Mustang, Day 1...7 1/2 hours, 13 miles. Maximum altitude, 10,000 feet.
"…the Kali Gandaki has the deepest canyon in the world. Kali signifies "black female" or "dark woman", and it is true that its steep walls, gray torrent, and black boulders give a hellish darkness to the river that, rumbling down out of hidden peaks and vast clouds of unknowing, has filled the traveler with dread since the first human tried to cross and was born away"….Peter Matthiessen, "The Snow Leopard", 1978
We have arrived in Chhussang, after a 7 1/2 hour, 13 mile trek from Jomson. We are in the Kali Gandaki river valley, the deepest canyon in the world. Himalayan peaks tower above us, 16,000 feet or more from the valley floor.
We started the morning with a flight from Pokhara to Jomson, a 25 minute ride in a plane that I swear was of World War II vintage. It's a twin engine prop plane. I was in the front seat and got some great views of the cockpit and the pilot's instruments, which looked pretty basic and old. We quickly rose from the Pokhara airport and flew right up the Kali Gandaki valley with giant Himalayan peaks on either side. We flew up, up, up until we made a very slight descent and were on the tarmac at Jomson. We gathered our gear and went to the Hotel Tilicho for a coffee and a beautiful view of the peaks of Nilgiri and Tilicho.
Our flight on the Twin Otter...
By 8:00 we were off on the trek, soon hiking on the wide Kali Gandaki flood plain. At this time of year there is very little water, but the flood plain is about a kilometer wide and it must be amazing when the valley is filled with water. The walls of the valley are a geologist's dream. Sedimentary layers that 150 million years ago were at the bottom of the sea have been buckled to almost verticle by the great geologic forces that created these mountains.
We start our trek...
The first three hours were along the river and by 11 we made our first stop at Kagbeni, a fairly big town and a crossroad where pilgrims are going to the Hindu pilgrimage site of Muktunah. By now the famous wind had come up. This is the daily wind that blows through the Kali Gandaki from the south. It starts around 10 am as a gentle breeze and by 2 pm it's howling at about 50 to 80 miles per hour. It's a real hold onto your hat kind of wind. There are places along the trail where you are protected, but others where you really have to be careful you don't get pushed over the cliff. The trail here is mostly along a dirt road and there are some trucks and motorcycles, but very few.
Kali Gandaki valley...
One thing that was unusual was that we were trekking with a very large group of soldiers that were on a training mission up to a town north of here. There were probably 300 or so soldiers, all very nice, saying "Namaste" as we passed them when they were resting. The only scary part was as they passed you all their guns were pointed right at us. This was just how they carried them, they really didn't mean anything by it. KB assured us they probably weren't loaded, but we couldn't be sure.
For lunch, we stopped in Kagbeni. I had a tasty chicken in a chili ginger sauce and french fries. Nance and Trina had mo mos and soup. Quite tasty. There was also a Hindu temple here, where people came to bathe in the river and pray to their ancestors.
From here we headed up the valley, climbing up to 10,000 feet. We were followed by a black dog, who we named Toto. For some reason he liked our little group and was our constant companion all the way to Chhussang. We went up, we went down. We passed some really nice villages and along the whole way we looked up to giant Himalayan peaks towering above us. The wind was constantly at our back pushing us along. I had to really press my hat onto my head, otherwise it would fly off and tumble down 1,000 feet to the valley floor. I wasn't ready to donate my hat to the trekking gods quite yet. After one big hill we stopped by an abandoned tea house for a rest. I handed around some dark chocolate we had gotten at Ikea (of all places), of which I had brought many bars. It was my intention to have a chocolate reward after a big pass.
Crossing the great Kali Gandaki...
Many people passed us along the way and everyone was very nice, saying "Namaste" to us. This is a lovely greeting, simply meaning, "I salute the god within you". What could be nicer?
At one point, after coming down a very steep hillside, we came to a creek that wasn't all that wide, but was roaring down the valley pretty fast. Our porters plus our guides, Nirajan and KB, picked up huge rocks and plopped them in the stream so we could walk across. These rocks quickly tumbled down the stream bed because the water was moving so fast. So they got even bigger rocks, plopped them down in the stream and then we could walk across. I was the first one over and ended up walking in the stream, getting my boots and socks totally wet and filled with river sand. Trina and Nance did better, still having dry socks after they crossed. Sheila and Ron did as well as I.
Crossing a muddy creek...
The landscape we passed was out of another world. Whole hillsides have been shaped by the wind, resulting in naturally carved pillared stones and gigantic ribs of sandstone. It's amazing to think that we were walking on an ancient sea bed, but the proof is the ammonites. All over this river valley you can find ammonites, 150 million year old sea creatures that are found hidden in small black rocks. When you take a hammer or chisel to them, they break at the weak point, revealing a spiral fossil. It's incredible to find these fossils at 10,000 feet above sea level, knowing that this place was far under the sea at one point, teaming with creatures.
We walked further up the valley, passing more villages and holding onto our hats. Finally, about 5:30 we made it to Chussang, a tiny village with a nice little tea house. I had a room with a great view of the Kali Gandaki and the tall peaks. There is no electricity except in the sitting area where we had drinks and dinner. I had a tasty meal of mo mos and tenduk, a wonderful thick chicken soup with noodles and vegetables. Best of all, they had cold beer, very welcome after a long, dusty, hard day. The nicest surprise here was a hot shower, run with one of those instant hot water machines. Pure bliss getting all the grit off of my body!
Nirajan, KB, and our porters...
Although this day was hard, the next two days are supposed to be even harder. But all worth it in this amazing place of Upper Mustang!