At 2,800 metres above sea level, Kagbeni is a treasure of a village, and the essential gateway to Upper Mustang. Without a special permit, foreign visitors aren’t allowed to venture much beyond this once-fortressed post. Ruins still surround the settlement, and the homes that are packed from mud and stacked from stone show the wear of time. Each morning the cracking, crumbling earth is swept away by brooms fashioned from reeds and sticks.
It is here in Kagbeni that traders from Lo Manthang, Manang, and Dolpo would exchange wares in the main courtyard and rest before traveling on to other regions. Set beside the Kali Gandaki River, Kagbeni lies north of the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna mountains. Though arriving at this legendary citadel was once a massive undertaking, visitors can now walk easily from Jomsom to arrive in less than three hours. Jeeps also plow up the dirt road, passing buses meandering from Jomsom’s airport. Despite an influx of visitors–Annapurna Circuit trekkers, travelers making their way up into Mustang, hikers from the Thorong La Pass, and pilgrims stopping in on their way back from Muktinath–the culture of Kagbeni has persevered.
Kagbeni is steeped in Tibetan influence. Chortens and prayer wheels add spots of color to the dusty panorama; blue, white, red, green, and yellow Tibetan flags flap in the wind. Above the village, rock faces house a collection of caves where monks once stayed for meditation and prayer. The red monastery, an imposing square structure, is the most notable in the village. Monks will greet you and ask if you would like to tour the grounds.
To walk through the village, cut through narrow walkways and passageways that squeeze beneath buildings. Homes are closely positioned, with windswept paths mirroring the landscape. Outside the village area, large swathes of green and yellow plots are meticulously worked by the villagers. Buckwheat, barley, and grains are seeded and tilled, a patchwork wrapping the outer edges of the land. Set against blue skies, photos taken here won’t require filters or editing.
The most remarkable scene, however, is near the end of the village: a breathtaking lookout point facing towards Lo Manthang and the lands of Upper Mustang. You can enjoy this stunning setting without having to purchase any additional permits; an ACAP and TIMS registration will cover most foreign guests.
Time seems to stop at this edge, where rivers and lands converge. Turning back towards the village, it is awe-inspiring to be in a place with so much visible history, and stories of others who have passed through. A lifetime experience for any traveler.
Where to stay
You’ll find a collection of guesthouses in Kagbeni, most of which serve delicious coffee and baked treats. Book early, however; busy seasons bring flocks of guests, and the most popular accommodations are reserved in advance by tour guides and travel agencies.
The recently renovated Redhouse Lodge enchants guests with comfortable rooms and a private monastery. The in-house gumba is essentially a museum, with books and the second-highest Buddhist statue in the Mustang region (the largest is in Lo Manthang).
Hotel Yac Donalds is another gem, a brightly outlined building in the center of town. Rooms are simple and clean, with modern updates catering to travelers. Order a slice of apple crumble to enjoy on the front deck.
Things to do
Wander through the streets to find Cafe AppleBee’s. It’s one of the last buildings you get to before departing the village for Upper Mustang. Savor the views, along with an Illy latte.
As with any village along the Annapurna Circuit, dal bhat takes on the flavors of the local land. Here, the dal is smoky and smooth from the fires over which it has been cooked. Chefs are always friendly and will gladly welcome you into their kitchens to share a recipe for you to take back home.
Unleash your inner scientist and go fossil hunting. Shaligram–round shell-like fossils–are considered to be holy reminders of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Spend time at the local monastery to learn about Tibetan culture and practices. Though the center now primarily serves as an education base for primary school students, Tibetan artifacts and worship ceremonies (puja) can still be observed.
To whet your appetite for the area and your travel adventure, watch Kagbeni, a 2008 Nepali movie based on the horror story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’.