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Custom-made Hindu pilgrimage tour of lower Mustang during the monsoon

Custom-made Hindu pilgrimage tour of lower Mustang during the monsoon

The custom-made Hindu pilgrimage tour of the lower Mustang during the monsoon
A friend recommended his colleague to contact me for their tailor-made holiday, a pilgrimage to Nepal’s Kathmandu, Muktinath, and a lower Mustang trip. We communicated over email and had a few WhatsApp conversations, discussing the fine details of the type of experience the family of 4 was expecting. I learned they were a pious Hindu family from South India but are currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I met them on the 24th of July at Tribhuvan International airport. They were brought over to their Boutique Hotel in the tourist district of Thamel. We went for lunch after checking into the Hotel. After that, they were taken on a walking tour of the Ason Spice market and the Kathmandu Durbar Square. The sights, sounds, and smells of Kathmandu city astonished the family members. In addition, the family was taken aback by the ancient architecture of Basantapur Durbar square, a World Heritage site. We parted ways in the evening as we had a full day of sightseeing the next day.

Fullday of Temple visits and a World Heritage site.
We started early, at 8 am, for our full day of pilgrimage/sightseeing. We went to Budhanilkantha on the northern outskirts of Kathmandu first. There is an ancient statue of reclining Vishnu at this religious site. It was buzzing with activities of pilgrims, both local and from India. Next, we went to the Guheshwori temple dedicated to Goddess Suttee, where the family spent prayer and offering.

The last Hindu temple of the day was Pashupatinath – the most significant of all temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. We were fortunate to go around the time when all four doors facing the North, South, East, and West were open to see the “Shivaling”; the family was fortunate to receive 3 Rudraksha necklaces from the priest in the temple’s inner sanctum.

The final part of the sightseeing was Bhaktapur, another one of Kathmandu’s World Heritage sites. Upon reaching Bhaktapur, we went to a restaurant for lunch first. The visitors were fascinated by Bhaktapur’s ancient architecture, world carving, and stone-paved alleyways. We spent a long time there, and by the time we reached the Hotel, we had spent 12 hours on tour; usually, a full-day tour takes 6-7 hours. Again, it shows how absorbed they were with the temples and the World heritage site.

Flight to Pokhara
It was the third day, and we were flying to Pokhara after breakfast. The flight was only delayed by fifteen minutes. Despite the flight route being cloudy, it was a smooth flight despite the monsoon season. We collected our baggage, got to our vehicle, and went to our Hotel. We went for a walk after checking into the Hotel and had lunch at the Lakeside.

The family got their first taste of Thakali Dal bhat. The Thakali are an ethnic group living by the Kali Gandaki river (Thak Khola) valley. Their womenfolk are renowned innkeepers and are known to make the most delicious Nepali staple of Dal-bhat, consisting of rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry, chicken, or goat curry accompanied by some sour/spicy pickles. They loved their first taste of the Nepali Thali (set) meal.

Shankar, Priya, and their two daughters, Shruthi and Smrithi, were quite energetic and wanted to do more than chill out by the Lakeside in Pokhara. So, I arranged for a van to take us to see a few sights in Pokhara. We started by visiting the Bindabasini temple and witnessed the Seti river gorge and Davie’s fall. The Davies waterfall was impressive as the volume of water was tremendous due to the monsoon season. Finally, we went down to Gupteshwor Mahadev cave, which was cooling with the breeze caused by the pouring of Davie’s fall on the opposite side. We returned to the Lakeside and parted ways after planning to meet at the restaurant at 6.30 am for breakfast as we had an early flight to Jomsom.

Jomsom, Lower Mustang and Muktinath tour
We met as planned for breakfast, loaded our jeep with our luggage, and left for the airport. However, the jeep was requested to wait at the parking lot until our flight took off. I had to do this as they were on a tight schedule, and all the flights were fully booked.

The alternate plan was to drive up to Jomsom if the flight got cancelled, as the monsoon rains along the flight route could cause poor visibility resulting in flight cancellations. Fortunately, the flight was only delayed by an hour, and we landed in Jomsom after another smooth flight.

We checked into our deluxe Hotel Om’s Home, which has been around since 1976. Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachan and Danny Denzongpa, along with the film crew of a Bollywood movie, stayed during the shooting of “Khuda Gawah” in 1992. Jomsom is the Mustang district headquarters, also known as a cold desert and windy valley. The wind starts to blow from 10 am onwards and continues until evening.

The plan was to spend the next three days going on jeep rides combined with some hiking to get acclimatized to altitude before going to Muktinath for their pilgrimage; as they come from sea level and tropical weather, we were preventing high altitude sickness and getting appropriately acclimatized.

We went for a long walk that involved getting to the Kali Gandaki river bank, walking over to old Jomsom, and having lunch. Then, we walked back to our Hotel for high tea and left towards Shyang village in the afternoon. In the evening, we returned to the Hotel in time to order dinner and go for our shower before dinner. We were pleasantly surprised when we came out for dinner by some live music at the Himalayan Java café at the Hotel. Shruthi jumped in to sing a couple of numbers with the Barista, who also doubled as a musician in the evenings when they had some customers. It was a fun day, and the evening was filled with laughter during dinner. We turned in early as we had started early and had another day ahead of us.

Tukche and overnight at Marpha
I got up early to witness the sunrise on Mount Nilgiri and the surrounding valley. The peak was covered by clouds but was clearing slowly. The flights took place right on time this morning; we could hear the aircraft come and leave, as the airport was just a stone’s throw away from the whole town of Jomsom. We had breakfast and left in a jeep to the historic village of Tukche. The drive is beautiful along the raging Kali Gandaki river, past many apple and peach orchards and farmland with stunning views and surprisingly blue sky amid partially cloudy weather; after all, we were in the Himalayan rain shadow.

