to stop. But it is of bovine origin, and goes on for at least half an hour.
Day 4: Syangboche to Ghami
Not a great night's sleep all round. Grunting cattle, an altitude increase (we slept at 3,800m, up from 3,100 at Chele) and much lower temperatures are the culprits. Paul and Sophie are decidedly piano, and we are all a bit subdued, although much helped by honey porridge, fried eggs and pancakes with syrup (2 helpings of all in my case). With a start, Amanda recognizes our Peeping Tom as our main horseman. Dilemma.
Syangboche looks better in the morning light, though, with the drama of the gorge disappearing into the shadows below and sunlit crags above.
A reasonably painless trudge gets us to the nearby pass, and a big, gorgeous view across the deep Geling valley, another cascade of sun-glowing terraces below a village and oxblood monastery huddled on the far slope.
We traverse the upper slopes of the bowl, across the high beginnings of a deep gorge then a rocky sloping plain, enjoying huge views over a ruined tower-hamlet on a hilltop to Geling village and on down and across to the distant mountains across the great gorge.
We pause in the totally delightful hamlet of Chhunggar, in a tree-swathed little oasis, and drink and snack by the shop-guesthouse (another Shangri-la!), with a particularly lovely and sheltered looking orchard behind: camping heaven. But Paul is really suffering. Over the road, a sun-dark, very Tibetan woman tends her vegetables behind a high drystone wall. We pass a huge chorten on the edge of the village, recently painted with Buddhist symbols.
After a bit of a slog - we are tiring now - we reach little house with an exceptionally delightful (a writer's dilemma: these superlatives can get tiring, but they are true) courtyard rich in flowers and colour. We lunch in another very Tibetan room, low tables round the sides and rugged seats against the walls not maximizing comfort or group conversation, but excitingly different and echt nonetheless. I have a long chat with Nicky, who I sense is struggling toward the end - and it isn't merely my conversation! We wait some time, but the huge lunch is worth it.
The steep after lunch-slog up to the 4,020m Nyi La isn't much fun in the thin air, but we make it. In hindsight, this must have sorely tested Paul and Nicky's resolve, steely though they are. The wide views across the colourful hills and cliffs of central Mustang are a fine reward. It is wondrous how quickly after gaining breath at any pass I (at least) feel on top of the world, in all senses. We traverse (how the heart rises when you see a level trail) round to a second pass, now looking across the russet-fielded Ghami valley, deep (some 1,600ft down) between broken, bare hillsides, to the famous cliffs of Drakmar, red from a demon's blood.
Our hostel has a pretty, warm garden, with possibly the tallest hollyhocks I have seen crowding the bed, which is contained using upside-down beer bottles, in front of the sturdy homestead. Our tents are pitched, and we bask in the last of the sun, until it disappears behind the high ridge to the west. Round the back, cries lead us to a busy threshing yard: a team of four fairly naughty ponies is being driven round over a deep pad of red-brown buckwheat, tethered to their circuit by a man braced against a central stump. They pause to fluff up the crop, and some of us join in the work, to my mild embarrassment but to the amusement of the locals. They could easily have been surly, but that isn't the way here.
Paul isn't specially well, and retires to his tent. Nicky is piano. The rest of us wander around the town in the gloaming. Herds are being driven back to their ville centre courtyards and pens. Adults are loitering in brightly painted doorways, children playing in the dropping-sprinkled dust, all enjoying the last light at the end of a long day. Prayer wheels are spun, prayer flags droop now the wind has died. It is very mediaeval.
A cheerful meal in the covered-over inner courtyard, marred by the discovery that half a bottle of Laphroaig is missing. There is no doubt, so we raise it with Dendi. We suspect Peeping Tom, who looks flushed at times. We don't finger him for this, but do tell Dendi about the peeping incident: he giggles at first, then becomes serious. Bit of a double whammy.
Day 5: Ghami to Tsarang
A really perfect start to a day, lounging in the early sun by the hollyhocks lining the whitewashed inn. We breakfast massively, on apple and honey porridge and mushroom omelette, under the lazily stirring prayer flags.
