In part two, our guide walks deeper into the mountains, battling the elements to venture further away from civilisation, and ultimately, himself. Read part one, here.
On my first evening in Kagbeni, my sleep is disturbed by a series of strange and vivid dreams. Amidst waves of sensory confusion, I taste colour and see sound melt before my eyes. I awake several times in the night, my consciousness peering dimly through the heavy hallucinations of half-sleep before being pulled under into forceful slumber once more.
When morning light breaks, I sit for a few minutes, heavily disorientated, attempting to assemble a picture of reality that would explain why I lie in this strange bed. The idea that I had really slept in an ancient Tibetan village in the mountains of Mustang seems suspiciously surreal.
Eventually, I emerge from a cocoon made of thick blankets and stand at the foot of the bed to ponder the prospect of an icy, cold shower. The thought is not particularly appealing. I get dressed and make my way upstairs to the common dining room where I find fellow trekkers from France, Germany, Australia and Nepal all in friendly conversation. To overcome the various language barriers a few act as intermediaries, helping to translate for those who can’t follow. It is a cute scene.
My guide Raju surfaces soon after. He laughs when I told him I couldn’t face the shower and gives me a nudge with his elbow, saying “Now we have become mountain goat, eh?”
He is a man of short stature. With a protruding belly, gold earring and black hair tinted red with henna he looks older than his 36 years. Though he claims Nepal’s Brahmin or priest caste, he tells me that his father has spent the majority of his life farming in the hills near Sarangkot. He speaks fondly of his home and family and is clearly enamoured with nature.
For the most part, Raju is warm and jovial – always smiling and laughing – but at times his demeanour gives way to tides of deep sadness. Whenever they strike, he tries his best to force a joke and a smile, but his eyes always betray the pain. He was once a light and carefree man, spending his day trekking across the country, drinking, partying and liaising with foreign women (or so he claims), but now it seems life is catching up to him.
His wife back in Pokhara had been unable to fall pregnant. In Nepal, a childless marriage is still regarded as a source of shame. As the couple moved into their thirties Raju’s parents became more forceful in their demand for grandchildren. They urged Raju and his wife to attend Maha Shivaratri – a festival which honours Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati. They acquiesced and so spent an entire night at the river bank of Pashupatinath, hoping that the gods might view their devotion favourably enough to bless them with a child.
After breakfast, I regard the peak of Nilgiri, drenched in morning sun, as I stand outside waiting for Raju. When he appears we set off through the shadowy lanes of Kagbeni, passing the sad and battered forms of malnourished cattle. Beside one lovely mud-brick house, an old woman sits before a wooden loom to work on a thick, woollen scarf. To her side stands a strange metal hemisphere which ingeniously focuses the rays of the sun to coax a kettle to boil.
At the town’s boundary, we begin to work our way up the mountainside, passing a man harrying a herd of cattle up the path. To keep them moving he thinks it necessary to constantly threaten stragglers with a large and jagged rock – not a particularly endearing tactic.
After the best part of an hour, we reach the top of the path, stopping to catch our breath and soak up the stunning panoramic views of the surrounding valley. For a magical moment, an eagle hovers just a few metres above me, giving me a beautiful close-up of its huge talons and wings before it soars onward on its task of scanning the valley below with its powerful eyes in the search for food.
We continue on a path cut into the side of the mountain, the vast distances once more playing tricks with my mind. Gazing toward the horizon I see a succession of jagged peaks washed out by the intensity of the sun’s glare. They appear as ghost traces, a mirage fading into the infinite blue of the sheltering sky.
Raju points across the valley to a series of rock formations that resemble a giant ants’ nest. He tells me these are a network of abandoned caves that date back thousands of years. While countless similar cave settlements appear throughout Mustang, their exact usage and history is unknown. These particular caves are still used by the occasional Tibetan mystic or monk seeking solace to meditate on the true nature of existence.
After walking for another half an hour, Raju directs my attention to a few earthy domes on the mountainside. When he asks, I can’t guess what they are. He explains sadly that this was once a village which has been wiped out by a recent landslide. The sheer scale of the mass of earth is hard to conceive. It is an apt reminder that for all the land’s beauty there is also a harshness and brutality that can quickly turn on those who try to carve out a life here.
