Annapurna Circuit Days 11-15

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Monday, April 16, 2012

So this was it, we'd got over the pass and now it was going to be downhill all the way (well so I thought – as muppet features here hadn't read the trip notes nor seemed to take note of elevation map in said trip notes– all will become clear later). So Day 11 and today we had a 10km walk down from Muktinath (3800m) to Kagbeni (2800m).

So we headed out nice and early (as per usual – no lying in on this trip, well plus the fact that you went to bed at 7.30pm at the latest the night before so are wide awake at 5am anyway). We headed back out through Muktinath and up the very famous temple (no I'd never heard of it either). The name Muktinath is a Sanskrit word and it combines two words Mukti & Nath. Mukti meaning Salvation and Nath meaning god and Nirvana (as in free from suffering not the band).

So onto the temple which is a very important pilgrimage site (the most important in the Nepal Himalayas) for both Hindus and Buddhists and most of South indian People compulsory to visit this place in their life.The holy shrine at Muktinath is in a grove of trees and includes a Buddhist Gompa and the pagoda style temple of Vishnu Mandir (Hindu). Yogis (and booboos – sorry I couldn't help myself).

Inside there is the Hindu area and a Buddhist area. We first visited the Hindu part of the site. We weren't allowed into the Vishnu temple itself but in front of the temple there are two Kunda (Water ponds), one for males and one for female. It is believed that a dip in the holy water can wash away negative karma, the results of one's past negative actions.

Behind the ponds there there are 108 (108 is a very significant number for Hindus and Buddhists– not only is it an abundant number and a semiperfect number. It is a also  Tetranacci number and a refactorable number - not a Scooby either – I would just class it as a big number. Also – and this is completely irrelevant - the number 108 is one of many numeric motifs in the American television program Lost, which includes quite a few references to Buddhism. For example, the sum of "the numbers" (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) is 108, and "the numbers" must be entered into a computer every 108 minutes. One hundred eight is also the number of days "the Oceanic 6" have spent on the island. And Jacob tells Hurley to rotate the mirror in the lighthouse to a heading of 108. Anyway the reason why 108 is so important is that the distance of the Sun from Earth divided by the diameter of the Sun and distance of Moon from Earth divided by diameter of Moon is approximately equal to 108 – and yes it is – just did a quick calculation in my head to check – and who says we young people can’t do mental arithmetic) waterspouts (Dhara) in the name of "Muktidhara". The 108 faucets are in the shape of a head of a bull, closely arranged in a semi-circle with a gap of hardly a foot between the faucets, at a height of seven feet. The water from Gandaki River is continuously flowing through the mouth of the bull. Pilgrims who visit the temple take a holy bath in each of these spouts. But as the water is ice cold it requires burning desire and courage to take a holy bath here so basically they just run hell for leather through them. As with everything in Nepal where there is a merging of the old and the new, we watched some young men running in their bright yellow Calvin Klein pants (probably singular purchase) through the spouts, looking like a group of teenagers on a Club 18-30 holiday rather than a group of pilgrims.

Beyond this is the continuously burning flame at the Jwala Mai Temple (Goddess of Fire). There are three eternal flames, (close your eyes, give me your hand) "the Holy flame from soil", "the Holy flame from rock" and the  "the Holy flame from water"  (no I don’t get that one either) fed by natural gas. Currently two flames are continuously burning (would that be the water one that has gone out then?). Hindu believe that this miracle of fire lighting was offering made by Brahma (Hindu God of creation and one of the Trimurti  - basically one of the three top Gods). The auspicious combination of Earth, Water and Fire (Dance…. Boogie Wonderland -  Oops sorry that was Earth, Wind and Fire – similar though) make this the only place on earth where you can find all five elements from which everything is made and hence it has a very important religious significance.

There is also the Buddhist temple 'Marme Lhakhang’, whose central image is of the Tibetan Buddhist sage Guru Rinpoche. Buddhists believe that the Guru visited here in the 8th century.