We wind through the sharply-lit town, inspecting the morning goings-on and making way for the commuting herds, then zig-zag down the gorge-side to the interesting old(ish) bridge. A short, sharp climb through a gap in the loose cliff gets us to views back, between the clifftop chortens, across to the town. We are at the base of Nepal's longest mani wall, which runs, at a height of two metres plus, for hundreds of metres up a gravelly slope. It must have evolved over hundreds of years, and is composed of particularly beautifully carved calligraphic stones. It is very moving. In the distance are a large but lonely chorten and the demon's-blood-red cliffs near what we later discover is lovely and atmospheric Drakmar, although from here there is no sign of anything but empty desolation. We pass dried puddles where red, ochre and blue-grey earth has been stirred for painting the wall.
Passing a huge herd of goats, we turn into a side valley. High above is the Tsarang Choya La, with a new road hairpinning up to it, scarring the delicate hillside. It looks a lot further than it did from across Ghami yesterday afternoon. A long, steady but breathless trudge gets us there, diverted from our struggles by the usual (don't get blasé, now) huge views, this time back over the Ghami basin toward the western mountains. Over the pass, we are back to a panorama across the Kali Gandaki gorge, this time to an immense, sheer-walled canyon of shining black rock, which snakes back into the eastern hills. We drop out of the buffeting wind to sit and enjoy the view. Nicky has been plodding along manfully, but doesn't look happy.
A long and easy hike down along the new scar - I mean road - gets us to another fine, flag-bedecked chorten on the edge of Tsarang, the former capital and second city (for which read town). Our inn is another solid two-story affair with a covered-over inner courtyard and a charming upper-floor corner dining room, again brightly painted in very Tibetan colours. But I spot the garden, a perfect spot, sheltered by a thick belt of sussurating poplars from boisterous wind. We lie about in the dappled sunlight, as a table is laid. We eat another embarrassingly large lunch, and the five of us who feel well enough talk until the all-important sun dips behind the house and chill sets in. We then repair to our tent terrace, across the road, which is at this time of day exposed and blown about by the relentless breeze.
We head off into town, which is as exciting as we had been led to expect. Water rushes through channels in the streets, the winding alleys - streets is too grand a term - pullulate with goats, cows, children playing and their parents bringing in the harvest. There is shit, of all provenances, everywhere. It is close to a Monty Python set.
On a walled spur above the inevitable gorge is a fine monastery compound, harbouring a big, fine, numinous prayer hall. 24 sets of hats and robes sit on seats each side of the central aisle waiting, a bit Harry Potter-like, for their monkish owners to come and pray.
Back outside, the late evening light turns everything psychedelic. At the prow of the compound, an old woman is fiddling with loose wood, oblivious to a wonderful view down the valley and across the great gorge to the deeply-shadowed hills beyond. Nearby, what seems like an older and holier sanctuary is dusty, mud-floored and open to the elements.
Just for us, the boy-monks escape, chattering and squealing, from their classes for a brief game of dusty football before it gets too cold and dark. The ball is punctured, they are in long robes, but this doesn't prevent some fine skills - and shoving - and a Beckham-like lob into the goal from the half-way line. Wild celebrations, very much of this world. The balls sails out over the wall, and down to the farmyards a very long way below, to howls from the holy apprentices. A pair of little boys shin down the rough stonework platform to retrieve it.
Back at base, it is getting cold. Nicky doesn't seem great, and we talk to Dendi about the possibility of putting him into a jeep for tomorrow, so he can conserve energy to get over the chest infection he has picked up from a manic cougher on the plane.
We huddle into the upstairs room, reading and talking desultorily. I play German whist with Sophie. Another huge supper, delicious considering the ingredients available and the cooking conditions. A cloth is removed with some ceremony from a boxy object on a shelf across the room, and it turns out to be a computer: they have internet here. A group coalesces to watch what looks like a peculiarly bad Bollywood film, a wrong-caste impossible-love cascade of clichés. They are transfixed. Surely this stuff will be more culturally polluting than the much-worried-about road?
