The Top of the World

December 19, 2011

The mighty Himalayas loomed behind as I walked down the tarmac to the tiny sixteen-seat propeller plane that awaited. I stepped onboard, took the seat directly behind the pilot, and stuffed my ears with cotton balls in preparation for the quick but noisy flight ahead. Minutes later the lakeside city of Pokhara was but a fading oasis below. I soon realized with a startle that tremendous snow-capped mountains had suddenly risen above both flanks of the plane. We were literally flying through some of the tallest mountains on Earth, in mere minutes passing rugged terrain that would take days to cover on foot.

The View from the Cockpit
The valley suddenly widened below us and the towering rocks grew more distant. The plane descended into a desert landscape that contrasted sharply with the green hills from which we had emerged only 40 miles (70 kilometers) and fifteen minutes earlier. We had arrived in the dusty but dramatically situated town of Jomsom.


I immediately noted the shallowness of my breath in the higher altitude of Jomsom. At 2700 meters above sea level (9000 feet), my body would undoubtedly need some time to adjust to the thinner air. I intended to spend the next several days, possibly the next week, hiking in the hills surrounding the imposing Annapurna range of the Himalayas. After a rest and a light lunch, I took off walking northwards to the village where I meant to stay for the night. The next three hours were spent crossing a cold, windy, almost Martian-like landscape of stark beauty.

I arrived in the medieval fortress town of Kagbeni, found a comfortable lodge, and took off to explore the village. People of Tibetan appearance and dress took little notice of me as they walked amongst alleys of mud-brick houses. The ruins of an old fort stood near a monastery where young novice monks played a late afternoon game of soccer. Many centuries ago, Kagbeni was a vital link on the salt trade route between Nepal and Tibet. Its importance long diminished, the village nevertheless retains an aura of historic weight and is a fascinating place in which to wander.

Ethnic Tibetans in Kagbeni
As the day turned to night the temperature plummeted. I warmed myself with a few hearty portions of dal bhat, a typical Nepali meal consisting of rice, lentils, vegetables and spices. The heady combination of a full stomach, physical exhaustion, and frigid air induced me into a deep sleep, and I slumbered for close to eleven hours that night. When I finally awoke, a bright sun pierced the cloudless sky and magnificently illuminated the peaks of the Himalayas in the distance. The path to my next destination was well-worn, so well-worn that it had become a road carved by jeeps and motorcycles. Eager to avoid this dustbowl of a highway, I unfolded my topographical map and sketched an alternate route that followed alongside the river. Little did I know of the drama that this soon result from this maverick decision.

I carefully traversed the large stones lying alongside the rushing river. The scenery around me was nothing short of breathtaking, made all the more powerful by my complete solitude. Clearly I was the only hiker on this day who had decided to skirt convention and forge this particular path to Muktinath, a popular stopping point in the Annapurnas. At one point I began following what appeared to be a trail that snaked up along a ridge next to the river. At first, this approach seemed much easier than stepping on slippery river rocks. But after an hour or so of walking, the initially-wide ridge narrowed, and I was faced with an impossibly steep slope to navigate. Exasperated, I realized my only options were to turn back and find the path back to the river, which would endanger my chances of reaching Muktinath before dark (not to mention further deplete my energy and meager food rations), or to periously scramble down the sleep slope to the river fifty meters below. I chose the latter. On all fours, I slid down the nearly vertical rock, kicking out for any shrub in order to brake my accelerating momentum. Miraculously, I made it down to the bottom without getting hurt.

I was incredibly relieved to be alright, but my elation would not last long. The river route proved to be no simple task either, and I decided to attempt to cross the flowing waters to the other bank, where there seemed to be an easier way forward. I located a spot where the river seemed to be crossable, and braced myself to jump onto a large rock in the middle of the waters. I lunged forward only for my foot to slip off of the rock upon contact, and suddenly I was submerged in strong current up to my knees. In desperation I grasped onto the boulder with all of my strength in order to avoid being swept away to certain doom. With great effort I extricated myself from the river and returned, chastened, to my starting position. My feet would be freezing cold for the rest of the day, but at least I was still able to move them under my own accord!

