Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jomsom/Marpha December Adventure

This is a post written by Robin in hindsight.  In real time it was (as many vacation adventure stories are) a little teeney weeney bit grimmer. 

This is the newest lama in the Marpha Monastery.

This is Marpha, in the Mustang District of Northern Nepal.  Tibet is (vaguely) on the other side of the mountain. 

Pokhara to Jomsom

We all very much wanted to go to a small village named Marpha in the north of Nepal (nearest border = Tibet), us because it's a classic northern Nepalese village; Jeny's dad (Rajindra) because it's his home village; and Jeny because she trekked there once at 17 and has not been back since. To get to this remote part of Nepal you either trek for days or fly for 20 minutes. As it turned out, we did both.

Getting out of Pokhara you fly to nearby Jomsom; this involved a bit of packing and a whole lot of bureaucracy. As “individual trekkers,” foreigners have to register with two governmental agencies -- “The Nepal Tourism Board” and the “Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal” – and have your photo taken; fortunately several “Photo Shoppes” have sprung out of the tiny residences attached to the Tourist Registration Office. Finally a whole cadre of bureaucrats folds, staples and arranges your entry card, and then takes your twenty bucks apiece (and like virtually every place in Nepal they don't take credit cards).

My eyes were sort of rolling in the back of my head with this once-again-roll-the-tourist-for-his-loose-change scheme, but my eye was caught by simple signs explaining that the tourist money went to ACOP, and that the funds were used to help the tourist areas. And, indeed, by the end of our stay around Jomsom I had seen several impressive instances of probable long-term improvements to the area including newly planted replacement pine forests, agricultural demonstration fields,and the ever-present Women's Craft Projects, all sponsored by ACOP. It felt like a good place for our twenties to go.

So finally on Christmas Eve we flew out of the incredibly tiny Pokhara Airport which has one small landing strip, one waiting area, and one very large restaurant that runs the whole length of the landing strip offering unparalleled photo ops. Our plane had one seat on each side of the aisle and the right side immediately filled up, so right away you knew where the mountains were:  to the right!. The views were spectacular (Kenzie says the flight was his favorite part of the trip) – huge, craggy inaccessible snow-topped mountains, deep craggy inaccessible chasms down below, with hundreds of tiny terraced pieces of farm land very occasionally dotted by a single smoking chimney from a farmhouse far below.

Gazing down I mostly thought about how little contact the people down there must have with city people as just getting in or out looked nearly impossible.  Little did we know we'd be traversing that remote and seemingly inaccessible territory ourselves in less than 24 hours.

My first impression of landing in Jomsom (which involves flying over a high mountain, rolling down the other side and then laying down at the bottom of the hill, it's that abrupt) was of Montana without any dirt – the same high craggy hills surrounding empty plains. That was before I turned my head to the right where it became apparent that the tedium of plains in fact occupied a very small percentage of our surroundings – the landing strip was flat, and the main street in Jomsom was flat, but everything else was mountains upon mountains all around.

We checked into a guesthouse (“Trekkers Guesthouse”) owned by one of many of “Jeny's Dad's Friends” (“JDL”) and almost immediately set out for Marpha, Rajindra's ancestral village. A two-year-old “road” – an unpaved minimally engineered byway just wide enough for a single small car – ekes itself along the cliffs above the main river. We were surrounded to the right by sheets and sheets of granite and limestone that approximated a moonscape, and to the left a fertile
river valley in winter.

Jomsom to Marpha

It was a two-to-three hour trek, mostly uphill, and mostly alone; once in a great while a motorbike would whiz by and once in a while we trudged through a tiny cliffside village. Suddenly, though, we rounded the corner to the metropolis of Marpha, apple capital of Nepal and about as northern-Nepal picturesque as it can get.

The town is nestled into the side of the mountain, relocated a bunch of generations ago from the other side of the hill because of the land's fecundity.

