Friday, October 28, 2011

Stewart Family Holiday: Lower Mustang

We are now back in Pokhara living the good life of cheap momos and chilli chicken.The last two weeks or so has been a great adventure, so much has happened that I really don't know how to begin with this blog, so I will just select the best photos I have and try to piece together some narrative as I go..

  We set out from Pokhara to explore the wilds of the Annapurna region, one of the most popular trekking routes in the world. What made this area famous was the Annapurna Circuit, a 20 odd day mission circumnavigating the entire Annapurna massif. However new roads, particularly that up the Kali Gandaki river in the western part have changed the dynamics of tourism in the area, perhaps as some say spoiling the classic trek, but also opening up new opportunities that we aimed to make the most of. We headed straight for the dry lands of Mustang, in the rain shadow of the Annapurnas where the hills are big and brown and the people use spring water to create green oases of crops and fruit trees amongst the eroded hills.

A creative route choice saw a family ford of the Kali Gandaki

Mum was starting to stride out up the braided river bed

  We caught the bus from Pokhara to Jomsom, with a one night stop over in Ghasa. Not quite as easy as it sounds as this road as well as being controversial is just a little dodgy. Jomsom is a great little hub with an airport, fresh apples and plenty of places to spend money. We got out of there quickly heading upriver to the amazing old fortified village of Kagbeni on the border of the Upper Mustang restricted area.

The Kagbeni monastery with rock strata behind
The Orchards of Kagbeni and towards Muktinath
 It was amazing to stand in, on and around this fort admiring the light on the rooftops, the crazy strata in the rocks and thinking of the times not so long ago when maurauding Kham pa's hunted and haunted this isolated place.

Nilgiri rose snow capped above layers of brown hills to the south. 

 The next day we rather ambitiously headed cross-country towards our destination of Jhong, an ancient village at the head of the valley. The more famous stop-over in these parts is the pilgrimage mecca of Muktinath, but we were trying to avoid the crowds. It proved an inspired, if not slightly hot and dry choice. We saw some amazing landscapes with autumn colours as we climbed up the valley.

Troglodytes once lived here

Autumn colours - Little monastery on hill

Approaching the walled village of Putak

The Stewart family in Putak
Our destination for the day Jhong threw us up a great little surprise of a guesthouse located between a monastery and an abandoned fort. And in the midst of this very authentic, relic(?), village, we were served the most delicious spring rolls.

View from guesthouse - with mountain we later climbed

View back down to Jhong after evening stroll - looking as much as it has for the last thousand years
The next day, Penny, Sam and I were let loose on an extension adventure, climbing the rocky knob that towers behind Jhong. This hill tops out at about 5300, a big effort for Sam with minimal acclimatisation. We left before the crack of dawn, catching an amazing sunrise and moon set. Dhaulagiri just floated, as it does, down valley and when we gained the ridge the view into the mysterious land of Mustang was just awesome. The day was so clear we could see right over Mustang and into Tibet, strange lonely snowy mountains crept onto the horizon in some far off land beyond our comprehension.

Dhaulagiri on right above gap of the Kali Gandaki

First light hits Jharkot - Jhong in foreground


Nearly time to go down

We also saw a flock of blue sheep, the first since Kanchenjanga, they were still there when we went down and we watched then scuttling around the steep terrain. They always stay close to cliffs so they can escape any snow leopard attacks. I can't really emphasise enough the beauty and photogenicness of this little area. There are so many things going on. Here are a few more photos to perhaps make the point.

A New Monastery near Muktinath

Kids play
Water boils
 After the relaxing days in Jhong we gathered our energy for a wander over to the little village of Lubra several hours away in a smaller side creek of the Kali Gandaki. We had heard there was a new guesthouse there (the first in the village) which provided good digs and kai. Big landscapes is how I would sum up this day.

The Stewart family leaves Jhong

Lubra is near the orchard in the distance

Rock walls that make you feel tiny.

The village was fantastic. It was harvest time and it smelt like rain. The "Super-organism" of the Tibetan village was burning energy. All around the landscape there were massive bundles of grass moving around, supported by little bandy legs. Ladybirds is not perhaps the right analogy, but you can probably understand where I am coming from.


