Much Adu about Apple Pie, Pilgrimage to Jomosom

I had been in Nepal for many months, living, teaching, working, learning, but not trekking. Well, visiting places for volunteer work and walking from one place to another for necessity doesnít usually qualify as trekking in the handbook, but you do get to see a different side of Nepal. But for all my time here, I still had not seen the famed trails of Jomosom, the single most trekked path in Nepal nor tasted the famed apple pie of Marpha, which seems to compell dramatic proclamations attesting to its revered status in backpacker lore, much like full moon parties and bhang lassis. The pilgrimage to Muktinath beckoned and I was eager to discover what drew trekkers here, to see the side of Nepal that most people see, for how could thousands of trekkers be wrong.

Myself, Prakash, Devi and Deepak and below, Ken and Lisa

What a motley group we made. I tagged along with my friends who were guiding and portering for a lovely couple from California. There was Ken, the gentlemen adventurer on the other side of seventy and his wife Lisa, a gregarious Taiwanese woman, which like many Asians, you canít quite tell how old she is. Decked out in their state of the art REI gear, they were jet set to go, and hired Devi as a guide and Deviís brother, Prakash and friend Deepak as porters. Worried about overloading one, they hired two because the more the merrier. And finally there was me, the tag-along in my kurta, the long tunic and loose pants outfit that all young women wear and sandals. Not a stitch of micro-fiber to be seen, but I was as undaunted as I was unprepared.

For more info on Devi and Prakash, check out Meet the Sapkotas  

Day 1: Flight to Jomosom (20 min.) and trek to Kagbeni (2.5 hours)

It was early March when we set out and a fine time to be trekking. Devi arranged for the ACAP permits and flights to Jomosom leaving the next morning at 7:00am. It was to be Prakashís first plane flight and he could barely wait. At Pokharaís small airport, we had our bags weighed, and for a moment, I thought they might ask us to hop on the giant super-scale. I was all too familiar with this airport in fact. The year before, I had spent four consecutive mornings trying to get a flight out to Jomosom during the early monsoon, waiting from 6:15 am til almost 11:00 hoping that something might part the rain swollen clouds in Pokhara or slow the impending high winds in Jomosom. Well...alot of card games were played. I taught my Nepali friends how to play spite and malice and it drew a huge crowd. Back to the future...

We loaded on to a Shangri-La Airlines plane. On one side was two seats, the other a single one. The pilot was outside helping to load the hatch, while the one stewardess offered up a try of candies next to what looked like cotton candy. We pulled off a small amount, and following our fellow passengers lead, wadded it up and stuffed into our ears to cut the roar of the engines. Her sole task completed, she sat back and calmly strapped herself in. I looked down at the seat belt that strapped me into a glorified metal folding chair and thought nostalgically about seat-back trays and headrests. As our plane gently rose above the surrounding foothills of Pokhara, I took in the details of the rice terraces and homes that were so close beneath us and then the blinding whiteness of the Annapurnas before us. 

Jomosom Airport 

After a short fifteen minutes, we all too quickly began to descend into a small fold in the landscape and landed amid a runaway demarcated with rusted metal barrels and tires that, along with a small house, was the whole of the Jomosom airport. Squinting under the glaring blindness of the Annapurnas that loomed before us,  we grabbed our bags and without even visiting the airport building, headed out to the main street.

Prakash and Deepak wrestled with trying to figure out how to carry two large but relatively light duffle bags and a sleeping bag each. They looked so funny trying to wear the duffle bags as a backpack, with its too short straps pulling their arms out to each side, but that soon proved too cumbersome when their armpits started chafing. They finally settled on carrying them Nepali style, with the strap resting across their forehead and the sleeping bag nestled behind their head. Meanwhile, my own bare essentials fit into one small daypack, no muss, no fuss.

Jomosom is the district headquarters and the magnet village for the surrounding areas as far as Upper Mustang. Here, goods could be traded and bought and the trails were a constant mix of trekkers, yaks and donkey trains. It was also the area base for the Royal Nepalese army and the barracks on the outskirts of town fielded a splendid show of pomp, with their own Gurkha version of the changing of the guard.

We immediately headed for Kagbeni, which is about two and half hours away and a very easy walk with little incline. There, we checked into a lodge and I set out to explore. Kagbeni appears virtually unchanged, a small remote fortress enclave that overlooks the Kali Gandaki river as it flows out of Upper Mustang, the forbidden kingdom.

View from Kagbeni village overlooking the Kali Gandaki River

At this point, the river is large swath of trickling flows that begins to amass power down lower, as numerous waterfalls feed into it in the great gorge between Dhaulagiri and the Annapurnas. But we are still above that and high on the great Tibetan plateau. Kagbeni is as far as a tourist may go without purchasing a special permit to enter Mustang. At a beginning rate of $700 for ten days, Mustang manages to remain the forbidden kingdom, although trade from China may soon change all that. At the very northern point of the village sits the lonely ACAP official who guards the only trail into Mustang. Heís eager to chat and I sit awhile with him. Heís not from around here and bummed as all to get such a remote posting. I eventually leave him to his snoozing.

Kagbeni village itself is a time warp. A maze of dense paths lead in and out, over and under the village itself, enclosed by the tall walls of the ancient fortress. The walls are built atop a strong rock base while rooftops are layered with enough wood to last the harsh Himalayan winters. 

The mud walls in-between are plastered white and gaily decorated with red wash and doors topped with ram skulls assemblages. While Nepalis to begin with, are somewhat height challenged in relationship to Westerners, one might guess by the height of many of the doors in Kagbeni that Nepal was actually the home of  the Oompa Loompas.

3 foot tall doorway 

 

The pathways are cobblestone and often lead directly into someoneís living space. Space is shared by animal and people alike, and itís not unusual to see someone lead a yak or a herd of goats into their home for the night. 

Around one corner, a large god figure has been sculpted from mud, his face eerily reminiscent of the Easter Island idols. The remains of yesterday's puja, by the looks of the wilted petals on the small red flowers lay between his protruding feet. Children run excitedly through the small pathways, perhaps playing their own version of hide and seek. 

I canít imagine a better place for it. 

 

On the outskirts of this small village there are small plots of land, encased within short stonewalls where locals grow fruits and vegetables hardy enough for the harsh weather and altitude. In the distance, you can see herds of goats roaming the hillsides seeking the sparse vegetation. I sat in front of a local store, sketching the durbur square of Kagbeni. Three local young women hung out of the doorway and called to me to come and talk with them. Children crowded around to watch my sketch come to life. They seemed most excited by matching some detail in my picture to real life. When I drew a passing cow on his way home, permanently capturing in my sketch for all posterity a fleeting moment in time, it delighted them all the more. 

Later that evening, a rooster watched a parade of goats as they came home, tired after a day of wandering the dry, dusty Tibetan plateau.

As for us, after a dinner of dhal bhat, the Nepali staple of curried vegetables, lentil gravy, rice and spicy pickled relish, we settled down to sleep soundly, under a load of thick Nepali cotton blankets.

 

 

next | Day 1