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Between Mountains: A Cultural Guide to the Annapurna Circuit (Part 2)

May 28, 2018

by Annapurna Mellor

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world’s most famous walks. Take the trail, and it’s obvious why. The route circles the great Annapurna Himalaya range, with breathtaking views throughout and the crossing of a high 5416m pass, the Thorong La. While the views are the main attraction, this trail is also a wonderful way to see the culture of the Himalayas. The trail begins in the lowlands, where Gurung Villages and farmland occupy most of the trail, before climbing into the barren, dry Manang District, where you’ll find villages with a strong sense of Tibetan culture and a long history of trading with the occupied country to the North.

For most trekkers, perhaps the culture of the trail takes a secondary place behind the long day hikes and the breathtaking mountain views all around. I found little information on the internet about the villages on the trail or the wonderful Buddhist gompas and unique cultural aspects which I found to be one of the highlights of the trek. So I’ve made a guide myself. Here is a Guide to the Annapurna Circuit, but from a cultural point of view.

This is Part 2 of the guide, which takes you from Manang to Tatopani. If you missed Part 1, which takes you from Besi Sahar to Manang, click here.

Manang to Muktinath

The lodges and cafes of Manang are going to be your last piece of comfort for a while, as the next stretch which takes you from Manang to Muktinath is one of the trails most challenging. Few locals live above Manang, and the small villages which have been built in the area are just for trekkers, with a few refuge huts for Yak herders. This stretch has little culture, the weather can be extreme and the landscape is arid and backed with snowy mountains. In all honesty, I couldn’t wait to get out of this section of the trek. We felt a lot of anxiety about altitude and crossing the Thorong La Pass during these few days, the hygiene in these villages is very poor and the food selection is expensive.

From Manang, a steady climb leads you through the old section of the village and then out onto barren pastures. The village of Tengi, only 30 minutes from Manang is the last permanently inhabited village on the trail. You will then continue to climb through the Marsyangdi Valley, a dry barren area with alpine shrubs lining the path. Make sure you stop for tea in the village of Gunsang (3920m), not only for a rest but also for the lovely traditional atmosphere of New Chullu Guest House. The family sold yak cheese and local herbs and the menu consisted of lots of local dishes that seemed to have been replaced for pasta and burritos at many of the other stops on this stretch of the trail. Try their delicious Thenduk or Tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns) with potato curry. This would also make a great overnight stop if you wanted to stay a little higher than Manang as you acclimatize.

Most trekkers head on to Yak Kharta (4050m) where they stay the night. When we awoke in the morning here, the ground was thick with snow and the toilets and taps froze over. Thankfully the warm dining room of Hotel Thorong Peak was a lovely place to stay in the evening, although like all of the lodges at this altitude, you won’t have the local and cultural interaction you would lower down, as the workers in these lodgers simply live here for the trekking seasons.

From Yak Kharta, it’s a one hour trek to Letdar (4200m), and then another two to Thorong Phedi (4450m). This stretch of the trail is easy hiking for the most part, and the path is dotted with Yak’s grazing and refuge huts for hikers in case the weather takes a dramatic turn. As you approach Phedi, the path follows the side of a slope. It is much easier with hiking poles.

Thorong Phedi is a collection of just two teahouses but both seem to lodge a surprising number of trekkers as they wait to cross the Thorong La Pass. I can’t say many nice things about our stay at Phedi. The hygiene was the worst we have found on the trail, due to the problem that there is no waste disposal system at these nights and it was too cold for anything to decompose. The food was overpriced but they did a wide variety of things. Be careful with where you get your drinking water from at this height. Bottled water is very expensive and we experienced some stomach upset from using purification tabs in the tab water. Boiled water is probably your best option.

High Camp (4850m), the final settlement before the Thorong La Pass, is more pleasant due to fewer trekkers staying there. If you arrive at Phedi and feel fine with the altitude, I recommend going up to High Camp as it will make the next day much easier. There is only one lodge at High Camp and it has a lovely dining room overlooking the mountains.

