Kathmandu to Muktinate & back Wed 26 January – Mon 21 February 2011
Would you believe it's mid February and we're still in Ktm! Of course you would we seem incapable of getting away. Just as we were preparing to go fate (as has often happened on this trip!) took a different turn and changed our plans We had parked our car outside a local café and were inside uploading picture using their Wi-Fi when a lady approached us to ask about the car. This happens quite often and so we had a chat with Jyoti and her PA Ramesh. Jyoti is a very keen traveller herself and was really interested in overlanding so we had a great talk and she was kind enough to invite us to lunch the next day so we delayed travelling on to go …and ended up staying for quite a while!
Jyoti is actually a Princess of the Nepal Royal family and lives in a lovely apartment adjoining the original royal compound, with a view down over the distant monkey temple or Swayambhunath from the roof. Though we do like car camping (honestly!) it is really nice to have a bit of a chance to spread out now and again and staying with Jyota has been great fun and a really welcome dose of luxury -particularly as I went down with a really bad cold shortly after we arrived. Maybe this has slowed us up a bit, but in a very nice way! Jyoti also has 2 great dogs Pancho an adopted street dog (with a definite dose of Labrador), and Jack a Tibetan mastiff so we have new doggy friends to stop us missing Chopper and Kali too much!
We've had a lovely time with Jyoti getting out and about and seeing some parts of Ktm we'd not yet seen. One really interesting day was with Jyoti's Tibetan friend Chimi whose brothers are very senior lamas in the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. We spent the day with her visiting a new monastery with stunning views back over the city, and we enjoyed a superb lunch. We'd never had Bhutanese food before, and as the chef once worked for the King of Bhutan this was a great place to start -absolutely delicious!
As mentioned above when we met Jyoti we also met her personal assistant Ramesh, a charming man Ramesh has known Jyoti's family for many years. Sadly his mother passed away a year ago. In Nepal (for some castes anyway) when your mother dies you give up milk for a year. There is a small ceremony in remembrance once a month and then a large celebration after a year has passed. The sons shave their heads to show their sorrow and there is a party-like celebration in the deceased's honour after which the period of mourning is officially over. Ramesh invited us to this yearend ceremony for his mother which was really interesting. The food was delicious, 9 different pure vegetation dishes - being Brahmin Ramesh's family doesn't eat meat fish or eggs.
Meanwhile we said goodbye to our German overlander friends Marc and Mathias who headed off first to India, then to Thailand and finally to start their new lives in Melbourne at the end of the month. We also met some French overlanders who passed through and stayed at the scouts a couple of nights - they've also been travelling 3 years since they left France -amazingly with 3 kids. Their vehicle was awesome - though we didn't get to see much of it as they passed through quickly but have a look at their site www.ayabombe.org
We also said a sad goodbye to our friend Bipin and our 2 camp dogs - though we'll have we'll have to do our goodbyes again it's taken us so long to get going! Huge relief all around….after a nail biting few weeks we were soooo pleased when our shoes finally arrived from Keen Footwear (see their site www.keenfootwear.com) -thanks so much to Shea for helping out with an American postal address. We sent Shea a couple of little pressies as a thank you one of which was a thangka or Tibetan Buddhist painting. These are incredibly detailed and the man we bought ours from Mr. Ogen Tenzing has exhibited all over the world. He's pictured here (when we finally get the pictures on!) with the one we sent. Ogen's shop is on the main drag in Lalitpur or he can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew first came to Nepal 23 years ago in 1988 with 2 friends and they trekked the Annapurna circuit, passing though the beautiful Mustang region. Last year when we were in the Pokhara area we'd heard that a new road had just opened which (with a 4 wd and a few guts!) enabled you to drive out through some of this region all the way to Muktinate. We were really keen to drive it and made it as far as Beni before we were told that due to a couple of massive landslides it was impassable so we had to give up. This year we were determined to give it another go, and Jyoti was very keen to come too.
So, on Saturday 5 February we set off, Jyoti in front with Babu her driver, Suran her assistant and Mr. Prem Lama a friend and tour guide. Mr. Prem is from the Mustang area which we were heading to, and so he was a real expert on the local terrain.
The drive to Pokhara was uneventful and we stayed that night at the Fewa Prince Hotel. This large resort was really roomy and quiet being a few kms out of town (and it being the low season) and they were happy to let us park /camp in their spacious car park so we had a good night's sleep. It looked a really nice place to stay if you have transport -see their site www.fewa-prince.com Incidentally the central camping area on the lake where we camped last year is now off limits. A gate had been put up and though there was still a sign saying you could camp there (indeed a new sign) it was locked up. We found out that someone has taken a 30 year lease on the property and it was thought would be building (another!) luxury hotel. Life becomes ever harder for overlanders!!!
