Leaving Upper Mustang
Truth be told little could top yesterdays Tange to Chhusang trek along the golden ridge of gales and the day before’s visit to Tange village. We where back in Chhusang and to many our Upper Mustang trek was over. So dictates the road. From Chhusang there’s a random local bus that departs whenever it’s full which these days is rare. Nepali prefer private jeeps these days. The cost of one from Pokhara from here is USD $250 while to Jomsom it’s about $50.
My guide hinted repeatedly that it was no problem to get a shared jeep to Jomsom and that was, in fact, a great idea. However, I wanted to walk. And in fairness he complied.
I wanted to walk out of Upper Mustang for a few reasons. The first was that I want to make every moment of my permit count. Another reason was that I’d trekked the route over 12 years ago as part of my Annapurna Circuit Trek and remember the yearning valley leading to Kagbeni so reliving such a memory would be good. Finally, it just seemed right to walk or trek out of Upper Mustang instead of giving credence to the road which would one day change it forever.
With that we set off from Chhusang to Kagbeni.
The trek from Chhusang to Kagbeni
We’d come up the same route from Kagbeni to Chhusang during our first day entering Upper Mustang. It had been a dramatic day filled with excitement, expectation and dramatic Upper Mustang landscapes. Strangely today would not offer the same on many accounts. The weather was a little overcast and there was indeed more traffic leaving Upper Mustang than when we arrived.
The road coming here did not bother me. But yes, the road back was dusty and at least ten dementedly driven jeeps did not help. Nepali drivers are not the best and here they seem positively outraged that trekkers would be on the road. Again, I’d like to make it very clear that going from Kagbeni to Chhusang was not as bad. The wind blows from behind then. Perhaps the trepidation of a new trek helped. However my guide confirmed that many of the jeeps that passed us by were filled with local Mustang people leaving for the winter. Hence the greater number.
We rounded a bend and passed the back of the infamous sign informing trekkers that beyond it was the restricted area of Upper Mustang. And with that we were now in Lower Mustang once more.
Trekkers in Kagbeni
We reached Kagbeni by 11 am and headed to the ACAP office where a none to friendly office worker begrudgingly stamped both my Upper Mustang Permit and ACAP permit. A welcome smile or a thank you smile would have been nice. Instead, it was a heavy chore for him to even grunt at my guide. With that, my $500 permit was rendered complete.
Considering the incredible lack of ACAP presence in Upper Mustang and the fact that the Lo Manthang office is devoid of ACAP staff nor maps I literally have no idea where the funds go to. Certainly not to mapping, marking or preserving Upper Mustang. I remembered the old ladies in Tange who repaired the bridges using their own materials. And to repair trails for villagers who’ve not seen an official in years.
Our gruff return to civilization continued at a tea house for lunch. My guide wanted to meet a friend so we stopped off at different place than the one we stayed at previously. Unfortunately a large trekking group coming down from the Annapurna Circuit reached there before us and lunch was delayed by an hour and a half. To cap it off my guides friend was away for the day.
I remembered back to our narrow escapes from the large mountaineering turned trekking group we encountered in Upper Mustang. How right it is to avoid these groups. Despite Yak Donalds hotel in Kagbeni being shunned by guides it’s popular with independent trekkers for a reason. No big groups. A place purpose built for solo trekker and couples. Personally it may not be my thing these days but as a solo trekker I can see the appeal.
The windswept walk to Jomsom
We left Kagbeni an hour after the legendary afternoon winds had begun. Once more my guide eked out the suggestion that we take a passing bus to Jomsom now that we had left Upper Mustang. I declined and replied we had plenty of time to reach the old trailhead town. I still wanted to walk back to where the trek had started from. Again my guide complied as he wrapped a scarf around his face for the incoming dusty trail ahead.
He was right of course. The afternoon winds that charge up the valley from Jomsom to Kagneni are not the most pleasant. We were also walking into them which makes it even more unpleasant. Grit and sand blew with great gusts against us. Unlike the day before there are no dramatic landscapes here. It’s reminiscent of a giant cement factory. Grit. Dust. The road. A dwindling river. The upcoming town.
Although it may seem unnecessary this was my trek and we had time. Today’s trekking guides are not as enthusiastic as the ones ten or so years go. They prefer an easier route and one with mobile internet would be a bonus. How times have changed. To be fair my guide was great and I can’t fault him. A saner person would and should have taken one of the three passing buses and said see you in a few hours. Instead my guide stuck by me.
For me memories of 12+ years ago and similar winds came back as walked off the ACK (Annapurna Circuit Killer) road and onto the valley bed. I remembered the fierce winds and freezing winter conditions back then. Only there were no bus or jeep options and the road didn’t exist. Indeed, the times have changed and so has trekking in Nepal.