After several hours of solitary walking and near-death experiences, uncertainty was creeping into my thoughts. How much farther to go was Muktinath? Had I somehow wandered off of the map? Would I come into contact with another living soul before darkness set in? As these ruminations twirled through my skull, a red edifice appeared like a mirage on a hill in the distance. Was I hallucinating? I walked on for a few minutes and gained certainty that I was not. Ahead of me was one of the most stunning sights that I have ever had the fortune to witness. A red Tibetan monastery stood high above the river under the shadow of a snow-capped mountain, shining like a beacon of life on the face of a desolate moon.

This mesmerizing vision was like a shot of adrenaline into my aching muscles. Like a madman, I pointed up to the simple structure and, to no one in particular, loudly announced "I am going there!" With renewed focus I forged a path up the hills from the riverbed, periodically stopping to dip into my rations and marvel at the perfectly picturesque scene before me. I started the final ascent and noticed hikers on a jeep road up in the distance. They may have taken the easy way, I thought to myself, but they didn't have the view that I had!

The red monastery turned out to just be the head of Jharkot, a village not far from Muktinath. Like Kagbeni before it, the fortress-like town contained old mud-brick houses and wind-hardened Tibetan faces. I explored Jharkot for half an hour or so, and then readied myself for the final push to my destination. The last half-hour trek straight up to the 3800 meter high town of Muktinath was brutal. I was hungry, tired, breathing heavily in the thin air, teetering in the forceful winds, and dispirited by my soaking wet shoes. But I dug deep and completed the final stretch. I had arrived at one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for all Hindus in Nepal.

Muktinath has little of interest for a Westerner, and I didn't waste much time in finding a comfortable lodge with a warm shower. That night was absolutely freezing, and my two heavy blankets were barely sufficient to keep me warm. I arose at sunrise and walked out to the balcony for an awesome view of the Himalayas in the early light, seemingly so close that I could touch them.

The bone-chilling temperatures of Muktinath made me glad that this was the highest (and thus coldest) place that I would visit on my trek. That morning, I caught a jeep back to Jomsom and in a little over one hour was back in the town where I had started from. Now I would head south, away from the dry scenery of Muktinath and towards the greener pastures of Pokhara. In less than two hours after leaving Jomsom on foot I was standing at the gate to the attractive village of Marpha, renowned for its handsome whitewashed walls and plentiful apple orchards.

I stopped in Marpha for a lunch of dal bhat, fresh apple juice, and delicous apple pie. These last two items would complement the apple tea, apple cider, dried apples, and of course, apples that I would consume over the next twenty-four hours. If you haven't guessed already, I like apples, and there's no where better to eat them in Nepal than Marpha.

After lunch I continued on southward. As the altitude gradually lessened, hints of green began to appear in my surroundings. A majestic waterfall cascaded down a pine-laden hillside, nourished from a shrouded mountain above. Other interesting species of trees lined the raging Kali Gandaki river. I thoroughly enjoyed walking through this wilderness. Breaking the relentless sunshine of the two days prior, clouds began forming on the horizon. I would not see another totally clear sky for the remainder of my trek.

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Tukche, my resting point for the night. Tukche is an atmospheric old town full of white stone houses with inner courtyards and intricate wooden windows and balconies. Its better days may be behind it, but I found it a captivating place to explore. Apart from some cute frost-cheeked children, I saw few locals on the streets. Roaming cows were plentiful, however!

Children in Tukche
I was awoken shortly after 5 a.m by the sound of drumming coming from the Tibetan monastery near my guesthouse. Today would be a relatively easy day with no hiking involved; only two short bus rides to the next night's port of call, Tatopani. The main road in this area is dirt, gravel, and very, very bumpy. Somehow local buses make their way up and down however, and there was barely a seat to spare when I was picked up in Tukche. As we descended south the scenery turned unbelievably beautiful, with steep rugged mountains full of vegetation and waterfalls lining the river. But I could barely appreciate it as I was focused on just staying fixed in my seat during the roller-coaster of a bus ride!