Day 6: Tsarang to Lo Munthang
Up at 7am - a lie-in! - to meet a frosty morning, our first. It isn't the highest campsite, but it seems to get colder every day we get nearer Tibet. A better night's sleep: my hip birsas, which had been dully painful the last couple of nights, left off.
It is spectacularly pretty, the early sun lighting up the hillsides and immediately warming our little enclosure. The western range sports a narrow layer of cloud at a very specific-looking height. We feel almost leisurely: we have five hours or so of relatively easy walking ahead, and all feel well, except poor Nicky, who sounds and looks terrible, and had a bad night. We decide on the jeep option for him and Amanda.
Breakfast is another vast series: porridge, scrambled eggs, pancakes. I'm going to gain weight. We are off at 9am, wandering slowly through the town, which has been up and about for hours, ending up back at the monastery, with sharply-lit views over the Kali Gandaki gorge, and across the deep side-gorge immediately below us to its beautifully fluted far side.
Down a pack track, the river passes a fine chorten and a couple of water-driven prayer wheels in stout, windowless little sheds among grassy orchards, high-walled in the usual way. A long but encouragingly steady climb, if a gasping slog can be thus described, get us to the high ridge above the gorge and outstanding views across to the monastery and the white-walled 14th century royal palace, now empty and sadly dilapidated, to the snowy Annapurnas to the far south.
Our trail traverses the upper slopes of the deep, harsh Thurlung valley, which runs northward into the arid hills that separate Tsarang from the capital. This is wonderful walking - a gentle but steady ascent with changing scenery and the sumptuous Annapurnas at our backs whenever we turn. We pass goat herds that are grazing their ways south to the lowlands, in time for slaughter for a major Hindu festival. Nicky and Amanda's jeep comes past. The gorge bed rise toward us. We pass the great Sungda chorten, regally lonely in its huge wasteland setting.
Over a pleasingly low pass - we wouldn't have recognized it as such had the map not told us - we emerge from the gorge into a wide plain sloping up to the final, starkly white, cruelly serrated hills around the Lo La pass. And there, at last, from a ridge beyond and below, we see Lo Munthang in its deep, wide valley. I’m not going to wax too lyrical - it wasn't Lhasa gleaming in the afternoon sun for Younghusband, more a collection of squat houses coalescing on the dusty terraces around the tightly gathered town inside its high walls - but it was a moment to savour. Paul is going downhill, his throat getting increasingly painful, and I fear he isn't in enjoying mood.
A long descent along the slopes of another winding ravine leads to the main valley (not a gorge - hooray!). Then we are in the outskirts of the town, passing women on a high platform, winnowing their crops in the stiff afternoon breeze, a trail of dusty chaff shimmering away in the thick sunlight.
There is some uncertainty about where we will be staying, and we wait for Dendi in the warm afternoon sun by the Kunga Shopping Shop, well placed on the junction where the Tserang road meets the city walls. It is a busy place, with laden mules, cows and goats wandering past and people returning from the fields.
Dendi leads us off by the ring road around the houses clustered under the walls, an irrigation channel in its middle. Our site is behind the school's playground and veg garden and near its eating hall, in a sheltered-looking (but actually windy) enclosure little bigger than a yard: it gets pretty parky here as soon as the sun is down: the unseen immanation of Tibet now a mere 30km or so away.
In the meantime, our mess tent is put up, and, after lounging gratefully in the sun, we tackle another vast meal (I remember fried spam, which the rest are getting over-used to but I am afraid I wolf down, and a spicy vegetable "wrap"). We all repair to our tents for a post-prandial one. We don’t see Paul for the rest of the day and hardly get a response when we speak through his tent: we are worried about him.
