Travel Story - Issue 917 

Annapurna Circuit, Part 4

Down the Kali Gandaki and home to Whistler

The Kali Gandaki River heads on the Tibetan Plateau and slices through the great wall of the Himalayas before spilling out onto the Ganges plain of northern India. In the gorge between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna it flows through the world's deepest valley. Unlike the ice-encrusted mountains on the Manang side of the Annapurnas, the upper Kali Gandaki is an alpine desert – a place where the folded and fractured beds of 150 million year-old marine sediments, the geological roots of the Himalayan Massif, are exposed on stark, barren buttresses and canyon walls.

No one knows when the first humans ventured into this, arid, precipitous world or when they discovered the "water that burns" – a mixture of natural gas and water issuing from rocks near what is now the village of Muktinath. When lighted the Muktinath springs send a blue flame rippling over water, rock, and earth – a miracle of profound religious significance for both Hindus and Buddhists. Today the "eternal" flame burns in a small recess under the alter of the Jwala Mai Temple and Muktinath has become a sacred pilgrimage site, a meeting place for people of both faiths who come here to worship and seek a better life in their next incarnation.

Muktinath is also a meeting place for trekkers on the Annapurna circuit. Some, like ourselves, were resting after crossing Thorong La the previous day. Others, doing the circuit in reverse, had paused to acclimatize before starting their ascent. We got space in the Muktinath guesthouse and our room, with its earth floor and walls, was a welcome luxury after the previous sleepless night at Thorong Phedi. Before setting out to explore the town we checked in with Lama and found him in an adjacent courtyard with a bunch of other guides and porters, engrossed in a riotous card game punctuated by cheers, groans, and reckless gambling.

We left them, hoping their meager earnings were not squandered before the trek was even finished, and strolled up to one of the temples where a priest ushered us into the dim, candle-lit, interior. Both Hindus and Buddhists come here to worship directly to their own gods, and there are many to choose from. Brahma and Buddha are each represented in a thousand different incarnations. Here in Nepal the two intertwined religions cohabit and mix peacefully. In fact, Buddha is considered to be the ninth incarnation of the Hindu God, Vishnu. Interestingly, one of Vishnu's many incarnations is the "shaligram," an ammonite fossil found in rocks along the pilgrimage route to Muktinath.

Leaving Muktinath the next morning we passed a group of 12 Hindu pilgrims, some old and feeble, labouring up the trail to the temple and the end of their journey. That evening, at Morpha, Lama booked us in to what must be the cheapest and filthiest room in all of Nepal. The doorless room, furnished with a straw-covered sleeping platform, opened onto a dung-littered corral full of cows and goats. I suspect Lama's operating budget took a beating during yesterday's card game and he was out of cash, but I had no problem finding a decent room in a nearby guesthouse.

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