From Thorong La, there was still solidly half of the trek left, but somehow the days had much more of an air of holiday, and passed quickly: Muktinath to Kagbeni, Kagbeni to Marpha, Marpha to Larjung, Larjung to Ghasa, Ghasa to Tatopani, Tatopani to Ghorepani, Ghorepani to Birethanti, where we only had to walk half an hour further to rejoin a paved road and meet our bus to Pokhara. The Mustang valley, beyond the pass, is an arid and isolated place, sitting in the rain-shadow of the Himalayas, and for several days we walked along it, following the course of the sacred Kali Gandaki river, which flows direct from the Tibetan plateau. In Muktinath, the day after the pass, we visited its Hindu temple, where pilgrims come to bathe under the water constantly gushing from each of 108 cow-headed taps. The temple, at a lofty 3700m, is covered with altitude-related warnings, but for us it was positively comfortable: all that mattered was that it was 1700m lower than the stupa which marks the pass’s high point. In the dusty and traditional village of Jhoka, in the protected Upper Mustang valley, we visited the ancient gompa Buddhist monastery and found it occupied solely by three boy-monks, who were dividing their time between kung-fu fighting and blowing air from a bicycle pump into the ears of an unfortunate cat. Soraj scolded them gently in Nepali, telling them it would be better for their karma to try it on themselves first. By Tatopani, altitude 1100m, we had once more entered a bath of lowland humidity, but it is the site of a natural hot spring, which takes the form of a shallow, steaming stone pool occasionally cooled with water direct from the river. A Hindu woman, a pilgrim headed for Muktinath, glared continually at me and the other Western women in our bikinis as she bathed in her sarong.
Just below Ghorepani, we came on a Nepali wedding procession, with small boys in front banging on drums and older men behind blowing dolefully on trumpets. Gum, who seemed to know everything, told us it was an arranged marriage, the bride eighteen, the groom nineteen. The bride, veiled in red, looked timidly at her feet, and was escorted by the arm on either side by two serious-faced women, as though she posed a significant flight risk. The groom, walking at the back with his garland of flowers, looked solemn and slightly silly.
On discussion with the others in the group, we all agreed almost universally that there were five truly difficult days to the trek: Day 2, when the oppressive heat led a walk meant to be six hours to take well over eight; the nine hours it took us to reach Manang village in a glaring sun at 3,500m two days before the pass; the pass itself; and the last two days of the trek, where we climbed 1800m to the hilltop town of Ghorepani, and then descended by 2km the next day, down a path consisting almost totally of narrow, steep, and difficult stone steps. It was a route I doubt we could have managed earlier on in the trek, and which still left my knees feeling like they were suffering internal bleeding. All in all, the trek left a few marks; on the way down from Thorong La, half-blind with sunscreen in my eyes, I caught my foot on a rock and cut my knee open through two layers of trousers. Another is that, even completely well and eating like a horse at every meal, my trek trousers threatened to fall straight off my hips at times. Speaking of which; of our entire group, Loz and I were the only members, bar one who exercised extreme caution, not to succumb to Nepal’s pernicious strain of bacterial diarrhoea. I don’t dare to hope that we acquired some immunity in Mongolia and China, and we drank only water from the ‘safe water’ stations or that we’d iodised ourselves, but this was welcome, to say the least.
Other marks, I suppose, were in the impact of seeing the country itself. Gum frequently spoke of the need to learn from travel and the problems facing Nepal – the pollution, the overcrowding of Kathmandu, the proliferation of tourist ‘teahouses’, the struggles of the education system to be credible enough to compete internationally and so lift people out of poverty. Small things have a significant impact – we didn’t buy bottled mineral water, because the bottles can’t be recycled in Nepal, and as a consequence a single trekker drinking 3-4 litres a day can leave an incredible litter trail across the Himalayas. We ate more than one dinner by candlelight and head-torch when the mains power and the backup generator both failed; surprisingly, remote villages in the mountains often have a more stable power supply than the cities due to their ability to run hydroelectric projects. I often felt guilty for the way I, and others like me, strange people in our strange clothes, had shaped the landscape and the economy because of our idle curiosity. But wherever I saw lack of resources, lack of infrastructure, I also saw community projects, local successes, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.