Some of us (not Paul, Nicky or Ali) have a late-afternoon wander round the town in all its glorious mediaevalness. Meek little cattle stand witlessly in the streets, goats meander to their intramural pens. Groups stand and gossip. The main entrance to the royal palace is fine and prayer wheel lined but dusty and, one feels, little used: a particularly gormless calf stands dribbling by the steps. The King is old and unwell, and, while we are at it, no longer really king, as his powers were removed a few years ago. If Nepal itself can ditch its kings, what chance the Raja of Mustang? The magnificent old Tubchen monastery, deep below the street, is dusty, dirt-floored and a bit sad inside.
It is properly cold pretty soon after sundown, and we repair to the food hall, a big, draughty pillared space with two kitchen-rooms by the entrance that are very Hieronymus Bosche. We read, talk and then eat another massive meal. Nicky is present but very silent. I have a feeling that tonight Reg and I break with tradition and don’t have whiskies; I forgot to bring my bottle over and it is too much work to get it.
A cold night follows, although nothing our bags aren't up to.
Day 7: ride to Chosar
Good news: Paul answers from his tent, so is still alive. But Nicky has had another terrible night, struggling with his breathing, so we agree he should stay behind in camp today, to rest and recuperate.
Another huge breakfast, I think in the sun in our campsite.
Today is a day off walking, actually very welcome to us all. We are going to ride to Chosar, up the Kali Gandaki valley toward Tibet. We descend to the valley bottom north of town, where we meet our ponies - presumably, they want to see us aboard before we do anything as demanding as go downhill.
At the top of the far ridge, we find the wreckage of what look like a mixture of chortens and towers commanding the trade route - and yet another tremendous view back across squat Lo Munthang to the barren hills and then eventually the Annapurnas in the far distance. Round the corner, we are high above a wide swathe of colourful fields dotted with livestock - you can see why the capital was moved here - in the gorgeous upper Kali Gandaki valley (the river has finally climbed out of it great gorge, and is now a fast-flowing mountain stream). On the upper slopes high above us are a series of ruined towers. Ahead, the barren, snow-capped mountains that separate us from Tibet line up in a more formidable barrier than they looked on the map.
Everyone seems to be loving their ride, some to their surprise, especially Ali and Paul, who always profess suspicion of things equestrian. My pony is a sweet little grey person who doesn't seem madly inclined to trot, and indeed turns out to be unsound as soon as he is pushed above a walk. But he is as sturdy as my gallant steed in Mongolia, and carries my porridge and pancake-increased weight without demur.
Chosar turns out to be a village with a monastery and a cave-complex above. The latter is really amazing, four levels at least of chambers and passages lit by cliff-windows but going back some way into the mountain. It is said to be over 500 years - a blurb on the back of a ticket say 2,000 plus. The monastery is a delightful little place, built round a hall in a shallow cliff-face cave and said to be over 800 years old. It certainly has the patina, and a strong presence. It is allied to one of the antique orders of Tibetan Buddhism.
We have lunch (packed, now preferred by all; we are maxing out) outside a health-risk eatery, gazing southward past our patient ponies down the valley over houses and trees, past the orange gorge cliffs to, yet again, the ever-present snowy mass of the Annapurnas. Memorable. The ride back is lovely, retracing our steps past mani walls, chortens, farmers, herders, drovers and their various animals in warm and now slanting sun.
The latter part of the afternoon is spent in the windless camp garden. Poor Nicky is if anything worse - he has been putting kit in the wrong tents, and passing out in other (also wrong) tents. Paul has been full of beans but (I think) retires for the rest of the day.
The remnants of the group make another early evening walk, with Dendi, through a gate near our compound, which opens into a school’s covered courtyard in which children are working desultorily. Boy-monks whirl each other about in the still-sunny yard of the monastic quarter, a shaven headed monk of middle years washes his feet in a perpetually pouring spout. A large, scruffy group sit and talk in the last sun at the base of a long mani and prayer wheel wall outside the quarter.
Skirting the back of the thick-walled place-castle, we walk out through the great main gate and round the eastern walls, past a wall of prayer wheels half the length of a side of the town. Round a corner, we meet a calf standing dumbly under a pole from which strings of prayer flags reach out to all available fixing points. The last rays coming over the town walls and hitting the brightly painted chortens and walls are almost poignantly rich. Round on the southern drag, houses huddle round the town wall one side, the yards and copses of the suburbs open out on the other. Recently unloaded mules patiently await their evening destiny. An old woman rinses cups and plates in the street-centre irrigation channel, down which shreds of dung are floating. I assume this is what Ladakh would have been like 40 years ago.