At its highest point is an ancient Buddhist monastery literally built into the side of the cliff, but the town's landscape is dominated by a more recent twentieth century monastery (built after a famous Japanese lama and traveler visited in 1899 and still with strong ties to Japan) and even more recent Meditation Centre, which hosts 70-80 groups a year who come for 30 day to six months of meditation and yoga retreats. The Meditation Centre also hosts people who are there for solitary meditations which are done for 7-14 days in tiny huts. Each hut (shown here)

has a rudimentary bathroom, a cot, a slot in the door for food to be passed through, and a tiny bell with which to relay emergency messages. The back drop is sheer cliff as old as the ages.

The houses in Marpha line narrow slate-paved passageways. They are small peasant homes with animals in central courtyards (the house shown below belongs to Jeny's mom's family, and we met lots of her relatives). The passageways are just wide enough for an ox or a donkey carrying firewood to walk through. The houses are mostly attached to each other so even though the walkway slate is light colored the narrowness of the passages makes for some dim transits.

We stopped at a small guesthouse run by another “JDL” (actually a distant relative) where we were handed an English menu (they serve a lot of trekkers) but were asked to write down our own orders as English is not much understood. Then, very excitedly, Jeny's dad told us he wanted to take us to his own home, because, he kept insisting, “I want to show you my personal monastery.”

I kept thinking I misunderstood and that we were going to go to that hillside monastery, but no, he took us into the house in which he grew up. Where he did, indeed, have his own personal monastery, which has been there for TWO HUNDRED YEARS.

We obtained the key for a nondescript door that led to a dark inner dirt pathway. We walked through a small animal enclosure in the courtyard of his home, climbed the stairs, walked down an upstairs walk way, ducked into a doorway, and stepped into a darkened room that measured about 12 by 18 feet. It was a total and complete Buddhist monastery! It was jammed with statues of Buddha and other gods, paintings, various prayer wheels, small nooks with idols, altars with incense, a drum, antique pitchers used for the holy water, and, unbelievably, over a hundred two-hundred-year-old handwritten Buddhist prayer books. It was like walking into a museum exhibit; we were absolutely agape.

Jeny and I kept taking pictures and asking him over and over “Does anybody know this is here? Has anybody ever seen this?” It turns out Tibetan and other monks come by once a year to read from the books, and Rajindra has hired people to take care of the place while he's away. Some of the paintings have been re-done in the last few years and the place is kept meticulously clean, plus it's so cold much of the time that there is little in the way of deterioration. Still, the idea that such a treasure is a total and complete secret from the rest of the world just boggles the mind (and makes one wonder what other treasures are lurking behind nondescript closed doors).

We went back to the nearby guesthouse to eat lunch (I had a great egg curry, Coop had mashed potatoes, and Kenzie had a roasted noodle dish) which was followed by the most absolutely scrumptious apple strudel I've ever had. Apple strudel in Nepal? It turns out that a German Technical Institute at some point began a relationship with Marpha (there's lots of little pockets like this in Nepal) and among the most memorable gifts they left behind was an apple-juice processing project that continues to this day and an absolutely awesome recipe for apple strudel.

We also saw how dishes are done (on the floor, usually with cold water) in much of Nepal.

We visited Jeny and Rajindra's extended family (Jeny and her father brought over 15 beautiful saris as gifts) and the “big” monastery and meditation center on the hill.

By that time it was snowing – light snow but lots of gusts and getting dark – and arrangements were made for a jeep to drive us down the hill back to Jomsom. We were shocked at how rough the road was in a jeep – we were to learn the next day what babies we were! – as well as how quick the trip down was in comparison to the hike up the hill. We were even more shocked by how bitterly cold it had gotten in Jomsom; while it had been brisk and gripping in Marpha, the temperature had dropped like a rock in Jomsom and the winds had come roaring out of the north. Jomsom, a tiny “Wild West” hamlet with minimal facilities and uncertain electricity, had become scarily cold.

