Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Deepest Canyon: the Kali Gandaki River, Nepal

Dear readers, I am trying to catch up with some overdue projects. One of these is to summarize my 2011 trip to the Mustang region of Nepal. I listed some of the waypoints of this trip in a 2011 post. This post will be about the fantastic walk down the Kali Gandaki River in west central Nepal.

The Kali Gandaki River makes a great gash through the Himalaya. The river's headwaters are in the Mustang region near the border with Tibet. It then flows south through Mustang (formerly a kingdom and subject of a future post) through gorges and valleys. South of the town of Jomsom, it cuts through the mountains again. "The river then flows southward through a steep gorge known as the Kali Gandaki Gorge, or Andha Galchi, between the mountains Dhaulagiri, elevation 8,167 metres (26,795 ft) to the west and Annapurna I, elevation 8,091 metres (26,545 ft) to the east. If one measures the depth of a canyon by the difference between the river height and the heights of the highest peaks on either side, this gorge is the world's deepest." (from Wikipedia). Eventually, the river flows into the Ganges, after flowing over an immense megafan, comprising sediments eroded from the rapidly uplifting Himalaya.
My 2011 waypoints along the Kali Gandaki valley, with elevations in m above sea level. (Maps drawn with ESRI ArcMap software.)
In decades past, many Europeans and Americans walked down the great gorge when they made the trek around Annapurna (one of the world's great walks). But in the early 2000s, a rough road was cut along the right (west) bank of the Kali Gandaki, and an airport was built in Jomsom. This led to many tourists either flying out or taking a bus. As of 2011, the trekkers' route was becoming underused, and some inns and restaurants had closed.
Jomsom before landing at JMO.
Before my October 2011 walk downstream, I had just completed the trek through Mustang to Lo Manthang, the ancient walled capital of the Kingdom of Lo. My friends flew back to Pokhara from Jomsom Airport (IATA: JMO), which is at elevation of 8,976 feet (2,736 m). The airport often suffers bad weather and has been the site of several crashes. Most of the town is located on a plateau above the river valley.
For my walk down the gorge, I was accompanied by a friendly young Sherpa, Pasang, who had been with us all the way through Mustang. There was also a porter, Rahm, to carry my duffel bag, although we really did not need his services. Regardless, these fellows depend on tourists for income, and I appreciate their hard work.
Day 1. This took us from 2800-m high desert plain into a scrub terrain with juniper and pine that looked like the US southwest or Greece. The first town south of Jomsom was Marpha, which is in an apple-growing region. There is a well-known distillery as well as an ancient monastery.
Approaching Tukuche, the trail hugs the edge of the broad gravel riverbed, occasionally crossing tributaries on rickety wood walkways. One option is to follow a path along the gravel riverbed, but you are exposed to blowing dust. The route along the west side of the valley is better, and, in many areas, the main road.
The High Plains Inn - Dutch Bakery in Tukuche is a great lunch stop, and the hungry trekker is obligated to eat an apple strudel (or two) topped off with an espresso. The route down the Kali Gandaki has  plenty of inns and rest stops like this, so really, this is an easy trek.
We met a lady who was sorting beans that had been drying on a roof. I wonder if they cook red beans and rice? In this area, many villagers stay for the winter, so they carefully stock supplies. But further north in Mustang, the weather is more severe, and villagers migrate to lower altitude areas or to India to find winter work.
Our destination for the night was Larjung, another tidy little town. It is still 2,500 m high, and the villagers were drying corn and other items in preparation for winter.
This was the Riverside Lodge, a nice place with hot water in the shower. Part of the roof was flat, providing a surface to dry corn. The tree had apples. The restaurant was good. Happy chickens lived in a coop and clucked around.
Day 2. The next morning, we continued down stone paths towards the gravel bed of a tributary that enters the Kali Gandaki. The road make a long detour upstream, but the walking path crosses the gravel bed.  In spring, the walking path must be impassable, and pedestrians need to follow the road. As you can see, at this elevation, the flora had changed to alpine forests with pines, much like Austria.
We continued downstream to the village of Kalopani, still at an elevation of 2,500 m.
This is one of these very interesting and somewhat swaying steel suspension bridges that cross the Kali Gandaki.
Looming above you to the east is the might peak of Annapurna, Annapurna I is the tenth highest mountain in the world at 8,091 m above sea level. Annapurna is an especially dangerous peak for climbers, with a death to summit ratio of 32 percent.
I was glad to be well below in the valley. We descended steeply during the afternoon along the river valley to the hamlet of Ghasa at only 1950 m elevation. The Eagle Rest Guest House & Garden Restaurant was really nice, and finally we saw other trekkers. Before this stop, we saw very few Americans or Europeans. My green day pack contained water, camera, and personal items. The porter carried my red duffel, which held clothing, sleeping bag (not needed here), and bulky things.
This fellow with the wet nose wanted a room, also.
Day 3. We continued downhill towards Thalpa, about 1800 m elevation. The valley walls towered above us. Yours truly, of course, looked his dorky best. I had been above 3000 m for two weeks, and here at "low altitude" the air felt so thick.
A tributary, the Rupse Chhahara, plunges down the mountain. The bus trundles through the water. Some of the year, the route must be impassable. It takes a degree of bravery to take one of these busses. My anthropologist friend said every now and then, a bus falls off the mountain. By now, we had dropped to 1590m elevation.
Dana, at 1461m has some old stone buildings with Tibetian-style windows of beautiful craftsmanship. The town has a guest house and a bus stop.
The valley near Dana is bucolic, and the footpath takes you along ancient stone walkways through the farms.

By midday, we reached Tatopani, at 1190 m. We descended steeply into broad leaf forest and finally into jungle.
On recommendation from my friend, I checked into the Dhaulagiri Lodge and Restaurant, near the southern end of Tatopani. Nice place, with an excellent restaurant. They put me into my own little cabin, and right outside my room were bamboo and banana plants and geckoes (no obvious snakes). I paid the porter, Rahm, and he headed back upriver.
Tatopani is famous for the hot spring, and I soaked with chubby Japanese visitors.

All in all, this has been a spectacular trek, a passage through geologic history as well as botanic altitude zones.

Change is coming. The villages here are still poor, but they have electricity and serve hikers who are making the Annapurna loop trek. Most lodges have rooms with private bath, but hot water is still rare. The towns have schools and health clinics. The road is a treacherous dirt and rock trail carved out of the mountain-side. As of 2011, busses and jeeps regularly broke down or fell off, squashing their occupants.
Day 4. Two Germans that we met in the lodge, Pasang, and I chartered a taxi take us to Pokkhara, from where we flew to Kathmandu. The taxi took 5 hours as opposed to 8+ on the public bus (which often breaks down). It was a tiny car, and we were rather squashed. And we had to stop a few times to let the goats move off the road. (Note: this was Oct. 21, 2011, and we learned late in the day that Colonel Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi, the long-term dictator and butcher of Libya, had been killed by Libyan militiamen.)

Photographs taken with a Panasonic G1 digital camera, some RAW files processed with PhotoNinja software,

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