Quickpost: Kagbeni – The End of the Road

Kagbeni appears over the ledge of a hillside vista like a fantasy village dreamt up by C.S. Lewis.  Perched on a small isthmus in the valley, its glistening green fields glow against the drab colors of the rocky plateau.  It’s an oasis in the middle of a veritable desert.  Teetering on the edge of a cliff below the harsh white peaks of the world’s largest mountains, Kagbeni is the end of the road – the final frontier of sorts.

No foreigner is admitted past the borders of this remote town.  Beyond, lies the world’s last “Forbidden Kingdom.”

On the way into town, a man sells fossils found amidst the rubble of the Himalayas’ greatest rift.  Above him, a sign warns foreigners from venturing past Kagbeni.  The fine for entering upper Mustang (the “Forbidden Kingdom”): $500 USD per day.

The streets of Kagbeni are lined with Tibetan prayer wheels.  Devotees spend their free moments marching through the town, spinning wheels as they mutter chants.  The sky above is peppered with the bold-colored prayer flags that wave in the wind until they’ve disintegrated back into the breeze.

Below the rainbow of colors are hidden alleyways of an ancient city.  Stone barns sit next to mud brick houses.  Back alley corners hide erotic phalluses and a piecemeal settlement that straddles gushing, milky blue rivers.

The walled-in town feels medieval.  Ancient.  Like a time warp to another era.

Life here is methodical.  It’s ritualistic.  It’s hard.  The winter is long and there are no Western comforts to make it more bearable.  Kids play in the brisk cobblestone streets until their rosy cheeks turn so red, you’d swear they’d burst.  Women walk in sandals with no socks until their feet stiffen into solid blocks.

Drunks and beggars prey on the piety of generous Llamaists and wandering pilgrims.

In the afternoon, women sit on their roofs to take in the heat of the sun and avoid the walloping winds that race through the deep valley walls of the Kali Gandaki.

But, it’s the sounds of sunset that are unforgettable.

As the blazing sun cuts its path through the Himalayan Range, the delicate drone of devout Llamaists echoes throughout the valley.  A dreamlike warmth blankets the frosty town in this violet hour and magic feels very real.


The Trickery that Tickled the Tibetan Pilgrims

With the pipes frozen, the day started without water.

That meant another day not showering, grimy teeth, and a case of what I like to call “traveler’s face.”

I left the desolate, remote army post of Jomsom for the freezing, windswept nothingness of the “road” north.

Leaving Jomson was like stepping off of earth and onto the moon. With a scarf over my face and glasses over my eyes, every inch of skin was covered as I traversed the rusty strip of rubble. To my side, wildly carved rocks twisted along the valley walls as the blistering sun set out to crack puddles of ice.

In a desolate, cold, lifeless land that was not yet Tibet, but not quite Nepal, I could feel my insides turning numb. Barely bearable in the early morning, the winds picked up and whipped through the valley with such a force that locals warned against travel at midday.

The path itself was littered with the crumbling remains of forgotten homes along this ancient trade route. Made from the rubble of the rock desert that is the Kali Gandaki Valley, the houses were hardly decipherable against the beige backdrop.

Tip-toeing over wobbling rocks as snot dripped down my nose, I glimpsed a crooked sign that read “Lubra,” pointing away from an intersecting river valley.

Scanning my map, I noticed a small village located about an hour off the path along the valley walls of the approaching tributary. Intrigued, and hoping to find some warming tea, I branched off away from the Jomsom track.

En route, I came across a group of pilgrims sitting in the snow in the center of the valley. They were chit-chatting, laughing, and having a nice mid-morning picnic.

“Lubra?” I asked, raising my hands in a questioning motion.

The Tibetan ladies laughed. But one, who spoke a few words in English, pointed me up a nearby hill.

I asked again, “Lubra?” pointing to the snow covered hill, where I couldn’t decipher anything resembling a path.

All the women agreed, pointing up the large hill.

Though I saw no signs of life, a path, or footprints even, I trusted the friendly ladies and left, bowing and thanking them for their kindness.

Halfway up the hill, I was out of breath. Above 4,000 meters (13,125 feet), the oxygen was thinning. Not only was there no path, but the slippery slopes were covered almost knee-deep in snow and my lower body was beginning to drench. Worse, turning around was no longer an option. It was hard enough to climb up the hill, but walking down, I’d surely slip and tumble into the rocks below.

Triumphantly, I found the edge of a stone fence peeking out of the snow. I sat, eating a candy bar and thinking that I had found the village of Lubra. Yet, the remote house had been abandoned.

I climbed up to another house, but it too was abandoned.

Further up the hill, I saw what looked to be a lone monastery. Nearly 30 minutes later, I crested the top of the hill and found a set of footsteps in the snow leading to a snow-covered field of prayer flags and prayer wheels next to a small stone house that puffed smoke from a metal chimney.

