Day 4: Kagbeni – Muktinath

Nitya again wakes up bright and early and orders masala chai in the room for us. We order a “simple breakfast”: toast, butter/jam, fried eggs or omelette, and chai. We aren’t in any hurry to start off, we laze over breakfast and eventually rouse ourselves to hit the trail.

It’s a steep climb out of town to the right. I am feeling fit and without headache today. Nitya is slightly shaken by the narrow trail on the steep slope, but she’s still doing a good pace. After about 30 mins of climbing, we reach a plateau, where the trail widens to a kacchha road. This turns out to be a highway of sorts, for tractors and motorbikes keep passing us in both directions. I guess the religious who are not inclined to walk, take the tractor or motorbikes or horses to see their God. The religious rich even fly in a chopper from Jomsom to Muktinath. This section of the trail is filled with motorized sounds and petrol fumes. I much prefer the earthy smell of horse potty.

The scenery continues to be stark and brown. The wind has carved picturesque flutes into the opposite hillside. After allowing me a solitary walk on my request, Nitya joins me and we walk together chatting. The beauty of this group is that we all take off some alone time, away from each other, no big deal made of it. At some point, I ask Kanaks in Tamil, “How’s it going”. She replies in a tone of resignation tinged with amusement and self deprecation, “It’s going”. And we burst out laughing.

Slightly different topic: Nits has this wonderful way of diffusing sulks and difficult situations – I can see that she’ll be a great people manager at work. And her ability to take charge of rambling conversations – not in a negative way, but to bring focus. I know she’ll say that I summarize topics well – we each have our crosses to bear J

Now we have crossed the plateau, and turned right around the hill we just climbed. We begin descending into a valley, and in the distance, Shishir points out Muktinath – the whitewashed campus wall of the temple makes a rambling, irregular rectangle far away. At this point, MShah and I are so geared up, that we pester Shishir about going to Thorang La – the “berry diphicult” pass ahead of Muktinath. He wisely and patiently discourages us, in no uncertain terms: “Eet is 7 hours to reach the top phor me… phor you eet takes 12 hours”.

I pass the porters waiting by the trail. We head down the mountain into a settlement, by now I am far ahead of the others although I don’t realize it immediately. I keep going past several tea stops – having found my rhythm, I don’t want to stop. But somewhere in the middle of the village, it occurs to me that I must not separate too much from the group. I lie on a short wall by the side of the road, with my hat over my face, leaving a partial view of the blue sky. I love looking at the sky. Getting restless after a while, I trace back on the trail, to a house with three girls in the courtyard: one is pounding red chillies, the other is removing husks from wheat, and the third is being pretty and hanging around.

I ask them if they’d seen three girls and a guide. The pretty one says no, but offers for me to wait at their house. I trace back a bit further on the trail, meet our porters who assure me that my “saathee” have not somehow gone ahead, they’ve stopped for chai. I go back to the girls’ house, climb onto the roof by a chunky wooden ladder, and sit in the sun to wait for them. They amble along chatting so much that they don’t notice me on the roof, till I hoot at them. Photos taken all round, I take leave of my new friends. By now I have lost my rhythm and all the lying around in the sun is getting to me. I walk slowly, complaining as much as they’d let me. Of course it doesn’t help that they’ve had chai and I haven’t.

It’s all uphill out of this settlement. The sun is beating down, there’s not even a breeze. The others, blast them, are quite chirpy and don’t share my sulky mood. We stop for lunch at Jharkot, about an hour later. About time too. The dining halls in these restaurants are always perversely upstairs. We climbed up the wooden stairs, and occupied a large table, throwing our sticks, caps, and legs about in disarray – a show of how much we have climbed and how tired we all are J. The British group is here too, not particularly open to striking up friendships. Apart from them, a couple walks in, and starts a conversation with us. They are American – Stefan and Amy – Stefan is originally from Bulgaria. But the end of this lunch, we exchange email ids, and we have invites to Bulgaria as well as some place in Washington State. They have just come down the Thorang La, and describe it well for us:

“From up there, it’s as if we are looking at Muktinath from an aeroplane! It’s all down, down, down” Amy indicates a steep 70 degree angle with her hand. “It killed our knees”, “No definitely you don’t want to go up it!!” Apparently the counter-clockwise ascent to Thorang La is more gentle – and if you see the map you’ll see why. From the other side, about half way up the slope there’s a lodge you can stay at. Whereas this side, there’s nothing between the pass and Muktinath. Amy says it was snowing at the pass when they came up. She worries about a couple and a baby, that were trying to make it up the pass… she says they were in very bad shape, not adequately dressed for the conditions, too much weight, too little water… For the baby’s sake, I hope they made it… it wasn’t the baby’s fault that the parents chose to climb Thorang La with him on their back.

