On our first day out of Kagbeni, we mainly stuck to the jeep track that now runs from the border of Tibet all the way down to Jomsom, the artery of change in the Upper Mustang. While a Chinese-built road has facilitated modern cross-border trade with Lo Manthang for over a decade already, these lower sections of road development have made the Mustang all the more accessible for folks like us on a limited timeframe. Jeep tours, mountain bike tours, and even helicopter drop-offs curb visitation to the Mustang only by expense rather than time. And it is not just about the roads within. The road and air connections to Jomsom usher people right up to Kagbeni, the gateway to this “Last Lost Kingdom.” We were guilty as charged. Without a bus up to Jomsom, the Mustang would have been just out of reach for us given the length of our break. Although we opted to stay on trails away from the road as much as possible after reaching Chele, we were constantly reminded of the many ways we were benefitting from road access: a hot shower in every guesthouse, Lhasa Beer at an affordable price, electricity and free outlets in our rooms with real mattresses. These comforts made the Mustang feel far less remote than treks we had previously done just outside of Kathmandu.
On our second day, we took an alternative route that led us to the bottom of a deep canyon where the incredible Chungsi Cave lays tucked away up another side canyon. We really had no idea what to expect, but we had heard from numerous sources that it was not be missed. As we approached the entrance with strings of prayer flags radiating in all directions from a brick wall built out from the cave’s mouth, we realized the element of surprise would only enhance our experience. As we entered into his kitchen, a friendly caretaker from the Amdo region of Tibet greeted us, then guided us to the sacred features of the cave, mantras carved into formations of granite and various self-arisen images of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche in the walls surrounding a central shrine. Caves are central to both the historical and contemporary cultures of the region and this one was a great introduction to their significance and the Buddhist treasures that they guard.
We had a long climb out of the canyon to reach the tiny village of Syanboche, arriving with just enough time to settle in to our own private guesthouse and still muster the energy to continue uphill to a popular sunset viewpoint. The seasonal clouds swirling about only allowed for glimpses of the snowy mountains towering over Mustang’s arid hills, but we appreciated the dramatic suspense they added to the scene.
The following day brought us to the intensely red cliffs of Drakmar, made all the more stunning in contrast with green groves of poplar trees below and blue sky above. Finally far enough from the reach of roads, we stayed at a guesthouse that felt more like a home. We hung out with the didi while she distilled raksi (homemade rice wine) in the courtyard, while watching blue sheep in silhouette scamper along the clifftops overhead. We were welcomed to sit in her kitchen while she prepared our nightly dal bhat and Dawa filled us in on her story as they chatted back and forth.
It was hard to believe that we were to reach Lo Manthang so soon, but it was not without my body putting up a fight. I struggled to appreciate our visit to Ghar Gumba, the oldest monastery in the region, as a decent head cold set it, my lower back tightened, and blisters completely encased both of my pinky toes. We finally crested the last ridge for the day and got our first glimpse of the ancient walled city, deceptively far away despite being dwarfed by the complexity of a Death Valley-like backdrop. Dawa sensed the magnitude of my struggles despite my verbal denial of anything wrong, and he kept me distracted with conversation until I finally hobbled in to the outskirts of town.
A rest day was certainly in order and fortunately we had pre-scheduled two days to explore Lo Manthang and the surrounding area. After a leisurely morning of “sleeping in” until 8, we started off with a tour of a photography exhibit and documentary featuring the work of a local senior monk. Then we entered through the main gate of the wall to explore the old town. We paused in front of the Royal Palace, sustaining cracks from the 2015 earthquake and without royalty as the elderly former King of Mustang has recently relocated to Kathmandu.
Then we were tipped off to the impending arrival of a High Lama from India, so we returned to the main gate where a crowd had gathered to welcome his procession. A long row of women in traditional dress held various offerings in front of them while young monks held out khatas (silky white scarves). It seemed that most of the population of Lo Manthang had gathered by the time that fancily-clad horses and horsemen proceeded through the gate, followed by a collection of brightly colored parasols and finally the Lama on horseback. Later that afternoon, we observed the same group of women who greeted him with offerings then performing traditional dances in the courtyard of a monastery. We were lucky to have timed our visit with the Lama’s as so many aspects of local culture were on display that may usually be more difficult to observe.
