One would expect that having reached the pass, there would be a feeling of relief since from there onwards, it is all downhill. But anyone that has trekked will know that although initially faster, the descent is far more painful than and eventually just as slow as ascending. Never was this more apparent than immediately after Thorung La when we left the barren highlands and descended a massive 1600m into a gorgeous, green, seemingly eternally sunshine-bathed valley. By the time we arrived in the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage town of Muktinath, my knees throbbed, my back ached and several of my toes were rubbed raw.
However, I was back in a warm climate in one of the most beautiful settings I have ever experienced and could take a couple of days for rest and recuperation. Within the large valley into which we had descended ran several smaller valleys that had the effect of cutting the land into ‘islands’. On two of these sat villages surrounded by fields of rice and wheat and consisting of earthen houses, caves cut into the rock as well as the ruins of an ancient Buddhist gompa (monastery). These were backed by the bare, arid mountains that lead into a high desert region that is the home of the ancient Kingdom of Mustang, to which the entry permit alone costs US$700.
On our first day off, we felt compelled to do little more than soak up the sun on the guesthouse balcony, drink tea and take in the view. On the second however, we managed to acquire a small quantity of the mysterious Himalayan yarcakumbu that we had heard so much about and decided to explore the valley and the villages within.
Literally meaning ‘summer grass winter insect,’ yarcakumbu is a rare and valuable plant/insect only found above 4000m and sold to the Chinese for a purported US$1,000/kg to be used in traditional medicine.
From what I can gather, it is some sort of butterfly that forms a cocoon underground, leaving just a grass-like stem protruding from the surface in the summer. If it is lucky enough not to be plucked by a member of the high altitude villages that literally stop all other work to go in search of this lucrative medicine, it will emerge as a butterfly once more in the winter.
We were each given a small, white cocoon, which we ground up, stirred into a glass of hot milk and downed in the hope that it would give us “much energy, much strong, much power,” as the Nepalis describe it.
It didn’t. The walk was nice though.
When we hit the trail again the following day in the face of one of the fiercest winds I have ever experienced, it was with the realisation that the best of the trek was behind us, for we were now on the overdeveloped ‘apple-pie trail,’ which is no longer a trail at all, but a road. Nothing ruins the serenity of wandering through the mountains like a jeep rushing up on you from behind, honking its horn and kicking up dust and rocks as it races past. While one can see the virtues of such a road including improved access to health care and provisions for the locals, it has broken the back of many villages that tourists now bypass and caused enormous damage to the environment. As such, its construction is highly controversial, but continues nonetheless with many locals predicting that in 5-10 years, it will be possible to drive to the Thorung La and around the whole circuit not long after that.
This did not surprise me since I had only recently read that 260-odd ‘mountaineers’ had summited Everest in the previous ten days, including a record 78 in a single day. One can imagine that pretty soon there will be an escalator running up the south face, at the top of which the ‘mountaineer’ will insert their $20,000 ticket into a turnstile and pass through to be greeted by a friendly concierge, “Hi, welcome to the top of the world. Oxygen tanks can be refilled just by the Summit Starbucks. Enjoy your stay.”
It is certainly not like when Mallory may or may not have done it back in ’24.
Fortunately though, it was still possible for the most part to walk along the old trail and what is more, we had it all to ourselves since everyone, including other trekkers, were using the road on the opposite side of the river.
On June 7th, I awoke in the town of Tatopani (lit: hot water) at 5am and made my way down to the concrete pool where I intended to celebrate my 26th birthday with an early morning soak in the natural hot springs. Far from being the first one there as I had hoped, the place was already awash with activity, full of early-rising villagers who must feel blessed to have an endless stream of hot water with which to wash their clothes, dishes and bodies, particularly in the chilly winter months.
I know that I felt blessed to be here on this special day of mine and enjoyed a nice long bath in view of the vigorously gushing river and moist surrounding forest.
As we descended further, it seemed that the looming monsoon was on the verge of breaking, as light rain became more frequent and the superb Kali Gandaki valley, inside which literally everything was green including the rocks and tree trunks, was filled with a thin mist.
However, Mother Nature opened the skies for us once again for our third and final high-light; sunrise atop the 3200m Poon Hill. We were provided with unimpeded views of the spectacular peaks in the distance that makes this one of the best viewing points in the Himalaya.
Finally, after just over three weeks, it was time to farewell the Annapurna Circuit. As it turns out, what I had foreseen as being a considerable mental challenge all those days ago, had actually been surprisingly easy owing to some good company, the rewards offered by the geography of this unique part of the world and the nature of the act of that most simple mode of transport; walking. I found it to be deeply meditative and vowed that should anything ever happen to the King Brown, whether he is stolen, ‘ghostied’ off a cliff or melted down for scrap metal, I shall continue the tour on foot.
All of these things made the experience one of the most amazing of my life, thus it was with heavy hearts that Jarda and I boarded a bus bound for civilisation. Ridiculously, this one made it all of a few hundred metres before running out of fuel, so we filed out and were instructed to pile into the next one passing by. Naturally, it was utterly full so onto the roof rack we climbed.
We had come full circle in more ways than one.