Back at camp, it is getting cold very quickly. We huddle into the eating hall, talking and playing cards until supper. Another enormous meal, rendered a touch mournful by the absence of Nicky (but not Paul this time?). We discuss with Dendi the possible need to get Nicky out by 'copter or jeep, and arrange a jeep to Tsarang anyway. A slightly disconsolate bed, although I at least still hope Nicky will be better tomorrow.
Day 8: LMT to Ghami
Up at 5-30, dress and pack efficiently in the half-light. Nicky has had a dreadful night, struggling to breathe. He looks very sick. He says he needs to pull the ripcord, a relief in a way, as this avoids painful discussions about what looks like the only sensible decision. We tell Dendi, who takes it all in in a blink and says it should be by helicopter rather than jeep, as he needs to get low and to hospital quickly. He has arranged helicopter evacuation in a few minutes - for US$8,000.
We are driving to Tserang anyway to start the day's walk. We had planned to walk the 9hrs, over two 4,000m plus passes, from Lo Munthang to Ghami, with invalids going half or all the way by jeep, but are all actually pretty content to drive over, and walk on from Ghar Gompa (monastery) high up the valley above Tserang.
Reggie and I sit on the roof with two sherpas, perched on baggage and clinging on to the straps as we lurch along the deeply rutted road. What a journey, as we cross the gorge below Lo Munthang in the clear, still early light, and wind up the sandy hills to the Lo La (no less). Down the other side and over another low pass, we are back at the great, lonely Sungda Chorten. A long descent of the upper slopes of the gorge we have walked up only two days ago (it already seems like months) gets us to the corner where we gaze (in a shaken-about sort of way) at Tserang on its high rock across the next gorge, with the imperious Annapurnas as backdrop. An uncomfortable tumble down the deep gorge side and back up gets us to our guesthouse on the western outskirts.
Nicky is unpacked, and we wait disconsolately in the sharp mountain sun until the 'copter is reconfirmed. Dendi stays to take him to Kathmandu, so Phurba is to add overall leadership to the strains of cooking in the wilds.
A rough ride, on the high slopes above the upper gorge and passing through a couple of perfect hamlets, get us to ancient (8th century, we are told) Ghar Gompa, in a site so fertile and watered that it is shaded by big trees. Like Europe in the Middle Ages, the monks get the best sites. The tiny chambers, lined with painted slate Buddha images, are fronted by a charmingly asymmetrical little courtyard.
We exit southward under a multitude of prayer flags drawn across a dry stream from a line of chortens, then climb steadily to a first pass, meeting our first yaks in a close-cropped meadow. Across a much greener bowl - we must be in line with the great gorge-gap between Dhauligiri and the Annapurnas now - which is reminiscent of the Mongolian Altai with its smoother undulations, we labour up to the Muila pass, our highest at 4,170m. Reggie and I climb a little higher to a small top with extraordinary 360° views, the colourful, wildly eroded hills to the north and east masking the snowy range between us and Tibet, the Annapurnas in their vast pomp to the south and greener crags just above us to the west. A pair of vultures and then a majestic Lammergeier swoop past us at head height.
A yomp across what look like a pair of old glacier beds gets us to the wildly broken side of the deep Drakmar valley. A long, steep zig-zag below a notch in the cliffs (enlivened by a pair of eagles negotiating the thermals among the spires) gets us to the stream bed and then upper Drakmar, solid white houses amid autumnal trees, below its famous red cliffs, coloured with the blood of a demon defeated by Guru Rinpoche, the great evangelist of Tibetan Buddhism. Round a corner we lunch on cropped grass immediately below spectacular, cave-bearing cliffs, then snooze in the sun.