We started the day of the Thorong La Pass from High Camp at 5:30 am. Having spoken to many trekkers since the day, it seems that everyone’s Thorong La Pass experience is different, due to changing weather conditions and how the altitude affects each trekker. In short, we had blistering cold winds, thick snow, lows of around -25°C and both my sisters who I trekked with suffered from the altitude. Although you will gain around 600m during this day, the climb is actually very steady and much easier than some of the stretches that we had already done on the Circuit Trek. When we reached the rainbow flags of the Thorong La Pass at 5416m, a huge sigh of relief came over us. I attempted to eat a frozen chocolate bar I had been saving and we snapped a few photos before heading down to Muktinath.

A view from the Thorong La Pass

From the pass, the trek down to Muktinath is steep and slippery, but as the air keeps on getting thicker and warmer and you catch sight of the Muktinath Valley below, you’re sure to feel huge delight. Chabarbu (4190m) is the first village you will come to, right at the bottom of the hill from the Thorong Pass. It’s a great place to stop for a well-deserved lunch of momos and a refreshing drink. From here, you are only about an hour to Muktinath, another town which is a cultural highlight of the Annapurna Circuit Trek.

Muktinath

After your days in high altitude and the exhausting day of the Thorong La Pass, you’ll most likely feel incredibly relieved to arrive in Muktinath (3,710m) Luckily, it’s also a nice place to spend a rest day or two with lots to do and see. Muktinath is a very special religious pilgrimage spot for both Buddhists and Hindu’s, and you’ll meet many pilgrims from around Nepal and India in the town and around the temple complex. Because of this religious significance, Muktinath has a very different atmosphere to the other towns on the trekking trail and it comes as a pleasant surprise.

Pilgrims come to the town to visit the Muktinath temple complex, which sits at the end of the town on a small hill. When you enter the town from the Thorong La Pass, it is the first thing you will pass. For Hindu’s, the site is known as Mukti Kshetra which translates to ‘place of salvation’. It is one of the oldest sights of the God Vishnu and the Vaishnava tradition in Nepal, as well as being one of the eight sacred sights of Hinduism. The small temple is surrounded by 108 taps which ice cold water from the Kali Gantaki River flows through. You will find many pilgrims at the temple standing under the taps and letting the water flow onto them between paying their respects to the god statues in the temples.

For Buddhists, the temple is known as Muktinath Chumming Gyatsa, which in Tibetan means ‘Hundred Waters’. In Tibetan Buddhism, Chumig Gyatsa is a sacred place of the Dakinis goddesses known as Sky Dancers. Tibetan tradition states that Guru Rinpoche, who founded Buddhism in Tibet, meditated here on his way to Tibet. In the same complex of temples, a small monastery called Mebar Lha Gomba is known for its continuous burning of a natural gas fire.

Pilgrims in Muktinath

Other interesting things to see in the temple complex include the giant Buddha which has sweeping views of the valley around and the babas which sit on the stairs at the entrance to the temples. Many come from India and spend some of their years in Muktinath before going back to India to Varanasi.

The main town of Muktinath, known also as Ranipauwa is home to many hotels, small restaurants and cafes and shops selling Tibetan handicrafts. I recommend staying in the great Hotel Bob Marley, which has piping hot showers, a very eccentric menu, a balcony overlooking the town and a chilled living space. In season I imagine it is quite the hangout for trekkers.

Most people spend a day or two in Muktinath relaxing after the Thorong La Pass. There are also many day treks you can do from here, including to the Mustang villages of Jhong and the nearby monasteries. We didn’t do this but you can see the Lonely Planet Guide or ask your teahouse owner for more information.

After a few days of only eating ‘tourist food’, Muktinath is a nice place to feast on some cheap, local food. We ate at Milan Chok, a tiny local momo restaurant that served up delicious bowls of Thukpa and a variety of momos. Muktinath is also a nice place to pick up some souvenirs, and you can spot women weaving yak wool scarves on the streets of the town.