It had taken a shocking four hours to travel just 20 miles (35 kilometers), but finally I made it to Tatopani. I checked into a lodge and walked down to the spot that has put Tatopani on the map for all trekkers in Nepal: the natural hot springs. A cold beer and warm bath is just what my sore body needed after three days of rigorous hiking. And what a place for a hot spring! The green walls of the valley rose above, the river raged below, and the stress of civilization felt a million miles away. I went to sleep contentedly that night, ready to take on the most challenging leg of my trek the next morning.


The next day's hike began just as it would end: on a steep climb. For eight hours I would be ascending, giving my legs and lungs an intense workout. The heavy cloud cover may have blocked views of the Himalayas, but could do little to detract from the verdant beauty all around me. I passed through many small villages surpported by rice terracing that scaled the hillsides. Not an automobile was to be seen anywhere, adding to the timeless feel of the country through which I trod. Occasionally I crossed paths with another hiker, but most of the people I saw were local villagers, many of them women carrying distinctive straw-woven baskets on their backs.

Children were curious upon seeing me, as were the local livestock.

In near total darkness I arrived at Ghorepani, the evening's rest point. I had climbed over one vertical mile in a single day, and felt it in every single molecule of my body. I needed rest, and needed it badly. But, alas, I was not to receive it. All of the lodges in Ghorepani have rooms seperated by thin plywood, and I had the misfortune of sharing a floor with a Korean tour group who snored, moved about, and rudely conversed the entire night. I had barely slept a wink when my alarm drilled into my brain at four in the morning. It was time to get prepared for the one hour ascent to the famed Poon Hill, one of the greatest viewpoints of the Himalayas in the region. I ventured out in the still dark morning and began scaling the hill, flashlight in hand. I was joined on top by hordes of other trekkers (including my Korean, ahem, friends) and as the sun rose "oohs" and "aahs" echoed all around. Exhausted and freezing cold, I was disappointed to see that it was still rather cloudy and many of the mountains were thus obscured. But I still managed to get a few good shots.

I came down from the hill, changed to a quieter lodge, and slept away the better part of the afternoon. The next morning I left Ghorepani and headed off for Ghandruk. This would prove to be the prettiest day of the whole trek. The day started with a climb through a mysterious landscape of misty forest. It felt as if I had wandered onto the pages of Lord of the Rings. I then began a long descent alongside a cascading stream, with a lush canopy of vegetation hanging over the other side of the waters. Eventually I emerged onto a ridge that revealed a jaw-dropping valley seemingly untouched by modernity.

Surely there is not a more beautiful country on Earth than Nepal! I have had the great fortune to behold some stunning scenery in many places in this world, but I cannot ever recall being as awed by natural beauty as I was on this day. That afternoon brought more enchanted forests and sublime views. It took a full day's hike to get to Ghandruk, but I was so energized by my heavenly surroundings that I felt I could have kept on trekking for much longer.

The eighth and final day of the trek had arrived. After a filling breakfast I exited my lodge and walked through Ghandruk, famous for its pleasant stone houses and for being home to people of the Gurung tribe. And although the Himalayas were still covered in clouds, the resplendent setting of Ghandruk was still easy to appreciate.

The last day of hiking mostly entailed a mercifully gentle descent down to the valley floor. Along the way I passed children on their way to school, porters carrying chickens on their backs, and load-bearing donkeys marching up the hills. And as I had long since grown accustomed to expect, the views all the way down were spectacular.

The cars on the streets of Nayapul were a somewhat jolting but welcome sign that I had returned to civilization. I joined up with some other hikers and shared a taxi for the short ride back to Pokhara. In a little over a week, I had succeeded in getting a taste of what draws adventurous souls from all over the globe to this small mountainous nation. And now I know what keeps them coming back. The top of the world is nothing if not intoxicating.  


1 comment :

  1. Hi Adam!

    It's been a while when we saw you in Peru/Argentina. Must say that I'm so jealous you're still travelling! We're 16 months back in cold Holland now.
    It's great to see your still enjoying such great countries, meeting many people, and so on...
    Luckily I can confirm Nepal is a beautiful country and get back some great memories of the friendly people and incredible scenery.
    Hope you'll enjoy the rest of your trip. We'll be following your blog!

    Ruben & Tessie