The rest of the walk is a marvel. A meander through ageless lower Drakmar, by a vigorous little stream and under ever-changing red cliffs, then over a sandy ridge, on whose upper slopes (exactly where it says on the map - are they tethered?) we see rare blue sheep (an ibexxy sort of thing), to Reggie’s hopping excitement, gets us to another grand, lonely chorten above a gorge of black but sparkling rock. I remember admiring it from the other side, viewed across the huge Ghami mani wall with the Drakmar cliffs as a background. Then we are back at the great mani wall: looking back across its dark diagonal slash in the stony ochre plain to the bright red cliffs, you wouldn’t believe Drakmar village existed. Then it is down and across the Ghami gorge and a meander through mellow streets to the sun-warm, hollyhocked garden at Lo-Ghami Guesthouse, our tents already up in the garden. Mint tea in the last of the sun with Amanda, who has been waiting for us: Nicky got off safely.
The sun disappears behind the high western ridge at an unreasonably early hour, and we are forced into our tents by the immediate cold.
We then huddle into the inn's sitting room: more cards and talk. Supper is back out in the covered courtyard, another huge, amazing production eaten in our down jackets. Nick's absence hangs heavy on us, but he calls quite late, after we have started off to our tents. The news is curate's eggy - he is in hospital, being well looked after and with a confident prognosis, but he was in a very bad way and could have died (36 hours from death is the doctor’s words) had he not been got down. Sobering.
Day 9: Syangboche to Samar
Up at 5.45, breakfast 6.45 in the lovely, hollyhocked garden as the sun appears. Raisin and honey porridge, omelette and pancakes with syrup. We feel good.
The promised 7am jeep doesn't appear, so more sunning. At 8, Reggie and I take half an hour saunter round the delightful village, Mustang's second biggest. An intriguing difference from Tibet is the huge number of prayer wheels, flags, chortens and the like of all sizes in every community, and Ghami is typical: the main drag - wide enough for a four-tap fountain astride the way - runs from a big, walk-through chorten, with prayer wheels along one side. (Presumably, the Tibetan equivalents were smashed in the Cultural Revolution and haven't been reinstated.) Elsewhere is pure Middle Ages: sturdy but now dilapidated houses huddled around the monastery (simple but moving hall, lovely, flower-filled courtyard) attest to the town’s trade-route wealth; animals and fecal matter of every provenance are in every courtyard and round every corner. It is goat-herd rush-hour.
A jeep appears, and we drive an hour or so along our old trails high above Geling, a sprinkling of monastic buildings up a hillside above quietly basking houses and bright post-harvest fields, all in a huge bowl of cliffs. Lovely. We alight at Syangboche, having avoided repeating possibly our least-marvellous walk.
Syangboche, devoid of foreigners, its terraces empty, is beautiful in the warm mid-morning sun, and we are in a mood to appreciate its superb setting. I check out our camping terraces, and find the two little girls playing with a deflated ball and a gushing hose. Their clothes are dripping, they are being watched by an odd-looking foreigner, but they are far too engrossed to notice.
We then plunge down a spectacular trail into the Syangboche Khola gorge, between broken orange sandstone cliffs above a dry stream bed. We pass a pair of very traditionally clad women picking up yak-pats by a stone corral against a cliff base and popping them into plastic bags and woven shoulder-baskets: a millennia-old task, collecting winter fuel in this wood-starved land. The gorge narrows between vast sheer walls, the sky now a narrow broken meander far above. A brief clamber up the main river, at the bottom, is the Ranchung Cave, where Guru Rinpoche, the great evengelist of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have meditated by a salt stalagmite that looked like a self-raised stupa. It is now covered in tatty flags and white scarfs, and, to this eye at least, underwhelming; but its cliff-face setting is enthralling.
After a snack by the river, we tackle the 430m climb back out of the gorge to the high pass above Samar. It is a long, steep, exhausting climb at this altitude (and I forgot to puff on my asthma medication, so I am really struggling), but the extraordinary views down the gorge, as it plunges into a dark inner chasm on its way to meet the Kali Gandaki, compensate for the panting and weak legs.
