An Epic Himalayan Journey Into Upper Mustang

In the mountain fastness of north-central Nepal, the once forbidden former kingdom of Mustang offers adventurous travelers a taste of traditional Tibetan life and a tableau of epic Himalayan scenery.

“ The flight to Jomsom is postponed,” Kusang Sherpa stoically informs us in the arrival area of Pokhara Airport in central Nepal. Shrugging, our guide for the next 10 days leads us upstairs to a café and orders tea. Two hours and many cups later, we learn that the flight has been cancelled. Ah, the vagaries of travel!

Undaunted, we decide to hire a Land Rover and driver to get us to our destination, which will take seven hours rather than 20 minutes by air. But first, Kusang advises us to check our e-mails. “You’re about to enter a Wi-Fi–free region,” he laughs.

The Gheling Gompa monastery, backdropped by the mountains of the Tibetan plateau; Photo by David De Vleeschauwer.

We are, in fact, about to enter Mustang, a former Tibetan kingdom in the Nepalese Himalayas. Known to its inhabitants as Lo, the area historically grew rich on commerce, positioned as it was on the ancient salt-trade route between Tibet and India. In 1795 its hereditary rulers, the Bista family, threw in their lot with Nepal and made Mustang a tributary of its much larger neighbor. This arrangement lasted until the civil war and overthrow of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008, at which point Mustang lost its status as a kingdom too.

The last king of Mustang, Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, traced his lineage directly back to the realm’s 14th-century founder and lived most of his life in the medieval walled capital of Lo Manthang, the final stop on our itinerary. Stripped of his royal title, he eventually retired to Kathmandu, where he passed away last December. Mustang’s Tibetan Buddhist culture, however, is still very much alive, particularly in Upper Mustang, the arid, high-altitude northern two-thirds of the district. Foreigners weren’t permitted to enter the kingdom until 1992, and even now only a few thousand hardy tourists visit Mustang each year to explore a landscape dotted with ancient monasteries and ruined fortresses. It’s not an easy trip, and entering Upper Mustang still requires an expensive permit, but it does offer one of the last opportunities to see Tibetan life largely undisturbed by outside influences.

Somewhere on the only road between Jomsom and lo Manthang; Photo by David De Vleeschauwer.

From Pokhara, we drive for a couple of hours through a humid, tropical valley of palm trees and monkeys before entering the rain shadow of the Himalayas, where we emerge into a higher, drier, cooler, and much quieter landscape. The roads are rough and rudimentary; the prayer doll hanging from the driver’s rear-view mirror shakes like a possessed Shakira as he muscles the vehicle around precipitous bends and fallen rocks. But the scenery is thrilling, and our cancelled flight is long forgotten.

Jomsom, situated on the banks of the Gandaki River at 2,700 meters above sea level, is a frontier town with one stone-paved street, a small airport and bus station, and the most beautiful views we have seen yet—the towering, snow-covered peaks of the Nilgiri Himal range and the 8,167-meter summit of Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-highest mountain. The summer rains (such as they are) have not yet arrived and clouds of the region’s legendary dust are billowing down the main street. Shops serving walkers and climbers
are interspersed with Tibetan eateries, simple guesthouses, and small hotels. A little farther on is a school that caters to pupils from far-flung villages; in the morning, I can hear the students chanting prayers. It’s hypnotic.

The air is crisp and the sky is a dazzling blue when we set off for the village of Kagbeni. As we head up the Gandaki River valley, which served as a vital trade route between India and Tibet before the latter’s takeover by China, Kusang asks the driver to pull over alongside a stretch of exposed streambed. We then get out to look for ammonites—the ancient, fossilized remains of marine invertebrates. Revered as a symbol of Vishnu by Hindus, who know them as shaligrama, they’re found in glossy black stones along the bottom of the river, which is said to be older than the Himalayas themselves. We come across several, breaking them in half with another stone to reveal—hey, presto!—the spiral imprint of a fossilized worm or shrimp-like creature. They’re the ultimate Himalayan souvenir.

Freshly baked vegetable fritters at kagbeni’s new Asia trekkers home; Photo by David De Vleeschauwer.

