By LB THAPA, lately in Muktinath, FOR ONTOTHEROAD.COM

After having visited Lumbini and Chitwan National Park my next destination was Muktinath. Before I set out for Muktinath, I browsed internet to collect important information about the tour. But after spending hours on internet, I was more confused than before.

What I received was only conflicting information. There was so much information and many of them were contradicting to each other. It became impossible for me what to believe and what not. Therefore, I decided to experience the whole journey as it is and tell the story what I experience throughout the way up to Muktinath.

My original plan was to go to Muktinath by motorbike, but later I decided to go by a jeep. However, in the meantime, I got an air ticket to Jomsom. Then I thought it was not that bad to take a flight as I could see lofty Himalayan peaks and I would return by road from Jomsom to Pokhara. This way I would have complete experience of going to Muktinath by flight and returning by road.

On the way to Muktinath temple. Photo: LB Thapa
Hindus believe that last tributes paid at the Kagbeni River helps departed souls to heaven. Photo: LB Thapa
Photo: LB Thapa
The jeep parking at Muktinath. Photo: LB Thapa

I wore the warmest jacket I had and was ready to board a Twin Otter of Tara Airlines from Pokhara Airport on 10th of December 2017. Is it a good time to visit Muktinath? Of course not and I don’t advice anyone to visit Muktinath from December to January. The best time to visit Muktinath is from March to June or September to October. Nevertheless, the travelers can also visit Muktinath after February but before November.

There were about five passengers on board including myself; otherwise, the plane was virtually empty. First, I sat on my left side of the window then I realized that I could have better view of the mountain peaks from the right side of my window. As there were many empty seats, I could sit wherever I liked. After all it was a short flight about 20 minutes.

The plane began descending to the Jomsom airport and I could see Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri mountains on both of my sides. The sun was shining bright and it was remarkably a lively day indeed. The moment I put my first step out of the plane, I was greeted with the gushing, chilly cold wind. This way nature warned me not to take cold in Jomsom for granted.

I came out of the Jomsom airport. It was off-season therefore there were quite a few Nepali and foreign tourists on the main street of Jomsom bazaar. A local man told me to walk about 300 meters to reach the bus stand. While walking on the road I realized that the entire main road of Jomsom bazaar was not blacktopped. I wondered what would be the condition here during rainy days.

Soon I reached the bus station where Jeep and Bus stood side by side. I got into a bus where I saw only a few passengers. When they saw me, their faces brightened up…I was happy to see their concerned for a stranger. One of the passengers told that including me they became seven, then the bus would probably move to Muktinath.

In the meantime, one man banged into the bus, grabbed his bag and said, “Don’t waste your time by sitting in this bus. This bus will not go unless more than half seats are filled with passengers. This bus had cancelled its trip yesterday as well”. We freaked out and followed the man in bewilderment.

We walked down up to the Jeep stand. The first Jeep had already gone and the second jeep was waiting for passengers. We sat in the Jeep for about forty-five minutes but the jeep driver did not show any sign of departure.

When asked he said that the jeep would not leave unless all 12 seats are occupied. We had to reserve the Jeep if we wanted to move immediately, or we had to wait for more time. When we got tired of waiting, we reserved the jeep and moved to Muktinath.

They charge per passenger Rs.260. As the jeep left Jomsom bus station, I was busy clicking photos on every direction. Bare and tall mountains appeared magnificent and breathtaking. It was my first experience to see those majestic mountains from such a close proximity.   

After about 30 minutes, our jeep reached Kagbeni. Kagbeni is popular among the Hindus who believe that if last tribute were paid at Kagbeni then departed souls would get entry in heaven. After taking little rest at Kagbeni, we moved ahead for our final destination, Muktinath.

From Kagbeni the jeep was rolling along the Kaligandaki River. About then the jeep left the river band and started going uphill, a spiral off road. After about five kilometers, there was blacktopped fine quality road. Until then I could not see a blacktopped road even in the main bazaar of Jomsom. The jeep driver told me that only a few months ago about 10-kilometer road was blacktopped until Muktinath.

The blacktopped road has reached right below the Muktinath temple. Nearby the Muktinath temple, there is a helipad. From the vehicle parking, Muktinath temple is at the distance of about 2 to 3km. Most of the visitors walk all the way from the vehicle parking until the temple of Muktinath.

However, I opted to take a mule ride instead. They charge one way Rs.300. A group of mule owners can be found waiting for the visitors there. Very recently, I had been to Chitwan National Park where I experienced an elephant ride, so at Muktinath why I should not experience a mule ride, I thought.

Muktinath is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites of Hindus and Buddhists. It is located at the base of Khatang Kang in Baraha Gaun, at an altitude of 3,710 meters. The temple is built in Pagoda style that is devoted to Lord Bishnu.

It is a strong belief among the Hindus that bathing under the 108 waterspouts provides salvation after death. Muktinath is also the place where Buddhist guru Ringpoche, who established Tibetan sect of Buddhism, had meditated. In front of the Muktinath temple, there are two small ponds.

The first pond is called ‘Paap Kunda’ and another is ‘Dharma Kunda’. First, the pilgrims should take a plunge in the paap kunda and wash out all the sins they have accumulated and then they should take a plunge into the dharma kunda to earn virtues.

Muktinath temple is well known for its 108 waterspouts. The water from the Kaligandaki River flows regularly through 108 waterspouts. The pilgrims should take bath from all 108 waterspouts. When this scribe was at the temple, the temperature of the area was below freezing level.

Except a few diehard devotees of Lord Bishnu, others ran fast with their clothes under those 108 waterspouts. According to the Hindu astrology, the number 108 has special place. There are 12 zodiacs and 9 planets, which make total 108 combinations. Similarly, there are 27 Lunar mansions which are divided into 4 quarters which give a combination of 108 quarters.

