The Beauty of Marpha, Lower Mustang
We travel to be surprised and delighted, yet also to find pieces of ourselves we may have lost somewhere along the way. Marpha is one of those places where we can do this, an oasis of magic and history that will allure visitors time and again with tokens of an era that is not fully forgotten. Unlike other villages along the Annapurna Circuit, Marpha has deliberately worked to preserve its unique heritage and architecture.
At 2,680m, the area surrounding this stone village is remote — a barren, dusty bowl headed by Jomsom, the location of the nearest airport, with flights running daily from Pokhara. Yet Marpha is like no other, and is a must-visit spot in the area.
Backed up against towering cliffs, Marpha’s homes are made from stone. Doors and windows are outlined by cherrywood panels, sharp red lines bordering rustic white stone. A white and burgundy totem stretches into the sky, a mural painted on the rock fortress surrounding the rooftops stacked high with chopped pieces of wood. Though used as kindle for cold winters, the logs also represent a family’s wealth, a public display of the work and means needed to accumulate such a rare resource. On clear days, blue skies serve as a piercing backdrop for a town worthy of framed photographs.
The road winding through the village is a clean, stone-laid path that takes visitors past storefronts of Tibetan souvenirs, thick slices of apple pie, and packages of dried fruit. The cobblestone alleyways add to the quaintness of the village, and children’s laughter echoes through the streets. As a home to Tibetan refugees for a long time, the Tibetan language is spoken over cups of tea. Not far from the town center lies the Tibetan Settlement Chhairo, a riverside monastery with more than 300 years of culture and practice. The center now serves as both a museum and cultural center, preserving artifacts and works of art while bringing together locals and religious devotees.
Alongside preserving its heritage, Marpha has embraced the modernity that comes with tourism and hospitality. Guesthouses have Wifi, hot water heaters keep showers warm, and Western cuisine is served in most accommodation. Yet in Marpha you can order some of the best Thakali sets along the Annapurna Circuit. For breakfast try pancakes with a fresh glass of sea buckthorn juice (also known as olivello). Packed with antioxidants and vitamin C, sea buckthorn is thought to strengthen immunity and fight the aging process, a somewhat miracle juice in health communities. It is in ample supply in Marpha, a hardy fruit that thrives in places where few other things can — bright, orange orbs suspended in patches of brittle, thorny branches.
A fitting metaphor for Marpha.
How to get to Marpha
Take a flight from Pokhara to Jomsom, then walk to Marpha. It takes about half an hour on foot. Or, hop on one of the local buses that bounds up the dusty road. Alternatively, hire a taxi from Jomsom Airport.
If you’re trekking along the Annapurna Circuit, factor Marpha in as one of your overnight stops. It is worth that final push from Jomsom to Marpha, and you can reward yourself with brandy and pie after your long haul. From Beni, you can reach Marpha in four days, or aim for a more leisure pace to enjoy some of the other stops.
For a more rugged adventure, sign up for a motorcycle tour with Hearts & Tears.
What to do in Marpha
In 1966, a horticultural farm was established in the village and introduced local families to the apple production for which the area is now famous. Even in towns far away from the Mustang District, sellers will proudly boast, “Marpha baata” when their apples are the original. Visitors can tour a local distillery to learn how brandy is made, sample cider, or pick up some dried apples for the road.
Climb stairs to the monastery and sit for a daily puja (worship ceremony), or simply enjoy the birdseye view of the village. From here, you can see the intricate puzzle of the ancient and the modern, electricity cords dangling over chili peppers and herbs left to dry in the sun.
Visit the museum named for Japanese Zen monk Ekai Kawaguchi. The house he lived in holds some of his possessions. Marpha was his planning point, his place of residence for two years as he outlined how he would travel to Tibet. ‘A Stranger in Tibet’, the novel by Scott Berry, tells of the monk’s travels.
Stop by the Marpha Foundation, established by Jessica Kain. The organization hosts an Artist in Residence program for Nepali artists, and welcomes walk-in visitors to their community library and Creative Learning Center.
Where to stay in Marpha
Though there are several lodges, my go-to has always been Meeru Guesthouse. It’s essentially the perfect lodge: the food is delicious, the dining room is open, there’s a guitar waiting to be strummed, and the hospitality is second to none. You can find it right off the main path, but reservations are recommended during busy season. Rooms are quiet and clean, and the small backyard garden is usually blooming with flowers.