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Mustang

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  • At Work in Mustang
  • Winnowing, Mustang
  • Evening Light from Kagbeni
At Work in Mustang
At Work in Mustang
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Mustang – by William Mackesy, founder of Walkopedia (www.walkopedia.net)

Mustang, the ancient Kingdom of Lo, is physically as well as culturally Tibetan: a high, windy, deeply eroded semi-desert, separated from the great Tibetan plateau by bare, snow-capped mountains. Even geologically, it is Tibetan rather than Himalayan. The primordial Tethys seabed, thrown 4,000 metres skyward by the collision of India and Asia, has eroded into fantastical cliffs and contortions of crumbling sandstone and co­nglomerate, their vivid colours ranging from reds to ochres to blue-greys. You can still spot exact points, such as just above Mukinath, where eroded sandstone flutings give way to hard, dark, alpine rock. We picked up fossils from 4,000m passes.

Mustang lurks in the northern rainshadow of the 8,000m-plus Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massifs, inaccessible from the lowlands and thus culturally unadultered for centuries. It is a huge basin, surrounded by 6,000m-plus mountains and drained by the vast Kali Gandaki gorge - although this is often well disguised by its wildly broken ridges and side canyons.

Like other areas north of the central Himalayan peaks, it is drier and tougher country than most of Nepal, often sparse scrub and bare rock, with towns and hamlets huddled in terracing and trees by the rare water sources. It is thinly populated as a result. It is astonishingly beautiful in a stark, barren, tree-deprived sort of way.

After 50 years of Chinese depredation on the plateau, Mustang is more Tibetan than Tibet proper, which often feels hollowed and Disneyfied and where spies can seem to outnumber monks. Every path passes prayer flags and chortens: mani walls abound, often metres long, composed of beautifully carved calligraphic stones, the product of centuries of skilled and dedicated work. Monasteries and hermitages are to be found in quiet corners: caves, rivers and passes, sometimes it feels like every stone, have sacred connotations. Mustang became Buddhist early on in the conversion of the Tibetan world.

The area’s greatest glory is its towns and villages, incredible collections of houses redolent of the European Middle Ages. Families live with their animals, the spiritual world is everywhere, with prayer wheels and chortens on every street corner. As is dung, and not mere animal stuff at that. These are, however, prosperous and comfortably founded places compared to their Tibetan counterparts: there was rich trade to live off and more water than in Tibet, so it was possible to settle, terrace up and cultivate the valley bottoms. The rigours of the plateau have meant that most Tibetans have always been nomads.

Walled Lo Munthang (pop apparently 1,000, although it feels like more), the capital, lies in the far north, below the range that separates Mustang from Tibet. As well as the sturdy palace of the Rajas, direct descendants of the kingdom’s 14th century founder, whose rule ended finally in 2008, it contains Mustang’s finest collection of monasteries and a maze of fascinating streets.

Wildlife includes the snow leopard, the blue sheep and, supposedly, the yeti. Eagles and vultures, including huge lammergeiers, are to be seen manoevering on the thermals. Jackals can be heard prowling around village edges at night.

Long closed to visitors (it was a base for Tibetan guerilla resistance to Chinese rule and thus a very remote corner of the cold war), Mustang was opened to visitors in the early 1990s. Even now, only 1,000 permits (although that seemed low when we were there – maybe some extra fall out of the back of the permit office?) are issued a year, which really must help the area remain culturally pristine. The high cost ($650 for 13 days) and limited number of permits is contentious. Little of the money actually gets to Mustang, so the benefits can seem illusory, and there is a lobby for more and cheaper permits. Difficult.

The centuries of cultural slumber are being rudely broken: a road has been cut the whole way to Lo Munthang, and up to the Tibet/China border. Although this is (as of 2012) a very rough track passable only by the hardiest of jeeps and motorbikes, this must be going to change everything, and is a huge issue for the locals. It brings access in medical emergencies but also to cheap grain and goods from Chinese Tibet, which is much nearer to the upper, Lo Munthang, end than is Nepal. As Tibetans, they fear Chinese power and influence and their deeply felt way of life and religion: jeeps and motorcycles will inevitably replace the horse (well, pony or mule, really), so central to their economy and culture for centuries. Ironically, tourists may help here, with trekkers’ baggage trains and pony safaris still providing demand, as long as it is kept relatively high end. But there, too, is a problem, as camping is only doable near the (rare) rivers and thus on the village outskirts, and they are not always the mellowest places when the dusty afternoon wind is blowing. But swanky hotels would be a disaster.

