A voyage into the realm of neverending fables

Updated: Jan 21 2007, 05:30am hrs
It was with a sense of exhilaration that a few weeks back I boarded the flight for Kathmandu, from where with a colleague, I would start off my journey to Upper Mustang, the almost-inaccessible forbidden valley situated north of the lofty Annapurna range, in the rain shadow area of the Himalayas.

Very few people have visited Upper Mustang as it can be reached only by helicopter or trekking through inhospitable hilly terrain. My sense of adventure was further heightened by the flight from Pokhra to Jomsom in Lower Mustang Valley in the 20-seater Dornier that flies so close to the mountains that one can almost reach a hand out and touch the snow-covered peaks of Machapuchre, Annapurna South and Dholagiri. However, it takes a brave heart to appreciate the breathtaking view as I soon discovered for the aircraft swung alarmingly from side to side buffeted by the blizzards. Machapuchre in Nepali means fishtail and this is what the peak actually resembled. Considered sacred, no one is allowed to climb it.

We descended at Jomsom Airport to be greeted by an icy wind and the glittering snow and sand all around; a magnificent sight with the Kali Gondki River in front and the Nilgiri Hills in the background. We soon found ourselves perched atop a tractor trolley, negotiating the steep uphill climb to the four-star Jomsom Mountain Resort. After a literally welcome drink of warm fruit juice and khata, a silk scarf for good luck (a common mode of greeting), we proceeded for Kobang village in Lower Mustang by motorcycle (the only means of transportation here).

Jomsom to Kobang is a torturous journey over sand and stones through Marpha village in Lower Mustang, the birthplace of the famous Jomsom apple.

Lower Mustang is inhabited mainly by people of the Thakali community, who are proud of their upper caste lineage. A Thakali festival is held every 12 years and Thakalis from across the globe congregate here. We called it a day after a glass of apple brandy (a local product strong enough to knock you off your feet), glad to rest our travel-jarred bones.

The next day dawned bright and clear. The locals call the place the Windy Valley; I immediately renamed it Sandy-Windy valley. We started off again for the entry point to Upper Mustang on our bikes. About 35 km away or a three-day trek by foot or horse from Kagbeni is Lo Manthang, where the King of Mustang Valley resides.

Our motorcycles had to be discarded at Kagbeni, from where we had to walk upstream on the stone-strewn riverbed. The dry and cold wind on the 7-km trek to Chusang village made our lips crack and bleed. On the way, we crossed Tetang village, with a population of 100 people, most of whom had migrated to Lower Mustang as winter was approaching. We plucked a few small golden apples from the profusion of trees nearby and with a bite I knew this was a taste I would never forget in my life pure elixir.

An interesting feature of the trek to Chusang village (in Upper Mustang) was the man-made sand caves that dotted the hills, giving an eerie and mysterious air to the place. These caves are multi-storied with gaps for doors and windows. It was strange to imagine that about hundred years back these were inhabited.

Next days itinerary included the Muktinath (Vishnu) temple on the Annapurna trek. There was snow everywhere except the temple complex including the 108 dharas (streams); a bath in which is supposed to wash away all sins. I compromised by dabbing the ice-cold water on my head. Next to the temple is a small Buddhist monastery, underneath which passes a hidden stream, and encouraged by the locals I peered through a hole for an amazing sighta small fire visible over the waters.

The popular trek starts from Besisaher and goes up to Beni, encircling the Annapurna range and covering almost the entire Lower Mustang valley. It is a 15-day trek, with decent lodging and food available at reasonable rates every five km. October-December is the peak trekking season.

On the way back, we stayed at Ohms Home Hotel at Jomsom, just opposite the airport from where we took a flight back to Kathmandu the next morning. With this ended my sojourn in a place that is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, as breathtaking as it is hazardous-a place where few people will tread and memories of which I will carry forever with me.