Day 9.5: Thorong-La Pass to Muktinath
After the great excitement of the avalanche, it was a knee-crunching three hours of downhill to Muktinath, with a stop at a small teahouse on the way down for some fresh apple juice and a breakfast bar. It was 10:30am, and I’d already been up for 7 hours. We didn’t linger for lunch, since we were less than an hour from our stop in Muktinath, and I was keen to get to the bottom to rest my legs.
Muktinath is an interesting place; a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus, some of whom make a long pilgrimage to the village barefoot (although not over the pass!). Buddhist prayer wheels sit next to statues of the Hindu god Vishnu, the two religions side-by-side in this mountainous town. As it turned out, we were the first people to arrive in Muktinath who had done the Thorong-La crossing that day. I think my slightly unwell state had led to us powering over the pass in record time. Number one! We had shots of local apple brandy to celebrate which, after a couple of weeks of no alcohol and no meat, went straight to my head. I think I slept for a few hours before emerging again in the afternoon to explore the village.
Later in the evening, as more trekkers arrived at the hotel, the celebratory atmosphere continued. A couple of people, however, were worryingly sick from altitude – and a few had stories of being carried over the pass on horseback, another reminder that trekking at 5,416m is not to be underestimated. I felt grateful to be feeling much better – both stomach and altitude-wise!
Day 10: Muktinath to Jomsom
When I woke up the next morning, my mood was strangely bittersweet – my final day of trekking had arrived! This was listed on my itinerary as “the easiest walking day by far” but I’m not sure I would agree with that. Nine days of hard trekking – especially the effort of the previous day – had caught up with me, my hips and knees aching and my enthusiasm slightly waning. Still, I wasn’t going to opt for the Jeep option and cheat myself out of a final day’s experience. I’m glad I didn’t, because although this was a dusty day, made more challenging by an ever-present and slightly tedious head wind, the views were completely different to anything else we’d experienced in our circuit so far.
For one thing, by crossing Thorong-La, we’d left the “Manang” region of Nepal and entered “Mustang”. This is divided again into lower and upper Mustang, and we were walking in the lower part. To access Upper Mustang you need an expensive permit – it was formerly the independent “Kingdom of Lo” and is still one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Nepal, where Tibetan culture is remarkably well preserved. We walked through the arid, desert-like landscape of lower Mustang, spotting a sand fox creeping up the hillside, following the path of the mighty Kali Gandaki River, which cuts through the mountains creating (apparently) the world’s deepest ravine. I questioned this because I’ve been to a few places in the world that claim to be the “deepest” ravine – there’s no real standard of measurement here. The claim for Kali Gandaki comes from the fact that if you measure from the top of the world’s seventh tallest mountain on one side of the river (Dhaulagiri) to the bottom and then to the top of the world’s tenth tallest mountain (Annapurna I) on the other, then the depth is the deepest in the world. Fair enough!
I particularly enjoyed this walk because I felt as if I was trekking through the sand-scoured landscape of my first novel, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, and in my head I was following in Raim and Khareh’s footsteps. The trail travelled along an old caravan trading route and we stopped for lunch in the medieval village of Old Kagbeni. This was also the home of the Thakali people, who originated dhal bat – and frankly, it was far superior here than anywhere else I ate it – with an array of different chutneys to try, fresh stir-fried vegetables, the best curry and lentil soup. Delicious!
After another couple of hours walking along the Kali Gandaki riverbed, we arrived in Jomsom, a windy and slightly soulless place, and the largest town since Besisahar. One cool thing we passed was the “mountain warfare training academy” for the Nepalese military, which was really interesting to see. When we reached our hotel, it was time for hugs and high fives all around – this signalled the end of my time with Gyan and Madi, not just my guide and porter, but my companions for the past ten days. I booked this whole trip through Trek Nepal Int’l and I can’t fault them for their professionalism and helpfulness throughout the entire experience – from the initial booking through to making sure I had the right ticket for my flight from Jomsom to Pokhara (not as simple as you would think!). Gyan was knowledgeable and thoughtful, while Madi was always ready with a helping hand (sometimes quite literally, as on the ice lake trek!) I thoroughly recommend their services if these blogs have inspired anyone to give it a go themselves!
The Annapurna Circuit is definitely something special – challenging but achievable, with hard sections offering brilliant rewards, showcasing some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. Truly the roof of the world. It’s a well maintained trail, with plenty of welcoming accommodation and friendly locals. November was the perfect time of year – I had bright blue skies and sunshine every day. Just remember to pack lots of warm clothing!