ACT Day 14 - Ranipauwa to Kagbeni

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Quaint Villages

We left Ranipauwa (elevation : 3700m) at 08:30, shortly after we finished our honey pancakes (NPR300/2) and tibetan bread with jam (NPR350/2). The mist had lifted slightly by then, but despite all the posters that were scattered around the town advertising the Yartung festival that was supposed to have begun that morning, the town was still sleepy and there was really not much going on. From the start, the town had felt too touristy and a little too large for my liking: the roads were wide yet still very muddy, the hotels were several stories high, and the place seemed to lack any sort of authenticity and just seemed to exist for the tourists and religious pilgrims that constantly passed through. As such, I was very glad to leave the town and be on my merry way.

The route that we needed to take was back the same way that we had come from the day before, which was east towards the pass. We walked out of the town and past the main gate, but veered left as we followed the signs. The trail was muddy at first, and remained so at least until just after the power station, but thankfully the ground hardened about a hundred metres or so in and the path began to feel like an actual trail once again. We continued north and approached a suspension bridge about 800 metres in that crossed one of the tributaries of the Jhong Khola. Instead of climbing up the slopes to cross it, however, we dipped down to the river and crossed a small bridge directly underneath it. The trail then slowly morphed into narrow lanes that funneled us into the small village of Chongur (elevation : 3690m) .

In Chongur, we passed herds of livestock that were so large for the narrow lanes of the village that they were forced up into the stone walls of the buildings that fringed the sides. The sheepdogs (Canis lupus familiaris) that were there seemed quite helpless, and all they could really do was bark every now and then just to prod the herds forward. Cobwebs that lined the stone walls were ubiquitous, and a large number of the buildings seemed to have fallen into a state of disrepair.

skull decorated chorten

A skull-decorated chorten

The trail swerved out of the village and to a viewpoint with a skull-decorated chorten. Down below was a valley that contained the Jhong Khola, and across was a sheer cliff with chimney-like spires that interlaced and merged together, which were pock-marked with numerous caves. The trail wound down to another suspension bridge that was just under two kilometres in, and beyond it lay bushes of woolly catmint (Nepeta floccosa) and edelweiss flowers (Leontopodium sp.). The trail swung to the left after the bridge and rose to merge with the road above, which led to the next village, Jhong. I was a little disappointed to find myself walking on a road once again, but was relieved to find out later that the road from that point all the way to Kagbeni (elevation : 2800m) , which lay more than eight kilometres away, was barely used. In fact, only four motorbikes passed us the entire day.

Woolly Catmint

Bushes of woolly catmint (Nepeta floccosa) lined the trail

Jhong (elevation : 3580m) is a quaint little village with old houses and is where the ruins of the former Jhong Fortress is located. We walked straight through the village, however, and did not linger around to explore the ruins as we were quite eager to just get away from people and to be back out in the countryside. As we continued out of the village, the views of the valley opened up and the first hints of a blue sky was seen. We passed the ridge on the left that was festooned with prayer flags and we caught glimpses of the northern slopes of Puchchhardanda (elevation : 3971m), which was also on the left but a lot further away. The wind caused the clouds to whip across the sky above us, and the shadows that they cast, known as 'rionnach maoimeans' in Gaelic, rapidly rolled across the slopes of the hills.

Jhong Fortress

The ruins of the Jhong Fortress

Just after Jhong, we could see the Kali Gandaki valley, which is the deepest gorge in the world. The gorge separates the peaks of Dhaulagiri (elevation : 8172m) on the west, which happens to be the seventh highest mountain in the world, and Annapurna I (elevation : 8091m) on the east, which is the tenth highest. As the tectonic forces formed the accretionary wedge which gave rise to these massive mountains, the massive Kali Gandaki river cut its way down and through the valley over many millions of years.

Kali Gandaki valley

The Kali Gandaki valley lies just beyond

To get to the Kali Gandaki valley however, we had to first traverse the long and exposed road--all 8 kilometres of it. The sun was out and it was fiercely hot, so we had to completely cover ourselves for protection from the harsh ultraviolet radiation. Less UV radiation gets filtered out as the air 'thins out' due to the increase in elevation, so for every 1000 metres increase in altitude, the level of UV radiation increases by about 12%!

Next (Day 14) : Ranipauwa to Kagbeni (Part 2)

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Eroded Badlands

As the trail rounded the hill, we had our final look back to the pass that we had crossed just the day before, but alas, all the peaks behind us were completely obscured by the clouds. The lush green carpets that had surrounded us had ended by then and everything up ahead of us was brown and arid. Approximately 5 kilometres in, the trail switch-backed down the hill twice, and we made our way towards another suspension bridge that crossed a deep ravine. There were quite a number of strange rocks along the way, that were composed of vibrant red and orange folds and were oddly-shaped with angular, hexagonal extrusions. We could also hear clicks from all around us, at least one or two every couple of minutes, and only realised after a while that they came from the band-wing grasshoppers (Trimerotropis sp.) that took flight. These 'snapping' clicks occur due to a process that is known as 'crepitation', and happens when the wing membranes between the wing veins are suddenly snapped taut.

The landscape of Mustang. Ongoing active gullying of the cliffs on the right produce badland ridges
and chimney-like structures. Hover your cursor over the image to take a closer look.

