You are sure to become enchanted by the sight of the bewildering Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges as you approach the Pokhara Valley by air or surface. The next morning when you discover the sky clear and the mountains in view, you then know you are on your special journey to Muktinath.
Once the flight takes off you are flying between the ranges with the river below in the deepest gorge on earth. It is a spectacular sight way beyond your expectations. Just under the Dhaulagiri icefall the riverbed widens, and you get your first glimpse of the stone houses with juniper and firewood stacked on the flat roofs. In no time you are landing on the runway on the banks of the Kali Gandaki River, leaving the Hindu sub-continent behind and entering the world of the Thakalis, Gurungs, Managis and the Tibetan Khampas.
The people of Jomsom, the Thakali tribe, have been traders for the past two thousand years trading salt from Tibet for rice and flour from the lowlands, of this trade the people of the upper Kali Gandaki were influenced by the Bon Po doctrine of Tibet as early as the 12th century. A new faith known as Lamaism, which was influenced by Tantric Mahayana Buddhists on the Bon Po, is now more popular in the upper Kali Gandaki region, and its influence can be seen in several village monasteries as well as in the houses.
Hanging demon traps in the doorways and at the corners of the houses in the form of sun crosses, dead rabbits and peh moussas hanging just inside the door, and skulls and horns placed on the roof – all offer protection to the inhabitants. Combined with this are the religious wall murals and the prayer flags flying on the house roofs.
Leaving Jomsom you follow the vastly wide Kali Gandaki River passing traders coming from Tibet and local village people who may have already walked two or three days to come to Jomsom to buy and sell goods. Dressed in traditional chuba (Tibetan dress) with colourful scarves wrapped around their heads and beautiful turquoise and coral necklaces hanging around their necks they remind you of the Tibet of the past.
A half hour walk out of Jomsom you will see three chortens hugging the cliff covered with small juniper bushes and hundreds of white kartas left as offerings hanging from the branches. Behind the juniper there is a small cave where Guru Rinpoche stayed the night on his journey through the Upper Kali Gandaki.
The way continues on the rocky river bed until you come to a somewhat smaller river entering the Kali Gandaki from the right. Take this river bed trail to the Bon Po village of Lumpra – seldom visited by tourists. Behind a chorten you will find a path lined with poplar trees leading up to the village. The Gompa sits a little bit away from the village, and the main sight will be many village women doing Kora at all times of the day. There is a trail going straight across the river that then climbs up to high pastures. This will bring you down into the small village of Eklai Bhattai where there are four houses all providing food and lodging.
The Kagbeni trail veers to the left just after the last guest house – the right trail leads directly to Muktinath. Just a few minutes on the trail on the right you will see a very large Om mani carved into the boulders and if you look further you will see the irridescent green fields and the walled village and red gompa of Kagbeni. (of course it does depend on what time of the year as to whether you see the green fields).
Behind the gompa stands the turreted palace and within the walls of the village are very old whitewashed houses inter-twined between small alleys that seem to lead everywhere but nowhere. Kagbeni is one of the palace forts and is constructed like a fortress to ward off spirits and bandits during the bygone trading era. The monastery has been well cared for in the past 570 years, with a collection of rare statues and other rare ritual artifacts, and until the middle of the 18th century housed over 100 monks from five villages, now there are only about 5 monks in resi- dence.
Kagbeni is an oasis with apple and apri- cot orchards, and barley fields standing against the vast landscape of silver grey river stones and shale cliffs of brown. There are guest houses and good food, and it is a restful place to stay before the steep climb begins to Jarkot and finally Muktinath.
Jharkot is on a prominent spot overlooking the Kali Gandaki, with a crumbling fortress wall the only remaining evidence of an original palace. At the other end of the village there is a beautifully maintained monastery, and also the Jharkot Tibetan Medicine Hospital and school, well worth a visit to see the bherbs collected and dried, and a diagnosis from the Tibetan doctor is quite a special experience.
From Jharkot it is two hours to Muktinath – the place of 108 fountains, with the sacred temples of Muktinath just below Thorung La in a grove of trees. Every tree is laden with prayer flags, and here you could build your own chorten. Here in the early 19th century the Hindus consecrated a Vishnu temple and named is Muktinath – Lord of Liberation. Against a backdrop of incredible starkness you can sit and stare to the south the snow covered Annapurna range, or to the north the Tibetan plateau.