Amy and Stephan spend 6 months out of the year working in the American Antarctic station. She does logistics, tracks inventory, etc. for the station. He does… I forget. The remaining 6 months, they travel. We are envious: “What a cool life!”, “Do they need someone to sweep the corridors there?”, “Will we fit in your backpacks?” They ask about us and are most appreciative of these “forward Indian women breaking the shackles”. They say that people are always asking them how old they are – I am curious too – and their reply is, “We are about 10 years older than what you think!” I file that away as a line I could possibly use J

We pass a pleasant hour and a half chatting with them. Shishir begins to get restless, we got to move it, move it! When we get ready to leave, they get up to do a photo session with us. When they get back to their table, they find the waiter has whisked away Stephan’s half finished chicken soup, leaving him very disgruntled J.

MShah has a splitting headache. She and Nits discuss migraines in detail, each vying for best migraine position. I make some thoughtless rude jokes. I later solicitously ask MShah, as she’s walking up a slope, whether it offended her. She comes back with a nippy retort (as in biting my head off) and all is well. We reach Muktinath finally, and flop around the “Welcome to Muktinath” board. After recharging and regrouping, we march on upwards into the town.

Porters have already found us some rooms in a lodge. This time, Nits and I have an upstairs room, and the other two have a ground floor room on the opposite side of a quadrangle. Our room doesn’t have an attached bath, but their bathroom tap falls off every time they try to use it. So we’re even – evenly disgruntled. In this lodge, some unfriendly Europeans are staying. Here also there’s a child of about 2 years, very grubby, snot running down its nose. Nah, not quite cuddly. I have to resist a serious urge to wash that child’s face under running water.

We both strew things around our room by way of unpacking, and we all set off to see the Muktinath temple, with Shishir in attendance. One more round of apologies from Nitya – she wants to make sure she’s not forcing anyone to visit the temple – she’s bravely willing to go it alone J. It takes some convincing, but I explain to her that I have nothing against temples, in fact I do like visiting them as long as they are not thrust upon me.

The temple is a couple of hundred feet above the town. The walk up to the temple is a trek by itself and Kanaks most of all, regrets not bringing along her shoes and stick. Does she tell us this then? Oh no, she’s a strong and silent ’un through the trek. MShah is made of stern stuff – despite the headache we notice how cheerful she is. MShah, Shiva, and Shishir stop to see a local archery contest on the edge of the town. It turns out that MShah is a crack shot with a rifle – her hands are itching to get at that bow and arrow.

We reach the temple gate, and each of us rings the big carved bells. Shishir, in a first show of some personality, tells me, tongue in cheek, that the ringing is to wake aup the gods, to let them know that “I am here”. When asked if he’s not religious, he says “only li’l bit”. First we see a Buddhist Gompa to the left of the main temple, then we climb upto the main temple.

We all walk right into the garba-graham, and hear the pujari’s version of history, geography of the rivers (Kali and Gandaki), legends about the temple and rivers. I can never remember this stuff 10 mins after, so I tune out. To my surprise, it is a Vaishnav temple, not a Shiva temple. The deities are (from left to right), Sreedevi, Lord Narayana with the adiseshan snake over his head, and Bhoodevi. These are bronze statues, but they seem to have suffered some wear and tear – there’s a dent on the Lord’s cheek. I wonder if that was a result of some religious fanaticism, or just acquisition of character over the years. The pujari gets into the evening aarti act. The girls are gesturing covertly towards the deities – I completely miss whatever it is. Later, they tell me it was a cockroach roaming freely on the deities. We all have noticed what I call the “unfinished portions” of the Lord’s statue, and are torn between hysterical giggling and decorum. MShah is a bit worried about the BA having to drink non-purified charanamrith. But the BA comes back with “Aha! The BA did not drink the the charanamrith J. BA discreetly put it on her head very religiously as she has seen other people do”. The girls say the aarti is a beautiful experience, cockroaches and all.