Approaching the small structure, I was warned off by a thrashing guard dog chained to the fence. As the dog barked, a lone maroon-clad monk stepped outside, waved at me with a luminous smile and returned to his home.

Elated but confused, I sat outside observing the prayer wheels and the glistening white peaks in the distance. It was the highest point I would reach in the Himalaya, and there was a quite beauty that took my breath away.

My Western sensibilities had me questioning how this man could live all alone at the top of this snow covered hill with his flags and wheels, but in an instant it all made sense.

I followed his footsteps down the far side of the hill. As I rounded a bumpy corner, I saw bellow me, along the valley edge, the terraced buildings of a bustling town.

There it was, the town I’d been looking for all along! Lubra had been a mere 20 minutes’ walk further into the valley and I’d been tricked by a group of pilgrims into climbing a snowy hill up to the Heavens.

As I slid down the hill, a group of townspeople began pointing and waving. They invited me to join them on their roof for tea and I could not be more thankful for their hospitality.

I sat on a Tibetan rug as an old lady spun yaks wool next to me. The younger lady went downstairs to make tea, and when she returned, she brought with her a group of women.

As the women marched up onto the roof, I realized immediately that it was the pilgrims I had seen before. They took one look at me and erupted in an explosion of laughter.

Our host recounted the tale of watching me slide down the snowy hill as the whole group doubled over laughing.

I couldn’t help but laugh too.

Out of their bags, the women removed an assortment of snacks and prepared me a plate. I reached into my backpack, and offered up some cookies and peanuts.

We sat together on the roof – me and the tickled Tibetan pilgrims – sipping tea, laughing and enjoying the afternoon sun.

Big Shots: Kalapani to Marpha

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap is tricked off the path and onto a dangerous, snow-packed hill by a group of snickering Tibetan pilgrims.

Big Shots: Jomsom Trek – Tatopani to Kalapani

The Poon Hill Trek: Notes from a Frozen Journal

I’ve never put up a post full of notes before because I thought it’d be incredibly boring.  Maybe it is.  I don’t know.  But, I thought I’d give it a try this week.  If nothing else, it will give you some insight into the process that goes into each of these posts on MarkontheMap.  It’s a little less polished, more candid.  I hope you enjoy…

The Poon Hill Trek

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedhunga

Elevation Change: 500m to 1,540m

Dominant Landscape Feature:  Latticed hills


-There are many tourist facilities, hot showers and western toilets at the start of the trail.  I am surprised.

-Several times throughout the day donkey caravans overtake us, carrying supplies to the villagers along the track.  Bells jingle on the costumed donkeys and their master grunts, spanking them with a whip.

-A donkey farts on me – right in my face.  I cannot get the smell out of my nostrils.

-It’s remarkably hot, I started the day in a sweatshirt and pants, but now I have stripped to shorts and a T-Shirt.  Maybe they were right; maybe it won’t be as cold as I thought.

-There are a few groups passing with porters and large backpacks.  Is my small, school-sized backpack going to be enough?  Did I bring enough supplies?  Am I missing something here?

-Why did I hire a guide?  I could have walked this by myself.  This path is the highway of the region; it’s packed with villagers.

-Late winter flowers are blooming.  My room at the teahouse has a view down the mountain ridge, but I can’t stop looking at the bright orange flowers all around me.

-Across the way, yaks are working the latticed hills like characters on different levels of the early Donkey Kong.

-I’ve just watched this man walk down to the river, collect stones in a bag, carry it across the bridge and repeat for an hour.  He hasn’t stopped.  He must have done it 15 times since I’ve been here.  And what have I done in that time?  Stare at him.  And stare at the waterfall.  I’m a bad person – or maybe just lazy.

-“Namaste,” “Namaste,” “Namaste.”  Everyone in Nepal greets you when you pass.  I love it.  I think my new favorite word is Namaste.

-Okay, it’s officially cold.  I’m putting on my yak’s wool socks and going to bed.

Day 2: Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani

Elevation Change: 1,200m (drop) to 2,750m

Dominant Landscape: Steps, endless steps


-Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up

-I don’t know if I can walk up anymore.

-I don’t think that some of these other trekkers I see are going to make it up this hill.  Several are passed out in pools of their own sweat panting like dogs.  Again, what exactly do they have in these gigantic bags?

-School kids from the hilltop town of Ulleri are racing down the mountain to get to their school in Tirkhedhunga.  Does this mean they have to walk back up later today?  Everyday?  According to my guide (who is growing increasingly unfriendly) “Yes.”

-Why are all of these donkeys in hippie costumes?

-Mmmm.  Tea never tasted so good.

-Going to the teahouse is like going to the local pub.  I’m getting tea drunk on the views.

