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.