On the south of Muktinath temple has a small temple of Jwalamai, where two tiny flames burn beside a rivulet. Those flames are protected by thin iron nets lest visitors try to touch those flames. Quite recently, a huge statue of Buddha has been erected near the Jwalamai temple. Unlike other statues, this statue of Lord Buddha has been painted in black.

I was at the temple until 5 o’ clock in the evening and it was time to return to Jomsom. After 5 pm cold wind started moving fast, this made standing around the Muktinath area almost impossible. We were seven passengers and could not wait any more, so we again reserved the jeep to Jomsom.

It was already little dark when the jeep reached Jomsom. I looked around for a hotel where I could spend the night. I entered at hotel Om’s Home as it looked attractive from outside. When I was at the lobby of the hotel, I saw the manager was speaking with the guests and telling them how Amitab Bachhan and a few film unit members stayed in the hotel.

They had come to Jomsom to shoot Khuda Gawah in 1992. It was all very interesting to know that a super hit Bollywood cinema was shot in Jomsom. But for me the room rent was above my budget. I knew it was off-season and I could easily get good room elsewhere at a cheap price. A few yard away I stayed at hotel Kaligandaki, it was cheap and best and the hotel owner Amar Bhattachan was very friendly.

Next day early in the morning around 7am yours truly was at the main bazaar of Jomsom, looking for a bus to Pokhara. There was only one bus and that was already occupied. “You should reserve a jeep to Pokhara. I waited for three days to occupy all the seats of my bus.

How can you get a bus ticket now?” asked the driver of the bus. I talked with a jeep driver cum owner, he asked Rs.17000 for Pokhara. “You find the passengers who want to go to Pokhara and give me a call” said the jeep driver and gave me a card. “Why don’t you find the passengers and inform me?”

I asked him. He said that he was actually not interested to go to Pokhara, because due to off-season, he was less likely to get passengers from Pokhara to Jomsom. I walked the length and breadth of Jomsom bazaar for several times and finally collected four persons only. It was already 10 am and we decided to reserve the jeep and share the fare equally.

While traveling by the jeep my co passengers revealed a shocking fact about the dirty business of air tickets at Pokhara and Jomsom airports. Normally air tickets are easily available from Pokhara to Jomsom at the costs Rs.2400 for Nepali. However, while returning from Jomsom to Pokhara, tickets are never sold to Nepali passengers.

They sell tickets only to foreigners and Indian nationals, because they charge exorbitant price for them…but they cannot do this with Nepali passengers who pay Rs.2400 for the same ticket. Tara Airlines has maintained its monopoly on Pokhara Jomsom route, as currently there are no other flights available.

Tara Airlines takes two flights in a day from Pokhara to Jomsom. In fact, all the passengers in the jeep had tried to get tickets from the main counter of Tara Airlines at the airport. They were even ready to pay five thousand for the ticket, but their offer was turned down. “This is absolutely true that on many occasions the plane from Jomsom takes off with many seats empty but they never sell tickets to Nepali,” revealed the secret by the jeep driver, a local resident of Jomsom.    

The road was bumpy and I felt very uncomfortable. However, the driver of the jeep said the road up to Marpha (2670 Altitude) was very good. “Don’t say this road bad, the bad and the worst will begin from Marpha” declared the driver.

I was not in a situation to do anything but to prepare myself mentally and physically for the bad and the worst part of the journey. At Marpha there were many small and big apple gardens, but without apples because all the apples had already been taken away to sell in Pokhara and Kathmandu.

A tourist takes bath under 108 waterspouts with her clothes on her body. Photo: LB Thapa
Photo: LB Thapa
Most of the apples have already been taken out of Jomsom. Photo: LB Thapa
A helipad is made just below Muktinath temple. Photo: LB Thapa
Water at Muktinath waterspouts is below freezing level. Photo: LB Thapa

From Marpha up to Tukche (2950 Altitude) the road was bumpy but not that bad, but from Tukche the condition of road began deteriorating. The road from Tuche to Kobang (2640 Altitude), Larjung (2550 Altitude), Lete (2480 Altitude), Ghasa (2010 Altitude) and Tatopani was extremely bad.

At several places river was flowing from the road and driving was quite challenging. In many places, dozers were working hard to clear debris of the landslides and making a passage for vehicles. For the first time I realized how difficult it was to drive on a slippery downhill.

On request, the driver stopped his jeep at Tatopani. The hot spring pond at Tatopani is just below the main road. The hot water pond was found near the Kaligandaki River. Later natural hot water was channeled to a present day pond.

Its water is too hot but cold water of the river is regularly comes into the pond to keep the pond water lukewarm. It is believed that the hot water at Tatopani is mixed with several healthy minerals, which can cure many physical ailments.

It took about five hours to cover about 70km distance from Jomsom to Beni. A road from Beni meets the Baglung highway and the road is good from there. Beni is a small town with many hotels and lodges. If the visitors are not in a hurry then one day-stay in Beni is advisable. There are some beautiful places in the vicinity of Beni.   

While coming down from Jomsom to Beni, we helped eight motorbikes to get out of the mud. A few motorbikes even skidded off the road but luckily, they did not receive serious injury except some nasty bruises. On the way, I noticed no workshop to get repairing facility.

The quality of road is so poor that it is not worth taking a risk by riding a motorbike on such a treacherous road. The road is extremely dangerous for big-size bus as in many places the road is extremely narrow to pass a single bus. Until now, jeep is the safest form of transportation to Muktinath. Well…want to visit Muktinath? Have a safe and pleasant journey!

I ride a horse, no I think it is a mule and my wife follows me. Photo: ontotheroad.com

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