Day 122 – Location: Jomsom; Nepal
New Years Day. What better start to the new year than trekking around some of the highest mountains in the world? From the bedroom I heard and caught a glimpse of a few old-looking light aircraft landing and taking off from the airport. Trekkers can fly into Jomsom from Pokhara. The safety record isn’t great though, the aircraft aren’t in the best condition and the weather and wind can be unpredictable up here. There have been two crashes (1 fatal) in the past two years! But after yesterday’s torturous bus journey I could appreciate that it might be worth the risk! We had breakfast in the restaurant with the baking sun shining through the windows and admired the mountain ridge looming out the window. We tried the local buckthorn berry juice which was very tasty and refreshing. Buckthorn (or seabuckthorn as it’s also known) is unique to the upper Himilayas and is grown in fields here, generating good money from exports. It is one of those amazing “wonderberries” which is super-healthy and people back home will probably pay 5 dollars for a shot of it, and immediately be cured of all ailments. Well at least it tastes good. After brekky we left most of our stuff at the hotel and set off with lighter bags with enough stuff to last a few days up in Muktinath, our destination.
Outside in the sun at midday, we took in our surroundings (having arrived in the dark last night). We were in a big valley surrounded by mountains and ringed by sandy-coloured cliffs, which rippled in buldges. I was unlike anywhere I have been before or even seen, it felt like we had wandered into a planet set from the original Star Trek. The only thing missing was Kirk punching up innocent aliens. We walked through the middle of Jomsom passing the airfield and an army training camp which looked like it could have been in Afghanistan, sandy stone bunkers and all. There were some trekkers walking around and rugged-looking locals with flat faces. I was happy to see my first ever yaks – some wooly females and scruffy looking youngsters were tied up by the path. Bare, skeletal trees were planted all over the place, presumably buckthorn or apple trees (this area is also famous for its apples).
We crossed the icy-looking river flowing through Jomsom over a suspension bridge covered in colourful prayer flags. The sun was very bright and it was quite windy. We were hoping to catch a bus up the dirt roads to Muktinath, a small village higher in the mountains, and trek back down. But there was no one around the bus stop in Jomsom and the bus office was closed. We walked to the edge of the town where we thought we could find private jeeps, passing a few male yaks being herded along. Compared to the females they are big shaggy beasts with magnificent smooth curved horns. I was pleased, I’d been refusing to leave Nepal until I’d seen one!
At the outskirts of town was a little bus park and a big red Tibetan temple under construction. We asked the jeep drivers there but there wasn’t a jeep going up the mountain till 3pm, so we decided to walk and see how far we could get.
We set off out along a grey dusty track aside a vast shale field covering the valley floor, segmented by strings of meandering river. At the cliffside on our right groups of women were sat on the scree, cracking rocks open with hammer and chisel. I’m not sure what they were doing, perhaps looking for fossils to sell which I had seen in the souvenir shops in town. If you know, send me a message!
Sophie started to get some heart pain so we slowed the pace. She was concerned because she was still recovering from tonsilitis and if that disease becomes more serious it can infect the heart or lungs. We continued along the track admiring the mountains around us. All the rock was layered or scattered in interesting patterns, and the scale of the valley was awesome. A bus in the distance was a mere dot snaking around the shale field, making good progress, not that there seemed to be any track out there though.
Grey sand lined the edge of the rock field, scattered with humps from which round thorny bushes poked out. Now it really felt like we were in a cheap episode of Star Trek. I was glad I wasn’t wearing a red jacket (fans will get the reference)! We passed some other groups of trekkers, all heading the other way. The motorbikers from India who we’d met yesterday passed us and stopped to stay hello, they were heading up to Muktinath today as well. They had seen in the new year in Jomsom with some other travellers in a more busy hotel than ours!
We reached the shale field (the track went down into it and faded from existence) and struck out across it in the general direction indicated by our map. The rocks were small but the footing was tricky, it would be easy to sprain an ankle here. We crossed streams and step-stoned across shallow rivers. We shuffled through heat-cracked sand bars and saw locals in the distance collecting rocks and flitering soil with sieve struts.
After an hour we finally reached the track again and investigated a little set of shrines surrounded by prayer flags strung out over the surrounding rock faces.
We followed the track to meet a change of scenery. Around the valley’s bend it had turned to a flat, sandy coloured plain dotted with wirey, leafless trees. On our left side was barren terrain, across the valley huge flat steps ascended the hillside, the steps made up of undulating cliffs. The mountains were only populated with tough grass, stones and bushes, reminding me instantly of footage of Afghanistan that I’d seen. Again the scale was immense. On the right a stoney valley wound up to a jagged Himalaya a river flowing down to the basic wooden road bridge in front of us.
We crossed a pedestrian log bridge over the river and continued straight, down a drystone walled road and past a flat-roofed house which ominously had in its perimeter both a mummified yaks head and yak skull on stakes. A souvenir stall was outside. Buy a souvenir, get staked? It all smelled very Wolf Creek to me.