All expeditions enter from Jomson, to which you can fly, walk or even drive, winding up the sides of the huge Kali Gandaki valley into the heart of Mustang, with Lo Munthang as the goal. Mustang treks take a minimum of 10 days (Pokhara to Pokhara, assuming a flight in to Jomson), but allow more - 12 upward is the minimum for the best rewards.

The classic route climbs the western side of the great valley from Jomson to Lo Munthang in four or five days, spends at least two days in the Lo Munthang area, and returns down either side of the gorge to Jomson: the western side has more to see, and you can return using different routes for a significant part of the way, but the eastern side has the wilder (if that is possible) and remoter landscape. A final detour to Muktinath, gaining outstanding views straight into the high Annapurna massif from the 4,077m Gyu La, is a must and guarantees that you end on a very high note and avoid the law of diminishing returns. Muktinath is sacred to several religions and a major place of pilgrimage: while it may be hard to raise cultural enthusiasm after a long, tough day’s walk, it is worth the effort. The nearby town is peculiarly disappointing, though: a grim concretery catering for pilgrims and Annapurna Circuiters: after the cultural purity and emptiness of Mustang, it will be a shock.

While the trekking isn’t on the whole massively difficult, remember that the altitude can cause misery and even death. It is likely to affect you to some degree, although altitude is gained gradually here, and most still think that a major Mustang walk is a high point of their hiking lives.

In October 2012, seven middle-aged Brits walked to Lo Munthang and back. Here are a few reflections.

Day 1: Jomson to Kagbeni

The flight in is a thrilling prelude. You will then loiter while food and equipment are assembled. Across the valley, the amazingly white cone and ice slopes of 7,000m Nilgiri will usually be offset by a startlingly blue sky. What an introduction.

After crossing the wild Kali Gandaki river for the first time and passing through a much-“improved” old town, we are trudging across the huge, barren, rocky flood plain about which the river braids itself. We join a track up onto the right bank, then dip back onto the river rocks.

The infamous afternoon wind is whipping up clouds of dust as we slowly swing north; it is chokingly, eye-scratchingly unpleasant as we cross the tumultuous bed of a big valley coming in from the Annapurna massif.

After a bit over three hours, we reach the old caravanserai village of Kagbeni, and unexpectedly turn into the door of an old inn. Up a steep – very Tibetan – flight of stairs, we are through a doorway and in a little courtyard with our tents already pitched on sparse grass. Surreal: there is a just room for them, with high walls all around. It is delightfully sheltered from the dusty, windy world outside.

.

Day 2: Kagbeni to Chele

Sleep light and interrupted: it is always thus the first night out. A start that seems early – 6.30 – but which is to be the norm. The first morning is always slow, as we get our minds round packing and organizing ourselves.

We start with a delightful wander through Kagbeni, which we learn through subsequent experience is a typical old trade route village: its centuries of (relative) prosperity are evidenced by sturdy houses, courtyards and alleys, animal pens, water channels, prayer wheels and chortens.

Then we are properly off on the great trek, contouring above the river on the still little-used dirt road – ironically, great walking, as there is no need to watch our step, so we are free to enjoy the changing scenery. There is no wind, the sun is warm but the air still cool. Our spirits are high.

A bit further on, we descend into our first deep side gorge, and plod out the other side and into Tangbe, another fascinating old village, ending up in the dappled shade of an apple orchard-terrace for lunch.

We press on, the wind now picking up at our backs, enjoying the changing afternoon light on the vast, sheer walls, passing through fabulous Chhusang, crossing the wide, rough bed of another incoming river (evidently tumultuous in season). We descend to the bed – the most direct route, if increasingly unlovely as a result of the dust picked up in the fierce gusts – regaining the canyon side under an uncomfortable overhang of soft-looking rock. We hear that the Dalai Lama fled the Chinese this way, and hid some precious documents in holes dug high in the cliff face long ago, so it must be more stable than it looks.

