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Lower Mustang, a Land of Lamas and Buddhism

“Kag, I was later to discover, had in the past been an important fortress town, one of the most advanced bastions of the Kingdom of Mustang. The sight of it showed that we had now left behind all contact with the Nepalese Hindu world and had entered the land of lamas and Buddhism.”

These words were written by French traveller Michel Peissel in his classic 1967 travelogue, Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom. And while the strenuous foot-powered journey to Kagbeni (and beyond) that he described fifty years ago is no longer necessary, there is much detail in his descriptions that still rings true. Kagbeni is still a frontier town, the last point up to which foreign travellers can visit before Upper Mustang.

From Pokhara, there are two ways of reaching Jomsom, the entrance to Lower Mustang (or three, if you wanted to trek the whole way): by air or by bus/jeep. Flying is by far the quickest and most comfortable option if a little daunting: flights leave early to avoid the strong winds that whip through Mustang by late morning. Although the flight is a short twenty minutes, they are memorable minutes as you soar through the Kali Gandaki Gorge, with Dhaulagiri and Tukuche to the west, and Nilgiri Central and Annapurna to the east. Taking a public bus or private vehicle between Pokhara and Jomsom is the ‘adventurous’ option, but can take more than ten hours along uncomfortable roads.

Jomsom is a single-street town full of lodges facing east, to the stunning mountain views that dominate the town. While in many places in Nepal the mountains are layered, meaning you don’t get a real sense of where the foot of a mountain lies, this is not so in Jomsom. The snow-covered peaks seem to rise directly and uninterrupted from ground-level at Jomsom.

Although the town itself is comprised mostly of modern buildings and lacks any particular charm, there is an abundance of cosy lodges, so it is worth basing yourself in the town for a couple of days to explore the area. Om’s Home is a comfortable and friendly option, with a Himalayan Java coffee shop conveniently located next door, and a terrace to sit and enjoy the sun (before the biting wind kicks up). It’s definitely a luxurious step up from the chilly trekking lodges that dot the trails in this area.

A good half-day excursion from Jomsom is to visit Marpha village. Half-day excursions are the best type anywhere in Lower Mustang, as the afternoons can be unpleasantly windy and cold, meaning the shelter of a lodge is more comforting. After breakfast, walk south out of town and keep going, for ninety minutes. The path to Marpha is quite obvious, along with a vehicle road (which isn’t busy) and beside the river.

An abandoned village makes a good excursion from Kagbeni. Photo Elen Turner

An abandoned village makes a good excursion from Kagbeni. Photo Elen Turner

Marpha itself is a clean, pretty town watered by paved canals of the sort found all over the Tibetan-influenced world. It’s surrounded by patches of green, irrigated farmland. A return hike to Marpha from Jomsom takes three hours, not including time to stop in Marpha for a slice of apple pie, which is definitely recommended. From Marpha there are signs pointing the way up to Dhaulagiri Base Camp, an expedition for people with more time and stamina than me.

While Jomsom has its nearby attractions, the town of Kagbeni deserves a bit more time. It takes about an hour to reach Kagbeni from Jomsom via private vehicle, over bumpy roads, or a trek of three-four hours. The Buddhist culture of the town that Peissel described fifty years ago is still evident today, with rows of large prayer wheels, a monastery that blows its horns at the break of dawn, and Tibetan-influenced architecture.

The village of Kagbeni. Photo Elen Turner

The newly opened Red House Lodge is an architectural treasure that is open to casual visitors as well as in-house guests. The building dates from the 1860s and has had many uses throughout its history, including as a nunnery. In recently being turned into a guesthouse, it has retained many of its original features as possible, including the Tibetan Buddhist frescoes in what is now the yoga and meditation room, and the intricately carved beams throughout the common areas. A highlight is the Maitreya Buddha hidden away in a dark, incense-filled room, and opened up daily at prayer times. It is the second-largest Buddha statue in Mustang.

The owners of the Red House Lodge intend to turn the property into a living museum, displaying objects integral to the culture of Kagbeni and Mustang, and already have a beautiful collection of brass implements, local fossils and rocks, and artwork. You’ll know when you’ve found the Red House Lodge, as it’s the property attractively painted with vertical ochre, grey and white stripes along an outer wall. Although this colourful feature has not always been part of this building’s design, the inspiration came from the colours used to paint chortens in the area.