We continued past certain death and followed the road for another hour as it snaked above another shale field on our left. This one had a river too big for us to cross on foot, although we saw a bus fording it. Traffic had been light, with the occasional jeep, motorbike or tractor rumbling past us (and creating big dust clouds!). We rounded into the next part of the valley and passed a long suspension bridge which was closed. Up the hills on the opposite side you could see little villages as dots against the wilderness, and there was even a little temple spire at the top of one of the ridges on the horizon. The road soon descended to the shale field and a cluster of buildings which we crossed over to. It was so windy here that we had to force our way forward so as not to be blown aside, the sand whipping our faces.
The buildings turned out to be lodges, only about five of them, and we stopped at one for lunch. We seemed to be the only tourists around. Sophie’s heart was still giving her trouble. As on the ABC trek the food selection was staples like Italian, Chinese and tibetan dumplings, I settled for a “lasagne” (made with tagliatelle of course, not lasagne pasta!). Checking the map, at our current rate we weren’t going to be anywhere near Muktinath before nightfall, we’d left Jomson too late. Instead we decided to walk to the next village a few hours uphill. But just after lunch a jeep approached. I ran outside and flagged it down (the sun had vanished forcing us inside from the bitter wind). It was full of locals and the driver didn’t speak English, but said he was going to Muktinath. We hurriedly agreed a price, paid our lunch bill and hopped in. How lucky! It was expensive (about 14 dollars one way) but all transport up here is for tourists. Locals pay a fraction of the price. We’d already seen this on the bus up to Jomsom, where we were paying a fortune compared to the locals despite our protests. We later found there is an official tourist rate they use up here though where the money goes I don’t know.
The jeep rumbled along up towards the next village, climbing above the shale fields and offering us good, if dusty, views of the river and the surrounding terrace farming and walled orchards of bare trees. I was sat next to a sheep skin and in-between us all were sacks of vegetables and rice. On the way we stopped and two local women got off to be violently sick! They don’t handle motion too well in these places (I’ve seen the same elsewhere in Asia). We reached the next village and the jeep was unloaded, passengers departed and jumped on. It was a charming place, very rustic, the people were all dirty and working out in the streets, the roofs were flat tops and animals and kids romped around. Colourful flags poked out the top of every flat building roof.
We departed and started to climb a winding and bumpy road heading right, going high above the town allowing us to look down on the vast valley which continued into the distance.Herds of animals being shepherded across the rock field were just dots from here.
The terrain flattened out and became a barren plain full of the small round bushes. The sun began to set and we had a great view of the Himalayas all around us, poking out of the clouds. There was a lot of dust and getting photos was very difficult, we couldn’t open the dirty windows and were bumping around all over the place. I would have loved to stop to take pictures but instead had to take them through the windows!
We bumped into a vast new area lined with huge cliffs in strange ripple shapes, peppered with round caves far below us. The area was like a massive crater surrounded by mountains. The terrain was completely uneven in this crater and villages hung onto the sides of the strange shapes. Unfortunately it’s hard to make out from the photos. Terraced farming and walled orchards littered the inner landscape. It was getting quite dark now. We passed through a village stacked on the hillside, a ruined hill fort towered above it. Some people got off and we got to see more of the hardy locals. It felt like we’d entered another world again, this really felt like we were in the heart of the mountains.
The sunset had turned incredible, one of the best I’ve ever seen. The sky was baked in gold and orange light shone around the gleaming snowcaps, with dramatic clouds sweeping past. Glorious!
For the next hour we rumbled along, climbing the edge of the crater winding along the track and past some perilous drops, passing more orchards and villages. We were now the last ones in the jeep. Sometimes the track was so steep the driver needed to reverse and take a run-up to get us up the slope. We passed a cluster of temple buildings and prayer flags strung out over the hillside which we assumed was Muktinath’s famous temple. It was almost dark now and we had finally arrived in the village proper.
Despite the remoteness of the location there was plenty of civilization around, Muktinath was a sizeable mountain town with some big basic hotels. Some of them were constructed from very modern materials, ferried up the roads. Everywhere had 24 hours electricity even all the way up here. We walked along a track into the town centre as it got darker and darker, and found a cheap lodge in the centre of town. It was quite a basic affair, classic trekking lodge with a restaurant downstairs furnished in Tibetan drapery and very basic but clean rooms upstairs. There were only one other group of guests, some other Nepalese on holiday. It was bitterly cold up here, we were wearing all our 50 layers and we were happy to find they had a hot gas shower! I realized my head torch was missing. I’d had it since departing the jeep to see the way, it must have fallen out of my pocket. I wandered around in the night using the dim light from nearby houses to see, but after half an hour gave up – it was a well-used road and any local finding a good headlamp like that wouldn’t hesitate to take it. Just add it to the epic list of things I’ve lost on my travels!
We had some hot, filling food in the nice (but cold) restaurant. The waiter gave us some blankets to sit under as it was so freezing! I ordered some Mustang coffee as an experiment, the last time I had tried (on the ABC trek) it was awful. It’s a mix of coffee and rakshi, the homebrew whiskey. This time though, it wasn’t bad. We went to bed early – it had been a tiring day – wearing all our layers and each with two blankets – and we were still cold!