The plan was simple: a quick border crossing from India into Nepal. All went according to plan, when sudden madness strikes “Let’s go to Muktinath”…and so equipped with flip flops, a 3,700 meters climb and snow storm later, after a sacred dip in the Mukti Kundas filled with freezing water, we finally enter the tiny temple Muktinath on top of the Himalayas.
I have countless times benefitted from travel blogs and travel tips in the internet by fellow adventurers. So here is my attempt of giving a small travel insight: Rishikesh to Muktinath by car. Perhaps it serves helpful to some.
Muktinath in the Mustang region of Nepal, there are few places left in the world where mystical fascination still persists and the long arms of modern “civilization” and “globalization” has no significance. On the Northern border of Nepal, in the heart of the Himalayas, and adjacent to Tibet lies such a place. This is a place where natural beauty, wildlife, history and culture co-exist in timeliness harmony. This is the land of Mustang. The Kaligandaki River flows beneath lofty snow-clad peaks. The upper half of Mustang was a restricted area and was only opened to foreigners in 1992.
Muktinath within Hinduism is called the sacred place of Mukti Kshetra, which literally means the “place of liberation or moksha”. The small central shine of Sri Muktinath is one of the most ancient and most sacred Hindu Temples of God Vishnu.
Rishikesh to Bhimdatta
The journey starts from Rishikesh, India. After an approximate six hours long drive by car we reach Banbasa, India. The border is easy to find. We cross around five check posts in total (customs and army check posts in India and Nepal). Initially after crossing the bridge, I exit India via the tiny Indian immigration house on the right side. I have no issues. The official is very kind. Then after an Indian army check post, in which they note down my passport details, we continue on a bumpy road for another five minutes and on our left side enter Nepalese immigration in a small white house. I am greeted by the official with a smile, fill out the form, pay $25 USD visa fee and get my 14 days Tourist Visa. Next and last stop is at Nepalese customs with officials guiding us to the traffic department office to get our temporary Nepalese car number plate as well as car permissions. We have to mention how many days we intend to be in Nepal. The RTO for all regions of Nepal costs 200 INR and the car permission 300 INR per day (if we overstay a penalty of 2,000 INR per day has to be paid). And voila, we have officially entered Nepal via the Bhimdatta border. We start driving when my friend suddenly says “Let’s go to Muktinath”. “Awesome, I’m in” I reply and wonder silently how we can manage such a very long drive in only seven days (the length of our Nepalese car permission), without a four by four vehicle on dirt roads, no Mustang entry permissions and not sufficient and appropriate clothes….but then again I learned to follow that one simple truth in life: be spontaneous and divine provides…and so we set off.
[ Travel Notes: It is not allowed to carry Indian Rupee notes larger than 100 INR; so no 500 INR or 1,000 INR notes. Having said this, we were not asked or checked about it. / Everywhere they accept Indian Rupees for payment, restaurants and hotels alike. / If you enter by car, you must be the owner of the car. In our case the mother of my friend owned the car. It was not an issue. / Bring along sufficient USD for the Nepalese visa, depending on how long you stay; 14 days tourist visa costs $25 USD. / Bring along a passport picture for the Nepalese immigration form. ]
Bhimdatta to Bhutwal
From Bhimdatta onwards we cross continuous army and police check posts. We drive a good length of our journey during the night. Check post halts increase. The soldiers and police are very kind, curious and besides occasional note downs of our travel details, we encounter no issues at all. As always when I travel to Nepal, I feel welcomed, comfortable and save and this trip proves not different. I remember my past bus ride experiences in Nepal (on top of a bus winding through Himalayan mountains), and hence can’t believe the comfort of our ride. The nature is stunning and the road till Butwal is mostly in very good condition. It is a comfortable mostly straight drive through beautiful stunning nature. Our driving speed sharply decreases during the night. A long stretch of the journey goes through wildlife park reserves and we are on high alert for wild animals standing on the side of the road. Our feeling is right. We see deers, cheetahs and elephants. A magnificent experience!
Our ride suddenly gets more ‘interesting’ when we have a flat tyre in the late evening due to massive nails getting stuck in the wheel. It happens right before an Army check post, so we have curious and kind soldiers holding the torch for us while we change the tyres….thank God for spare tyres.