For most in Mustang, life rarely rises above subsistence. Locals grow what little they can in this arid soil, but few could survive without regular shipments up from the more prosperous flatlands. A trip to Pokhara used to take six days on horseback. Now, thanks to new roads and Jomsom airport, food can be shipped up as soon as its needed. During the tourist season, a steady stream of trekkers and mountaineers provides an opportunity to sell souvenirs of carpet or ammonite fossils in little storefronts attached to houses.
In this mountain desert, the meltwater from nearby glaciers is a lifeline. Most towns have carved a complex series of waterways to make the most of the mountain streams, directing them first through the central arteries of the village and then out through channels to irrigate their fields of barleys, orchids of apple trees, and stocks of cottonwood.
The winters here are especially harsh. Most villagers clear out during the worst of it. Each household leaves behind one or two people to look after the livestock and shovel snow from rooftops. I heard that in the worst of the cold, villagers will huddle with their animals in the basement floor of their homes to keep warm, subsisting off a diet of rice and roasted barley. I don’t envy them.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Nepal: Maha Shivaratri, the Great Night of Lord Shiva
- Nepal: In the mountains of Lower Mustang – Part one: The walk to Kagbeni
We continue along the mountain path, walking beside a group of local women in colourful homespun clothing talking excitedly, and soon enough, Jharkot starts to rise up before us from the mountain ridge. Stepped fields of barley precede beautiful traditional-style Tibetan houses, each bearing prayer flags gently waving in the breeze. A ruined fort peers over the line of houses, its gray walls crumbling from years of neglect. Far above and behind the town lurks a cluster of immense, snow-covered peaks which tower over the surrounding landscape.
Jharkot has a weathered, earthy feel to it that isn’t too dissimilar to Kagbeni. The whitewashed walls and charming black and red embellishments of its houses are in various states of decay. Many of the colourfully painted wooden doors have been half-stripped of paint due to heavy winds, creating a rustic and timeworn effect that an inner-city hipster would kill for. Above many of these doors hang spiral patterned ghost traps believed to ward off evil spirits.
We stop for a moment before a stupa at the town’s entrance before snaking through the various nooks and crannies that constitute alleyways, working our way slowly upwards towards Jharkot temple. As we walk I catch glimpses of daily life for locals: old and near toothless men laughing on the steps of their homes, women busying themselves with household chores, children chasing each other through narrow lanes, and various domestic animals aimlessly wandering the streets.
Our destination is Jharkot temple, a beautiful red-washed mud structure from the 15th century, its interior walls coloured with murals and main doorway adorned with complex wood carvings. Like many in the Tibetan tradition, it is built on a high rocky outcrop. Before the temple lies an open square surrounded by the spartan monks’ quarters. Above, dozens of jet black crows circle ceaselessly, contrasting heavily with the pure sky blue surrounding them.
I circumambulate the temple in a clockwise direction, as has become my habit. The temple’s perimeter is lined with old prayer wheels, and I take my time to turn each one. On the opposite side lays a sheer cliff. With gusts of cold wind blowing in my face, I peer over the edge to enjoy sweeping views of the town and surrounding valley. There is an immense gravity to this place: the fact Tibetan temples are so often placed on peaks amidst beautiful and secluded landscapes drives home a sense of the sacred, and one deeply connected to the natural world.
After a short break for coffee, Raju and I push on. We take a dirt trail out of town which slowly winds upward towards Muktinath. Every few minutes I stop to photograph the breathtaking scenery from a new vantage point, but as we begin to trudge up a particularly steep section of the path, I find that I need to stop as am legitimately having trouble breathing. The strength seems to have gone out of my body, and my head feels light and airy. I have the sensation of floating – which is certainly not ideal when walking up a narrow path where a fall could cause serious injury, if not death. While I slow my pace, both my head and my heart begin to thump solidly. There seems to be pressure applied to my temples and a sharp, icy pain to go along with it.
I already know we’ve attempted to ascend too far in one day, and that I’m experiencing the onset of altitude sickness. When we left Kagbeni we were at an altitude of 2,800 metres. Muktinath stands at a full 1,000 metres higher. This was always going to be a risk. The only question is how severe the sickness will be.
The more steps I take, the worse the symptoms get. Raju eventually tells me to sit down on my pack, where I stay for perhaps twenty minutes, zoning out at the myriad shapes on a towering rock wall. I consider changing our plans to stay in Jharkot tonight, but Raju still believes we can make it. Mercifully, he offers to carry my pack before encouraging me onward.
