So as the weather turned bad in the lower Annapurna region, I wanted to continue trekking somewhere where I wouldn’t be trudging through snow, there was no risk of avalanches and low probability of being caught in a storm. Someone suggested Jomsom, a town in the Mustang area in the northern part of the Annapurna Conservation Area. A place that is in what is called the “rain shadow” of the Himalayas and is a dry, dusty landscape that stretches into the Tibetan plateau.
It’s one of the main stops on the famous Annapurna Circuit trek and by heading there I effectively did almost half of the circuit trek, although partly in the opposite direction so it wasn’t overly busy.
Within a couple of days of being back in Pokhara, I walked out to the ACAP office again to get another permit and pay another round of park fees for Jomsom. I didn’t even bother to unpack my bag and only replaced some of the snacks I’d eaten.
For more information on Pokhara and preparing for a trek in the Annapurna region, see my last post on the Khopra Ridge trek.
Of course, there was a choice to fly to Jomsom but the tickets were expensive and then I would miss out on the opportunity to experience one of the most notoriously dangerous roads in the country. The road is cut into the side of a valley following the Gandaki River; a valley some claim to be the deepest in the world if you measure from the top of the Himalayan peaks on either side.
It’s a road that was only constructed in 2008 and seems like it will be continuously under construction for decades to come. Although technically complete, the road is a very rough, skinny mountain track that skirts the edges of steep slopes and crosses streams without bridges. It is riddled with landslides and there are machines constantly working on keeping the road open (which is impossible in the monsoon and is often closed during that time).
The bus left from Lakeside Pokhara at 7am. I hadn’t booked a ticket and yet I managed to score the front window seat by just getting to the office at 6.30am. It cost 1100 rupees or AUD$14. I was told it would take anywhere between 8-12 hours and it took 11 in total for the 170km journey, including a few stops along the way for tea and lunch.
It was a bone rattling, dusty experience that was not for the faint hearted or weak stomach. However, the views of course were amazing, particularly as we got closer to Jomsom. In fact, in sections towards the end there practically was no road and the bus simply drove along the rocky river bed instead. Even some tourists in a private tour, stopped their jeep just to video our bus drive past as if to say, “Can you believe a bus can even drive up here?”.
The bus dropped us in Old Jomsom, past the newer sprawl of the town where the nicer hotels are next to the airport. I’d head Old Jomsom was less commercialised anyway and I went in search of a place to stay before dark. There was only a few options there and I ended up staying at Hotel New Galaxy for 600 rupees, other places were asking for around 1000.
Day One: Old Jomsom to Kagbeni
The trail from Jomsom up to Kagbeni followed the newly built dirt road and as jeeps, motorbikes and buses flew past, it felt like my lungs were drowning in dust. Still, it was such a change of landscape to where I’d been trekking just days before and with the desert like moonscape around me I felt much more remote, although as soon as a vehicle came by in a cloud of dust I knew it was far from remote in reality.
Road construction was still going on and as I was walking underneath a bridge being constructed, rocks came tumbling down from the machines working above. Luckily I moved out of the way in time and a local jeep driver stopped to make sure I was okay. Still, with motorbikes, buses, jeeps, excavation machines, trekkers and even cyclists all sharing the same dirt road, it’s really not an ideal situation and I can understand how some people are saying that the Annapurna Circuit has been ruined.
As I arrived in the small town of Kagbeni, almost appearing like an oasis in the dry desert surrounding it, I searched for a room for the night. I tried multiple lodges and all said that they were full. I walked passed a place called YakDonalds where an Australian motorbike tour group were sitting and I went inside. The lady wanted 1000 rupees (AUD$12) for a room, which to me was insane but I took it anyway. It turned out to be a nice hotel rather than a trekking lodge which was nice for a change and even had a fancy menu with yak burgers and wine.