We bridge the river, then it is an unpleasant, exhausting slog up a boulder slope to Chele. The village is smaller and not quite so charming as its counterparts, although there is a sweet circular pond surrounded by willows in which some ponies drink and paddle in a desultory way. Just behind is the compound where we will camp, our tents already set up.

Day 3: Chele to Syangboche

The climb out of Chele is a steep and dreary slog up a loose track, though this gradually eases off and the surroundings get more interesting. We find ourselves by a chorten above a new, graceful suspension bridge across the huge Ghyahar Khola gorge, the old trade track cut into and built out over the sheer sandstone cliffs of the northern side. Across the abyss, the perfectly intact village of Ghyahar nestles in its terraces. The traverse of this cliff is exceptionally exhilarating and inspiring.

We escape the gorge, circuiting a little meadow to avoid losing height crossing it, and have a snack by a rocky pile, under festooning prayer flags, on our first proper pass. Below us is the huge Samar bowl, a cascade of terraces falling, between vast, crazily eroded sandstone cliffs below the eponymous village, which looks a most seductive huddle of white buildings in a large grove of poplars.

We would be happy to stay the night at Samar, when we get there, even though it is only lunchtime. After the hot, arid canyons and hillsides, the irrigation rills, drystone paddocks, shady trees and well-loved houses could turn us into immobile lotus-eaters.

We discover, beyond the mani walls and prayer wheels of the village edge, and then a fine gatehouse, a disconcertingly deep ravine followed by what looks like another one, and then a broken trail leading to a high pass. The long haul to the 3,830m (12,500ft) Bhena La gets a bit much, though, the altitude gain of around 2,500ft beginning to hit home. The view from the pass is (of course) superb, as we huddle on the lee side to escape a breeze so forceful it might drag the bowed and rattling prayer flags clean away.

It is far from over, though. We have a long traverse (if you can call something this rough a mere traverse) to enjoy, around wonderful, steep (often sheer) hillsides to the 4,010m Yamda La (Oh La La say the guides) – although I have to say, I remember very little of it, the effect, no doubt, of the altitude. Round a corner from the high pass, we see the hamlet Syangboche in a wide valley some hundreds of feet below us. Its setting is spectacular: a path drops sharply away from it into what look like the rocky bowels of the earth, with great cliffs looming above it to the west– but we just want to get there, now.

Day 4 – Syangboche to Ghami

A reasonably painless trudge gets us to the nearby pass, and a big, gorgeous view across the deep Geling valley, another cascade of sun-glowing terraces below a village and oxblood monastery huddled on the far slope. We traverse the upper slopes of the bowl, across the high beginnings of a deep gorge then a rocky sloping plain, enjoying huge views over a ruined tower-hamlet on a hilltop to Geling village and on down and across to the distant mountains across the great gorge.

We pause in a charming hamlet in a tree-swathed little oasis, and drink and snack by the shop-guesthouse, with a lovely and sheltered looking orchard behind: camping heaven. After a bit of a slog – we are tiring now – we reach little house with an exceptionally delightful (a writer’s dilemma: these superlatives can get tiring, but they are true) courtyard rich in flowers and colour. We lunch in another very Tibetan room, low tables round the sides and rugged seats against the walls not maximizing comfort or group conversation.

The steep after-lunch slog up to the 4,020m Nyi La isn’t much fun in the thin air, but we make it. The wide views across the colourful hills and cliffs of central Mustang are a fine reward. It is wondrous how quickly after gaining breath at any pass I (at least) feel on top of the world, in all senses. We traverse (how the heart rises when you see a level trail) round to a second pass, now looking across the russet-fielded Ghami valley, deep between broken, bare hillsides, to the famous cliffs of Drakmar, red from a demon’s blood.

Our hostel has a pretty, warm garden, with possibly the tallest hollyhocks I have seen crowding the bed, which is contained using upside-down beer bottles, in front of the sturdy homestead. Our tents are pitched, and we bask in the last of the sun, until it disappears behind the high ridge to the west.

