Nepal - entry 12

I'm fully aware of how pitifully low the frequency of my updates has dropped of late but, as I've mentioned earlier, I'm right before a pretty important exam, and studying for it is starting to take a good deal of my free time. As such, barring any unplanned short trips that I'll be doing or unexpected bout of creativity that just glues me to the keyboard, this might be the last entry until mid-November. On the bright side, I might also move to a different, hopefully better looking, hosting platform by then. That being said, enjoy:

Interlude - Oasis

May 8th

I'm still in awe of the wonderful things we saw yesterday as I wake up in the dimly lit hotel room to a cacophony of people and animals and machines, all mixed on the main road that cuts through the village. I wash up (in our own bathroom, with its own sink and shower and western toilet, something I'd become unaccustomed to) and head outside to catch a glimpse of the morning bustle. On both sides of the road, going up towards the eastern village exit and continuing towards Thorong La, craftsmen and shopkeepers have already set up their stalls, selling a variety of souvenirs, from yak wool scarves to fossilised mollusc shells gathered from the nearby riverbed. Children are either brushing their teeth at the public water fountain or, backpacks over their shoulders, waiting eagerly to go to school. In the distance, the sound of construction equipment - a drilling machine, concrete being mixed. And throughout the entire village, Hindu pilgrims, walking barefooted or riding local horses, going up the main road towards the Muktinath temple, one of the most sacred in Nepal.
Some morning rituals are universal.

Nepali children take shit from no one.

I was barely awake and she was already busily weaving those scarves.

Hindu pilgrims returning from the temple.

After a copious breakfast and in no real rush to continue on the circuit, we decide to spend a few hours visiting the village before moving on. We start with the above-mentioned Hindu temple, which has recently undergone reconstruction (still underway) and isn't yet fully open to the public, so we're only able to take a quick glimpse inside from behind the large doors. Outside, the temple courtyard holds an intricate pipe system with sacred water flowing through a total of 108 stone bull faces, the religious substratum of which I've not become as familiar with as I'd have liked. 

The Hindu Temple, and its surrounding wall, with construction work still going on around.

27 or so of the 108 bull heads. A poor shot, but, clever of me, the only one taken.

In hindsight, one of the things I do regret about the whole trip is not taking the time, either before going there or during the trek, to learn more details about the abundantly rich history, culture and religion of the area, topics which when compressed to their absolute most concise form could still probably fill tens of pages. And while current time constraints make an in depth study of the issues somewhat unfeasible in the foreseeable future, it does make the desire to go back and do the whole thing again all the more pressing.

After the Hindu temple complex, it's time to visit the Buddhist sites, of which there are four: a monastery, two temples and a huge Buddha statue. The first on the list, much like the Hindu temple, has only recently been built on a small hill a few hundred meters outside the village proper, overlooking a small lake surrounded by areas of farming. We're told by Dawa that it's a woman's monastery, and because of the cold weather, most of the senior clergy is relocated in Kathmandu, with only the acolytes and the caretakers left. The temple itself, a grey, stone building with brown wooden window frames and a bright, orange roof, rises in a perfect blend of traditional and modern Buddhist architecture. Probably, I don't know, the fact that I'd use "Buddhist" to describe an architectural style should be pretty indicative of my expertise in the field. My personal, glaringly lacking general knowledge notwithstanding, the building looks great and, unlike the Hindu temple, we're granted access inside (for a small donation) so, after taking off our shoes, we step into a large, dimly lit, vividly coloured hall, with various Buddhist religious scenes depicted on the walls. The central area of the hall has two long stretches of low tables, with Buddhist garments ceremoniously placed behind them, creating a corridor of sorts leading towards the equivalent of a Christian altar. We spend a few minutes walking around, take photos (of dubious quality because of the shady lighting), pretending to contemplate the meaning of existence and understand the significance of the religious symbolism around us, as well as just enjoy the cool, quiet serenity that places like that tend to emanate. 

High mountains behind it, the monastery is a sight to behold.

The dormitories, with the village proper and the rest of Mustang behind it.

Acolytes, prayer beads and, I assume, religious texts.

A statue inside the monastery.

The afore-mentioned Buddhist garments; caretaker lady in the background.

And a view of the whole corridor/altar thing. Low quality's due to low lighting and a momentary lack of inspiration to increase ISO.

Moving on, the giant Buddha statue is a sight to behold, positioned slightly above the village, off the path that comes in from Thorong La. All around there's still work being busily done and I assume before long there's going to be a nice park surrounding the statue. 
The hill behind it is the prayer-flag covered one we passed by on our way down from Thorong La.

The last two temples are slightly less grand in size, though not so in significance, and while once again the exact religious meaning of each (or, truthfully, any) of the paintings, statues or artifacts we see is lost on me, I can't help feeling at peace whenever we get inside. Even if the last one smelled a bit moldy.
I couldn't say who's who, but it looks quite pretty.

A little boy, allowed inside by the caretaker, eagerly beating on the drum.

.. and then, after that considerable effort, resting outside

This lady hangs out around the temple with the caretaker.