We ate out at Mona Lisa a restaurant in the damside area of the city where we had a thali and tried a mustang specialty for the first time called …deera??? Have to check - a sort of buck wheat dough which you eat alongside daal instead of rice. Very tasty.
Pokhara hadn't changed - well we'd only been gone just over a year. Still chock a block with tourist shops (Kashmiris everywhere!) and sooo many hotels you do wonder how they all get custom. Still a nice place though and lovely and peaceful watching the hang gliders down on the lake.
Next day after checking the cars we set off to drive the 170km on towards Muktinate. We were largely on sealed roads to Beni -a big central crossroads and trading post for the surrounding area - and then we were on to fairly rough riding. It was actually a good enough road and as it hadn't rained for ages nice and dry, I imagine it can become a bit of a mud bath after the rains, and this is when the landslides happen.
What followed in the next few days was -go on I'll stick my neck out -THE BEST SCENERY ON THE TRIP TO DATE. I'm not good on which peak is which but I think the views we were enjoying were mainly of the Dhaulagiri (at over 8,000 metres the 6th largest mountain in the world ) and the Nilgiri (7061m) as we drove through the Kali Gandaki Valley, supposedly the world's deepest valley at some points. Absolutely incredible the drive followed rivers and wound up and down hills past little villages all very beautiful.
We pushed ourselves that night to get to the Thasang Village where Jyoti had booked in at the Lodge a stunning Japanese/Nepali owned property. We generally don't like driving in the dark (especially after our recent hole dive in Sikkim!) but we felt safe following Jyoti in convoy -though the last bit of the drive up a steep hill to the resort was a bit of a challenge. We wound up the hill (the staff from the resort had come down to wait for us on the road to make sure we didn't sail straight past) which required 5 point turns to get around each hair pin bend ..a bit scary.
We finally arrived and had dinner (another thali very nice) before we crawled into bed in the parking area where they'd let us camp. We woke up to truly spectacular 360 degree views. We were gazing down on an incredible flood plain with a river in the middle surrounded by pine trees and with a snow capped mountain range in the background.
Truly awesome. The resort isn't cheap but it is an incredible spot with a view to die for, perfect for a "special treat" after a long trek or just to unwind. They even have a helicopter pad for visitors (a lot of Japanese do this) to fly in and out.
We had an explore through the village which was delightful. They were starting to plant crops and people were hard at work everywhere.
They were a mixture but a lot of the people here are thakali a ethnic group who initially came from Tibet. We walked up the hill past the fields and it started to snow. There was a walk down one side of the mountain and then a sharp climb up to a sacred cave -you can see it in our picture behind Mr. Prem -but it looked like a bit of a slog and it was already mid day so we were scared we'd still be up the mountain when darkness fell so we gave it a miss.
On the way down we passed an old guy grinding buck wheat in a little stone hut with a water powered wheel - this village is like the place time forgot!
We found a lovely local lady (80 years old and still very active) where we arranged to eat lunch and very good it was too, as we sat in her house and she and her daughter in law cooked a lovely fresh lunch over the fire. Once more….a thali. Honestly I do love Nepali cuisine but am amazed that some of them never seem to want anything different. This goes beyond necessity which I do understand - even in Pokhara where we had a choice of food Mr. Prem and the guys always wanted daal bhaat! Actually it would no doubt be better for me (and my waistline) if that's all I ever ate!
Beautiful spot though really recommend it -if the Lodge is too expensive for your budget (join the club!) most of the places in the village are open to paying guests at a fraction of the cost so ask around. The lodge's web site is www.lodgethasangvillage.com Next morning we got up early to climb up onto the roof and get a panoramic shot of the Himalayas as the sun hit them. We actually ran out of battery and had to race back so missed the first shot with just a rosy glow, the sun was well and truly there by the time we got back!
On we drove across the flood plains and up and down the mountains (a few of which had quite scary looking evidence of rock falls which was a bit alarming) and making a few river crossings. Andrew recognized the writing on one rock from his last trek -23 years ago so presumably it's been re-touched since- a Buddhist chant apparently, so he had the same picture taken. We'll have to hunt out the old picture to do a comparison!
We drove on until we pulled up in Jonsom the main town in the area.
Not spectacularly scenic in its own right compared to some of the beautiful villages around, Jonsom is the site of the airport and so a big centre for fly in trekkers and all their needs -guesthouses, and shops selling …chocolate, batteries sun cream, books and all these other travellers' staples !
