Mountain Views (and Jimi Hendrix) on a Pilgrimage to Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Valley

On a quest for purple haze and eternal flames in the Kali Gandaki Valley.  
Mountains Nepal Kali Gandaki
The snow-clad massifs of the Dhaulagiri Himal and Tukuche that rise above Muktinath are in sharp contrast to the barren splendour of the region. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

I’ve been told that the rooftop restaurant at Pokhara’s small airport offers a lovely panorama of the Annapurna range. But at the moment, all I can see through the glass panel is the smudged, slate-coloured sky. The weather is unusually inclement for late October, and has thrown flight schedules off gear.

It is mid-morning when the weather clears, and my flight is announced. The 20-seater aircraft will take us from this bustling Himalayan town, across the mountains to the solitude of the Trans-Himalayan range, specifically to the upper reaches of the Kali Gandaki valley.

Some of my fellow passengers are on a pilgrimage to Muktinath Temple, and a large group of intrepid trekkers are on their way to trek the Annapurna Circuit. I’m planning a bit of both: a leisurely hike through the medieval villages of the Lower Mustang area, to soak in the indigenous Thakali culture that survives in these remote parts of western Nepal.

Long, corrugated mountain ridges appear dangerously close to the window as the plane swerves between them along a curving valley. Shimmering below in the morning light is the Kali Gandaki River, which flows through one of the deepest gorges in the world.

Fifteen minutes later, the plane lurches and we are descending, then jolting and heaving to a stop on a tiny, wind-pummelled airstrip amid an immense, sun-brown desolation.

I have reached Jomsom.

Horsemen Mustang Nepal Kali Gandaki

The skilled Thakali riders of Mustang navigate the roughest of terrains, and horses remain the preferred mode of transportation in the valley. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

On the Jimi Hendrix Trail in Jomsom

The town of Jomsom (9,055 feet) straddles the Kali Gandaki River and is the headquarters of the Mustang district, but it looks and feels like a charming village. Standing guard above it is Nilgiri North (23,166 feet), one of the loveliest mountains of the Nepal Himalayas—its three peaks crowned in radiant snow.

Most backpackers do not linger in Jomsom to soak in its rustic charm, but I have reason to explore the town. After a quick lunch of a succulent yak burger, washed down with some strong Mustang coffee (a curious blend of coffee and raksi, the locally brewed rice wine), I head towards the northern part of Jomsom, past a row of guest houses with their backs to the sheer limestone cliffs. I cross a rickety iron bridge over the Kali Gandaki and arrive at Thak-Khola Lodge. Jimi Hendrix is said to have stayed here in 1967, while following the hippie trail to the Annapurnas during the swinging sixties. Room No. 6, with its blue door, is named after the rock legend.

I ask Norbu Thakali, the sinewy old owner of the teahouse, as lodges in this area are known, why Hendrix was here.

“Must be purple haze,” Norbu replies, his eyes crinkling with good-humoured wrinkles as he smiles. “Purple haze is a particular variety of cannabis that grew here. Purple in colour and very strong. The hippies loved it.” A little ruefully, he adds, “you won’t find it anymore.”

I know of Hendrix’s chartbusting single, “Purple Haze,” which released in 1967. But if it is true that the song had a Jomsom connection, Hendrix did not choose to describe it; he died three years later of a drug overdose.

A Zen Monk in Marpha’s Apple Country

Apples Nepal Kali Gandaki

In the apple district of Marpha, wealth is often gauged by the number of apple trees a person owns. Photo: Shikhar Bhatt Rai/iStock

The next morning, I set off early towards Marpha, a two-hour hike south of Jomsom. The trail runs flat over the riverbed of the Kali Gandaki, now partly dry, and the rock-strewn floor is easy to navigate. On my left, the craggy silhouette of one mountaintop after another rises above the horizon, topped by the magnificent Nilgiri, which leans casually against a cerulean sky.