The next day continued to combine rest and exploration with a loop north of the city by horse. Dawa had never ridden a horse before, but he proved to be a natural cowboy as he tends to pick things up quickly. Matt turned out to be a bit “tall” for his short horse who tended to lag behind a good distance, thus allowing the horseman serving as our local guide to keep up on foot for the duration of the day. Our first stop was a cave complex that an entire village dwelled in for several years when the secretly CIA-trained Khampa fighters were based in the Mustang after the invasion of Tibet. We then peeked in to a monastic school at the base of cave-centric monastery before eating some noodle soup for lunch and aiming for the next village. As the day progressed, the weather got moodier, but it only enhanced the drama of the landscape we were passing through. Despite being a bit saddle sore at the end of the day, it was both relaxing and exciting to shake up the trekking routine.
While Lo Manthang was both busier and more modern that we had anticipated, its uniqueness is undeniable and will seemingly be sustained even as it adapts to increased tourism, more influence of Chinese goods, and continued climate change. Perhaps no moment captured this better than sitting on the roof of our big new hotel that evening, sipping from a can of Lhasa Beer, and watching several sizable herds of goats heading home and taking over the street below, many pausing to poke into the doorways of all the souvenir shops as they passed by.
After lunch, we were invited to see the family’s private relic-filled goemba attached to their guesthouse-home, one of the oldest structures in the village. Then, we followed the didi back to the puja and watched the prayers get underway after their own lunch break. As much as we would have loved to stay the night in Dhi with this lovely couple, our itinerary demanded that we continue up the valley to Yara in order to have time for a day trip excursion the following day.
From Yara, we set out in the company of two local men on an adventurous scramble up a riverbed to see one of just four visitable 13-14th century kabum chortens hidden away in the Mustang. Kabum refers to a chorten created by someone after receiving the mandate to do so from a deity during a dream or while in meditation. The access trail from the riverbed up the cliffside to the chorten had been damaged by last year’s earthquake, so the crumbly scramble was a bit unnerving to say the least. Having had no visuals of the chorten prior to our arrival, it was an Indiana Jones-esque moment to poke through the entrance of the sheltering cave and reflexively gasp with surprise. The chorten itself was beautiful, but the perfectly domed and intricately painted ceiling encircling it was what made this a true highlight of our Mustang experience.
We survived the return to the riverbed and continued our exploration at Luri Goempa, where we visited a second kabum chorten, only slightly less impressive than the first but with a significantly less challenging access trail. We returned to Yara via the village of Ghara accompanied by Tashi, a young woman whose family is caretaking Luri Goempa for this year in the community's annual rotation. In the evening, the Yara mothers' group performed traditional song and dance in exchange for donations toward community improvement projects, a theme that we would encounter for our remaining nights in the Mustang.
Since entering the Mustang, we had not been sure if our desired return route from Yara to Muktinath via Tange and Tetang would be feasible or not. The crux of our uncertainty was a river crossing just south of Yara, rumored to be too strong to cross safely during the monsoon. Luckily, Dawa’s dedicated investigating also revealed the rumor that a tractor was operating as a shuttle in between shifts of rock collecting for the foundation of a future bridge. So it was a bit of a relief when we spotted the all-important tractor chugging through the current from the top of the river embankment. Once deposited on the other side and 1000 rupees lighter, we had just become fully committed to a couple of long, challenging days to get out of Upper Mustang “on time.”
Both the villages of Tange and Tetang proved well-worth the effort to get to them with incredible chortens dotted around the very traditional towns. Despite the weather taking a turn for the worse, the scenery sustained us over every pass and down every ravine until we passed through a gate in the official boundary wall between Upper Mustang and Muktinath. While our exit from Mustang felt a bit anti-climactic, our eleven days, each packed to the brim with experience, certainly was not.