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The Most F~@king Amazing and Scariest 3 Days of Our Lives: What We Learned Trekking in Lower Mustang, Nepal
The pinnacle of the experience is presented here. The three most important days of our lives to this point included:
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Prelude to the Journey: Getting to Lower Mustang, Nepal
We met a grand total of 3 Americans in our 23 days in Nepal! Just getting there is an adventure that sets one apart from masses. Many have heard of Kathmandu and Mt. Everest and even dream of seeing them in their lifetime but consider them too exotic or too far away for a vacation destination. This is a shame. The trip is roughly halfway around the World, but avid traveler know what Walt Disney tried to teach us is true; it is truly a small World these days. Bear’s trip, in fact, was less than 15 hours from Orlando to Kathmandu on Qatar Airways. We have been on flights to Hawaii that took longer than that.
*Note Qatar Airways is excellent on customer service, drinks are free, and you can fly almost free by transferring points from Citi Rewards card and Marriot Bonvoy Cards. We use our Citi MasterCards to earn points by paying our mortgage. See how here.
A Change of Plans: The Annapurna Circuit will Have to Wait
Deciding that you will not be completing an item in your top 10 of your bucket list when you are right there is heartbreaking! We had the time of our life on the trip we did make, but it still hurts that we could not reach our goal on this picture-perfect fall trip.
We planned and prepared for over 6 months to complete the Annapurna Circuit from Chamje to Jomsom in 11 days and we chose the perfect time (Early November 2018). The weather was perfect with clear skies and no snow on the pass. We were in great shape with one glaring exception. My lungs were heavy from exposure to a nasty little organism from home, red tide. The people and organizations responsible for algae blooms and red tide really climbed up my shit list this time. To be honest, they were already there. One beautiful morning surfing session and the irresponsible environmental practices of some strangers was costing me a goal by limiting my lung capacity.
Bear and I decided that the only chance we had to make the Thorong La Pass was also the most dangerous. Instead of a slow accent, we would try the quicker one because it would be much easier to get back to safety from Muktinath than from above Manang. We would miss more than half of our circuit this way, but we could still get our “summit”, maybe.
The First Day: If the “Jeep” Doesn’t Kill Us the Wildlife Might
There are three options to get to Thorong La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit in a clockwise direction (the less popular choice). You can fly or take a jeep to Jomsom or you can hike for 4-6 days. There are trade-offs to each: Hike and be exhausted, fly and brave the 2nd most dangerous airport in the World, or ride in a “jeep” for 10 hours on a mostly bumpy road that clings precariously to the cliffside of the deepest canyon in the World. Wanting to preserve money and protect my lungs, we chose the latter.
At first, this seemed like a great decision. The roads south of Ghoripani are adequate with some paved sections that make for great sight seeing even when the Mahindra is packed with 5 more people than you expected it could carry. We chose a back seat and really enjoyed the singing and chatting with the 8 Nepalis along this portion of the road, but we were ready to stretch our legs 3 hours later at our first stop.
Tip #1: Know the dangerous animals in the area and leave them alone
Turtle is writing this, just so you know who to judge. I have hike over 1000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, visited 26 countries and 43 states, conducted archaeological digs in 3 countries, and been a park ranger for more than 7 years. I have mountain biked over rattlesnakes and alligators, stepped on a Fleur De Lance, nearly splashed down on a 17 foot tiger shark in the South Pacific, and been within 10 yards of a prowling jaguar to no fault of my own. Sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and you are lucky to survive it.
When we got back to the car, the Nepalis were some combination of in awe and confounded by my “bravery” The older couple tried to teach me how stupid I was and the young men thought it was awesome. We climbed in quickly which earned us the back seat again, but this time we should have been more patient or insisted on at least the middle seat.
Tip #2: Always get a window seat and sit up front if you can
Never sit in the back of a Mahindra if you are more than 5’10” tall! Make up some BS about motion sickness when you are in a shared ride in a beautiful area, especially on roads that are carved out of mountain cliffs. The trip to this point was okay, even in the back. There is actually some decent leg room and head room in a Mahindra. What they lack in Nepal are good shocks. Not only did we miss much of the views from here on out, we also were bounced up against the roof mercilessly for the next seven hours leaving us both sore and with mild concussions.