I walk past a wall of mani stones inscribed with Buddhist prayers and enter Marpha village. It is an oasis of green amid the ochre starkness of the mountains surrounding it. A flagstone-paved street meanders through the village, lined on both sides by typical Thakali architecture: whitewashed houses with flat roofs, where heaps of apples dry in the autumn sun.

Somewhere down this lane, fresh apples are sizzling with cinnamon, sugar, and butter. I follow the smell, walking past old men shuffling down the path with baskets of buckwheat strapped across their foreheads, and children playing hide-and-seek. I squeeze through a tiny maroon-framed door into the courtyard of a bakery. Four tables are neatly laid out in the sunlit space.

Sasi Hirachan serves me some of the delicious apple crumble she has whipped up. “Marpha is Nepal’s apple capital,” she says. I tell her that I have read about Marpha apples in Three Years in Tibet, a book by Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi in 1909.

Her face lights up. “But he stayed just next door!” she exclaims. Sasi leads me to a sprawling mansion. A yellow sign above its elegant wooden facade commemorates the visit of the Zen monk, who left his country to explore the world and stayed here for three months in the summer of 1900, in the guise of a Tibetan lama. Upstairs, I find a small museum that houses his personal belongings. On a shelf is a tattered copy of Kawaguchi’s book. Mentioned in it are his host, the village headman of Marpha, who helped him on his secret journey to Tibet, the sophisticated Thakali culture, and of course, Marpha’s apple orchards.

I retrace my steps to Jomsom, my knapsack a little heavier with the weight of crisp green apples. Sasi told me they would come in handy during my hike to Muktinath over the next two days.

Medieval Whorls of Kagbeni

Kagbeni Nepal Kali Gandaki

The huge clay effigy at the Thakali village of Kagbeni is lovingly called meme or grandfather by residents. Photo: Dave Stamboulis/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

Thick, sweet Thakali bread made without yeast, and a generous helping of homemade yak cheese make up my breakfast the next morning. Later, I embark on the long ramble to Kagbeni, the village that is the first night’s halt on the way up to Muktinath. The dusty trail looks like an ugly scar on the face of the mountain. After crossing a footbridge, I descend into the wide riverbed. The austere, dun-coloured hills in the windswept upland around the trail resemble colossal abstract sculptures, twisted out of proportion by their creator.

A few public buses and service jeeps raise dust, rattling up what is considered one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Mustang horsemen ride past the long file of pilgrims and backpackers. Between protecting my camera from the dust with a silk scarf from Marpha, and trying to capture the landscape during moments of calm, I scour the river basin for ammonite fossils called shaligrams. I’m hoping that some might have escaped finding their way to the little village curio shops that sell ethnic jewellery, stones, and knick-knacks. Men have been collecting these prized fossils for centuries, and expectedly, I find none.

But the search slows my pace. Just before reaching Kagbeni, a wind begins to stir along the riverbed, quickly building into an unrelenting gale. Throwing caution to the wind, I run helterskelter over the boulders, race across a footbridge where a stream meets with the Kali Gandaki, and barge into a large red house with a hotel sign dangling from a window. It is around midday.

After the gale blows over in the afternoon, I wander through Kagbeni, a delightfully lively but antique place. Residents, visitors, and horses fill a labyrinth of lanes that are interspersed with chortens and prayer wheels, and lined by crumbling mud houses with red-bordered windows and ground floor stables.

In the cobblestone alleys, I keep bumping into Peter Hopkins, an anthropologist from New Zealand who is staying at my hotel. He shows me a huge, fierce-looking, permanently aroused clay effigy attached to a wall in the village square. “This one predates Buddhism in the valley,” he says. This ancient guardian deity of Kagbeni is believed to date back to a time when ancient salt traders settled here.

Later in the afternoon, Peter and I clamber up to a brick-red monastery, perched atop a ridge above the village. A wizened monk takes us into the chapel, which is thick with the smell of centuries of melted yak butter. Shafts of sunlight stream in from skylights to light up old murals. The old lama shows us an ancient text, written in gold, which was apparently brought here from Tibet when the monastery was founded in 1429.

