My luck was in — the dawn sky was completely empty except for a number of rogue stars. Today I would cross the Thorung La.
When I started out at 6 AM the lodge was basically empty, most people had left an hour earlier. The trail climbed steeply out of Thorung Phedi, the ground frozen but not slippery.
It wasn’t long before I’d caught up with the crowds. Some people were walking with the grace of newborn deer, slipping and sliding like drunk lunatics. I was impressed they’d even made it this far without mastering bipedal movement.
The trail passed a collection of stone shelters, before entering the real start of the crossing. The snow was thick, but still lighter than at Lake Tilicho. I really sensed that I was high up now, closer to the top of the world than ever before.
A benefit of starting late was that the trail had been broken by the groups before me. This made walking remarkably easy. I could simply enjoy the scenery of this great big white world.
I was so grateful to have made it here; to have had the opportunity to visit Nepal and cross this immense pass. I almost hadn’t come, there’d been a point back in India when I’d nearly given up on this goal.
Before I knew it, the crossing was over, I’d reached the sign marking the end of the Thorung La. A small bunch of trekkers were huddled beside the sign, waiting their turn to take a photo. 5,416 metres it read, remarkably high, but also remarkably cold.
A ferocious wind came tearing up from the next valley. Snow shot through the air like darts, my hands stung as I grappled with my camera’s settings. I decided to descend immediately, heading into the barren Kali Gandaki valley.
The trail now sluiced down the mountain, a steep path that lost 1,600 metres of vertical height in a couple of hours. The snow had melted in places then refrozen, a dastardly nemesis that made the track resemble a downhill icerink. It was far more dangerous than crossing the Thorung La.
Dhaulagiri was visible on this descent, a dazzling white mountain 8,167 metres tall. It was impressive because of how abruptly it rose from the surrounding terrain. It looked so high because it had no neighbouring peaks to compete with.
After the snowy pass, it was a shock to arrive in a dry, treeless valley. The trail ended at Muktinath, the beginning of the mysterious Mustang region. The town was an uncomfortable mixture of traditional buildings and hideous new guesthouses.
I found a place to stay in Ranipauwa, then visited the massive temple complex on the hill above Muktinath. This is a vital pilgrimage spot for Hindus and Buddhists. A huddle of ascetic holy men sat outside the gates and clutched tridents, the symbol of Shiva, while asking for donations.
The centre of the temple had a brass fountain made from 108 cow heads, a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism. Despite the cold, men bathed in the frigid waters. It was heartwarming to see two religions sharing and enjoying one holy place.
After looking around the temple, I walked out of town and into the rugged hills, finding a place to sit and contemplate all that had happened today. The dusty hills rolled off into the distance, a series of waves that eventually rose into snowy mountains.
Religious monuments were scattered all over the valley, from stumpy chortens to lavish golden statues of the Buddha. On this same day three years ago I’d been sitting in my office, looking out over Auckland’s gorgeous waterfront. Somehow I’d ended up here, alone in a valley that was once the centre of the Trans-Himalayan trade.
For centuries, Tibetan yak caravans had carried salt into this valley to trade for rice, sugar and spices from India. That trade has now ended. But I could still picture a time when visitors to this area hadn’t been trekkers like myself.
I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Tomorrow I’d go deeper into this remarkable valley, finding more Tibetan villages in the desert. Surrounded by remote temples and rugged mountains, trekking rarely got more magical than this.
After crossing the Thorung La, I trekked from Muktinath to Kagbeni, which you can read about here.
You can find more about my trek around the Annapurna Circuit at the links below:
- Annapurna Circuit: Besi Sahar to Bahundanda
- Annapurna Circuit: Bahundanda to Upper Pisang
- Annapurna Circuit: Upper Pisang to Manang
- Annapurna Circuit: Manang to Tilicho Base Camp
- Annapurna Circuit: Trek to Tilicho Lake
- Annapurna Circuit: Shree Kharka to Thorung Phedi
- Annapurna Circuit: Crossing the Thorung La
- Annapurna Circuit: Muktinath to Kagbeni
- Annapurna Circuit: Kagbeni to Larjung
- Annapurna Circuit: Larjung to Ghorepani
- Annapurna Base Camp: Ghorepani to Machapuchare Base Camp
- Annapurna Base Camp: ABC to Ghandruk