Our first overnight stop is in Kohalpur. We stay at Pop Life Hotel, which is the only hotel we can find on this spontaneous trip at this time of the night. It is right around the corner of the big round about at Kohalpur. Rooms are clean, beds comfortable, staff kind. Of course it is quite basic, noisy in the morning due to traffic and only has cold water. But given the location it is perfectly fine and most of all hygienic, so what more can we ask for. We pay 1,500 NRI including all taxes. You can always negotiate the hotel room prices when arriving at the hotel; especially in our case as we usually arrived around midnight only, so we always got solid discounts.
The next day luckily we realize in advance that another tyre is about to burst. Given that we used the spare tyre already the night before, we now have to change the order of all four tyres (damaged front tyre to the back) in order to make it to the next town before the second tyre bursts. However here the fun starts. None of the street shops along the road carry our tyres. After a couple of attempts, we are told we may have better luck in Bhutwal. Done, after another four hours of careful driving and only moments before the only shop that carries exactly only two tyres of the type we need, closes its doors, we make it just about in time. When we try to negotiate the price the shop owner replies “Look at me. I’m a Sikh. I don’t need to do business to earn money. I am rich by birth. I do this business for the activity. I only take a simple benefit. You don’t get these kind of tyres in the whole of Nepal. Perhaps if you are lucky in Kathmandu”. The Kathmandu part definitely convinces us, well aware that none of the other shops so far carried these tyre types. We quickly run to find an ATM machine, while he patiently waits for our return. He also kindly arranged a diligent street shop car worker, who despite his shop being closed already nevertheless agrees to change our types in the middle of the night. Two new tyres, worth gold for us. We can’t believe how incredible lucky we are and how smooth this all went. We are all set again for Muktinath! So after a short tea break we continue onwards. Pokhara is the next stop.
[ Travel Note: You will have to manage with cash for most of the drive, so carry sufficient 100 INR notes along with you till you reach Bhutwal. ]
Bhutwal to Pokhara
The first stretch of the road from Bhutwal to Pokhara is in bad condition. The asphalt has gaps every now and then, which requires to cross rough mud patches very slowly. Other than that the road is fine. It is a curvy journey through lush green hills and we are able to quite comfortably reach Pokhara. Given that we drive in the late evening all shops and petrol stations are closed. We quietly observe our petrol needle getting closer and closer to zero. A villager offers us black petrol. But grace is with us and we find a tiny petrol station which is open, with buses and trucks lined up. After patient negotiation he offers to give us petrol for 2,000 NRI. Finally we reach Pokhara well past midnight. There are plenty of hotels around, specially next to the lake, so we easily find a very nice hotel and get a 50% discount.
Only the next day after passing massive long queues of cars, buses and motorbikes infront of petrol stations in Pokhara we understand that the mountain region of Nepal is in severe petrol shortage. Apparently after the earthquake China does not deliver petrol anymore, which leaves the whole mountain region in a severe petrol shortage and a vast growing petrol black market; as we can judge from the black smoke coming out from most of the engines of cars and buses passing us. (We also notice later on that each small petrol station towards Beni has an army solider sitting next to it). Watching the giant lines of cars at each petrol station we pass, we are speechless and realize only now our incredible luck of getting petrol in the middle of the night yesterday. No doubt, given our short time window due to our limited Nepalese car permission length we would have missed the chance to reach Muktinath if we were not miraculously gifted the chance to get petrol last night.
Pokhara to Beni
“Is it possible to drive in a normal car to Muktinath?” we ask the hotel staff in Pokhara. His answer is straight forward “No mam, impossible. The road starts to be in bad condition from Pokhara onwards. You need a jeep or bus”. I look at my friend, a few silent moments follow. “No way” we both conclude. “Let’s just go however far the car will take us. Then we decide from there what we will do next”. My inner German usually well planned nature repulses, but the desire to reach Muktinath is way too strong by now. The road to Beni drastically gets worse, with frequent mud patches and deep holes. Lucikly we can find one more petrol pump that agrees to give us petrol for 1,000 NRI. A great relief. We shall be all set for our journey now. The road passes a number of tiny villages and winds through countless mountains. It is a very picturesque setting. While we wind down from one of the hills, on the first glance it seems a dog is walking along the road. But then I realize, strongly grap my friends arm and squeeze it way too hard. With delay I can finally utter words. “Cheetah!” I shout. I can’t believe my eyes. The cheetah turns his face towards us while we pass him. “Do the villagers know there is a cheetah right next to their houses?” we ask in amazement. There is something truly touching when you see such a majestic powerful wild animal.
