Mustang. Trekking in the kingdom of Lo

The adventure began before we even arrived. The journey to Jomsom is a hair raising, butt breaking and vertigo inducing ride in a rickety old tin can bus. The single track and unpaved road hugs the precipitous slopes of the Kali Gandaki gorge. It is possible to fly from Pokhara during the few hours in the early morning when the unsettled mountain weather allows it, but where’s the fun in that?! Having survived the journey and marveling at the coolness with which the young drivers negotiate the countless rocky hurdles, bends and occasional oncoming traffic, including driving a section of the seasonally dry river bed, we finally arrived in Jomsom after dark. Breathing in the fresh high altitude air in this remote mountain hub, we retired with a bowl of thick hot soup and a plate of vegetable momos. Nothing like the dawn of a new adventure to test the fickle mind! We had a long walk ahead of us.


Leaving Jomsom early next morning with our guide and porter I was struck by the magnificence of the surrounding peaks, which would become a constant companion during the next 10 days. The dusty streets were shared by kids playing, yaks and cows pooping and locals setting up their market wares. We passed people with prayer beads in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Upon leaving the outskirts of town we soon hit the wide and flat river bed of the Kali Gandaki, surrounded on both sides by soaring snow capped peaks and intertwined with braided rivulets ranging in colour from brown to turquoise. After a couple of hours we arrived in the village of Kagbeni, the gateway to the restricted kingdom of Upper Mustang. It is a peaceful place with a stunning backdrop and a captivating mix of trekking tourism and local agricultural. The narrow paved streets give way to small local enterprises including eateries such as YakDonalds. The rear entrance to the village is dominated by a ‘spirit eater’, a protective effigy with a prominent phallus whose function is to protect locals from malevolent spirits. At one point a sleeping dog was almost gored by a suddenly and inexplicably irate bovine in a small yard. With peace restored and one upset canine left to gather himself, we continued to the checkpoint for Upper Mustang to have our permits checked and begin the trek proper. From here the view back to Kagbeni was one of a green agricultural oasis in a beautifully stark and arid mountainous landscape. We continued parallel to, and upstream from the river bed below, the scenery ever more dramatic and the feeling of untouched remoteness ever more tangible. We continued for several hours until passing a small, serrated valley into the village of Tangbe. The scene was one that we would become ever more familiar with in the coming days- dramatically perched mountain villages with stunning arid backdrops contrasting with the varied hues of sustainable local agriculture. The rich greens would give way to yellow and marigold as the buckwheat crops would come to harvest in the coming months. We stopped here for lunch in a local house, a hearty affair of noodles and momos, stove-cooked and delicious. We then continued on the final section to the village of Chuusang, along which I would become the victim of a severe happy attack! We turned a corner after which the lateral geological contours gave way to conical towers with a herd of deer seemingly defying gravity in the search for what appeared to be non-existent pasture. This scene was framed by the most beautiful and dramatic scenery, as the rivulets below led the eye through the steep valley to the sudden riot of colours and rural idyll of Chuusang. This for me would become the quintessential Mustang village as the setting sun revealed the red tones and contours of adjacent pockmarked mountain cliffs. Systems of irrigation were triumphs of simplicity and function as networks of narrow streams democratically hydrated plots of crops and could be diverted as easily as shifting a few boulders to allow the water to flow in an alternate direction. The roof of every house was adorned with dried wood, a means of keeping precious fuel dry for the freezing winter months and for decoration. Most houses had very low doorways, the local belief being that zombies are unable to crouch down and so cannot enter houses to harass the living! Livestock were kept in paddocks which were as much a part of the village as the labyrinthine alleys. Yak skulls adorned houses above the doorways besides which piles of dung sat drying. Traditionally, houses were built on top of, as well as alongside each other with neighbors’ permission, leading to close nit communities. We enjoyed our last tepid shower for several days as our guesthouse had that rare commodity in these parts, a water heater. We had another delicious candle lit vegetarian meal that evening, the satisfaction of which was heightened exponentially by the appreciation of scarce resources in such a remote place.


