Chasing the Kali Gandaki River upstream on the western edge of the Annapurna Mountains, we climb above the tree line to find ourselves dwarfed by a towering, barren landscape of eroded rock plateaus and crumbling peaks.
Lured to the ancient village of Kagbeni on the edge of Mustang and the restricted lands that buffer Tibet, we follow the Kali Gandaki’s wide, braided riverbed north, leapfrogging clumps of miniature yellow daises that bloom miraculously out of rock.
Searching for this prime pick is a solitary family of tiny donkeys. We offer the cute trio bright blooms on outstretched palms, but it’s the gentle strokes that follow that seem to please the donkeys far more.
They snuggle up for this unlikely meeting, miles from anywhere, much to the delight of our similarly solitary trio.
Eventually we push on.
Kagbeni looms over a final ridge: a lush, riverside haven surrounded by verdant fields of potatoes and apple trees where a cluster of trekker lodges mingled with hundred-year-old rammed-earth homes peers into the former Himalayan kingdom of Mustang.
We explore Kagbeni’s labyrinth of sunny cobblestone alleys that weave past Buddhist mani walls and white-washed chortens, discovering an authentic, lively village where locals occupy ancestral homes and cows and goats are ushered into what might be heritage-listed stalls in another part of the world.
Local shops sell heady, home-brewed apple cider and yak cheese, and there are wistful, Western-style menus boasting happy hour beers and free popcorn, none of which is available in the midst of Nepal’s monsoonal low season.
Right now Kagbeni is ours, still waiting for the influx of foreign trekkers who arrive each September when the skies clear and the apples ripen enough to find their way the legendary apple pies that make the Annapurna Circuit famous.
We may have to contend with only fleeting glimpses of Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri’s incredible snowy peaks, but as the sole occupants of our enormous hotel and with our room offered gratis as long as we keep the chef busy preparing a few simple meals, our lovely monsoon trek is treating us just fine.
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