Distance: 9km Time: 2.5 hours Ascended: 110m
Day Two: Kagbeni to Muktinath
The trail continued to follow the main road which was actually sealed with tarmac. Muktinath is one of the most sacred, shared Hindu and Buddhist sites in Nepal and so the government had recently paved the road to allow easier bus travel for pilgrims. It was a steep climb leaving Kagbeni and I found little goat tracks that cut off the hairpin bends along the way. After 1.5 hours, however, the road flattened out as Muktinath came into view in the distance.
I lost count of the amount of buses and jeeps that passed me, it seemed like hundreds and I couldn’t believe how popular such a remote place was. The beautiful contrast of the brown desert and snow capped peaks in the valley were somehow dampened by the constant sound of vehicles and loud horns.
I arrived at a small, medieval town of Jharkot and decided to walk around to explore. It seemed ancient, with mud brick buildings painted in white. It was pure bliss, with just the quiet sound of my feet away from the road at last.
I continued on towards Ranipauwa, the name of the town at Muktinath. During the final steep climb up to town I caught up with a sadhu pilgrim, on his way to the temple. He spoke little English but said he had also walked from Jomsom, so I gave him a small donation for food as he allowed me to take his photo. Sadhus rely heavily on donations for food and shelter and Muktinath is known to have pilgrims walking for days and even weeks to get to the temple.
The bus park in Muktinath was congested with all the vehicles that had been passing me and I realised that it really was hundreds of buses. People were streaming through the small town, some on foot and others on horseback as the sudden gain in altitude affected many who came by bus.
I found a highly recommended trekkers lodge called Bob Marley Hotel where the room was free and the dining room packed full of trekkers who had just come over the Thorong Pass on the Annapurna Circuit.
The temple complex at Muktinath was rather disappointing for a non-Hindu or Buddhist, as it was just a small series of temples, a ghat and a large Buddha statue, however, seeing the pilgrims struggling up to 3700m in the belief that it will bring salvation was still a special experience.
Distance: 10km Time: 3.5 hours Ascended: 840m
Day Three: Muktinath to Jomsom via Lubra
I found out that it was a special Hindu holiday over the two days, which explained why there were so many people making the trip to Muktinath and filling up the lodges in Kagbeni. As I left Muktinath at 9am, pilgrims were still streaming into town and I decided to take the alternative route back to Jomsom via Lubra to avoid the road completely, despite it being much more challenging.
I walked through the bus park and followed the trail on the Maps.me app, as there were no signs indicating which trail to take. The trail climbed up steeply, reaching to 3900m at the top of the small pass. The views were incredible and I had a 360 degree panorama of the Mustang region from the Thorong Pass to Upper Mustang and to Dhaulagiri back towards Jomsom.
From there, the trail skirted around the mountain, even a stretch that was through snow, a thing that I thought I had left behind in Khopra. Then, it was a steep, rocky descent all the way down to the small, secluded village of Lubra, thought to be the last remaining place where the Bon religion is practiced.
I stopped for lunch at Musk Deer Restaurant, where the lady made me traditional buckwheat bread with veg curry along with local seabuckthorn juice. It was delicious.
From Lubra, the lady told me there were two options to get back to Jomsom. The proper trail went up and along the valley slope on a skinny goat track, or I could just walk back through the dry riverbed and link up with the road. I took the former option even though she recommended the latter and I soon figured out why.
The skinny, rocky trail undulated along the side of the valley, following the riverbed that was down below. At first, I thought I had made a good choice as the views were much better and I wasn’t walking down in a riverbed. However, as I came close to meeting back up with the road to Jomsom, the wind became so strong I could hardly stay upright. There had been blue and white markers consistently, however, they completely disappeared and it seemed the trail just stopped.
I could hardly see anything with the wind and dust blowing into my face, but I could see that the road was just a steep 100m drop below me. How do I get down there?! I saw a porter down on the road and I yelled out to him through the howling wind. He stopped and motioned me to go back and then kept walking. I was on the verge of panicking but it was really the strong wind which was making me nervous.
I backtracked along the edge of the cliff and saw that it became less steep, so I found a section where I could slowly scramble my way down. I was so relieved to be back on the road to Jomsom but it didn’t take long for the relief to be replaced with frustration as I continued to battle the gale force winds. The buses and jeeps all returning from Muktinath passed me making it more like a dust storm and I had my buff around my face and sunglasses on feeling as if I was a nomad battling the sands in the Sahara Desert.
