Muktinath to Kagbeni; Trek day twelve; The day of rocks

I’d finally had a nice, long, warm night’s sleep, and I was in no hurry for it to end. But end it had to, and we woke around seven to an ugly cold drizzle outside. Having finally crossed the pass, we’d both completely lost any sense of urgency and didn’t care if it took an extra couple of days to reach the end of the trail, as long as we didn’t have to walk in the rain. We hung around Muktinath all morning drinking vast amounts of tea and chatting with various people, and enjoying the bucket of hot coals under the table.

One of those people was Steve, a nice guy from New Zealand who’s as much of a rockhound as Sheryl and I. He’d had a rough time of it in Nepal. Some medical problems just before his trip had led to him getting really sick three days into the trek, and his two brothers and their two friends had abandoned him in some little village. He’d had to trek back out to the beginning of the trail, alone and sick, and then get to the other end of the trail from Pokhara. The brothers had left instructions for him to meet them in Jomsom. He’d come farther toward the pass, there to Muktinath, thinking he might meet them coming down, but hadn’t seen any sign. Everyone in the entire lodge had heard the story at various times, and everyone was horrified.

Steve came with us when we left around 11. We planned to stop in Kagbeni and then go on to Jomsom. We had lots of good conversations and lots of pauses to look at rocks and hunt for fossils. He’d warned us that he was on a mission and would be walking fast, but he dawdle more than us from the outset.

The trails and the road were incredibly muddy and slippery from the rain and the jeeps that tore them into deep ruts. Some parts were impassable and we had to detour. The mud was so thick and sticky that our boots got heavier and we got taller with every step we took, and we were muddy to the knees inside half an hour. I was so nice not to be cold, though.

The landscape was so different from anything we’d seen so far. We were following the south side of a huge river canyon, keeping to our left. Great sandstone cliffs on the other side of the canyon had eroded into spires and spikes and were dotted with cave mouths. There were often the ruins of old villages below, swamped and half-buried by landslide rubble, with nothing left but the tracing of their stone walls. Fertile patches alternated with barren brown scree slopes along the river valley. The green places had lots of grass and scrub, and terraced fields. And trees! Birch and willow trees! They were the first trees we’d seen in a week. And the valley was a lot more settled than this height on the other side of the pass. We could nearly always see the next village along before we had even left the last. That was partly due to the fact that we were descending gently. There were a few sharp descents but mostly it was level or gradual. It was so nice to be able to stretch my legs and not have to take baby steps up or down.

We took a stupid shortcut on the last steep descent into Kagbeni and had to cut through the terraced fields, slipping in the mud and falling off rocks. Not wanting to trample the crops, we couldn’t find the way down to the village until a local pointed it out to us. He was as happy to see us as we were to see him, because he saw that Steve had the same wristwatch as he did. He’d been living in Japan for a couple of months, had set it to Japanese time, and couldn’t figure out how to change it back to Nepali time. Steve, despite owning the same watch, couldn’t figure it out without the manual either. A very complicated watch, apparently.

Kagbeni was a very odd place. One of the first things we saw was an elaborately painted wooden restaurant sign marking a place called, I kid you not, “Yac Donalds”. Red background, big yellow “M” (for “Mustang”, the name of the district). Yac Donalds. It was right beside the 7-11 - another hand-painted sign which we discovered to be just another family store on the inside. The first restaurant we tried was closed. I made sure to ask at the second, they told me they were open, and we climbed up to the top floor and sat at one of the wooden trestle tables. Eventually we got bored with waiting and asked for menus - at which point we were told “no food”. Ooo-kay. At this point the handwriting was on the wall, and over my protests we went to Yac Donalds for lunch. Besides being half again as expensive as everywhere else and having a lot more yak on the menu it was the same as anywhere else. Except that the daughter/waitress accidentally stabbed herself in the eye with her pen as she hurried to greet us.

Lunch took too long and we’d dawdled too much to make it to Jomsom before dark. Steve waffled and finally decided to take a jeep there and hope to find his brothers. We found out later that he’d caught the last jeep and had found them by the side of the road on the way. I think he stopped to pick them up, but I’d have flipped them the finger and let them walk to Jomsom, myself.

We decided to stay in Kagbeni and made a bad choice of lodge, though we didn’t know it until later, when it was too late to move. It was full of about a billion shrieking 12-14 year-old kids - a school group. They stayed up until 10 that night screaming, running around, drumming and singing tunelessly at the tops of their lungs. For an hour after that there was the usual whispering thumping sleepover mayhem for another hour, and then a domestic dispute among the family that ran the joint. What happened to my quiet Nepal? Are we somehow back in India?

Kagbeni was just like that. When we went out to explore the village we found everyone very friendly, but mental. Small cows wandered lost through the streets or ran through them frantically trying to escape men with sticks. Goat herds swarmed everywhere. Stumpy black shaggy dogs with orange eyebrows hung around on the roofs. A giant grisly painted clay statue lurked in a corner, sculpted with a bloody snaggle-toothed grin and a very realistically rendered giant erect phallus. Lots of grimy toddlers toddled around randomly and a pack of four or five little kids jogged past in formation with their pants falling down. Everyone was happy and slightly demented. I’m not sure if it was just me, but there was something in the air that reminded me of Spring Fever Day back home - that day, a different, unplannable day every year, when the winter weather finally breaks and everyone goes around with giant stupid grins on their faces.

We walked through the village, over the stream in the middle of the street, past a tiny donkey rubbing his bum on someone’s stairs (who needed his nose and forehead scratched), past the ruined and crumbling old village centre and the monastery. We stopped at the edge of the village by the ACAP check post and looked north along the riverbed to a landscape of amazing beauty, all low mountains and canyons lit by the sunset. A sign by the check post told us that this was the restricted area of Upper Mustang. I’d read about it - we would have needed a thousand-dollar permit to visit there. We did cross the river south of the boundary and walked up to the base of the cliffs across from the village. The rocks on that side were amazing. Huge tectonic activity had folded the strata so much that they were nearly vertical in places, and were everywhere shattered and buckled. We spent an hour there looking at the different rocks all weathering out of the crumbling cliff face and sliding down the slope, and headed back to the village just as the sun was setting.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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