Kagbeni to Jomsom; Trek day thirteen; Who else would carry a pack full of rocks on a mountain trek?

trek, all the way up to Thorang Phedi, we’d been following the Marsyangdi River - and we’d been following it upstream. After crossing the spine of the mountains at the Thorong-La pass, we’d been following the Kali Gandaki River, and we’d been following it downstream. It’s not as if it was a great surprise to me to discover that water, y’know, flows downhill, but I couldn’t help thinking it was neat nevertheless.

Fossils were the mission of the day. There was a spot on our topographical map about halfway between Kagbeni and Jomsom that was marked “Ammonite fossils in riverbed”. Sheryl and I are both inveterate rockhounds and the chance to find some fossils was too good to pass up. Of course there was still the small matter of carrying a bunch of rocks on my back for the remaining hundred kilometres of the trek, but now that we’d actually crossed the pass, that idea didn’t make me want to cry quite as much. And anyway, we could take a jeep if we had to. Sheryl had fantasies of finding a perfect ammonite a meter across (and so did I, if I’m being honest). Someday, I swear, I’m coming back to Kagbeni and Thorang Phedi with a geological hammer and a team of Sherpas and donkeys. And a bloody cook, too - I can’t tell you how sick I am of Annapurna Chow Mein.

The day was beautifully warm and sunny, with an indigo sky. The Kali Gandaki riverbed is wide and mostly dry at this time of year. The stream that’s all that remains of the river winds back and forth in a narrow meandering channel from one side to the other, sometimes separating and rejoining in a capricious braid. The riverbed was a perfectly flat expanse of jumbled round rocks. Yellow sandstone hills rose to either side and snow-capped mountains.

Sheryl was in heaven, picking up one nice rock after another, and her pockets were soon bulging. She even found one ammonite fragment almost right away. We reckoned it would be possible to walk along the riverbed itself all the way to the fossil spot but we soon reached a point where the water cut too close to the edge and we couldn’t go any farther. We had to climb up the steep crumbling bank ten meters to the road. Two Indian tourists on a motorcycle were watching, laughing and taking pictures with their phones, and I could hardly blame them - we must have looked ridiculous climbing up the cliff with our packs on. They understood when I showed them the fossil Sheryl had found, though - fossils are sacred to Hindus - and touched it to their foreheads before returning it.

We walked another four or five kilometres along the riverbed, eyes glued to the ground. I alternated between looking at the plat pars and looking beside the water for anything new that might be weathering out. It was a big mistake walking so far on hard, loose rocks wearing a heavy pack My left knee was screaming before we even reached the spot marked on the map. After having no complaints all through the mountains, now I was limping and hobbling like an old man. We did find a bunch of ammonite fragments, in the end. There were also two whole ammonites encased in rock, which we decided to take with us in hopes of chipping off the excess and exposing the fossils. Unfortunately the rocks weighed at least five kilograms all together, which didn’t do my back or my knees any good at all.

The riverbed canyon turned into a wind tunnel in the afternoon. The wind was nearly strong enough to knock us over, and the sand and grit blowing through the air stung our eyes. We had no food or water with us, and the river water looked like chocolate milk - far too muddy to purify. The heat, wind and the pain in my knees eventually forced us to give up and go back to the road. My left knee was hurting so much by that time that I was using my trekking pole like a cane, holding it at my side and putting all my weight on it.

It took forever to get to Jomsom, with me limping along. Even when we did, we couldn’t find anything. Jomsom is a town, not a village. It’s the district capital and it has an airstrip. So where was everything? The trail turned into the main street as it has in every other settlement along the trail, and we followed it for twenty minutes past all kinds of buildings without finding any restaurants or lodges. There was none of the trekking support facilities that had been inescapable so far. The road was nice, at least - paved with flat stones and lined with willow trees - but it went on forever with no sign of anything useful. I’d ripped the arse out of my shorts earlier in the day, and so I was hobbling along with my butt hanging out. It’s bad enough wearing shorts in Nepal (they’re considered immodest) let alone shorts with a rip up the bum. I felt terribly conspicuous and disrespectful. Also there’s something completely defeating about having the arse ripped out of your pants - you feel like a helpless, naughty child. Between that and my knee, I’d pretty much had enough of the day.

After walking for ages through Jomsom we came to a blue-painted steel suspension bridge. We decided we must have been on the wrong side of the river all along and crossed over. There wasn’t anything useful on the other side either. We finally asked directions and found out that we’d been on the right side, we just had to go even farther, to the far edge of town. We crossed back over the bridge, slowly and laboriously, continued past a big ugly-looking army base with sandbags and razor-wire, and past the airstrip to the very edge of town where all the tourist lodges are segregated.

We were both getting a very weird feeling from Jomsom. There were no other trekkers to be seen, for one thing. That’s not remarkable in any of the tiny villages, but it was strange here. I’d have thought we were in the wrong place if I didn’t know better. The weird feeling continued at the restaurant we chose randomly. The place was empty except for a table of locals who all stopped talking as soon as we walked in and stared at us unblinkingly until we were out of their sight. That’s normal behaviour for India, but not here in Nepal.

The food was gross and overpriced. As we ate, we finally saw another pair of trekkers walk past outside in the street, looking as thoroughly weirded-out as we were. The guesthouses are ridiculously overpriced, too - it took ages for Sheryl to find a reasonable one. They all say they have hot showers, but we’ve learned to ask “solar showers?” in response to this claim. Today was very sunny so it would have been fine, but that’s an exception on this trek - mostly solar showers mean cold showers. I wasn’t sure how much I cared, though - I’ve gotten used to being dirty and smelly by this point and my clothes are all filthy anyway.

Sheryl has a cold, probably from when we were soaked and freezing coming down from the pass. It caught up with her by the time we got to the lodge and she slept all evening. I wonder how much more walking we’ll be doing if her cold gets any worse.


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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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