After our long tour around Muktinath is done, we finally get back to the task of continuing on our journey, and apparently it doesn't take more than a morning's walk unencumbered by backpacks to completely forget what their weight feels like, making the mumbled swearing a not unexpected reaction as heavy steps take us from the hotel. Luckily, save for a rather short portion near the end of the circuit, we're all but done climbing, and the road going out of Muktinath zig-zags downwards to Kagbeni, our next destination, at a gentle slope.

The Mustang valley. Jharkot, on a hill, in the center.

Before Kagbeni though, we'd made it a point to make a short stop in the small village of Jharkot, which we reach within 30 minutes of leaving Muktinath. The main attraction here is another Buddhist monastery where one of the monks is also a skilled healer. While navigating the narrow village streets towards said monastery, we come across a large square where three teenagers are practicing for an upcoming archery tournament, and looking back, I regret not asking them to allow us a couple of shots. 

Draw! Loose! Should have made a panoramic shot.

Upon reaching the temple courtyard, we have a most unexpected encounter: among the few tourists resting there we find Stuart, the Thailand-relocated Englishman, whom we'd met on the very first day of trekking, between Dharapani and Chame.  Remember that "instant camaraderie" I mentioned then? It wasn't a fleeting feeling. In fact, despite basically only knowing Stuart for one day, meeting up with him feels like catching up with an old friend. Now separated from his original group, with a new companion (Grace), he tells us of their own adventurous crossing of the Pass, which included helping an injured Indian tourist who'd eventually needed mountain rescue by a team from Jomson. His own trek is nearing its end, as after reaching Jomson (two days' walk at most) he's to take a flight back to Pokhara and then Kathamandu, before returning home. We say our farewells, then he and Grace head out towards the archery range while we rest a bit inside the temple courtyard.
The Jharkot monastery. Devices used to heat up/boil water by concentrated reflected sunlight on the central pots. A brilliant invention.

We find that there's also a school in one of the adjacent buildings, with, among other things, foreign volunteers (I assume) teaching the local children English. Having carried a large pack of crayons all the way from Kathmandu, I find this to be the perfect occasion to ease the burden ever so slightly and, together with Adrian, who similarly brought a large bag of candy, proceed to hand them to each of the kids we see, much to their apparent delight. Meanwhile, Nicu goes inside to have a long talk with the healer/monk, after which, fully rested, we leave Jharkot behind us and continue on the dusty road towards Kagbeni.
The road goes on and on.

As a side-note, the Annapurna Circuit has for a long time been one of the most popular, some would say the ultimate trekking trail in Nepal because it featured the ideal combination of nature, with quiet, tranquil mountain trails, spectacular views and great interaction with the local culture. Google it today and you'll find an endless river of complaints on how its quality has been lessened by the roads built during the last decade. This is less of an issue in the Manang part of the trek, before Thorong La, as traffic is much lighter, but becomes somewhat more troublesome after Muktinath, where you tend to get passed by a jeep, bus or truck at least once every half-hour. While it's true that the economy perhaps suffers from decreased tourism because people aren't getting "the original Annapurna experience", I think it's important to consider the benefits these changes bring to the population (with roads comes easier access to food from lower altitude, running water, electricity, basic utilities that we all take for granted but are novelties for some of the people living there). So maybe, before bitching about how "the Annapurna circuit has lost all its charm" and how it's becoming more and more undesirable for us to trek through, we should think about how these changes, though not without their downsides, positively affect the locals.

The road slopes gently downwards, with many sharp turns, and there are several shortcuts of varying degrees of abruptness that we take. As we get farther from Thorong La and put the icy peaks out of sight behind us, the aridity around becomes all the more evident; we're already at an altitude where, in Manang, there would be tall, green trees around us. The only thing surrounding us now are endless, barren hills, covered with naught but rocks and small, dry shrubs. Which makes our view of Kagbeni, in the valley bellow, all the more impressive: a green oasis in stark contrast with the grey-brownish landscape around it. 

What those cows (I think? or horses? not sure now) are grazing on I couldn't tell you.

The tall plateaus of Upper Mustang.

And finally, Kagbeni, sun setting behind it.

As we approach, we're able to get a better look at the fields outside the village, green wheat, swaying gently in the wind. It's not long before we're walking through the streets and, eventually, reach our teahouse for the night. 
Access to Upper Mustang, visible behind, is restricted and requires a different permit, in addition to the one needed to walk on the Annapurna Circuit.

The quality of our accommodations tends to increase, as the altitude decreases. Since it's been a while, and Adriana and myself didn't wisely take the opportunity to wash our laundry in Muktinath, like Nicu and Adrian, we're stuck doing that while they go out exploring the village. Before long, it's dark and we're all sitting around the table, enjoying dinner, sampling various local alcoholic drinks and, most importantly, having a dead-locked debate on whether we should rush ahead towards the Annapurna Base Camp (as per the original plan) or continue slowly on the circuit.

The full moon did not have a great impact on our decision-making ability.