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Ambling up Annapurna

In front of me Indian women clothed in purple saris hiked across the dry Kali Gandaki river; they were on a Hindu pilgrimage to Muktinath. To my left I gazed at the breathtaking snow capped Dhaulagiri, one of the highest mountains in the world. An hour later I spun prayer wheels as I wandered the winding streets of a Tibetan influenced village. This was a typical day on the Jomsom trail through Nepal’s Annapurna region of the Himalayas; my husband Keith and I hiked the trail for 11 days in April, 2001.

The physical beauty along the Jomsom trek is breathtaking. The scenery of the trail ranges from forests of brilliant red rhododendrons to rocky cliffs and desert. The trail follows the Kali Gandaki river. The Kali Gandaki is a quarter of a mile wide river bed; during the winter the river is practically dry, but during the summer monsoon it fills with rain water and melting snow. This river forms the largest gorge in the world, on one side lies the Annapurna mountain range and on the other side is Dhaulagiri. Between the two ranges, there are views of 8 of the 20 highest mountains in the world.

The culture among the trail is rich. The trail weaves through the Lower Mustang region of Nepal, ending at the village of Kagbeni, a Tibetan influenced village filled with prayer wheels, chortens and a Buddhist monastery. The trail’s highest point, 3800 m, is reached in Muktinath, a holy site of temples sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.

The following is a diary of Keith’s and my trek:

3/28/01, 7 Hours, Landruk On our last trek I remember hiking down the first part of today’s trek and thinking “Thank God I’m not hiking up this hill!” My words came back to haunt me – today Keith and I were hiking up all 1000m of this hill, voluntarily, and this time carrying our packs. After 5 days of “soft living” in Pokhara it was quite an awakening. We returned from the Annapurna Sanctuary trek 5 days ago having turned back 3 hours short of our goal – Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). We turned back due to ice and poor weather. Today we began this trek with the intent of trying for ABC again, this time with better equipment (specifically better boots). This week 4 people died in an avalanche near the same area where we turned back on our last trek. Today, at the first checkpost, we read the message board and learned several more hikers just turned back due to avalanches. Rather than risk the avalanches, we have decided to divert to the other side of the Annapurnas and hike the Jomsom trek. Both of us are excited to see new scenery and culture, but first we will need 3 days to reach the Jomsom Trek.

3/29/01, 7 Hours, Tadapani I am writing from our teahouse (basic guesthouses along the trails) and enjoying a view of snow covered Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare framed by pink rhododendrons. Today, after a hard and long walk, we arrived at Tadapani, a village we visited on our last trek. We spent the evening hanging out in the dining hall. The teahouse is managed by a friendly Nepal young woman; she kept the coals burning in the fire under the dining table so that we all would stay warm in the chilly night. At the table we met two friendly couples from Holland and they invited us to visit them when we arrive in Europe this fall.

3/30/01, 7 Hours, Shika Traveling a path from Deurali to the Chitre, we hiked through a lush green forest and then stumbled upon a field of rhododendrons. Alone, we sat and enjoyed the sun, fresh aroma of flowers and clear mountain views. This is why we hike. After we crossed this portion of the trail we arrived in Chitre, which meant we made it to Jomsom trail. By afternoon, rain started to spill down, but we made it to Shika and a warm teahouse before the downpour.

3/31/01, 9 Hours, Ghasa As we steeply ascended the trail in the mud and rain, in our 7th hour or trekking, and having skipped lunch, Keith and I questioned, “Why are we doing this?” We had decided to push to Ghasa today and once that was in our minds we would not divert from our plan. Doing this was painful, but character building! Despite the pain, we still noticed our changing surroundings. We followed the Kali Gandaki river and as the valley narrowed the terrain became rockier. The forest was replaced with steep rocky cliffs. Near Ghasa, I stopped to look around and was surrounded by views of the snow peaked Himalayas – I felt like I could reach out and touch them.

