Annapurna Circuit - Day 13 - Forbidden Kingdoms

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

May 21st - Day 13 - Muktinath (3800 m) to Kagbeni (2800 m)
Total Kilometres: 131 Today: 10

Kagbeni is called the Gateway to the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang. Forbidden unless you pay the $700 permit fee to trek there. When over 21 kingdoms were brought under the banner of a unified Nepal, Mustang alone was allowed to keep its general autonomy. Kagbeni is as far as you are allowed to go into the Upper Kingdom of Mustang without the aforementioned permit.

It is also my favourite village in Nepal so far. The walk from Muktinath was about 10 kilometres. We walked along a dusty road with an arid landscape of large rolling hills, deep ravines, tough prickly scrub brush, with the peaks of snow capped mountains peeking out from behind clouds in the far distance. Every colour seemed a different shade of brown. It looked a setting from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. The descent from Muktinath to Kagbeni was supposed to be over a thousand metres. While we had dropped some over the first seven kilometres, it had been nowhere near as much as it was supposed to be. Finally we came to the edge of a valley wall and stopped. Laid out far below was Kagbeni. The village was small and medieval, perched about the mostly dry riverbed that led further into Mustang. From the edge of the village and back into the "v" of the valley below was an oasis of lush green and crops grew of all types. The vibrant splash of green against the parched brown of the surrounding landscape was extremely striking. Later investigation would show an ingenious, yet simple, irrigation system that must have been perfected over hundreds of years, turning this desert landscape into a fertile hidden paradise.

It is hard to overstate the incredible sense of history and wonder of the old medieval village. Crumbling stone walls and alleys took you through to the heart of the village. The remnants of the old king's house stands sentinel over the disintegrating corpses of the houses around it. If it wasn't for the occasional power line or water hose, you would swear it was the 15th century and this was still the fortified town on the Tibetan trading routes from ages past.

Perched on an outcrop about the river is Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Sakyu monastery. Made of red brick and stone, it stands out from any of the buildings around it. Built in 1429, it has a collection of 600 and 700 year old thangpa paintings and sacred texts. It has a number of ancient and valuable Buddhist statues inside the inner sanctum. The outside walls have many small indentations where birds have made nests. From the rooftop, the views up the Mustang Valley are nothing short of inspiring. The daily wind that rages up the valley from Jomson made it difficult to stand still while taking photographs.

Wandering through the town, I came across a group of residents sitting in a small square. They ranged in age from infant to the very elderly. I said hello and introduced myself to the young father of the one year old. We talked for quite some time about his life and the village. Eventually he picked up his child, tied her to his back, and asked me to come along with him.

For the next thirty minutes he took me back through the lanes of the medieval old town, bringing it alive with his stories and knowledge of its past. Originally the village had only two gates, guarded by a male and female figure, one at each gate, that kept out evil spirits. These figures predated Buddhism in this area, and were reflective of the more animist beliefs of Bon, the religion before the advent of Buddhist belief.

We wandered through the town and then into the pastures and fields where the beauty and genius of the irrigation system became more apparent. This system allowed for the small village to be almost entirely self sufficient in the middle of a dry hostile environment. He took us (Matt having joined us) to the grounds of an annual archery contest that attracted Nepalese from far and wide to vie for victory and money. At the end of our walk, I tried to give him some money for guiding us. He would not take it, insisting it was his pleasure.

This is one of the best moments of travelling. To have real and honest interactions with people from the country you are travelling in. So many times as a traveller you feel like nothing more than a source of cash, a walking ATM, to the people you meet. While I try hard to interact with honesty with the people I meet, it is not always reciprocated. This man showed me around out of kindness and a love of the place that is his home. It was a wonderful way to end my day.

I love this village.
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