The road cleared up just before Jomsom, and we had survived an interesting day. We stayed at a small Teahouse called Hotel Annapurna which was a lovely place and had plenty of room. Let me know in the comments if that makes you sing the Eagles song all day like it did for us.
The next day was magical. The air was brisk and clear, birds of prey were coasting on the wind and we were embarking on a spiritual journey with dozens of Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims to a place that represented salvation to their religions.
The slide show below is from the road trip:
Tip #3: Take time to have a religious experience, even when it is not part of your belief system
The penultimate point for travel is to enjoy the things, people and places that make our World so special. Far too many people get so wrapped up in the perceived superiority of their culture, and dismiss the traditions of others as being in opposition to their personal ideologies. Entering a shrine or temple or church or mosque without humility and respect for the sanctity of the place to others, not only reinforces negative stereotypes of your culture, but it also causes you to miss out on some really amazing experiences.
Muktinath, Nepal is one of the most important pilgrimage sights for the Hindu religion and is also a very important site for Buddhist. It is site where all religions are welcome and a testimony to acceptance in a world that falters due unacceptance. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims worship God side-by-side in different ways without feeling the need to compete. There is something about this place. Something drew the faithful of two religions here over the last 2,000 + years and the same thing remains today. There is beauty and purity here. There is a sense of comradery and an appreciation for nature and humanity. You feel it and you see it in the devote pilgrims. The experience of reaching for understanding and your place in the World is a human universal and one that draws thousands to these temples every year.
It was quite a scene. It was electric and reserved at the same time. There is reflection time before and after the dash through the 108 33-degree fountains and as you dunked yourself in the pools. It was like being baptized in freezing water, and the similarities of the experience and meaning with our own baptism was not lost on us. I just wish we brought a towel, as the brain-freeze was horrendous. I guess salvation has a price in every religion.
Below is a slideshow of Muktinath for your enjoyment:
Tip #4: Pay attention to your body and don’t push your limits too far
We began our climb early the next morning with a stretch goal to make the pass despite the congestion in my lungs. It was a daunting 1800 meter elevation gain goal that had significant chances of bringing on altitude sickness that can be extremely dangerous. This route is not commonly attempted due to this climb, but the retreat would be quick and relatively easy as long as we recognized any symptoms early.
So, we set off at a slow steady pace, stopping regularly to ask each other about any symptoms. There was a little ice and snow, but the temperature was only slightly above freezing. The cold was borderline extreme for two Floridians but actually warm for November at 14,000 feet in the Himalayas. We had adequate layers to handle the cold, so the only real impacts were our lips and our lungs.
Maybe a half a Kilometer further on the trail we had to quite. We were still not having traditional issues with altitude but as the wind was picking up, my lungs were getting heavy and my throat was raw. We stopped and sat on a rock staring up toward a pass we would have to make another year (2025 here we come!) with a measure of remorse, but we were glad we were not killing ourselves to get there.
Here we met a new hero, who was headed down from the pass solo at 87 years old. He was suffering from a slight case of altitude sickness, but it was not acute. We decided to follow him down to Muktinath and the conversation was great.
Tip #5: Take the path less traveled but bring a guide
Most people take the road down from Muktinath to Jomsom and catch a ride back to Pokhara. In fact, most forums encourage this since the main route down is along the road and not very scenic. This was our plan when we were going to do the entire circuit, but that changed when we cut out the East side of the trek. We read about the alternate routes that had been developed to enhance the experience and connect trekkers to some of the more remote villages in the region. We had even hired a guide and porter to join us in Jomsom to make sure we did not get lost.
I do not recall whether it was just us being cheap or a desire for flexibility that led us to not having them with us these first three days, but we sure would come to regret on day 3.
I will say that this was the best and worst day of the trip. There are two main alternate routes between Muktinath and Kagbeni, one north of the road and one to the south through Lupra. The village we wanted to see was on a secondary trail off the southern one. We were supposed to follow a ridgeline trail after leaving Ranipauwa but we must have taken the wrong one. We did find some small farms and a number of ruins that were nearly untouched by the modern world, but not the one described.
