Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jomsom to Muktinath, by Amanda Vaughan

You know it’s going to be good, when the mountain biking trip starts with an early morning mountain flight, and you're letting a little air out of your tyres before handing your trusty steed onto the tiny plane. Our guide, Arun advised us to sit on the right side to take in the most breathtaking of the views. In reality, anywhere we looked was just amazing, and for the next 21 minutes we all gaped like kids - the lucky ones - who even got a view of the cockpit. Landing in Jomsom, the group regained speech once again to share thoughts on the enormity of the mountain range, it’s depth and beauty, those tiny settlements and who’d spotted the wild looking singletrack?! 

Greeted to some fully fresh air, and a hearty breakfast, we had enough time to drink masala tea, and chat with some trekkers who were loading up their mules ready for their Annapurna Circuit trek. We also met Hakpa, our porter who'd be looking after all of our extra stuff for the trip.  Everyone was surprised by the heat - mid November was feeling warm, and ideal for riding - even at 2,682 metres above sea level.

The first leg took us up along the Kali Gandaki river, winding through the valley on a combination of dusty jeep track and narrow singletrack. Arun was soon able to point out Kagbeni in the distance, named as the "bolt at two rivers". Before reaching the village we had a couple of options which could be viewed in the mountainscape. We chose to check out a singletrack on the other side of the river, it looked like it could drop into the village from the far side, and it was also unchartered territory for Arun, so we were all quite excited to see what it may bring....

As it turned out, that trail didn't link to another bridge, and a shepherd advised us to head back. Arun lead a new route towards the riverbed,where it would have been rude not to accept an invitation for tea in a local farmers' apple orchard. 

It was late afternoon at Red House Lodge, Kagbeni. Tilicho Peak (7,134m) was cast in deepest red with only the strongest shards of sun now braking their way through the mass of mountains from the west, and night was creeping in to bite down on the milk white capped horizon. We may as well have been sat in a museum, though it was somewhat cosier. Ancient relics adorned the walls and the layout of the settlement felt so unique. Situated within the north-south orientation of the Kali Gandaki valley, wind sweeps between the Himalayan foreland and the High plateau of Tibet, and each afternoon the wind picks up and can throw through the valley at quite a pace. The settlements, and the agriculture of the land have been constructed with this in mind, so it's pretty unique. There's even been a film made about this place, aptly named 'Kagbeni'.

Day 2 was an early start, and mainly about getting more height. We stopped for mint tea along the way, and caught the undeniable horns of a yak's head, looming out of a cone shaped wicker basket, just there by the wall. So freshly decapitated, it glistened with wet blood in the sun, waiting to be whisked away by an old lady who placed a long attached cloth strap over her forehead in front of the basket, then charged forward to lift the basket and balance it on her tiny, bent-over back.  

We arrived in Muktinath for around 2pm. Local women here competed to sell their bright, hand woven scarves as we walked up to the Temple, (3,710m). It was really beautiful, and fascinating to see how water from the Kali Gandaki has been redirected to flow through the mouths of 108 bulls surrounding the Temple. That evening, our cosy hotel was a melting pot of Nationalities, with a restaurant menu to match. Guests ranged from worn out trekkers returning from Thorong La Pass, to Christian missionaries who had come from Upper Mustang. There was a rumour going round for a few minutes that they steamed the pizza, so someone had to order it out of curiosity.

Day 3 started well, after a full night's sleep at altitude, we were good to make the last climb up to the pinnacle of our adventure. Trekkers waved us along a gorgeous singletrack, and we tackled a short, but tough climb. At this sort of height, your heart really pounds on the inclines. The views by this point though were just amazing, so we took our time, and lots of pictures. Tom spotted a freeride line, and decided to hike his way over to a steep scree slope. It started generating all this commotion with the trekking group, who had now caught us up on the singletrack ascent. Tom was by now a speck in the distance, but we all got a sweet view of him trailing dust as he set off, snaking down the mountain. He was welcomed at the top, (3,918m) with a bunch of hand shakes from others who'd seen him ride an alternative line.

From here, we were going down, and more down!! It was time to get loose on the dusty, flat corners. Open singletrack allowed for more speed, and off camber straights where grip was just a state of mind. The descent got steeper, more technical, and more fun the further down you got towards Lupra Valley. Exposed cliff edge switchbacks flashed the first views of the riverbed below, but you didn't want to look there (or think about that). The only thing to think of was the ride. Which was ace. We hit the valley floor, (2,790m) and everyone was pretty buzzing.

The rest of the day was spent riding mainly as a gang, our team of five, side by side popping over rocks and choosing our own lines amid the ancient gorge.We passed back through Jomsom, our starting point from three days earlier, and now things felt a little different. We were more accustomed or something, more attuned to the riding with its obstacles and features along the way. We marveled at a herd of yaks, the mountains had opened our senses to these beautiful mythical beasts.

We spent the evening in a stunning Dutch guesthouse. We had an open fire, fresh homemade spinach pasta, and the best apple crumble ever known to guy and girl. Out was a brilliant night sky. I think we stood out there for maybe an hour, chatting and wondering over the Milky Way, and looking out for shooting stars.

Day 4; down hill a load more. It started with some jeep track, which got fast, and super loose in places. Countless journeys made by the hand painted Indian buses and all their weighty cargo had churned up the road into this mad, and often steep, rock garden style terrain. Full suspension really came into its own here, and in places you could almost choose which features you were going to hit, like the shorter, black skull and cross bones sections you might get at a trail centre.  

We crossed over water by a series of temporary bridges, some just a skinny plank in width, and we hit a beautiful undulating singletrack, which hugged a tall overhanging white cliff, riverside. This took us into a beautiful woodland for more fast, winding singletrack through the trees. Later we veered from the river to approach a path into a forest, which could have been straight out of The Lake District, England. Rocks, earth and moss filled this jaunty singletrack, shaded by the green canopy. It was worth a push back up to ride twice.

Back into the beating sun, it was becoming more apparent that we were dropping in height. It became so green, almost jungly. We rejoined our infamous jeep track and passed a few waterfalls, one of which sprawled onto the jagged, washed out 'road' and it was hard to imagine buses could drive through it.

We arrived in Tatopani, and drank sweet, victory Lassi's (before we drank beer, of course); the guesthouse garden was drenched in tangerine trees. After a huge Dal Baht and a spot of Tibetan relic shopping, there was little more to do than take a 5 minute stroll through the quaint village to the local spring where the village got it's name, for a hot bathe, and a cold beer. At the same time. It could have been the best day yet, if you had to choose.

The final day, and it felt like the end. We continued on the jeep track, which was cast in the morning shade, and the terrain had chilled out somewhat, or we had become more accustomed to it, I can't be sure. We passed through small villages, high fiving kids on their way to school. We arrived in Beni for brunch, before thanking and waving off Hakpa, who'd magically appeared smiling every evening, with our bags. Then we jumped aboard our bus to Pokhara. 

We spent our last evening quizzing Arun, over dinner and drinks. Had he ever had any major disasters during his guiding career? Had any of his guests ever not got on with each other, or been a nightmare to work for? We were all pretty dam chuffed with our experience, almost smug. But it turns out that we were not alone. We were Arun's fifth group on this same trip, this season, and he could safely say we weren't the only ones who'd had a good time.   

Many thanks to Arun and the whole HST crew for making the trip happen, and to Jackie, Jeff, John and Tom for being top riding pals xx   

1 comment:

  1. Nice post Amanda! You captured so much of the magic. Truly amazing place; sparkling rides. And great friends, too!