Saturday, October 4, 2008

Flight to Jomsom; Kagbeni 10/4

We’re in Muktinath, at 3800 meters (12,500 feet) in the Himalayas! That of course means we survived the flight to Jomsom, although at times that was in doubt. The flight yesterday finally left a little after noon — about 4 hours behind schedule. We boarded the plane with Joseph, a Sri-Lankan Brit, and Thakur, his Nepali friend & guide, and Aliza and Asaf, a couple from Israel (Aliza is actually from New York but moved to Israel), who we met in the airport. They told us to sit on the right side of the plane to get the mountain views. The airplane was a small twin-prop plane with about 8 rows of two seats. I sat behind Kirsten on the right side, and as the pilots cranked up the engines the flight attendant performed her sole task for the flight: to pass out a piece of candy (for the pressure change) and cotton (to stuff in our ears for the noise).

The winds pick up heavily in the valley between 10 and 11, which is why they usually try and get all the flights in before then. We assumed the wind must not be too bad because they had not postponed our flight. Boy were we wrong. It was all smooth flying until the final terrifying few minutes when we turned up the valley between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. As soon as we rounded the corner, we could feel the plane getting pushed around, up & down, side-to-side; it even felt like it was fishtailing. After several minutes of this, and feeling a little gripped, we went into a steep descent toward Jomsom. I was looking out our window at the town going by when suddenly our noise is pitching up, I look forward because my stomach just sunk to my feet, and I see nothing but blue out the pilots’ window. As I’m pondering this, we start banking into a hard turn, and we can see the side of the mountains out the left (downward-facing) side of the plane! All while the plan is still getting bounced around by the wind. I was disoriented; my heart was pounding; legs are shakey; and Kirsten and I are gripping each other’s hands over the seat back. The only thing that gave me some encouragement was I could see the pilots hands working the controls in the cockpit, and he appeared completely unphased, and so I realized this must be the usual approach to the landing strip. After pulling out of this maneuver, which felt like a barrel roll, we leveled out and came in for a smooth, easy landing in Jomsom at 9,000 feet. We discussed it afterwords, and Kirsten had maintained her orientation better than me. She explained that we had basically flown past the airport and pulled a tight U-turn up against the side of the mountains in order to land in the opposite direction. She described that it seemed as though we could almost reach out and touch the mountains we were so close, and just one bad pocket of air away from slamming into them.

Well we staggered off the plane and as we stepped down on the tarmac we were greeted with a stunning view of Nilgiri North, our first real view of a Himalayan giant, and at 23,000 feet its summit was 14,000 feet above us, yet situated a mere 5 miles away! We were in the Himalayas, and this put a big ‘ol exclamation point on it. My legs were still shakey, and we all most have looked pretty funny, walking away from the plane, everyone’s heads cranked up gawking stupidly at the mountain as we wandered somewhat aimlessly in the general direction of the airplane’s propellers. Airport security had to direct us in a wide berth away from the propellers and toward the airport baggage pickup where we couldn’t do harm to ourselves.

After collecting our backpacks and checking in our ACAP permits with airport security, we stopped at a small gear store to try and find a headlamp for Kirsten. All they had were some uber cheap LED flashlights. They barely worked, but it was better than nothing, and Kirsten only paid NR 200 for it. We met the other four folks for lunch at Nil Giri View Hotel in Jomsom. Kirsten and I had dal bat for the first time on the trip. We had put it off as long as we could, figuring we would be eating a lot of it on the trek. Joseph and Thakur invited us to walk with them because they had the same trekking itinerary as us, for the first 7 days anyway. Then Aliza and Asaf tip-toed around the subject of having company on the way to Kagbeni because even though they had a porter (but no guide) their parents were terrified that they were doing the trek on their own, and they had promised them they would try to join up with other folks. Their parents actually rented a satellite phone for them to check in with! So after checking in at the ACAP checkpoint and again at the police checkpost, the six of us embarked on the trek. First stop: Kagbeni.

The hike to Kagbeni was pretty short, flat and straightforward. We followed right along the Gandaki Khola (River), sometimes short-cutting across the dry flood beds, and occasionally stepping off the trail to let a jeep or donkey go by. It wasn’t so much a trail as a dirt road, and we were surprised by this, but it was nice to finally be out in our familiar element – hiking in the mountains. The wind was pretty strong, but it was at our backs so it didn’t cause us much discomfort, however we noticed all the people passing us the other direction were covering their faces with scarves or bandanas. We reached Kagbeni around 5:30, just as the sun was starting to set. Kagbeni is a medieval Tibetan village, with cobblestone streets and stone buildings with firewood-stacked roofs. We got a room in the New Asian hotel with the other folks and met them shortly thereafter for dinner. Our room had its own bathroom and lights! A most pleasant surprise, especially the lights because Kirsten’s new flashlight was not a star performer. At dinner we had dal bat again with Tibetan flat bread. We stayed up ’til 8 chatting with everyone, including a nice couple from Belgium that were doing the entire circuit. We had a good night’s sleep, although Kirsten’s cold was getting worse, and after breakfast (Tsampa porridge for me and oat porridge for Kirsten), we bid farewell to Asaf and Aliza, then set out for the big hike to Muktinath at 8.

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