An hour farther up the valley is Kagbeni, where we’ll be staying two nights to help us acclimatize. Other travelers have told us it’s a charming village. In fact, it is an oasis of green, with apple and peach orchards and ripening barley fields that contrast sharply with the grayish-brown backdrop of the mountains. It’s also the farthest point into Mustang where you can go without an entry permit, so lots of treks start or end here and there’s a touristy feel to the place. That said, it’s early June and our inn—the New Asia Trekkers Home—is as good as empty. One Kathmandu family in residence has just returned from a trip through Upper Mustang. The son shows me snapshots and selfies on his smartphone and says his friends on social media can’t believe that this is part of their country. Our room is on the first floor, at the far end of the building, with an en-suite bathroom (a luxury in these parts) and solar-heated water. Better still are the views from our two small windows—of mighty mountains and village streets through which locals lead their cows, horses, and goats to pasture each morning, returning home at dusk.

We spend the next day exploring Kagbeni’s maze of dusty streets, squares, and alleyways, some of which dead-end abruptly at the river. In one Tibetan handicrafts shop, I strike up a conversation with Phurbu Choedak, who tells me that as well as looking after his father’s store, he is a volunteer English teacher at the local gompa, or monastery. Founded in the 15th century, the mud-and-stone building rears up like a big red box above the village plaza. When I buy a few mementos, Phurbu invites me to visit the gompa. “I’ll introduce you to the monks,” he laughs. And he does. Inside the monastery, we’re shown a dark central prayer room with a ceiling painted in intricate mandalas and tantric masks hung on the walls. Young novices study ancient scripts in shadowy corners, while back outside, elderly locals do their rounds intoning mantras and spinning prayer wheels. I don’t imagine this scene has changed much over the centuries.

A monk at the main gompa in lo Manthan; Photo by David De Vleeschauwer.

Back at our inn that evening, we join a group of local ladies in the kitchen, the warmest room in the building thanks to its wood-burning stove. We’re served yak burgers and dal bhat that we eat at a colorfully hand-painted wooden table. The thermometer hovers around 5°C at night, so we make sure to warm ourselves at the stove before climbing into our sleeping bags.
In the morning, a Tibetan horn blaring through the silent village awakens us. It’s time to leave.

Traveling to Upper Mustang is much cheaper than going to Bhutan, but you still need to pay US$500 per person for a 10-day entry permit, of which only a few hundred are issued a year. You also have to be accompanied by an official guide, and there are checkpoints. The first of these is somewhere above Kagbeni, where the road begins to climb higher in the direction of Lo Manthang. The road is a new one, finished in 2011. Before that, the only way to travel across the region was by foot or on horseback.

Our first stop is the hamlet of Chusang, which sits above the Gandaki River. Our guesthouse turns out to be a real gem, with views over barley fields and another dark, cozy kitchen—polished copper pans at the ready—where Kusang and our driver warm themselves with yak-butter tea. Next comes Chele, surrounded by lush gardens and plantations crisscrossed with gurgling streams. In the mountainsides around the village, troglodyte cave dwellings dating from the ninth century B.C. hang some 50 meters above the riverbed.

While most trekkers will head off from here into calm valleys, we follow the higher road via the tiny settlement of Syangmochen to reach Geling. It’s a serious ascent with an incredible succession of rapidly changing vistas, and a route that almost no one seems to take, save the occasional overcrowded minibus. At 4,010 meters we cross Yamdo-La pass, stopping to pose for pictures beside its lone chorten (shrine). Thousands of prayer flags snap in the wind. Down below, Syangmochen consists of just five houses, of which three are teahouses where you can eat and sleep. But getting stranded here after a tortuous, nail-biting drive is no punishment, with one teahouse boasting an enormous vegetable garden overlooking the valley. It’s yet another voluptuous oasis in an otherwise wild and unforgiving landscape dominated by rock, stone, and sand.

A typical teahouse kitchen in Upper Mustang. Photo by David De Vleeschauwer.

From Syangmochen, the Land Rover descends to a splash of green called Geling, which Kusang tells me is the official starting point of the old kingdom of Lo. Backdropped by the snow-covered peaks of the Tibetan Plateau, the town has an ingenious manmade network of crystal-clear streams that seriously ups the fertility factor. There are groves of birch and fields of grass and barley. We see wandering goats, sunbathing yaks, and a couple of strikingly beautiful girls cleaning their teeth in the water. It’s like a Garden of Eden. And towering above it all is the monastery of Geling Gompa. The building was partially damaged by the 2015 Nepal earthquake, but some monks still live there, serenading the villagers with a Tibetan horn each morning.

