Annapurna blessing

One of the first thing to get one’s head around here is that, at over 80%, the population of Nepal is more Hindu than that of Hindustan (India). Moreover, the majority of the remainder of people here are Buddhist rather and Muslim or Christian and therefore probably less inclined to dissent. There are a plethora of sacred sites here, many of them frighteningly remote, and neither flood nor earthquake will keep the determined, middle-aged lady pilgrim away from her quest for Moksha. Actually, the holiest amongst us may be able to recite a long list of all the sacred places she has visited (including three previous trips to Mount Kailash) but she is not to be granted the soubriquet “Pilgrim”. Rather she is the “Yeti” which may be less because of her liking for high places than because she is such a monster to the organisers; forever threatening to phone the UK with a list of her complaints.

Not everyone in the group is quite so religious, which is just as well because we are all going to have to get on in some trying circumstances. We set off on our first excursion to find that the roads from Kathmandu to Pokhara are unspeakably bad, with a non-stop procession of heavy lorries winding its way tortuously past an almost continuous series of roadworks. If these don’t seem to be achieving very much then it may be because they are not the “post-earthquake repairs” that might be expected but repairs to the “post-earthquake repairs” which apparently proved to be inadequate and lasted little more than a year. This may sound churlish in such an obviously poor country but all that International aid must have gone somewhere.

Eventually we reached Kurinatar, where the Mankamna Devi hilltop temple (1,302 meters)  is accessed by an impressive cable car, whose course rises over a thousand meters in just under 3 kilometers. This temple is sacred to Goddess Bhagwati and her devotees are certainly blessed with some spectacular scenery but there was not long to linger before we had to go back down the mountainside and resume our jolting ride to the popular (for which read “highly commercialised”) resort of Pokhara. Here we rested overnight before an early morning trip to the tiny airport for there was to be no hanging about on this trip.

We were lucky with the weather and a tiny twin engine Otter took us on the twenty minute flight to the small mountain town of Jomsom (2,743 meters). And when I say “mountain” I mean MOUNTAIN. This East West flight across a Northern section of Nepal takes the scenic route past the Annapurna range and suddenly there she was; her peak a great glittering white crystal hung against the clearest, bluest of skies. For a few seconds I found myself breathless with the emotion of the moment and then I got my (expletive deleted) mobile phone stuck on selfie mode. Fortunately for my subsequent state of inner harmony the roof of our little guesthouse later gave me all the views of the mountains I could desire and I was even able to get up early and watch the dawn break over them but that would be later and for now we had to keep moving.

A two hour jeep ride across broken roads and rocky, river beds took us through some spectacular dry valleys to the village of Ranipauwa. I have seen this kind of high desert scenery before in both Sikkim and Western China but here it is almost unbelievable rugged. Great folds of rock hung in the air above us, often obscuring the snow-capped peaks. So grey and wrinkled were they that they called to mind the corpses of giant elephants. Having discovered earlier that I had come on this trip with a broken camera, I just put my phone on camera mode, held it up to the window and prayed.

The village lies at 3,700 meters so it’s wise not to jump down from the jeep and rush about too quickly, which sounded like a good enough excuse for a pony ride up to Muktinath temple where a distinct chill in the air prickled the back of my throat like tiny ice needles. But in a good way. This is a very special place for both Buddhists and Hindus, especially the followers of Vishnu and devotees process under 108 water spouts until they reach the sacred pools where full immersion yields the highest level of purification (or pneumonia). Most of the devotees we encountered contented themselves with a bit of a splash of holy water and a series of offerings but some plunged in bravely. I would estimate the number of people in the whole complex during the time we were there at somewhere under a hundred: low for such an important shrine but not when you consider the remoteness of the location.

I found myself something of a curio to the regular worshippers, not just for the colour of my skin but also for the unusual Puja I carried through my damp devotions. Several of the ladies recognised the dark, blurry photograph of an ultrasound image for what it was, an picture of my latest (still unborn, grandbaby). Well, he’ll be getting so much Himalayan Darshan on this trip he’ll grow up to either a priest or a mountaineer but he’ll need his grandma to be healthy so I made sure to change into warm dry clothes and am taking plenty of vitamin C.

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