Leaving early next morning I became increasingly aware that I had somehow managed to pull some thigh muscles the day before. In fact, it felt quite severe and I was dependent on my trekking pole to maintain any pace. It was of course a growing concern the further from civilization we would trek, but I took the gamble that it would soften out. In fact it would become a 10 day limp for me of varying difficulty. Our next few days established a daily routine of rising early for a breakfast of buckwheat bread and eggs, trekking for 5-9 hours on average including lunch, then arriving in a village guesthouse for a scrumptious and wholesome vegetarian meal followed by a restful night under a mound of heavy blankets. From Chuusang we made our way along the final part of the riverbed path and ascended into the village of Chele where goats were being herded to nearby pastures. From here it was a long and increasingly breathtaking uphill path carved snugly into the mountainside to Samar. The path ran parallel to a deepening gorge with a dramatic and unlikely footbridge running across it to another village. In Samar there was a monastery overlooking the expanse below, icicles hanging from an irrigation channel gate and a playful local girl wearing an Angry Birds shirt! We continued past the ubiquitous chorten on the outskirts of the village and continued onwards and upwards towards the hamlet of Syanboche. We were surrounded by distant Annapurna peaks which treated us to several magic sunlight moments. We passed through a tiny settlement called Bhem La, where a man and a boy sat outside the only building, listening to Billy Joel in the middle of nowhere! The winding path continued over prayer flag strewn high passes where the sound of the wind created an ethereal soundtrack as it resonated across the few power lines that were present. It was an epic day which my aching muscles were very happy to get through. That evening our meal was served in a rustic farm cum guesthouse, heated by the stove which was used to cook our food. A couple of scraggly cats sat content by the hearth in the middle of the concrete and mud room. The wizened ladies of the house seemed bemused by the Mustang book which I brought. They were friendly, but rather shy and distant.


In fact the culture of the region is very robust and although most locals welcome the transport of goods made possible by the recent dirt road and are moderately curious about outsiders, they are nonetheless protective of their cultural identity and worry about negative outside influences. We learned that goods can now be transported by jeep in 2 days rather than the previous 2 week mule trek and there is increasing commercial interests from China. We also learned that sky burials still take place in which birds of prey consume the desiccated corpse of a loved one on a sacred hill shrine, though it has become increasingly difficult to find young people who are willing to prepare the corpse. Polyandry is still practiced in places and has traditionally kept the local population numbers in check in this resource poor region. The temperature plummets in winter and up to 80% of the population leave for the lower altitudes of Pokhara and Kathmandu until it is warm enough to return. Although the hefty permit fees for trekkers in the region keep tourism at a sustainable level, changes are inexorably coming and there are the usual concerns about how it will affect the local demographics and culture. Tourist numbers have recently trebled to about 3000 per year and it is expected that the road will be graveled within the next 3-4 years.


Next morning, after breakfast in the smoky and sun-dappled guestroom and an invigorating outdoor wash using a manual water pump, we were on our way to Ghemie. A distant sound of drumming indicated lesson time for some local school kids and we passed fields of small stone tombs. We ascended to our first of several 4000m passes and followed the winding path through undulating terrain of magnificent serrated red, gray and brown geology. The descent to Ghemie, huddled as it was among the surrounding peaks, was picturesque and a relief for aching leg muscles. After lunch we washed some laundry and took a stroll through the tumbled streets of this idyllic village.  Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, rows of prayer wheels were turned by passing devotees, children played with whatever building materials and detritus were available and livestock wandered freely. An improbable outdoor pool table in this infinite undulating terrain occupied the leisure time of some young men, who were dressed variously in tatty western clothes and traditional saffron robes. We were greeted with the usual distant friendliness. After all, what must they make of us westerners passing through with our cameras and trekking gear?! A wonderful gorge passed through the perimeter of the village, accentuating the stunning red hued vertiginous slopes around it as the daylight began to fade. Plots of crops were hemmed in by stone walls and irrigated by a small river.


Leaving Ghemie next morning we walked by a small adjacent stream canal through a tree lined avenue, the serenity of which was interrupted by a pack of barking dogs. We crossed a small footbridge and approached the longest prayer wall in Nepal. The setting was stunning, though we could only walk on the silhouetted side of the wall as it is strictly only to be crossed clockwise according to local belief. The remoteness of this region was punctuated by one of the many ancient chortens, standing as a lone sentinel amid the soaring red-hued and snow-capped peaks, along with the unfamiliar and unwelcome sound of the first vehicle to pass by in 3 days. The path once again ascended at an intimidating rate, then descended again eventually to the town of Tsarang, which appeared in the distance as a regal mirage amid wonderful and weird sun-dappled geological formations. Tsarang is the seat of the old kings palace, which now stands derelict, and a captivating monastery where local kids will happily guide the occasional tourist for a small tip. The streets, paths and fields are lined with characterful stone walls and the host of characters plying the streets are joined by dzopaks, a hairy yak-cow hybrid.