Muktinath to Jomsom

From Muktinath, the road begins. Some trekkers choose to take a jeep from here straight to Jomsom or even all the way to Pokhara. I recommend going on a little further though, as some of the most delightful villages of the trail lie in this Mustang Valley area and it would be a shame to miss them. As you leave Muktinath, the smooth tarmac road beneath your feet will most likely come as a big surprise. I’ve travelled to many parts of Nepal and it’s honestly the best stretch of road I have seen anywhere in the country. And to say it links a couple of small towns above 3000m is quite a surprise. Thankfully, it’s not a particularly busy road so walking along it to get to Kagbeni is still quite pleasant. If you would rather walk off-road, there is an alternate trail but it’s about a 5-hour hike, as opposed to the 2-3 hours along the road.

A much pleasanter surprise is the breathtaking views you will get as you leave Muktinath onto the village of Jharkot. This is one of the most picturesque villages on the train, standing proud and tall in white painted stone. The village is also a great place to explore if you’re not in a rush to get to Kagbeni. It has a large gompa with an attached Tibetan medical institute. Below the gompa, two life-sized clay guardians are a reminder of the areas animist beliefs, which despite the Buddhist influence here, are still alive within the communities. You can also follow the pilgrim path, also known as a kora, to the Buddhist caves of Myabrak. Jharkot would be a great place to spend the night if you felt Muktinath a little too busy, but otherwise, make sure to take a camera to this picturesque spot.

Jharkot Village

From Jharkot, the trail continues on the road through the roadside settlement of Khingar and then into the Jhong Valley when the wind can really pick up and make the walk quite unpleasant. On the valley floor, you’ll spot Kagbeni, a medieval village surrounded by green fields and the gateway to the Upper Mustang region which is only accessible with a pricey permit ($500 for 10 days, more info here).

Kagbeni is a very unique village, and one of the most interesting on the trail. The village is made up of traditional mud houses, packed together with narrow alleys, tunnels and cobbled lanes between them. It’s quite an exciting place to explore and can feel a little like stepping back in town. A must see is the wonderful ancient Kagchode Thubten Sampheling Gompa, part of a school founded in 1429. You will need to ask one of the monks to open the lock and show you around, as well as paying a small donation, but it’s worth it for it’s a very unique building. There are many teahouses in Kagbeni, and I can recommend the Hotel Shangri-La for great food and a warm dining area. In the town, there is a restaurant called ‘YakDonalds‘ which is famous for trekkers. We didn’t try it but I’ve heard great things from other trekkers.

If you choose to spend an extra day in Kagbeni, you can walk one hour North to the village of Tiri, the last village before a permit is needed to enter Upper Mustang.

This area of the Annapurna Region is known as Mustang, a culture which is highly influenced by Tibet. You will enter the area of Lower Mustang in Muktinath, and continue in this region until Larjung. The population of this area is known as Loba (pronounced Lo Pa). In terms of culture, language and religion, they are very similar to Tibetans. Historically, Loba women had several husbands, a practice known as polyandry. This was done as there was then less of a chance of a woman becoming a widow if she had many husbands. However, this practice is now diminishing.

From Kagbeni, the trail to Jomsom begins with spectacular views onto Mt. Nilgiri. The trail from here to Jomsom is somewhat hard to find, as sections have been replaced with a road and others are still in construction. We ended up walking for most of the way along the riverbed, which was dry in early March and did eventually take us to Jomsom in 2-3 hours. This is one of the most boring days of walking, with very little to see except the mountains behind Jomsom (and watching planes navigate the landing at the Jomsom Airport).