[ Travel Note: Fill up on petrol before entering the mountain region. You must have a full petrol tank. I also highly recommend to carry additional petrol canisters along with you. Most cars carried some. The chance to find a petrol station that agrees to give you at least a small amount of petrol is very slim. / You will not find any ATM machine nor decent restaurants on the way. So whatever you need try to get it in Pokhara. Beni also has two ATM machines, of which only one worked for my card and they are both closed during the night. ]
Beni to Jomson
Our question to villagers in Beni if we can reach Jomson by car was answered with a heart-filled laugh. “Impossible” they reply. Their replies still leave our minds in wonder, but that heart-filled laugh was real. So we park the car and start the taxi negotiations. You will easily find a bus and taxi stand at the end of Beni towards Jomson. The buses leave only in the early morning, otherwise if you leave later (if they actually do leave later) you will not reach Jomson the same day. We decide to go with the cheapest option, oblivious to what horrendous journey we get ourselves into now. We take an Alto car for 20,000 NRI. This includes the return ride and the driver will wait for us in Jomson till the next day to drive us back again. This turns out to be very helpful as we could place our small suitcase in the car while we trekked up to Muktinath the next day. Nevertheless this was sincerely a very terrible ride. Literally we drove the six hours in first gear only. If I go again to Muktinath, I will spend more money next time and definitely take a jeep (or bus) instead of an Alto taxi. It is impossible to pass this road with a normal car. All of the road is a mud dirt path with huge stones and holes on the way, literally nonstop. We also occasionally drove through small rivers and water falls.
The scenery nevertheless is outstanding and my heart jumps when I see the first glaciers peeking through the mountain hills. What a majestic sight! “Stop” I ask the driver in excitement, keen to get out of the car to take a first picture. Our driver is not amused and replies “Not good. If we stop too many times we will reach Jomson very late”. Anyways we easily win him over by offering him food that we brought along. Over the next two days he turns out to be a very nice and reliable driver and for the rest of the journey whenever the frame is right, I roll down my window and take images from the driving car. The driver is happy.
We arrive in Jomson late in the night. The weather got very cold by now, minus zero, and I surely feel funny passing others all dressed in heavy winter clothes while I wear my flip flops only. There are plenty of hotels available and you will easily find a place to eat (in one of the hotels) as well.
Jomson to Muktinath
Early morning we walk towards the bus stand, which is on the other side of the river. This is the reason why none is able to continue their journey with whatever vehicle they reached from Beni. Jomson currently only has one small bridge, which carries maximum five people or one motorbike. However we see that construction for a new bridge seems to be going on, so at some point in the near future once the bridge is complete, that shall change the whole process how one can reach Muktinath. Either way for now we have to follow the route to the bus stand. We get stopped by the ‘tourist check post’ and asked for the Mustang permission, which we obviously don’t have. Luckily you can obtain that permission directly at this office. I had to pay 4,000 NRI.
I am well used to tourist prices. So I am not surprised they offer me a jeep ride for 10,000 NRI when it only costs 3,700 NRI for Nepalese. Note you can share a jeep with 12 other passengers and divide the costs. Today due to the weather conditions no flights were landing in Jomson. This decreases the usual flow of people that would like to go up to Muktinath right now. So initially we decide to group up with other travellers, however the bus ticket officer decides to start a bus up to Muktinath as sufficient passengers gathered by now (20 plus). I need to pay 710 NRI one way (Nepalese 300 NRI and Indians 590 NRI). We swap the bus three times due to engine problems. Each time we change a mad race by passengers starts, everyone trying to secure a good seat in the front of the bus. After our “interesting” Alto experience from yesterday, I understand the value of a good seat and follow the mad rush. Eventually, we finally set off.