Leaving Tsarang in the early morning light is even more dramatic than arriving, as it is first necessary to cross a dappled gorge of hopeful arid fields, pass another sentinel and up onto the vast plane beyond. From here the view back to Tsarang is an epic and majestic scene of snow capped Himalayan peaks fronted by the ancient outline of this beguiling town and its palace amid a truly remote and arid landscape. From here it was several more hours of trekking to the capital of Upper Mustang, Lo Manthang. Increasingly, the high passes were yielding to bitter winds. Somehow, it made perfect sense that the ubiquitous prayer flags carried the prayers and hopes of passers by. We passed a couple of locals with their horses on the dusty approach to this town, which from a distance stood out against the white and gray cliffs in the background. Lo Manthang demonstrated everything indicative and evocative of Mustang, from the firewood lined roofs, to the labyrinthine medieval streets with colorful windows, low doorways, piles of dung and wandering animals, to the stone walls and small pastures, to prayer flags, prayer wheels and prayer walls, to dirty children playing in the streets alongside wizened elderly chatting and thumbing their prayer beads. For the first time there was also an active tourism market, with souvenir shops selling Tibetan and local handicrafts which would never do in a backpack! Nonetheless, the place felt utterly authentic and many hours could be spent joyously wandering the alleys. The central palace was unprepossessing and ladies sat nearby weaving in the streets as men tended to their livestock. Later in the day we would notice small groups of horses waiting expectantly and rather comically at doorways on cue for their evening salt bags. The king was not around while we were there but when he is around he can be seen among, and is indistinguishable from the locals. He is supposedly quite happy to meet and chat with foreign visitors. Back at our guesthouse we paid for a bucket of hot water and enjoyed our first glorious proper wash in 4 days, using the same water also for our laundry. There was a dash for the few power outlets in our guesthouse when the generator suddenly started that evening and I was able to recharge my camera batteries as well as my own with a delicious meal and a flask of hot lemon tea.


Next day we were heading to the furthest point of our trek, not too far from the Tibetan border. The village of Choser is famed for its ancient cliff-side cave dwellings and monastery. The trek was a two hour journey northwards on horseback, so we were able to enjoy the unfolding scenery while giving our aching limbs a much appreciated rest. The boulder strewn landscape was littered with distant hilltop structures, the nature of whose construction was indistinguishable as that of mans or natures. There were ruins of 14th century monasteries and plentiful artful erosion. Infinite blue skies met ambiguous horizons where snowy peaks blended with lazy clouds. Gradually, signs of civilization presented themselves in the form of lone rectilinear buildings and abandoned constructions. After passing another lone chorten standing nobly as an indication of human habitation to follow we were then greeted by children eager for some distraction as well as perhaps a gift from us strangers. Eventually we dismounted our horses to explore Choser by foot. In places the boulders had been gathered into rectangular and elliptical walls enclosing small improbable fields of lone skinny trees. In other places they were gathered into neat piles for future use as building materials. We crossed a small river where a couple of local women were cleaning their wares in the freshest of mountain water. In this remote location they seemed more wary than friendly, no doubt a consequence of their robust cultural integrity in a place where the living is tough and remote. We explored the caves, marveling at the ingenuity of the original inhabitants who modified the vertiginous cave systems into a protective, air conditioned and integrated living space. There were tiny potholed windows and rickety ladders led from one level to the next. Upon the return journey to Lo Manthang the famous Mustang winds had gathered force. Although we were grateful for the ride, it very much exposed our immobile bodies to the full force of these freezing gusts. That evening I wandered to the outskirts of town to watch people return from their fields at dusk and witness a glorious Himalayan sunset. We slept well that night, under many blankets.