Actually when we visited most of it was shut as it was low season but we stayed and ate at the Hotel Snowlands owned and run by a friend of Mr. Prem's so we were very comfortable. It was getting a bit chilly by now so for the first time on the trip we asked them to full up our newly acquired hot water bottles which made going out to sleep in the car a bit easier! It was quite a cold night though not too windy. The area around here is renowned for very strong winds which come up all day but the worst we had was at Thasang the night before when we almost lost the campervan back door in the middle of the night! The winds actually start there and channel up to Jonsom.
The next day we drove on the finally stage of the journey up to Muktinath. This township stands at 3802 metres so you can feel the difference in altitude and have to take it easy and watch out for symptoms of high altitude sickness. The landscape on the way was truly stunning -panoramic views of the mountains around every corner.
On the way we stopped briefly at a small shrine. Apparently this was once visited by a travelling holy man who many belief was Guru Nanak who founded Sikhism. Driving on we felt that we were finally really amongst the mountains rather than viewing them from a distance -stunning. Muktinate has obviously developed, in my LP -the latest edition- it says there is no accommodation here -now there is a lot, many real travellers' haunts. We sat in the sun and had lunch (they do all the western staples so I had risotto and Andrew pasta - a meal off daal bhaat!)and gazed at the view.
Muktinath as well as a big draw for trekkers is a very significant pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists and we saw quite a few sadhus here.
The reason is the temples which are a steep climb up the hill. There is a spring of sacred water here -piped in a shower head formation and incredibly despite the snow Babu and Suran stripped down to their undies and took several dips -rather them than me!
There was an ancient nunnery up here - we saw the nuns chanting in the Jwalamai temple. This names means "goddess of fire" and takes its name from a natural phenomena -a spring with natural gas jets so that the water appears to (and indeed does) have flames over it.
This is the reason Muktinate has long been seen as a holy centre. There was also a Hindu temple which we weren't allowed in as non Hindus -as ever the Buddhists are far more accepting in this way.
As well as a few dreadlocked Sadhus we met a pilgrim from Tamil Nadu. He looked a bit battered as well he might it was a hell of a way to come!
He only spoke Tamil so communication was limited but he showed us his home -a little cave on the hillside lined with blankets. It would be freezing up there on the hills every night but he seemed to be surviving! Incredible. Wonder if he walked all the way??
That night we headed down to 2840 metres to the beautiful old village of Kagbeni. The road was beautiful -quite desert like with stark buildings standing out on the hills a bit like Ladakh perhaps even more dramatic.
In Kagbeni we stayed at the New Annapurna Lodge run by friends of Mr. Prems and again they let us camp. We pulled close into the wall for some shelter and were glad we did as the winds were very chill that night!
The next morning we planned to spend a day there whilst Jyoti Mr. Prem et al were heading further up to upper Mustang to visit Mr. Prem's home. We weren't going due to cost. A bit like Bhutan the government is concerned that this remote area not be overrun with tourism -so they make it very pricey for Westerners so only the very wealthy can go. It costs $500 USD for a pass into this region for up to 10 days and then another charge per day after this. Too much for us! Actually we were also supposed to pay a fee of 2,000 rp each for visiting the Annapurna area but we genuinely didn't know about it (Andrew thought it was just for trekkers) and Mr. Prem kept us out of the way of the ticket offices so we slipped through the system on that one -maybe due to it being low season. Mr. Prem is well known in the area and he did ring various people to try and get us an exemption to just visit his house but it was clearly no go. Another time!
Actually when they came to leave the car had problems due to the cold and as we couldn't follow in support and the road involved numerous river crossings they gave it a miss anyway. Our car was also a bit cold and we had to use the hot kettle trick to get it going again that morning. First time since Ladakh!
We spent a pleasant day having a wander around Kagberi, which was a really lovely spot. This area is renowned for apples, apricots and walnuts. None were in season at this time but we enjoyed the fruit in dried form and the lady of the house gave us a huge bag of walnuts. I don't usually like them overly but these fresh ones were different to any I'd had before -totally delicious!
Kagbeni was very scenic with a beautiful river and lovely views, as well as many guest houses, and even a "Yak Donalds"!
We walked over the bridge where the Kali Gandaki river meets the Muktinate river -a very auspicious place. We had a look at the central monastery which had some beautiful Tibetan paintings and fascinating old carvings on stone at the front of the temple.
The area once had a King and whilst he no longer exists the old buildings that housed his palace still remain. Mr. Prem bumped into a son of a good friend and we were invited in for tea, Tibetan bread and boiled eggs.
Actually people often give you a boiled egg here- there are free range chickens everywhere and it's a quick easy snack and the eggs are really tasty cf the supermarket variety! Their house was fascinating built adjoining the old palace -somewhat medieval it felt like a cave and was very comfortable and snug feeling - good to keep those chill winds out!