Harvest transporters

Our hosts for the night

From Lubra, we headed back into the main valley of the Kali Gandaki, but stayed on the true left to avoid the metropolis of Jomsom. The track down the bank was interesting, up and over little ridges with great views of Nilgiri and its forested slopes. We even arrived in Marpha in time to watch the World Cup semi-final at a bus stop - but one that sold apple cider and dried fruit...superb. If you go to Martha stay in the old town which is off the main road, we fell for one of the outer places and there wasn't quite the vibe. Marpha is one of the towns that has been hard done by by the road as many trekkers now end their trip in Jomsom, its well worth a nosy though. I had big ambitions to get to 6000metres by heading up Dhamphus peak on our rest day but neither my fitness or the weather were conducive to action. The 6000 metre threshold will have to wait for another time.

Heading down river - Dhampus peak at centre
Watching the rugger

Me, Gem and Sam in Marpha
 I guess Marpha was the end of our arid adventure, after that we headed off downriver on a bus then into the Annapurna base camp. I will cover that in another post. This trip described is highly recommended for those looking to see some amazing sights, avoid the crowds and not do too much hard walking.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Heading to ABC

This view is towards Chromrong where we stayed last night. It was a fantastic guest house with perfect views of the Annapurnas.

With everyone going so well we have decided to attempt Annapurna Basecamp which will take us maybe 5 days.

Gemma has left us, taking the bus back yesterday from Naya Pul, back to teaching in just a few days time.

Take care.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Marpha Stewarts


We are in Marpha in the Kali Gandaki valley having a rest day. Marpha is the beautiful apple capital of Nepal and we are enjoying the pies, crumbles and frittatas.

We had a terrific trip up valley staying in the villages of Kagbeni, Jhong and Lubra. Penny, Sam and I climbed to a 5200m viewpoint overlooking the Upper Mustang and Tibet.

Yesterday we hurried down valley under the shadow of Nilgiri pk to watch the All Blacks win their semi-final at the local bus station. It seemed fitting to replace chips and beer with dried apple and locally pressed juice.

Tomorrow we head downriver by bus as far as Tatopani where we will head up Poon hill for a look around Ghandruk and perhaps the Annapurna sanctuary.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Stewart Family Holiday: Part 1

Mum always used to say that if we won Lotto we would go trekking in Nepal, well here we are! Not quite trekking yet but it has been pretty much a week since Penny and I met the rest of the Stewart family in Kathmandu airport...

As this is Mum and Dads' first trip outside of New Zealand I was really looking forward to their first impressions. I was not disappointed seeing their dawning comprehension of the reality of Kathmandu on the short trip to the old town of Bhaktapur where we had booked to stay for the first few nights.

We chose Bhaktapur because it was supposed to be quiet and clean, but we hadn't counted on the Hindu festival of Dashain, which brings Nepal to a standstill as the victory of good (the gods) over evil (demons in the form of water buffalos) is celebrated. Everyone returns home to their villages, including Bhaktapur, and gives copious offerings to the gods often in the form of animal sacrifices. My brother Sam has posted some photos, but here is another one...instead of headless goats or ducks I give you a fair dinkum tractor worshipping photo, I have always named my cars and changed the old filter, but this is how you really appreciate an engine...

The old city of Bhaktapur really does justify its World Heritage listing, there are many amazing buildings most dating from the heyday of the city around 1700, but many from much earlier, we enjoyed many strolls through the various squares, shopping for handicrafts down the narrow lanes and plenty of teas in the cafes that oversee everything.

Some of the iconography is quite amusing, I like to think these carvers as well as been very religious also had a sense of humour.

We had one little outing from Bhaktapur, up the hill to Narakot which apparently has an amazing view of the himalayas on a good day...this wasn't one regrettably. We saw only a slither of the Langtang and perhaps the triangular face of Gaurasankar. However we did get to stretch our legs down the long ridge to Changu Narayan, via the local pie shops...