History of Tukuche
Tukche has a rich history; in the 18th century, one of the village headmen convinced the Shah king to allow his villages and clansmen to fight along with them as soldiers rather than “slaved Bhutias” as demanded by the King. As a result, there were warrior clans, and the middle and high hills Tibeto Burman ethnic group, also known as Bhutia – were considered slavable. The headman Kaluram Sherchan also played a vital role in their conquest of a part of Tibet with intelligence from their decades of trade with Tibet. His inside knowledge allowed the Nepalese army to take over a town easily, which impressed the King, who granted him anything he wished for. Kaluram, in turn, proposed to be a tax collector in his region, and the King would be paid an annual royalty as tax; the Kali Gandaki region used to trade with Tibet and India. Kaluram was granted his wish, which turned the fortunes of his family and descendants. His family is now one of the most affluent in Nepal and overseas.

We walked around Tukche village, admiring the whitewashed houses, cobblestone footpaths, apples, and apricot orchards. Then, we had lunch and drove back to Marpha.

After checking in to our Hotel and having high tea, we walked around Marpha. First, we walked up to the Marpha monastery to admire the panorama of the village and surrounding areas. Marpha is another beautiful village that has its characters. We returned to the Hotel after walking to the apple orchards to order dinner and again had an early night.

Hike to Dhumba Lake, Thini village, and drive to Kagbeni village.
We had an early start, which had become a habit by now. Once again, the flights were on time as Marpha was on the flight path. We drove for a short twenty minutes before starting our hike to Dhumba Lake. We had to begin by crossing a suspension bridge over the Kali Gandaki River, a first-time family experience. They were all excited and took many photos and videos on the bridge. After that, we had to walk for about 45 minutes on an uphill fair-weather road with 360 degrees scenery around us. We could see Shyang and Jomsom villages on the opposite side of the Kali Gandaki valley. We could also watch approaching and leaving aeroplanes from Jomsom as we were at a higher altitude. Dhumba is a small turquoise lake with plenty of fish released by the Buddhist people of this region. The family loved the lake as it was another first for them to be so close to a turquoise lake. We spend a couple of hours taking photos and absorbing the environment before summoning our jeep to pick us up. Next, we walked through the village of Thini; it was almost deserted as the villagers had gone to a funeral in a neighbouring town. After the short walk, we got on the jeep and stopped at another suspension bridge, much longer on one of the windiest places in the Kali Gandaki valley. Again, the family walked across it taking many photos. Next, we stopped at Eklebhatti (single teahouse); ironically, there are four lodges there now. We had our lunch there before continuing to Kagbeni village.

We had to walk a little to get to our hotel Mustang Gateway and YacDonalds restaurant. Hotel Mustang Gateway used to have the golden arches of McDonald’s. The food chain brand in India sent them several letters to remove the golden arches before the Hotel Mustang Gateway owner finally took it off. He used to have a convenience store, and the chime was exactly like at the international Seven-Eleven stores; now, that shop has been converted into a coffee shop.

Despite the comical name, the rooms are nicely done. In addition, the restaurant and patio are pleasantly decorated in traditional and modern ways, considering its location.

Muktinath and back to Jomsom.
This was the most important day for the family – visiting Muktinath Temple. Muktinath is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu of the Hindu trinity. It is located at an altitude of 3710 meters. We gained more than 800 meters in elevation on the drive to the Muktinath taxi stand. We had to either hire ponies or walk from here to the temple. We walked slowly to the temple; I was surprised by the piousness of the whole family. They started singing devotional songs and chanting in Tamil despite walking uphill. Finally, we reached the temple and saw other pilgrims changing to walk/run below the 108 waterspouts with snowmelt water oozing. Most pilgrims dashed to keep exposure to freezing water to a minimum. Priya and Shankar surprised me when they devoutly strolled under the waterspouts; not only that, but they did it three times- what devotion.

We visited the monastery with the everlasting flame, returned to town for a late lunch, and drove back to Jomsom. We had to pack our bags, as we had to be at the airport by 5.30 am as we were on the first flight out, weather permitting. We retired early because of the early start we had the following morning.

Pokhara flight.
We got up early and had our hot beverages before heading to the airport to catch the flight, which was delayed just by thirty minutes. Once again, the flight was smooth despite being cloudy. We drove to the Hotel, had breakfast, and had to wait a bit as it was complete, and people hadn’t checked out yet as a couple of NGOs had seminars there and had one more session before checking out at midday. We checked into our rooms at noon, went out for lunch, and had a chill-out day.

Chill out the day at Pokhara
We had a relaxing morning, apart from Smrithi going for a paraglide flight around 10 o’clock. The morning rain delayed the paragliding. It was about midday when she took off, and the rest of the day was to relax.

Return to Kathmandu
We left for the airport after breakfast. About an hour, the flight was delayed; we hung around on the domestic airport’s upper floor until our flight was announced. We arrived in Kathmandu at approximately 9.30 am, had breakfast, and parted ways, letting the family relax in their junior suite at the Dalaila Boutique hotel and with some last-minute shopping.

Return flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I met the family at the Hotel for breakfast and left for the airport by 9.30 am to catch their international flight back to Kuala Lumpur. The family left delighted with the promise to return for a trip to Mount Kailash and recommendations to their family and friends to make the tailor-made trip they did before embarking on to Mount Kailash in Tibet for their ultimate pilgrimage.