The aarti seems interminable to me. At some point, I walk out as discretely as possible from that small crowded space. I sit out on the courtyard, overlooking two rectangular tanks of green water. Apart from us and a couple of soldiers there’s no one at the temple. I look up at the snow mountains opposite – I believe the view is of Dhaulagiri. That name sounds exotic to me. I watch the reflections of the trees in the tanks, in the fading light. So this is the highest point we get to on this trek, and the highest point I have ever gotten to. I am happy to have a few moments to myself there, to meditate upon Dhaulagiri.

The others come out, proudly displaying a tilak on their foreheads. I want a tilak too, so I rush in before the pujari closes the temple, and get mine. Of the 200-odd photos I show Akash later at home, it’s this one he remembers best: “Pappa, mama’s wearing tikkle” – he doesn’t know tilak.

We troop off dutifully to see some “natural light” – meaning some methane gas burning continuously from the ground – they’ve made a sort of shrine around those things too. We are armed with torches (or flash lights) today, so we get down to the town without much stumbling.

Vishwas, a friend of MShah’s, recommended the Bob Marley Pub and Restaurant at Muktinath – I love the ridiculous incongruity of the name. Shishir as usual does not have a clue as to its whereabouts, until we stumble onto it. There’s no electricity in the town tonight. Two firangs are playing pool in the ground floor. We’ve been asked to go “aupstairs”. By now MShah has resigned herself to my holier than thou attitude with regard to alcohol. Kanaks and MShah order some XXX Hot Chocolate Rum Toddy. They are in raptures over this divine drink. Nitya and I primly order lemon tea. It comes in such a laaarge flask, that we made Shishir pour it out ceremoniously each time. And how we jump on the french fries… Shishir is not his usual vague, retiring self when it comes to fries J.

As I write this, Shiva remembers that the name of the guy who made that divine drink was also “Kanak”, and that he had a finger chopped off, was bandaged, and had a brusque manner. There was some speculation on why his finger got chopped off. We also seem to have had a discussion on names and meanings: Nitya means “Daily” – naah, too prosaic, she prefers the “Eternal” meaning. For some silly reason she became “Daily Lager”… J (I’m sure Nits is grateful for MShah’s extrapolation – Nitya Kalyani… to Kalyani Black Label… to Daily Lager!).

Its time for some hindi songs, over candle-light. MShah’s and Shiva’s voices are lovely. Someone claps in appreciation from the kitchen, and we are pleased as punch. This is where Shishir sang “Resham Phiriri” for us for the first time… and taught us the words. He calls it a trekking song – it’s quite a khathra trekking song, it talks about guns and shooting birds and stuff. For the most part he is a quiet, non-imposing sort of guide.

There’s no concept of time… we walk out of Bob Marley when we’ve had our fill of the drinks and the music. Back to the lodge for a candle-light dinner. I’m not hungry, but again have some garlic soup and turn in.

From MShah’s account, Shiva is very excited about her first experience in a sleeping bag. She also has a hysterical laughing fit all by herself, while MShah sits around in her sexy spaghetti thermals and sips tea.

Although she doesn’t realize it, tonight Nitya feels the effects of altitude, and is unable to sleep. She tries various things – pacing, reading, finally a variety of pills. I wake up sometime in the middle of the night and we have this bizzare conversation:

Me, from the cozy warmth of my sleeping bag: “Are you okay, Nitya?”

Ms.N: “I’m fine… see these bottles of pills next to my bed? These are the ones I’ve taken.”

Me: “What?? How many pills have you taken, what’s wrong with you?”

Ms.N: “You’re not to worry your little head. Just call my sister in LA if anything happens to me.”

Me: “I don’t have her number”

“Ask Ramki”

“I don’t have Ramki’s number with me”

“Ask Rohit for his number”

“Rohit won’t have his number either”

“Ask Ravi…”

“No, I will not call Ravi and alarm him.. Why don’t you write out Ramki’s number next to your pills”

“I don’t have a pen”

“Okay fine, just tell me his number, I’ll remember it”

She tells me…

This beats all other bizzare mid-night conversations for me!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email