The landscape by now is very barren and we encounter trekkers who do the whole Anapurna Trek. Trekking in this region seems generally very safe to me. I see a number of Western tourists and since we started from Beni quite frequently simple guest houses on the way as well. It normally takes two hours to reach Muktinath, however suddenly our bus is engulfed in black smoke. Black petrol! Our bus breaks down shortly before the destination. The driver opens the engines and starts repairing. But when we see the locals packing up their staff, we decide to follow and walk the last bit. The village before Muktinath is a cute little town, has hotels and plenty of restaurants available.
A brief note about the return journey: we are told the last transportation back (bus, jeep) leaves at 4pm. However we tried to reach well before 4pm in order not to miss our ride back to Jomson. You will have to wait till 12 passengers are ready to depart again otherwise the jeep (or bus and hence 20 plus passengers) won’t leave. I negotiated to pay a little extra, got four more passengers and in only 45 minutes we were back in Jomson. Our driver definitely had Schumacher potential.
[ Travel Note: You need to obtain a Mustang Tourist Permit. It costs 4,000 NRI for tourists (Indians pay only 400 NRI). It is a single-entry permit and as long as you stay within Mustang it is valid without expiry. Single-entry. You will easily find the office on the way to the bus stand. If for any reason you miss this office, I think it is no big deal to obtain the permission then at the next tourist spot up in Muktinath. At each tourist check pot you are stopped and asked for your personal details. Basically they keep track of each tourist that enters the region. / The altitude sharply increases. Drink plenty of water from Pokhara onwards, a couple of sips every 15-20 minutes in order for your body to adjust more easily. ]
Finally after days of spontaneous traveling and more than 1,200 kilometers later, we reach Muktinath Temple. Muktinath is a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists located in Muktinath Valley at an altitude of 3,710 meters at the foot of the Throng La mountain pass. It is a great example of how two religions can share the same holy spot with mutual respect and support. Within Hinduism it is called the sacred place of Mukti Kshetra, which literally means the “place of liberation or moksha”. The small central shine of Sri Muktinath is one of the most ancient and most sacred Hindu Temples of Vishnu. The outer courtyard has 108 bull faces through which water streams. It is freezing and devotees take their sacred bath here.
We decide to first enter the small Shiva Temple with an amazingly big Shaligram, a fossilized shell which is known as Chakra. Shaligram is considered a sacred holy stone found only in the river Gandaki in Muktinath. It is the symbol of God Vishnu. Historically, the use of Shaligram in worship can be traced to the time of Adi Shankara through his work. The energy is precious and we have no other travelers around when sitting inside the temple and absorbing this unique little spot on earth.
We then continue to the Mukti Kundas to take a sacred dip. “You go first” I say to my friend, buying myself some more time to mentally prepare for this incredibly freezing experience. I can’t see anyone else taking fully immersed dips, specially no women and definitely no white woman. My friend is back. It is my turn now. I change in one of the changing rooms around the corner and close my eyes for a few moments. And just when I am about to start, I ask in disbelieve “Are these snow flakes that are falling on us?”. Yup, they are! And the snowfall picks up quickly turning into a proper snow storm. We definitely have minus degrees. I decide to power through with the dips before temperatures drop further. The dips start by passing all the 108 Mukti Kundas and conclude in full dips in the two ponds infront of the temple. Done, the first 108 Mukti Kundas are manageable I think to myself. Now the big part is ahead. I focus and mentally prepare myself for the full water dips. With steady speed I walk inside the pond and feel my legs getting numb. It is incredibly cold. I look at my friend one last time and down I am. An amazing experience. Although changing back into my clothes proves challenging….my red swollen fingers and toes don’t want to move as ordered by my brain.
Now we are all set to set foot into the Muktinath Shrine. What is in particular precious to observe is a Hindu and Buddhist priest working along side together in the temple. We do our Parikrama, receive Prasad and blessings from both. By now heavy snow starts falling and within minutes the whole area is fully covered in white. All other travellers have left by now. Silently, our hearts filled with gratitude, we bid good-bye and start our journey home.