Autumn Splendour and Muktinath

Jharkot Nepal Kali Gandaki

The tiny medieval village of Jharkot is a pit stop for trekkers on the way to Muktinath or Thorung La. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

The gradient is steeper the next morning, providing beautiful views of the gently rolling fields of golden buckwheat and barley nestling in the wedge of land that juts above Kagbeni. The vista has changed: past the rugged desert mountain zone, I walk through farmland and meadows gurgling with small rivulets. As if on cue the sky turns dark, casting shadows as I reach the medieval village of Jharkot built on a gradually sloping ridge that drops abruptly at the other end. The citadel with its monastery looks spectacular with the mountains as backdrop.

Beyond Jharkot, the path ascends quickly to the string of hotels in Ranipauwa village at the base of the Muktinath shrine. One of these is called Hotel Bob Marley, and its funky decor draws me inside. I grab an early lunch of pasta sprinkled with local herbs, just the thing to fortify me before the short walk, past the Tibetan traders and sadhus, to Muktinath.

The shrines of Muktinath lie scattered amid surprisingly thick alpine groves for this altitude of 12,170 feet. I step carefully over the watery traces of last night’s snow to the Jwala Ji shrine in the temple complex. Inside burns Jwalamai, an eternal flame caused by natural gas seeping out of rock fissures. This shrine has attracted Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims for centuries. The high notes of the temple bells of the pagoda-styled Vishnu shrine merge with the Buddhist chants of the monastery on its right. The sky turns a deep delphinium blue to expose the majestic cliff of Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest mountain, at a far corner of the horizon.

Muktinath Nepal Kali Gandaki

The Muktinath temple complex has 108 water spouts shaped like bull heads. Photo: Frank Bienewald/Contributor/LightRocket/Getty Images

Prayer flags criss-crossed atop the shrines start snapping in the strong breeze that starts blowing from the north. I begin my slow descent over the stone path that leads to the valley below. I am looking forward to another evening of walking through those lanes around the village square of Kagbeni before catching my flight to Pokhara the next day. A part of me hopes the wind blowing in will delay my departure.


The Guide

Women Nepal Kali Gandaki

It is common to see hardy Thakali women go about daily chores with their infants strapped on their backs. Photo: Hadynyah/E+/Getty Images

Getting There A few private airlines operate in the Pokhara-Jomsom sector, flying 20-seater crafts. (The writer flew Tara Air, $113/₹7,680 one-way. Others include Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines.) Book in advance in the high season (Apr-May and Sep-Oct). Hiring a jeep or taking the bus that runs the 18-km stretch from Jomsom to Muktinath once daily is a bone-rattling, but shorter alternative to walking. Biking the windy road is another option.

Do the Trek The trek from Jomsom (9,055 ft) to Muktinath (12,172 ft) and back requires 4-5 days of easy hiking. There are teahouses along the way in the villages of Jomsom, Kagbeni, Jharkot, and Ranipauwa. These are family-run guest houses that offer basic but comfortable accommodation for ₹300-1,000 a night. Food choices are wide, from hand-tossed pizzas, yak steak sizzlers, and homemade pasta, to apple pie and crumbles. This can be washed down with some Mustang coffee or fresh sea buckthorn juice.

Travel Tips As the route falls within the Annapurna Sanctuary, you need to get the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) before leaving Pokhara. Plan for an extra day in Kagbeni if your schedule permits. Rooms are charged at a higher rate if you do not eat meals at the guest house.

Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “Mustang Sallies”.

Photo: Shikhar Bhatt Rai/iStock

Shaligram Story

Revered by Hindus as manifestations of the god Vishnu, shaligrams are spiral-shaped black stones. They are actually fossils of ammonites, extinct molluscs estimated to have lived 140 to 165 million years ago, before the Himalayas were formed. Shaligrams are mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts and in the writings of the seventh-century Hindu philosopher and reformer Adi Shankara. The profusion of shaligrams in the upper reaches of Kali Gandaki makes it a holy river.

  • Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).

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