Day 5 – Ghami to Tsarang

A really perfect start to a day, lounging in the early sun by the hollyhocks lining the whitewashed inn. We breakfast massively, on apple and honey porridge and mushroom omelette, under the lazily stirring prayer flags.

We wind through the sharply-lit town, inspecting the morning goings-on and making way for the commuting herds, then zig-zag down the gorge-side to the interesting old(ish) bridge. A short, sharp climb through a gap in the loose cliff gets us to views back, between the clifftop chortens, across to the town. We are at the base of Nepal’s longest mani wall, which runs, at a height of two metres plus, for hundreds of metres up a gravelly slope. It must have evolved over hundreds of years, and is composed of particularly beautifully carved calligraphic stones.

Passing a huge herd of goats, we turn into a side valley. High above is another pass, with a new road hairpinning up to it, scarring the delicate hillside. A long, steady but breathless trudge gets us there. Over the pass, we are back to a panorama across the Kali Gandaki gorge, this time to an immense, sheer-walled canyon of shining black rock, which snakes back into the eastern hills. We drop out of the buffeting wind to sit and enjoy the view.

A long and easy hike down along the new scar – I mean road – gets us to another fine, flag-bedecked chorten on the edge of Tsarang, the former capital and second city (for which read town). Our inn is another solid two-story affair with a covered-over inner courtyard and a charming upper-floor corner dining room, again brightly painted in very Tibetan colours. But I spot the garden, a perfect spot, sheltered by a thick belt of sussurating poplars from boisterous wind. We lie about in the dappled sunlight, as a table is laid. We eat another embarrassingly large lunch, and the five of us who feel well enough talk until the all-important sun dips behind the house and chill sets in.

Day 6 – Tsarang to Lo Munthang

Up at 7am – a lie-in! – to meet a frosty morning, our first. It isn’t the highest campsite, but it seems to get colder every day we get nearer Tibet. It is spectacularly pretty, the early sun lighting up the hillsides and immediately warming our little enclosure. We feel almost leisurely: we have five hours or so of relatively easy walking ahead, and all feel well, except poor Nicki, who sounds and looks terrible, and had a bad night. We decide on the jeep option for him.

We are off at 9am, wandering slowly through the town, which has been up and about for hours, ending up back at the monastery, with sharply-lit views over the Kali Gandaki gorge.

Down a pack track, the river passes a fine chorten and a couple of water-driven prayer wheels in stout, windowless little sheds among grassy orchards. A long but encouragingly steady climb, if a gasping slog can be thus described, get us to the high ridge above the gorge and outstanding views across to the monastery and the white-walled 14th century royal palace, now empty and sadly dilapidated, to the snowy Annapurnas to the far south.

Our trail traverses the upper slopes of the deep, harsh valley which runs northward into the arid hills that separate Tsarang from the capital. This is wonderful walking – a gentle but steady ascent with changing scenery and the sumptuous Annapurnas at our backs whenever we turn. We pass goat herds that are grazing their ways south to the lowlands. We pass the great Sungda chorten, regally lonely in its huge wasteland setting.

Over a pleasingly low pass – we wouldn’t have recognized it as such had the map not told us – we emerge from the gorge into a wide plain sloping up to the final, starkly white, cruelly serrated hills around the Lo La pass. And there, at last, from a ridge beyond and below, we see Lo Munthang in its deep, wide valley.

Some of us have a late-afternoon wander round the town in all its glorious mediaevalness. Meek little cattle stand witlessly in the streets, goats meander to their intramural pens. Groups stand and gossip. The main entrance to the royal palace is fine and prayer wheel lined but dusty and, one feels, little used: a particularly gormless calf stands dribbling by the steps. The King is old and unwell, and, while we are at it, no longer really king, as his powers were removed a few years ago. If Nepal itself can ditch its kings, what chance the Raja of Mustang? The magnificent old Tubchen monastery, deep below the street, is dusty, dirt-floored and a bit sad inside.