We arrived into Jomsom to find most of the accommodation booked out. It was the weekend and Nepali tourists from Pokhara and Kathmandu had descended upon the once sleepy airport town. The hotel we did find was geared towards international tourists with no Nepali tourists allowed. A grating change similar to the one found in South America a few decades ago when some hotels didn’t allow foreigners and others didn’t allow locals to stay. All of this was kept reasonably quiet of course. It seemed this was slowly occurring in Nepal too.
Nepali only hotels were geared towards dal bhat, momo, beer and loud noise. Foreigner only hotels were geared towards diverse menus, beer and a quiet night. Hotels that were geared to both didn’t last long in the new age of tourism in Nepal.
Despite being a nice hotel there was no hot water. The hotel was full and everything was being used up. My guide offered that we might go to Marpha instead as the flight he’d booked for us back to Pokahra had been overbooked. Another sign of the times in Nepal. Flight delays. It was a nice offer as Marpha is much quieter than Jomsom but we’d already checked in and it was better to weather the commercial storm.
Our dinner of Dal Bhat was no compensation. Gone were the ample servings of garden fresh vegetables from Mustang. What sat before me was positively small and possibly the returns from a lunch time meal. Outside the hoopla of the weekend had begun with speeding Nepali on motorbikes and the odd clank of a beer bottle. My guide said he’d have to wait until midnight for a bed. I offered the spare bed in my room but he declined out of politeness but in hindsight should have accepted due to the night ahead. My guide informed me that he got a bed in a room with two other guides but returning Nepali party goers had kept him awake for most of the night.
A delayed flight to Pokhara
Breakfast was a paltry serving of porridge. I remembered each of the two Prema’s offering ample servings during our trek. Outside, the odd Tara Air flight landed and took off. They were booked out for 15 days. Our overbooked Summit flight was late. Apparently it needed to depart Kathmandu to Lukla then return to Kathmandu before reaching Pokhara and then make two return trips from Pokhara to Jomsom before we might get a flight.
The problem with delayed flights in Jomsom is the afternoon wind. If it goes above 17 kph then there’s a chance it would be canceled. Refunds are given but there’s no chance for a seat on a plane the next day. Domestic airlines don’t work that way in Nepal. If this happens it meant we’d need to take the 11 hour bus to Pokhara arriving late at night. I was already prepared to say we’d spend a night in Marpha rather than arrive in Pokhara so late. When people ask me if they should book domestic flights in Nepal … I shuddered at the thought. Let the trekking company do it or take a bus. Ignore the online chatter about it. Especially from the “experts” on forums.
We entered the airport after the second flight. There was an argument going on between the ground grew over something which resulted in 30 minutes of blustering shouts. There wasn’t much else to do so it because a live action theater of entertainment. Then news came in that the plane had left Pokhara and was on the way. The airport security man made sure to check every pocket of my bag which defied logic. He was very polite but the whole process is frustratingly dire. Especially considering the last remnants of my chocolate bar were opened and pawed over unnecessarily. Perhaps he though if he touched it I’d offer it to him. I didn’t. After such formalities we all piled onto the side of the runway as the plane appeared on one side of the valley and then promptly disappeared over the other side as the gusty wind picked up.
The Flight to Pokhara
There was great buzz among the 13 or so Nepali passengers and ground crew alongside the runway. The plane had disappeared for three minutes prompting some trekking guides to mention the word “crash”. Meanwhile to the front the ground grew were busy chatting to a young group of Nepali celebrity ladies. Thankfully the little twin engine reappeared and promptly landed.
We piled into the last flight of the day still apprehensive it would be canceled. A quick engine rev later and we took off. Summit’s plane is a little larger than Tara Airs which unfortunately means you don’t get a view of the pilots in the cockpit. A shame considering the turbulence had my stomach lurching as I fought off thoughts of why the plane had vanished earlier. None of this was helped by a Nepali man onboard busy shouting down his mobile phone in between checking Facebook. There was no in flight wifi, we were simply that close to the ground.
We landed smoothly in Pokhara and the resort town haze reminded me how much it too had changed over the past few years. We grabbed a taxi to the nearest restaurant I knew.
The trek to Upper Mustang was officially over. It had been a great trek. I’m very glad to have gone. I have three personal favorite treks in Nepal, this is top of the list. Yes, it was better than Everest Base Camp. The culture, the diverse landscapes, the caves, the people, the food it was all so … untouched, natural and above all else has a rare, soon to disappear, endangered feeling about it all.
Despite this last day’s journal entry I do encourage anyone else thinking of trekking in Upper Mustang to do so. Read the other entries listed below. Trekking in Upper Mustang is an incredible experience that hearkens back to the “old days” of trekking in Nepal. Not only that but the landscapes, people and experiences are like nowhere else on earth.
The following links about Upper Mustang may help you:
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