Looking out from the temple, and over Muktinath is a stunning view of Dhaulagiri is the seventh highest mountain in the world at 8,167 metres (26,795 ft) and is one of the fourteen peaks in the world over eight thousand metres. The mountain's name comes from Sanskrit where dhawala means dazzling, white, beautiful and giri means mountain. It is often called Dhaulagiri I, denoting the highest summit in its massif called the Dhaulagiri Range. So obviously those incredibly inspired people at the Institute for Mountain Naming called the others Dhaulagiri II, III, IV and IV and V. I know I’ve already had my rant on this but p-l-e-a-s-e. Could you imagine if when parents came to name their children they bothered to come up with a name for the first – say Colin, and then for the following offspring just called them Colin II, Colin III etc. Can you imagine if you come from a large Catholic family you might be Colin IX. The only benefit would be for teachers, as we all have a terrible habit when we teach siblings of calling them by the name of the child you taught originally. It doesn’t go down well (understandably).

To the west of Muktinath are the Nilgiri peaks, Nilgiri North (7061m), Nilgiri Central (6940m) and Nilgiri South (6839m) (I won’t even go there on their names).

After our temple tour we headed over to the villages and monasteries on the north bank of the Jhong Khola (river). We saw the heart-breaking sight of women and children breaking up pieces of rock for building material. It was once again a reminder of the level of development in Nepal and how many of it’s population are living in levels of poverty that are incomprehensible. These people have to spend all day in a quarry areas full of dust breaking up bits of rock just to earn a few rupees a day.

We then passed by the Chhyonkhar Gompa which is an atmospheric 200-year old Tantric (Just to clarify as I know what you are thinking – and it involves Sting - Tantric spiritual practices and rituals are ones which aim to bring about an inner realisation of the truth that "Nothing exists that is not Divine" bringing freedom from ignorance and from the cycle of suffering in the process. Though the vast majority of scriptural Tantric teachings are not concerned with sexuality, in the popular imagination the term tantra and the notion of superlative sex are indelibly, but erroneously, linked.This error probably arose from the fact that some of the more radical nondual schools taught a form of sexual ritual as a way of entering into intensified and expanded states of awareness and dissolving mind-created boundaries) monastery of 25 monks.

We then headed into the village of Jhong and climbed (really not necessary considering what we’d done the day before) the hilltop to the ruined 14th century Rabgyel Tse fort and the 16th century Sakyapa-school Chode Shedrup Choephel Ling Monastery, where had lunch (back on the Dal Bhat). After lunch we headed down the Jhong Khola along a road (well I say road, a dirt track), being buffeted by the very strong winds towards Kagbeni. Before we descended into the village we had to get through a canon bit (a tad scary).

The green oasis of Kagbeni (2840m) is at the junction of the Jhong Khola and Kali Gandaki. The Kali Gandaki is the traditional home of the Baragaunle – the people of the ’12 villages’. They are of Tibetan ancestry and practice a kind of Tibetan Buddhism that has been influenced by ancient animistic and pre-Buddhist Bonpo rituals. Kagbeni (or Kag for short) feels like a medieval village, with it’s closely packed mud houses, dark tunnels and alleys. It is also the gateway to the Mustang Valley (all you wanna do is ride Sally, ride). We got very excited as we found a version of McDonalds – called YakDonalds and a shop that sold Hardy’s wine. Obviously didn’t buy any as I was still on my no-alcohol regime but it was a sign we were back in an area with vehicle access. Even more exciting – we had ensuite bathrooms (I know this seems minor but to us this was everything) with a proper toilet (not just the hole in the ground) and a gas shower – I even washed some pants !!!). 

So Day 12 and we were walking down the Kali Gadaki valley to Marpha (2670m). Once again it was an early start, but not because we were going to be walking a long way, it was because of the winds. The flow of air between the peaks of Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri I creates strong winds that howl up the valley. In the morning there is a gentle breeze from the north (helpful little tailwind), but in the afternoon the wind direction shifts to being from the south and there are powerful gusts (no so helpful strong headwind).