Walking along the river bed from Kagbeni to Jomsom

Jomsom is the biggest town you will have seen since Besi Sahar, and there are all sorts of conveniences here like an airport, bus station, banks and well-stocked shops. Jomsom is home to the Mustang Eco Museum, which has displays on local herbal medicine. There’s a strip of hotels and trekker orientated businesses in an area called Puthang which is very near to the airport. From Jomsom, there are several daily flights to Pokhara as well as buses to Pokhara (more on that bus later…). We chose not to stay the night in Jomsom and instead continue onto Marpha, but we ate some great momo’s in a small restaurant and I was impressed at the number of services here for trekkers.

Jomsom to Tatopani

From Jomsom, you can either follow the road to Marpha or take the alternative route on the east bank of the river. If you are not too tired, the alternative route is lovely and takes you through Thini village, up to Dhumba Lake (perhaps not as impressive as it sounds), to the Katsapterenga Gompa which on a clear day has wonderful views over the Jomsom Valley, and then down to Syang and onto Marpha. This route is not a ‘must see’, but it is nice if you feel like walking a little more or have stayed the night in Jomsom. From Syang, the road to Marpha can be incredibly windy after 11 am, so do it earlier if you don’t want to be battered by a dust storm.

On the alternative trail from Jomsom to Marpha

Marpha is arguably the Annapurna Circuit’s prettiest village and a real highlight of the trek. It is a Thakali Village, made up of flat-roofed houses and whitewashed corridors and surrounded by apple orchards. Thakali people live in lower Mustang and they make up only around 0.06% of Nepal’s population. Like Loba people, their culture is heavily influenced by Tibet and are traditionally Buddhist.

Marpha is a very interesting place to explore, so give yourself a few hours to wander around and appreciate the village and the friendly local people. A must see is the Nyingma Samtenling Gompa in the centre of the village. Find one of the monks and they will happily show you around the complex (leaving a donation is recommended). The gompa, which is up a long staircase is also a great place to see the village from above. Another place to visit is the home of Japanese explorer Ekai Kawaguchi, who was the first foreigner to visit Marpha in 1899. You can visit the house he stayed in and peer into a traditional Thakali home. The book ‘Stranger in Tibet’ by Scott Berry tells a great account of Kawaguchi’s travels in Marpha and Tibet.

Marpha is also known for its production of apples and turning them into a variety of products like apple juice, apple brandy, apple cider, dried apple rings and of course, apple pie. The town also has a bookshop and a safe water station. There are many lovely places to stay in Marpha, I recommend staying at the very friendly Paradise Guest House and ordering an apple pie!

Marpha Village

From Marpha, we choose to take the bus to Tatopani as we didn’t have the time to do the entire circuit, and we were beginning to realise that the road construction was making a lot of the trekking routes in this area quite unpleasant. However, the bus was perhaps the worst experience of my life. The vehicle was incredibly old, overpacked and the road is in horrendous condition, especially on the stretch from Ghasa to Dana which has some of the highest road drops in the world. I can’t stress enough how unsafe I felt on this section of the road, and accidents are far too common for me to be able to recommend bus transport here. If you don’t have the time to walk the section, take a flight from Jomsom to Pokhara. You can also try to team up with other trekkers and hire a private jeep which has a much better safety record. Although we had booked a bus ticket to Tatopani, we chose to get off the bus at a roadside bus just before Dana and walk the last few hours as we felt so unsafe on the bus.

When we finally arrived in Tatopani, we were very glad to find the lovely Dhaulagiri Lodge and the hot and relaxing Tatopani Hot Springs, the main reason so many trekkers stop off in Tatopani on their way back to Pokhara. The main street in Tatopani has a couple of small local momo restaurants, some Tibetan handicraft stores and well-stocked grocery shops. Tatopani also has spectacular views of Mt. Dhaulagiri, our last view of the mountains before we headed back to Pokhara (in a private jeep) the next day.

From Tatopani, the jeep takes around 4 hours to reach Pokhara. From Tatopani, you can also head to Ghorepani for the Poon Hill Trek and then into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

 If you have any questions about the Annapurna Circuit, let us know in the comments below.


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A Cultural Guide to the Annapurna Circuit

Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.

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