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Much Adu about Apple Pie, Pilgrimage to Jomosom

Day 2: Trek to Jharkot (5.5 hrs) and a visit to Muktinath (1 hr up, 30 min down)

The guys and I started the day bright and early with a breakfast of ramen noodle soup, while Ken and Lisa partook of the more conventional eggs and apple porridge. I guess I had become so accustomed to eating in the Nepali style, that the new wealth of food options surprisingly didn't tempt me. We packed up and headed out. Kagbeni lay at the bottom of large gorge leading up into Muktinath. Our trail to the top of the plateau was a perfect 30 degree incline, and we could see the ant-like figures of a long trekking congo line making its way up the smooth path. We grabbed on and took off.

We danced alongside laden donkey trains bringing provisions to the upper villages. Our music was the tinkling of the bells on the lead donkey. As we ascended, climbing from the 2810m of Kagbeni up to the 3500m of Jharkot, the air actually felt thinner and very crisp. We practiced throwing stones, trying to make them roll all the way down the canyon. The perfect 30 degree incline foiled us every time, as the stones inevitably coming to a halt under some scrubby brush that was poked and prodded by the few goat herds up here. Once the hard core trekkers pulled ahead, we settled into a nice, even pace, Ken and Lisa working their hi-tech trekking poles like a metronome. We met many Nepalis coming from all over to make the pilgrimage to Muktinath. It was an auspicious time, Nepali New Year's Eve, and we passed both sadhus and families making their way to pray at the famous and holy temple.

The desert landscape around us became increasingly surreal, more painted backdrop than reality. The sunlight was playing tricks with my eyes at this altitude. It was beautiful, tranquil and otherworldly.

As we closed in on Jharkot, the landscape was transformed again at the hands of generations of enterprising Nepalis determined to make the desert bloom. Crop fields sprung up cordoned off neatly by trim stone walls and traditional mud homes dotted the hillside. Out trail was continously marked by chautaras, stone platforms around trees or mud and stone stupas which give rest to weary pilgrims.

To build one is to accumulate much karma. To sit on one is to feel immense relief.

Jharkot loomed above us like an ancient fortress, cradled by the surrounding mountains. It was imposing, the walls rising up, covered in hundreds of years of time and soot. At the closer end, the distinctive shape of a monestary could be made out, a solid trapizoidal shape, dusty red with no outwardly facing windows, nothing to break the surface and straight out of the Middle Ages.

From the rooftops, tall poles reached to the sky, festooned with prayer flags bleached white by the sun. In fact, all color seemed to be drained from the scene. Instead the fortress of Jharkot was rendered in varying shades of grey and muted browns. We walked into the village through a small gateway and headed to one of the four lodges there and collapsed. Hungry and tired, we summoned whatever the kitchen had on hand, cooked and ready to go for a late lunch. Surprise, surprise, dhal bhat. Gaining a second wind, we headed out, might lighter this time for out gear was stowed in our rooms and made the one hour trek up to Muktinath. Prakash and Deepak quickly trekked ahead, lightened by the unburdening of their load and we followed behind, jelly legs weary and weak by the mornings exercise. Entering Muktinath under the newly built gate, we were first greeted by the rough cluster of lodges geared towards trekkers. Continuing on past the pleas of Nepali women hawking souvenirs of Tibetan jewelry and a unique weaving indigenous to the area, we continued up to the actual Temple of Muktinath situated higher up the mountainside. The day had gone from sunny to dank and grey, reflecting the limited color palette of the area. Now ascending past 3800 m, we crossed the snowline. It was misty and the air was thick with humidity. The rain just hung there, like it was trying to decide if it was actually snow.

The Vishnu temple of Jiwala Mayi is standard Hindu tiered temple architecture. The small courtyard building was itself centered in a larger courtyard surrounded by a tall stone wall with one hundred carved stone animal heads pouring forth the sacred water. The guys and I circumambulated the perimeter, passing our hand under each fountain to ritually catch some water, sip it and then toss it over our heads. Then we entered the temple compound and received tika blessing, a rice and red powder mixture, by the priests there. Non-Hindus are allowed into the compound, but not into the central sanctuary, but don't forget to remove your shoes when you enter. From there, we headed over to the Buddhist gompa, passing through a field of stone stupas, some as large as we were, others, just a few stones piled up. 

The Buddhist gompa includes a small temple that protects Muktinath's famous eternal flame. The temple is maintained by a small group of Buddhist nuns who showed us around. Taking off our shoes, we made our way forward toward the alter. There, we each kneeled down, alternately praying and peering at the natural gas jets that sprung out from the hidden spring under the alter. It's that special combination of earth, water and fire that gives Muktinath it's great religious significance.

Before heading back to Jharkot for the evening, we stopped at the equally famous Bob Marley Lodge and relaxed. While the Muktinath temple complex itself was wonderful to see, the lodging area of Muktinath is disappointing. A depressing cluster of ram-shackle lodges seemingly built as fast as possible out of as cheap materials as possible, it had nothing on Jharkot aside from the reggae stylings of No Women, No Cry. I would recommend to everyone to make Muktinath a side-trek and stay instead at Jharkot, a far more interesting and unique place to hole up. Plus, you get the added advantage of climbing high and sleeping low, the anti-altitude sickness mantra. We returned to the Sonny Lodge in Jharkot and rewarded ourselves with pizza and card games.

Jharkot itself is fascinating. Wandering through the narrow lanes transports you to another time, and it is even less developed than Kagbeni if that's possible. Tucked away in this remote corner, Jharkot feels as though nothing has changes for thousands of years. Many walls were crumbling from the ravages of time, but people continue to make their homes among them. The monestary at the far end is over five hundred years old, and its temple houses a series of blackened murals just as old. Ask someone to lit a lamp and be sure to leave a donation to help maintain it. Also at the monestary is a traditional Tibetan medicinal center devoted to collecting and researching plants and herbs. The monks there hold a wealth of knowledge and like to chat. Or you can just play with the young monks. All in all, taking out some time to savor the charms of Jharkot and the people who call it home is a highlight of the trek.

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