And (yes I know you shouldn’t start a paragraph with the word And) for some more geographical insight to the area – The Kali Gadaki valley is supposed to the deepest gorge in the world. Yes – I know it doesn’t look that way, surely the Grand Canyon is deeper, I think even Cheddar could stake a claim from what I saw, but because the gorge separates the major peaks of Dhaulagiri (8167 m) on the west and Annapurna I (8091m) on the east and if one (as one would obviously do) measures the depth of a canyon by the difference between the river height and the heights of the highest peaks on either side, the gorge is the world's deepest. The portion of the river directly between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I (7 km downstream from Tukuche) is at an elevation of 2520 metres, 5571 metres lower than Annapurna I.

Anyway we headed off down the river valley and met some goats – terribly exciting (see the photos). The other terribly exciting thing I need to mention and it is my favourite topic (no not 80’s cheesy tunes), is about how to dry you pants in Nepal. So I mentioned in the bit about Day 11 that I had managed to wash some pants in our very swanky ensuite bathroom. The problem was that the very swanky ensuite didn’t have a radiator, or heated towel rail or a tumble dryer (what hotel room does?), so in the morning my pants weren’t dry. So my usual practice was to put the still slightly damp pants in a dry bag and then dry them in the next lodge. However, an even better idea and one I need to thank Ruth for is to take with you one of them bag things for putting your bra in when you stick it in the tumble dryer so it doesn’t attach itself to the rest of your clothes. You can then put your damp pants in there, attach it to your daypack (with the safety pins you have cunningly also thought to bring along) and then be able to dry them without causing offence to the local population.

So we had a couple of hours walk along the river valley, with lots of desert scenery and some mountains on either side. Then we got to the town of Jomsom. As we entered the town we went past the Thak Khola lodge which is apparently where Mick Jagger stayed in 1990 and Jimi Hendrix had stayed in 1967. Apparently (we didn’t go in) there is some graffiti in Room 6 from Jimi himself that says "If I don’t see you in this world I’ll see you in the next one; don’t be late’.

So Jomsom – or more correctly Dzongsam (New Fort) is the regions administrative headquarters, home to bureaucrats, military personnel, merchants and jeep owners. We were really excited to be going there as it was meant to be where it was all at but it was scruffy and pretty charmless with a scary airport. On the way into Jomsom we were very surprised to see small aircraft taking off and landing in the gorge. It turns out it does have a very small airport and it is known (along with Lukla – that story is to come) as one of the world’s most dangerous airports). It just seemed like an accident waiting to happen. Sadly I’m afraid we were right as a few weeks later there was a deadly crash. On 14 May 2012, an Agni Air Dornier 228 crashed while attempting to land at Jomsom airport, killing 15 of 21 people on board. The plane crashed into the hillside whilst trying to land but it was caught in strong winds.

So after lunch in Jomsom we headed up the hillside to Thini, which is the oldest village in the valley. After the village we visited Dhumba lake, which is an important Buddhist religious site. Apparently if you offer prayers at the lake then your wishes will come true (and I though you were meant to wish upon a star). Anyway, I did do some praying and it seems it works, although it is very sad for the children of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. We also saw some stunning rock formations where sedimentary rock originally layed down horizontally had been buckled by the movement of the earth (all to with plate tectonics).

Then it started to rain, as we headed down into Marpha. In fact it absolutely threw it down. So we headed into our lodge which looked like it was the set for Bad Girls. Brilliant, it was raining, freezing cold, the power had gone off and we were staying in a prison!!! 

So Day 13 – We awoke to a bit of sunshine so spent the first hour doing a bit of sight seeing around Marpha. The name Marpha means 'Hard Working People’ (Mar meaning hard working and pha meaning People). It is huddled behind a ridge for protection from the wind and dust making it a good location for agriculture.. This large Thakali village exhibits the typical Thak Khola architecture of flat roofs and narrow paved alleys and passageways. The low rainfall in this region makes these flat roofs practical; they also serve as a drying place for grains and vegetables and storage for wood. Marpha is the 'Apple Capital of Nepal’ and is famed for it’s apple brandy – Ruth did sample some the night before and judging by the look on her face it seems like it was pretty strong stuff. We were lucky to see the apple blossom on all of the trees (all explains the obsession with Apple Pie on the Annpaurna Circuit).