Day 7 – ride to Chosar

Nicki has had another terrible night, struggling with his breathing, so we agree he should stay behind in camp today, to rest and recuperate.

Today is a day off walking, actually very welcome to us all. We ride to Chosar, up the Kali Gandaki valley toward Tibet, a village with a monastery and a cave-complex above. The latter is really amazing, four levels at least of chambers and passages lit by cliff-windows but going back some way into the mountain. It is said to be over 500. The monastery is a delightful little place, built round a hall in a shallow cliff-face cave and said to be over 800 years old. It certainly has the patina, and a strong presence. It is allied to one of the antique orders of Tibetan Buddhism.

The remnants of the group make another early evening walk. Boy-monks whirl each other about in the still-sunny yard of the monastic quarter, a shaven headed monk of middle years washes his feet in a perpetually pouring spout. A large, scruffy group sit and talk in the last sun at the base of a long mani and prayer wheel wall outside the quarter. Recently unloaded mules patiently await their evening destiny. An old woman rinses cups and plates in the street-centre irrigation channel, down which shreds of dung are floating. I assume this is what Ladakh would have been like 40 years ago.

Back at camp, it is getting cold very quickly. Another enormous meal, rendered a touch mournful by the absence of Nicki. We discuss with Dendi the possible need to get Nicki out by ’copter or jeep, and arrange a jeep to Tsarang anyway.

Day 8: LMT to Ghami

Up at 5-30, dress and pack efficiently in the half-light. Nicki has had a dreadful night, struggling to breathe. He looks very sick and says he needs to pull the ripcord. We tell Dendi, who takes it all in in a blink and says it should be by helicopter rather than jeep, as he needs to get low and to hospital quickly. He has arranged helicopter evacuation in a few minutes. So much for remoteness.

We are driving to Tserang anyway to start the day’s walk. Reggie and I sit on the roof with two sherpas, perched on baggage and clinging on to the straps as we lurch along the deeply rutted road. What a journey. Nicki is unpacked, and we wait disconsolately until the ‘copter is reconfirmed.

A rough ride, on the high slopes above the upper gorge get us to ancient Ghar Gompa, in a site so fertile and watered that it is shaded by big trees. Like Europe in the Middle Ages, the monks get the best sites.

We climb steadily to a first pass, meeting our first yaks in a close-cropped meadow. We labour up to the Muila pass, our highest at 4,170m. Above, sitting on a small knoll with extraordinary 360˚ views, a pair of vultures and then a majestic Lammergeier swoop past us at head height.

A yomp across what look like a pair of old glacier beds gets us to the wildly broken side of the deep Drakmar valley. A long, steep zig-zag below a notch in the cliffs gets us to the stream bed and then upper Drakmar, solid white houses amid autumnal trees, below its famous red cliffs, coloured with the blood of a demon defeated by Guru Rinpoche, the great evangelist of Tibetan Buddhism. Round a corner we lunch on cropped grass immediately below spectacular, cave- bearing cliffs, then snooze in the sun.

The rest of the walk is a marvel. A meander through ageless lower Drakmar, by a vigorous little stream and under ever-changing red cliffs, then over a sandy ridge, on whose upper slopes (exactly where it says on the map – are they tethered?) we see rare blue sheep (a ibexxy sort of thing), gets us to another grand, lonely chorten above a gorge of black but sparkling rock. Then we are back at the great Ghami mani wall, then the sun-warm, hollyhocked garden at Lo-Ghami Guesthouse, our tents already up in the garden. Mint tea in the last of the sun.

Day 9: Syangboche to Samar

Up at 5.45, breakfast 6.45 in the lovely, hollyhocked garden as the sun appears. Raisin and honey porridge, omelette and pancakes with syrup. We feel good.

A jeep appears, and we drive an hour or so along our old trails high above Geling, a sprinkling of monastic buildings up a hillside above quietly basking houses and bright post-harvest fields, all in a huge bowl of cliffs. We alight at Syangboche, and plunge down a spectacular trail into the Syangboche Khola gorge, between broken orange sandstone cliffs above a dry stream bed. A brief clamber up the main river, at the bottom, is the Ranchung Cave, where Guru Rinpoche, the great evengelist of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have meditated by a salt stalagmite that looked like a self-raised stupa.