We stumbled out of the jeep in the darkness, grabbed a quick cup of tea in the guesthouse, and then gladly went to our guestroom
s across the alley, looking forward to the chance to clean up and rest up before dinner. The room felt like it would be a sanctuary after the adventures of the day and the increasing cold of the evening and we ran chattering up the stairs.

The room's temperature shocked us into silence. It was absolutely frigid – probably under 40 – and there was no remedy except blankets and body heat. Jeny, alone in the next room, sat silently shivering wrapped up in blankets; Coop and I pressed against each other and tried to read. The cold sapped us of everything – we couldn't eat, we couldn't drink, we could barely talk to each other. (We each had on, I should mention, at least three layers of Boston-type winterwear, including winter coats, hats, scarves, etc).

We called out to Jeny several times to come join us but she was too cold to get up. Finally, driven by hunger and desperation, we grabbed Jeny and stumbled back to the guesthouse foyer and asked if there was any place in town with a heater or a fire. They took us upstairs to a small darkened dining area, and put a space heater with a surge suppressor under the table. We huddled around the space heater and very slowly started to thaw; half an hour later I could feel my legs; 45 minutes later Jeny's back still felt like ice.

We ordered soups and momos and lingered as long as we could; Jeny fell asleep on her elbow. Finally, unable to delay anymore we dashed back to the rooms, jumped under the covers, and lay and listened to 70 mile an hour gusts buffet against our little nest in the Himalayas.

I also lay there wondering how anybody could fly in that wind, since we were due to leave early the next morning. Sure enough, the next morning over the course of several hours it became clear that no one in fact could or would fly in such weather and that most flights (that is, both of them) would be probably be canceled. It took a while for it to become definitive; Nepalis seem to have a very hard time giving bad news like flight delays, but when every single person (both of them) left the control tower for the day, that seemed about as definitive as it could get.

Thus began a long siege of suggested itineraries, changes of plans, new ideas, contingencies, itineraries, botches, blisters, hikings, sighings, jeeps, marches, morasses, taxis, treks, and tears that led to us swapping the 20 minute canceled airplane ride to Pokhara for an unexpected 30 hour overland trek through the Himalayas.  Surprise!!

Jomsom to Bini

It didn't take terribly long after the “Control Tower Desertion” for us to realize what our options were: remain in Jomsom for another frigid day and even worse night with no place to visit, nothing to do, and no one to see; or trek out and try to get to Pokhara overland. The decision was also influenced by the fact that the north windstorms that hit Jomsom tend to stick around for several days and there was no guarantee we could get out the next day. The kids wanted to stay in Jomsom but Jeny and her dad definitely wanted to leave, so we set out to try to make arrangements.

Because of Jeny's dad's connections, we were able to ditch most of the luggage there (to be toted out on the next available plane) and we were able to find a Jeep and driver to take us one-third of the way out of the mountains. This involved us circling back to Marpha, and then REALLY heading out into the boonies on an absolutely kidney-killing road. The kids immediately got carsick in the back of the land-rover-wannabee, and we all ended up jammed into the front two seats where I got a bruise the size of a softball from repeatedly slamming into the doorhandle.

Just when we could barely stand another minute, no problem, the road ended and the bridges and donkey trails began.

We took all our coats and small backpacks and not enough water and fell out of the jeep and almost fell down with the landscape. We were smack in the middle of alpine-forest glacier gorgeousness, and after taking the requisite photos we proceeded down a well-worn path between ancient villages that Jeny's dad had hiked coming home from school back in the 60s. It hadn't changed a bit.

We walked and walked and walked, up and down and down and up. Jeny's dad set a blistering pace putting all of us especially me to shame; Kenz walked with Jeny and Coop stayed with mom. We were occasionally overtaken by farmers carrying produce or firewood home; we saw one set of villagers hand carrying in a satellite system (the photoelectric cell appeared to be the heaviest of the dozen or so items they carried in baskets wrapped around their foreheads); we only saw one set of foreign trekkers and they and their porters left us instantly in their dust.