-I thought that this hike would be a great escape in nature.  But, this is no wilderness adventure.  The lands I’m trekking through have been inhabited for centuries.  If anything, this is a cultural adventure (albeit in a harsh landscape).

-It’s raining – a lot!  Everything I have is wet.  The guide told me it doesn’t rain this time of year so I didn’t pack my waterproof jacket.  I’m in wool, wet wool.  My nose is running.  I hate cold rain.  I can’t think of a worse precipitation.

-We’re escaping the rain at this nice teahouse with a fire in the two home town of Nayathani.  To get here we had to walk through what looked like a rainforest – almost like fiordland in New Zealand.  Seems like some weird microclimate, like it might always rain there (thanks guide!).

-My anger towards my guide is growing.  He was supposed to speak English.  Maybe he is, but I don’t understand him and I don’t need him.  Why did I waste my money?

-It’s thundering.  I made it to a teahouse at Ghorepani.  We are close to 3,000 meters high in the Himalaya.  The thin walls of my blue lodge are shaking.  There is no electricity, but there is a fire.  I hang everything I have up to dry.

-The teahouse owner’s daughters are friendly and speak English.  They want me to play cards with them but the game is so mindless that I give up after an hour.  The game is called “Donkey Game” and one of the girls is called “Dynasty.”

-There is one hot shower in the place.  It’s in the dark kitchen, so I shower, naked, in a kitchen, with no light.  I forgot my towel (awkward).

-After dinner there are few other hikers at the house with us.  Their guide has a guitar (and a friendly sense of humor) so we sit by the fire as he sings Newari folk songs.  Dynasty joins in, but he keeps asking her to stop because she’s not very good.

-There is something comforting about all of this – like I am sitting around the fire at Boy Scout camp.  For a second, everything feels familiar.  Then, I realize where I am at, and that I don’t understand the tunes, and that I am nowhere near anything that looks like home.

-I’m going to sleep.  I wonder if we will be able to hike to Poon Hill in the morning, or if the clouds will again stop me from seeing the towering peaks.

Day 3: Ghorepani to Tatopani

Elevation Change: 2750m to 1190m

Dominant Landscape:  Snow-covered peaks


-Everything is white.  I don’t have proper boots.  It’s going to be a long day.

-Himalaya means “abode of snow” in Sanskrit.

-We will not climb Poon Hill.  Poon Hill is covered in a deep snow and there would be nothing to see.  My perfect Himalayan photo is lost (again).

– All I can see is white: white fog, white ground, my fingertips turning white.  The snow is about a foot deep.  It’s still snowing.

-The landscape is transformed; every nook and cranny of the hills is accentuated, highlighted with white.

-I’m sliding downhill, but the snow is lessening the lower we get and I’m removing layers.

-I have to go #2 and my guide recommends that I go on the side of the path, he will be my lookout.  Great!

-What are these mountains called, I ask my guide when the clouds finally clear.  “Those are not mountains,” he says quite seriously, pointing to some 5,000m peaks, “Those are little hills.”  Only in Nepal!

-I see graffiti of a hammer and sickle in several small towns as I zigzag down the mountains.  I am in Maoist country.

-It is a long way down from the cliff over the Kali Gandaki gorge to the town of Tatopani.  My knees hurt from the endless stairs.

-There is a hot spring next to the river, I sit and bathe along the edge of the deepest gorge in the world.  Local men are in their underwear, and a few schoolgirls jump in, clothes on.

-My guide will leave tomorrow.  It’s his decision.  He has a “sick wife.”  He will not give me back the money he owes for additional days.  I am angry about the money, but happy he is leaving.  I am on my own.

-Totopani is the biggest town I’ve seen so far.  They’ve just completed a bumpy road here from Beni that two or three jeeps plow through each day.  Women and babies peek out of dark alleyways as goats, and chickens wander the streets.  It’s a visual feast.

-The Poon Hill trek is complete! But, my hike is not over.  It hasn’t yet reached the halfway point.

-From here on out, there will be very few tourists.  It’s winter, off-season, and I am going further than foreigners on a quick Nepal vacation can go.

***After completing the Poon Hill trek (never having seen Poon Hill or the famed peaks), I plowed further away from civilization. Joining the Jomsom Trek at Tatopani, I hiked north without a guide along the Kali Gandaki Gorge through the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya and onto the Tibetan plateau.

Never before had I ventured so far away from everything I’d ever known.

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap treks through the world’s largest gorge along an ancient Tibetan salt route from Tatopani to Marpha.

Big Shots: Pokhara, Nepal

Later on this week:

Notes from a frozen journal as MarkontheMap treks deep into the Himalaya.

