Muktinath’s dusty roads were marked with little footprints of mules and ponies busy chowing down on feed from bags strapped onto their heads.
On crowded days, I had heard they spent their days ferrying pilgrims to the temples further above. But the herders had now lost a part of their income with the pandemic, while the animals chewed, unaware.
Everything was still in the valley as I lost myself in the sounds of the winds – with pleasant interruptions of jangling cowbells – and the brown and grey hues of the landscape.
The winter had not, however, robbed the valley of other colours. Pretty soon, I spotted women dressed in ruby red salwars with matching woollen sweaters calling out to us to buy shaligrams – fossilised stones considered incarnations of Vishnu – along with the vivid hues of lung tas and darchogs (Tibetan prayer flags) and red-cheeked children giggling and running around in the streets in pink.
The winding path led to steps to the shrine. Perched on the top of this stairway to salvation, a sadhu, or mystic, sat in meditation. He was hard to miss with his orange jacket and shawl, blue aviator shades, and fuchsia pink shoes. Next to him, a young nun in maroon robes stood, smiling into my camera. It was a strange sight to see: two religions, one theistic and the other non-theistic, praying at the threshold of liberation.
The Mukti Kshetra or Chumming Gyatsa (in Tibetan) is a place to remember the dead. Pilgrims leave behind photographs of loved ones outside a small Shiva temple to honour those who had passed on. To the east, the holy, eternal flame burns at the Dhola Mebar Gompa or Jwala Mai temple.
Above, at the Vishnu temple, a group of devotees stood, barefoot and in shorts. Despite the temperatures, I felt foolish for shivering in the presence of these men. They were preparing to take a bath under the 108 water spouts before submerging themselves in frigid, holy water to wash away their sins.
The priest ushered us into the temple, where thoughts about ancestors, devotion, and mortality humbled me.
I left the shrine with a sense of lightness.
Sounds of reggae
I was first introduced to reggae when its sounds throbbed down Chaksibari Marg in Thamel. Every Saturday, a bar on the street hosted ‘reggae night’ where the music of Bob Marley and other artists played until the late hours of the night while folks reminisced about the old days. In the 1960s and ‘70s, hippies traversed hundreds of kilometres to reach Nepal, where lodging and hash were found cheaper than in the western world. Legend has it that Bob Marley visited Muktinath during the time and stopped at an establishment now called the ‘Bob Marley Hotel and Rasta Rock Restaurant and Cafe.’
When we reached there in the peak of winter, the owner Karma Chirring Gurung handed us some good old local brandy stored in a glass bottle with a cork. I had heard the place was known for its Mustang coffee, an intoxicating drink made of raksi, butter, and coffee to brave the long winters. At the time, we were the only ones there, but I was told on more ‘regular’ days, the sounds of reggae reverberated from its Rasta Rock Cafe across the valley when local and foreign trekkers paid a visit on their way from the Thorong La pass.
Saying our goodbyes
The Kali Gandaki was once again our companion, crouching and stretching its weary legs on the beautiful, long, bumpy ride. As the sky grew dark, the moon took over and guided us to our destination for the night.
As the people of Mustang turned out their lights and prepared to fall into a deep slumber, we bid an emotional farewell with a prayer that the Gods of the holy shrine would welcome us again.
Getting to Muktinath
The Jomsom airport in Mustang is the nearest airport. Although the 20-minute flights to the airport from Pokhara are ideal with breathtaking views of the mountains, their schedules are often disrupted by changing weather conditions. Private and shared vehicles also ferry passengers to Muktinath. Check the latest Covid 19 guidelines before departure.
The Bob Marley Hotel is one of the more popular places to stay in Muktinath. Another great option is to stay at the Kalopani Guest House in Lete.
The Muktinath Khaja Ghar, a tiny shop owned by Soni Dhoka, is perfect for hot Nepali chiya and khaja before making the final ascent to the shrine. The shop sells shawls, socks, and caps for those unprepared for the cold temperatures.
The Sofiya restaurant at Tatopani is located near the hot springs. Its owner, Kazi Thapa, offers freshly prepared choices of Nepalese cuisine, including the comforting dal bhat tarkari. The restaurant is named after his adorable nine-year-old daughter Sofiya.