But there was one place on our priority list that reputedly exists in a rain shadow: the Mustang district of Nepal, tucked up against the border of Tibet, north of the Annapurna Massive. And trekking at the fringes of daily deluge rather than in the heart of it sounded like our cup of tea, having just spent a couple of months in Bhutan, reputedly the rainiest region in the Himalaya.
However, the tricky part would be actually getting to Mustang. An early morning flight from Paro to Kathmandu surprised us with excellent views of several 8000-meter peaks above a low-lying blanket of clouds--Kanchenjunga, Makalu, and good ol' Everest included. We weren't sure what to expect touching down in Nepal as our initial post-earthquake visit. On a broad scale Kathmandu Valley and the city itself seemed mostly the same, with only the occasional pile of rubble or missing building noticed. For example, our awesome trekking agency, Asian Heritage, had shifted to new location since their previous office had collapsed in the quake. We got our permits and final logistics sorted with our agent Nilam and met up with Dawa, our "little brother" guide who had also trekked with us for a month in late 2014. Of course, Nepal is still very much in the process of earthquake recovery, but little of that is visible to the occasional visitor's eye.
While typically I can only muster a sarcastic enjoyment of tourist epicenters such as Khao San Road or Siem Reap, I have an unabashed fondness for Thamel. I can't really explain it logically. Perhaps it holds a special place in my heart because it was the first place catering to Western tourists we encountered after a long crossing of China by bicycle, or perhaps because our Kathmandu to Pokhara trek had taken shape from there. But this time it was all about the food. We laughed at the irony of being excited about coming to Nepal for its Western food options as we slurped down iced mochas at Himalayan Coffee, ate wood-fired pizza at Roadhouse Cafe, and raided the Hot Breads bakery for breakfast to go the next morning. I guess coming from Bhutan, Nepal is both literally and figuratively closer to the West...
We arrived in Pokhara the next afternoon after an uneventful but long bus ride. We rounded out the foodfest with awesome crepes at Metro, then happy hour at a lakeside bar, and a some last minute haggling over umbrellas, just in case the monsoon found us up north.
Well, the monsoon actually found us early the next morning before we departed Pokhara on a miniature version of a full size bus, neither a minibus nor a bus designed for your average-sized adult. It wasn't exactly ideal for Long-legged Matt with his knees banging in to metal bars in front of his seat with every bump, while Dawa and I had a few inches legroom to spare. I had a constant stream of water dripping on me from the leaky roof where our backpacks had been tossed and half-heartedly covered with a tarp.
The discomfort soon became the least of our worries as the overcrowded bus lurched its way up the west side of the Annapurna Circuit, a legendary trekking route that was once accessible only by foot. Our "road" deteriorated into sections of steeply inclined mud pits perched high above the Kali Ghandaki River roaring down the valley bottom below. The driver had no choice but to gun it up the slick stretches, otherwise the bus would have become a permanent fixture in the mud. As the rear wheels spun out and we miraculously did not fishtail towards the edge, a young Nepali sitting on his bag in the aisle turned to us and emphatically stated, "Very dangerous!" Now at this point in our international explorations, we are generally not easily unnerved by sketchy transport scenarios. However, when locals take notice, we do too!
Fortunately, as we continued up in elevation, the dark chocolate mud gave way to rocky road. We relaxed a bit, which was helpful for getting in rhythm with the swaying of the bus from side to side as it negotiated embedded boulders. During a particularly rough section, Matt casually mentioned, "Next time the bus tips your way, look out the window on the other side to see an amazing waterfall above us." It was good advice.
As we closed in on our destination of Jomsom, our bus stalled out as the driver was carefully descending into a river crossing. The starter had gone out somewhere around the fifth hour of the journey, so a crew of passengers had been push starting it after tea breaks since then. This time, they could not push it forward into the river with enough momentum, so the only option was for everyone to get off the bus and push it backwards uphill. Finally, ninety-five miles and twelve hours later, we arrived. Alive. Eight miles per hour is still faster than we can walk, so we didn't have much to complain about in the end. As though to welcome us and our soggy backpacks, the clouds looming overhead briefly parted to reveal the snowy peak of Nilgiri bathed in the last golden light of a very long day.
The next day we made a leisurely three-hour walk up the suddenly and massively broadened canyon of the Kali Ghandaki to the oft-described "medieval" town of Kagbeni, all with blue skies overhead. With a landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest, we were smugly confident we were now under the protection of the all-important rain shadow. Kagbeni is the furthest north one can travel without the expensive special permit to enter Upper Mustang, so it gives those continuing on a good sense of the wonders to come and those turning back a taste of what they are missing.
We had a surprisingly delicious yak burger and fries at the wittily-named YacDonald's, just because we can't resist a good and cheesy tourist opportunity. Then we set about exploring the maze of narrow passageways between the mud walls of traditional Mustangi homes in the center of old town. Dawa's charisma and outgoing nature led us to the opportunity to take a peek inside one woman's home, fastidiously neat, clean, and cozy inside despite the wear and tear of hundreds of years obvious in the exterior walls.
The next morn our smugness quickly dissolved with the rain drizzling out of low grey clouds. It seems the monsoon had found us yet again. But as much as I have focused on that aspect, escaping the rain was really only secondary to our real drive to experience the Mustang. As with most regions with fascinating histories and unique cultural identities, modern influences are shaping the current identity, a foundation of “old” topped with a layer of the “new”. Time does not stand still anywhere, and our very own presence in this restricted area of Nepal was simple proof of that. We passed through the permit checkpoint, now officially in the Upper Mustang, ready to make the most out of the next wallet-emptying ten days. (A permit for two costs $1000 USD!)