Suspended in this strange, timeless and disorientating state, we walk very slowly, edging our way up the path and taking regular breaks. I’m in despair when we make it to the border of Muktinath and the first guesthouse we ask has no room for us. Finally, after a few more rejections we find somewhere with a vacancy. Exhausted, and head pounding, I lie down on my bed and take a decent dose of painkillers. I try to revive myself with a shower that is just slightly above freezing. It helps a little. Regarding my pink form in the mirror, I notice with some irritation that I’ve been sunburnt. On top of glowing red, my nose has also been cracked and dried out by UV rays and the cold wind.
The winters here are especially harsh. In the worst of the cold, villagers will huddle with their animals in the basement floor of their homes to keep warm, subsisting off a diet of rice and roasted barley. I don’t envy them.
Raju soon knocks on my door and prescribes me a serving of garlic soup. After forcing myself to eat I feel well enough to make the final push to Muktinath temple, which lies another 200 metres higher than the guesthouse. We start out very slowly. I notice that every time I get up from sitting or crouching, I am hit with a heavy spell of dizziness. Still, I feel stronger than before, the alleviation of my weakness giving me a false sense of power. As we progress I begin to suspect that Raju is also showing signs of struggle.
As the temple gate, we pass a handful of Hindu holy men, gaunt and smiling, who ask us for money. Raju mutters under his breath “Fucking babas, what do they need money for? Not real babas.” As I look back over the town, everything appears in hues of blue-grey and brown; the dry soil, the cold stones, the crumbling cliffs are the colour of starved earth. Inside the temple grounds, skeletal trees appear in abundance, as do thousands of sacred bells. The grove has a slightly magical feel to it, bringing back vague, confused dreams of Japan and the Orient.
The main temple is dedicated to the god Vishnu. It is a small and unostentatious building, with white brick walls and a series of upward-curved eaves of dark wood. At the temple’s apex stands a golden ceremonial bell, which draws attention to the beautiful Thorong La mountain pass rising up behind.
A dozen Indian men dressed in bright orange robes stand before the temple. One rather gaunt man with an enormous beard begins to de-robe unselfconsciously before lowering himself down into one of the two sacred pools before the temple. The act is believed to cleanse a person of poor karmic deeds. The water must surely be freezing.
Muktinath is a sacred site for Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists alike, attracting pilgrims from all over Tibet, India and Nepal. It is said that Padmasambhava, the great Indian guru, stopped here on his way to Tibet in the 8th Century AD. Meditating in a nearby grove he attained enlightenment before continuing onward to his destination at Samye, where he established Tibet’s very first monastery. Having played such a foundational role in the Tibetan tradition, Padmasambhava is regarded second in spiritual significance only to Siddhārtha Gautama.
The temple’s outer courtyard features a series of 108 bull-faced spouts from which sacred water flows. To wash in these waters is to purify your soul. As I circled the temple, a near-naked man rushed underneath the spouts before returning to the pool. Raju, in a surprising display of piety, carefully dripped water from each of the taps over his head, before placing a coin that his wife had given him inside the temple for a blessing.
After exploring the grounds for a while I wander back to the guesthouse, stopping at various stalls selling Tibetan and Hindu souvenirs. There seemed to be a desperation gripping the people in town. Perhaps the recent blockade on India’s border has taken its toll on the tourist trade. I buy one or two items from as many stores as I can before returning to my bed.
Back in the guesthouse, the thumping pain returns to my head with the addition of strong nausea. With racing heart and shallow breath, I can’t seem to get enough oxygen in my lungs. When dinner time rolls around food is the last thing on my mind. I’m having trouble focusing, my head drowsy and drifting in and out of wavy daydreams. When I walk into a doorframe I realise just how majorly my balance has been affected.
A quick Google search reveals all of these signs as calling cards of altitude sickness. My condition worsens over the next few hours and anxiety creeps in: sleeping in this state is yet another risk; will I be forced to make a dramatic night time dash to lower ground to avoid swelling of the brain? The thought makes me feel even sicker.
When I explain all this to Raju he seems concerned, though perhaps less so than I might have anticipated. This calms me a little. Despite a complete lack of hunger, I force myself to eat some terrible mountain interpretation of a pizza whilst downing litres of water. Thankfully this helps to dampen some of the more worrying symptoms.
When I’m fairly sure my condition has stabilised, I ply myself with more painkillers and drift into an anxious and uncertain sleep to rest in preparation for tomorrow’s long hike.
It would seem as though high altitudes are not my friend.