I soon discovered that the reason I had seemingly lost the trail above me was because recent road construction had seemingly cut into the cliff of the valley and simultaneously cut off the end of the trail. By the time I got back to Jomsom, I was exhausted, filthy and so frustrated at the bloody road. I walked to the new part of Jomsom and soon discovered that hotels were much more expensive there. I almost thought I wasn’t going to be let into one judging on how I looked but the lady at Himalayan Inn kindly let me in. For 1000 rupees or AUD$12 I got a private room and my own bathroom, which was overpriced but at that moment it was the least of my worries.
Distance: 19km Time: 6.5 hours Ascended: 200m Descended: 940m
Day Four: Jomsom to Marpha via thini and dhumba lake
I only had a short day ahead of me, which was a relief. The wind was still kicking around and even the flights leaving Jomsom were all cancelled. I decided to walk to Marpha via the route through Thini, a small traditional village, and Dhumba Lake, which mostly avoided the road.
Just half an hour from Jomsom, the small beautiful village of Thini was my favourite of the villages I would pass on the way down to Tatopani. It was so peaceful and picturesque and I would have preferred to have spent the night in the community guesthouse there instead of Jomsom, if the day before hadn’t ended in a dust storm.
From Thini I continued to Dhumba Lake, at the base of Nilgiri, with an emerald green colour. I wasn’t certain if there was a way to Marpha, however, a local man there assured me there was by following the road down. Again, markers failed to appear and I thought, “Please, don’t do this to me again…” However, much to my relief there were in fact two bridges across the fast-flowing river at the bottom.
I arrived in Marpha at 12pm, another beautiful village that is often described as a trekkers favourite. The cobbled stone streets were pretty, however, perhaps its best feature is the absence of vehicles as the road was built around rather than through the village.
I picked a lodge called Dhaulagiri Guesthouse, a lovely family run place. I had lunch and decided to rest for the day, as the winds were still strong and I’d had enough of the road for the day already.
Distance: 10km Time: 3 hours Descended: 80m
Day Five: Marpha to kokhethanti
From Marpha onwards, trekkers were given two options since the road construction in 2008, either follow the road or take the new trail that went up and down along the valley slopes. Without a doubt I decided to take the trail, although a lot of the trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit opted for the road because it was much flatter.
From Marpha the trail headed up to a village called Chimrang. A Croatian man had no map, no Maps.me on his phone and wasn’t aware of the painted markers on the trail, so I gained a companion for the day because, “You look like you know what you’re doing!”. After Chimrang, the trail went down through forest before heading back up again to another cluster of houses before descending again to a village called Sauru. The undulations had been pretty tough on the legs and I decided to stop for lunch early.
From Sauru, the village practically skirted along the folds of the valley beside the river and was much easier. However, dark clouds rolled in not long after I’d eaten and soon it was pouring with rain. For the last 5km, the rain didn’t let up and as soon as I came into Kokhethanti, a cluster of 10 houses and one lodge, I’d already made the decision to stop for the day. Once the rain stopped in the evening, however, the view of the icefall of Dhaulagiri was pretty amazing.
Distance: 17km Time: 6 hours Ascended: 270m Descended: 270m
Day Six: kokhethanti to tatopani
I left just before 8am for a rare early start. I met an intersection within five minutes where I had the option to go straight and meet up with the main road again or turn left and head up to Titi Lake. I considered it for a minute, as my legs were starting to tire and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to climb anymore. However, I found myself veering left and making my way to Titi. After one hour of climbing in the crisp morning air I arrived at Titi Lake, which was nothing special, but the view of Dhaulagiri peak, the seventh highest mountain in the world, was something else. It towered above the village, extremely close and in the clear sky I would have easily been able to see someone climbing to the summit if they were.