We also visited Marpha's large, impressive gompa (monastery) which was renovated and enlarged in 1996. This is a Nyingmapa (the oldest of the four schools of Buddhism) Buddhist gompa; as in Tengboche (wil be visiting on the Everest Base Camp Trek), The gompa, as are all the buildings in Marpha, is painted with a whitewash that is produced from a special local stone. This means that the whole town looks more like a Greek village than something that you would expect to see in Nepal.

After leaving Marpha we headed over another suspension bridge. We were a tad shocked after we had crossed to see a guy on a motorbike take a short cut and head over it. The thing was full of holes. After the bridge we visited the Tibetan Refugee camp called the Chairok Camp. There are over 100 000 refugees in Nepal most of them from Tibet. Many of them fled in 1959. China took control of Tibet in 1951 but most people fled in 1959 with the Lhasa uprising and the exile of the Dalai Lama. When we were in Marpha we visited many shops selling goods. produced by Tibetans.

Once again the afternoon the weather deteriorated (it’s that dodgy southerly wind). As we came into Larjung (2560m) we had to cross the river on a very scary bridge that as usual in Nepal isn’t finished. It was about 2 m high and only about 20cm wide. That night we stayed in the Larjung lodge and I sampled my first Apple Pie, it needed to be amazing too as it was freezing (hence the photo of me in a down jacket, and having my legs in my down sleeping bag – what am I 88?). 

So the following morning we woke up with much trepidation as today (Day 14) we were supposed to have stunning views of Dhaulagiri and our first sighting of Annapurna I. Then that was shattered as the weather wasn’t good. It was cloudy and rainy. So we headed off back across the river and then we took a short cut – well a short cut in so much as it cut off a spur in the river but it also involved a 200m climb. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of a problem but I wasn’t feeling too great. Lets just say I had to stop a couple of times on the way up. At the top there were no stunning views just cloud and then heavy rain. It was like a wet weekend in Wales. Things weren’t looking good for Annapurna. To me seeing Annapurna I was going to be one of the highlights of the trek and it wasn’t looking likely to happen.

So we headed back down the hill to the village of Titi Goan for lunch. There are no lodges or restaurants in the village so we ended up in some woman’s front room instead. It turns out she can’t cook so R.B. and Nabin took control of the situation and cooked the best lunch of vegetable noodle soup we’d had all trek. We then headed off down the valley towards Ghasa. Then amazingly the sky started to clear. First of all we got views of Tukuche and Niligri’s. Were we actually going to see Annapurna I?

A little further on down the valley we could see a major peak and we were told this was the famed Annapurna I. The summit was in cloud but I had a funny feeling things were going to change. I did a bit of cloud whispering (one of my hidden talents) and amazingly managed to coax the clouds away from the summit and we got an amazing view of the world’s 10th highest mountain.

Annapurna may have the most innocent, musical and softest name of all the great peaks, but that merely conceals its unchallenged standing as the most dangerous of them all. Annapurna is the least climbed 8000m peak but statistically is known as the world’s most deadly mountain. The mountain was first climbed in 1950 (see below). In 62 years following the first time it was climbed, only 183 climbers have summited Annapurna I (more than 400 people summited Everest in the 2012 season alone) and 61 climbers have died trying. In terms of percentages of deaths – 40% of climbers have not made it (on Everest it is 7.5%). This is an astonishing statistic, especially bearing in mind that Annapurna, unlike Everest, is not assaulted each year by dozens of teams composed of wealthy but unqualified climbing tourists. To give this even more perspective, the fatality rate on K2 is almost 24%.

So what makes Annapurna I so deadly. Apparently Annapurna I is all about objective danger, it's all about the glacial architecture. There are big ice cliffs and seracs and also some very dangerous avalanches.

The peak was as I said before, first climbed in 1950 and it was the first peak over 8000m to be climbed. In 1950 a French team set out the Nepal in an attempt to climb the first 8000m peak. They first attempted to find a route up Dhaulagiri but found no easy (like any climb up an 8000m peak is easy), so turned their attentions to the peak on the other side of the valley – Annapurna I.  The ascent was all the more remarkable because the peak was explored, reconnoitered and climbed all within one season; and was climbed without the use of supplemental oxygen. The event caused a sensation that was only surpassed when Everest was summited in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. So despite poor maps, no supplemental oxygen and bad weather, the team’s leader Maurice Herzog and his partner Louis Lachenal reached the peak on June 3, 1950.