Finally we were on our return journey. Leaving Lo Manthang brought mixed feelings of satisfaction with our progress and reluctance to be leaving such a magical place. The morning light was sublime as it played a game of conceal and reveal with the contours of the surrounding hills. Clouds embraced the hilltops and occasional random fields were marked by the usual stone walls. There were patches of ice throughout the scrubland as we gradually ascended, leaving behind the vestiges of civilization including the unpaved ‘road’.  We trekked for several hours, following ill-defined trails to the apex of a gradual valley. The only sign of human presence was when we had to make way for a few locals and their horses on a very windy high pass. We passed through a stony sanctuary with small energetic streams gushing among its boulders and eventually reached the 14th century monastic settlement of Ghar Gumpa. The views from the many red chortens and monastic outhouses overlooked Tsarang in the distance. We stopped for a picnic lunch and took a precious moment to meditate on being in such a remote and special outpost. Passing over yet another high pass we were met with the final approach to Dhakmar. After a blisteringly windy gradual downhill there was a perfectly formed natural stone gateway which gave way to a sudden and dramatic descent amidst the most stunning red geological imaginings. It is this geology which makes Dhakmar locally famous for its stunning sunsets as the sun burns the cliffs red and gradually uncloaks them, giving way to night in another perfect little Mustang village. We were instantly bewitched by this place and decided to break the walk early to stay a night here and watch the sunset work its magic from a nearby footbridge. As usual, there was no running water in our guesthouse, dim lights and little heat. However, good hearty food and comfortable basic beds ensured another satisfying nights sleep.


Next morning, after discreetly observing an elderly lady collect firewood from her roof, we continued on the return journey back towards Ghemie. As the Himalayan sun greeted the hills with her morning rays we were greeted by a curious young girl who was playing by an isolated cottage. What must she think, I wondered. How utterly different our lives are. By now we were able to spy our path towards Tsarang from a week previous, as it meandered below us in the distance, along with the prayer wall and lone chorten which had greeted us. How satisfying to get a panoramic birds eye view of these previously noteworthy points of our trek. We passed through Ghemie as if paying respects to an old dear friend and started the ascent back towards Syanboche, gradually re-claiming the distance towards where we had started. The path ascended to the final high pass of our trek, its meandering path thereafter traversing undulating peaks and gulleys, stealing hard earned altitude and presenting many false finishes before finally passing the last chorten and descending into Syanboche. By now the weather had begun to close in and we noticed horses in the courtyard of our guesthouse seemed more expectant than usual. On cue they received their feedbacks at the front door. I took a final stroll among the few buildings of this tiny village, all of which advertised camping and ‘hotel’ rooms. I noticed a lone child out in the cold rummaging through a bucket of unidentified black detritus and stones, selecting pieces deliberately and with a purpose which I could not ascertain. Suddenly the chill in the air gave way to light snow. It was fortuitous to experience the same location in such different circumstances but I did wonder what implications there may be for our trek the next day. Although our familiar guesthouse was cold, the heat retaining properties of its mud and stone construction were evident as it was freezing outside. The bare mud floors and furnishings seemed to hold the heat from the stove quite well. The smoke was channeled through the ceiling via a pipe next to a supportive beam in the middle of the room and radiated just enough extra heat to keep us cozy. The old lady seemed to recognize us from a week before and stared at us quizzically but was most definitely still shy. Next morning it was still lightly snowing and everywhere was covered with a thin white sheet. It contrasted sharply with the clear conditions from a week before though it was still very beautiful and the trekking quickly warmed up our thawing bodies.


Though we still had 2 days of walking ahead of us we were very much on the homeward section of our trek. We gradually descended from the snow line, passing herds of yaks (or were they dzopaks?)  and mentally ticking off familiar sites. We passed back through Samar, Chele and returned to Chuusang for our final night. Having mentally shifted gear, our limbs complained that there was still further to go than our rejoicing minds were able to acknowledge. The final sections to Kagbeni and Jomsom were consequently painstaking and longer than expected, but it didn’t matter. We limped back into Jomsom with very satisfied smiles on our faces, having completed one of the most rewarding treks we’re ever likely to experience. We still had to brave the return journey to Pokhara the next day and a hot shower, laundry, pampering and restaurants were still more than 24 hours away, but we were too happy to care. The pulled muscles, chaffed limbs, chapped lips, sore throats and rashes were worth every moment of experiencing life on the roof of the world. Namaste.

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