A grazing cow

A grazing cow (Bos taurus) with eroded badlands in the background

Our senses were already inundated with the constant clicking of the grasshoppers all around us, the gorgeous views of the valley up ahead, and the occasional glimpses of Dhaulagiri (elevation : 8172m)--the highest mountain within the borders of a single country, and the 7th highest mountain in the world. As the road made its way over a hill and dipped down the other side, we suddenly encountered the famous diurnal Kali Gandaki wind. The blasts of wind were so ferocious that huge amounts of dust and sand were kicked up and we were forced to keep our heads low and to don our buffs to protect our faces. These winds that gust up the valley during the day are so strong that wind-deformed trees can even be seen every now and then!

The peak of Dhaulagiri

The peak of Dhaulagiri (elevation : 8172m) 'peeking' through the clouds

As we passed the hills to our left, the road dipped down momentarily and we were presented with a little glimpse of the village of Tiri (elevation : 2800m) . The views were quite pleasant, so we decided to stop for a while to cook lunch. As we sat on the boulders eating our meal, we caught sight of ribbed-like patterns on some of the rocks directly beneath our feet. They turned out to be 'shaligrams fossils', which are the fossilised remains of the now extinct ammonites (Subclass: Ammonoidea), and are all that is left of an ancient sea that used to be here hundreds of millions of years ago.

We set off soon after, but from then on, had our eyes completely glued to the ground instead of gazing enchantingly at the gorgeous views around us...

The long road to Kagbeni

The long road to Kagbeni

Next (Day 14) : Ranipauwa to Kagbeni (Part 3)

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Up ahead and across the valley, it looked as if a line had been drawn across the middle of the hill, that delineated the arid and desolate north of the valley with the contrasting lushness of the south. Down by the river however, lay the village of Tiri (elevation : 2800m) , an oasis of vibrant green with the dull Kali Gandaki River on one side, and the desolate hills on the other. The village looked like an island of colour that was floating on a bleak river, and we thought to ourselves then that it was definitely a place that we had to go explore.


Looking across the Kali Gandaki to Tiri

The ferocious wind picked up once again just as we approached the ridge that was located directly above Kagbeni (elevation : 2800m) . We followed the road as it curved north, and spotted the red and white pole shortly after. We turned left here and rounded the hill counterclockwise, and followed the trail as it led to the stupa and cave on the west side of the hill. We descended carefully down the scree, towards the road that led to Kagbeni, and were forced to battle the strong winds that were funneled upwards through the narrow gorge.

narrow gorge

Descending the narrow gorge

We felt a bit battered by the time we reached the narrow flagstone-lanes of Kagbeni, so we did not spend too much time looking around for a place. After passing by the two clay effigies--'Evi' (grandmother) and 'Meme' (grandfather), the latter with a rather distinctive erection--we eventually decided to stop at a place called Viewpoint Hotel (NPR300/2 for a room), that was located right behind the Kag Chode Monastery. Fortunately for us, there was no chanting or ringing of bells during our stay there!

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Next : Excursion to Tiri

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The beautiful image of the tiny hamlet of Tiri (elevation : 2800m) had left such an impression on us, that it had practically been etched into the back of our minds. There was a fair amount of sunlight still left as we dropped our heavy backpacks on the floor of the lodge, and since Tiri was located only 30 minutes or so north, we decided to pack our daypacks and make our way back out to the street.

Tiri used to be off-limits to hikers that did not have a USD500 permit to enter Upper Mustang, but in recent years that restriction was lifted. Hikers are now allowed to visit the hamlet, but just as long as they do not stay overnight. This gives Tiri a certain mystique, and it made us even more determined to reach the 'Gateway to Upper Mustang' before the sun set.


Looking back to Kagbeni

We ventured out to the suspension bridge on the south-western side of Kagbeni, and were a little taken aback when we saw the sheer condition that the bridge was in. The entire bridge was tilted at a slight angle, which forced us to walk on its upper edge; the flag-festooned fencing that lined the sides was completely twisted and mangled; and the western end of the bridge was partially covered in a landslide. The fact that some makeshift repairs had been made in the form of a few sticks that had been tied together did not restore our confidence in the bridge in the slightest!

From there, we made a right turn after the river crossing and followed the trail north. Scree littered the path alongside evidence of previous landslides, and to our immediate right lay the gushing, grey water of the Kali Gandaki that was being channeled down what was basically the remnants of a massive, ancient glacial moraine. The ferocious water that we had crossed over just as we left Kagbeni, became more and more calm as we made our way northwards and as the river widened out. We were moving in a direction opposite that of the flow of the river, but so was the strong winds--they gusted up the valley in an almost rhythmic cycle, and sent river water spraying into the air in the process.


A cairn in the colours of Mustang

We passed apple and peach orchards, that were lined with bamboo-shoots, just before reaching the hamlet of Tiri. There was not much time left at this point, so all we could do was make our way to the Samdu Choeden Gompa, and then turn back shortly after. The road north from there led to Lo Manthang, and venturing beyond that point required a permit. The light had also begun to fade as the sun set behind the western hills, and storm clouds had begun to amass far off to the east. The entire situation made me realise then that the entire journey was drawing to an end.

We walked back slowly to Kagbeni, at first a little dispirited, but soon after, thoughts of the delicious dhal bhat (NPR450) meal that lay in wait completely took over. It is true what they say, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."

*Alone once again: Day 9/14

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Day 14 Expenditure

Next (Day 15) : Kagbeni to Jomsom

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