When we leave this oasis behind us, we pass a stunning chorten situated close to a clear stream. Its painted stripes in earthy red, orange, and yellow contrast vividly with the deep blue sky. Then it’s on to Nyi La Pass, one of the highest points of the trip.

What comes next is almost impossible to explain in words—a surreal landscape of alien rock formations and honeycombed cliffs that assume intense colors, from luminous yellow ocher to wine-red or silvery gray. The valleys are threaded through with rivers that ensure huge swaths of green. This topography engraves itself in our minds but is beyond description.

The following village is Ghemi, our favorite. We sleep in the new wing of the Royal Mustang, a hotel owned by a nephew of the former king, Raju Bista. Raju mostly lives in Kathmandu while his wife, Thari, manages the hotel and its teahouse; as is so often the case in Nepal, it’s the women who do business and have a better feel for tourism. Their older hotel building across the street contains a kitchen, several cozy dining rooms, and the original dormitory where guides now sleep, but guests like us get to bed down in spacious new rooms with sparkling bathrooms and large windows that look out to the mountains. It’s hardly the height of luxury, but it’s the closest thing to it that you’ll find in Upper Mustang. Ghemi itself is off the grid, both figuratively and literally, so the hotel runs on a small generator. After sunset, the village is pitch black and everyone gathers in the kitchen, where Thari and her crew serve up steaming food and chilled Tibetan beer.

Like many Tibetans who swap the snow and freezing temperatures of Upper Mustang for the warmer cities each winter, Thari lives in Kathmandu from October to April. But she knows everyone in Ghemi and soon introduces us to a monk, with whom we eat and gain insights into his life. We also get to experience the beginning of the village mandala ceremony, which, over the course of a few days, sees the creation then destruction—symbolic of the impermanence of life—of an enormous circle of colored sand. It starts each morning with a puja, a time for prayer that can last several hours; Thari donates momos (Tibetan dumplings) and biscuits for the festivities.

A monk’s hands colored with vermillion powder during a puja ceremony; Photo by David De Vleeschauwer.

When it comes time for us to leave, Thari urges us to stop by her brother-in-law’s teahouse and coffee bar in Lo Manthang, some 20 kilometers up the road. Set on an immense mountain plateau and ringed by fields of buckwheat, the old royal capital of Mustang is a charming, walled ensemble of whitewashed mud-brick houses and cobbled streets. The tallest structure here is the five-story king’s palace built in the 15th century, and two of the city’s four gompas are of a similar vintage. Some scholars even consider this the best-preserved medieval fortress in the world.

Of course, we do end up meeting Ram Gurung, Thari’s brother-in-law, as well as his parents, whose eyes radiate a kind of serenity and calm we’ve rarely seen. Over cups of excellent coffee (Ram has the first espresso machine in Upper Mustang), he tells us that he had visited our native Belgium and a few other European countries, and was impressed by how everything was so clean—no sand on the roads, no fallen stones or potholes. But to him, there’s no place like home. I can see why.

Several days later, we’re sitting on the terrace of our hotel back in Jomsom waiting to find out if our plane to Pokhara will take off or not. Two American women close by are disgruntled: the flight is delayed again, there’s no Coca-Cola Light, the sun is too strong … Given our earlier experiences, I don’t expect the incoming flight from Pokhara to arrive any time soon. But we’re not complaining. Time almost seems to stand still in Mustang, and who are we to change that?

Getting There
Silk Air flies between Kathmandu and Singapore five times weekly; Cathay Dragon  has a similar frequency from Hong Hong.

When to Go
Except for the winter months, Mustang is a year-round trekking destination, with mild summers and clear if windy weather in autumn. In May, Lo Manthang holds its colorful Tiji festival, a three-day celebration of Tibetan-Buddhist rituals aimed at chasing away demons ahead of the harvest season.

Trip Notes
The author traveled with Kathmandu-based Himalayan Dream Team, which offers individual trips to Upper Mustang starting from US$2,350 per person for a 10-day program. Asia-focused luxury travel designer Remote Lands, with offices in Bangkok and New York, has even more exclusive itineraries, such as an 11-day Mustang adventure priced at US$12,900 per person, including a private helicopter ride back to Kathmandu.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Outer Limits”).

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