May 27, 2020

Behind the Himalayan wall lies the rainshadow of Upper Mustang in all its arid glory. Here is my account of venturing into the otherworld.

Arid lands, snow-capped mountains, barren hills and nothingness. We found ourselves in the smack middle of nowhere, with not a soul in sight. Prayer flags fluttered and predatory birds overhead struggled to stay aflight against a battery of cold, dry gusts. Perhaps they were checking on if we were still moving. Drenched in sweat, out of breath and near-roasted from the midday sun, we were – barely. Spent, at the first pass we lay listless.

The trudge from the walled city of Lo Manthang to the secluded village of Samzong was all too oblivious. It was one of the villages not connected by roads, which meant steep uphill foot trails nobody had warned us about, and the cloudy morning skies but a joke. With bits of skin already burnt and peeling off, the decision of taking more energy bars instead of sunblock was instantly regretted. But the woes paled amidst ghostly appearance of Upper Mustang before our eyes. Surreal as they were in picturesque shades of brown, white, red, black and silver, giant green massifs over barren dune-like hills and rocky canyons dominated the landscape. We sat in awe with a deadpan look and not a word uttered.

The trek to Upper Mustang, formerly Kingdom of Lo, began with a jeepride from Kagbeni by Kali Gandaki River to Lo Manthang. Thanks to landslides and the lovely transportation syndicates, we lost count of the number of times we had to switch jeeps. We shared ours with a lively bunch of locals, which included a jolly grandmother, a drunk construction worker, a shy monk and a lot of dust. Amused they clearly were by the million photos we took like dutiful tourists, for the alienscape terrain to travellers like us was downright exotic. Despite having ventured on quite a few treks, never had I encountered such an extraordinary sight, completely desertified and jagged, and monasteries thousands of years old dotting the entire region. The slogans of Everest and Buddha chanted to reinforce nationalism do no justice to the heavenly calm and sandy emptiness of Lo’s countryside.

Upper Mustang comprises of the land above Kagbeni, and boasts a predominantly Tibetan culture. Indeed, it falls on the southern tip of the Tibetan plateau, within Nepal. The land was closed to foreigners until 1992, and now requires a special permit of USD 500 for 10 days. (Entry is free for Nepalese nationals.) An important trade route between Tibet and Nepal, Mustang was an independent kingdom till the 17th century when it was annexed by Nepal. It was the last kingdom to give up monarchy when the unofficial King of Lo stepped down in 2008. The border-crossing at Kora La pass along is still used to trade goods to and from Mustang. That explains the countless convenient stores in Mustang that sell an eclectic assortment of Chinese goods including Chinese Coke and godawful cookies that I shouldn’t have bought as trail munchies.

A rest longer than planned waned our lethargy and got us hurrying down to Samzong. As we approached the settlement, a crescendo of howling Tibetan Mastiffs soon had us sluggish tourists frantically looking for refuge. A woman in her 30s witnessed our plight and shooed the dogs off. We sighed in relief only to be met with cheeky chuckles of her 6-year-old daughter Dhoka Gurung. They led us inside their mud home and offered us stay. The less trodden Samzong village was another story altogether, with ruins of an ancient settlement and caves towering above the houses on one side, and unearthly black massifs on the other. The time shared with the Gurungs in their humble abode was easily the best Mustangi experience I could ask for. Save the onslaught of butter salt tea, which requires some getting used to.

For the next eight days, we trekked through secluded parts of Upper Mustang before heading back to Kagbeni. Not without more wonder, horror, surprise and butter tea of course. A certain Krishna Sunuwar in Ghiling deserves a special mention for trying to brush off his pot plantation as a science experiment.  It so happened that he was the lucky husband of the garrulous grandma we met in our jeepride. Lavish buckwheat rotis and homemade chhyang lovingly served by granny Phulmaya threatened to turn our lunch into siestas, but we dragged on.

Somehow amidst tumbling boulders, spider bites, ferocious dogs and sleepy monastery caretakers we reached Kagbeni on schedule. The wilderness, the welcoming people and a culture lost in time certainly tell me that it won’t be long before I’m back in the Forbidden Kingdom of Upper Mustang.