We then tackle the 430m climb back out of the gorge to the high pass above Samar, a long, steep, exhausting climb at this altitude. Just over the la, we eat lunch, looking across the Samar bowl to the Annapurna massif, now much closer up, glowing serenely in a cloudless but hazy sky.

The trek to Samar is a tough 1 ½ hrs: a steep descent between sandstone cliffs and spires to a pretty meadow with high-walled sheep pens, then a clamber down into and puff back out of two gorges, the second following in the dusty footsteps of a huge herd of goats.

Day 10: Samar to Chhusang

A relaxed start – tea at 7(!). We saunter out along the ancient street and through the unusually tall oasis-grove. The solid houses attest to past trade-route prosperity.

Then we are round the hillside and back on the two-mule-wide track cut into the sheer sides of the Ghyakar gorge, possibly my favourite section of our entire Mustang journey. A steady descent gets us to Chele, where we meet the Kali Gandaki mistral, swirling thick dust – and it is only a bit after 11am. A trudge across the valley floor gets us to Chhusang before noon. We are to camp in a delightful little apple-orchard just below the main ‘street’. We sit about then eat a leisurely lunch in the dappled shade, and read and write and chat until sundown. I walk round the village in the gloaming. It feels extraordinarily ancient. All streets are made for animal traffic, and an uphill junction can involve intricate ramping. Walls are high and blank on the ground floor. Through open doors are dusty dung-scattered little courtyards, with steep steps to the upper storeys, presumably so the goats can’t get up. The house above our camp-orchard has a long high face toward the river – and the wind – and a grand, pillared entrance round the side, at the end of an alley like a pre-Renaissance Italian palace. By the stream are numerous walled pens, many filled with animals. It is still a working caravanserai of sorts and the spirit of the trade route still hangs in the air.

Day 11: Chhusang to Muktinath

Up at 6 for an 8am departure. Breakfast in the early-morning apple-dappled light, and a leisurely booting and creaming up which has us ready to leave exactly on time. We are well into the groove.

We ascend yet another remarkable gorge, huge organ pipes and flutings riddled with old cave-homes on the far side, to Tetang, a pair of compact, blank-walled villages on high ground above a very perfect post-harvest patchwork of fields. A long, steep slog between eroded sandstone excrescences gets us to the edge of a large sloping, stony plain, some 400m above, with huge views back toward upper Mustang. Ali finds some fossils. Not bad, for over 13,000ft! Things get steeper, and the panting begins: better though we are at the altitude thing, this is tiring. We eventually meet the bitter wind at the high Gyu La (“oh la la”, Sange quips, not for the first time), and gain what is perhaps the best view of an expedition that has been packed with magnificences. Across the deep Muktinath bowl are the vast snowy flanks of the Annapurna massif, sadly disappearing into thick cloud at perhaps 18,000ft. The white-walled Muktinath sanctuary, the most sacred place in the Nepal Himalayas for Hindus and Buddhists alike, is nestled below a great hillside, itself high above yet another deep gorge.

An hour’s descent gets us to the gorge bottom. We can scarcely manage the climb back out and up to the sanctuary, and it is hard to raise interest from our group for the prettily painted Buddhist nunnery or the Shiva temple or the 108 sacred water spouts.

The nearby village is the sort of dreary concrete jumble that has been missing in Mustang.

Day 12: back to Jomson

Another 6am wakening. It is pretty cold in, and our outer tents are rigid with frost.

We are a bit disappointed to be following the main Annapurna Circuit trail down the valley, replete with souvenir stands and a constant trickle of trekkers, but it turns out to be a fine and varied walk, through the hamlets and harvest-bright terraces below Muktinath, then high above the barren, broken lower gorge until we reach a corner above the Kali Gandaki gorge, where we snack and gaze for the last time on the riot of broken, colourful ridges that is mid-Mustang.

The final 2 hour slog, against a stiff wind and dust storms, back to Jomson is best passed over.

For more information, see www.walkopedia.net.

© William Mackesy 2015

Walkopedia.

Written by  William Mackesy.

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