Just over the la, we eat lunch, looking across the Samar bowl to the Annapurna massif, now much closer up, glowing serenely in a cloudless but hazy sky.
The trek to Samar is a tough 1 ½ hrs: a steep descent between sandstone cliffs and spires - think Cappadocia, again - to a pretty meadow with high-walled sheep pens, then a clamber down into and puff back out of two gorges, the second following in the dusty footsteps of a huge herd of goats.
Through the fine gateway is the main wall and prayer wheels we had admired on the way up, then a winding street and our camping-garden with a freezing stream (in which Reggie and I bathe) running through it. A lovely brief snooze in the last of the sun, which goes behind the nearby mountain at 4pm sharp. After setting our tents in order, we repair to a brightly painted guest room for tea, reading and supper. We are all tired but happy. Reggie, who lingered longer in the stream than I did, retires wounded quite early. We receive good news from Nicky, who is clearly recovering fast and already impatient of confinement.
Day 10: Samar to Chhusang
A relaxed start - tea at 7(!) - after a warmer night, during which I overheated and tore open my bag in a sleepy panic. This remains our favourite campsite, and we pack and dress slowly in the warm early sun among the fruit trees, the stream rushing behind. The little daughters of the house play with toys, which have long ago migrated from the west and been enhanced by flowers, in a plastic-sheeted arbour.
After another perfect breakfast - honey porridge, omelette, pitta bread with Nutella - we saunter out along the ancient street and through the unusually tall oasis-grove. The solid houses attest to past trade-route prosperity.
The Annapurnas preside in their clearest state yet as we crest the ridge on the far side of the Samar bowl. It looks like there may have been a fresh snowfall overnight.
Then we are round the hillside and back on the two-mule wide track cut into the sheer sides of the Ghyakar gorge, possibly my favourite section of our entire Mustang journey. Dropping stones off the elegant new suspension bridge at the bottom, we discuss terminal velocity at some length. Such is altitude. It must be over 500 feet down.
A steady descent gets us down the track to Chele, where we meet the Kali Gandaki mistral, swirling thick dust - and it is only a bit after 11am. Despite this, the view down the wide rocky bed, between sheer sandstone sides, is superb.
A dust-blown trudge across the valley floor gets us to Chhusang before noon. We cross the broad, dry bed of the side-river, and meander through another set of medieval streets lined by prayer-wheels and chortens. This is a particularly marvellous village.
We are to camp in a delightful little apple-orchard just below the main "street" on the windward edge of the village, which we had admired on the way up.
We sit about then eat a leisurely lunch in the dappled shade, and read and write and chat until sundown at 4.30.
I walk round the village in the gloaming. It is extraordinarily ancient - medieval, indeed - in feeling. All streets are made for animal traffic, and an uphill junction can involve intricate ramping. Walls are high and blank on the ground floor. Through open doors are dusty dung-scattered little courtyards, with steep steps to the upper storeys, presumably so the goats can't get up. The house above our camp-orchard has a long high face toward the river - and the wind - and a grand, pillared entrance round the side, at the end of an alley like a pre-Renaissance Italian palace. By the stream are numerous walled pens, many filled with animals. It is still a working caravanserai of sorts and the spirit of the trade route still hangs in the air. Our ponies and mules are huddled patiently in a small fold. They look up expectantly as I pad up; their ears flop as they see I am not one of their pony boys. One of the boys comes up shortly after with nosebags, and they greet him with - well - does a mule neigh or ee-aw? The latter.
Day 11: Chhusang to Muktinath
An eruption of howling, barking and shouting in the middle of the night was apparently a jackal incursion. Up at 6 for an 8am departure. Breakfast in the early-morning apple-dappled light, and a leisurely booting and creaming up which has us ready to leave exactly on time. We are well into the groove.
We follow yet another remarkable gorge, huge organ pipes and flutings riddled with old cave-homes on the far side, to Tetang, a pair of compact, blank-walled villages on high ground above a very perfect post-harvest patchwork of fields.