From there I kept going to a village called Konjo, again mostly following the Maps.me app on my phone, as the signs were few and far between. The trail then wound away from the mountains and down to a village called Choyo where I had no choice but to meet back up with road via a suspension bridge. I was so glad that I’d made the decision to go that way instead of following the road, and it had put me in good spirits for the rest of the day.
The road was relatively quiet and hardly any vehicles passed me. It was practically all down hill and I maintained a good pace. I couldn’t believe that it was the very road that I’d come up in a bus, it really is hard to believe vehicles ply along the rocky mountain road. There were countless landslides I passed that had been cleared, a sign that the road will never really be completely safe.
I arrived in Ghasa at 12pm and found a lodge to eat some lunch before continuing on. From Ghasa, there was an option to cross to the other side of the valley and follow a goat trail through more villages. I decided to take it and was so glad that I did, as I was able to watch the buses coming up the treacherous road safely from the other side. The white capped mountains suddenly vanished behind me and the scenery changed back to green, terraces surrounding scattered houses.
I descended steeply down to the river again and crossed to a town called Dana. I had previously thought I would stay the night there in one of the three lodges available, however, it was 3.30pm and there was only 6km left to Tatopani so I decided to push on. Similarly to the ending of the Langtang Valley trek, I soon realised that my legs were much more tired than I’d thought. I saw dark clouds coming overhead and the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in rain, so I kept my pace up and pushed on. I covered the last 6km in exactly one hour, beating the rain and absolutely destroying my legs and feet in the process.
I stumbled into Tatopani, and walked straight into Hotel Himalaya without any energy to scope out other places. I’d had my biggest day yet on the trails of Nepal and it was fair to say that I was pretty fucked.
Distance: 30km Time: 8.5 hours Ascended: 230m Descended: 1360m
From Tatopani, the original Annapurna Circuit takes trekkers up to Ghorepani and Poon Hill before going back to Pokhara. However, considering I’d already trekked through Ghorepani on the way to Khopra I decided my trek was complete and my time in the Annapurna region over.
In Tatopani, there is a ‘bus park‘ just down below from the village where one booking counter sits. A direct bus to Pokhara leaves at 8am and it’s best to be there before 7.30am to get a ticket, but it wasn’t near full. The bumpy ride took around 6-7 hours, as it stopped to pick and drop locals along the way. Apparently, there is also the option to take a jeep or bus which come through frequently to Besi, where it’s possible to change to a bus for Pokhara.
Most of the accommodation was standard teahouse trekking type-rooms, with a basic bed and shared bathroom, the exception was in Kagbeni and Jomsom where it was more of a hotel. However, prices were a little on the steep side, especially those two places, but they see a lot of tourists, not only trekkers, so it can be expected.
Food was slightly different than on the other treks I’d done. The standard trekking meals of fried rice, chow mien, pasta and fried potatoes were widely available, however, there was also a wide variety of other meals on offer which was quite exciting (believe me, porridge and fried rice got boring after days of trekking).
Buckwheat is grown in the area and so places offered buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, an absolute gem for gluten tree travellers like myself. A couple of the smaller villages along the way also had buckwheat bread.
Apple pie, is probably the most famous food item of the Annapurna Circuit and apple trees can be seen everywhere along the way. Apple is on every menu in various forms, even apple and cinnamon tea.
There are also many more western options like pizza, burritos, even risotto, particularly in Kagbeni, Jomsom and Muktinath.
As the trail followed the Annapurna Circuit, it is pretty well marked with painted markings in sections as well as signposts and maps at major towns. I certainly didn’t need my map, however, Maps.me came in handy many times on the trail from Jomsom to Tatopani, especially as I tried to avoid the road as much as possible. Some of the turnoffs to alternative trails were hard to find if you weren’t looking for them.
Permit and park fees: 5000 rupees or AUD$65
Transport (to and from): 1700 rupees or AUD$22
Snacks: 1350 rupees or AUD$17
Sleeping bag rental: 1200 rupees or AUD$15
Meals and accommodation: 14,000 rupees or AUD$180
Total: AUD$299 for seven nights, eight days