From Kagbeni, several day-hike options are possible. Again, it’s best to do these as early in the day as you can, shortly after breakfast, to avoid the wind. The walk to Tiri takes about half an hour, from where you can take a steep path up to a monastery with great views of the Kali Gandaki, the bare rocky hills and the snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the distance. To get to Tiri, cross the bridge in Kagbeni and follow the only path north, towards the green terraced farmland in the distance. You may well have to share the path with herds of goats, but it’s not a busy trail, and the way is clear.

One of the most spectacular excursions possible from Kagbeni is up a small river valley to the east, in the direction of the Thorung La, the 5,416-metre pass that trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit must cross. The walk up the valley is mostly quite gentle, although some narrow paths and scrambles over small landslides make it adventurous. After about ninety minutes of walking, a spectacular panorama of mountains and caves opens up.

A geological feature of Tibetan lands, from Tibet itself to Ladakh in India, is the dry towers of rock that look like overgrown anthills. In the shadow of the Annapurna Himalayas sits an abandoned village surrounded by these conical hills, carved with meditation caves high up in their structures. Their history—and that of the abandoned village—is unclear, but it is believed that the meditation caves were used by regular villagers rather than just monks or sadhus, and that the village was abandoned due to some natural disaster.

While the landscape and archaeological curiosities are impressive enough, another highlight of hiking to this area is the abundance of Jurassic-era fossils that can be found lying around. I last excitedly hunted for fossils as a child holidaying on the south coast of England (what is known as the Jurassic Coast), but to find 200 million-year-old relics of the sea in a landlocked country, 3000 metres high, was unexpected and extraordinary.

The whitewashed buildings and narrow streets of Marpha. Photo Elen Turner

The whitewashed buildings and narrow streets of Marpha. Photo Elen Turner

Many trekkers visit Kagbeni on the way back from a pilgrimage to Muktinath, but I made the journey the other way around. The holy site of Muktinath, which is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, is located at 3,710 metres, so is about a kilometre higher than Kagbeni. It’s possible to hike there and back from Kagbeni in a day, avoiding the vehicular road as much as possible, but for a quicker trip, it’s easier to drive. Public buses ply the bumpy road carved into the side of the mountain, or a more comfortable private jeep can be arranged in Kagbeni.

Muktinath may be more interesting to Hindus and Buddhists than other visitors, as the temple itself is not large or architecturally spectacular. But it is a good excursion nonetheless, as it’s a busy pilgrimage site of immense cultural value. Visitors will be offered a red tikka to the forehead in blessing. Don’t forget to check out the sacred fire that emerges naturally from the ground, as well as the animal-headed spouts spitting holy water. The temple is about a half-hour walk from the car parking area in the village of Ranipauwa, or you can hire a pony to take you up.

Meditation caves have been carved into the anthill-like geology of Lower Mustang. Photo Elen Turner

Meditation caves have been carved into the anthill-like geology of Lower Mustang. Photo Elen Turner

Lower Mustang is certainly more than just a passing-through point on the Annapurna Circuit or Upper Mustang trekking trails, as it has often been treated, and is worthy of extensive exploration in its own right. Other villages in the area that could be included in day trips are Jharkot, on the way up towards Muktinath, and the Bon town of Lupra. The region is much more accessible than it once was—certainly more so than in Michel Peissel’s day—and is an ideal Nepal destination for travellers with four days to a week to spare.

Practicalities

  • Due to its altitude, Lower Mustang is much colder than the Nepali cities. So, pack appropriately.
  • Because Mustang is in the rainshadow of the Himalayas, it’s actually a good place to visit during Nepal’s monsoon season. However, flights are more frequently cancelled then.
  • Flights to/from Pokhara can often be delayed and cancelled due to visibility and wind. It’s wise not to schedule important connections too close together.
  • Non-Nepalis need a permit for Lower Mustang, which is around Rs 2000 if purchased in Pokhara or Kathmandu.
  • For friendly, comfortable and atmospheric accommodation, stay at Om’s Home in Jomsom, and the Red House Lodge in Kagbeni.
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Elen Turner

Elen Turner

Elen Turner is a Kathmandu-based writer and editor. She has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the Australian National University (2012). Her travel writing about Nepal and India (as well as other places) has been widely published, and she writes about her travels in South Asia at www.wildernessmetropolis.com

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