A long, steep slog between eroded sandstone excrescence gets us to the edge of a large sloping, stony plain, some 400m above, with huge views back across the Kali Gandaki gorge toward upper Mustang. Winding across it, climbing so gradually we aren't even puffing, is fabulous walking. As is traversing the high sides of the gorge that leads towards the Gyu La. Ali finds some fossils. Not bad, for over 13,000ft! Things get steeper, and the panting begins: better though we are at the altitude thing, this is tiring. We snack on a grassy patch. The wind is getting up, and we wrap up, except Reggie, who hasn't brought any water/wind proofing, to a 14,000ft pass! My famously elastic sense of humour snaps.
We plough up a long slope of morainey undulations. It is tough, but nothing like the agony of the climb from the Ranchung Cave. We must be getting acclimatised!
We eventually meet the bitter wind at the high Gyu La ("oh la la", Sange quips again), and gain what is perhaps the best view of an expedition that has been packed with magnificences. Across the deep Muktinath bowl are the vast snowy flanks of the Annapurna massif, sadly disappearing into thick cloud at perhaps 18,000ft. The white-walled Muktinath sanctuary, the most sacred place in the Nepal Himalayas for Hindus and Buddhists alike, is nestled below a great hillside, itself high above yet another deep gorge. A scar round a mountain base to its left indicates the arrival of the heavily walked Annapurna Circuit.
I am, unusually, with The Gazelle (Amanda) and redoubtable Paul (who is struggling with horrendous toothache) in the lead group. We drop down round the hillside for five minutes or so, to find a lunch space out of the wind. The stragglers join us ten minutes later. Sophie had a brief altitudinous gasket-blow a couple of hundred feet below the pass, but is already much improved by the time she reaches us. A very satisfied munching ensues as we take in quite how lucky we are.
An hour's descent gets us to the gorge bottom. We can scarcely manage the climb back out and up to the sanctuary, and it is hard to raise interest from our group for the prettily painted Buddhist nunnery or the Shiva temple or the 108 sacred water spouts, or even the permanently seeping chimaera flame that, along with a bit of Guru Rinpoche meditation, brought this site to prominence.
The nearby village is the sort of dreary concrete jumble that has been missing in Mustang, and our windy campsite overlooks the worst of it. A short kip in our tents (already up in perfect order), then tea in some nearby rooms.
A huge and sudden headache from a too-quick walk back to our tent. I lie down clutching my head. Altitude issues are only a scintilla away from all of us, even now.
It is bitingly cold as soon as the sun disappears - we are below a vast volume of ice, here - so we huddle in our down jackets in the draughty room and talk. Supper is delicious again - chicken and mixed mushroomy vegetables. Then it is a hunker down in our sleeping bags and a read. Gibbon on the primitive Christian church: wonderfully convoluted circumlocutions round then unacceptably harsh criticism. And eventually sleep-inducing, too.
Day 12: back to Jomson
Another 6am wakening. It is pretty cold in, and our outer tents are rigid with frost. We dress slowly, doing as much tidying as we can from within our sleeping bags.
Breakfast is a down-jacket affair back in the hutment, one final huge meal (tomorrow I will refuse seconds of porridge and eggs!) before our last trek.
We are a bit disappointed to be following the main Annapurna Circuit trail down the valley, replete with souvenir stands and a constant trickle of trekkers, rather than crossing the ridge above into a much remoter valley, but it turns out to be a fine and varied walk, through the hamlets and harvest-bright terraces below Muktinath, then high above the barren, broken lower gorge until we reach a corner back above the Kali Gandaki gorge, where we snack and look up across Kagbeni to the riot of broken, colourful ridges that is mid-Mustang. A descent across a long slope gets us down to the river and a stop for a toffee-coloured fresh apple juice.
The final 1 ¾ hour slog, against a stiff wind and dust storms, back to Jomson is best passed over: it is no fun, and we fall into our little courtyard-hotel with relief. Thank goodness for our Muktinath diversion, which, by dint of different and magnificent landscape, minimized the amount by which we have suffered diminishing returns.