As the trail began to narrow and the blue and white markers disappeared, we realized that we were not headed anywhere in particular. So, we got out our map and figured our principal direction. Fortunate that the valley has some recognizable peaks, we decided to hang a right and follow an even smaller path that led toward where Lupra should be. At some point we did find the Alternate route again and we headed along the ridge to the pass marker and beside an amazing set of ruins with an old apple orchard where we explored for a while and I found a Shaligram, a fossilized ammonite considered the embodiment of Vishnu that I treasure.
After the ruins, the trail reached one of the numerous hanging bridges to Lupra but we choose to walk the riverbed instead. This was another minor mistake as crossing the small tributary was tricky and we ended up having to climb through terraced farms to get up to town.
After a quick meal in Lupra, we set out again to get to Kagbeni. We crossed the river again, this time by the other suspension bridge. Here we had two trails to chose from, one up and over directly to Kagbeni and one along the river then backtracking to Kagbeni. We chose the latter because it was looked like snow and we thought we heard thunder in Lupra. We chose poorly!
It was headed quickly towards dark and the wind was raging when we heard the “thunder” again. It was not a storm. It was a rockslide and it was between us and our destination. As we rounded the corner, the dust was still settling on the river basin and the trail was now little more than a 4-6 inch ledge across a 30-40 foot expanse that dropped away precipitously for hundreds of feet. We stopped and pondered backtracking and crossing back over the pass or hugging the cliff to continue on.
The two options were both intimidating. After more than 20miles of trekking/exploring above 12000 feet, the option of crossing another pass after dark seemed more daunting but slightly less death defying. So, we chose the “cliff”. After a little argument about who was going first, I led the way. Afterall, I had lived more of my life and Bear has more left on his bucket list.
Second only to the 1.5 seconds when I was falling from a rope swing onto the back of a tiger shark, this few minute of my life was the slowest. Every foothold and handhold had to be tested. Many were loose and some slid out of the sand wall, causing more small rockslides down below us. Luckily, we never followed the rocks down. As you can see in the map below, there are chronically rockslides at this location.
When I had crossed, I even got to watch my 19 year old son precariously cross, which is incidentally much more stressful. It was hell! However, he made it too. Thank God, literally!
We let out a war cry on the other side. Never more men than this moment, tears of pride and relief trickled down my face. Facing fears can really be transformative and harrowing.
The rest of the days track was cold, windy and exhausting, but, it was safe, and we arrived in a small village south of Kagbeni where we ate Yak steaks, toasted with homemade apple brandy with our hosts, and discussed bear’s newest tattoo that was inspired by the day’s events.
Kagbeni and Around
Kagbeni is great, especially the old town. The next morning, Bear slept in and I went out shooting some stills of the town which we cannot find for some reason. When I returned, we ate a late breakfast and crossed the bridge into Upper Mustang and the village of Tini, which is the furthest into Upper Mustang that trekkers could go without the $500 permit. The far side of the bridge was broken when we were there and it had been repaired with mud and driftwood, but it was still stable we might not have crossed had we known, but we were glad we did.
Tine is the home of a monastery where dozens of young novice monks study and spending time watching them play was quite an experience on its own. On our way back the winds kicked up to the point where pebbles were flying and pelting us in the face. This made the bridge less stable and a little more intimidating, but again it held. We ate and slept well at Yak Donalds that night, and woke the next morning to the sound of Buddhist horns calling the monks and inhabitants to a prayer session in the local monastery. We went too. It was magical and authentic. The few trekkers were sleeping in or just not interested, so, we enjoyed the experience chanting, horns, and drums surrounded by truly worshipful Buddhists and monks.
Afterward, we headed to Jomsom to meet up with the guides who would accompany us and along the alternate routes below Kagbeni. We will have a separate blog on this and the 3-day Poon Hill trek at a later date. These treks were also great and much safer due to the lessons we learned here and the presence of our new friends.
I hope you enjoyed this look into our lives and will consider following us on Facebook and Instagram @oldsolestravel. Until next time, happy trails and enjoy finding yourself on your journey!
Not the least interesting man in the World; Turtle is a Coast Guard Veteran, Maya archaeologist, museum curator, and world traveler. His passions for culture, history, preservation, and the welfare of people drives his desire to travel widely and share his travels for the inspiration of others, like yourself.