4/1/01, 8 Hours, Marpha Indian men and women in flip flops hiked through the wind across the rocky Kali Gandaki river bed. We discovered they are Hindus on a pilgrimage to Muktinath in the Mustang; it is a site with temples holy to Hindus and Buddhists. The villages we wandered through today were filled with chortens, prayer wheels, prayer flags and Buddhist monasteries. Snow greeted us as we arrived in Marpha, a picturesque village of whitewashed stone buildings with intricate wooden shutters inhabited by friendly Thakalis, who are known for their great lodges and food.

4/2/01, 5 Hours, Kagbeni During the walk from Marpha to Kagbeni we crossed desert like terrain; sand blew in the wind as locals galloped by on Mustang horses. As we walked through Jomsom I experienced the surreal feeling that we were in the Wild West.

By early afternoon we were exploring Kagbeni, a medieval looking village with a Tibetan feel. The streets wind into narrow alleyways and are lined with mud and stone buildings. A rust colored Buddhist monastery overlooks the village. As we roamed the streets we met women in traditional Tibetan style dress, lamas (Buddhist monks) in red robes, and schoolchildren in uniforms along with yaks, goats and roosters.

4/3/01, 4 Hours, Muktinath We started our day with a steep climb to Jharkot where we checked into a teahouse and dropped off our packs. Without the packs we almost flew up to Muktinath, 3800m. Along the way our views included the Thorong Pass, which is the highest and must difficult area that those hiking the Annapurna Circuit must traverse; sacred caves in the cliffs; and spectacular views of the mountains. In Muktinath, among groves of trees, we visited a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, 108 fountains of holy water, and a Buddhist gompa. Indian sadhus, Nepali and Indian pilgrims and locals congregated here to worship. Prayer flags blew in the wind, and I felt something special as I stood amongst these grounds, where earth, flame and water are believed to meet.

4/4/01, 5 Hours, Marpha We began the hike back down the trail today and passed again through Jomsom. There are no vehicles on the entire Jomsom trail, but there is a small airport in Jomsom. Having seen no 20th century transportation in over a week, it was strange to watch a plane fly overhead. Often trekkers fly into Jomsom and then hike the trail down, or they hike up the trail and fly out of Jomsom. Keith and I opted to hike in and hike out. Admittedly the plane sounded alluring for a second, but I am happy to still be trekking and not quite ready to leave the mountains. At night we treated ourselves to great apple pie (the Jomsom trail is known as the ‘apple pie trail’ because apples are grown throughout the trail and used to fill Western food cravings).

4/5/01, 4 Hours, Lete Bright and sunny all morning, it was a great day to be walking. Unfortunately, Keith was feeling poorly so he did not enjoy the walk. We planned to get to Ghasa, where we stayed on the way up, but heavy rain stopped us. Instead, we stayed in Lete in a dingy guesthouse.

4/6/01, 5 ½ Hours, Tatopani We crossed several suspension bridges over the river during the day’s hike. As we crossed one I was wedged in between a train of donkeys. We run into at least 10 donkey trains a day, which are used to bring up supplies to the villages. At night we ran into Anne Marie and Mike, an American couple we met in Kagbeni, so we enjoyed some friendly conversation and received some great insight about traveling to South Africa and Egypt.

4/7/01, 5 Hours, Beni Today was our last day trekking and admittedly we were both ready to get back – my feet were all blisters and 2 toenails fell off, but I wore 2 pairs of socks and sped through the trail. Being out trekking is great, but after 11 days we were ready for hot showers and a warm bed! Today’s hike was along the Kali Gandaki river and was enjoyable as there was greenery and waterfalls along the path and the white capped mountains remained visible. In Beni we picked up a taxi back to Pokhara and soon cleaned up. Reflecting on the Jomsom, both Keith and I agree the culture was much greater and diverse than the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek. The terrain and scenery were also quite different and was a great complement to our first trek. We feel quite lucky to have experienced both treks and hope to return someday!

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