After approximately eternity hiking (ie like three hours) we arrived at a teeney little landing point that contained one tiny storefront, one suzuki taxi, one landrover jeep, and one bus. The bus had no set time schedule, and was planning to wait until a few more peasants spilled out of the mountain and filled it up, the jeep charged quadruple for foreigners (we ran into high non-Nepali fees whereever we went), and so we ended up in the taxi, the boys jammed together into the front bucket seat, and me once again smashed against a door in the back, this time getting bruises from the window knob.

Another three-to-four hours in the forest/jungle/moonscape; every time we rounded a curve the landscape changed, until gradually it became too dark to see and we just breathed and swayed and waited for the kilometers to pass. Finally in the gathered dusk we reached the promised land: a truck stop/bus terminal town in a town called Bini, a dusty parking lot full of lories and cows and donkeys and sheep and braying where we tried to line up another taxi for the next leg of the trip, a reported two hours to Pokhara per informants in Jomsom.

Well, no, actually, the swarmed taxidrivers told us in the dark, it was actually more like four hours. And the last few evenings an occasional robbery had turned into a swarm of scary nighttime banditry scenes – masked men leaping down from the pitch-black forest, surrounding cars and demanding cash on five-mile-an-hour rocky roads – and the taxidrivers strongly recommended – even though it meant sacrificing a good fare – that we stay safe and stay put in Bini.

Bini to Pokhara

Stay put in Bini? The outskirts of Bini were grimy at best and the truck stop restaurant/guesthouse behind the parking lot was about the dirtiest place we saw in Nepal, with glasses I let no one drink out of and a hole-in-the-floor toilet that gagged Coop just looking at it, and there were absolutely no other women in the restaurant or on the street. I looked beseechingly at Jeny – there was no way we could stay at a place that grimy and scary-feeling, not with the kids, not with those bathrooms.

(This picture is of Coop asleep at the table in Bini)

Once again, one of “Jeny's dad's friends” came through and we learned of a guesthouse called “Hotel Yeti.” It was a couple of km away from the cesspool truckstop, comfortably located off a side street we would never have found on our own, and the rooms were warm and most important of all they were clean. I have never been so happy to see cleanliness in my life; the second we saw the rooms half the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders, and the other half was gone the second we regrouped in the guesthouse restaurant, watched some Indian soaps on tv, and had myself my very first Tuborg beer of my life. About the best Tuborg beer of my life, too, and one of the best beers I've ever had. We went to sleep warm, happy, and safe, grateful. I woke up to a misty Bini waking up with roosters calling, merchants calling, women sweeping. 

At that point life seemed to as good as it gets but then we found out life could get even better: of the four hours we spent on the road to Pokhara the next morning (again jammed into a wee tiny taxi) two and a half of those hours were spent on paved roads. PAVED ROADS, god bless them every one.

Just after lunch we arrived back in Pokhara just over 30 hours late, and about an hour after the next flight from Jomsom landed. Our luggage arrived before we did, the first of many Buddhist-life-is-irony moments during our trip.


  1. Another Robin-and-boys classic! :)

  2. Amazing Story Robin!!! What an experience!

  3. What a riveting story Robin! And an amazing adventure! Thank you so much for sharing it!

  4. your photos are terrific!! thank you!
    a new sight on well-known places...

  5. After reading Robin's Blog on the Schoenlthalers' adventures /while Tripping in Nepal our January morning(1/30/10) feels quite comfortable...I add my WOWS and thank you for taking us on your incredible journey. dp

  6. As fun and as painful as this part of the trip was then, it did bring a smile on my face reading this blog now:))..I especially love that picture of me in Jomsom falling asleep on my elbow while my back was still thawing!