We enjoyed the views from the guesthouse and had a walk along the flood plains that evening. Another lovely peaceful spot.
The next day we were up and on the road early as we planned to do a big drive back to Pokhara. It would be easy to spend months in this beautiful region but as ever time seems to be slipping way and we really have to get a move on. So -we were on the road early and stopped at a nice little guest house for breakfast. Best laid plans and all that…whilst we were having breakfast the lady there told Mr. Prem that as they were blasting the roads near there, she had heard that no traffic could pass as the road would be shut …FOR A WEEK!!! ….gulp!
We drove on and got to the area when we saw a huge tail back of buses. Mr. Prem negotiated with them to let us through and Andrew got his faithful shovel out once more (he'd already done a bit of road improvement earlier on the trip) and we all helped flatten the road a bit so we could drive by without over turning.
The road workers sat around telling us to hurry up and hassling us - without helping at all of course! Anyway 4 hours later and after a bit of a hairy drive we were through and past the blasting area, but this delay meant again we had quite a way to drive in the dark. We had planned to stop at the hot springs at Tatopani -and had taken a picture on the way through but there wasn't time now. Never mind we did have our fill of hot baths at the other Tatopani on the previous trip to Jiri!
Anyway it was a long and tiring drive but we took it steady and all went well. The scenery was truly awesome including driving up and down and through the Kali Gandaki valley, as mentioned above claimed to be the world's deepest. A further highlight was about 50km short of Pokhara when Andrew is adamant he saw a leopard of some sort crouching at the road side but when we backed up it had gone. I always miss these things!
We arrived back in Pokhara at midnight absolutely exhausted to find a nice surprise. Jyoti knows the owner of the Hotel Fewa Prince and had arranged for us to have a complimentary room that night which was very welcome as we were so tired so it was nice to have a ensuite hot bath for a change!
The next day we went for a lovely Japanese lunch in town at the Tabemono Ya restaurant and hotel near Lakeside. It was a beautiful setting and we enjoyed a mixed lunch box -a real treat. The other car left soon after but as Andrew was still very tired we delayed a day and just relaxed in Pokhara that afternoon before heading back the next morning.
Amazingly after all those rough roads when neither of the cars had had a flat tyre we managed to run over a nail on the straight road to Kathmandu which held us up! Andrew had just had to finally replace the original jack which came with the car (27 years old) and had got a new one in India. This proved to be totally useless and wouldn't lift the car. Thankfully out of the usual crowd that quickly assembled to watch our every move one young guy was very helpful and quickly found us a jack to use, so we were soon back on our way. Another item for the shopping list!
So, finally on 14th February we arrived back in Kathmandu. Since being back we've had a lovely quiet few days. Mr. Prem and his wife Karma very kindly invited us around for dinner and we enjoyed some delicious Tibetan fare. They also very kindly gifted us a dzi bead necklace each. We'd never heard of these Tibetan beads before but I'd noticed that Jyoti wore a lovely one, and Mr. Prem (whose wife is an avid collector) told us all about them. Dating from 2,000 BC these agate beads were used by Tibetan traders as amulets to protect the wearer from harm whilst out on the dangerous roads. They were sometimes used as currency on the silk route and have been found as far afield as Persia (Iran) and the Mediterranean. Amazingly their value can be as high as $1 million USD for a really special one!! We were very happy ours and hope they'll keep us from harm on the journey to follow.
We'd had a minor upset on the trip when our laptop died. Sadly it'd become infested with various viruses as our antivirus wasn't working so we were unable to access email or download pictures in what felt like forever. A friend of Jyoti's daughter recommended a former colleague of hers who is an IT whiz. We went to see him and he soon sorted us out, updated our antivirus and got our laptop working better than ever all for no charge. People's kindness to us on our travels continues to amaze wherever we go! Thanks so much to Nepal (his real name!) of Swift technology - see his website for all your pc needs www.swifttech.co.np
Finally we really will have to tear ourselves away from the magnetic field which this city seems to hold for us! We had planned to get our Pakistan visas here in Ktm thinking it might be a bit easier than getting them in Delhi (due to the strained relation between India and Pakistan) but apparently the lead in time for processing is 8 WEEKS!!!! So we'll have to just take our chances in Delhi.
In a day or 2 we travel across the border to India and more particularly to Chandigarh where we are very much looking forward to seeing our friends the Dhandes again and attending the wedding of their son Nimar. Thanks so much to Jyoti for her incredible extensive hospitality and we hope she has an awesome time on her forthcoming trip down under. We've already lined her up with a few willing tour guides!