For a spot of luxury and some jungle we headed down to Chitwan National Park for a few day, staying at the super nice Sapana Village Lodge. We got out there into the jungle both on foot and by elephant, but by far the highlight was the elephant washing. Dad in particular really bonded with his elephant, they connected deeply, down even to the facial expressions...

We saw a bit of wildlife; the two types of crocodile, a couple of species of deer, some monkeys and plenty of cool birds, but for me the highlight has to be the elephants we were riding, what awesome creatures, riding one across a deep fast flowing river it seemed like they were built from stone, not flesh. Their big round footprints softly but heavily stamp a track perfectly flat, and from the foot up the animal is just so damn big and solid and heavy and old. So so cool.

Today we journeyed up from the heat of Chitwan to Pokhara, the gateway for the Annapurna. We will stay here for a couple of days getting permits etc (and shopping) before heading up by local bus and jeep hopefully as far as Muktinath (making the most of the new road) before slowly drifting back down. But yeah, what an experience, it is so amazing to have Mum, Dad, Gemma, and Sam here as well and be sharing it with them. Awesome.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Escaping Kanchenjunga

This title is perhaps too dramatic, after all we were enconsed rather than imprisoned in the potato field village of Ghunsa. We had also heard that parties had successfully descended the Ghunsa Khola as far as Lelep. Rob and Claire, the kiwis we met in Foley, had passed that way but not without witnessing a significant rockfall in the gorge. Rob was even hit by a rock ricocheting from the other side of the river. So we knew it was doable, but the thought of retracing our steps back over all those slips and under those cliffs just wasn't appealing so we decided on the high route to the east over the five thousand meter Mirgin La with a chance to visit the south Kanchenjunga base camp should the weather be more amenable. Five days perhaps we figured back to the road end at Taplejung.

Rob and Claire and us - a meeting of kiwis in Foley

Day 1: Mirgin La

After final farewells at Ghunsa we wandered south down the mainstreet, passing the school and health post, and then the hydro scheme before climbing sharply into the mist towards the Selele La. The mist cleared briefly for us at one stage so we could look down on Foley, the rectangular shapes of the buildings creating some order amongst the chaos of the old boulder field in which it is situated.We could also briefly look back and see the small peak GB and I had climbed a few days ago

Selele La is a gap on the ridge rather than a true pass and we reached here without too much trouble. After this the weather gradually deteriorated until just before Mirgin La it began snowing. Our worlds were circumscribed first by the rims of our umbrellas, second by the drifting mist. Outside this bubble we heard rockfall, felt thunder vibrating and saw brief glimpses of mountain sides and lakes.

Right on the Mirgin La we met a fellow traveller, a Spainard, coming the other way with his guide. A quick yarn in the middle of nowhere with a kindred spirit. On the other side of the pass it got colder and windier, we weren't equipped for this, and we kept pressing on, stressed by the cold and wet, until we found shelter beside a small tarn just above Tseram. When it rains we must rely on our memories as the camera is to precious to risk.

Day 2: Kanchenjunga South

Incredibly the day dawned clear and we were off, outta  here like bald men towards the glistening peaks. The trail climbs to the left of a vast lateral moraine up the valley, a chossy gravelly snake. We walk on grassy basins past picturesque lakes and the seasonal yak herding settlements of Lapsang and Ramche. Always above us the mountains grow, the triangular profile of Rathong we skirt to the left exposing its summit ridge and the bishop shaped pinnacle near its summit.

Gradually Kanchenjunga comes into view, including most of its seven summits. To its west though I am taken by a huge ampitheatre of fluted peaks, none of them named. Scrambling past Oktang we crane our necks for a view of Jannu but see only its massive shoulder. Below us here the moraine wall drops sheer to the cratered glacier. What a spot!

We retreat reluctantly, chocka with beauty, chinese biscuits and the apples GB carried from Gyabla to treat us with. I was a little ahead of the others when I was first surprised by the "Humph", a quick outburst of air by something large. I crouched and it happened again, the big herd of blue sheep was just 50metres down valley, watching me. Several sheep sported the huge curving horns they are famous for and which can weigh 20kg each. We watched and followed them for ten minutes, so fantastic to see them holding on here, providing prey for the solitary snow leopards.