Herzog and Lachenal nearly died on their way back down the mountain. On their two week retreat back down the mountain, they lost several pieces of essential equipment, suffered frostbite and snow blindness and survived an avalanche. They were only wearing light boots as they were rushing to the summit so on the way down suffered with severe frostbite on their toes. Herzog lost a glove as well.

Maurice Herzog (who is still alive today at the ripe old age of 93), lost most of his fingers on the way down the mountain. He wrote a book of the ascent but had to dictate the book to his assistant. Maurice Herzog's book 'Annapurna’  is the most popular mountaineering book of all time and has sold over 15 million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1952 and it has been translated into over 50 different languages.

Such is the difficulty in climbing the mountain, Annapurna was not climbed again until 1970, when the French north face route was climbed by a British Army expedition, simultaneous with an ascent of the south face by an expedition led by British climber Chris Bonington. The mountain's fourth ascent was not until 1977.

So after seeing the stunning sight of Annapurna I we headed down to the village of Ghasa. Ghasa is at 2000m and marks a cultural and ecological milestone. It is the last Thakali village in the trek and the southernmost limit of Tibbetan Buddhism. In terms of ecology here the mountain pine and birch becomes subtropical trees and shrubs. We were also staying in a very nice lodge with ensuite facilities (very useful under the circumstances – sorry Sue) and excellent food – might have been feeling a bit jaded but somehow I made room for some apple pie.

Day 15 and we were now heading down to Tatopani. We followed a mule track down the valley, crossing first of all a scary bridge. Behind us was a stunning view of Dhaulagiri. We were now in a more of subtropical landscape and there was stunning waterfalls, flowers, amazing spider webs encasing the shrubs. We stopped for lunch in a village called Dana. So as we were heading in I thought of a brilliant joke and said ‘ooh I wonder if there will be ALL KINDS OF EVERYTHING ON THE MENU’ – I thought this was hilarious but I got nothing out of the others. Just lost it was. Obviously they do not have the extensive Eurovision knowledge that I have but surely people know who Dana is. The Irish singer who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 (yes I know none of the five of us were born then). She then went onto sell 30 million albums and was an MEP. She even was a candidate for the 2011 Irish Presidential Election. No nothing !! Who were these people I was trekking with !! It all was going so well up until now but none of them had ever heard of Dana. I was so disappointed – my joke had fallen completely flat on its face.

So after a lovely lunch of Dal Bhat with stunning views of the mountains (now once again we told it was Niligri South but this was starting to get a tad ridiculous as every mountain we saw was apparently Niligri South. Amanda and I both looked at the map and started to question our guides on whether it could possibly be Niligri South every time, but they reckoned so – we geographers thought not). There was also a bit of excitement across the valley when the two buses meet. This was the main road up to Jomsom with quite a few buses heading up and down. We had raised concerns about what would happen if two buses met and then it happens. So the protocol is that everybody has to get, then the drivers have to stand there, shouting and waving their arms about for about half an hour, whilst the passengers offer their opinion on the matter. Then finally somebody realises that maybe the most sensible idea is for the bus who is closest to a bit that it can reverse to that is wide enough for them both to pass should be the one to back down – flippin’ genius !!

So we arrived in Tatopani and it’s ‘Hot Springs’. Everyone else had been discussing at length (I was still going on the Eurovision Song Contest) about whether they were going in the hot springs. I think they all had this lovely vision of some kind of fancy spa or something like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. I reminded them that we were in Nepal and maybe to set their expectations slightly lower and that there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of me going in. So we arrived and the others went to have a look at the springs and came back looking disappointed as it was just some grotty pool full of lecherous German men (this apparently wasn’t doing it for them). So we had some more Apple Pie and settled into our not so lovely rooms. The others had their usual panics about creepy crawlies and I couldn’t bring myself to have a cold shower in the not so pleasant bathroom.


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