Kathmandu, Nepal (a brief introduction to a confusing city)

Kathmandu is more of a labyrinth than a city.  There are cities within cities.  The new city is built on top of the old.  The old feels ancient and the new feels dated.  Tiny doorways made for dwarfs lead to secret inner courtyards.  Like a video game, the further you go and the more keys you hold, the more you unlock the hidden realms of this boxy maze.

Kathmandu retains the chaos of an Indian city, but with a more delicate balance.  Everyday life has a funny way of playing out just fine, despite a complete lack of order.  Power lines are mixed and spliced like webs – power itself comes on and off at will.  Urban cows, typical of the subcontinent, parade through the streets by day, while dogs roam the night as trash collectors.  In a powerless city, street side fires light up the midnight dark.

Nepal is not India.  You can’t compare the two – Nepalese won’t let you.

If there is one thing that every Nepali likes to reiterate, it’s that he is not an Indian.  Nepalese are softer around the edges, less confrontational, more amiable – or so they say.  They’re more used to tourists.  They cater to each generations Cat Stevens wanabees and mountaineering hopefuls.

The old city of Kathmandu is fringed by a newer, more modern metropolis.  Yet, even in this modern mix there’s barely 14 hours of power a day and the ATM still cuts out when power is shifted to a different part of the city.  Lose your card to the machine?  “Come back tomorrow when the power’s back,” is the disheartening response.

For some reason I always imagined Kathmandu to look something like Vail, Colorado – a quaint town dwarfed underneath behemoth mountains.  It’s not that there aren’t mountains nearby (Nepal’s got more than its share of those), but the haze of this incredibly polluted city doesn’t allow for any noteworthy views.  In fact, much of lower Nepal is a jumbled, overcrowded mess of human activity.

The tourist map kathmandu is split in two sections.

The gortex crowd, preparing for their mountain escape, lounge away the afternoons with topographical maps along Thamel as countless travel agencies hawk their offers.

Back in Kathmandu’s original tourist haunt Jochen Tole (aka “Freak Street”), the leftover, strung-out relics of a bygone era are found cloaked in local garb, sitting in circles and shaving their heads.  This was, after all, the end of the hippie trail for many and the Shangri-la gushed about by the Beatles.  Today, groups of tourists congregate outside of dingy cafes staring at each other with a distant, mildly euphoric, slightly empty look as they listen to their guru pluck the sitar.

Kathmandu is full of Western kids seeking to fix the problems of their perfect existence by diving into the very real problems of the East – reveling in a break from the monotony of Western perfection and seeking the antithesis of the “American Dream.”  These wanderers come to Nepal to escape predictability while subconsciously wishing that their life had more hardships, more to complain about, more guilt love.  They voice all of their insecurities to the ears of eager Eastern magicians.

The traditional heart of Kathmandu is Durbar Square, which is surrounded by spectacular architecture that vividly showcases the skills of the Newari artists and craftsmen over several centuries.  The square was once where the kings of Nepal were crowned, legitimized, and ruled their people.

The Kathmandu Valley has been occupied since the 7th century BC and played an important role in trade with Tibet.  Kathmandu itself dates to the 12th century AD, with the rise of the Malla Dynasty.

A surprising amount of erotic elements and phallic statues can be found sprinkled about the fringe of this imposing square.  Beyond Durbar Square, the city overflows with shrines draped in red candle wax.

Smells shift from powdery incense to pungent Newari spices as you pace by the colorful alleyways and rummage through the daily markets.  Merchants set up shop right on top of ancient structures, draping fabrics over 500-year-old pillars.  The line between historic relic and everyday street corner is blurred in Nepal.  The past and present are weaved together tightly as physical history is enveloped by a modern culture without barriers.

Eastern practicality trumps a Western sense of “importance.”

2011 is the “year of tourism” in Nepal, though political instability has scared many tourists away from the country in the past decade.

A long-drawn out and messy insurgence of Maoist rebels plagued the countryside while equally violent military retaliation resulted in hundreds of deaths.  The country teetered between monarchy and democracy while going through spills of having no effective government whatsoever.  Perhaps, the most shocking event happened back in 2001.

The tale of the 2001 Nepalese Royal Massacre is straight out of a Hollywood movie.  At the grounds of the Narayanhity Royal Palace, Prince Dipendra, heir to the throne, killed nine members of his own family, including King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya (his father and mother).  While in a coma, the unconscious murder was named the new king of Nepal and reined the country for three days until his death.

The killer’s unpopular uncle became King Gyanendra and dismantled parliament, assuming direct control over the country by 2005.  By 2007, monarchy was officially abolished by a new parliament, but the country’s instability remains a daily topic.

Like everything in Nepal, old and new clash fists, but can never quite shake hands.

As for the Kathmandu I saw and loved, in the words of Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam):

“Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you
And your strange bewildering time
Will keep me home”

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap heads into the Himalaya on a trek towards the Tibet border